Sunday, February 5, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2 - Part 1

Obviously there is going to be a lot that needs to be said for "Final Fantasy XIII-2".  Final Fantasy, as a series, is sick.  Pretty much any player will agree that the Final Fantasy brand does not have nearly the same level of affection and strength that it once had.  Years ago Final Fantasy fans were divided pleasantly over silly issues like "Final Fantasy VI" vs "Final Fantasy VII" and honestly thought "Final Fantasy X-2" was as ridiculous as things would ever get.  "Final Fantasy XIII" brought us a whole new level of anger, betrayal, and mistrust, which contrasted nicely with new fans who did not mind that the game they were playing was definitely not a Final Fantasy game.  But if "Final Fantasy XIII" was merely divisive, "Final Fantasy XIV" was the real blow that turned this series into the laughingstock of the gaming world.  (And let's ignore "Dissidia", because I don't want to cry during this review.)

Personally this series, for me, has been in a pretty crappy downward spiral ever since its loftiest heights, "Final Fantasy XII", arguably the best game SE has ever made.  I didn't play "Final Fantasy XIII", I steadfastly refused to take part in what I could see clearly was absolutely the wrong direction for JRPGs to take.  I explained why I didn't want to be apart of the "Final Fantasy XIII" experience years ago - back then I was convinced that "Final Fantasy XIII" was not a rushed inferior product, and still am.  I am never going to play "Final Fantasy XIII", it will never happen.  And I was definitely not the only one left behind by "Final Fantasy XIII"'s decisions.  The first "Final Fantasy XIII" will probably be debated for years as to its merit or failures, but I'm going to look back upon this era of gaming as a truly sorry chapter in Final Fantasy history.  Of course, that's assuming this series even has a future - or a future that's appealing to me, something that I am beginning to doubt.

"Final Fantasy XIII-2", clearly, is the apology to me and many other people who were turned off by "Final Fantasy XIII-1"'s faults, mainly linearity.  Of course, "Final Fantasy XIII-2" has also gone ahead and made all kinds of new mistakes, but we'll get into that later.  Having played roughly the first quarter of the game, I can say its been a more pleasant experience than I feared, its about as good of a game as I wanted.  There have been some good surprises here, I don't outright hate this game.  But would I recommend it to other humans?  I'm not so sure.

I guess I should explain why I'm on this quixotic quest to play "Final Fantasy XIII-2" in the first place.  Honestly, I wasn't all that sure myself.  When I booted up the game for the first time I was hit by this niggling thought:  "oh god, am I really gonna play this thing?  Do I really want to put myself through this?  Let's just play more 'Resonance of Fate'."  Well, I ignored that thought, because I want to be a part of the discourse around this game.  I want to be able to give my thoughts and perhaps give the final word on this whole "Final Fantasy XIII" thing.

I've bashed "Final Fantasy XIII" for years, because as far as I'm concerned, as a JRPG its the root of all evil.  I hate linearity, there are no words for it, I simply detest it as a gaming concept.  This is why I never really love action games like "God of War" and "Bayonetta", because they're nothing but long tubes of pre-planned action sequences.  You might as well hold a controller while watching a movie, that's how much control you have.  However, "Final Fantasy XIII" fans have been telling me that the story was good (doubtful), the characters were great (more doubtful), and that the gameplay was really good.  Honestly its more the third one that motivated me.  Because despite everything, I do enjoy good gameplay, especially good strategic RPG gameplay.

Ironically, the story is not as bad as I thought it would be - its still dreadful and makes no sense, but I'll get into that in another post.  The characters are a lot more likable than I ever would have imagined, even Snow who I always assumed for years was just a surfer douchebag.  But the gameplay... not so good.  The battle system this time is pretty woeful, honestly.

Now "Final Fantasy XIII-2" did fix the linearity, that's important.  The first game had virtually no sidequests, no places to go, and nothing to do expect walk forward along an infamously straight linear past that has since been unaffectionately nicknamed "the tube" by fans.  "Final Fantasy XIII-2" has no tube, most areas are a maze-like mixture of corridors and open spaces filled with NPCs, sidequests, and of course, enemies.  You can also freely wander the game world, going from one area to the next in pretty much any order you want.  Do you want to help Snow kill a giant slime monster, or first visit Hope?  Its your choice, baby.  This also leads to an extremely anarchic difficulty, because I might fight an intensely difficult giant dragon, then the next boss I find is so easy that I can press one button and win.

