A number of years ago, I picked up A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, the famed physicist’s attempt at explaining space, time, and universal quantum mechanics to the layman. At first, I was able to piece together some sense from the first few chapters. But soon I became lost in a sea of time-riddled terminology and tempestuous trivialities. That’s how it felt playing the first Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a sequel that clears up many of the tangential and confusing elements that plagued the first game, creating a tighter experience. However, the game as a whole never makes that leap from the commonplace into the hallowed halls of infamy, where many of its Final Fantasy (FF) predecessors now rest.
As with most FF games, a somewhat confusing prologue throws you right into the action, with scenes that become foreshadowed flashbacks later in the game. Though you’re left with many questions, it’s at least an intense prologue and a great way to bring some of the staples of the genre to light: baby-faced protagonists with flamboyantly pristine hair, holding swords so big they just scream carpal tunnel syndrome. The prologue also introduces you to the fast-paced, visually penetrating combat.
Tragically, once the prologue’s done, the game slows to a painful crawl in pacing as we learn about Serah, a girl living on the planet Pulse. Her older sister, Lightning, sacrificed herself to save the world and is now trapped in Valhalla. Serah’s quest is one of personal truth as she searches for her sister, but a larger picture soon emerges, one that will have you roaming not only various locations, but also through shattered elements of time. Unfortunately, as unique as this is, the contrast between the action-packed prologue and dull first scene creates a hiccup of mediocrity that lingers.
In contrast, combat is by far the game’s greatest asset. Fortunately, FFXIII-2 tightens the combat, with more strategy added to the mix. Unlike FF games of yore, battles happen in real time, moving away from the classic turn-based combat. Battles are geared towards tactics and success is in reading an enemy’s patterns in order to time attacks, switching to a defensive posture at the right time. The choices you make in your "paradigm shift" – the style of teamwork your party will unleash – blended with more complex strategies like "Chain Bonus" means the game will never deteriorate into hack ‘n slash tactics, a pitfall to which many North American RPGs succumb.
Outside of combat, the game’s presentation ranges from impressive to simply average. Battles are a cinematic experience, showing off the impressive graphics with an over-the-top, magic-meets-might style of destructive chaos that only an FF game can capture. However, visuals fall short in the design department of certain locales. The soundtrack mirrors this duality with music that is at times frightfully annoying, and at others reflects the sinuous blending of sound and mood established in previous iterations of the series. While both mouth synchronization and voice acting are impeccably executed in the protagonists, you’ll become blatantly aware of the dubbing in lesser characters. Conversation choices have been added, allowing a personalized connection with Serah’s plight, but these are rendered ostensibly moot as they have no impact on the storyline.
In FFXIII-2, a forthcoming tale of a young girl fighting to find her older sister is flipped into a complex yarn of alternate dimensions and paradoxes rippling through space-time. In the end, despite the riveting graphics and intense combat, the world and characters created in FFXIII-2 don’t breathe the way they do in previous games. And throughout this multidimensional trek into banality, just as I did with Hawking’s book, I was again tempted to abandon it to the pages of history.
When he’s not teaching junior high school, St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus Derek Mitchell can be found attached to a video game console.
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Online Play: None
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)