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CONSOLE: PlayStation 3 DEVELOPER: Square Enix PUBLISHER: Square Enix
RELEASE DATE (NA): January 31, 2012 GENRE: RPG
// review by Jeff

Transcending the ages.

It's not often that a Final Fantasy game gets a genuine sequel, let alone TWO, but that's what happened with Final Fantasy XIII, its story apparently being so robust it required two extra games to tell it all. And so, nearly two years after we were first introduced to Lightning and the gang, the group (despite having been horribly separated not just by space but by time) made an encore appearance in Final Fantasy XIII-2, a sequel that was released to favourable acclaim. But can it hold up to its predecessor?

I'm a person who likes a simple storyline, or at least one that I can follow. Final Fantasy XIII-2's plot is clearly not for me because it's the most unpalpable tripe I've had to swallow since I tried to unsuccessfully cook bacon over a radiator. Time travel is confusing enough, but having to hop between different times in a variety of locations from Gran Pulse and Cocoon, affecting the pasts and futures of others, is a rough concept to wrap my head around, and the game's dialogue does a pretty poor job of explaining it to me. I feel like such a simpleton while playing. Not being an expert on time travel and its inherent paradoxes, I have to accept knowing only the basics and rolling with them. The game is set — at first — three years after the events of the first game. When her island village is attacked by monsters, Serah Ferron (sister of Lightning, the main character of Final Fantasy XIII) suddenly encounters Noel Kreiss, a mysterious figure from 700AF (the distant future). Noel has been entasked by Lightning to not only save Serah from harm but also to help correct the many paradoxes throughout time that have caused her to disappear from the timeline completely. In doing so, Noel may also change the fate of the people in his timeline: that of total annihilation when Cocoon, their homeland, collapses in 400AF. Meanwhile, there's also a nasty brute named Caius who's also skulking throughout the timeline, trying to correct things in a different way, for his own means. In other words, you're doing through time, correcting problems in the timeline to make things better in the future. Square Enix sure has a roundabout way of explaining things, but at least they give you a plot recap with every new reload of your save file. Oh, no, wait, that's actually annoying.

Throughout the game, you'll have to travel to different areas, conveniently all available via the Historia Crux. It's basically a snazzy menu for selecting which time period you want to visit next. Pretty much all the time periods and locations are locked at first, but by opening gates you find (using artefacts — which I still think looks odd, as I've been using the Americanized spelling "artifact" for decades), more of the story and more of the travel periods are unlocked. The game will have you hopping between places like a rabbit on steroids. If you like linearity, this system may through you for a loop, as you can travel to numerous time periods all over the place.

That is, when it's not bombarding you with cutscenes. Oh my, are there ever cutscenes in Final Fantasy XIII-2. And as if that weren't enough, even when you're walking along, Noel and Serah will have conversations, still fully-voiced, with small talk about their adventures. The amount of dialogue in this game is both extremely impressive and obsessive. This could be their way of sneaking in some character development and a little backstory without forcing you to find it yourself, or it could just be filler. Either way, get used to having chatty characters. And you know what? I can live with that, save for Serah's incessant whining about her sister early on. But I cannot prevent myself from cringing and tightening my orifices at Lightning's utterly pretentious and forcedly profound narration to begin each chapter. That's when I go grab a beverage refill.

But wait a minute... Final Fantasy games are, above all else, RPGs. You'd expect some killing to be afoot! You didn't come here for saccharine twaddle talk! If you're like me, you want to take a giant sword and slice through a few hundred random blobby goobers on the field! Luckily, they didn't forget about that. The battle system is more or less the same as Final Fantasy XIII: an active system where you everyone is constantly on the attack. You only control one person at a time, either Noel or Serah, and as the fight rages on and your battle meter rises (when maximized, you can act), you have to select whether to Auto-Battle (just letting the computer pick the best attack or magic strategies for you, probably the setting used most frequently by most), select Abilities by hand, use items, or switch the character you control. No fuss, no muss! ...What's muss? And the more you attack a specific enemy in magic, the higher their chain counter increases; once it surpasses a certain point (listed in percentage points), you can trigger its Stagger Point and make it more vulnerable to physical attacks. Using this to your advantage is the key to battle success and is highly necessary to defeat pretty much any foe, particularly bosses. I like the new random encounter system, where enemies will pop up, but you have the physical capability of running away in the overworld. Alternatively, if you want to get the upper hand, slice them before they slice you first for a combat bonus. Heck, you can even (usually) retry a battle from scratch while it's still happening if things aren't going your way.

