It was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached Final Fantasy XIII-2, FFXIII got so much wrong that it was enough (along with the disaster that was Final Fantasy XIV) for Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada to remark that `The Final Fantasy brand has been greatly damaged', no kidding.
See, many of us have grown up with the Final Fantasy brand, we remember the opening of FFIV backed by Nobuo Uematsu's mighty score, Cloud and Aerith in FFVII and of course that laughter scene in FFX. However when FFXIII finally came out most of us discovered a series that had stubbornly refused to mature and grow up with the times. While today western RPG's from Dragon Age and the Witcher series to the Mass Effect trilogy present dark worlds inhabited by deep, complex characters, difficult storyline choices where good and evil are often blurred and multiple playthroughs are rewarded. Compared to these, FFXIII with its hateful anime/jrpg clichés, the usual mix of perky, one-dimensional characters, awful scriptwriting ("Operation Nora"), worrying ecchi relationships, villains which were designed with more thought for their wardrobe then their motivations and this is before I get to the lack of towns/shops/free choice/thirty hour tutorial and `the tube' that never-ending corridor of moving from A to B endlessly. When you can watch all the cutscenes on youtube without playing the game and feel comfortable you haven't missed anything then you know the Final Fantasy series is in trouble...
Anyway enough about FFXIII, let's talk about Final Fantasy XIII-2, well Sakaguchi, Nojima and Uematsu, the old guard of Final Fantasy are long gone, instead directing the game we have Motomu Toriyama (FFX/FFX-2) with Masashi Hamauzu (FFX) on the soundtrack and Kitase (veteran of Final Fantasy) producing. They clearly put a lot of effort into responding to the criticism against FFXIII. The game is now open-ended including time-travel, alternative realities, dialogue choices and hidden endings. Shops are back (albit with fan service and giant wings), towns are back and looking better than ever (from villages by the sea to future metropolises). Moveable cameras, a faster pace of battles, monster collecting and dozens of side quests and optional content to keep you very busy!
Opening with a very exciting and dramatic video (only a handful of which are in FFXIII-2) we see Lightning (the only character worth a damn in FFXIII + Sazh) leading a massive army of monsters against the shadowy Caius and his own army. Massive meteors drop, summons are utilised, it's all very exciting. Caius himself is the sort of villain FFXIII could really have used, compelling, driven to succeed and you can actually emphasis with him. While he doesn't get as much scene time as he deserves, his presence really does help to drive the story (voiced by vetern Liam O'Brian who did Kain from FFIV and Gaara from Naruto to name just two roles!)
After this quick introduction control switches permanently to Serah (Lightnings younger sister) and newcomer, `the last living human of the future' Noel who has come back in time to change the future. While there is mostly a distinctive lack of chemistry between the two they make for a fine duo, Serah is easy-going and inoffensive, Noel is mysterious enough and semi-aloft. The overall excellent voice acting really helps to sell the characters in their struggle across space and time.
The story here is much shorter then FFXIII (you can get through it in 20hrs) but there is a lot of additional content from slot machines to hunting down `fragments' in time. The battle system is the only thing really not to have changed dramatically, it's still set to `auto-battle' by default but a host of smaller improvements make a meaningful difference, paradigm shifts are now instantaneous, a party leader being downed is no longer a game over and some dramatic quick-time events spice up major battles.
Your third party slot is now filled by a `tameable' monsters (of which there are over 150!..I think) which are swapped in and out with your paradigm shifts and have their own individual stats, can be accessorised, named, combined and a host of other interesting features. Certainly the battles are far more interesting then FFXIII (debatably easier maybe) and even more fast paced, just don't expect any eidolons to show up and transform into a stealth jet.
So the main characters are good, battle system is much improved, the new freedom to explore areas (some of the maps are very complex with multiple levels/entrances etc etc) makes the game much more open and enjoyable. The ability to save anywhere along with the ability to travel through time to another destination at any time rewards exploration and `messing' around. The graphics are good, not quite up to the standards of FFXIII but with a controllable camera that's to be expected, overall the art/character design is solid (mostly). The core voice actors do a great job although not all characters get such care and its normal to hear the same conversation quips from citizens as you explore around town. The soundtrack is worth particular mention as being particularly good boosted with a large number of vocal tracks.
So yes, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is most certainly an improvement on FFXIII, it is a scattershot attempt to right all the wrongs of Final Fantasy XIII, with regards to the story it maybe goes too far...FFXIII was complex enough before time travel, fragments and other realities got involved and at times you can be left scratching your head at the exposition dumps and technobable that would make Piccard blush.
Still the attempt to deliver a highly playable JRPG that addresses the shortcomings of its predecessor are laudable. If you completed FFXIII and thought it was `meh' or it was `good' then go get Final Fantasy XIII-2 now - you will enjoy it. If you got half way through FFXIII or have completed many of the older FF games wait a bit, read around and wait for that price drop. If FFXIII left you distraught and angry then truthfully FFXIII-2 is not probably going to be able to bring you around - why not go and buy the Metal Gear Solid HD collection? FFXIII-2 shows JRPG's can still be relevant and interesting and although it still feels like they are running to try and keep up with Skyrim and the like they are still there and highly enjoyable for those that enjoy a good JRPG. FFXIII-2 has been worth the money and good fun, this is what we should have gotten back in 2010. Overall it gives me hope that the inevitable Final Fantasy XV will be something special to live up to our memories of this excellent although increasingly challenged series.
The collector's edition comes in a larger box and includes,
- A snazzy lenticular/3D print of Lightning
- 6 CG postcards of the main characters
- An impressive mini artwork book on FFXIII-2
- A soundtrack CD with six tracks of music
It's a nice little set but only worth getting if you can get it for a similar price of the standard edition!