For better or worse, Final Fantasy XIII was a massive hit upon its worldwide release in March 2010. By the middle of that month, it had racked up a cumulative five million sales worldwide, enough to make it the fastest-selling entry in the series to that point. Though undoubtedly bolstered by a multi-platform release – a luxury that earlier entries weren’t privy to – its success must have soothed the nerves of anxious Square-Enix executives, who’d poured $65 million into its production budget. (Even in the age of exorbitant development budgets for AAA titles, the game remains one of the most expensive in history.)
XIII was the indelible proof, long-hinted, that the company’s priority was the cultivation of a “cinematic experience”. It tore down the partition between gameplay and cutscenes until the former became a perfunctory, automatic process that only existed to enable the latter. The player became a spectator; their role in the role-playing game was to absorb the emotional words that the cardboard cut-outs were dribbling from their mouth-holes before picking the controller back up and ambling down the hallway, like the obedient brand-slave that they were (and are).
Facetiousness aside, a large proportion of long-time fans did not take kindly to XIII’s new direction. The lack of optional content, the oppressive linearity and the borderline experimental storytelling were all singled out for particular scrutiny. For the first time, a Final Fantasy title was being raked over the coals for how different it was to its predecessors; the very trait that previous entries had always been lauded for. It must have come as a bitter surprise to Kitase and Toriyama, whose grand vision for the ‘Fabula Nova Crystallis’ sub-series – with XIII as its flagship – was already looking unstable, especially considering the ongoing radio silence of Versus XIII.
The exorbitant cost and total working hours that belatedly delivered XIII to the world had to be justified. The technical nightmare of the Crystal Tools engine – the same engine that Kitase all but admitted to be a mistake (which the company would later learn nothing from) – had to be vindicated. The Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology itself, so thinly spread across the chasm of XIII’s plot, needed to be clarified. Most importantly, the series’ momentum was in dire need of restoration, especially in light of high-profile delays and the disastrous reception given to Final Fantasy XIV Online’s release that same year. (We’ll get to that.) For Toriyama and Kitase, the choice was clear: the damage control direct sequel.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 shares a surprising (or perhaps not so surprising) amount in common with Toriyama’s own FFX-2, another follow-up born from corporate scrambling and desperate measures. Both feature an assertive female protagonist; both espouse open-ended exploration over linearity, and both feature radically different tones and design philosophies to their immediate predecessors. Whereas X-2 had an opportunity to expand upon the sociopolitical landscape of Spira (and failed), XIII-2 had the much more promising opportunity of delving into the fascinating mythology of Cocoon and Pulse. XIII-2 was the chance to make up for all of XIII’s shortcomings; the chance for Kitase and Toriyama to revitalise the entire sub-series in one fell swoop – a noble goal from a cynical end.
As per Toriyama, the theme of XIII-2 is “Wish for Rebirth”. This is appropriate; the game is so determined to distance itself from the original XIII that, aside from the combat system, almost every narrative and game-play aspect is reworked or scrapped entirely. The original’s linearity is replaced with an open-ended progression that emphasises side-quests and exploration; the reliance on foreign terms like ‘l’Cie’ and ‘fal’Cie’ is done away with, and mini-games make a big comeback with an entire casino area set aside for them. Hiring tri-Ace, known for making the Star Ocean games, to help the development process was just another nod to rejuvenation. In theory – we’ve heard this before – it all sounds great.
In execution: time travel. Yes, time travel. XIII-2 begins three years after the events of the previous game, when a decidedly not-crystal Serah encounters a hunter from the future named
Yor Noel, the last man on earth. The duo soon find themselves leaping through time in the hopes of finding Lightning, who’s inexplicably vanished beyond time and space into the ‘Unseen Realm’ known as Valhalla.
Their objective along the way is resolving ‘paradoxes’ – basically, anachronisms of time, i.e. an eclipse occurring 200 years sooner than it should – to help restore the distorted timeline to its original flow. By doing so, they hope to prevent the destruction of Cocoon, the crystal pillar of which is doomed to collapse at some point in the future. Standing in their way is CAIUS BALLAD, a man for whom the lower-case is simply inadequate, whose outlandish dress-sense and Soul Edge blade threaten to “dam the river of time” for good.
Though not as insane as FFVIII’s dive off the deep end, XIII–2’s plot is bonkers. Like most time travel stories, thinking about it too hard unravels everything and makes your brain hurt, but it’s surprising what avenues it’s willing to explore, especially after the dour tedium of XIII’s effort. One such avenue involves Snow trying to prevent an enormous Flan – literally named His Royal Ripeness – from being the one to bring down the pillar. Another sees an adult Hope as the leader of the technocratic Academy, attempting to emulate the power of the now dormant fal’Cie to re-levitate Cocoon before the pillar erodes.
