Thursday, 9 February 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2 [PS3]

The latest incomprehensible, shiny adventure from Square Enix is a much more playable experience than its predecessor.

Exploration and time travel are the key words of the day here - trekkin across space and time to save the future.

New features keep play varied and engaging - and thankfully the combat is still intense and visually stunning.

The ABC on the new J-RPG, FFXIII-2
For those who haven't completed the introductory course in pseudo-Latin game numbering systems, the title of this game is Final Fantasy 13 - number 2 (that being, the direct sequel to Final Fantasy 13).

That means that this game is a Japanese fantasy role-playing title, with a focus on exploration and character development. There game offers around 20 large areas to visit during several time periods, with each specific time and place having unique enemies and treasures to find. Due to the convoluted nature of the story, you will be revisiting these areas several times each in order to get all the hidden story items and complete all quests.

Story: An Introduction to the Beginner's Guide
The story here is that the time line has gotten messed up. Something, or someone, has mixed up time such that there are anomalies everywhere which our heroes, Serah and Noel, 
resolve to sort out. Once a time glitch (or "paradox") has been fixed, our heroes earn crystal fragments which can then be used to open new time periods and find new paradoxes and then sort those out as well.

Serah is the Lightning's sister from FF13, now not frozen in crystal an in need of rescue, but instead heading off to save Lightning, who is trapped in Valhalla in an eternal battle with an  evil time-travelling bloke (what is up with this family - can they not go 5 minutes without some interplanetary catastrophe centred around them!?!).

Noel is a bloke who dreams about Lightning and Serah before falling through the timeline into Valhalla. It is there that Lightning tasks him with finding Serah, and making their way through time to meet up with her in Valhalla (get the 4 o'clock bus, change at Hammersmith, then get off and walk at civilisation's ruin).

The time travelling theme means lots and lots more unpleasantly corny dialogue.

The big bad guy is called Caius Ballard, and is closely involved with a freaky girl called Yeul who sees every possible future. Noel knows Yeul (well, "a" Yeul - er - I'm just not going to go into it) so anyway he gets all emotional about seeing her. Then Sarah does. Then Yeul does.

The scope for puns based on names is so wide thanks to there being characters called Fang, Hope, Snow, Lightning, Noel and Yeul. I mean, the Christmas puns in both Noel and Yeul scream out at me and some sort of drug and spike pun out of Snow and Fang would be good. Some very quickly, and poorly, conceived examples are below but the possibilities are endless:

Happy Noel Noel!
Ah, Happy Yule Yeul!

You got a number for Snow?
Yeah, call this guy. Say Fang sent you.
Cool... I'm gonna get Snow with Fang's help...

O.K. maybe I'm trying a bit too hard to have fun with the characters here but you can cut me some slack - they're all bizarre, annoying and so you just cannot connect with any of them.

On that note, the co-dependant, emotional party of characters from FF13 no longer follow you around everywhere you go, however they do all pop up at some point along your travels to greet you. This offers some closure to their stories - at the end of FF13 everyone celebrated the completion of their journey and then the credits roll. Now you get to see what they got up to in the years that followed - if you were at all bothered which I doubt you are. I wasn't.

The Art of War
The combat is played out in a semi-turn-based style, that being that your team fights enemy characters in turns. The turns are not a fixed "player one fights, then player 2 etc." sequence, but instead an action bar fills up over time and once you this bar has filled sufficiently to carry out your selected action then your turn starts.

Battle sequences have much more variety and play out on a grander scale than in FF13.

Coupled with this, you normally have two other team members who you have indirect control over. You get to choose what they will be doing by selecting the appropriate "paradigm" for the battle. Paradigms are basically the current team ethos, so you can have offensive, defensive, healing, or any combination of these to suit the battle at hand.

Skills are improved by earning Crystarium Points (C.P.) which you spend equally on Noel and Serah's skills. There are bonuses as you level up through the skill trees but how you develop depends on upon the roles to which you assign your Crystarium Points, for example spending points on the Commando role gives big bonuses to your character's overall strength. Similarly, spending points on the Medic role gives bonuses to healing and overall health.

One issue I found was that the characters become very high level very quickly, and from about 15 hours in the game offers no challenge. Even the final boss battle was no problem, as I was level 99 in most roles (the maximum possible!). Perhaps the difficulty level is better balanced if you have not played FF13, but in any case the main story battles were far too easy.

I have yet to play through with the "Paradox Scope" ability turned on - this is unlocked once you have completed the final battle and ramps up the difficulty while you hunt for the rest of the 160 crystal fragments (of which I had found 44 at the time of finishing the main story).

Gotta Catch 'Em All
As you only have 2 team members to work with, you enlist the help of creatures that you fight along the way. Once you have beaten and caught a creature, you are then able to use it in your line-up. This is actually a welcome mechanic, offering some more variety to play and allowing you to vary your combat style without having to make massive changes to Noel and Serah.

The large creature on the right side of the screen is actually on your team!

When you acquire a monster, you are free to upgrade its abilities using upgrade parts found in battles, to make it wear a custom item of clothing, and to change its name to something more memorable. I quite enjoyed the naming aspect, as they had a nice selection on offer - from your "Butch" and "Viper" fighting names, to "Furball" and "Gobstopper" for monsters more comfortable in their toughness.

