Final Fantasy XIII was a controversial game, to say the least. While it certainly had its fans, it was loudly criticized in many corners for being all style and no substance, locking down the most interesting features of the combat system for too long, featuring far too many linear corridors, and missing certain Final Fantasy staples such as minigames and towns. Developer Square Enix took these criticisms seriously, and hoped to win back fan approval with a sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2. As only the second direct numbered sequel in the main Final Fantasy series, XIII-2 showed that Square Enix meant business, and the game received a good reception from many critics of XIII.
While keeping the gorgeous visuals and strategic combat system that were the high points of Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2 does just about everything else differently. It features a party of only two characters plus a third slot for tamed monsters. Rather than a massive, linear plot, its time-travel story is divided into episodic eras that can be moved between freely, giving the game a more non-linear feel (though the main storyline is still fairly linear). There are ample side quests to undertake, tons of towns or town-like areas, a number of minigames, and pretty much all the standard RPG bells and whistles. It's certainly a far more diverse playing experience than XIII, although with less challenging battles than the first game, XIII-2 exposes the weaknesses in the paradigm combat system. When the game doesn't force the player to frequently change paradigms in order to survive, the combat can become overly repetitive and grindy.
While Final Fantasy XIII-2 is certainly a more entertaining experience than Final Fantasy XIII, it continues to make some of the same mistakes that have been present through much of the modern history of the franchise. One of the biggest rules of writing fiction, particularly in visual media such as movies and video games, is "show, don't tell." Final Fantasy XIII-2 continues to do far too much telling, with the characters engaging in regular internal monologues that add little to the story beyond pop philosophy mumbo jumbo. There are times when it's easy to care about Noel and Serah, but those are the times when the game wisely sticks to action and dialogue rather than speeches and monologues.
Like Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2 loses a lot of its potential heart and soul by presenting a world that's overly complex and difficult to fully grasp. The time travel in XIII-2 only makes things more confusing, but it didn't have to be that way. Square Enix's own classic Chrono Trigger shows how to do a time travel story right. There is one simple, central problem in the game: the planet-destroying best Lavos. Lavos is revealed fairly early in the game, and the story of every era that the Chrono Trigger characters visit is connected to Lavos and its effect on the planet.
In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII-2 becomes quickly bogged down in multiple sub-plots that are only vaguely resolved. In the interest of preserving mystery, the game becomes obtuse, with the player wandering rather aimlessly through various locations and time periods, wondering just how many times a single game can use the word "paradox" incorrectly. Piled on top of this jumble of semi-dislocated stories is the full mythology inherited from Final Fantasy XIII, with its Fal'Cie and L'Cie, plus a constellation of gods that were only vaguely referenced in the first game and aren't particularly well-explained here. It's enough to give the player a plot migraine. The Final Fantasy series needs to take a huge step away from its current approach to storytelling, as future entries in the series would benefit greatly from simpler stories with a strong focus on character development through action and better-developed, more understandable villains.
The most damning decision made in XIII-2's development, however, was to make a ton of DLC content for the game, some of which apparently completes or fleshes out the game's disappointing ending. The DLC that has been released so far has been rather disappointing, giving players access to major characters from XIII but doing very little with them. Will later DLC actually improve upon the existing ending to the game? We don't know for certain, but if it does, that's a worse boondoggle than the now-infamous Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, since the incomplete ending then seems to be designed specifically to push players into purchasing DLC in order to get the full story. Players are becoming increasingly frustrated with DLC-heavy game experiences such as this, and I suspect that future Final Fantasy games will be more closely scrutinized for DLC-related shenanigans before players decide to make a purchase. Hopefully this DLC experiment was a one-off, and won't continue in future Final Fantasy titles.
While Final Fantasy XIII-2 took some good steps forward in providing a more diverse gameplay experience and less linear play, it continues to demonstrate why Square Enix is falling behind other RPG companies when it comes to storytelling. While this generation's great RPGs such as the Mass Effect series and Xenoblade Chronicles provide the player with exciting plot twists and characters that players come to care for, the two Final Fantasy XIIIs spend far too much time wallowing in tedious, repetitive musings about fate and time. There's a hollow core where the beating heart of these games should be, and no amount of emotive shouting can make up for essentially poor character development and plot design. Square Enix needs to hire some fresh, new writers for its next Final Fantasy game: writers who can go back to the basics, create less complex and more cohesive worlds, and show rather than tell us how its characters are feeling. With stronger storytelling tied to Square Enix's strengths in graphical and combat design, the company could very well return to being the pinnacle of the RPG world in the next generation.
Date: April 27, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*