You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our March issue, which goes on sale February 15, includes an in-depth Post Script article on what Final Fantasy XIII-2's use of real-time elements means for the series' future.
Final Fantasy XIII’s Active Time Battle (ATB) system was one expertly crafted change to the formula that came alongside some less welcome others. Key among these was that the usual sidequest-packed open-world structure had been replaced with a linear journey that offered the bare minimum of distractions. The reaction to FFXIII from fans and the press was mixed, which brings us to FFXIII-2, the sequel that Square Enix claims will give players what they wanted from the previous game. But while FFXIII-2 is a polished production that certainly diverges, unfortunately it’s also a baffling, boring and swampy thing to play.
It opens with a stunning cutscene in which Lightning – FFXIII’s hero, who’s now playing the role of warrior goddess – does battle with a cackling evildoer. The sequence in its entirety takes about 20 minutes to play out, during which you’re given limited control for brief stretches. This is a sign of things to come: a battle that is impossible to lose, a helping of QTEs, and some terrifically dull monologues. But FFXIII-2’s opening is so visually astonishing, featuring a gigantic city formed from crystal, monstrous armies clashing, and Lightning’s dazzlingly choreographed advance through it all, that it’s impossible to look away.
After this prelude, Lightning’s off and you’re in control of her sister, Serah, and accompanied by a time traveller called Noel who resembles a Kingdom Hearts B-lister. This is your party for the whole game, leading to FFXIII-2’s first change to the ATB system: Pokémon.
The system is once again built around three party members, each with certain roles that can be cycled through with a ‘Paradigm Shift’. With two slots used here for Noel and Serah, the third is left open for creatures. You acquire new beasts by defeating them, and then they can be levelled up, assigned to your party (up to three monsters can be in your battle team, although only one can fight), or even fed to other creatures in order to transfer desirable traits.
It’s simpler than it first appears, but the system is let down by the lack of space you have for combinations of roles (called ‘paradigms’). Both Noel and Serah can learn multiple classes, and alongside your trio of monsters (each of which has a single speciality role) the number of possibilities is huge, but you’re always limited to six paradigms in the actual battles. Among the many strengths of the ATB system is its flexibility – which having multiple monsters in different roles would seem to emphasise – but the feature’s never given enough breathing space.
That’s arguably a matter of preference, but a much wider problem is the game’s lack of challenge. FFXIII-2 is the first game in the series with an adjustable difficulty mode – a choice between Normal and Easy – but even on Normal this is a very easy game indeed. Common enemies are walkovers, and despite often taking a good deal of punishment, bosses are rarely a threat. The time investment required to complete FFXIII-2 is huge, but our characters perished a mere handful of times. As an experiment, we left Serah and company to fend for themselves over the course of ten battles, with no player input. With an idle player character and two AI companions set up to attack and heal, our party emerged victorious from every fight.
The ATB system is still a fine achievement, and most of FFXIII-2’s tweaks are smart ones, but there’s just nothing worth fighting against. Only two bosses required retries throughout our entire runthrough. Meanwhile, the addition of QTEs, bringing a few simplistic flourishes at the end of big battles, does little to enhance your sense of satisfaction.
Combat isn’t the only area of FFXIII-2 where the execution lags behind the concept. For instance, the game’s structure is built around the ‘Historia Crux’, a level-select screen that allows you to jump between unlocked locations and alternate timelines at will. The idea of time travelling through FFXIII’s universe is a great one, but certain areas have had a lot more energy spent on them than others. On one occasion we visited a new level, a cutscene played out, and that was it.
Many of the locations are entirely captivating, however, and FFXIII-2 further demonstrates the talent at work within Square Enix’s art divisions. In terms of construction, however, this is still a poky world full of invisible walls and fixed details. The settings may have a sense of scope and majesty, but as interactive environments they get by with the bare minimum.
The lack of imagination in FFXIII-2’s subquests, which are a large part of its bulk, is what really drives this home. What do time travellers do? Well, these particular examples find lost watches, source old computer batteries, shear sheep, and beat up monsters. There’s the odd detail that’s more interesting – bringing back messages from the dead, or creating the right circumstances to fight something in the future – but in general FFXIII-2 offers no more than cookie-cutter fetch quests that waste its theme’s potential.
This is a big game, clocking in at about the 40-hour mark, but the lack of challenge in combat combined with the formulaic missions and frequent cutscenes too often make it feel like a sticky trudge. The visual and audio design is marvellous at times, offering up the kind of setting that you drink in before taking a single step, but the journey is always the same. The apparently open structure disguises a simple closed network of locked doors and narrow environments, while the ATB system is wasted on enemies that would struggle to defeat a corpse. Perhaps this is indeed the game Final Fantasy nuts thought they wanted, but surely even they’ll be disappointed with the result.