BACK TO THE FUTURE
Without spoiling beyond what is revealed in the game’s first hour, Lightning, one of the heroines of the last game, is seen in a nether region at end of time. This game’s protagonist, Noel Kreiss, comes from 700 years in the future and has arrived at the time period where XIII ended. He is also the last remaining human from his time and is desperately looking for a way to alter that fate and change the future. In attempting to do so, he has partnered with Lightning’s younger sister, Serah, one of the non-playable supporting characters from the previous game. They set forth on an intensive time-travelling journey where the next stop can be anywhere from 5 years to 400 years into the future. Serah is especially motivated to reunite with her sister but it she also gains additional motivation in wanting to help Noel due to the bond that they soon develop.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
If learning the new ‘paradigm’ battle system in FFXIII was a foreign exercise that had a long learning curve, you might feel more motivated to get more mileage out of it in XIII-2. If you did manage to play at least 20 hours in XIII, then getting into the first wave of combat with Serah and Noel will be very familiar. The battle systems in FFXIII & XIII-2 are a variation of Square’s patented Active Time Battles with a little bit of inspiration from the semi-automated aspects of the battles from Final Fantasy XII. The party’s leader is still the only true “playable” character and each party member operates based on a specific role. For tough battles, the user is expected to change the characters’ roles to suit the evolving combat situation.
The most notable difference between the two games’ battle systems centers around the third party member. That third slot is saved for the monsters you capture in the game and each monster can only level up in one pre-assigned role. You can have up to three monsters in each paradigm deck and since you are limited to six paradigms per deck, you’ll have to choose your monsters wisely based on their role. To save time on reorganizing paradigms, the game allows for multiple decks that you can customize; you just can’t switch decks in mid-battle.
RPGs that present a captured-monster-as-party-member feature to their game has had to try extra hard to impress me. While I enjoy the Persona games, their playable monsters weren’t the selling points. So it’s to Final Fantasy XIII-2 credit that this is the very first JRPG where I actually enjoy every aspect of the monster collecting. There’s the anticipation of potentially capturing a creature, then there’s the process of feeding them items through the Crystarium leveling system. Their stats are just simple to understand so there’s little experimentation needed in the battlefield. What you do have to watch out for is how their level progression changes their stats compared to other creatures in the same species and those with the same roles. As examples, some monsters peak at higher levels, while others reach their cap early. I ended up leveling a number of monsters without ever putting them in the field. The motivation there is due to a feature where your preferred party monsters are able to take on attributes of other well-levelled monsters by infusing them. It’s essentially cannibalism but ‘infusion’ is a more marketable term. It puts an interesting perspective in games where one can develop emotional attachments to these creatures. The feline-like Albino Lobo stayed as my Ravager ‘tank’ for the majority of the game and I clearly favored him over many of the other monsters, some of which ended up getting infused with the Lobo.
If one of XIII-2’s goals was to address fan criticisms from the XIII, it has done so in a number of ways, and successfully so. Unlike the last game, random encounters are back, but now with the possibility of fleeing before the battle starts. The previous game’s linearity is gone while also adding a variation of the classic town level design. One convenient feature that was carried over was the ability to hear and converse with insignificant NPCs without pressing a button and this is an especially helpful feature with all the population centers in the game. There aren’t towns in the classic JRPG sense. Each area doesn’t have a selection of shops to visit. FFXIII-2 instead works off a one-stop shop system for each town. Moreover, the shop is run by a time-travelling half-human, half-chocobo named Chocolina. Her lively exuberance and feather appearance is indicative of the light-hearted side of XIII-2, something the last game was in short supply. In contrast to XIII’s disappointingly non-interactive Nautilus Park, the having a casino in XIII-2 also made for a welcome deviation from the main story.
Of all the things that show how Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn’t take itself as seriously as XIII is the ever-present Mog, a moogle who transforms into Serah’s battle weapon. Its plush doll inspired cuteness and its mostly baby talk demeanor makes him the game’s most endearing feature (with Serah’s doe-eyed camera close-ups during the cutscenes in close second). If that weren’t enough, you can actually throw Mog not unlike a football, and that includes watching him squirm in terror as you prepare and aim your throw. There’s actually a practical reason for throwing Mog; there are many areas in each level that hold items but are inaccessible on foot to Serah and Noel. With the right aim and arc, Mog can get to those areas and retrieve the items.
You actually do not get this ability right from the beginning and is one of the many ways that the game motivates the player to backtrack to previously visited timelines. The game flow and the level design most resembles Kingdom Hearts, only instead of travelling to various Disney-themed levels, you traverse different time periods in the XIII universe. There are over 30 of these spots, including alternate locations in the same time period, each one affected by different time anomalies. And like many of the levels in Kingdom Hearts, the majority of the areas in this game are designed to have both a non-hostile portion, and a larger portion to battle enemies.
ONE MORE ROUND!
Presentation-wise, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has proportionately more real-time cutscenes than prerendered ones which subtly helps maintain the game’s positive flow. The menus are slightly less slick than the ones in FFXIII but they’re still pleasing to the eye and easy to navigate. And compared asymmetrical fashion disaster of Tidus’ outfit in Final Fantasy X, character designer Tetsuya Nomura appears to show relative restraint with his designs of Noel and Serah. I was particularly impressed with the art design of many of the futuristic environments; whether populated with enemies or NPCs, these areas play with my imagination on what a rebooted Phantasy Star game could look like.
On paper, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a much a departure from the rest of the Final Fantasy series as much as XIII was, yet so many right things fall into place, it’s hard to see these changes as a bad thing. The newer game greatly benefits from having pretty much the same battle system and therefore has a very short learning curve, assuming you’ve played XIII. Moreover, many of the levels’ initial goals only take about 30 minutes to an hour to complete. When also considering the game’s fast paced battles and the time travelling narrative, I had to wonder when was the last time I was this addicted to an RPG, let alone a Japanese one. I often fell into that “One more round!” cycle of addiction that fighting and shooter game fans fall into, where I would tack on anywhere from 15 to 150 unplanned minutes to my play session. Instead of “One more round!”, it was “One more new time period!”. XIII-2 may not be a Final Fantasy game in the traditional sense, yet with all the game’s Chocobos, random encounters, Mog, and the roles crystals play, it had more than enough of the series’ characteristics to keep me further engrossed.