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The current console generation is remarkable for how many exciting new IPs it has introduced over the last six years, game franchises that will probably undoubtedly go on to become revered classics in time. Series like Mass Effect, Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed and Gears of War are just a slice of the pie that is indicative of the incredible creativity on display, and altogether, they should make a gamer happy.
On the other end of the spectrum, this shall also probably be regarded as the generation when several old, fan favorite franchises were ruined and destroyed by studio mismanagement and mishandling, or by baffling design decisions that were probably made in context of the increased stress and pressure that HD game development brings to the table. This is the generation that saw the creative death (at least as far as long time series fans were concerned) of beloved franchises like Resident Evil, Megaman, Gran Turismo, Metroid, and perhaps most notably, Final Fantasy.
For decades, Final Fantasy had been a pillar of console gaming. A new release in the franchise was an industry wide event. Its platform of choice for release could change the tide of the console wars. Square Enix’s multi volume magnum opus was notable for constantly innovating, taking risks, and being the pall bearer of JRPG innovation, leading the way forward for all console role playing adventures. And as the Japanese game industry floundered (taking down the JRPG genre, which had been in its prime just a decade ago, with it), all fans and industry veterans were hopeful that Square’s long awaited Final Fantasy XIII would revive the struggling genre and once again provide an entire industry with a template it could confidently follow.
Except it didn’t. More than perhaps any other title in history, Final Fantasy XIII was a disaster. Riddled with questionable design decisions and bogged down with poor characterization and a story that fed the clichés that the series itself had helped establish not so long ago, repetitive gameplay, and a series structure that departed so significantly from the norm that the game was a JRPG in name only, fans protested loudly, and took to criticizing the game vocally. The game’s few welcome innovations, like the Paradigm battle system, were forgotten as the game came to symbolize the monumental failure of the Japanese gaming industry to keep up with the pace of console development.
Two years later, then, Square Enix releases a direct sequel to the game, only the second time they have done so in series history (not counting the Final Fantasy VII saga, or spin offs like Final Fantasy IV: he After Years and Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings), for a game that no one really wanted a sequel for. They promised they would fix everything that was wrong with the original Final Fantasy XIII, and it is clear that they hope to restore some of the sheen that the Final Fantasy name has lost with this release. Many view this game as a cynical cash in attempt, which it probably is. However, all of this is missing the point: just how good is the game when viewed on its own?
And the answer to that is surprising. Final Fantasy XIII-2 actually does live up to Square’s promise of addressing all the issues plaguing the original release, it realizes the stunted potential of that game, and it stands as a darned good JRPG in its own right, possibly as the best Final Fantasy release this side of the Playstation classic Final Fantasy IX. High praise for a game that many had decided to brush aside, I know.
The most obvious change that Square Enix made with the game was obviously its overall structure. For those of you who actually stuck with XIII for more than a few hours, you will remember how the game was an endless walk down linear, restricted corridors, fighting one wave of enemies after another, with no breaks, no towns, no exploration, so that more than anything else, the game resembled a corridor shooter. And while it did open up later, by that time, the damage was done, and it never could quite live up to that exploratory feeling of adventure that every other game in the series had offered.
Well, Final Fantasy XIII-2 attempts to address that issue with a new addition known as the Historia Crux. This allows the players to largely determine how to proceed with their adventure, by letting them travel to different areas at will, and also allowing for past, present and alternate dimensional incarnations of those same areas to be accessed. There will be some times when the game directs your progress if it is important for the story, but then, every other RPG in history has done that, so you can’t fault Final Fantasy XIII-2 for this. Yes, it doesn’t quite live up to the sheer scope, expanse and openness of say, Final Fantasy XII, but it’s a massive improvement over the original XIII and on the whole, lets the player feel more in control of the adventure.
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Great graphics; Excellent music; Battle system is refined and tweaked, and adds an element of strategy: Game addresses all the complaints about linearity from the original
Poor characterization; Convoluted story: Disappointing ending
Final Fantasy XIII-2 comes with its fair share of problems, but it is an excellent game that represents a tentative step into modernity for its genre
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