Imagine the lunacy of authoring a 13,000 word analytical defense for the most hated game ever made. Of spending months pushing back against a narrative solidified through years of ridicule and venom. Of embarking on a grand quest knowing full well its destination will appear no different than its beginning.
Earlier this year, that lunacy was my own. The fruit of my labor was the four-part Shift to Sentinel series, a passion project representing the climax of a long crusade to make a case for Final Fantasy XIII as one of last generation’s better games. I stand by every word of it.
Strange how things work out, then: Final Fantasy XIII-2 may very well be one of last generation’s worst.
After a brief prologue tutorial with our old friend Lightning, we are re-introduced to her sister Serah Farron, Final Fantasy XIII’s delicate MacGuffin with the unenviable task of captaining this infernal ship. She soon meets up with time-traveling huntsman-about-town Noel Kreiss, who will indeed be wearing those for the duration. Lightning herself is now a celestial warrior serving the Goddess Etro in the otherworldly realm of Valhalla, under attack by a purple-clad warrior who summons meteors to combat her army of Eidolons. Perhaps I missed Final Fantasy XIII’s 100% ending.
After saving Serah from one of the game’s weakest enemies, Noel offers to take her on a timequest to be reunited with Lightning; that the plan consists of little more than “if we keep jumping through warp gates, we’re bound to reach Valhalla!” seems of little concern to Serah. A dream’s premonition proves sufficient currency to buy her faith, and the two step through a warp gate Noel had stashed in a meteor of his own. Along for the ride is Mog, a moogle who can turn into a bow. Heavy metal blares from the speakers. I’m beginning to wonder if I bought the wrong game.
For a good long while, that’s essentially all the story has to offer; you hop from gate to gate and time to time, hoping that the next jump will set you down in the middle of Valhalla Square. I would settle for someplace interesting. Its predecessor’s sharp pacing is nowhere to be found, replaced by a narrative more apt to produce spontaneous justifications for pulling the playing into increasingly dull locales. Whenever you sense things are about to take a turn for the better, a helpful fetch quest will be right around the corner to grind affairs to a halt.
Our dual protagonists pale in comparison to even the weakest members of Final Fantasy XIII’s roster, denied the urgent backdrop and interweaving relationships that shaped the tales of their forbears. There is no Snow, the self-styled superhero who faced a hard reckoning with the ever-mounting sum of his failures. Nor is there a Lightning, whose own inadequacies nearly caused the destruction of two she held dear. At least Noel has a half-interesting dynamic with Yuel and Caius; Serah is useless outright.
Such grievous narrative shortcomings would on their own threaten to sink any JRPG, but this particular ship is ill-suited to going under with dignity. If story was the cannonball blowing a neat hole through the upper decks, then pacing is the iceberg grinding a fatal wound into the hull.
Much of your time traipsing about the fragmented world of Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be spent tackling Fragment Quests, which are precisely as exciting as they sound. These quests, ripped straight out of the world’s worst MMO, often entail speaking to throwaway NPC #26 before embarking on a grand 10 minute search for Batteries or Old Picture, usually located in a conspicuous treasure sphere along one of the game’s many corridors. You doubt these people even bothered to look.
There are dozens of these quests, quite literally not a single one of which is interesting by any metric — impressive, from a certain point of view. But that alone just wouldn’t be bad enough, would it? Surely there must be some way to make this busywork even more insufferable? Good news: some of these quests are mandatory. Inescapable ineptitude is the best ineptitude, after all.
Halfway through the game, your progress is impeded by a titanic 10-foot chasm that can only be safely crossed via summonable platform — perhaps Noel’s pants render him unable to jump. Of course, summoning said platform requires a key, and that key is of course located in another timeline behind a warp gate, which is of course locked off until recovering a Wild Artefact, which is of course the reward for completing a Fragment Quest that in no way indicates that a Wild Artefact is its reward. Someone thought this would be fun.
I spent no less than 3 hours scampering about in search of that Wild Artefact, suffering through disposable side quest after disposable side quest just to cross a 10-foot gap in an ultimately-forgettable dungeon. Noel offers this endearing quip after finally activating the lift:
That was a lot of work for one lousy access key.
