After spending 3 weeks playing the game and sleeping at work, I can finally deliver my final verdict. Review based on the PS3 Japanese version.
Back to the Future
In Final Fantasy XIII-2, you travel in Time. Your mind immediately jumps to Chrono Trigger, but the approach is a little different here. Rather than changing one world through various eras, FFXIII-2 has you travel in multiple locations at different times, or even alternative futures. The story uses Time Travel in a very clever way, including numerous surprises and a complex and somewhat deep scenario.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 brings new things to the series. First, the Cinematic Action : there are actually not that many of them, and then they don’t really impact the general gameplay, taken back from the first Final Fantasy XIII. Neither too slow nor too fast, they fit pleasantly in boss battles. It’s just a shame the words “Cinematic Action” appear well before the sequence begins. I’ll be quick on the Mog (’cause you may know by now) who is essentially here to help you detect objects invisible to the naked eye (believe I had been searching for a while in Oerba), or out of reach since you can throw him savagely to make him pay for all the “kupos” he shouts all day long. Now let’s talk about THE new thing of this sequel : the Live Trigger. System by which the game asks your opinion (quite often), it makes your adventure even more immersive and the key events even more thrilling. At some point, you fight a boss that is invincible unless you pick the right choice. Last but not least, your choice will make it possible or not for alternative endings (called Paradox endings) to appear throughout your progression. The Live Trigger is in my honest opinion biggest change in FFXIII-2 and the most awesome add in the series for a while.
FFXIII-2, from linearity to liberty
Let’s get it straight : SquareEnix heard the concerns loud and clear. It’s easier to see than to say, but you now have a central menu from where you can jump in various locations at different times. From one world/time, you can unlock one or more other locations/eras by opening gates. The point is that you’re not just completing one level and going to the others : you’ll have to get back to places you’ve already been to in order to solution your present situation. The world is so open that you can even land in hostile environments full of monsters way above your level, it makes the progression particularly intense, because when you unlock a new gate, you can never know what lies ahead. Unfortunately, the game still shows some inclination towards telling you what to do and where to go, which spoils this reborn exploration a bit. Similarly, it’s too bad the alternative futures appear as part of the main story, rather than created by the player’s search. But at one moment, the game suddenly throws in the open with somewhat little indications. While this pure exploration is quite welcome, there’s a big chance you’ll get stuck for a while… The numerous side-quests, well-thought puzzles, addicting mini-games and multiple secrets hidden here and there definitely make up for it. Those quests, whether they’re part of the main story or not, are varied. They include search for objects or characters, which can be invisible (you need Mog’s help) or located in another era. One was in fact a joke contest, another asks you to explore the maps completely. This only a fraction of what lies in Final Fantasy XIII-2. The game is huge : I finished it in 50h (some did it in 30) because I spent some time on the side-quests and I got stuck while searching some necessary items. I recently passed 60h but still have more than one third of the fragments to find, some mini-games to complete and many secrets to uncover.
Another major new thing of this sequel is the feral link system. Sometimes when you defeat a monster you can get a cristal that allows to add the aforementioned monster to your party. You have a wide range : all the creatures featured in FFXIII + some unique to FFXIII-2. There will definitely be some some of your liking and, honestly, how’s never dreamed of fightning alongside a Gold Chocobo, a Tomberry or an army of Cactuars? This system also allows you to strengthen your beasts by “merging” two of them : this way you can transfer the skills and stats of one to another you like best. While being quickly addictive, this feature is by no means perfect. The first drawback is that you can have up to 3 monsters at the same time in your optima, which means you can’t set more than 3 “specialised” strategies (ATK/ATK/ATK, etc.) at the same time either. This is not that bothering in the game in a whole, by can penalizing in really tough battles. The second thing is the likeliness of “recruiting” the fiends : you will have no problem in getting basic monsters, but you will need to be patient for chocobos or the very aggressive Omega. Finally, however good this system may be, it definitely can’t make up for the lack of playable characters. Excepted the short secquence with Lightning at the beginning of the game, you only have Noel & Serah to choose from. The monsters are cool, but they can NEVER replace the charisma of a character, might he be new or existing (and by the way thanks to SquareEnix to focus the PR talk on Lightning whereas she hardly appear in the game!).
Graphically speaking, it far surpasses everything I’ve seen so far (excepted Battlefield 3 on PC, but that’s a different hardware). Backgrounds and characters reach a degree of realism never seen before, weather and lights effects are unrivaled. Academia (pictured above) is the most magnificent scenery I’ve ever seen : it just looks like Star Wars! My eyes are filled with pleasure at every second, even though the frame-rate drops quite some times. The original score is beautiful as well depsite some missed cues: beautiful melodies and dark themes co-exist with atrocities like the Hard Metal Chocobo (!). I must stress that the end of the game fully benefits from it : the music reinforces the action and the emotional side on the events.
Unfortunetaly, nothing is perfect, and the ending scene of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is far from that. I won’t spoil you of course, but the ending leaves nothing but a bitter taste. From the information a could gather, none of the Paradox endings comes to alluviate that. SquareEnix will have to give some explanations, because they would have once more betrayed the fans for economic purposes. Secondly and apart from the fact you play the whole game with only two characters and a mob, we can lament the somewhat low difficult level (even in normal mode) during most of the adventure despite some tight corners like in the very end. However, this is compensated by the impressive boss battles, of which my favorite is this intense fight versus Omega.
Even if I’ve grown less tolerant those past years, those little drawbacks can’t tarnish the immense success that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is. Record-breaking graphics, awesome music, epic story, multiple quests and mysteries : FFXIII-2 takes the best of Final Fantasy XIII and takes back what was lost, for our greatest delight!