The writing has sadly not improved. Daisuke Watanabe takes sole writing credit this time. The man is never one to self-edit and the addition of time travel has only made the lengthy expository banter more insipid and redundant with Serah and Noel constantly re-affirming previously established information to each other. The script manages the astonishing feat of being both abstract and over-written, being both willing and unwilling to explain the murky mechanics of its chosen gimmick. “If you change the future, you change the past,” becomes a mantra, so often is it repeated throughout the game, and characters’ emotions are inconsistent from scene to scene.
Tone is equally transient. While the game pretends to be foreboding and grandiose with its talk of a ravaged post-apocalypse and an encroaching Chaos at the shores of time, the inherent silliness of time-hopping spelunkers fending off a massive pudding runs roughshod over that idea. The very presence of the super-deformed Mog – a companion Moogle that also acts as Serah’s sword/bow (okay) – undercuts the potential seriousness of any given scene with a single “kupo”. (It’s also an excruciating reminder that Moogles should remain a text-based species.)
The only character worth getting into – the only one that isn’t a cipher, a doormat or crippled by the script – is CAIUS BALLAD. Once we’re able to look past his surreal design, CAIUS BALLAD is a man with motivation, conviction and the crushing burden of immortality. Like Vayne in FFXII, CAIUS BALLAD is a more nuanced villain than Final Fantasy is usually capable of providing; not only that, he’s a constant presence throughout the story, both watching the heroes from afar and engaging them on several occasions. Despite some wincing lines like, “I shall carve your pain onto my heart,” Liam O’Brien’s voice performance works wonders, bringing bass-heavy pathos and gravitas to the character that, in lesser hands, might have rendered him hilarious.
But CAIUS BALLAD is the single bright spot in an otherwise muddled swamp of a narrative that, for all its myriad faults, only really stumbles when it’s trying to be as thought-provoking and soul-searching as XIII imagined it was. The episodic nature of its scenarios (a relic from when the game was known as Final Fantasy XIII: Season Two) and wildly differing time periods they’re set in puts a barrier between their inter-connectivity, but it also means they’re more individually memorable, contrasting with the seamless misery of XIII’s hallways.
Already hamstrung by the absurdity of the time-travel gimmick, the game allows itself to cut loose when it embraces that same absurdity. From the Historia Crux, the crossroads of time that serves as a glorified level select, the player may choose which location to go to and, later, in which time period. As the player progresses through the story, they’ll encounter Time Gates that need to be unlocked with Fragments, the game’s chief collectable.
Totalling 160 (all of which must be collected for the secret ending), these Fragments are the most significant incentive to explore that the game gives you, providing the player with both experience points (or CP) and neat mini-stories in the returning Datalog. Fragments are uncovered with Mog and his Moogle Throw ability (accompanied by numerous “kupos” and bleeding ears), or by completing NPC-dispensed side-quests, which return en-masse in lieu of XIII’s Pulse Hunts.
This adherence to interactivity is also visible in the ‘Live Trigger’ mechanic, which is a gussied up nonsense name for dialogue options in certain scenes. These occur less frequently as the adventure winds down so I’m still unsure why they were included, but selecting the ‘correct’ option rewards the player with some bonus swag. Similarly, ‘Cinematic Action’ sequences are awkwardly bundled in to the end of certain boss fights; meaning, Quick Time Events are awkwardly bundled in to the end of certain boss fights. They’re as rote and un-engaging as 98% of QTEs in history, but it’s certainly something different in a Final Fantasy game and gives the player a modicum of agency, even if it’s only on a surface level.
Acquiring Fragments and unlocking Time Gates allows the Historia Crux to open up with more locations and time periods, most of which are separate from the main story. One such locale is Serendipity, the aforementioned mini-game hub, which serves as this game’s bastardised corruption of the Golden Saucer in FFVII. Compared with just the Wonder Square of the Saucer, Serendipity is a paling shadow: its only attractions are automated Chocobo Races and standard slot machines. Sazh’s pathetic DLC adds a poker table and an actually fun game called Chrono Bind, but even that can’t elevate Serendipity to anything beyond a momentary diversion.
It’s a missed opportunity in a game that otherwise tries its earnest best to appease and placate long-time fans. There’s an abundance of references to recurring monsters and series motifs throughout, and the Coliseum DLC even features Gilgamesh, Ultros and PuPu. The player is even able to recruit or ‘tame’ these monsters as the third party member in a system that largely replicates XIII’s Command Synergy Battle down to the letter, only this time it’s a lot faster and the battle animations aren’t nearly as clunky.
