Sunday, April 15, 2012
And still feel kinda conflicted about it.
I liked Final Fantasy XIII. Whereas everyone else thought it was terrible and disappointing, I thought it was refreshing and fun. So I was hesitantly interested in XIII-2, despite some concerns I had.
And then I played it. Here's where the problem lies: while there honestly isn't much I can say I don't like about this game, I can't bring myself to call it fun. The interest just isn't there. But let's talk about the good stuff first.
From a mechanical standpoint, FF13-2 ranges from completely competent to stellar, and it's safe to say that it's an improvement on its predecessor in a lot of ways. It's structured far better, to begin with, featuring vast open environments connected together in a web by an easily navigable hub known as the Historia Crux.
It's also still one of the better looking games out there. Models are sharply detailed and display constant and expressive animation (the faces in particular are surprisingly well done) both in and outside battle. As mentioned before, the areas you explore are expansive, colorful and suitably varied. There's a lot of palette swapping on the enemies, but there aren't a lot of RPGs that don't use the ol' color swap trick to get away with duplicating assets.
The audio is also excellent. Aside from some odd additions (including a heavy metal track complete with screaming), the soundtrack is still phenomenal, and the dubbing is well done; which is to say the voice actors do what they can with the script.
I can't even really complain about the gameplay, which is completely solid. The battle system, one of the highlights from FF13, returns mostly unchanged, but now instead of a full party of actual characters, you get two characters and one monster. I have a fundamental dislike for monster recruiting as a mechanic, because I firmly believe that it's nothing more than a show of laziness. But I can't deny that the system is well executed here. The only newly introduced mechanic I do not like is the concept of wounding. Often you'll encounter enemies who can hit you so hard they literally reduce your maximum HP for the duration of the battle, limiting how long you can fight before it's simply no longer feasible to continue on. It's not unlike having an enemy cast Doom on you in that it places an arbitrary limit on how long you can fight before it's pretty much game over.
Still, the Paradigm system is probably the best thing FF13-2 has going for it. I love this system a lot, and battles in this and FF13 make a statement about archaic traditional JRPG combat has become. Instead of navigating through static menus to command a grid of sprites to attack a formation of enemies opposite them using simple and/or repetitive animations, battles in 13-2 are filled with motion. The camera is constantly on the move to provide dynamic angles, as the characters move and attack constantly with vigor and expression.
Not to mention the UI is as simple as it can be while still maintaining functionality. I think the genre could learn a lot from how the Fabula Nova Crystallis games do combat.
There's loads of sidequests in the game, though for the most part they consist entirely of fetch tasks. The game puts a spin on this however, by often asking you to hunt down something from another time. Like I said, in a lot of ways it's a substantial improvement over 13.
The problem is the story. I've never experienced a game that did so much right but still managed to be so aggressively uninteresting. The premise is that at the end of FF13, Lightning is more or less whisked away into another time and dimension, and everyone's memory of her is altered so that they think she joined Fang and Vanille in the crystal. Sarah, Lightning's younger sister, is the only one who remembers what really happened. The game opens as Lightning fights some epic (and admittedly random) battle with the game's apparent antagonist, Caius. Some dude from the future named Noel appears, and Lightning sends him on his way to find Sarah and bring her to him. Noel finds Sarah, and the two begin the journey, traveling through time and solving people's problems in the various eras they visit.
The problem is that none of this is interesting or engaging. Serah wasn't really a character in FF13. She spends 98% of the game crystallized. Noel's just some dude. I don't know what Caius's goals are, why he's being a dick to people. I don't know why Lightning's in Valhalla and commanding an army of beasts in some never-ending war. And I can't bring myself to care. Maybe the issue is that the game gives you so many things to wonder and ponder about, and fails to explain a single one of them for such an incredible length of time that after a while you just give up. You don't care what the answers are to all your questions anymore.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a great game wrapped around a terrible story. Normally this would not be a bad thing. Plenty of games get away with having terrible stories (Just Cause 2, for example). But that doesn't work in an RPG, where the story encompasses much of the entire experience.
I'm not going to finish Final Fantasy XII-2. Maybe if I had more free time, I'd consider working through it more, but I can't justify playing it when I could be having fun with other games. If you can muster some enjoyment from the plot though, you should be in for a solid experience.