Final Fantasy XIII-2
Platforms: X360 & PS3
Final Fantasy XIII’s Active Time Battle (ATB) system was one expertly crafted change to the formula that came alongside some less welcome others. Key among these was that the usual sidequest-packed open-world structure had been replaced with a linear journey that offered the bare minimum of distractions. The reaction to FFXIII from fans and the press was mixed, which brings us to FFXIII-2, the sequel that Square Enix claims will give players what they wanted from the previous game. But while FFXIII-2 is a polished production that certainly diverges, unfortunately it’s also a baffling, boring and swampy thing to play.
It opens with a stunning cutscene in which Lightning – FFXIII’s hero, who’s now playing the role of warrior goddess — does battle with a cackling evildoer. The sequence in its entirety takes about 20 minutes to play out, during which you’re given limited control for brief stretches. This is a sign of things to come: a battle that is impossible to lose, a helping of QTEs, and some terrifically dull monologues. But FFXIII-2’s opening is so visually astonishing, featuring a gigantic city formed from crystal, monstrous armies clashing, and Lightning’s dazzlingly choreographed advance through it all. that it’s impossible to look away.
After this prelude, Lightning s off and you’re in control of her sister, Serah, and accompanied by a time traveller called Noel who resembles a Kingdom Hearts B-lister. This is your party for the whole game, leading to FFXIII-2’s first change to the ATB system: Pokemon.
The system is onre again built around three party members, each with certain roles that can be cycled through with a ‘Paradigm Shift’. With two slots used here for Noel and Serah, the third is left open for creatures. You acquire new beasts by defeating them, and then they can be levelled up, assigned to your party (up to three monsters can be in your battle team, although only one can fight), or even fed to other creatures in order to transfer desirable traits.
It’s simpler than it first appears, but the system is let down by the lack of space you have for combinations of roles (called‘paradigms’). Both Noel and Serah can learn multiple classes, and alongside your trio of monsters (each of which has a single speciality role) the number of possibilities is huge, but you’re always limited to six paradigms in the actual battles. Among the many strengths of the ATB system is its flexibility – which having multiple monsters in different roles would seem to emphasize – but the feature’s never given enough breathing space.
That’s arguably a matter of preference, but a much wider problem is the game’s lack of challenge. FFXIU-2 is the first game in the series with an adjustable difficulty mode — a choice between Normal and Easy — but even on Normal this is a very easy game indeed. Common enemies are walkovers, and despite often taking a good deal of punishment, bosses are rarely a threat. The time investment required to complete FFXIII-2 is huge, but our characters perished a mere handful of times. As an experiment, we left Serah and company to fend for themselves over the course of ten battles, with no player input. With an idle player character and two AI companions set up to attack and heal, our party emerged victorious from every fight.
The ATB system is still a fine achievement, and most of FFXIII-2’s tweaks are smart ones, but there’s just nothing worth fighting against. Only two bosses required retries throughout our entire runthrough. Meanwhile, the addition of QTEs, bringing a few simplistic flourishes at the end of big battles, does little to enhance your sense of satisfaction.
Combat isn’t the only area of FFXIII-2 where the execution lags behind the concept. For instance, the game’s structure is built around the ‘Historia Crux’, a level-select screen that allows you to jump between unlocked locations and alternate timelines at will. The idea of time travelling through FFXIII s universe is a great one, but certain areas have had a lot more energy spent on them than others. On one occasion we visited a new level, a cutscene played out, and that was it.
Many of the locations are entirely captivating, however, and FFXIII 2 further demonstrates the talent at work within Square Enix’s art divisions. In terms of construction, however, this is still a poky world full of invisible walls and fixed details. The .settings may have a sense of scope and majesty, but as interactive environments they get by with the bare minimum.
The lack of imagination in FFXIII-2’s subquests, which are a large part of its bulk, is what really drives this home. What do time travellers do? Well, these particular examples find lost watches, source old computer batteries, shear sheep, and beat up monsters. There’s the odd detail that’s more interesting – bringing back messages from the dead, or creating the right circumstances to light something in the future – but in general FFXIII-2 offers no more than cookie-cutter fetch quests that waste its theme’s potential.
