I am curious. It's a bad habit, I know, but I am a curious person. When it comes to video games, my curiosity and intrigue can sometimes get the better of my more practical judgment. There have been two or three games over the years that I picked up on a whim, without weighing the pros and cons of the product, and, upon devoting a few hours of time, discovered that they were not worth it. With this revelation, my reaction tends to be one of the following: 1) there goes money that I can't get back, not even with a decent trade in credit; 2) clearly a lot of work was put into this product, but it has failed to grab my attention, and this is a disappointment; or 3) I will never get those precious hours of time back. Ever.
I had all three of these reactions in March of 2010, with the North American release of Final Fantasy XIII. I lost money on it. I saw something that had clearly been the product of hard, frustrating work, but it did not grasp my attention. I spent over 20 hours on the game, not even managing to clear the second disc (Xbox 360 version) before I gave up. This game ranks amongst the biggest disappointments I've ever experienced.
When Final Fantasy XIII was first announced, I was intrigued, mostly by the presence of a capable female character in a Japanese RPG. I personally think that Lightning is one of the finer presentations of a strong female character not strictly defined by her status as a woman. She is presented as physically adept, mentally tough, and loyal to those who have earned her respect. She is equally harsh with those who earn her disdain, with her sharpest rebukes saved for her would-be-brother-in-law, Snow, and his misguided, tragic attempts at saving the world. Final Fantasy XIII was one of those games that presented strong characters, both female and male, and had intense, compelling emotional narratives for each.
Final Fantasy XIII has a fantastic combat engine, as well, one that required some thought to coordinate, and utilized the interesting Paradigm Shift system, allowing the battle tactics to switch on the fly. While the player only controlled one character at a time, setting up distinct jobs for each character in the party would create a new paradigm, such as one based upon combat, another on strict support, and a few groups that mixed and matched. It was a fast-paced, engaging combat system, one of the better that I've played with.
So where did this game go wrong for me?
I have a hard time figuring out exactly where it was. The linear story line didn't bother me too much, though I missed the exploration allowed in previous Final Fantasy titles, and the environments were strikingly designed. The characters all had unique looks and personalities, their actions, for good or ill, altered the world and their fellows in equal measure. The game has so much going for it, so why, oh why, did it go wrong?
I suppose after pouring 20 hours into a game, I hoped to see some progress, or even some kind of pay off. By the end of the first of three discs, I had a sense of unease, a concern that this game was going to let me down, not gently, but by kicking me straight out of my chair. When I did finally put the controller down, I walked away disappointed. I had purchased a game that I wanted, I had tried to get into it, and even when it offered me engaging characters, an involved, if slightly convoluted, story, and a fast, flashy, fun combat system, I still felt like the game had let me down.
What was I missing? I'd played the game, followed the pathways, done the combat, and explored what I could. I felt like I was missing something from this game, and that made the disappointment all the harder. When a game doesn't provide what a player wanted, and when the player can't really figure out why, it's hard to look beyond the flaws and see what was good in the offering.
A few months ago, when I heard that Final Fantasy XIII-2 was being released in January of 2012, my first reaction was raised eyebrows. Really? A sequel to that game? But why? Were people clamoring for one? After all, the last I'd heard, Final Fantasy XIII Versus was supposedly forthcoming. No, no, this is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, I was told. Take a look.
So, with dubious eyebrows raised, I looked up some information on the game. Presentation wise, it is high quality Square Enix fare, with striking visuals and exquisitely rendered cut scenes. The story appears to be as complex as its predecessor, with Lightning's younger sister, Serah, taking center stage, along with her new companion, Noel. Using a time-travel story as a setting also proves intriguing, as well, if only because of the radically different worlds and settings that can open up.
Seeing the battle system in action, I saw a smoother version of the combat presented in its predecessor, with Serah and Noel taking over the battle, and an assortment of monsters and critters serving as the third party member. The use of monster collecting as a component of game play and combat reminded me of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, still an old favorite. Other characters from the previous game return, sometimes in wildly changed incarnations, a byproduct of the time travel mechanic that forms the core of the story.
Reading more details revealed Final Fantasy XIII-2 to be a game that is more open, with explorable areas, platforming, towns and conversations, all elements that had been missing from Final Fantasy XIII. It is clearly the same world, but modifications have been made, and it appears to be the game that the developers wanted Final Fantasy XIII to be in the first place. It appears to be a second chance, a way for Square Enix to present their new product, with elements of the previous offering, and show something more akin to what they wanted from the get-go.
A few weeks ago I talked about video game sequels, and why sequels were to be expected, but also were perhaps relied upon too much. I think I might be safe saying that, as far as a sequel goes, Final Fantasy XIII-2 might be on the right track. It's giving fans what they wanted from the start, while still keeping the elements that made the previous offering unique. It is still a sequel, and still waves in the face of my complaints about them, but, Final Fantasy is a gaming mainstay, and, seeing a mix of the new and impressive with the old and familiar might be just what this series, as a franchise, needs.
My interest is high, but with some reservation. Final Fantasy XIII-2 seems like it's offering everything that I, as a gamer, wanted in a next-gen Final Fantasy game; story, characters, combat, presentation, all the elements of a good Square Enix game are there. It's a step in the right direction, but a hands-on experience in January will ultimately tell if this is a promising continuation, or a disappointment waiting to be had.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays. Follow Alexandra on Twitter @ Al3xandra_G