I loved Final Fantasy XIII. It's one of my favourite games in the series, and I was looking forward to this game a great deal, so imagine my joy when I got it two days before it officially was released! Whoo! Anyway, I have a lot to say about this game, so grab the popcorn... or not, because my general opinion breaks down to "Great, but not as fantastic as it should have been."
The story unfolds a little too slowly for my liking, and never really starts moving until around halfway through the game. The only thing that really kept me interested in the disjointed plot was the characters. Noel is beautifully written and, dare I say, realistic. I can really buy into him seeing the end of the world and being the last person alive through little nuances of his character, such as his blunt nature and subtle determination to change history in some way. Like XIII, it's the moments between the characters where the writing really shines. I have less praise for Serah though, who I never thought notably developed apart some obligatory "I'm not afraid any more" stuff.
Personally, I don't think the time travel concept was implemented nearly as well as it could have done. There isn't a strong atmosphere of solving paradoxes and fixing history because each area feels isolated from the others. Solving paradoxes doesn't seem to do much, really. It would have been nice to see Serah and Noel have a more noticeable effect on history, just to give more weight to Caius's campaign. In fact, it's quite similar to Kingdoms Hearts in the way different areas seem to have their own plot, and are only connected by a larger arc involving the characters.
While they have different side-quests, different monsters and some areas blocked off, the different eras don't always feel different enough to me, especially between some of the larger time leaps. Sometimes it feels like the time travel mechanic was just a way of recycling areas than showing change over time, particularly in areas like Oerba and the Yaschas Massif.
|A weather changing device can create|
rain, thunderstorms, heatwaves, etc.
uses a weather-changing mechanic to alter the monsters that populate the area, and have an effect on certain Cactuar statues... This is easily my favourite area in the game when it comes to design and implementation. I spend a lot of time there! Most of the areas are quite well designed, for that matter; they are much more open than the first game. I was just slightly disappointed with the lack of variance between time periods.
The biggest complaint XIII got was it's linearity and the lack of Side Quests. Both of these problems were addressed in the sequel, with many optional areas buried in the Historia Crux and each area holding an abundance of Side Quests. Many of these side-quests are a lot of fun, though most are just simple fetch quests such as "Find some guy's batteries" or "Deliver this letter". These kinds of quests add very little to the plot or the world of the game, and in that sense I find them superfluous and a little unnecessary.
At this point, I'd also like to discuss my dislike of Serendipity, a casino area. I've never liked slot machines, and the lack of skill involved with working them here is something that really irritates me. Usually I'd just ignore it, but using the slots is required for 100% completion, and there isn't a skill-based alternative.
The battle system in XIII-2 is very similar to the first game, and is more about understanding how the tides of battle work and macromanaging the team through the paradigm shift system, which controls the abilities and roles of the characters. A Commando, for example, is a straight up damage dealer, while Sabouteurs are more about debilitating opponents. The battles are fast paced and insanely enjoyable, to the point where I was unknowingly level grinding!
However, I do think the battles are a lot easier than the first game, which got a little bit of flak for being too difficult. For random battles in particular, I didn't really need to use much outside of Ravagers and Commando's, and I often forced myself to make use of other roles such as Synergist and Sentinel, which are nowhere near as useful as in XIII due to the removal of certain abilities. I didn't find many of the bosses much harder either, and at the very least I didn't feel as if I needed to make many special preparations for them. I downed an optional boss called Twilight Odin in one stagger, which doesn't seem right to me. This changes in the last chapter, however, where the difficulty suddenly spikes. While I'm quite experienced with the paradigm system, the game never really eases you into making more effective use of other roles, and the spike could put some people off.
There are also cinematic actions which involve QTE's, usually required to finish off a boss. While fun, these events are so few and far between they hardly warrant mentioning.
One thing I didn't really enjoy was the Monster system. Basically, the only two party members you'll get over the course of the game are Serah and Noel, the third spot is filled by a collectible roster of monsters. Three monsters (with one role each) can be brought into battles. While an interesting idea, it's not very well executed. For a start, it's never really explained exactly why these monsters are fighting for Serah, and in that sense they offer no real depth to the story like a third character would. From a gameplay perspective, they're also more frustrating to use than a third character. At the start of the game, very few of the monsters are that good. The Ravagers in the early game are generally restricted to using only one element, meaning you're either going to need to bring multiple Ravagers into each battle and constantly shift paradigms to cover your bases, or risk being crippled by an enemy resistant to an element, or even one which absorbs it. They get better, but by then elements start to become a little less useful anyway. That you get to use 3 monsters at a time is quite frustrating, as it often means giving the menial roles to your more versatile 2 characters while the good stuff is out of your control.
The other problem there is that, by the end of the game, there are more monsters than you know what to do with. Do you infuse some of them? But what if you've just infused one of best Synergists in the game into one of the worst? The monsters can get really expensive to level up as well, so you don't really want to have to do so much experimenting with them, especially since the level of micromanaging you have to do to keep up with the 20 monsters you're thinking of using, but probably never will.
While I'm talking about the Crystarium, I'll just say that I don't think it was handled as well as the first game, mostly because it's not explained well enough. The Crystarium has been simplified a lot from the first game. You can gain new job roles and develop them fairly quickly, and the specialisation of roles isn't as crippling as in the first game, so in that sense it's a lot more open ended, though it's pretty obvious you should be going for the ATB and Job Roles first! I did have to work out for myself when the Crystarium expands, which is not something I should really have to do. There are basically two kinds of nodes on the new Crystarium: large and small. If you level up a role on a big node, you get a role bonus. Levelling up Commando, for example, will give a bonus to strength. At least to my knowledge, this is never explained. I've just looked on GameFAQs, and apparently it's even more convoluted than that, and has something to do with odd and even levels. I just don't need that.
I'll only talk briefly about music, because it's something a lot of people will have different opinions on. I don't think it's the best soundtrack in the series, though I do think that every track is well made and more suitable to their applications that some other Final Fantasy games. Some of the tracks, such as the heavy metal "Crazy Chocobo" will not be universally liked, but they do make sense where they are. The music is very interesting in the sense the emphasis is far more on the individual instruments than anything I have ever heard before, giving a lot of the tracks an almost lonely tone to them. Some tracks from the first game are reused. You can make your own mind up on that. I don't mind it apart from the idea of "Dust to Dust" being played anywhere other than Oerba.
Despite all the crap I've given this game, since I got it last Wednesday I have managed to clock up around 28 hours worth of gaming. So there must be something in Final Fantasy XIII-2 if I managed to average 4 hours a day playing it!