Friday, January 4, 2013

Review - Final Fantasy XIII-2

I hate Final Fantasy XIII-2.


I said it.

It is a deep, extensive and grand loathing that I have for the game and absolutely nobody is more surprised by this than I am, I assure you.  As with its predecessor I walk away from XIII-2 in a state of utter and complete confusion, but it's not at the paradoxical feeling that I like the unlikable, but rather that I am simply confused at how anyone could claim to like XIII-2.  I am saying this literally and without exaggeration because it is something that I simply cannot comprehend - it is beyond my grasp.  I do try to be objective, I say that a lot, and I have tried and I have tried, but there's just nothing I can pull out and hang on to, hold out and say "This, this is why I think people think it's a good game.  I disagree, but that's that".  I just cannot, for the life of me, say that the game is anything other than objectively bad which is a baffling statement for me and one that I don't take lightly.

The single thing, I think, that confuses me the most about Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that, where Final Fantasy XIII might have had only three real redeeming qualities, XIII-2 doesn't even have those.  All three of XIII's redeeming qualities have been filtered through XIII-2 and came out worse off overall - something that truly astounds me.  I wish I were using some sort of wacky hyperbole, that I was being uncharacteristically harsh on something for comedic value, but I just don't get it.  It eludes me.  Like nothing else has and I just can't help but express my frustration at that because I played the game.  I languished through its 30 hours or however long it took expecting a turning point and it never came.  It was un-enjoyable, mediocre drivel all throughout and perhaps with my admittedly excessive display, I'll be able to find -someone- that can actually quantify just what I'm missing, because clearly I am missing something if I am this far away from fun when it comes to the confines of Final Fantasy XIII-2.

It is for all of those reasons that it's hard to find a spot at which to start at.  Indeed, I'm blessed with a wealth of options here and that's a rather unfortunate thing, something I certainly don't relish.  I guess the best place would be to take Final Fantasy XIII's three points and extrapolate just -how- XIII-2 manages to wobble them so spectacularly, since that's about as good of an idea as any.  It really is impressive to see, which I guess is -one- positive I can say about the game:  It is interesting to watch like a train hitting a monster truck or something similarly strange.

Where Final Fantasy XIII was downright gorgeous for most of it, XIII-2 ended up dragging a little in that department somehow.  I'm not quite sure if it was perhaps just the locals, the smaller areas, or perhaps even the NPCs which might've necessitated a little pull-back, but suffice to say, for the most part it was just "above average" in the graphics versus XIII's real astounding ones.  The lessened amount of FMVs also hurt a little bit, I'm sure since there were about a handful in XIII and they were mind-blowing.  XIII-2's -do- match up here but that's because...well, it's FMV.  It's hard to make a bad looking FMV these days, especially with Squeenix.  If they're good at anything, it's certainly making shiny sparkly FMVs that are damn gorgeous to look at.  I should stress again that the game is definitely above average, and some locales are particularly striking (The Academia that isn't a horrible flatbed of monsters, in particular), but overall it just seems to lack that polish that it really needs to get up to Squeenix standards.

Something else that suffers in the graphics department, in a sense, is the actual identity of the world in which Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes place.  Apologies for the spoilers here, but XIII-2 takes place after the events of XIII in which everyone who was on Cocoon must now make a living on Gran Pulse.  You know, that place that had monsters everywhere that were looking for ways to absolutely murder everything in sight.  Australia, in other words.  Except, Gran Pulse in XIII had its own distinct style and Cocoon had its own as well, so you sort of expect something of a blend of the two....yet it's not that at all.  The game starts in New Bodham, a settlement made by Snow and his cohorts and it's on Gran Pulse of course....yet it looks exactly like it did on Cocoon.  (Plus some buildings)  Similarly, some of the later areas look strikingly like Cocoon, yet aren't on Cocoon I guess?  And some places are meant to be -from- Cocoon or something, since nobody went to Gran Pulse before XIII-2 I think?  It gets confusing and, really that is the problem - there's no identity anymore.  You're thrust into locales, told them roughly what they are and you just swallow that because there's no sense in trying to justify them in the same world.New Bodham is established on a beach fairly near to the Crystal Pillar holding the Cocoon shell high above the planet.  Yet....300 years in the future, the Pillar is surrounded by a rainforest.  Inconsistencies that take you out of things completely run amok in the design.