The way "Final Fantasy XIII-2" justifies your freedom to move around is a time travel plotline.  Apparently the fundamental laws of the universe are breaking down, causing all kinds of weirdo time dimensions and paradoxes to appear and wreck havoc across the world.  Between each level, you have time gates, where you can then jump and reappear in a different location in a different time.  Each level is a closed-off location, but that's fine because you can freely move between levels whenever you want, with the only penalty being annoying load times.  I love the freedom this game gives to move around and take on the plotline at your pace.  Maybe I want to go visit a side timezone and sidequest for awhile.  Guess what?  I can.  So "Final Fantasy XIII-2" is way better than its predecessor there.

So you might be thinking "well, its like a Final Fantasy 'Chrono Trigger', sounds wonderful!"  You would be wrong.  Because "Final Fantasy XIII-2" has an utterly insane design decision, one that confounds me to the limits of my sanity.  You can only travel about 700 hundred years in the future, and cannot go the past.  So immediately, "Final Fantasy XIII-2" wins the title of 'Lamest Time Traveling Mechanic Ever'.  I seriously have no idea what SE was thinking when they decided you can only visit this tiny sliver of space-time.  Its not like "Final Fantasy XIII" doesn't have an interesting backstory:  machine Gods rule humanity, wars between planets, civilizations being destroyed, etc. etc.  But you aren't allowed to see any of that.  In the future, civilization does collapse, but honestly, I'm disappointed.  This also means that previous characters who died cannot come back, so fan favorites like Cid and Fang are out of this game*.  Also this means that "Final Fantasy XIII-2" starts in the cyber future, and the technology level never really changes.  There isn't much historical change actually happening, just more cyber future.

As a history major, this game's complete failure to take advantage of its own plot ideas is offensive.

Another largely infamous design decision in "Final Fantasy XIII-2" is to limit the playable characters down to just two:  Serah and this new guy Noel.  Lightning, a fan-favorite character and the former protagonist, is all over the game's advertising, artwork, logo, and even the game cover, but she's not playable.  She will, however, be playable in upcoming DLC in what I believe is The Biggest Dick Move of Any Game Company EVER.  Lightning is playable in short "Advent Children"-style battle as the opening of the game, then she disappears from the plot only to return in the ending, still unplayable.  So let me do a really short character breakdown:

Serah is Lightning's little sister.  She runs like a girl, her outfit is horrible**, and she's pretty clearly inferior to her sister in terms of badassness.  Serah is a teacher though, like me, so we can agree there, too bad that plot point got ignored pretty fast.  I thought Serah would be the annoying cutsey girl that many Final Fantasy games have, like Rikku or Selphie, she's a bit better than that.  She's tolerable, really.  She's the fiancĂ©e to Snow, a guy who is at least fifteen years old than her, but who is judging?  Well, except for her internal monologues, those are really bad.  Also, her bow/sword is actually a Moogle, you just have to learn to deal with that fact.

Christ is the other main character.  He's a boy from the future coming from the past Kyle Reese-style to stop the apocalypse.  He wears silly baggy pants and wields a ridiculous sword.  Looking at his name "Noel Kreiss", he's obviously Christmas-themed, and is probably the savior of mankind.  Christ is kind of a dick, he likes to yell at people and be really bossy and moody.  For whatever reason he refuses to tell me his backstory, which is mixed up with the main villains.  If this Christ looked like "Persona 3"'s Psycho Revolver Jesus, this would be the best game ever.  Oh well.

The third party member slot is taken up by a monster, similar to "Dragon Quest V"'s system.  Unfortunately, "Final Fantasy XIII" is not a game with art design by Akira Toriyama, so the monsters are mostly nasty techno lizards, creatures I find difficult to love.  You can eventually recruit proper Final Fantasy creatures like Chocobos, Flans, and Tonberries, but for the most part your Pokemon are angry creatures.  The Pokemon don't ever have any plot relevance, I don't think the characters ever even mention that they are being aided by monsters.  And they don't follow you on the World Map either, which is disappointing.  Its hard to connect with your techno lizard when you can never really play with it or take it for walks.  For no reason at all you also cannot name your monsters, you can only select new names from a pre-set list of names that SE thought I would want to use.  Well, they were wrong, and I hate them for it.