This is a big game, clocking in at about the 40-hour mark, but the lack of challenge in combat combined with the formulaic missions and frequent cutscenes too often make it feel like a sticky trudge. The visual and audio design is marvellous at times, offering up the kind of setting that you drink in before taking a single step, but the journey is always the same. The apparently open structure disguises a simple closed network of locked doors and narrow environments, while the ATB system is wasted on enemies that would struggle to defeat a corpse. Perhaps this is indeed the game Final Fantasy nuts thought they wanted, but surely even PI they’ll be disappointed with the result.
A new element in FFXIII’2′s random battles is the Moogle Clock. When enemies spawn, a circle appears around Serah and begins counting down During this time, you can either whack your foes to begin battle with a first-move advantage, or try to escape from the circle and avoid fighting altogether. As you play through FFXNI‘2, its main use becomes clear: skipping as many fights as possible, because monsters remain at their old strength when you revisit earlier areas And you thought it couldn’t get any easier.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 Locations such as Academia and the Bresha Ruins de deliver on the multiple-timelines conceit but far too much of the Historia Crux is made up of small environments that simply bulk things up
Why is Final Fantasy Xlll-2′s move towards realtime combat so half-baked?
At certain points during FFXIII-2’s cutsccncs, the word ‘Live’ appears in the upper-left corner. It’s a strange juxtaposition, and one we’re more used to seeing on the evening news than in the midst of an overwrought JRPG interstitial. But Square Enix isn’t trying to add a layer of reality, it’s warning players who have put down the pad that their services will soon be required. Hey, you – pay attention!
The ‘Live’ cue means there will soon be a QTE, a finishing mechanic more familiar from the likes of God Of War or Bayonetta than the Final Fantasy series, and in the eyes of FFXHl-2’s developers this represents a move towards realtime combat. Yoshinori Kitase, the game’s producer, even commented to us in E236 that, “We see many players moving away from games that used turn- based systems and towards what you might term an action-RPG. That’s a trend, and you ignore things like that at your peril.” This remark caused not a little consternation among the series’ many fans.
Final Fantasy is one of gaming’s global brands, a franchise that sells as well in the west as it does in the east – for the time being. It is used to being top dog. But now it’s being squeezed from both sides, and standard of competition is high. Last both Dark Souls and Xenobladc Chronicles arrive from Japanese studios, while from the west there was Skyrim, and in a few months BioWare will round off the Mass Effect trilogy. None of those games are alike, hut you suspect it’s Dark Souls and Mass Effect 3 that have caused concern at Square Enix HQ. Heads have clearly turned among Final Fantasy’s developers, because there’s no other reason for FFXIII-2 to incorporate realtime elements into the ATB system — one of the best turn-based fighting setups ever created – nor for producers to drop vague hints about a more action-oriented future for the series.
The problem with toe dipping like this is that it doesn’t satisfy. The inconsistent appearance of QTEs and their ease means they’re a mild irritation rather than a thrilling injection of realtime action, and they sit terribly uneasily next to the battle animations you see thousands of times in rotation.
This disjointedness can also be seen with the Moogle Clock. Here, enemies spawn pre-battle, during which time you can hit them with your weapon via a button press. It’s presented as a realtime action in the overworld, but all it does is start the‘proper’ turn-based fight, giving you the first turn. Your character is performing a hitting animation. but if you hit enemies, you’re not actually hitting them. Does that make sense? Of course it doesn’t – and, as you might well imagine, controlling your character during the Moogle Clock sequences doesn’t feel anything like controlling a character in a thirdperson combat game.
Final Fantasy is not a realtime world — not when it comes to combat. And that’s not a problem. What is strange about FFXIJI-2 is the attempt to bolt realtime action onto its turn-based structure. It feels out of place, and that’s because it is. RPGs have been blending turn-based systems with realtime elements for many years now, but the truly great ones build everything around this. In ttXJlI-2, you have a couple of realtime mechanics (and not especially ambitious ones) layered on top of a structure that wasn’t designed for them, and that doesn’t really need them either.
It may well be the case that Final Fantasy XIV takes the series in a radical new direction. Some would say, given recent history, it has no choice. It is a great pity, as well as a great irony, that Square Enix created the thrilling ATB system from its turn-based legacy, but has thus far been unable to make a Final Fantasy game that deserves it. If the future of the series is realtime combat, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the baby may slide out of the frame along with the bath water.