A Six Movement Symphony.
Before purchasing Final Fantasy XIII-2 there are a litany of questions you need to answer. Unlike the JRPG golden age the roleplaying landscape has shifted incontrovertibly towards a more action (and western) oriented fare that is lighter on story but deeper in the worlds they create. Even in Japan and greater Asia the more popular games like Monster Hunter have moved along this paradigm. It’s not uncommon in conversations with friends or folks on the internet to hear “Well, I used to love JRPGs but ever since I played Elder Scrolls they just seem silly.” While I can certainly understand this mindset, a mindset my sexually deviant co-host shares, I think it’s short-sighted.
The bottom line, however, is that before you even walk into the store you need to ask yourself a few questions. Are ok with turn based battles? Are you ok operating in a world that isn’t one giant, open continent? Can you handle characters that are probably younger than you (and act as such)? Will heavy-handed writing make you want to turn off your PS3 forever? If you can’t get past those, don’t bother. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a fine game but it’s not going to bring in a new audience. The trappings that have sent many running away from JRPGS are on full display here.
But that is also a reason to rejoice if you’re a fan such as myself. Final Fantasy XIII splintered even the hardcore Final Fantasy fans with a list of sins that don’t need repeating here, but the first thing you will notice is right off the bat is that most of these problems are remedied. The worlds are opened up for exploration and you are never restricted to parties of certain classes, so you can ease up those shoulders a bit. And, in fact, the story starts off quite strong. I will admit up front that the story in japanese games are rarely the draw for me. In fact it’s something I deal with just to experience the rest of the game. Minimalist efforts out of Japan like Ico or Demon’s Souls are what I prefer, once they go for something larger, be it Catherine or some sweeping madness like Valkyrie Chronicles I just grit my teeth and try to not to let it bring me too far down.
XIII-2 didn’t even require much teeth gritting for the first third or so. The main characters are neither whiny or cocky, seemingly a first in a JRPG. The concept of time travel is neat, especially for us western geeks that grew up on sci-fi fodder like Star Trek: TNG. Once things get going it starts to fall apart though. The time travel rules seem inconsistent at best and completely nonsensical at worst. And then the characters start to question their own motives and that’s when the melodrama comes on HARRRDDDDDDDDD. There is a two hour stretch of the game that is basically japanese teenagers having a meltdown. Luckily it was visually interesting which prevented me from throwing the disc out the window, but the story I once liked had turned back into that which I despised. Also the ending is bound to cause a lot of controversy. I fall on the side that thought it was awesome. However, this side seems to be in the minority. So, yeah, you should know that most people who finish this game are then pissed off.
Other offenses in the game include dialogue that delves into the seriously corny. “We have to save the future!” must have been yelled at least 300 times in my 30 hours making it through the main story. Character interactions start off strong but become weaker as the story goes on as it seems like old faces are being ushered into the scene by an overcaffeinated stage hand. There are some interesting surprises here though and I won’t ruin them. But the concept of time travel does mean you get to see some interesting things and Square didn’t miss the opportunities here. As the story starts to build you say “I hope I get to see that” even though it’s scheduled for 100s of years in the future… and chances are you do. So that’s pretty rad.
And really, the rest of the game is pretty rad. My reservations with the game begin and end with the story. There are a few niggling problems here or there, but overall this is a well made game. The combat system from XIII is back with some smart revisions that make it flow very smoothly. If most turn based combat is akin to you playing chess as you lay out moves for each piece to make, the combat in XIII-2 is more like a symphony and you are the conductor. You don’t get to pick up each individual instrument but the level of control you have over the totality of the song (err fight) is unparalleled. As you slide between paradigms trying to counter what each boss is throwing back at you, the give and take is fast and furious, something rarely felt in turn based combat. It may not make purists happy but the combat, to me, is a giant step forward for the genre. Now, don’t get me wrong, I hope to play some JRPGs this year that also take steps back to the glory days, but at least in moving forward Square has hit the ball out of the park.
The world itself is generally a wonderful place to be. The game is split up into hubs that you travel between time to. Each has a theme, be it jungle or ruins or snow or cities. A couple of the zones, specifically the ruins that are featured in the demo, are fairly uninteresting looking. But there are some areas of the game that literally had my jaw drop on the floor. Literally! Like I don’t have a jaw anymore. It fell off. It’s on the floor! I shit you not.
The music that accompanies these vistas is equally as strong. There are some interesting choices mixed in, like one fight was heavy metal with screaming vocals for reasons I still don’t understand (other than the nod to FFX?). There are also shades of Baiyon’s efforts in the Pixel Junk games and quite a few pieces that owe a bit of debt to the Phantasy Star Online soundtrack. I’m not complaining about any of these selections, mind you, the music is fantastic – except for the occasional adult contemporary pop song complete with singing.
The sound, visuals and combat combine to create a truly sublime experience. When this game is at its best there is nothing like it. And, it must be said, this game is polished to a blinding shine… a wonderful departure from the buggy offerings that have dominated the western releases from Bethesda, Bioware and others. Everything in this game from the menus to static 2d art is amazingly crafted. And in my 30 hours I didn’t run into a single bug.
This game offers the best and the worst of the modern JRPG. I have a hard time listening to a couple of teenagers tell each other, and me, over and over that they need to save the future. Also the story gets crushed under its own grandiosity. But, there is something refreshing about that. Skyrim, for how amazing it is, is a story of a dude that can kill dragons that then goes and kills dragons. The story that Square is attempting to tell is complex, it has a million players with obscure names like Etro and locations like the Yaschas Massif that will test your memory and your patience. But if you can tune it all out and just conduct the symphony of atmosphere and combat you aren’t likely to find a more compelling experience anywhere.