But the most important aspect of "Final Fantasy XIII-2" is clearly its battle system.  A game has to be fun, ultimately, and that means good gameplay.  I'm going to start off right now and say that those people who raved about "Final Fantasy XIII"'s gameplay were plain wrong, the gameplay is, as far as I can, see barely functional.  It is a huge step down from "Final Fantasy XII"'s brilliant system of programmable auto-battle and free open movement.

Much like "Final Fantasy XII", "Final Fantasy XIII" and "XIII-2" rely mainly upon lightning-fast battles that are driven by auto-battle.  You cannot individually select every single action, you only have direct control over the lead party member  But you'll realize pretty quickly that your own choices are very rarely important and its best to just auto-battle.  And since this game's battle system is hyper fast-paced, its dangerous to waste time fumbling through the menus to pick out attacks that mostly all do the same thing anyway.  To control the auto-battle in "XIII-2" you need to pick between six preset "roles", which are basically Job Classes.  SE broke down their games and decided that there were six things playable characters do in RPGs:  attack, defend, heal, use offensive magic, buff party members, and debuff enemies, so each of the six classes reflects these six options.  Mid battle you can largely use the auto-battle button all you want, the main strategy is switching to the ideal class for the situation, to change your character's behavior for the most optimal results.  At this point I'm basically reviewing both games, because their combat systems are virtually identical.

I'll admit this system is really interest for a game, I haven't played an RPG like it.  The battles can be incredibly fast and incredible tense.  Unfortunately, this system has some pretty big flaws.

First of all, in "XII", you had Gambits, a list of actions you could program your party members to do.  You could change their behavior so they would immediately, for example, heal a party member with low HP, or use a healing item when a party member was low on health.  If you wanted to spam a certain kind of magic as the main attack, they would do it.  They was a great level of control to that game.  If the characters were acting irrationally and stupidly, that was because you didn't make a proper set of Gambits.  "XIII" and "XIII-2" have no gambits.  I said before that your choices are rarely important in this game, but sometimes they are massively important, to the difference of life and death.  So if you're fighting a boss that keeps causing status ailments, how can you make your Healer prioritize the Esuna spell?  You really cannot, the best you can do is focus your Healer on individual targets, and I'm not entirely sure what that means.  If you need more than one character to use a certain move, it is completely impossible.  Which is where Gambits would really help, but - oh yeah, I forgot - there are no fucking Gambits.

The other problem is this concept of "Paradigms".  You cannot individually change a character's class, you have to make a deck of six possible Paradigms options, those are the only six compositions your party can ever have.  Considering that you have three party members and they each could potentially take six options, there are in total 216 possibilities for how your can compose your party, but the game only lets you use six.  You will probably lose against your first battle with a boss because you won't know beforehand what kind of Paradigms you need to beat them.  And you can't change them.  There's also the massive problem that you can only use three monsters in any Paradigm deck.  Monsters can't change classes, they effectively are a class.  When you Paradigm Shift, the monster changes into a different monster.  So your options in the third slot are constantly limited to just three Jobs, which is bullshit.  Paradigm Shifting makes no sense, and I absolutely hate it.

"XIII-2" did fix "XIII-1" outrageously stupid decision to make the party leader's death a GAME OVER, but still switching the party leader is needlessly difficult.  I don't know why switching the leader isn't as easy as a button press, its not like the lower shoulder buttons are doing anything.  Instead you have to go into the menu, select "switch leader", then wait a second while the game loads up a graphic, and ultimately lose a turn.  All this is in real time too, so you really fumble through the menus.  Pick the wrong option and you're screwed.  You also cannot make monsters the Party Leader, which is a really big problem if you need them to use specific attacks.  There are no Gambits, so good fucking luck.

I really want to know where SE hid my Gambits.  I want them back.  GIVE THEM BACK TO ME.

