Game Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360

From: Square-Enix

ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, simulated gambling, violence)

Price: $60

Did you play "Final Fantasy XIII?" Because if you didn't, this welcome mat is not for you.

"Final Fantasy XIII-2" easily is the most direct sequel Square-Enix has ever made for a "Final Fantasy" game. Neither a spinoff nor a quirky offshoot (like "Final Fantasy X-2" famously was), "XIII-2" directly follows the events of its predecessor's story and keeps that game's battle system - a cool mix of turn-based gameplay set to real-time rules in which you devise multiple roles for your characters and set them in furious motion - pretty much intact. The primary cast has changed, with story-mandated events putting "XIII's" Serah at the forefront of a search for her sister (and "XIII" protagonist) Lightning, but skeletally, "XIII-2" has far more in common than not with "XIII."

More than anything, "XIII-2" feels like a second draft that might not even exist if "XIII" didn't attract the harsh criticism it got.

For that crowd, the changes are welcome. Where "XIII" was shockingly linear for a role-playing game, "XIII" offers towns, dungeons with branching paths and side quests to complement the main storyline. Even that main storyline fractures, hinging on an incorporation of time travel that (while narratively uninspired) often lets you jump tracks when you're ready instead of when the story dictates. (As a welcome - albeit almost certainly unintentional - result, many of "XIII-2's" most tedious fetch quests and mini-games can be skipped entirely if you wish to ignore them.)

"XIII-2's" most inspired new twist comes from its unusual party arrangement, which gives you two human characters and "Pokemon"-esque monster to complement them in battle. The game is crawling with monsters to capture, customize and upgrade, and while the exercise is mostly optional, it's where most of "XIII-2's" most enjoyable character customization lies.

But "XIII-2's" inarguable blessing is its willingness to let you commandeer its battle system quickly. "XIII" held players' hands for nearly 20 hours - that's 20, not a typo - before completely relinquishing control. "XIII-2" offers a comprehensive tutorial for new and rusty players, but you can skip it if you wish, and without spoiling the narrative hows or whens, you're off and running in pretty short order.

Along with the battle tutorial, "XIII-2" also offers a chapter-by-chapter story primer for those who wish to understand the events of "XIII" but skip straight to playing "XIII-2."

But as many who played it will attest, "XIII's" story was a needless and often incomprehensibly dense climb up a shallow hill, and there's only so much the primer can do to clean it up. Even if you read the whole thing, jumping straight into "XIII-2" is like skipping the first three seasons of "Lost" and expecting to enjoy the remaining three as much as those who have been watching all along.

Storytelling, sadly, remains the one place where "XIII-2" stumbles as much as (if not more than) "XIII." It's opaque almost from the start. The main characters are bland, the supporting characters often obnoxious. And once again, a simple story gets weighed down by its mythology and character dialogue instead of enriched by them. (Given what a kick to the face the primary ending is, though, that may be blessing in disguise.)

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