Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
By the time you’ll be reading this, Square Enix will be unveiling the next chapter of the “Lightning Saga” to the public. While many beloved FF games have been denied even one sequel, Final Fantasy XIII will be the first in series history to get a whole trilogy, despite its heavily divisive reception.
When Final Fantasy XIII-2 was first announced, many assurances were made that the most critical complaints would be addressed. In the months leading to its release, I had not remained as convinced, though I did end up buying it during its launch week thanks to some handy coupons that brought its price down by nearly half.
Many who were disappointed in FFXIII had quickly sang FFXIII-2’s praises, going so far as to call it “the best Final Fantasy in years” followed by statements like “all is forgiven, Square”. The game still had plenty of haters though, causing an Internet Turf War that seemed to brew with every new FF release.
The most common rebuttal I’ve read was that those who were part of the FFXIII-2 hater’s crowd were “plagued by nostalgia”. I admit that I do often feel like I’ve reached a point in my life where I scoff at the current trends and recline in my chair relegating about “the good old days”, but considering how I can still sing the praises of new RPGs when they deserve it, I feel confident that I can judge FFXIII-2’s flaws in comparison to its predecessors without having my nostalgia goggles fog up my view.
Yes, the sequel does make some notable improvements over the much maligned original, including faster battles, faster unlocked gameplay mechanics, a proper equipment/item shop and wide-open areas…all things that should have been included in the first place. As for its new features, including monster party members, mini-games, and sidequests, some of the mechanics work well enough….but very little of it feels unique, or even fun.
Put simply, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a band-aid…a quick fix in order to meet a tighter deadline and try to win back as many jaded fans as possible, yet far from overhauling the most fundamental flaws. It’s the opposite approach that Square is taking with Final Fantasy XIV, and if by some miracle the 2.0 relaunch proves to make us forget about the original train wreck of a game,the FFXIII series now stands poised to take its place as the black sheep of the series.
For those who feel strongly enough toward the Lightning Saga that you consider my words blasphemous, I want to state that everything I say, as usual, is an opinion. Plenty of my all-time favorite Final Fantasy titles have received scathing criticism by other nerds with blogs, so I share your sentiments. But if you respect my opinion enough that you’ve read up to this point, perhaps you’ll consider reading further in order to check out my arguments regarding:
It was clear from the start that FFXIII-2 was made with a smaller budget in mind. It was no surprise, since Square pulled the same thing before with Final Fantasy X-2 (a game that re-used so many assets that they took underwater enemies out of their element and re-branded them as “flying enemies”). This in itself was not an issue, as FFXIII’s graphics were still impressive enough to work with; plus, by focusing less on pretty cutscenes and character models (which made up about 90% of the original game’s development time…the corridor-based areas were added after the fact), it hopefully gave the development team time to polish the actual in-game content.
But it was still disappointing to see such a choppy framerate; the opening sequence with Lightning (which is the only time in the entire game that she is playable, minus DLC) features lots of suspenseful action that is almost entirely plagued by slowdown and stuttering. This uneven framerate persists in even the most calm moments, dropping a few frames during things as minute as a character’s hair blowing in the wind.
Also, enemies still don’t have dying animations…there’s nothing less satisfying than witnessing a stories-tall monster merely fade out of existence like a bad video editing effect. They could have at least sprung for classic FF sprite eradication (a crack of lightning followed by a tremor effect as the sprite fizzles into nothingness).
It’s a testament to the failure of the Crystal Tools Engine, which not only caused considerable delays to every FF game utilizing it, but is even being abandoned entirely for FFXIV 2.0 (and if rumors are to be believed, the even-longer delayed Versus XIII was forced to restart development with an entirely new engine).
It’s a well-known fact that people like to be in control of their games at all times. While I personally happen to be a fan of (well done) cutscenes, there are still ways to keep the player engaged during these scripted events. Quick Time Events are one option, which are also present in this game during certain boss battles (much to people’s’ chagrin, but I’m ultimately indifferent to their inclusion), and the other is dialog wheels.
Most people will compare FFXIII-2’s Live Trigger dialog options to recent games like Mass Effect, though they have been a part of the series since Final Fantasy VII. In that game, the dialog options were mostly comical rather than crucial, but also occasionally played a role in the game’s “affinity system”, which ultimately determined which of the leading ladies (or Barret) would be accompanying Cloud on a date, as well as affect the dialog during a pivotal conversation between Cloud and Tifa in Disc 2.
