Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game about time-travel. In it you voyage to the past to undo your mistakes. The symbolism isn’t lost on those who were disappointed by the previous game. For every complaint the masses made about Final Fantasy XIII—the level design was too linear, the mission objectives were too straightforward, Vanille was too annoying—XIII-2 has an answer. In the end, the changes mean that XIII-2 fails for all new reasons. If Square Enix could travel back in time to address the flaws of their latest game, maybe they could start by not paying such close attention to griping fanboys, and instead give this series the fresh start it deserves.
Yes, Final Fantasy XIII was rigidly linear, but for a reason. Its emphasis was on the battle system, and so the designers pruned away all of the superfluous systems that didn’t support combat. While players traveled along a predetermined route, there was variety in the enemies they faced, in and in the makeup of their party, which kept the action fresh and surprising against cannon fodder and bosses alike. And the straightforward nature of the level design ensured a sense of constant progression.
In XIII-2, the defined pathways have been replaced by wide-open arenas, each representing a different time period. When the player arrives, there may not be any pathways to follow at all. Instead, they may have a poorly defined goal, and no clear sense of how to achieve it. Much of the main question objectives amount to searching for nearly invisible objects in some time period or another. It is not an exaggeration to say that I spent several hours of my playtime with Final Fantasy XIII-2 running in circles looking for things I couldn’t see. To declare non-linear gameplay superior to linear gameplay is a dubious argument to begin with, but only a zealot could think that XIII-2’s approach represents an improvement.
The same is true of this game’s side missions. That’s right: unlike its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is chock-a-block with optional stuff to do. And it is all terrible. I came to XIII-2 immediately after playing Fallout: New Vegas, a game whose endless diversions were scripted with such depth and care that every corner seemed to hide a novel’s worth of storytelling. In Final Fantasy XIII-2, the side quests feel like they were hastily brainstormed by a design team that was eager to break for lunch. Characters have lost items, and need you to return them. Or they want you to pick flowers for them. And so on. Rather than making good on the previous game’s shortcomings, this feels like a passive-aggressive rebuke. All right, you whiners, you want side quests? Here are some really crappy ones!
The combat system that serves as the game’s core has been refined, not overhauled, and it’s still the saving grace. As before, the player’s task is not to give specific instructions to party members, but to designate “paradigms” under which the characters mostly direct themselves. Outside of combat, the player’s job is to set up the paradigms in order to strike the right balance of physical attack, magical attacks, defensive techniques, and status buffs and de-buffs. One major departure is that, besides the two main characters in the party, players also conscript monsters to help out. The variety of creatures available to capture is impressive, but it also means that you’ll tend to settle on a couple that you like, leaving dozens languishing on the bench. You can, however, infuse one monster’s powers into another, creating ever more powerful teammates.
During combat, the player’s job is to make sure that the tactically sound paradigm is active, and to switch between them on the fly. It is somewhat of a cruel joke that the vast majority of the player’s actions during a fight is to select commands with names like “auto-battle,” but the effect can be thrilling. That’s especially true during boss fights, where the pyrotechnics are ramped up to such a degree that trying to micro-manage your party would be overwhelming. Instead, you get to sit back and feel like a tactical genius.
The caveat: other than boss battles, paradigm shifting is not often all that necessary. Because you spend so much time bumbling through time periods trying to figure out where you’re going, one of two things tends to happen. Either you warp somewhere in which the monsters are so powerful that they wipe you out immediately, or you spend so much time dicking around in some blind alley that you level up well past where you need to be to progress in the story. The battles are still fun — and gorgeous to watch — but lost is the finely calibrated progression of the previous game that kept every engagement at the outside edge of your competence.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a misstep for Square Enix, but it’s also very likely the game they intended to make. The irreducible elements of the series are all there, roughly in the same form they’ve always been. A ragtag group of adventurers finds themselves drawn together by fate to confront an epic, world-destroying force only they can defeat. The packaging of the combat may have been redesigned, but the underlying systems haven’t. There’s even a character so annoying you wonder what sane person could have signed off on her. In other words, the more Final Fantasy changes, the more it stays the same. Given that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is all about time, it’s fitting that it should demonstrate so convincingly that it’s about time for the franchise to make a real change.
Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq, Joystick Division, and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata, or check out his blog, Insult Swordfighting.