I just finished Final Fantasy XIII-2, secret ending and all (not really, a measly extra scene), the other day, so I thought I would list some opinions.
It was much more fun to play than Final Fantasy XIII, that's for sure. Final Fantasy XIII felt like the gameplay was an afterthought, that they planned the cut scenes first and then decided there should be something in-between the cut scenes. There was no presence of any of the locations. Like the Lightning and Hope character exposition cut scenes happen in Gapra Whitewood, but it could have been anywhere, Gapra Whitewood was just a coincidence. That was the feeling for most of the game.
I think I like a small partyEdit
I didn't have any high expectations for the player party in Final Fantasy XIII-2; none of the pre-release material really grabbed me. Maybe it was the no expectations thing, but I ended up getting into my party just fine. Funny how the "boy and girl go on an adventure" thing managed to feel novel to me, because that sounds so generic, but then I was thinking it is kind of novel in the Final Fantasy series; usually parties are formed by a varied bunch of different character types being pulled together by extraordinary circumstances. Play enough games like that it begins to feel quite manufactured. Not that Final Fantasy XIII-2 wouldn't still feel manufactured, and Serah and Noel are, once again, strangers pulled together by extraordinary circumstances, but since you have only two characters they are forced to have some interaction. What feels off about the "various bunch" parties is that it's difficult to imagine that they have any real bond or are even really friends with each other -- more like they just tolerate one other and mainly just interact with the main character whenever needed. Like, does anyone ever even say anything to Freya during half the game? Do Lulu and Auron ever share a word? Do Cid and Barret hang out...ever? Does Ashe once say anything to Penelo or Fran? Does Lightning ever acknowledge that Vanille even exists? They talk once about Serah in Lake Bresha, Vanille saying she is sure Serah would forgive Lightning and Lightning saying she isn't so sure. They never once talk to each other thereafter.
With a party of only two characters they are going to have to be interacting all the time. Get a real "go team" feeling. Also, it works that there is no sexual tension between the two leads, they've both got their SO's elsewhere. I suppose there could have been more character exploration though as part of scenes that are not directly related to the storyline in some way...as in the next section...
There was no downtimeEdit
There was no time to chill. As soon as one event ends, the next begins. The only bit is when Serah and Noel are in the Void Beyond by accident and they sit down and chat for a bit. That was cool, but I think there could have been a teeny bit more. They even gave you a perfect place, your homebase, your actual home.
I think it works in games to have a "home". The feeling after the bombing mission when you're just chilling at Tifa's bar. That was nice. All of Sector 7 felt pretty homely, though you are there just for a bit. Balamb Garden was a good home. You can take it with you! There could have been some more scenes, but there were some scenes, optional Zell library scenes, and card club sidequests. Then when Shinra destroys Sector 7 its actually sad because you've had time to bond with the place. And damn right you ain't gonna let no G-Forces come storm your home Garden!
I just noticed that if you go back to New Bodhum and talk to NORA right before the final battle (I assume these scenes activate after Academia 500 becomes available as a location) they will somehow know that something big is gonna go down and wish you good luck. That was nice. But I think it would have been even better, if you could have optionally gone back to New Bodhum and just hang around the house and got some reminiscing scenes. Because in a way, it's not like you can ever run out of time. No matter how long you go back and live in New Bodhum 3 AF, Academia 500 will be waiting. It's not like time really moves when you're not there. So basically I would have liked if you could have gone back whenever and had a different cutscene (maybe hang on the pier reminiscing, maybe go to Lebreau's bar and she'll fix you a drink, maybe sleep a night in your room, maybe Serah could show Noel the school) and the NORA would have had something else to say than "Hello Serah and Noel, I'm still rooting for you! Keep up the good work!" You'd get a better feeling that you have a life outside of the game.
Even in Final Fantasy XIII we had some chill time. We stayed in Hope's house and chatted with his dad and bandaged Snow and apologised and all that. And in Gran Pulse Vallis Media we had a camp and later in Mah'habara Subterra (though that was really stupid and manufactured "required beautiful nature scene").
In Final Fantasy VII the scene in the train when they ponder about the slums and life in Midgar, and later the scenes in Sector 7, they were all just for setting the mood. It was very simple but effective. By making New Bodhum a more of a homebase "this is where I live, this is where all my friends are and my job and my life" you could get perhaps a more emotional response to seeing it destroyed in New Bodhum 700 AF. I was a bit like woah looks different when I saw it but not so much "NOOOO MY PRECIOUS LITTLE HOME, EVERYTHING IS GONE". Dunno. On one hand the kind of emotion-wanking is terrible and please game developers don't do it, you always do it wrong and it ends up cheesy. But this is why making you feel connection to a place and then later show it destroyed could work for that effect without having to make a big scene and big deal.
