Whether you loved it, hated it or simply weren’t bothered by its glossy shimmer, Final Fantasy XIII was essentially a flamboyant corridor with a room at the end of it. Granted, the room at the end wasn’t half bad, but the seemingly endless slog that preceded it undoubtedly soured the final hours. By then many had become bored of point-to-point mechanics and Japanese hyperbole.
With XIII-2, Square Enix hve done a questionable thing by continuing the story of its predecessor. The god-awful supporting cast à la XIII are mostly absent, but the continuation of the arc and the similarities in presentation are still enough to secrete that disappointing taste on to your tongue buds.
This is a shame because XIII-2 corrects some of XIII’s biggest issues. Strict, relentless linearity has been left behind in favour of a far more open structure even though the world lacks connectivity. With freedom and exploration comes more to do but these additional activities feel like they’re included to tick a box, to please the people that XIII should’ve won over first time around.
You play as Serah, the younger sister of XIII’s lead emo, Lightning. Lightning has appeared in Valhalla, an area outside of discernible time. It’s there that she encounters Caius, a hair-dye-obsessed bad guy hellbent on continuing her sulk. Amidst the endless chaos, she also encounters the time-travelling Noel, whom she tasks with travelling back through the void to find Serah and bring her to Valhalla. Simply put, Noel is like Arnie in Terminator 2 and he’s going to stop at nothing to finish his mission.
It sounds complex but XIII-2 is bogged down by labyrinthine storytelling that fails to mask the simplicity of its tale. The objective of ‘find and save Lightning’ is enough to keep you progressing but with little expansion or evolution upon this – let alone the absence of a satisfying finale – XIII-2 feels disparate from the deep, interwoven yarns that series veterans have rightfully come to expect. This is a game that says nine words when three would’ve sufficed.
Captivation is not the cast’s strong point, either. Serah is not the abysmal fairy that Vanille was, but she lacks the personality to be a memorable leading lady. Noel is similar, retaining likeability but missing any trace of greatness. Without other dominant protagonists you’ll find very little else to concentrate on. The heavier focus on just two characters was a chance to increase personal bonds, but the good-not-great leads are impossible to connect with.
Connecting to the world is something you may find problematic, also. It’s beautiful, basking in stunning artistic variety, but the disjointed form created by the Historia Crux – your central time travelling hub – removes any sense of true exploration. It feels like you’re just witnessing various points in time, rather than inhabiting a world. Side quests, optional activities and the earned ability to revisit various points in time are all enough to keep you busy for well over 40 hours, but the magic of discovery is something that’s left to small, arena-like worlds rather than a sprawling metropolis of wondrous existences. Disappointing, especially considering the endless opportunities that time travel provided.
While the open structure improves but doesn’t fully resolve problems, combat still remains strong. The segmented action gauge returns, while paradigms and other complex options have been tweaked to speed up the action. Taking control of only two humans allows you to really focus on your load outs, experiment with tactics and perfect your approach without dealing with upwards of five party members. Tamable monsters add a new level of depth too, successfully lighting a fire in the heart of collectors and completionists everywhere. These critters serve as the third addition to your combat party and can be customised and upgraded like the two main heroes.
Other additions like conversation wheels and QTEs attempt to push the presentation into a more player-influenced territory, but the result is contrived. Annoying on-screen indicators are pointless, and it’s almost as if Square are shouting out that they’ve made changes for us to admire and applaud.
For all their efforts, there’s no doubting that XIII-2 is a better game than its better-forgotten father, but improving on such a huge disappointment isn’t a glorious triumph. XIII-2 feels like it’s treading over covered ground. It improves some issues and fully resolves others, but still has its fair share of troublesome flaws. It’s archaic and unapproachable, lacking narrative pull when it should swim in it. As a game it’s more than commendable, but the Final Fantasy staple demands more than a strong combat system and fancy visuals. Depth of story, pace and the intricacy of character relationships are the foundations that Final Fantasy is built upon. Sadly, much like its father, XIII-2 feels like it’s ready to subside.
Words by Sam White