Leveling up is another thing in this game.  In previous Job-based Final Fantasy games, you used the Job you wanted and got EXP in battles for it.  Now there's a giant Sphere Grid from which you can level up any Job you have at any time.  So you may never use Healer, but you can level up that Job if you have tons of EXP lying around.  I like that bit.  What I don't like is that there's a Sphere Grid!  I hate Sphere Grids!  Call them Crystariums or License Boards or whatever the heck, I still hate them!  After every other battle I have to manually level up.  Ironic for a game that takes away so much control from battles, the one place where it gives extra control is made the most annoying.  Also, since you choose which Classes to level up, you can be 100% certain that you'll level up the wrong class and find yourself screwed for a boss fight.

I do like that "XIII" and "XIII-2" you can pound an enemy with a Break Meter.  If you use Black Magic long enough, a yellow bar below their health bar is filled and now you can really crush them with physical attacks.  Its a great addition for strategy, kinda like "Resonance of Fate"'s Scratch system.

The funny thing is that no matter how complex the battle system is, its really really simple for most fights.  You usually do not need to shift once, just enter in a triple Attack Paradigm and you'll win about 90% of the fights.  The other 10% require you to maybe bring in a White Mage*** or a Black Mage for Scratching.  Buffing Classes are exclusively for bosses.  I pretty much never use the Defender Class either.  Regular battles are painfully boring, even when you are losing they're boring.  Most of the time I avoid them, but that means I'm massively unleveled for bosses, so its a lose-lose.  I don't want to fight the random**** enemies, they're terrible.

So "Final Fantasy XIII-2", despite the tone of this review, has actually been a pretty pleasant surprise.  The battles, even if they are frustratingly automatic, do allow for some good strategy and there have been good tough bosses.  Its definitely not as easy as the "XIII" vets have been saying, if you're new to this kind of gameplay you'll struggle at first.  But slowly I've been mastering it, and I'd say its a decent game, I'm pretty addicted now.  But it could have been a great game, that's the saddest part.

My plan for posts:  Part 2 is going to discuss the storyline, and Part 3,  will discuss how much this game secretly is awful bullshit.  Because there's a terrible secret to this game, a design decision that is so offensive it will leave you crushed in awe of how evil SE has become.  (Here's a hint:  it involves the non-ending and DLC.)

* It also means I can't go back and save Jihl, who is my favorite "Final Fantasy XIII" character, having not played the game.  She was all over the trailers as this ruthless Imperial officer with a lovely face and a cool weapon.  In the actual game... nada, you don't even get to fight her.  She had three scenes in total.  Her character is useless, a total waste of what could have been an awesome - and sexy - villain.  So I've been pissed about that for about two years now, and I don't plan on letting that grudge go any time soon.

** I got the GameStop pre-order DLC so I could change Serah's outfit to a summoner garb.  I really miss "Resonance of Fate"'s extensive outfit options.  I really miss "Resonance of Fate" in general.

*** Why couldn't FFXIII use normal names for its Job Classes?  Why does "Fighter" have to be "Commando" now?  Or "Black Mage" be "Ravenger"?  You won't know what the Jobs do until you use them.

**** SE, I hate you so much for bringing back random encounters.  Even if you can run from them, I still hate you.


  1. Sounds like the same old battle system then. For the most part you only need about three or four paradigms to get through.

    The most irritating aspect of FFXIII was that the battle system forced you to killed the enemy in the exact specific way the game set out for you. There was no choice, you just had to figure it out, use a certain method and deal with it. In previous Final Fantasy games you could decimate an enemy in any number of ways but Square Enix was adamant you would enjoy the battle system and had to do it in their way and it seems they have replicated this assumption in XIII-2. Severe arse ache.

    1. I agree about paradigms, I only ever needed three in XIII: COM COM COM, RAV RAV COM, SEN MED MED. Occasionally I'd go with SAB MED SYN for some bosses.


  2. At last! I was waiting for this.

    You seem to think that you can't manually input commands. You can, but it takes menu fumbling and it's not always easy. But if worse comes to worse you can always control your Medic and use Esuna yours, screw the Auto-Heal for that particular bit. Luckily, once you enter in a set of commands, you can automatically repeat them easily by going to Abilities and pressing Right on the D-pad.

