Following in the heels of Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the second direct sequel to a numbered Final Fantasy game, not counting all the expanded universe spinoffs for Final Fantasy VII. I enjoyed FFXIII in spite of its numerous, rampant flaws, so when I heard that it was getting a sequel that expanded on its gameplay while refining the problems players had with the previous game, I was pretty excited. A demo was released that tempered my expectations, as it didn't seem to have much new and its characters didn't capture my attention, so I held off on buying the new game until it was around $10. I'm glad I waited. Not only do I consider this game a bad sequel to FFXIII, I think it's probably for the worst game in the series.
For an introduction to the basic gameplay, read my review of FFXIII linked above. Not much has changed, with the exception of no longer getting a game over when your leader dies and being able to switch party leaders mid battle. Your third character slot is now filled by monsters you capture after winning battles, each of which can only use one job class. Monsters grow through using items instead of winning battles, and some take an unreasonably long time to make powerful. Others, like the Buccaboo goblins, are found early on, raise their stats easily, and are somehow more initially powerful than certain boss monsters. Aside from dressing them in silly hats, I found the monster system a lot more limiting than just having a third person in the party.
Battles are balanced poorly. Instead of XIII's system where levels were capped per area, you're free to pursue the game's various sidequests and grind for experience at any time. About ten hours in, I reached a boss that gave me trouble, so I wandered off, did quests for a couple hours, and in the process trivialized the difficulty of the entire main story until the very last dungeon. Experience is badly distributed; monsters towards the end of the game give me 400 points and take a full minute or two to beat, while monsters halfway through the game are effortless, take literally ten seconds to beat, and give me 500.
Map design is far less linear now, but that doesn't mean it's good. There are dead ends that lead to fairly useless items, NPCs that give you fetch quests, and towns with very little that you can interact with. People complained about FFXIII's limited dungeon design and lack of towns, both of which XIII-2 tries to address, but simply adding these things does not make them work. There's little attention paid to making the maps fun or the towns interesting, and the fact that you run through the same maps palette swapped over and over again really doesn't help matters. I'd rather play three linear maps that look different than the same slightly, but inconsequentially, branched one with three different color designs. On top of that, most of the monsters you encounter are recycled from XIII and then palette swapped a half dozen times with minor modifications.
The best change from FFXIII is the removal of save points, allowing players to save freely at any time. Check points are good, but there's no excuse for forcing the player to play an hour minimum before being allowed to save in modern games. Even if it's going to set me back a little bit, give me the option to save whenever I need to. Along with ditching save points, XIII-2 also dumps the boring, detached shopping spheres that players bought all items from. Stores are still pretty clunky and don't differ from one another, but items are now sold by Chocolina, a manic, transdimensional bird-woman with a lot of sass and a love for bling. She's the best new character in the game.
FFXIII-2 feels like Square saying, "Players were unsatisfied because they didn't recognize enough familiar things in the last game." There are now more Chocobos than before, you're accompanied by a Moogle, Cactuar symbols are more common, the monster collecting aspect feels like a bad attempt at catching some Pokemon fire, and the plot involves time travel to save the future, which feels borrowed from Square's classic Chrono Trigger in the most haphazard manner possible. On top of all this, there's plenty of paid DLC which adds boss fights from previous Final Fantasies as well as new takes on iconic Final Fantasy costumes and a few outfits from completely unrelated games. Very few new characters are introduced, and you're expected to enjoy seeing familiar faces whether their presence makes sense or not. Its very concept feels like a fan service game from a company that doesn't understand why people liked these other things in the first place.
In spite of Lightning being on the box, in all of the marketing materials, and playable in the opening scene, the hero of the game is actually her troublingly skinny sister, Serah. This form of bait and switch worked for me in Metal Gear Solid 2, but it didn't work for me here since I already knew and disliked Serah from the previous game. She's a lot more fun here, but she's still far from interesting. After the world is saved at the end of the first game, rifts appear in time and space since saving the world is somehow a time paradox, causing Lightning to disappear. Serah meets Noel, a boy who traveled back in time from the end of the world to help her travel through time at random in search of Lightning. Lightning is in Valhalla, a world outside of time and space, constantly fighting the game's main antagonist, Caius, a purple haired man in a bad suit who wields a barely legally distinct Soul Edge, complete with eye.
Serah and Noel explore time, help random people find lost junk, and resolve time paradoxes. Along the way they encounter the whole cast of the last game whose reasons for being in the future become more and more strained until they're just ignored entirely. I really liked Sazh in XIII, but he appears in the future with no explanation here and no one bats an eye. I suspect this is probably explained in the paid DLC that involves him, but I'm not paying to get story details that should have been in the main game to begin with. It should also be noted that with his new hairdo, Snow looks like a bigger jerk than ever.
Hope is the most important returning character. He is now 24 years old and the director of The Academy, a place with futuristic technology whose weapons and clothing don't change at all in the 700 or so years you get to see them, since Square was cheap about making new NPCs. The Academy is trying to save the people of Cocoon, which still sits atop a crystal pillar since the end of the last game, and give them a new place to live. Given the level of technology and the size of the cities The Academy builds I have absolutely no idea why its remaining citizens don't just abandon Cocoon and live happily and safely in one of those. The previous game talked about Pulse being a planet full of terrible monsters, but there's nothing in this one to suggest that living on a city of Pulse isn't one hundred percent safe from said monsters. Hope builds a forward-only time machine so that he can keep up with Serah and Noel so that Square doesn't have to write new characters for the new time zones.
