Most people could understand why Final Fantasy X (released in 2002 for the PS2) got a sequel. It was the most successful Final Fantasy title ever and the first on a brand new next-generation console. In Japan it is regularly voted the most popular in the series – in fact, it was even voted the best game ever in 2006 by readers of Japanese video game magazine Famitsu. So most people could probably understand Squaresoft’s logic in working on and releasing a sequel two years later that had the women of the original game (the original game in this instance meaning the tenth instalment of a long-running series) now wearing skimpy, even bordering on – although I still hate using this term in relation to video game characters – sexy outfits that would surely draw more sales than ever.
I say most people because I actually wasn’t one of them. To release a sequel to one of their games regardless of its standalone success was unheard of for Square Enix (as they are now called) in those days. Not only that, but to release one for the tenth instalment was also to set a precedent that would cause fans to ask ‘why not release a sequel to our favourite as well?’ Because if Squaresoft believed that X was everyone’s favourite then they certainly made a huge judgment call that wasn’t very accurate outside of Japan.
While I did find Final Fantasy X-2 (2004) reasonably entertaining in the end, I look back now and see exactly what it means. That is what signalled the official end of Final Fantasy’s peak years; those years when they would push the boundaries of interactive entertainment and release some of the greatest role-playing games we will ever see (what I like to call the ‘golden trilogy’ of VII, VIII and IX on the PSOne). What X-2 told me – and others, if they had stopped to think about it – was that Square felt on this occasion, with their brand new development software on the PS2, they hadn’t actually squeezed everything out of X that they could; they felt there was more to come, an extra bit of potential that hadn’t yet been tapped into. And that, for Square Enix, was the real concern. They were in uncharted territory now: where the development potential at their disposal threatened to swamp what they could get into a single game. Thereafter, Final Fantasy XII (2006), while doing a lot better at reaching this potential (turning into what I consider to be the most underrated game of the series, due partly to the time of its release in the PS2’s twilight years), had a mammoth five year development cycle – having began when development on X had ended in 2001. Clearly, the years when Squaresoft could release three of the best games of the era in a four year period were over.
Fast forward another four years and here arrives Final Fantasy XIII (2010) on the PlayStation3, yet another step up for a developer of whom everyone still expected the absolute best. Now, I’ll confess straight away that I loved the plot of XIII, and was hooked until the end. But that was also part of the problem with it. Many people were hooked until the end of the story, but then realised that the storyline, while being the strongest part of any Final Fantasy game regardless, has never been the only thing that hooked you to the series. There are usually all sorts of other attractive things to do in the world as well, and it was in this area that the game found itself falling short of the typical Final Fantasy standard. It was, quite frankly, concentrating too much on something that it should have had anyway, and using it as an excuse for not filling the world with the sort of life that you found by blissfully flying around Final Fantasy VIII’s world in the Ragnarok – and THAT was in 1999. Having said that, visually the game looked glorious and gameplay, while not as comprehensive as previous titles, was addictive nonetheless.
Then, we have Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2012), the subject of this article/ review. Unlike X-2, I do understand, this time, why XIII was given a sequel. It was partly an answer to the criticisms I’ve just mentioned regarding the original (again, the original in this instance meaning the thirteenth original). I can also see the new direction in which this series is being taken in the new era of PS3 and beyond. No doubt Square Enix has now realised that it can no longer get away with releasing a standalone game that encompasses an epic story along with tons of extras – if it wishes to do this, it now has to release a series of games. We have seen this start to take shape with the ‘XIII series’ in a sense: Lightning Returns, the third instalment, is due for release early next year. Those of us who grew up with the PSOne generation may find ourselves feeling slightly offended at the commercial audacity of this new direction; but for the next generation of Final Fantasy fans, those who perhaps are only joining the party now, I presume this will become actually quite an exciting way of doing things. Certainly, in the future, I don’t see how developers can do any different if they plan to release games every two years or so. To make a PS3 equivalent of Final Fantasy VIII or IX now would no doubt take up to ten years to complete with the greater, more expansive (not to mention expensive) technology at the disposal of developers who I wouldn’t blame for missing the days when superior developing skill, rather than the deepness of your pockets, would decide how much you were able to put into a game.
But I’m not going to judge this individual game solely on the context of its release and what it means for the industry. I probably would if it was no good and I felt rather bitter about it, but that is simply not the case. The general consensus, when it comes to XIII-2, is that Square Enix took the criticisms thrown at its predecessor on board and responded with a game that gave you more freedom in the path you took while playing through it.
I, of course, don’t usually go along with ‘general consensus’. While the game did make improvements in the linearity issues from the previous title, it did so by sacrificing some story and gameplay elements in the process. You only use two characters (the previously unplayable Serah and new character Noel) in this game as opposed to the usual minimum of six, and it really doesn’t feel like that much effort to fully level them up, providing you’re not the kind of player who tries to skip every battle and doesn’t like side-quests (which mostly take the form of hunts in this game). This will admittedly make the game more accessible to those who aren’t the completists that spent many hours trying to achieve this feat long after the main story had finished in XIII.
There is, however, a new element to XIII-2’s gameplay that is worth a particular mention; the ability to capture monster ‘crystals’, which then allow you to use that monster on your team during the game, bringing your party up to three members. It’s hugely satisfying to acquire a powerful monster early in the game and then gleefully have him tear things up until you can replace it with something even better later on. Monsters can be levelled up with certain materials, replacing the weapon and equipment levelling up that was present in XIII, which I felt didn’t quite work as well as the ‘monster levelling’ does here. In that aspect, XIII-2 was a resounding success.
The game gets its premise of ‘greater freedom’ from the fact that the story involves time travel, and has you jumping through time to different periods. Initially this sounds incredibly interesting, and it is, but with a few limitations. For example, although it makes a big point of allowing you to ‘time travel’, you actually don’t have the option to (spoiler alert) travel back in time from the point where the game starts. You know, there’s no option to, for example, travel back to an event in the previous game, or travel back to the beginning of the universe, or something. Realistically you realise this kind of expansiveness wouldn’t be possible on a disc that also has to squeeze in many megabytes worth of graphical power as well (relating to the problem I was just mentioning above), but it’s still sobering to come to something that promised so much and in the end actually feels quite limited in the options it gives you.
For the completists out there, there’s no need to feel turned off; there’s still plenty here for you to explore and collect. A total of 160 ‘fragments’ are scattered throughout the game, which can be acquired by achieving certain milestones or completing important tasks. Most of them you’ll have to find by completing side-quests, but there’s few games that reward you for, say, getting 100% exploration on all the maps or defeating every single type of monster (including all of the bosses, and all of the variations of the bosses that you may encounter in different time periods) as XIII-2 does. Again, it deserves credit in catering for those who may perhaps have felt short changed at the ease with which the main storyline can be completed (although having said that, it will still be a strong 35-40 hours – for demanding Final Fantasy fans, that’s just not that long).
This is essentially what it comes down to. Do you judge this game on its own merit, or do you judge it in relation to how it stands up to the other Final Fantasy games? As I have alluded to, the time when a Final Fantasy game could fit all of the elements of a VII, VIII or IX onto the same disc are gone. Technology has advanced, and with it we lose some, we gain some. This new direction that Square Enix is taking with the series is one I’m interested in, but one that I understand won’t reach the personal heights, for me, of those glorious PSOne days. To expect it to would be missing out on something new and exciting, but not quite understanding what it’s good at yet. Hopefully the next instalment will continue where this leaves off, bringing back the superior storytelling elements of the original too. And when I say ‘original’… ah, you know what I mean.
7 / 10.