It's very "gamey"Edit
The first thing coming to Final Fantasy XIII-2 was the feeling that it is very video-gamey. It is, of course, a game, so this isn't meant as criticism as much as an...observation I suppose. I came to Final Fantasy XIII-2 from playing Resonance of Fate the third time (sheesh maybe I haven't mentioned it enough times I really like it; best game ever, best game ever, best game ever, did I mention it's the best game ever yet?) and the difference how much more "video-gamey" Final Fantasy XIII-2 was just noticeable. Little things like, when you can interact with a background element a huge EXAMINE sign is imposed over your screen. Ok... You didn't really do that in earlier games, you just had to click around see if you get a reaction. In Final Fantasy IX you had the ! and ? but they were represented as the field character's expressions, kinda like "hey what's this?" This EXAMINE business is a bit...intrusive...in comparison. This is of course the same in Final Fantasy XIII, but I suppose it had been a while since I played that before I started Final Fantasy XIII-2.
What's annoying is that you are given the ability to jump whenever (which is great) but you can only jump over specific pre-decided spots (not good). In many places you can clearly jump high enough to jump over an obstacle/fence/whatever but it just hasn't been designed as a place where you can jump that way, so you just can't. Goddamn. Why give you the ability to jump whenever when most of the stuff on the screen you can't jump over. Even a smallest fence means "can't jump here, must go around".
There is little desire in the game design to appear realistic or even at all logical. Giant red spheres that give you missions? Why not! Also stuff like "Hey look at these flan are going this way. They must be ATTRACTED BY A SPACE TIME DISTORTION." ...what? ...what the actual fuck? You see flan going this way and you think that they-- and what is this big dragon is sucking flan into...a like a black hole in its mouth that leads into another time-- ahh fuck it, it's meant to be video-gamey.
What I did like was that the kind of filler areas have been taken off. There is no, oh no, we need to get to X but to get there we must cross this mountain/snow mountain/lava mountain/enchanted forest/pointlessly labyrinthine sewer, you know, the generic RPG filler area. They made all locations to be storyline locations, and the filler is in the sidequests. That's good. On one hand though all cohesiveness of the world is sacrificed; it just feels video game levels rather than a proper world to immerse yourself in. I suppose an immersive world wasn't the aim, but a game like this is always missing something if you fail to establish a good scenario. I don't think, however, that filler areas help much on the cohesiveness of the world, because many a time they just don't fit with the rest. This is why I think a smaller-scale game world could work really really well. Like if you made a Final Fantasy VII game that all took place in Midgar. In Final Fantasy XIII-2 we have a whole world and another world and 700 years to play with, and nothing really ties together in a meaningful fashion. Sure, it would be an enormous task to try to portray the change of the world infrastructure and culture and technological advancement over 700 years...so why even try, right. Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't seem to have been intended to be built as a "great effort" as we see next...anyway...
The game is strangely uneven. Like a lot of stuff is well-made but then it has noticeable portions that are just not up to the same calibre. Like the use of field models in cut scenes, I don't recall them ever doing that in Final Fantasy XIII although maybe it happens in some Cie'th Stone mission scenes or something. You can really tell when they are using the high-poly models to the low-poly ones, and it just looks off. Ok I accept the "flan to the space time distortion" scenes where the "story" is kind of like an excuse and not even very-well veiled excuse, but the scene where Noel and Serah speak in Academy Headquarters after getting an artefact from Alyssa is also in field models, they just put the camera further away or behind a character's back so you "don't notice" (didn't fool me Square!). But then when they do use the proper cut scene models it looks really nice, good effort, nice one. But it looks uneven by putting some crappy cut scenes in-between the well-made ones!
What's with all this lets just include some stuff and never explain it and then maybe we'll just include it later as DLC or something stuff about? Why mention that Snow's a l'Cie when that is not at all explained? Will they release Snow the l'Cie adventures as DLC later? Laaaame.
The monsters are just taken straight from Final Fantasy XIII and if they are party members they rarely have any unique abilities; same type of enemies share Feral Links and the Feral Link animations are just half-assed, just nothing going on there. They didn't even program any new movements just...like...enemy jumps and something happens. Hey GREAT Feral Link animation. Sure there are a ton of enemies but this just looks lame.
They made Final Fantasy XIII-2 with a much smaller development team, outsourced more, and made it much faster. Ok, this much shows. I know video games aren't priced in any logical "how much it cost to make it per unit" scale, but it just...still feels a bit of a rip-off that you pay the same price for Final Fantasy XIII-2 than for Final Fantasy XIII even when the production values are miles apart and Final Fantasy XIII-2 is just noticeably cheaper and shoddier with more corner-cutting. They cut off FMVs in favor of in-game cutscenes (positive in my eyes, I like the in-game scenes more, although it means less flashiness), they made some shoddy cut scenes with field models that have no facial expressions, just a moving mouth that doesn't respond to lip movements in a very realistic fashion, using cut-and-paste body animations instead of specifically made-for-this-scene motion-capture ones, they just recycled all to hell as much as they can from NPC faces to monsters to background elements and battle elements.