Along with Hope is Alyssa, an adorable scientist working to figure out all the time paradoxes that are popping up all over the place. She is one of only six new characters in the game, if you count Chocolina as a character. Another new character is Mog, a flying Moogle with a grating voice who serves mainly as an exposition machine. He can be thrown to collect treasure. Aside from those three and Noel, the only other new people are Caius and Yuel, a 15 year old girl that can see the future, die, and be reborn that both Caius and Noel are in love with. Caius waxes poetic a lot and wants to destroy time. Noel is usually stoic. Yuel is detached and sad. Of the new characters, only Alyssa and Chocolina are any fun, and even they don't have any real depth beyond their jobs.
Another person that's a major force in the story but never physically encountered is The Goddess Etro. XIII-2 tells us that she's involved in the end game events of the original game, though she's never mentioned in that game's story. This isn't a big revelation; everyone in XIII-2 knows who Etro is and what her mythology is. It's a bizarre disconnect from the previous game, and it feels as if players are supposed to know about her, but I have no idea how. Caius wants to kill Etro because like too many Japanese RPGs characters, sometimes a guy just has to kill God.
There's a big, hours long info dump about the history of Caius, Yuel, and Noel right before the final dungeon that I thought contained some good character moments, even if its pacing was horrible. However, this information should have been peppered into the full adventure instead of all showing up here. Most of it was already obvious from earlier hints, but if the scenes here had been shown earlier, I might have cared about this trio more. As it stands, none of them meant a whole lot to me.
I discussed FFXIII's bad writing in the previous review, saying that while its narrative and exposition was terribly written, at least it had some fun character banter. XIII-2's writing is worse in every regard. It's less fun, more pretentious, and more bloated. There are voice overs between chapters, usually by Lightning, that ask philosophical questions about what just happened. Unfortunately, these questions range from obvious to dumb and having them there adds zero to the game's plot. The fact that they're the worst written speeches in a game already packed with terrible writing just makes it all the worse.
I don't know what I can say about this game that's positive. I liked the battle system, but I liked it less than XIII's. I did not like the return of random encounters, even if they were usually easy to avoid. I liked Alyssa and Chocolina, and Hope growing up into a scientifically brilliant man who actually manages to screw up everything on a cosmic scale is fun to watch. I did not like any of the other primary characters. I liked having NPCs to interact with. I did not like anything those NPCs said or asked me to do. I liked having dialogue prompts, because it allowed me to have Serah act oblivious and make fun of the game's story instead of taking it deadly serious. They have no impact on the plot, but they did make certain scenes a lot more enjoyable.
While I found FFXIII's music forgettable, I find XIII-2's aggressively bad. There are more vocal bits than before, and they're worse than the ones in the last game. Just as a couple of examples of how horribly bad things get, have a listen to one of the game's two Chocobo themes and one of its boss themes. I want to say it sounds like the bad parts of modern Sonic the Hedgehog music, but it's so overblown it almost feels like satire of those sort of songs.
Going from the melodies of, well, any previous Final Fantasy to this is such a shocking, horrible change and I would absolutely love to know who thought it was a good idea and why. There's so much wrong with this game but I think the Metal Chocobo Theme really just sums it up. This game is a wreck and I really can't recommend it to anyone.
The rest of this post will involve major, end game spoilers. I'll be writing them with blacked out text to try to prevent anyone who doesn't want to from accidentally reading them. Highlight the text if you want to know what I hated about this game's ending!
First of all, unless you complete every fetch quest and side story in the game, including wasting hours playing virtual slot machines, you don't get to see the complete ending. I certainly didn't, so thankfully there's Youtube. Either way, it's not much of an ending, and the additional scene you unlock doesn't add much. The crew gets home, New Cocoon is launched in spite of the fact that building a second Cocoon is tremendously stupid when there's already a huge, sprawling, land-based metropolis on Pulse that everyone could be living in instead, and Serah dies because she Saw The Future.
Because they messed with the time line so much, Noel and Serah destroy the world. I'm not against dark endings, otherwise I wouldn't love Nier as much as I do. This isn't a dark ending; it's a stupid one. History is undone and literally everything you do in this game and the previous is rendered null. The world is replaced with Valhalla, a place we know little and care less about. Caius is triumphant, in spite of being dead, because he has manipulated the heroes into killing Goddess for him and now he and Yuel can live happily ever after in a world full of monsters or something. The big question is, "What was the point of all of that?" I agree that the journey outweighs the destination, but the journey to this terrible ending was in itself so self satisfied and stupid that neither part is redemptive.
When I finished Mass Effect 3, I said that the ending wasn't great, but I couldn't understand the huge backlash against it since the rest of the game and series was so good. I finished XIII-2 and said to myself, "Now this, this ending deserves a backlash." Not only is it nonsensical, overwrought tripe that nullifies two games worth of story, it also has the gall to end with three lovely words: TO BE CONTINUED. There's no sensible way for the story to continue from here; the train hasn't just derailed, it's gone off a cliff and exploded. Lightning Returns Final Fantasy XIII, the third game in this series, was recently announced. I'm morbidly curious to see how Square digs themselves out of the hole they dug with XIII-2, but there's no way I'm buying a new copy and continuing to support this mess. Once again, thank god for Youtube.
It took me 25 hours to reach the final boss of Final Fantasy XIII-2, spaced over the course of months and many better games. I don't think an RPG this short has ever felt this long. I've been a Final Fantasy fan through good and bad, but after playing this game and seeing that Final Fantasy XIV is another online RPG, I think they've finally lost me. I'm usually against this, but I think it's time for Square to outsource the series to a completely new development team.