The dialog options in FFXIII-2 are neither enlightening nor beneficial. Aside from a couple of humorous anecdotes that require players turning Serah into a dense air-head, the resulting responses from a dialog option are incredibly brief and do nothing to gain insight on the characters. In particular, any questions centered toward Noel and his past are met with convenient cases of amnesia or uninteresting single sentence responses (“your guess is as good as mine”). When asking Snow about Fang and Vanille, the resulting exchange is no longer than:
“Are they friends of yours?”
You do gain different rewards based on the dialog option you pick, but between the flat responses and the ability to redo these events anyway, it feels like an unnecessary and tacked-on feature that carries neither the fun writing of previous games nor the crucial decisions from titles like Deus Ex.
One of the biggest complaints about FFXIII was its lack of towns. While SE’s ridiculous statement regarding the difficulty of rendering HD towns sparked further outrage from RPG fans, they were also quick to herald their return in FFXIII-2.
Except the “towns” are more like “NPC rest stops”; containing no buildings or unique structures of any kind, none of the enemy-free areas feel like actual “lived-in” locations. Even the futuristic city of Academia feels dull and uninspired, with virtually no buildings to enter and structures being far too clean and flat.
But the real complaint centers around the “townsfolk”. While it is amusing that the NPCs react to certain actions by the player (such as using Mog’s magic or traversing in a Chocobo), during their off-time they act as annoying obstacles that get in your way more often than not. This is most apparent when speaking to quest-givers; as the player and the NPC stand still during these realtime conversations, other NPCs tend to walk right through both characters as they are frozen in dialog, creating all sorts of awkward moments that are both distracting and kill whatever tension is meant to occur in these scenes. Anyone who has played an Elder Scrolls game should be aware of this feeling, but it’s even more annoying in third person.
Even worse is that the combination of spotty AI plus giving them all voices results in some very annoying off-camera moments; in Academia, there are NPCs who will inexplicably trip and fall, resulting in shocked reactions from nearby townspeople. This happens all the time, nonstop. And just to top things off, many of the NPC voiceovers are performed with flat and dull voice acting, which is surprising given Square’s track record of quality dubs (though amusingly enough, Naruto’s voice makes the rounds in more than one occasion).
Speaking of quests, FFXIII-2 has no shortage of sidequests and collectibles throughout, not to mention multiple endings. This is a good thing.
The problem lies with the game’s lack of direction regarding said sidequests. After talking to a specific NPC to start the quest, the game locks that character’s location in the mini-map…and just that character. Beyond that, you are given no indication where you’re supposed to go in order to complete the quest beyond a brief description and picture.
You’re probably thinking this was intentional in order to apply an oldschool feeling of exploration. While that’s fine in concept, it’s jarring when the rest of the game was designed to be streamlined; you can save at any point without restriction, you can move between timelines (areas) whenever you want, and the game even retains its idiot-free Auto Battle mechanic from the first game. So why include the hassle of running around an area to complete a task? Compared to those previous features, this feels like an arbitrary addition to increase game time.
Though it still would have been tolerable if not for an even more annoying gameplay relic…
Why is it with all the technical capabilities of current consoles, Final Fantasy games must still suffer through random battles? The areas are big enough, the monsters materialize in the field, and yet we still have to endure a screen transition during battles. No matter how much they work at it, it’s never a smooth transition, and more often than not you’ll lose your sense of direction once you return to the main field (not so much a problem during the 2D games, but especially annoying with these fully 3D iterations).
For FFXIII-2, monsters are no longer immediately visible, and instead materialize out of thin air. Once they do appear, you’re surrounded by an aggro cone powered by Mog’s clock, which basically gives you a tiny window of opportunity to attack the enemy (landing a preemptive strike) or try to escape the cone to avoid the battle. Unfortunately, neither option works well.
Because of the way party characters lunge forward with their attacks, you’ll often find yourself whiffing yourself out of your current position, and while the camera is greatly improved from the first game, characters and enemies still go out of focus as you try aligning the camera to get that preemptive strike (and thus leading to the aforementioned lost sense of direction).
Trying to run away is even worse; while the Mog Clock indicates when the monsters will attempt to chase after you, they’ll still run around the field, dragging their aggro cone along with them. Considering the size of some of the cones, it can be a real pain to shake an enemy off…and if that weren’t enough, if you’re standing in their cone within a certain time limit, then you’ll be forced into battle as well as denied the ability to restart (a silly penalty, considering you can restart after losing the battle anyway).
Simply put, there is no easy way to avoid enemy encounters. Suppose you are at a high enough level that such fights would be trivial skirmishes that yield little exp (or CP, as it’s called here), when all you wanted to do was run around the area in order to complete a quest (see above). No matter what methods were employed to make battles faster (the instantaneous Paradigm Shifts, for one), it’s still an annoyance that will take up a minute or two of your time after you factor in the field-to-battle transitions (and vice versa) and results screen. Despite all other attempts to employ more streamlined measures to the game, FFXIII-2’s encounter system ends up even worse than the original.
