Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review: The Day The Music Died

I love Final Fantasy. FF VI stands tall as one of my three favorite games of all time, with entries like VII, IV, and X not far behind. The battle systems were great (especially in X), the stories interesting, and the characters sympathetic. Remember when Celes tried to commit suicide? When Sephiroth killed Aerith? There are select moments that stand out in every player’s mind. And some are unique, too. Like when I cast Ultima one last time with Celes at under 100 HP, killing the god-like Kefka in the process. The games are special in the way they introduced storytelling to a medium that was so lacking in it beforehand. But I don’t love Final Fantasy. Not anymore.

Let me make this clear; the extreme misfire that is Final Fantasy XIII-2 does not make those earlier games worse, nor those moments less special. But in totality, this game is simply too large to ignore. Sure, the MMOs weren’t very good, and XIII had its problems and so forth. But never has every bad thing in a Final Fantasy game mixed in quite as petulant a manner as here. It took me 19 hours to beat Final Fantasy XIII-2, and I didn’t enjoy a second of it. That has to count for something, right?

The story picks up a little while after the last game. Lightning is missing in Valhalla, a place absent from time and space, and it’s up to sister Serah and time-travelling Noel to find her. There’s place-hopping and paradoxes and time gates… I’d complain that it’s too convoluted if I felt that the story told lucidly would be any better. And it retains the popular battle system from the last game, but with minor changes; no more vehicle summons or paradigm shift animations. Square’s answer to fan outcry and complaint from XIII seems to be to make XIII better, or try to at least. I can’t help but feel they’ve missed the point.

Because XIII wasn’t a game that needed improvement. It was flawed to its core. A boring, interminable corridor crawl punctuated by a briefly interesting story and a couple characters you cared about. It was a marvel how new tech brought about a game that, in terms of freedom, paled in comparison to the very first Final Fantasy. Now, here we are. XIII-2. There’s a huge open world. A better story. An improved battle system. Right?

To call XIII-2’s environment a “huge open world” is more than misleading. You select levels from a hub. Not even a hub world, just a hub menu. Sure, the environments are varied, but none are particularly large. A couple even proceed in a nearly straight line, just like XIII. The lack of an over world means a lack of continuity and feeling of place. Gone are the brilliant, sprawling lands of VI and VII, all connected and well-realized. Now we simply choose our location from a menu, in an attempt to streamline the game. Yay.

Let’s focus on the word “streamline,” there. Some may call the battle system streamlined. I call it (and I realize the contradiction here, but such is the nature of this game) empty, easy, and convoluted. All at the same time. It’s empty because you aren’t inputting with any sort of accuracy. You simply arrange your paradigms, and put your trust in the AI. I’m not saying the AI is terrible, but I am saying I could have won some of those boss battles if they just slowed down, toned down, and let me choose what I wanted each character to do.

It’s easy because, well, um, it’s easy. Random encounters are never a threat. Ever. As long as you have a third party member who’s a medic or sentinel, you’re golden. Health refills to the max after each completed battle, and status effects wash away mid-battle. To test, I ran my party into a random encounter ten separate times. I then set down my controller, so that my player character did absolutely nothing, leaving only the AI to fight my battle for me. We won all ten battles. And I was playing on the hardest difficulty mode the game offers.

It’s convoluted because when you go beyond those random encounters, to say, a boss battle, the system becomes frustrating. There are six different roles, as far as I could tell, and they can all be mixed and matched to get different results. Boss battles often require a very specific set of paradigms, so specific that two battles in particular I needed a guide to complete. The battle animations try to be flashy, but are distracting and muddled, making manual selection via battle menus harder than it should be. The time it takes to navigate beyond the “auto-battle” selection is the time a particularly fearsome foe will use to kill you and your party. It’s a battle system that’s too easy 95 percent of the time, and too hard to control the other 5 percent of the time. There is no balance. Only chaos.

Part of me hates Final Fantasy XIII-2 because of what I feel it represents: the downward spiral of a franchise I used to love. It’s a mishmash of stale anime tropes with equally stale Nomura character design; time-travel jargon laced with an achingly bad J-pop soundtrack. Perhaps the greatest offense of all, the game ends with a disappointing anti-climax that leaves the characters right where they started. There’s even a “to be continued…” slide, hinting at the inevitable Final Fantasy XIII-3. Part of me hopes that sequel will be good, but most of me doesn’t have the strength to care.

Congratulations, Final Fantasy. We’re through.