Interestingly enough, though Final Fantasy XIII had you amassing a large party of up to six players at once you could cycle through, but this sequel only gives you a party of two: Noel and Serah. (That is, unless you invest in DLC to bring back a few favourites from the previous game.) Because of this limitation, the two are forced to become the jacks-of-all-trades, taking on every possible job imaginable in battle. They start with the main two, Commando for physical attacks and Ravager for more magic-based assailing, but as they expand their Crystarium (by spending those crystarium points earned from battle — no experience points for us proles), they can unlock and build up additional skill sets, like the status-enhancing Synergist or the always, ALWAYS useful Medic. Plus, it's always neat to say "synergist". I've very easily acquired all the active battle skills for both characters in all the crystarium. Once that's done with, working with the crystarium is more a case of just improving your strength and defense, as per the usual leveling-up system.

With only two main characters to worry about, you can invest more time looking at pretty things.

You can prepare any combo of these jobs for battle in the form of Paradigms, and up to six can be made at any given time. Once in battle, you can switch between them all at will, with one being set as your automatic starting combo. Maybe you want to always start with two Ravagers? No problem. A Medic and a Saboteur? You got it. Synergist and Sentinel? ...Yeah, sure, why not. Switching between them in battle at the right times is the key to success. It's not all about just throwing Blizzaga spells constantly until the fight is over.

But it seems lonely only having two characters in battle. "Well," says leading Final Fantasy designer I. M. Theef, "why not take the Pokémon approach and do what every other dog-gone popular game does: let you capture monsters! People like that!" So monster taming is a part of this, and you can choose a third member out of the bunch you capture. At least they've made it extremely easy. I didn't even have to DO anything to catch them; they simply get caught sometimes after a brawl. Monsters, too, can level up to a maximum in the Crystarium. Gotta catch 'em all!

But just capturing monsters isn't enough derivation. What we need...are Quick Time Events! YEAH! That'll make the game GREAT! Typically after boss battles, they'll throw in an action-packed cutscene where you need to press buttons or move the left Control Stick to make your characters do some extra slicing and dicing. Whether or not you consider this as actual gameplay is up to you, but they don't happen very often, and it's not heavily intrusive into the rest of the game. Final Fantasy XIII-2 also occasionally pulls from Mass Effect 2 by sometimes presenting you with four possible responses to another character's question, leading to multiple different conversations.

Now I say that Final Fantasy games are above all else RPGs, but that doesn't mean they can't stick a few action and puzzle bits into the mix. Serah and Noel can hop around to the best of them when not engaging in rough battles with giant sticky flans. They can even hop to seemingly out of reach places, provided there's a little swirling blue circle to tell you when you can make the leap. The puzzle elements come in when the duo encounter paradoxes, puzzles that they need to solve. They're usually pretty simple affairs that require either patience or just a tiny burst of brains to get through.

Visually, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is on par with the previous game. That is to say, it's still gorgeous, and it's clear great care went into the overall aesthetic. It's not absolutely perfect — certain ground textures, for example, look surprisingly low-res when walking on them — but overall, I'm just as impressed as with the prequel.

I'm not certain what the music composers were really thinking this whole time. Maybe they didn't care for continuity because the quality is all over the place. Much of it is very atmospheric and enjoyable, but for some reason, certain areas apparently need vocal pop music in the background to keep players from falling asleep. In Serah's own village on New Bodhum early on, I decided to do a little grinding, but after each battle, the song kept rewinding a bit and I'd hear the same woman singing "Find yoursellllllf" over and over. That's not half as bad as the major boss theme, which is screamo death metal whose lyrics I couldn't decipher if I tried. It's horrendous and so out of place. Legendary Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, please come back. We need you. And as for the voice acting... well, I have very few complaints. I can even withstand the overexuberance of Chocolina, the traveling sales...uh, half-human, half-chocobo hybrid.

I had a pretty good time with Final Fantasy XIII-2, about the same amount of fun as the previous game. It's just as robust, even if not quite the same length. And, save for the final bosses of the game, Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn't that taxing on the nerves as far as difficulty goes. It's an engaging journey that modern RPG fans will surely get a kick out of. Surely if you played the first game, why wouldn't you tackle this one, too?

That ending, though...

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