Truth be told, FFXIII already featured a capable battle system that just required a few tweaks of refinement. Sadly, despite the inclusion of customizable monster allies, Feral Links, and “Cinematic Actions”, the overall concept remains unchanged: Auto Battle the enemy until it is Staggered and/or dead.
Aside from the new “Wound Damage” status effect, you rarely have to pay attention in battles. You keep your health up, occasionally focus on distracting or de-buffing the enemy, then continue to wail on him until death. Despite the shift to a modern presentation with faster combat, your party members still behave like anchored sprites from the classic games. After experiencing more action-oriented RPG battle systems like in Xenoblade or Dragon Age, FFXIII’s “stand still and mash the same two buttons” feels dull by comparison.
Even the hundreds of monsters that can be added as a third party member do little to spice things up. Few of the Feral Links prove useful, often doing as much minimal damage as the Summons from the previous game (on the upside, they charge up much faster and can be activated with a single button press, so there’s no reason not to use them when available). Beyond that, they act no different from human party members, except they have no dialogue or characterization besides some customizable adornments you can add for your own amusement.
At its core, the battle system isn’t bad, per say, but it certainly could have used more additions to keep it fresh. More individual abilities for Noel and Serah, more status-based spells, more instances that require more critical thinking, or even more Cinematic Actions that can result in actually changing things in the battle instead of merely serving as a flashy finish to a boss fight. In the end, it’s a system built for real-time action that is restricted by oldschool FF mechanics, and the combination just doesn’t work.
Like Final Fantasy X-2 before it, FFXIII’s sequel offers significantly more freedom to explore different parts of the game at one time, instead of being forced to traverse a linear path. This eliminates the highly criticized “endless corridors” of the original game, but it also opens up an old problem that was prevalent in FFX-2 as well: uneven moments of difficulty.
The following video serves as a clear example of how an open world with fixed levels can cause problems for players (and if you like it, be sure to subscribe to their channel; these guys have turned game frustration into a comedic art form):
The players were vastly under-leveled for that area, yet no indication was made before to warn them. For those who claim that the Episode titles should have been the indicator (in which they skipped an episode), the point stands: why make the area available if you were too weak to tackle it?
Even if you are visiting areas in the intended order, there is still a clear case of uneven balance. Over time you will steamroll through enemies like it was nothing, but once in a while you’ll run across an enemy you simply cannot beat. Sometimes you can tell which enemies are beyond your level based on their size or through in-game warnings (such as one area that advises you to stay within the light to avoid fighting a Behemoth), but other times you’ll just get picked apart by a seemingly random mob.
Once again, this sounds like an intentional feature to cater to oldschool RPGs…but it doesn’t work in this case since the areas are all separated from one another (specifically, by timelines). In an old FF game, heading too far east when you were supposed to go west became very apparent when your party was taken out by a group of Ogres or something equally big. In FFXII-2, areas are only connected by gates, and the time you took to unlock one gate to head to another area only to learn that you were either too under-leveled to attempt it, or too overpowered for not entering it earlier breaks the flow for anyone who likes their games to progressively increase in difficulty rather than randomly.
What’s worse, there’s very little end-game content for players who grind their levels to the max. There are various guides out there for building the ultimate monster party member, but aside from a few paid DLC fights in the coliseum, there is little reason to doing so. Perhaps Square should have focused more on releasing new missions to fulfill this empty level space instead of pop idol outfits.
The majority of Final Fantasy XIII’s party members were met with much criticism; Snow was hated on for being too hard-headed, Vanille for being too cutesy, and Hope for…being a teenager. While I personally felt no strong attachments one way or the other, the widespread hatred was enough that Square would have been wise to take the opportunity to cast the characters in a new light for the sequel, ala Raiden of Metal Gear Solid fame. Their solution, instead, was to show the characters as little as possible, focusing entirely on newcomers Noel and Serah (the latter having such little screen time in the first game that she basically qualifies as “new” for the sequel).
