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Of all the games which merited sequels over the last five years, Final Fantasy XIII was not one of them. Not by a long shot. A game that left a foul taste of regret in more than its fair share of gamers’ mouths, the best thing to hope for after finishing it was FFXIII’s slow descent into the forgotten abyss. But Square-Enix is thankfully not the type of company that takes negative feedback poorly. On the contrary, in a move surprisingly uncharacteristic for a company so large, they responded to massive amounts of feedback and released a better game. FFXIII-2, a mouthful as well as the most cumbersome acronym you’ll ever see, is an almost unparalleled sequel in that it fixed practically all the worst issues from its predecessor, winding up a better game on essentially all fronts.
A disclaimer off the bat for all you writers out there: the Japanese dialog still carries over about as awkwardly as translation software, not with grammatical errors but merely because everything sounds duller when scripted in Japanese and converted to brusque English. Cringe-worthy is a fitting descriptor, although in a way this issue had always been a part of Final Fantasy games, it just became more evident when voice actors got in the mix. There was never any need to hear what a Moogle sounded like in real life, but SURPRISE, they simply sound like a voice actor with poor direction. In these two realms, writing and delivery, unfortunately FFXIII-2 doesn’t solve any of the issues of its parent, but they’re small prices to pay for the large list of fixes that were implemented.
Giving a proper summary of Final Fantasy XIII the original is a difficult task enough as it is, as its narrative moved fluently through frequent and useless cut-scenes with the overall incoherency of the average JRPG. Half of the battle in the introduction of XIII-2 is explaining away the previous timeline while bringing in a slew of new characters and plot points. There’s still just too much story though, vague and character-less phrases about hope and the future stacked upon what is actually a decent sequence of events. Instead of the linearity found in its predecessor, XIII-2 uses a catalog of times and locations in standard level-select format. Before you get excited though, there aren’t many time reversals or confusing elements, instead just places and events that can’t be changed. That being said, it’s a ton of fun descending down multiple timelines and alternate events, exploring different environments with different sequences of events and weather patterns.
The background plot is fairly interesting as well, culminating in a crazy sequence of battles at its finale. You’ve got a nemesis almost as cool as FFVII’s Sephiroth, a battle system that does away with all the excess and gets down to business, and a leveling system with variety but also ease. If one word can describe XIII-2, it’s “efficient.” Everything, including battles, is cut down to the very basics. Timing is key though, so one wrong move and you could be on the losing end of any battle, which makes each fight exhilarating and skillful. If there’s one thing the franchise got right, it’s the Paradigm system with these two games, for while they should only be a temporary reprieve from the classic turn-based system, it’s unique and it requires so much focus that it’s actually hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t played these two games.
Presentation-wise, XIII-2 brings it just as well. It can get a mite over-done when you’re maneuvering through un-grounded platforms which are surrounded by flashing panels and magical surroundings, but for the most part you’re stuck on solid ground in a beautiful, fully-realized Final Fantasy world. The lack of an overworld, like in the new Zelda game, may throw some people off for good reason, but it’s hard to complain when you’re throttled through such a universe of dazzling design. Character models, fight scenes, and even the little pieces of every environment are a wonder to just intake.
Another small fix from the original is that XIII-2 is a little less formal and over-stated in terms of goals. Sure, there’s the overall story-arch, but some fun mini-games and more than a handful of side-quests make this game feel more fleshed out for the casual gamer. Even the leveling up abilities and enemies encourage gameplay variety from the very beginning. Fans of the original who were skeptical coming in will find a much more welcoming atmosphere including a succinct tutorial instead of a multiple-hour progression through abilities. By the end though, things do get a little stale, especially when the final level and battles require extreme level grinding if you want to beat the game. The learning curve is forgiving up to the very end, where it of course cuts the ropes out from underneath you.
FFXIII-2 is not the heralded Final Fantasy game that we’ve come to believe in over these years, but neither is it a failure by any means. For those who played FFXIII, whether you loved it or hated it you’ll find its sequel a better and brisker trial. Perhaps it’s because the traditional Final Fantasy quirkiness is being avoided in order to make a more realistic game, or maybe it’s because the formula is getting stale. Either reason fits in its own way, so while FFXIII-2 is a fun game throughout it still is lacking some substance. To anyone who can say that they enjoyed FFXIII, it’s certainly a game worth buying and giving your time. But if you haven’t played the original, there may not be enough to keep you interested for its 25-or-so hours.