Following up my take on Final Fantasy XIII, now is the time to talk about the anticipated sequel. The reason I had expectations for this one was that I really enjoyed a lot of the mechanics of FFXIII but they did screw up with the game's structure. When work started with the sequel, the developers promised certain important changes. They also chose to retain the fighting system. So I got this game as soon as it was available and spent an entire weekend on it. Since then it's been a week of quite intense gaming, and now it is done. For now anyway, there's DLC on the way. Let's see what they did right and what went wrong.
1. Area exploration
The single biggest complaint about the main title was its area design. Three quarters of the game was just one long corridor, and a narrow one at that. There were not any side quests until very late in the game, and all of those were the same (kill X). FFXIII-2 is different indeed. Its areas are wider; they have multiple paths and lots of things to discover. They also have people. People who, like any RPG player will know, will give side quests. Granted, there is absolutely nothing spectacular about the areas of FFXIII-2. They are simply reminiscent of the old era, especially FFX-2, the other true sequel in the history of the series. This serves as an important reminder that sometimes the way forward is backward. It does help tremendously that the developers still have an eye for beautiful scenery which makes the areas really gorgeous to behold.
Traveling between areas is fast. The game has a time travel theme and the characters can freely travel between different places and times through a gate matrix. There's typically more than one version of each location from different eras and they share most of the details. While this can be seen as laziness in area design, the solution is quite alright and there's still enough unique areas. Some quests also involve visiting the same area in different times. Maybe the only complaint would be that there are not many cases in the game where changing something in another era causes a change in a second era.
2. Character development goes Pokémon
It's been known for a while that the game only features a cast of two playable characters, and the third slot in the party will always be filled by a monster. Monsters can be captured, trained and fused together. Sounds a bit familiar, no? It's somewhat less Pokémon and somewhat more Shin Megami Tensei though. With monsters in the equation, the game has two parallel character development schemes. The main characters level up in rather straightforward manner using a system quite similar to the main title. Slightly more streamlined perhaps. Monsters on the other hand level up using specific material items which are dropped by enemies. Although the main character development system does have some tricks for the power gamer, the monsters are the real power gaming element in this system.
The Paradigm system from FFXIII is mostly intact. However, monsters only have a single role. The party can have active three monsters which can be used in paradigms. This means that the third party member is limited to three possible roles instead of six. The system designers have actually even made the choice hard for players because monsters learn a bunch of important abilities that either of the main cast do not. The series has usually had rather omnipotent characters who will at some point be able to do everything, but in FFXIII-2 the player always has to give up something when choosing their monsters. It's still somewhat underplayed, but a fresh change either way.
Since monsters are less flexible, they have been made more potent in their single role. A monster's power is ultimately decided by its stat growth, its unique abilities and its Feral Link, which is a kind of a super move reminiscent of old Limit Breaks in the sense that the meter accumulates over time and the power can be released once it's full. The system has clear winners which will ultimately become the most powerful monsters in the game. However, monsters have different growth patterns. Fast-growing monsters are much cheaper to develop into their full potential. The very best monsters on the other hand grow very slowly and are a huge investment. They are mostly available in postgame.
Even monsters that are not the most powerful in the bunch have their uses through infusion. Each monster in the game learns a certain set of abilities which include both role-independent passive abilities and role abilities. Most of these can be transferred to other monsters through infusion. This means the true power gamer will not simply hunt and train the very best monsters, but also a lot of other monsters who can learn useful abilities. The system is much easier for the player than the system in Shin Megami Tensei titles (which is a topic for another day), but it has a lot of possibilities. Generally it's quite fun to hunt for various monsters in search of good abilities to pass on.
Overall, while the system does not have the depth of SMT demon fusion, it is an enjoyable way to boost the party's power. The process is pretty streamlined and creating a solid monster doesn't take that much farming because fodder monsters can be trained with less powerful store-bought materials. Creating a monster with all the greatest abilities is still a rather big effort but a near-perfect one is more than enough and takes a lot less time to develop. It is also good that monster development is not tied to keeping them in the active party. This makes it much more convenient to train lots of monsters, even weak ones.
For the next game though, I really would like to see more complex main character development. It's been a lackluster in both the main title and this sequel. In the main title, weapons and accessories were a bit trickier to develop but in the sequel there isn't really much customization or gear tuning to do.
3. Difficulty, once again
With most of the building blocks solidly in place, the game's looking pretty good. The one core problem of games in the series has always been difficulty. To put it really simply, they are easy. FFXIII was a curious exception and was, in fact, pretty hard. Some earlier games in the series have also featured rather hard postgame challenges. Unfortunately FFXIII-2 falls under the "way too easy" category. The final boss was surprisingly difficult, but everything else in the main story was just easy. This is made a bit ridiculous by the fact that the game actually has a separate easy difficulty. They could have easily made the normal difficulty a bit harder. Hell, they are even allowing changing difficulty during the course of the game. There is, therefore, absolutely no excuse for making the game too easy.
This time around, the optional bosses are not that much of a threat either. The toughest two do take a while to beat down even with a high level party, but they don't provide much of a threat. I am really hoping that somewhere along the line of DLC releases, they are going to release some fucked up bosses that actually demand the player to carefully develop a strategy and monsters to fit it. You made a solid game, now please provide more reasons to really optimize.
4. Some of these trophies...
This is a rather quick complaint. To perfectly complete the game, the player needs to collect one fragment (important key items) by playing a slot machine. A lot. They also have a couple of trophies that need the player to do rather boring stuff, and way too much of it. Fortunately all of these are doable by rigging the controller with some rubber bands, leaving the game on and going away to do something more productive. Still, game makers, is this really necessary? By today's standards? I guess it's some sort of tradition that every now and then a JRPG just has to have something that is best done by leaving the game to play itself but this doesn't fail to baffle me. Just saying.
The lack of difficulty is really the only bigger fault with the game. Could be that the lack of good HD console JRPGs has clouded my judgement, but I really enjoyed FFXIII-2. It succeeded in many ways to capture the essence of what makes JRPGs good and it was a true Final Fantasy. Most importantly, it was a blast to play and I already miss it. I liked the story, and surprisingly even the characters in the end. I just hope that Square Enix takes the hint and this will be the direction they are taking new titles in the series.