More than that, the character designs, which I actually praised in XIII, got out and out ri-goddamn-diculous in XIII-2 which is par for the course I suppose, but still.  Serah's....weird....bondage get up is so goddamn out of place with everything, Fashion cycles every century or so, so people in 500 AF are wearing what people in 2 AF were wearing because 'it totally came back in style' (and not because Squeenix was too lazy to invent a new look for a new society built on the ashes of Cocoon so to speak) and Caius' outfit is beyond ridiculous.  Hell, Lightning's outfit is beyond ridiculous - fully armored top, absolutely no pants of any sort (not even her XIII shorts) and a feather half-skirt.  Noel is the only player here that isn't an abomination to look at and his style doesn't even make sense either because it's Gran Pulse style (from like a thousand years ago if Vanille/Fang are anything to go on) 600 years into the future (from the starting point of 1 AF or so).  Every other character falls into the mentioned "it's back in style!" trend except for Snow who...took off his shirt and his beanie and got his jacket kind of ripped up, which isn't bad against the other glaring things.

So, one of my main complaints about the battle system in FFXIII was that it just wasn't any fun with less than the full three-man party, and XIII insisted on putting you through about half the game without the luxury of three-man teams.  So when I say that XIII-2 gives you a third party member/slot pretty early in the game, that should mean that it's good, right?  You'd think so, right?  Well, surprise, but it's not.  The third party slot is one filled by a Monster of your choice of which there are an over-ample amount of possibilities.  Through the game, as you fight monsters, sometimes you'll gain their crystal, which allows you to summon one of their ilk to fight with you at your side.  Some monsters don't convert completely - a rather imposing behemoth early on the in game, for example, simply converts into a bog-standard behemoth and other things like that.  However, even though it sounds neat, it's hardly more than a Novelty.

Every monster has but a single class to them of the six available.  Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Synergist, Saboteur and Medic.  There's all sorts of monsters of each type and as you might figure, some monsters are simply better than others in their class, meaning there is a 'paragon' monster for each class, if you will.  You have to use a Zubat before you can use a Pigeot, if you'll excuse the Pokemon analogy, by which I mean of course the better examples of monsters are only later in the game, and most of them in certain places only.  With a bit of training, by which I mean force-feeding materials down their throats (or equivalent) any monster can theoretically become 'useful' in battle, such as it were, but even at that, it's a little bit of an issue.  Everyone in the game, Serah and Noel and monster alike, is never set up to be a shining example of their class when compared to XIII's cast.  In a sense, I can understand that since XIII's party were basically demigods or avatars granted powers by a supreme being.  XIII-2's explanation is literally "some people were able to use magic after the fall of Cocoon", which means there's as much or as little room there as possible.  They went the latter route for some ghastly reason.

The thing that I hate about XIII-2's use of the battle system is simply that it's....too simple.  XIII's pace is fast, intense and you have to orchestrate your movements carefully for the most part, even in regular battles, if just to get a high score for a five-star rank.  None of this matters in XIII-2 - first off, don't even worry about five-starring, okay?  Or rather, did you get a pre-emptive strike?  You did?  Okay, you might get it.  You didn't?  STOP TRYING.  A majority of battles simply require a pre-emptive strike to grant you a five-star ranking which is bullshit and kills the need for anything resembling strategy, though of course, so do the piss-weak monsters.  And when I say requires a pre-emptive strike, I mean just that.  In one particular area, I was running into groups of monsters that I could defeat in two secondsTwo.  Pre-emptive strike?  Five star!  Not pre-emptive strike?  Four star!  Same amount of time, same tactics, same damage, same everything, just that extra 2000 points (I think) from PES is all the difference.  That is ridiculous by any standard.

Another casualty to the simplification process is the very core of XIII's battle system - the Paradigm Shift.  In XIII, it was a vital tool to keep and control the flow of battle, making the tides go in your favor and seizing the moment whenever it came.  In XIII-2 it's....something you will use every now and then.  If you roll with Noel/Com, Serah/Rav and a Sentinel or Ravager monster, you will not have to do any shifting for 90% of the battles you'll encounter.  Those last 10% are, of course, boss fights and special encounters where you actually -do- have to fight to survive...sometimes.  Provided you aren't ridiculously over-levelled which only counts every now and then.  I recall vividly recounting my tale of the first encounter with Caius to a friend who played XIII-2 first.  I had accidentally grinded....a little too much in an attempt to make short work of a boss and when I reached Caius, I steamrolled over him, having wondered if it was meant to be difficult at all.  The incredulity in her responses to that knowledge was palpable and offered me a little smugness as I realized only then that it -was- supposed to be an intense, gripping fight, and that was short-lived as I realized the disappointment that creeped in with my knowing that it had been such a non-issue.

The balance that Squeenix so carefully crafted in XIII's corridors and broken doors and points of no return is nowhere to be found in XIII-2 and it's both slightly liberating and incredibly frustrating all at the same time.  That little session of grinding for that one boss encounter effectively ruined the difficulty of literally the rest of the game for me - only when I was trying to gather materials did I ever 'grind' again, which is not to say that it was the goal, but merely the side-effect.  Indeed, I eventually made it to level 99 in every class for Noel and Serah both which means most battles, I can simply let the game do what it will with the standard Com/Rav/Rav paradigm I used for 80% of the game.  Again, however, classes long became unnecessary so long as those classes weren't Synergist or Saboteur since every other class proved to be useful -sometimes- (Com/Rav/Med the most, Sentinel was still limited) but Syn/Sab are useful for precisely two fights all game...if then.  Any other time, they're honestly more of a hassle than not, which means you just won't really need to have them in your paradigm deck whatsoever now, will you?

