I know I said about this ages ago, but I thought I’d finish the game before I decided to give my verdict. I’ll try to avoid any spoilers though, I’m good like that.
So yes, Final Fantasy XIII might not have been the best of the main series by any stretch of the imagination, at least from a gameplay point of view, but it had a good story. Humans as the puppets of these demi-god machine things (yeah I never quite got to grips what they were), forced to carry out their bidding unless they want to turn into gross zombie monsters. The alternative wasn’t much better, being turned to crystal forever (ish). Maybe they would have had more success if they’d just left the people alone if they carried out their mission…
Anyway, XIII was a pretty flawed game in some respects, notably the notoriously linear gameplay that for the majority of the game means running through a series of beautifully rendered but basically one-way maps. Perhaps this criticism was unfairly bigged-up, after all, a lot of games are linear. Perhaps in an RPG, a handful of sidequests would have helped no end. Given this and several other criticisms, Square Enix not only commissioned an eyebrow-raising direct sequel (only the second in FF history), but they pretty much took everybody’s advice to make up for their sins.
Out went linearity in a BIG way, in fact they whole space-time continuum seemed to go out of the window too, as FFXIII’s lead Lightning gets lost in time after the events of the last game. She sends the last man on Pulse (from the end of humanity), Noel, to find her sister Serah – formerly a crystal – and together with Mog the moogle they will go and kick some ass, kupo.
Storywise I guess sacrifices had to be made if you are going to populate the game almost entirely with sub-quest, and the narrative is pre-occupied with Serah going on about saving Lightning, and Noel going on about saving spooky seeress Yeul.
The baddie comes in the form of Caius Ballad, who carries himself like the Goblin King from Labyrinth, and speaks like Calculon from Futurama. He’s like emo cosplay come to life. After 50 hours of gameplay I’m still not entirely sure what he was trying to do with his plan (or even if he succeeded).
The usual JPRG dialogue nonsense is there, along with some truly awesome cutscenes. The game – much like its prequel – looks amazing. The soundtrack was pretty hot too, more actual songs that I was expecting, particularly some quite full-on thrash metal shout-a-thons for a few big bosses. Charice’s theme song was good but totally at odds with the latter part of the end sequence.
The battles were actually a lot more fun than before. Only having to think about two permanent team members was a relief, while the third slot was occupied by a captured monster. These had different job roles (as do Serah and Noel, as in FFXIII), and you can even level them up. I was rather proud of my multi-coloured team of Chocobo warriors! The system itself is the same, with faster paradigm shifts to make the battles a lot pacier and fun. I felt like I was participating at least, moreso than FFXIII anyway.
Levelling up is a lot more straightforward too, with – ironically – one linear path on your crystarium, instead of XIII’s sprawling multi-boarded levelling system. Essentially it’s the same idea, you choose which role to level up with each unlocked node. I found it much easier to plan with the new system anyway.
So those side-quests, well most of them are pretty much retrieving items for other characters (sometimes in different time periods), or killing some mini-boss. They are brief and numerous though, enough so for you to think “Oh I’ll just do this one last bit” and lose hours of your life. They are all achievable with a great spread of skill-level, as are the achievements/trophies, which nudge you to explore every aspect of the game (even if a few are a pain in the ass).
This is usually done under the pretext of paradoxes, of which there are MANY, with nearly all the dialogue mentioning them at some point. There are even mini-puzzles to resolve these directly. Some of these are very annoying, but the “Hands of time” puzzles are really insanely difficult. My housemate ended up writing a program to solve them! (yes yes, it’s a geek house).
The ending was a disappointment, I’ll have to say. I don’t know how it will be resolved, if it’s through DLC (which seems a bit of a backdoor way to resolve the entire story) or an unprecedented “threequel”. I just hope they come up with the goods.
All in all, for all the minor gripes, this was a fiercely addictive game, and a great addition to the main FF family. Even if you didn’t like FFXIII, I think this might be well worth it, as I suspect peoples’ issues with the earlier game were mainly on the gameplay, which Square-Enix has done a great job of addressing.