I already covered how Lightning’s placement in the cover art, logo, and the majority of advertisements was rather misleading, as her actual screen time equates to less than half an hour, while her “presence” becomes the main motivation for Serah to embark on her journey. This could have worked by showing us a different side of Lightning through the perspective of her beloved sister, but most of the time is spent having Serah wonder where Lightning is and whether she’ll see her again (and not once referring to her by her actual name…it’s Claire, by the way). Snow is also given a brief appearance to remind/inform players that he and Serah are an item (yet still haven’t gotten married for some contrived reason), and even endures a bit of verbal punishment that almost feels like direct catering to his anti-fans. Sazh, Fang and Vanille are barely given a single cameo scene, despite the first two being among the more well-received characters, and ultimately if you want to see more of them you’ll have to fork over the extra price for their DLC episodes. You can see how paying extra for characters you weren’t keen on the first time around is not the most enticing investment.
Reducing the screen time of lesser-received characters is not progressive; it would have been far more commendable if they took the effort to flesh out these characters in a newer, more positive light. The potential was certainly there…Hope returns with a new appearance and personality courtesy of a visit to the future. There was enough there to get even haters intrigued…instead, he’s reduced to pure exposition to move the story along, and his one throwaway line of changing the past (by saving his mother’s life) goes absolutely nowhere.
This isn’t the first time an FF sequel has had trouble giving its returning characters proper screen time, much less further develop the ones who are given the limelight (FFX-2 and Advent Children are two that come to mind, though the latter at least had the excuse of a movie-length run time keeping everyone but the most popular characters the focus of attention). While there is plenty of potential in revisiting previous FF settings, so far these halfhearted attempts strengthen the argument that these titles may be better off as one-off stories, as was originally intended.
For much of the 3D era of titles, mini-games were an integral part of the Final Fantasy series. These short distractions from random battles and dialogue served as fun sidequests (FFIX’s Chocobo Hot and Cold) or a completionist’s nightmare (FFX’s Lightning Dodging…actual lightning, not the character). Then for a time, mini-games dropped from the series altogether.
In Final Fantasy XIII, there was literally nothing to do in the game besides kill things, then level up to kill bigger things. This approach is fine for an action game, and even an MMORPG. For a singleplayer RPG that averages at 50 hours, having one single gameplay mechanic gets old real quick.
Square Enix seemed acutely aware of this, since FFXIII-2’s mini-games were among the most heavily advertised additions to the sequel. Chocobo Racing made a return, which pleased some fans, and an entire casino filled with slot machines and card games were also included, which was met with neutrality.
Then there were the Temporal Rifts, which represented three puzzle-based mini-games amounting to navigating the correct set of tiles, connecting the dots, and setting the correct numbers to a giant clock. Of the three, the Tile Trial was least offensive since there was no time limit, but the other two were utterly dull, tedious, and worst of all…mandatory.
While not as numerous as Final Fantasy X’s Cloister of Trials, the occasions were you’re forced to engage in these puzzle games were painful all the same. The Crystal Bonds mini-game suffers from janky camera angles as you frantically work the right analog stick in order to get a proper view of which colored crystals you’re supposed to connect; the concept of the game itself is simple, but the camera and short time limits end up as the biggest obstacles to finishing the event. The clock mini-game, known as The Hands of Time, is the worst by far and borderline impossible to solve without resorting to an online calculator.For anyone who insists that they have solved these puzzles all on their own, congratulations: you are a more patient person than I, and I hope to never meet you in a dark alley somewhere.
As for the much-advertised Serendipity casino….it’s a casino. There are slot mini-games and poker mini-games. They function as intended, but are also uninteresting. Clearly, they were trying to pay homage to Final Fantasy VII’s Gold Saucer, which served as a mini-game palace that offered players lots of different little games to partake in.
But the big difference between Serendipity and Gold Saucer is that the latter not only featured many more mini-games (and none of it requiring the additional DLC purchase), they were much simpler and easier to access. Gold Saucer’s games were based on both simple kindergarten games (such as Rock Paper Scissors) as well as arcade-style quick fixes (the motorcycle and snowboarding challenges). They were easy to learn without bombarding the player with a list of rules and concepts that they would have already reserved for the core game’s RPG mechanics.
This is why Triple Triad (which is essentially a card-based version of Dominoes) has received far more praise from fans than the needlessly complicated successor Tetra Master. Yet no amount of begging and pleading has convinced Square to re-release the former, instead opting to include the latter as an additional subscription-based game alongside Final Fantasy XI that no one bothered with. The pleas for a Triple Triad revival have lasted longer than the pleas for a Final Fantasy VII Remake. Time will tell which one Square will choose to make reality and which will be ignored forever.
I will not claim that Final Fantasy XIII-2 has the worst RPG story of all time. There are far too many offenders out there, even when excluded to Square Enix releases, that can take that position. But I will go on to call it the worst Final Fantasy story of all time.
