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Whether you loved or hated Final Fantasy XIII, anyone who cares about its sequel wants to know how it compares: is it better than FFXIII? How different is it? Well, Final Fantasy XIII-2 definitely improves upon XIII… in some ways.
As with XIII, your enjoyment of XIII-2 will greatly boil down to personal taste, but speaking generally, XIII-2 is markedly catered toward longtime Final Fantasy fans compared to its vastly divergent (and therefore highly divisive) predecessor. The return of the moogle is symbolic of this, but its classic tendencies are manifested throughout the game, most notably through its increased focus on exploration and discovery. These changes aren't without their tradeoffs, but if you're a longtime Final Fantasy fan, you will probably prefer XIII-2 over XIII.
Above: Check out the video review to see (and hear) what we thought
Most importantly, the claustrophobia-inducing linearity of FFXIII has been cleverly alleviated through a branching world map that allows you to travel around Pulse and Cocoon across both time and space. The Historia Crux functions as a world map with various nodes that represent locations in specific points in time.
Each location you visit has a number of time gates, for which you need an "artefact" to unlock each one. Some artefacts are obtained through the story and integral to the main quest, while others you may stumble upon whilst exploring that unlock areas off the beaten path. Once you've unlocked a time gate, the node it links to on the Historia Crux will be open for to you explore henceforth. As you unlock more and more locations (some of which will be the same location at different points in time) the possibilities for exploration increase dramatically.
Above: The Historia Crux is the crossroads of time
One of the best parts of the Historia Crux structure is that it allows the player to selectively go back to key moments in the game and replay them to see different outcomes. Once you've obtained the Gate Seal for a particular node on the map, you can "close" the gate, resetting the time to when you first stepped through it, so you can experience that portion of the story again, and as many times as you'd like. And since the story does contain branching decisions here and there, being able to reset individual story moments makes it easy to see all possibilities without actually having to replay the entire game multiple times.
You might have guessed where this is going. Yes, there are multiple endings to Final Fantasy XIII-2 (quite a few, in fact). But the genius bit is that since you don't have to play the game in a linear fashion, you can see many endings without ever having to start over from scratch. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book in a way – if you get to one dead end, you can simply turn back the page to where the story branched off and keep going down a different path. Don't like the way a scene played out the first time? You can easily go back and play it again without any fuss or penalty. This system thoroughly respects the player's time by not wasting any of it.
An absolutely fantastic save system makes this all work beautifully, too. Not only can you save at any time (no save points!), but you can also teleport back to the Historia Crux world map at any time and your progress in your current location will be automatically saved. This way, you can have multiple quests going all over the place, jumping from place to place and time to time, with your progress saved in every individual location.
Say you're in the city, exploring one of Academia's many flashy alleyways and suddenly you remember where you might have seen a particular flower that some NPC asked for in a side quest. You can pop back to the Crux in a jiffy, skip over to Bresha Ruins, grab the item and complete the quest, then teleport back and return to exactly where you left off in Academia. The save system is so fluid and flexible that you never need to worry about losing your progress at any point at all, and the freedom to jump across time and space so easily feels delightfully efficient.
Speaking of locations, we were nervous going into the sequel that many of the environments would be recycled from XIII, but XIII-2 features a surprisingly large array of new locales. And the places that are recycled don't feel like they've been thrown in lazily, since it makes sense story-wise that we'd have to revisit some old places, since it's still the same world after all. Many of the old locations have been totally transformed too, and the environments constantly play a silent part in telling the story through how they've changed in different time periods (and across alternate timelines).
All this time travel relates directly to the story, which begins immediately after the final cutscene of FFXIII ends (and it goes without saying, but SPOILER ALERT FOR FFXIII). Fang and Vanille have summoned Ragnarok, creating a massive crystal pillar to keep Cocoon from crashing down. In the original ending, Lightning survived the near-cataclysmic event and was happily reunited with her sister Serah.
Above: Watch us play through some of the game
In FFXIII-2, the timeline has mysteriously changed, and everyone believes that Lightning perished in that battle. Only Serah remembers the truth, but even she questions her own sanity in the face of what all her friends believe to be reality. Then a stranger suddenly enters her life, a young man named Noel who claims he's from the future and has met Lightning in another dimension outside of normal space-time. Both want to alter the timeline – Serah wants to bring her sister back, and Noel wants to save humanity from the ends times he's seen with his own eyes. With their fates in alignment, they set out to change history.
As with any Final Fantasy game, it's difficult to write meaningfully about the story without spoiling anything. Where XIII created a fascinating mythos that revolved around the struggle between humans and demigods and the opposition between civilization and untamed wilderness, XIII-2's story is much more character driven. Serah and Noel are both surprisingly interesting and dynamic characters once you get past their over-the-top character designs.
It's a good thing too, because you won't be seeing much of anyone else for any extended length of time – Serah and Noel are really the only two main protagonists in the game. It's a bit of a shame, because the Final Fantasy series has excelled at creating some of the greatest ensemble casts in gaming, and being stuck with the same two party members for the entire game will definitely bother some people. If you can put your expectations of a larger party aside though, the extra time getting to know Serah and Noel isn't wasted, and makes them more memorable characters than most of the cast of XIII.
Above: The characters are less abundant, but arguably more likable
As you play through the story, one thing that's especially great about the "time gate" scenario is that it completely eliminates the break in reality that often comes from ignoring the narrative urgency of the main quest to explore and take on boatloads of sidequests. Because opening a time gate transports Serah and Noel to a specific moment in time, there's never a need for them to rush. Relax, explore, and when you're ready to take on the next big challenge, it'll be waiting for you, frozen in time until you hit play.