    On the ending, I know the whole thing they pulled got tons of people mad, but honestly, I thought they pulled if off very well. Maybe it's because the entire finale of the game was just great.

  3. @Hammy: I find that you can indeed use multiple methods to kill enemies. The paradigm system does offer a great variety in choice in how you take enemies down, made all more varity-er thanks to the monster system. Unfortunately, for regular enemies the choice is either use attacks or use magic to stagger than use attacks. That's why regular battles are disgustingly boring in this game.

    @Wee: I know you can input commands. (I'll change my post a bit.) But as you said, you have to fumble through the system. Fumble is the right word, because in battles this fast you really have to move quickly. Also the font is tiny. Also you can only input commands for the Lead Character, a massively stupid idea.

  4. When I played XIII, I never used the auto-battle option, always manually inputting commands or using the repeat last turn option. When I play a video game, I actually want to play it.

    1. Everyone said that I was stupid when I did the same thing on the first runthrough. It's like once you use the Scan abillity all you have to do is let the game go at it with Auto-Battle and watch the annoying as hell characters talk about their feelings. And like you Blue I missed the gambit system. It allowed my characters to do what they needed to do outside of Boss battles without me having to micromanage every few seconds. It was a blissful time then, but now we're in the dark ages of video games. My theory was that in the 90's game companies wanted to make money, but the best way to do that was make good games. If one person brought the game and thought it was good then he's going to tell his friends to buy the game too. The companies made money and the consumers where satisfied with their purchuse. Now with all this DLC crap and online playing it's all about who can pump out the must siezure inducings movies in a year. This only makes me wary of what I buy and I've spent more money on buying old school classics then actual new games.

    2. I'm reminded of a quote from Zero Punctuation: "Apparently [films] are like games, but they basically unfold without you having to do anything, like the next logical step for the Final Fantasy series."

  5. never played XIII Blue? You went straight to XIII-2?
    Kinda reminds me of when I skipped X and went straight to X-2.

    1. Why on earth would you do that?

    2. The even funnier thing is that I loved X-2. Plot sucked and the Perfect Ending is a crime to humanity but gameplay was awesome and the little references here and there made the game.

      Of course I like X too. Both are special in their own way.

  6. Those were pretty much the complaints I had about XIII, especially about the battle system, which in XIII required that you break the enemy or you wouldn't do shit to them. Two ravagers and a commando sped up all the random battles, and was standard for the bosses unless I had to heal or buff.

    XIII had the potential to be a great game; everything was there, even some moments in the story that were really excellent, but I hated the linearity, and hated the battle system as a FF battle system, while I liked the strategy itself. I did like the ramped-up difficulty, but once I got adept at the battle system, even tough bosses were just a mild challenge, though they were interesting and kept me on my toes. However, the weapon upgrade system was crap. I only tolerated the FFXII bazaar because the game itself was great and you could get really good stuff (8 hours of farming for the tournesol were worth it), while the item-crafting upgrades in XIII made me rage and despair. I gave up on that game as my desire to play it withered away; I put it down one day and never came back to it. It could have been renamed, released under a different brand, and it would have been a great JRPG. But not a great FF game.


    1. If its any consolation FFXIII-2's weapon upgrading system seems to just be the traditional "go to the next shop and find new equipment". However, by and large, weapons have barely any effect at all on battles.

  7. Thought I may link this here for you, Blue. I'm having a giveaway for the Omega superboss DLC (I have an extra code), and since I know you got the Gamestop DLC, I thought you might be interested. You don't have to, but I figured it can't hurt. =)

    1. Thanks for this contest! If I won, it would be awesome. Thanks for telling me.

      I sent an answer in using my Youtube account.

  8. This game isn't bad but at least it's for the most part a step up from 13 i like the whole go to this time first or maybe this time instead it's a wonderful break the Linearity until Pulse where it's still mostly Linear ,Those C'ieth Stones are not Side Quests SE, but sadly this game is one of my ,literally, handful of PS3 games i own it's either this or Disgaea 3. Yeah i agree that the plot is all over the place but it kind of makes sense by the end oh and the best they actually tell you most of the plot in game and not in the freaking Datalogs which are still there but they only contain a paragraph or 2 about backstory and what characters have in been over the past 2 years.