From the moment the game launched first in Japan, the storyline was the most immediate criticism among importers, with critiques ranging from “incomprehensible” to “downright stupid”. At first there was speculation that the complaints were being delivered from the most vocal of FF haters, but the situation only grew worse when critics got their hands on the game proper, calling the story “laughable and insulting“.
Once again, those defending the widespread criticisms used nostalgia as their main source of ammo, claiming that the majority of FF games have featured laughable storylines and ridiculous plot points. In fairness, there is some truth there: when you break down the plots to even the most cherished of titles, they do sound rather hokey (FFVII is basically about a genetically engineered child of an alien space monster who wants to drop a meteor on the planet; FFIV drops its civil war plotline to have the heroes ride on a giant space whale to travel to the moon; FFVI is heavy with Star Wars references).
But the key word that separates those games from FFXIII-2 is execution. Thanks to the strong characterization and direction of those classic games, players thought less about the absurdity of the main plots and were instead emotionally invested to the plight of the party members, which were further propelled by a skillful presentation that mixed beautiful images and music together. Final Fantasy VI featured a sequence where a former general with no prior singing experience performed in an opera in order to lure a gambler with an airship while also avoiding sabotage from a talking octopus. Sounds stupid? Of course, because it is. It’s also the greatest moment in the entire series.
Final Fantasy XIII-2’s concept of time travel run amok is no stupider than previous plots in the series….it’s just stupidly told.
The biggest problem is the obnoxious usage of the term “Paradox” to describe every single instance in the game. Other FF games have spammed key words to guide their stories before (Lifestream, Magicite, Time Compression), but the problem with Paradoxes is that it’s based on an actual concept that exists outside FF mythology. I’m not the type who gets bothered when a fictional story uses a real-life concept with some inaccuracy, but the level that they take paradoxes goes far beyond plausibility.
Paradoxes are blamed for everything in FFXIII-2’s story. A monster in one alternate timeline is somehow affecting a monster in a completely unrelated timeline, causing a Paradox. A computer is having its data hacked by a Paradox, while another computer is somehow able to scan Paradox levels (forget that Paradoxes can be read by a computer, what difference does one “stronger” Paradox make over another?). Even an elevator shaft is inoperable because the Paradox has crossed the wires. It gets to the point that the Paradox is treated less like an anomaly and more like a magical force of darkness that can do whatever it wants, science be damned.
It’s disappointing that this is the best they could come up with regarding a time travel concept, especially from a company that released one of the best time traveling-themed games of all time. Instead of working so hard to confuse players with its multi-timeline storyline, why couldn’t they have put the effort into making it simplistic but fun? Instead of listening for hours about the reincarnation of an emotionless character we don’t really care about, how about going back in time to screw with the events of the original FFXIII? How about creating a real paradox by having a party consisting of Jihl, Cid, and Hope’s mother? Why not travel back in time to prevent Lightning from being swallowed up by Valhalla in the first place, or just go full-on crazy and travel to different FF games of the past? It’s a good kind of silly where things are actually happening in the story instead of just theoretical exposition.
As for the main characters, the unfortunate truth is that neither possess enough development or charm to carry this ridiculous story on their shoulders. Most of the time, the two of them will nod endlessly to every time-based explanation without any confusion or input. Noel in particular had received some praise for being “a likeable protagonist”, but the truth is that there is nothing particularly unique about him. He moves the story along, fights every fight, and does what he is told with no objection or doubt, while is backstory is firmly reigned in on account of his “convenient” amnesia (which refers to how he only recalls parts of his past as they become relevant to the story, such as his encounters with Yuel and Caius).
It is true that Noel is not an arrogant jerk, or possesses any emotional issues or doubts, which could be seen as a relief for players tired of “whiny characters”. But that also makes him uninteresting; Hope may have gained controversy for his actions, but there was at least some depth to him…we were able to see him go through different emotional stages and eventually progress as a character. Noel never makes any progression, or does anything that catches us by surprise, thus proving that his creation was basically Square’s way of “playing it safe”; He may be inoffensive as a protagonist, but it’s doubtful that he will remain as memorable as previous emotionally varied heroes.
As for Serah, we learn that she has a part-time job as a school teacher. And…that’s about it.
And ultimately that is the one-two punch that ruins FFXIII-2’s storyline: it uses time travel in an overly complicated and blatantly inaccurate way, and features no interesting characterization (either from newcomers or briefly returning party members), followed by an abrupt ending that shamelessly banks on the notion that Square Enix and director Motomu Toriyama want to turn the series into a trilogy. It only serves as one more example Square’s quick cash-grab schemes and Toriyama’s capabilities as a director, whose previous credits included destroying the Parasite Eve franchise forever.