After 2010‚Äôs Final Fantasy XIII was released, gamers received the title, initially, with rapturous applause. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs gorgeous!‚ÄĚ was frequently heard as cut scene after cut scene portrayed people with beautiful hair, wielding really big swords, taking on hugely malevolent baddies in jaw-droppingly awesome alien landscapes.
Then a few hours in:
‚ÄúWait - what have they done to the battle mechanic? Auto-battle? What?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWait - when do I get to, you know, decide to do something?‚ÄĚ
It was - and still, for that matter, is - an immensely beautiful game, but it rode like a roller-coaster for more than half the game, and then suddenly opened up, and in doing so confused people even more.
Please don‚Äôt get me wrong, I still very much enjoyed myself. (It would take a fair bit to put me off a Final Fantasy title, truth be told.) But all the same, I was immensely relieved when I began to play XIII-2, and found that many of the issues I had with XIII had been addressed.
As a direct sequel to XIII, FFXIII-2 picks up only a short time after the final events of the first game. Lightning, the fighter with the very excellent rose-coloured hair, is stuck a place called Valhalla, and locked in what looks to be an ongoing battle with a purple haired guy named Caius. Things are looking pretty grim, and for reasons we‚Äôre not entirely sure about, she really, really needs her sister, Serah by her side.
As luck would have it, a lost time traveller, by the name of Noel Kreiss, stumbles into Valhalla. He‚Äôs just come from 700 years in the future, from a time and place where humans are the ones on the endangered species list. Lightning promptly sends him off to find her sister and bring her back. Although Noel is on his own journey, he agrees to help the sisters out.
It turns out Serah is living on a tropical island with a group of friends, back on the planet of Gran Pulse. Despite the idyllic setting, she‚Äôs tormented by the disappearance of her sister, and she‚Äôs really not able to settle down the way the others have. When Noel appears she jumps at the chance to go with him, and so together they go looking for Lightning - though as you might suspect, it‚Äôs not that easy to move about through time.
The hub for their travels is called the Historia Crux, and initially there aren‚Äôt many destinations to visit. But as Serah and Noel visit different locations - and resolve the strange time paradoxes that have started to pop up everywhere - new locations open up, as well as different time periods for locations previously visited.
To get to a new time period, Serah and Noel need to find artifacts, anachronisms from other times, in order to unlock a time gate. These gates are dotted all over the place, but often require different types of artifacts to open them. Other time-objects that have been scattered across the world include time anomalies - weird holes that have opened up between time, bringing things (usually bad) through from one time into another - and fragments, which are collectible slices of history, or memories.
In addition to opening gates, there are even ways to seal them again - effectively undoing all you‚Äôve achieved in that time and place, if you‚Äôd like to make another attempt at it - but the subtleties of why and when you would want to do this were a bit lost on me.
Exploring, I‚Äôll point out now, has thankfully been expanded a great deal from XIII. But while the questing system is nowhere near that of say, Fallout or Skyrim, players are still given the sensation of having a bit more choice about where they go and what they do next. Technically it‚Äôs a small change, but it makes a world of difference when it comes to the gameplay. It‚Äôs the difference between being stuck in an elevator, or the floor of a warehouse. The breathing‚Äôs just that much easier.
While Serah and Noel will occasionally encounter old and new friends who will join (and fight) with them for a while, they are the only two core characters of the story. However what FFXIII-2 has introduced to make up for this is a new approach to the Paradigm system (the method of battle introduced in FFXIII that allows players to assign different roles to characters, and then switch between these configurations, mid-battle): now you can collect monsters defeated in battle, and train them up to fight on the battlefield with you.
This Pokemon approach actually works really well; the monsters fit in with the party paradigm, assuming one of the six different roles. Initially you can have three active monsters available to switch between, though only one on the battlefield at once. There are also items you can collect through the game which allow you to, ahem, dress up your monsters, if you so desire. Monsters are leveled up via the Crystarium, which is the same leveling mechanic used for characters, only monsters require a small material component rather than crystarium points. While there‚Äôs not a lot of opportunity to mix things up via the Crystarium, you are also able to combine different monsters and absorb powers from one to put into another.
Add to this the fact that you can refine your paradigms to the point where you can specify whether you want your party to focus on one person, spread out, or focus on building the stagger meter of an enemy, and there is all of a sudden a lot more flexibility in the battlefield. It‚Äôs an immensely welcome change.
There are lots of other small but significant changes, like the speeding up of the paradigm shifts in battle, or allowing players to change the default cursor location during battle (if you‚Äôd rather not go with the auto-battle option every time), and going back to the old way of dealing with weapons and equipment - and these make the game feel much more agile now. There‚Äôs far less struggling with the user interface than I remember experiencing before; and more focus on the game.
Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII-2 feels like a smarter version of the first title, with a new storyline added for a ‚Äėsidekick‚Äô character who was always relegated to the sidelines. And the story, that deals with ideas about memory, how relationships change over time, and the bond between sisters, is a refreshing inclusion in the RPG genre. New players may find all the back story and references from XIII a bit confusing, however with the inclusion of a ‚Äúbeginner‚Äôs primer‚ÄĚ in the menu, there‚Äôs no reason why longtime fans of the series as well as complete newcomers won‚Äôt get a brilliant gaming experience out of this title. Two thumbs up!