Again, these creatures get far too tough once you have upgraded them fully. These are upgraded using items picked up in battle or bought from the shop. With careful buying and selling, you can have more than enough of these to fully upgrade whatever monsters you want before the end of the main story - making the final battles a breeze.

The monsters also have unique abilities that can be unleashed in battle - in the form of a Quick Time Event. While not adding much to the gameplay, these have very handy perks that if used cleverly can allow you to turn battles around in an instant. 

The Broken DVD Player Effect
On that subject - now Quick Time Events pop up throughout some of the cutscenes. Mercifully, an effect on screen does warn you when one of these is about to pop up but there are few times when it feels necessary for you to be involved at all. 

A few times, as shown in the picture below, there is a choice to be made in the video. If there were more of this type of event, where different options allowed the video to pan out in different ways, then it may be more engaging. Unfortunately these moments are few and far between, and most events simply have "succeed" and "fail" within the time limit.

Cinematics now include Quick Time Events - now this is what I call progress.

The dialogue choices available are absolutely appalling as well - you sometimes get a 4 way dialogue choice but 3 of these options are clearly "wrong" and you are meant to keep asking until you ask the "right" question. In one case, where I was figuring out what the hell the story was going on about, the conversation went like this: 

Me: Could there be more than one World?
Hope (an old friend): Well an ancient civilisation, which lived in these ruins,
 believed that there was only the one World - this World.
Serah: Oh, so there's just this one World then?
Hope: That's right.

I beg your pardon? What? Just because someone off-handedly remarks that an ancient civilisation had a "One Universe" theory, that means that we can't discuss a "Multi-verse" theory in a place where I can time travel across thousands of years to various places in this World and elsewhere? Fair enough. Alienate me further.

One scene had us walk into the lair of a big bad called "The Arbiter of Time", who told us to get out or we will be destroyed. I believed him. Anyway, we asked him for a crystal fragment (pretending to do him a favour) and he gave us the fragment and told us to leave immediately.

Noel then decides to stand around there for a few minutes, bitching about Serah's boyfriend. Why? Just get the hell out of there! Stupid emo kids.

In most conversations, the best way to go is emo. In fact, one battle doesn't require you to think of a clever strategy, it only lets you win once you have "Screamed at Hope" (who wasn't even in that time period!). It worked though - Hope changed history to end the battle because Serah had a hissy fit. This game is pretty stupid.

I Remember Doing The Time Warp!
The Historia Crux - the new map selection screen - is a
tangled web of areas and time periods for you to explore.

You search across the time line using this menu - The Historia Crux - which is thankfully quite easy to use and functional. The time line opens up and branches off as you unlock more, completing quests and earning fragments in unlocked time periods will open up more areas.

The good thing about this is that you can warp to the Historia Crux from virtually anywhere, and your position in that area will be saved. That means if there is a fragment you need to collect from another time period you just open the Historia Crux menu, travel to the required area to collect the fragment, then warp back to the place you left off. This saves a lot of unnecessary faffing about in later missions.

Conversely, there is an annoying habit in some menus to freeze for about 15 seconds. Just shows the message, generally "Do you want to step into the flow of time?" but doesn't let you select "Yes" or "No" for a really long time.

Anyway, another handy feature is the return of Chocobo! Yay! Not only can you use Chocobo to speed you around the map, avoiding those short battles you once had, and your position with a Chocobo will be saved if you warp out as well.

You can also catch and train Chocobo to fight with you and to use in a Chocobo Races mini game. Apparently you can earn a lot of money on this but my Chocobo is obviously lazy because I got beat every time and lost a lot of money I bet on the bloody thing. That'll teach me to have faith in giant bird monsters....

Should've Gone To Specsavers
Your friendly marshmallow pig, Mog, will help you look for rare items out in the World.
A lot of the main bulk of the game requires you to trek around the World map completing quests and finding awkwardly hidden items and fragments. You find such items by using an old Final Fantasy favourite - Mog - who waves his wand and bring things into reality. 

These are quite carefully hidden as well, items are camouflaged such that finding the buggers takes a long, long time on the more complicated maps. 

One main quest in the second half of the game requires you to find 5 hidden items spread across the timeline, and it is this searching that took the majority of the play time. 
Well, cutscenes and searching. About 40% searching for hidden stuff, 40% watching glass-eyed hair stylists talk about emotions, 10% playing mini-games and a depressing 10% of your time actually spent fighting.

A higher difficulty setting from the start would have been welcome, or I would equally settle for cutting out around 10 hours of the cutscenes. I'm still playing after the main story is complete though, just because for the first time in a long time, I am playing a good old Final Fantasy.

Surpasses its predecessor by far - this has a much more open and exploratory theme - more akin to earlier Final Fantasies.

Although the plot is no less baffling, this is a much more accessible FF adventure and so should appeal more to newcomers to the series.

While it kept me playing to the end, the game was far too easy once I'd upgraded my characters. 
I guess this was SquareEnix trying to put as few people off as possible, but it will not gain favour among the hardcore FF fans.

I do not own the copyright to these images. And to appease the Amazon gods, go take a look at buying it!

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