Other than a less oxymoronic title the Final Fantasy series has never wanted for much. Following the series’ inception in 1987 the game has had a large following that only grew with its introduction to the west in 1990. Since those early days, the series has branched into genres beyond the Japanese role-playing game to include tactical role-playing, action role-playing, fighting and massively-multiplayer-online role-playing – to say nothing of licensed extensions into movies and anime.
With a wealth of enjoyable games under their belt and a franchise that had kept abreast of gaming innovation, it was once with baited breath that fans awaited the first instalment of the series on the latest consoles. When Final Fantasy XIII launched in 2010 it was met with a lukewarm response from critics and fans alike; frequently panned as a 40-hour corridor that led to cut scenes played out by an lacklustre cast, many where surprised when the announcement came that XIII would be receiving a direct sequel.
The decision to create such a sequel is uncommon for the series. Beyond recurring plot elements, themes, character names and mechanics, the series usually recounts a different series of events with each outing. But Final Fantasy XIII-2 has also been considered an attempt to make amends for the shortcomings of its predecessor. As such, many hoped that this sequel would take what positives there were in XIII and expand on them while continuing to evolve what was once a much-admired series.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 does that to some degree. The stronger systems introduced in XIII, such as the battle system, have returned and been tweaked to deliver a better experience, for example. Unfortunately, it appears that fans do not good developers make: too much of XIII-2 reads like a checklist of community requested fixes and developer apologies. As a result, the game fails to advance and evolve the series in any meaningful fashion.
Less linear storyline: check. A higher action to cut scene ratio: check. Populated towns and side quests on offer: check. While these are generally positive, the trade off is that the story, such a staple to the series, seems to have taken a back seat.
That story concerns a nearly impenetrable tale of time travel with a goal that, after around 30 hours of play, is still a blur. The two lead characters throw specious words and phrases like “paradox” and “spacetime” into conversations so frequently that one might assume even they don’t understand it.
What the player is told is that Lightning, the protagonist from XIII, is holding court in Valhalla – a place outside time that is for winners. From here she can see that the Big Bad of the week is interfering with the timeline for an unknown purpose. When she confronts this purple-haired menace, and after an epic battle, a young man named Noel from the distant future falls through time to Valhalla. Unable to leave the realm herself, Lightning sends Noel through time to bring Serah, her sister, to Valhalla because... something.
And so the confused plot weaves as Noel and Serah jump through time, fixing paradoxes, meeting up with old friends and struggling with their inner turmoils as they work towards reuniting with Lightning in Valhalla.
In order to get there they must navigate the new Historia Crux level choice system. A series of linked gateways, the Historia Crux is a level menu where actions taken in different times and different worlds open up pathways to new worlds, or the same worlds in different times, or even parallel universes, all leading towards multiple endings unlocked by the choices made and actions taken in each.
Visually, the story is delivered with the pedigree we’ve come to expect of the Final Fantasy series. The less frequent – but still extremely common – cut scenes display the mastery of art direction we’ve all come to expect from these games. The fight scenes are vibrant and explosive, the environments are at times breathtaking and it all comes together well which makes it a shame, then, that the musical score is an eclectic mess that doesn’t do the visuals any justice.
With boss battles and chocobo riding at times featuring mute-the-TV worthy ‘screemo’ numbers, and other encounters and menu screens showing off a St Germian-esque relaxation project featuring a female vocalist who repeats the words “space-time” ad nauseam , gone are the flourishing and brilliant scores of old. For the first time in a Final Fantasy game, I played much of it in glorious muted silence.