What I think is well made though is the voice acting. Much better than in Final Fantasy XIII.
The inevitable ending opinionsEdit
I don't hate what happens in the ending, but I do hate it that they thought it would be acceptable to end with "to be continued..." No, no this is not acceptable. If it ended with The End that would be fine. Don't ever end with "to be continued", that is rubbish. Even if they did intend to continue in DLC, just name it, "The Lost Episode" or "Epilogue" or something. "To be continued" just leaves a crap taste in everyone's mouths.
If it ended with The End I think it would be good. Kinda ambiguous like the original Final Fantasy VII ending, where we were left wondering did the humanity survive or not. Sure, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a darker tone, because it isn't just about humanity, but all of the world and goddess Etro were all destroyed, supposedly. But I think there is enough hints dropped that would let you make out a happier version if you wanted to.
When Noel's Yeul dies in 700 AF, she has a happy vision that Noel and her will meet again, in a field of some kind. I believe this could be taken as a true prophecy to come. When Yeul in Augusta Tower dies she says she had a vision of everyone smiling. (This may refer to Academia 4XX though.) When Serah had the vision that killed her, it wasn't specified what she saw, but she doesn't look horrified, she had a smile.
It is said as evidence that there can be only one true timeline that the goddess bestows only a finite number of souls to people, therefore, infinite possibilities and parallel realms couldn't exist. The duplicates are said to be passive as they are, because the goddess has never bestowed them with the spirit upon birth. Yet, by the end of the timeline, it appears both worlds, Valhalla, and Gran Pulse (now A Dying World) appear completely empty. In the ending of the game it is said that Yeul is sent to Valhalla after she dies, but every time she decided to go back and be reborn. In the intro Caius lays Yeul's body to rest and she disperses into light, possibly being reborn. But where is she being reborn in if the world has no people left? Maybe there are more worlds, more worlds than Gran Pulse? Maybe when Yeul said she will see Noel again, it would be somewhere else, somewhere that is neither Valhalla nor Gran Pulse? Maybe neither of them would be reborn as the exact same person, but maybe it doesn't matter, maybe that's why the prophecy she had was grainy. When Noel and Serah are first engulfed in Jet Bahamut's attack they are sent falling into a bottomless abyss, and then there is light shining and angel feathers appear, and Lightning appears to pull the two back. Where would they have fallen, if Lightning had let them sink into the abyss? Is there another afterlife after Valhalla? You clearly see Caius's body turns into crystal energy that flies into the air after you defeat him, yet you see him again in the Void Beyond in the secret ending. Was he reborn? Will everyone?
I think one could make an ending that they are satisfied with with the hints given in the game, whether the "everyone dies" ending pleases them or not. The End would have been fine. To be continued...not cool.
I like it more than Final Fantasy XIII. It feels less "epic" but that appeals to me personally. I think it could be much better if some changes were made, wish they would have put same kind of effort in as with Final Fantasy XIII what it comes to development time and team size. I do appreciate that they have listened to user feedback and made plenty changes; especially the idea to make the game player-driven was the right choice. It still suffers from the same problem as Final Fantasy XIII did that things don't really "click"...you know what I mean? Making a mystical goddess the driving force for two games when she is never seen or really...explained... just whatever thing can just happen and then you just explain it away with "the goddess did it" it's just...not the pinnacle of story writing is it.
Few more points to note: the game was way easy and would have needed a Hard mode. The only opponents I struggled against were Tonberry when I ran into it too early (Bresha Ruins 300 was the first Wild Artefact gate I opened, would lose and could not win), Caius first time in Oerba (I had some stupid paradigms set; after losing and configuring them it wasn't hard anymore) and Caius in Void Beyond with Paradox Scope active when you fight as just Serah and a monster. Didn't really pay much attention to the monster allies, I just generally used whichever I thought was cute/funny-looking one (sorry ugly monsters!).
And the one-on-one battle between Noel and Caius in Valhalla was cool. Good "realistic" sword fight. No one was flying through the air or doing any other crazy stunts. Much more exciting cut-scene battles in this game than anything that happened in Final Fantasy XIII. Felt a bit of a throw-back to Final Fantasy VIII and Squall and Seifer's intro battle, but that was just over the top theatrical with the music and other scenes intersecting the fight... Noel vs Caius was kinda similar, but better.