If you're familiar with FFXIII, the core of the battle system in XIII-2 remains unchanged. While many traditional turn-based battle systems are all about micromanagement, the Paradigm system in XIII and XIII-2 puts the player in a high level, "big picture" role, if you will. Instead of selecting individual actions for each party member, you direct their actions all at once like an alpha dog issuing commands to the pack.
A Paradigm is a set of roles for the three party members that determines how each character functions in battle. Each role is extremely specific in what it can do – Medics can only provide healing and Commandos can only attack, nothing else. Each role also provides an added bonus to the entire team, like boosted defense for all allies when a Sentinel is in play.
Above: Take a look at the battle system in action
During battle you always have an active Paradigm in place, which you can change whenever you'd like by hitting L1/LB to bring up your Paradigm deck. Building a Paradigm deck with a variety of offensive and defensive Paradigms allows you to respond strategically to dynamic battle conditions. So you might go in guns blazing with a Commando-Ravager-Ravager set, then fall back to Commando-Ravager-Medic to heal as needed. Roles like Synergist (buffs allies with status enhancements) and Saboteur (debuffs the enemy with status ailments) come in particularly handy during long, brutal boss battles where you'll need every advantage you can conjure.
Most of the new "cinematic action" sequences occur during boss battles too, and these are really nothing more than quick time events. It's a feature that almost wouldn't be worth mentioning if it weren't so heavily touted in FFXIII-2's trailers – they're used fairly sparingly, kept brief, and are overall pretty unobtrusive. During particularly dramatic cutscenes, we definitely has a few moments where pulling off a flashy killing blow with a successful QTE definitely felt pretty cool (and we can imagine the opposite if we'd missed it at the end of a lengthy battle), but overall it's not a feature that's going to make or break anyone's enjoyment of the game.
One of the complaints about the battle system in FFXIII was that it "played itself," but this isn't exactly the case. When the difficulty ramps up, the battle system is a perfect mix of thoughtful strategy and quick reflexes. Directing your entire team's actions with the press of a button by shifting Paradigms on the fly still feels satisfying when everyone comes together to pull off a hard-won victory.
Above: Learning the combat system reveals the deep intricacies
The problem is, it's a system that's only as great as your opponent is. Too often in FFXIII-2, we played through lengthy stretches of the game where we just didn't feel challenged enough by the enemies. Often, we never had to shift Paradigms at all from our default offensive stance, and in those cases it does feel like the game is playing itself because very little action is needed from the player. The challenge is there if you seek out some of the tougher sidequests and go for better endings, but at times we definitely felt like the overall difficulty level was too low. Monsters definitely scale up in strength when you revisit earlier areas too, so it's a bit puzzling why they almost always didn't feel scaled up enough. Even total wimps should not think for one second about playing this game on the easy setting. Don't do it.
Let's get this out of the way first: summons absolutely sucked in Final Fantasy XIII. They were severely underpowered and difficult to use, to the point where it really wasn't worth using them at all. Rather than fixing that broken system though, summons are dispensed with in XIII-2 in favor of a monster collection system. Since Serah and Noel are the only two human party members in the game, the third slot in battle is filled by your choice of beasts.
Above: Some monsters are cuter than others
As you defeat enemies, they often drop a crystal that adds the monster to your bestiary, allowing you to add it to your battle team. At any given time, you can choose up to three monsters to use as the third slot in your Paradigm deck. Since each enemy has a set role (Commando, Ravager, etc), choosing three roles that complement the rest of the team is essential. It's not just about strength, but balance too.
They're not all winners, but separating out the chaff comes with the territory when you're talking about monster collecting. The weaker monsters are still useful though, because instead of just setting them free, you can "infuse" them onto the monsters you actually use. This adds passive abilities to the monster that absorbed it, like elemental defense boosts and increased gil drops, so no monster ever goes to waste. This definitely means you'll be spending a lot of time sitting in menus if you want to really maximize your optimal set of monster allies, but if that's really not your thing, you can put it off and make due with average monsters too.
Above: See the moogle in action in this PS3/360 comparison video
So, everyone is happy that moogles are back, right? Well, the adorable Mog does hide one major change in FFXIII-2: the return of random encounters. The annoyance of these random encounters is mitigated by the Mog clock, which allows you to run from battle if you prefer, but we still miss the visible enemies of XIII. It's a concession we're willing to make in the face of technical limitations though, since the tradeoff is more open environments to explore.
On the plus side, Mog's presence adds a much-needed light-heartedness to XIII-2. Where XIII was humorless and took itself way too seriously, XIII-2 isn't afraid to poke fun at itself here and there. Of course, it still has its moments of serious drama, but now they're broken up with bits of silly dialogue here and there that really help lighten the mood.
Final Fantasy XIII? Yes, in the sense that most longtime Final Fantasy fans will enjoy it more. It's definitely a tradeoff of pros and cons, but the single bullet-point of non-linear exploration will tip the scales in FFXIII-2's favor for many people.
White Knight Chronicles 2? Yes. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since we didn't care for White Knight Chronicles 2 at all, but if you were really wondering then there's your answer. Yes. It's better. Much, much better.
If FFXIII was an exercise in form over function, its successor is exercise in working with what you've got – and doing a brilliant job of it (for the most part). It does some things better than its predecessor, some things worse, but what's most impressive about Final Fantasy XIII-2 is how much feels new and different, despite sharing most of its guts with XIII.
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