Final Fantasy XIII-2 (XBOX 360)
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a stand-alone follow up to Final Fantasy XIII with one key feature being that our choices not only affect the immediate environment but also time and space.
The storyline continues roughly from where Final Fantasy XIII left off (Square Enix does include a catch-up on the main menu) and for those new to the games we initially find that Lightning is the guardian of Valhalla and cannot leave. During a fight with Caius, the main evil in this game, the character of Noel is introduced to Lightning and she tasks him with finding and bringing her sister, Serah, to Valhalla. Her reasoning for this is not initially revealed but from there the game proper begins and we are thrust into an expansive game universe with an evolved Final Fantasy gameplay style.
We mentioned above that the task given to Noel is bringing Serah to Lightning in Valhalla and this is a task which is made easier by the fact that, elsewhere in the game universe, Serah is of the belief that her sister didn't die earlier in the timeline, as many in-game characters believe. So aided by time traveling hero Noel and later, but briefly, Snow we set about tracking down Lightning in Valhalla.
When first gaining full control of Serah and Noel, after the opening sequences of the game, we get our first taste of the open environments in Final Fantasy XIII-2 and find that the defining feel of the game is one of there being a significant amount of freedom as well as loads of opportunity to interact with NPCs. The environments are non-linear and this impression is enhanced by the use of the time travel feature which expands even small areas of the game. Added to this we have side quests, of which there are many, that our characters pick up along the way.
The game features both new and old characters in an expansive RPG environment that focuses on player choice. One example of this is the Histroia Crux which offers an extra level of exploration by enabling us to not only explore a place but also that location at various time periods. Time travel is facilitated by using time gates and each of these is activated by finding an "artefact" which is tied to a particular time for the location. So we spend our time exploring the world searching for artefacts to activate the time gates on our quest to reach Valhalla. Then adding another twist to the game mechanic we can gain the ability to use time gates to reset each level, allowing us to fix any mistakes or explore other options which may have been closed off to us when we opted for another choice.
As we go about our quest we randomly fight monsters which pop into existence near us. This is caused by a time paradox, essentially a side effect of messing with the fabric of time and space. It is these monster fighting sections which give us access to one of the unique aspects of the game. For those who previously played older Final Fantasy games they will remember turn based combat and FF XIII-2 still has turn based action at its core, and initially it doesnt offer much of a challenge, but the concept has been heavily evolved over the years. Essentially controlling combat is achieved via a menu system. We can choose from multiple different types of action such as attack (with sub options), use items, switch leader and Paradigm Shift. These Paradigm's offer various commands to our characters which vary the combat style and tasks, allowing us to tweak the fighting style to suit the battle. Find a particularly difficult enemy and it might be wise to enable War and Peace which see's Serah act as a healer and Noel as the attacker. Need to do a lot of damage quickly, then Slash and Burn is the way to go. We can also buy enhancements from shops as well as collect and use monsters along the way to enhance our team in battle, for example having a third member of our group be a Caith Sith which offers healing abilities to Serah and Noel.
The boss fights have an extra element, the Cinematic Action. These sections happen during important story based battles and take the form of a cut scene which has button prompts in it. Successfully following the on-screen button prompts can enable us to deal extra damage, allow us to view an extra cut scene or give us a stats boost for the rest of the fight. If we fail this test of observation and digit dexterity then we can have our stats reduced for the rest of the fight.
Combat also acts as the primary way of gaining crystal points, also gained from side quest completion and correctly solving the puzzles. We spend our crystal points in the Crystarium, which is an in-game menu. The Crystarium allows us to improve our skills and abilities. We can send points on the specific roles, which are Commando (deals melee damage), Ravager (deal damage with magic) and Sentinel (protects characters and guards against attacks). Other types of role are unlockable at higher levels. The Crystarium is also the place where we level up our monster allies. This is done not with crystal points but with Monster Material which we also collect along the way.
Finally, Final Fantasy XIII-2 also uses a mechanism called Live Trigger which gives us the ability to choose how we interact with the story. During dialogue four different conversation options will be shown on the screen, pick one and each conversation then progresses differently from there. Of course through the time gate resets we can revisit these picking a different conversation option if we choose.
Graphics and Audio
The graphics in Final Fantasy XIII-2 are extremely good, particularly the character faces, which have a high level of realism, all be it in an extremely stylised way. The animation of all the characters, NPCs and monsters is also very good and they sit well in the level environments, which are themselves rendered very well. The environmental effects, such as rain, wind, sun glare and shadow are also impressively rendered and the weather affecting the players view adds to the effect. Each of the combat abilities of the characters, NPCs and monsters also have a unique visual style and effect and generally the visuals are without flaws or glitches and are extremely realistic in a stylised fantasy kind of way.
The audio features a varied and sometimes vocal heavy sound track that at times intrudes on the game playing experience. That said the environmental and combat sound effects are varied and match the visual effects well. Voice acting is also of a consistently good standard.
There are numerous aspects of Final Fantasy which will very much split gamers into two camps. Those who look for the free flowing combat of many RPG's will be turned off by the turn based nature of Final Fantasy XIII-2 but other players who have grown up with the franchise, or don't mind grinding through MMO levels or playing Games Workshop type games will no doubt love the combat here. There are also those who won't like the distractions of the interactive cut-scenes or mini-games which are loved by others.
Added to that we also feel that in modern entertainment one of the hardest plot devices to get right is time travel and all too often it is used as a lazy way out. Back in the 60s and early 70s audiences easily got on board with timeline jumping adventures and didn't really ask questions, nowadays though films, television and games are dissected to a massive degree and should a writer fail to get the concept spot on then everything starts to unravel. In this case it certainly makes for a complex plot and it is fair to say that to best enjoy Final Fantasy XIII-2 we need to look past some of the content for fear of over analysing. Especially in areas such as the developers concept of how items can appear in different timelines which isn't always true to the way other forms of media portray the same idea. It would also have benefited the game for our characters to be more aware of the paradoxes created by time travel as they mainly just accept strange occurrences as they happen.
In addition to this there are aspects of the game which would have benefited from more testing, for example during the Live Trigger conversations our choice of response will see Serah respond to sad news with an energetic fist pump and Noel shake his head in woeful dismay after receiving news that will help us find Lightning.
Elsewhere though the level of quality is very high, the open environments and overall level design are aesthetically pleasing and well worth exploring. The monster collection and upgrade systems are fun too with plenty of scope to vary the gameplay style.
Overall Final Fantasy XIII-2, more than most games, won't be for everyone. For those who see the appeal of the combat system, character tweaking and item/monster collecting it offers a lengthy and entertaining experience. For others it certainly offers a spectacle though it is beneficial not to look too deeply into the time travel based aspects of the plot.