It pains me to inform the developers that being aware of your own bad design doesn’t excuse it.
On the subject of pain, let’s talk about Graviton Cores. I hope we weren’t having too much fun.
Graviton Cores are Final Fantasy XIII-2’s version of the Triforce Pieces from Wind Waker or the Artifacts from Metroid Prime, only vastly more frustrating and in a terrible game. Near the end, you are required to collect 5 of these Cores, which are scattered all over the game world. So begins another 3 hour pacebreaking search for random junk, complete with its own locked warp gate. I admit using a guide to snag that one final Wild Artefact because the alternative was microwaving the disc.
Thankfully, things finally pick up from there, with some of the game’s best narrative moments coming after the Graviton business is done and dusted. Naturally, the game is over less than 5 hours later, with the latter part of it spent traversing an area so awful that my review note on the subject is simply a string of profanity.
Why let a good thing last?
So that leaves us with the combat system – Final Fantasy XIII-2’s last chance at salvaging something from the writhing mess that is its own existence. Its predecessor’s was one of the most finely balanced in the genre, dispensed in piecemeal fashion over the game’s first half to give the encounters of each area their own unique flavor. Emerging victorious against stiff opposition was a matter of synthesizing new concepts with those already mastered – the honing of the tools before learning their proper use. We don’t often think of pacing in the context of mechanical development, but Final Fantasy XIII was remarkably well paced in that regard.
Final Fantasy XIII-2’s combat system is nothing short of a betrayal, wearing the clothes of its predecessor like two children piggybacking in their father’s overcoat. Everything that XIII did well has been utterly destroyed by design so shockingly inept that I find it very hard to believe the same company was responsible for both games.
This is a 50-hour quest that feels less harrowing than a poker game on the right side of town. Enemies are little more than fleshy speedbumps to be swiftly obliterated on the road to more challenging opposition that simply never arises. One mid-game area is an hour-long march through narrow city streets as dozens of unavoidable enemies spawn on your forehead every 5 seconds, which is roughly half as long as the duration of each fight. It may appear humorous until I add that not a word of that sentence was hyperbole. Inexcusable.
To its credit, the game does manage to end on a high note with one of the more climatic final boss battles I’ve experienced in some time, made all the more impressive by the utter lack of rising action to support it. Yet despite the brutal 28-minute struggle that preceded it, striking the final blow felt distinctly like committing a mercy killing — one of those rare instances where a mercy killing was primarily merciful to the killer.
But that’s enough positivity. For even if the challenge of that final half-hour were to have been present throughout, Final Fantasy XIII-2’s battle system would little better off due to a monster taming feature that somehow manages to be even worse in execution than it is in conception.
This is a JRPG where one of three permanent party member slots is filled by disposable grunts whose existence is confined solely to combat, each one boasting a lifespan of five hours at best. These grunts come in a wide variety of flavors, of which only a few can be recommended thanks to the inherent statistical weaknesses of the two main characters. These grunts can be absorbed by other grunts to transfer fantastically underwhelming abilities. These grunts rain from the sky like confetti, yet the price of upgrading even one of them is so steep that experimentation is all but impossible without tedious grinding, accomplished using other grunts whose competence was a result of the very activity that now leads to their own obsolescence. There’s something almost beautiful about how stupid it is.
What we have here is a game whose composition is as scatterbrained as the time-skipping pseudoplot that weaves weakly through it. Certain areas exist for very little reason other than to lead players on repetitive jaunts to insignificant moments of narrative nonsense, while their temporal counterparts exist for very little reason at all. There’s no progression, no climbing action, no sense of scale – just a long series of half-starts and abrupt stops that are frustrating in the moment and downright amateurish in retrospect. This is no adventure – this is a meandering.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a rudderless ship coasting in a sea of mediocrity. It staggers along awkwardly, cobbled together with the disparate components of more celebrated contemporaries, yet lacking even the most basic understanding of why those contemporaries were celebrated in the first place. It could easily be called cynical, but such a label would be giving undue credit. It is, rather, innocently awful. Charmingly incompetent. Completely, utterly, absolutely oblivious to the disaster of its own construction.
Let it sail into the mists of obscurity.
A copy of the game was independently acquired by the reviewer.