Considering the lukewarm reception Final Fantasy X-2 received, resembling a prototype of Project Runway only available in the Teen Vogue “Couture designed by Gaultier” edition, where you changed outfits more often than Lady Gaga at her concert (so we hear), it would be a safe bet to think Square Enix would want to avoid any direct sequels on the off chance that mere name association would cause a drastic dip in sales. Throwing caution to the wind the developer who doesn’t seem to completely understand the definition of the word “final” has brought back the survivors of Final Fantasy XIII for another round and while much has changed, much still remains the same.
There’s been a shift in kickarsery with the tractor beam of hotness known as Lightning, the most masculine lead the franchise has ever known, replaced by her demure school-teacher sister, Serah. There’s an almost unnerving lack of effeminate girl-men and overly sweet cutesy characters that make you want to gouge out your ears, the combat is fast paced, there’s no 30-hour lead in before the story actually gets going and one of the most heavily criticised aspects: the painfully linear gameplay, has had a significant revamp. What the hell Square Enix? What the hell?
Now before you start freaking out thinking that you’ve walked through The Scary Door into some weird parallel dimension where the world’s gone mad, there’s enough of the same old same old in Final Fantasy XIII-2 to make you feel right at home. The storyline is harder to crack than the Da Vinci Code as you smile glibly as multiple variations of l’Cie and fal’Cie are bandied about with reckless abandon. Truth be told, with a few rare exceptions the series has over invested in indecipherable plots (without great success or coherence) for quite some time now, with only the guys who actually wrote the thing being able to follow it.
In simplest terms here’s the rub. Lightning disappeared yon three years ago and sits up high in Valhalla never aging and watching out over her sis Serah and the rest of the surviving crew from The Funky Bunch when a Prince wannabe in glorious purple armour sporting a luscious mane of MacGyver-esque hair drops in to take the jam out of her donut and starts smashing up the place quicker than Nick Nolte on a bender.
During a stunning interactive cinematic cut-scene (Square Enix still owns CG and will have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief) a young chap named Noel Kreiss materialises like Jerry O’Connell in Sliders, right into the open arms of Lightning. Before they’ve even had a getting-to-know-you session over a latte she tosses him a badass crossbow and sends him through a time gate to find Serah and bring her back to big sis post-haste. Can you say worst first date ever?
Landing at Serah’s seaside village Noel puts on his best hero pose, tosses Serah said crossbow of baddassedness, declares he’s from the future, insists she come with him and Doc Brown in their DeLorean to repair all the manifesting time paradoxes, restore the timeline, hit 88 mph, fire up the flux capacitor and make with the family reunion in Valhalla before Caius (the destroyer formally known as Prince) annihilates, like, the entire space-time continuum. Yep. That’s in simplest terms. I tried to warn you.
As you’d expect, time plays a key role in proceedings with Serah’s crossbow not an actual crossbow at all, but a toy moogle named Mog. Stay with us here. This little fella looks like a male version of Hello Kitty, can morph into weapons when a brouhaha is about to pop off, sports a timepiece adorned staff that would do Flavour Flav proud and, most importantly, can identify inconsistencies in time. For the most part these take the form of a floating orb with treasure inside or a valuable artefect necessary to power up Noel’s DeLorean and whisk the dynamic duo off into another crack in time. Each time paradox plays out like an individual episode that you can revisit once more artefacts are uncovered to access new areas and even reset to redo entirely and level up the crap out of your characters.
Glossing over the brain aneurism-inducing story there are other really cool adjustments Square Enix has made to the overall combat and gameplay that do pull the franchise forward. The most recognisable is the Mog Clock. As you’re investigating each time period monsters and enemies will pop up more frequently than a penis enlargement advert on late night TV, with a visible attack zone around them. When one appears, so will the Mog Clock.
If you attack quickly enough you’ll pull off a pre-emptive strike. Move too slowly and you’ll immediately be on the back foot or you can choose to leg it and if you make it out of the “danger zone” in time you can avoid the confrontation altogether. You’ll be constantly weighing up your rules of engagement as the frequency of battles is absolutely off the charts. Some you’ll absolutely piss in, but often entering a new area presents significantly tougher adversaries so it’s a constant fight versus flight tug of war.
Once you do enter the fray you’ll notice numerous tweaks to the enhanced Active Time Battle system. Skirmishes play out at breakneck pace and you’ll be chopping and choosing between picking your best attacks and spells and throwing it into autopilot. The automated system does a pretty spot on job for the most part, but it won’t win the war for you. You’ll still need to Paradigm Shift like there’s no tomorrow to get through each conflict.
These involve changing the classes and group dynamics of your three-party paradigm depending on your strategy. Your goal is to wipe out the competition ASAFP, but tougher foes need to be “staggered” to deal maximum damage. Each class works differently. Commando brings the pain but doesn’t add much stagger damage, Ravager does both, Saboteur weakens the enemy, Synergist gives friendlies a boost, Medic is self explanatory and Sentinels are known as the “come at me bro” class provoking enemies and absorbing huge quantities of damage.
It’s like juggling with chainsaws to find the right balance, but adds a deep strategic element to major battles and it’s incredibly satisfying when you defeat a major boss. The speed at which you Paradigm Shift has been noticeably increased since FFXIII and if you’re wondering why we haven’t mentioned the third member of your paradigm yet it’s because you have to catch them first. Monsters that you throw down with can now be captured and leveled up as an extra party member. It brings an undeniable Pokeman quality to the mix and is a great little distraction as you find your favourite creatures and make them permanent members of your group, or set them free and start all over again. It’s totally your call.
The menu and Crystarium System (where you level up your characters) has also been significantly streamlined and is less daunting for newcomers offering easy-peasy access and as you complete a full circuit around the Crystarium each character gets a level up bonus. You can choose between a new class, an added accessory slot, permanent bonuses to existing classes or another block to your ATB gauge making for some nerve-wracking choices and regrettable moments of buyers remorse.
While the story may still leave something to be desired, the overall graphics, drool-worthy cut-scenes and improvements to the Active Time Battle system are necessary changes to a franchise that is still showing its age and struggling to embrace modern RPG conventions. It hasn’t reached breaking point yet, but let’s hope future iterations take a few more chances to breathe new life into the series before it’s too late. Resting on your laurels can only get you so far…