Speaking of, the Paradigm Deck is still as limited as it was in XIII, literally one of the only hold-overs, and it's further complicated with the inclusion of the monsters.  In XIII, most characters were only useful in three particular classes, with the other three being merely tertiary.  This is something I lamented, but understood.  Thus when you were making your paradigms, you usually built around those strengths.  Those strengths don't exist in XIII-2 because there are no clear advantages for Serah and Noel in any classes (beyond, again, Commando and Ravager) so you'll probably just stick with those.  The Paradigm Pack allows you to include up to three monsters for distribution within those paradigms which means that you are technically still only working with one 'person' who is strong in only three classes.  Yet the whole thing is further complicated by every monsters individual stats which give you an extra facet to consider in your planning and the only six slots for paradigms becomes all the more limiting.  Of course, since shifting is such a non-issue, this is also not that big of a deal in theory, but as someone who wanted to at least pretend it was still good, it was incredibly infuriating.

XIII's last strong point, the characterization, is similarly wasted in XIII-2 and possibly the most spectacularly of everything here.  There is perhaps an hour of content in XIII in which Serah is not a giant crystal lawn gnome statue, and that single hour provides Serah with a much better characterization than XIII-2's entirety.  In XIII-2, she is no longer the slightly tragic, tortured soul struggling to figure out her way, but is instead a vapid, incredulous upstart who cannot retain anything and is constantly amazed by the theory that Lightning is alive in Valhalla which is a theory that she herself propagated in the first place.  She has a memory of Lightning being alive, well and certainly not a crystal at the end of XIII's events, however she is the only one with said memory as everyone else thinks Lightning is trapped inside the crystal pillar.  She knows she's right in her heart and wants nothing more than to be able to prove it.  Then....she has a dream about it being true and cannot believe it.  THEN, Noel comes out of a goddamn time gate, hands her a moogle and says "Hey, I just got this from Lightning, your sister in a place called Valhalla and I was there with Lightning and Lightning said she was your sister and that it was in Valhalla AND LIGHTNING WAS IN VALHALLA, THE PLACE I JUST WAS."

Serah doesn't know what the fuck to make of that.

That is not the last instance.  Oh lord, it is not by a large margin and it becomes more and more annoying with every time it comes up.  Eventually it culminates in a meeting with Serah and Lightning herself as you might guess.  After covering in just about every manner possible (Having the memory herself, being told by Noel who literally saw Lightning and was there with her, being told by Snow that Lightning talked to him a dream and helped him time travel, seeing fucking video footage of Lightning in Valhalla, plus others) there is Lightning, fresh from Valhalla to speak to her sister who has been looking for her all game.  Looking for a way to get to Valhalla to find Lightning.  In Valhalla.  Where Lightning is and is established to be several times in the game.

So the first thing Serah says is "You're alive?!  Where were you?!"

I understand that is a spoiler.  I am not sorry.

Noel is certainly not much better, nor is...well any character in the game.  The only other real stand-out is Caius Ballad who only transcends the rest of the cast by default and because he is voiced by Liam O'Brien who is one of the best VA dudes out there.  Caius, at the very least, has a very clear purpose all game.  Caius, at least, knows exactly how the hell to accomplish his goals.  And Caius, at least, isn't prone to asking the same goddamn questions over and over again, nor is he confused when the wind blows east or similarly insignificant things that apparently prevented the main characters from retaining very vital information for hours at a clip.  Of course, Caius is the villain of the game.  This isn't a spoiler - he is literally shown fighting Lightning (in fucking Valhalla) in the intro of the game, and is made very apparent as the antagonist from every point thereon.  He's the best character, by far, in the entire game and that's not saying much since his competition, in all reality, is only Noel and Serah who are dumb as goddamn bricks if I haven't made that abundantly clear.

"B-b-b-b-b-but at least it's not completely linear!", you say.  "You have different areas and you can go explore them at will!  For funsies!"  That is, of course, true.  I hope you enjoy the random battles you'll run into on every square inch of those wide open areas, though.  Oh?  You didn't know?  About the random battles?  Well, yes, gone are the on-field battles of XIII, replaced by a system that is so stupid I cannot even really understand it in my head now, much less when I was playing.  Apparently, monsters only show up for Serah and Noel under the guise of temporal distortions (in 98% of the cases at least) which are picked up by Mog, the ever helpful magical Moogle Macguffin and he shows up as a Mog clock that displays their time in Serah and Noel's plane of existence.  Or....shows how dizzy they are after being transported to this plane.  Or something.  I forget - it's simply a thing to explain that things show up, you hit them with your sword before they hit you with their body and you get a pre-emptive strike.  Or if you get far enough away fast enough, you can force them back to the aether from whence they came.