Roles are identical, the ATB operates the same and the Chain Gauge remains intact. The only palpable new element comes with the Feral Link, a QTE-based command that’s unique to each tameable critter. While the player can never control the AI-handled monster(s), they can mercifully swap between Noel and Serah as Leader, negating the instant Game Over that would occur when falling in XIII. Eidolons have been excised, probably because they were nearly useless, but the system benefits greatly with the increased speed and general refinement.
The Crystarium also returns and, for Serah and Noel at least, it remains unchanged. Earn CP in battle, press X and gain stats/abilities – simple stuff. However, tameable monsters have their own Crystarium, one that’s needlessly convoluted and dependent entirely on drop rates and consumable items. Feeding monsters Essences/Orbs/Droplets like Rare Candies increases their stats etc and makes as much sense as an abstract levelling process could, but grinding isn’t an especially feasible option without a spreadsheet of monster drops.
Infusion – grafting other monsters into a better monster to buff it up – is a great addition, however, and the ability to decorate them with Adornments like hats and bows is simply adorable, but there’s nothing the monsters can do that couldn’t be fulfilled by a returning character like Snow or Hope. Granted, it’s hilarious to watch a Golden Chocobo unleash Kweh over Jet Bahamut’s beautiful purple face at the end of time, but the point still stands.
If there’s one unmitigated success in XIII-2, it’s the soundtrack. Composed by the returning Masashi Hamauzu, along with Naoshi Mizuta and Mitsuto Suzuki, it’s the most varied and consistently enjoyable score since Nobuo Uematsu’s tenure. Tracks don’t just blend into the wallpaper of Isamu Kamikokuryo’s surreal, dysmorphic locations – the music actively enriches the environments with which it’s tied. ‘Followers of Chaos’ is the best example, its mad choir and scrambling strings capturing the desperate madness of a Cie’th infested cyber-scape, but elsewhere we have ‘Caius’ Theme’, ‘Shadow of Valhalla’ and the main battle theme, ‘The Last Hunter’.
There’s a palpable buoyance and energy to this score that serves as a refreshing antidote to the stop-start inertia of the plot. ‘Crazy Chocobo’, actually composed by a returning Uematsu, is one of the funniest and gloriously stupid pieces of music in any videogame, but it’s also a testament to the creativity and willingness to experiment that lies at the core of XIII-2’s soundtrack.
It’s the only facet of the game that truly lives up to that ‘Wish for Rebirth’ without some compromise or half-baked idea holding it back from greatness. One such idea was the implementation of multiple endings, or ‘Paradox Endings’. While none rival the actual ending for shock value or subversion of genre norms, they’re all individually interesting and divergent in tone and content. The problem is, with one exception, they’re all post-game unlockables via the ‘Paradox Scope’.
These endings are rewarded to the wily (or guide-reading) player by defeating specific previous boss fights with a tougher difficulty spike. (Said spike is rendered largely meaningless by the ability to switch between Easy and Normal difficulty at will, but at least they tried.) For all intents and purposes, the player is still railroaded along the plot-line before they can really branch out and tinker with the time-travel wackiness. Credit is given where it’s due, but Chrono Trigger it ain’t.
Nonetheless, XIII-2 is an earnest effort to reconnect with the Final Fantasy name that XIII strode so boldly away from. It’s not entirely fair to accuse XIII-2 of being a money-grabbing exploitation of the multi-million selling XIII name when, on several occasions, Kitase and Toriyama have both spoken of their willingness to listen to negative feedback regarding some of the decisions made during XIII’s development. Their chief goal was to prioritise interaction with the game-world and incentivise exploration; to their credit, they succeeded, but the writing is still so circular and nonsensical that it never feels like the improvement it ultimately is.
We’re still burdened with boring, one-note characters and a fragmented, disconnected world that still doesn’t provide real detail on the core mythology that serves as the foundation for the entire sub-series. The dramatically reduced development time – 18 months compared to XIII’s near-six years – may account for this, and might also be responsible for the laughably half-arsed DLC episodes, or maybe it’s the mark of a team that bit off far more than they could chew. (It might also explain the regular frame-rate drops, loading times and performance issues.) It’s not as cloying or embarrassing as X-2, and neither is it as morose and soul-sapping as XIII, but it is, fundamentally, a sub-standard Final Fantasy that only served to hasten its parent company’s decline.
Next time, we conclude the XIII trilogy with a bizarre and fascinating side-step – the game they were too ashamed to call XIII-3 – Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.