Video Game Review: Stunning Graphics, Addictive Combat Elevate ‘Final Fantasy XIII-2’

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CHICAGO – “Final Fantasy XIII-2” takes an adjustment. It’s not that distinct an experience from other “FF” games but gamers currently handling “Modern Warfare 3” or “Skyrim” addictions will have to get accustomed to a very different gaming style. The first couple hours, heavy on cut scenes and with a first level that seems frustratingly juvenile and pedestrian, disappointed me. And then “FF III-2” got its hooks into me. Give it time. Get used to not just the changes within the “FF” franchise but from games you’re used to playing. You’ll probably fall for “FF XIII-2” like I did.

HollywoodChicago.com Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0
Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0

Most readers probably want to know my experience level with “Final Fantasy” games in general — it’s diverse but low. I’ve been playing games for so long that I’ve sampled a great number of “Final Fantasy” games and even saw “The Spirits Within” in theaters (and “Advent Children” on DVD). I know the franchise well. Having said that, I’ve never become addicted to a title to the point that I fully explored it, became entranced by the story, and wouldn’t let it go. In other words, I’ve played “Final Fantasy” but I’ve never PLAYED “Final Fantasy.” I’ve never felt a part of its world like I have, for example, “Bioshock,” “Mass Effect,” or “Skyrim.” I like “Final Fantasy,” I don’t love it (although I totally respect its loyal and devoted fan base).

Final Fantasy XIII-2
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Photo credit: Square Enix

Perhaps this is why I didn’t hate “Final Fantasy XIII” like so many of the franchise’s most hardcore fans. Where a lot of players saw a disappointingly linear story with too little landscape to explore, I saw a beautiful game with stunning graphics and an engaging battle system. Having said that, “Final Fantasy XIII-2” is an improvement in nearly every way. It’s clearly designed as a direct sequel to correct perceived errors of the last game. Exploration isn’t just a part of this sequel, it’s required. Side missions, collectible items, percentages that tell you how much you’ve explored, even finding creatures that will help you in battle — you will have to explore to complete this game. Didn’t like the linear nature of the last one? There’s still a direct story line in this one but exploration has been returned to the franchise.

Final Fantasy XIII-2
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Photo credit: Square Enix

They’ve also upgraded and altered the battle system, which seems faster and more refined. Most of your success in combat comes from quickly changing pre-set paradigms. For example, you may have an aggressive paradigm set up in which your characters go “Commando” and try to take down your enemy with brutal attacks but that will leave you open to damage. So, to succeed, you’ll have to switch paradigms to a more defensive “Sentinel” set-up at just the right moment to avoid damage. Throw in potions to heal yourself. Switch paradigms. Even use creatures that you’ve found through exploration. Combat is more fast-paced than a vast majority of RPG games you’ve ever played. And I grew to love it. I grew to love picking the right creatures, balancing the right paradigms, and switching at just the right time.

And the game looks amazing. From the very beginning, “Final Fantasy XIII-2” is a stunner. The cut scenes look better than a lot of CGI movies and the character design is stellar. The gameplay, especially in combat, is fluid and sometimes captivating. The game regularly enters “Cinematic Action” in which you have to click a button at the right time to avoid damage. Everything about the game from the fast-paced combat to the more somber moments is gorgeous.

We’ve talked about exploration, combat, and graphics and not even mentioned the story. For a reason. Once again, the story of “Final Fantasy XIII-2” is defiantly goofy. I know that sounds like sacrilege to fans of this franchise, but I just couldn’t care about the saga of Serah and Noel on their journey through time. The story this time feels particularly juvenile. Sure, there are gigantic, grotesque creatures to battle but you’ll do so in your cutest outfit with your pet kitty by your side. The story has dark touches for sure but it all feels like it’s been filtered through a teenage Japanese girl. The story never grabbed me, which is odd given the preponderance of cut scenes and dialogue. Rarely have I played an RPG this much where I was skipping through dialogue to get back to the combat but that’s the case with “Final Fantasy XIII-2.”

Final Fantasy XIII-2
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Photo credit: Square Enix

“Final Fantasy XIII-2” opens with some violent, intense scenes between heroine Lightning and a villain named Caius at Valhalla. In the middle of some chaotic action, a young hero named Noel lands in this seemingly-desolate place. Lightning asks Noel to travel through time and find her sister Serah. The game flashes to Serah and Noel, who you can alternate control over, and they travel through various spots in time on their way back to Valhalla. The player can constantly jump back to the timeline, restarting the area they have just explored and correcting perceived errors. In other words, the game rewards the devoted; the people willing to put in hours to “get it right.” Unlike a lot of “FF” games, only two playable characters (Serah & Noel) and their animal allies are playable and the story feels particularly thin when one considers the deep devotion of the fan base of this series.

“Final Fantasy XIII-2” is a deep game in unique ways other than story. It encourages exploration not just for an increased game completion percentage numbers but for success in combat. Find the animal ally that your friend couldn’t find and more easily win a battle. Of course, it has all the customization one would expect from which ally to take into combat to paradigms to equipment to buy and equip. The story is thin and I found I never cared about the characters, which is enough reason for a point off the final score, but everything else about this game works — it’s beautiful, perfectly-designed, and features a clever, addictive combat system. I wonder if fans of the last “FF XIII” game will now forgive the flaws of the last title or miss the deeper story of that game. Being a “casual” fan of “Final Fantasy,” I like ‘em both. Blasphemy, I know.

“Final Fantasy XIII-2” was developed and released by Square Enix on January 31st, 2012. It was reviewed for the Xbox 360 but the title is also available for the PS3. It is rated T (Teen).

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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