Worth noting is that there are maybe a dozen unique locations in the game, only their instances are copy/pasted and altered to match other timelines, sometimes in dramatic ways and sometimes not quite so much.  So, I hope you enjoy hoofing the same exact terrain three or four times over simply because this version of it is supposedly 100 years in the future and the only difference is that it's dusk and there are less barriers and for some reason different monsters entirely.  Except the monsters only show up from temporal distortions?  So who else is fighting monsters unless monsters are just constantly appearing from distortions and - okay nevermind.  Of course, some -are- dramatically different in layout and such and those are the refreshing ones.  They are also the rare ones.  They also don't stand out very much in the grand scheme of things.

This 'free-roam' concept is further exploited with a 'quest' system that literally only exists as a vessel through which the player is handed useless Macguffin collectibles that will in turn grant you other Macguffin collectibles eventually.  And most of the quests boil down to "Talk to someone, find the area they talked about and open the floating cube that has only since spawned there to get item, take back to person" affairs which, again, have you contend with the random encounters that show up out of nowhere for no discernible reason.  That you have to fight using a severely hampered battle system that offers nothing in terms of enjoyment nor reward unless you hit a Pre-Emptive strike.  Which you won't have because most of the time you'll have just tried to run away from the fight because the battle system is no fun.  Problems compounding problems compounding problems - that is the name of the game in XIII-2.

No matter what, as is the order of things, you are still rail-roaded into different time periods and alternate histories eventually regardless.  And should you go anywhere beyond those areas, your only reasons are to grind or to work on quests, meaning there's not a whole lot of worth in that free-roaming.  Unless you're going to Serendipity, the Casino resort on the outside of time's constraints in which you can play slot machines and race chocobos....and play a card game if you buy some DLC.  Literally, attempting to play at the card tables will instruct you to keep your eyes out for Downloadable Content that will unlock that feature.  It's more than a little on-the-nose.  And slot machines are just as frustrating as they are in literally every other game that includes them for reasons that are beyond my comprehension since gambling in video games is as fruitless, if not more, as real life.  So of course, 100% completion -and- a separate trophy (for 100% trophy list) relies solely on winning at the slot machines.  Which relies on chance - giving you absolutely nothing to tip the scales in your favor. pretty much everything, I should say.  I covered why the story sucks, why the characterization sucks, why the battle system sucks and why the game has literally -not- improved on XIII in any way.  I understand that, to a point, it's merely my opinion, but even objectively, I can't see it.  The battle system has been nerfed considerably - there's no argument there.  It would be like if Dark Souls 2 suddenly let you block endlessly, never taking your stamina for the pleasure.  It is a subtle change but it would completely wreck the entirety of the fun of the game as XIII-2's lack of emphasis on Paradigm Shifts has done.  Gone also are the concepts of fal'Cie and l'Cie in XIII-2, taking out the singular interesting, non-character-related story element from XIII.  What's left is a silly time travel story that makes absolutely no sense at any single point in time (ha!) with characters that would have more depth if they were printed out on a sheet of paper.  That is Final Fantasy XIII-2.

The Good
  • Caius Ballad is a pretty good character
  • Caius Ballad is voiced by Liam O'Brien
  • ...
  • Caius.  Liam O'Brien
The Bad
  • The story is nonsensical and poorly told
  • The characterization is flimsy and barely even attempted
  • The Battle system has been made less fun by making Paradigm Shifting a tertiary tactic, rather than a core mechanic
  • Monster collecting should be fun, but instead it's tedious and reliant entirely on luck
  • Serendipity.  'Nuff said
  • Seriously, Serah is like the worst character in anything
  • One area, Academia 400 AF, I believe, plays party to the literal worst section in any RPG ever thanks to the stupid Random Encounters and narrow, terrible map design
  • The entire Caius arc hinges on Serah and Noel being too stupid to use common sense (Spoiler: it works)
  • Random Encounters
  • Did you read the review?  Literally like everything about the game
Mogs Says
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a shallow, vapid romp through forgettable scenery with terrible protagonists playing out a stupid story that never gets off the ground and simultaneously never makes sense.  I can only fathom a guess as to how anyone found it enjoyable, and that guess would be that it is a fairly easy game with above average graphics that lets you collect monsters for seemingly no reason.  There is, however, nothing that screams 'quality' from the title, no matter how hard I really, truly tried to hear it.  'Disappointing' is not the word to use, but it conveys the gist well enough.

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