Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t just the worst game in the series—it was also one of the worst games I’ve ever played, one that left me with such a bitter aftertaste that I spent the following week angry that my time had been so wasted. However, it also failed to explain any of the mythology necessary to understanding the ending, something I was told that its sequel/s improved upon. While it’s true that XIII-2 explains what actually happened at the end of the first game, it also opens up a number of huge plot holes and unanswered questions of its own, many of which dwarf the story-related problems of the first game.
There will be spoilers in this review
Sorry about that, but there’s no way of explaining the huge number of story problems present in the game without getting into some fairly huge spoilers. Of course, I don’t like spoilers any more than you do, but consider it a small price to pay for avoiding the train wreck that is this game’s story. If you want to subject yourself to some of the worst writing in all of gaming, however, then I’d advise you to stop reading or skip ahead to the paragraph about QTEs (there are no spoilers in or after that). Just know that you’ll regret doing so later.
Nothing in this game has any meaning
This is a game where the bad guy wins. This is telegraphed all throughout the game, as the main villain explains to you that killing him would kill the goddess that he’s spent the entire game trying to murder (this, along with his immortality-despite-being-killable-for-some-reason, is one of many weird magical things that you have to just accept). When you finally best him in combat, you’re presented with a choice of whether to spare him or not. Knowing that killing him would help him achieve his goals, I chose to spare him. This ended up making no difference, as he grabbed my sword and killed himself just seconds later. However, if his suicide meant succeeding at his goals anyway, what’s the point of the game? He could have killed himself and brought about an identical result long before the events of the game. Hell, he could have tripped and impaled himself on a tree branch and it would have meant succeeding at his goals. There’s no reason for him to do anything else that he does, and yet he spends the game time traveling and talking about how he’s totally going to kill the goddess because it’s important (but obviously not important enough to do hundreds of years earlier than he does despite the fact that it would have meant saving countless friends of his).
The characters are awful, too
Apart from a short intro sequence where you play as Lightning, this is a game where the playable characters are Serah, her helpless little sister, and a new time traveling character named Noel. For the most part, Serah is likable as a character compared to the cast of bipolar lunatics in the first game. However, Noel is such a pathetic, mopey waste of time that the game would have actually been better if he simply wasn’t present. There are also recurring characters from the first game, though the only characters who show up for any notable length of time are Hope and Snow, the two worst characters from the first game. Thankfully, both are less annoying than they were, but you are subjected to Hope’s abandonment complex just minutes after reuniting with him. You’re also introduced to Alyssa, Hope’s assistant, a character whose motivations and personality you won’t actually understand unless you purchase the Final Fantasy XIII-2 Fragments After book or scour the internet for spoilers. Seriously. Then you have Caius, the immortal-but-still-killable bad guy who has no reason to not just kill himself and win.
Fang and Vanille have short cameos, but are only in the game for less than a minute and show up as part of a random act of convenient magic as they project themselves inside Serah’s mind (despite both being trapped in crystal and there being no precedent for this kind of thing) to save her from a crazy wish-fulfillment dream designed to tempt her into giving up. Between Lightning’s near-complete absence and the brevity of Vanille and Fang’s appearance, XIII-2 largely wastes the few enjoyable characters from the last game.
Oh, and speaking of things that make no sense, Noel is also subjected to this dream world of never-ending happiness, and yet his is for some reason a replaying of the most tragic moments of his life so that the player can see his back story. Despite him having to relive the worst parts of his life (including abandonment and the death of his friends), however, Serah tells him upon saving him that she’s sorry and that he would have been eternally happy there if she hadn’t saved him. This is the level of writing we’re dealing with, here.
“You know what XIII needed? QTEs!”
Do you like QTE sequences? Of course you don’t. No one does. That didn’t stop the geniuses at Square-Enix from randomly throwing them into boss fights, though. Yes, when you get certain bosses’ health down to a certain point, a “cinematic action” will unfold which is just a fancy way of saying “cutscene with QTEs.” Everyone’s favorites are here: QTEs where you have to mash buttons, twitch-based QTEs, and even QTEs where you have to press a number of different things in order. Oh yes, what fun (said no one ever).
Combat is pretty much the same as XIII
Yet again, we’re subjected to this half-baked system of real-time auto-attacks and paradigm shifts. Really, the only meaningful change from XIII is that Serah and Noel are the only permanent party members, with the third party slot occupied by monsters who you’ll sometimes receive after beating them. This is a nice little addition toward the beginning, though monsters level up by using special items on them and later on the item requirements to level certain monsters up becomes a bit excessive. This necessitates tedious grinding in order to level them up, which makes the whole system a bit less enjoyable. Additionally, enemies are often far less useful as allies than they are as enemies; I fought a long and difficult battle against a giant cactuar who could take my entire team out fairly quickly, but rather than it utilizing those same offensive capabilities against my enemies, it instead was added as a “synergist,” meaning it casted buff spells rather than actually attacking. Like many other parts of the game, monster allies were initially promising, but quickly turned into an annoyance.
Ugh, those load times
When I started playing Final Fantasy XIII-2, it was on my old 5200 RPM mechanical hard drive (don’t judge—it’s been going strong since 2010 without any problems). When you use a slower drive like that, you eventually become accustomed to long load times, but XIII-2’s load times were exceptionally long compared to other games. As a result, I ended up getting an SSD drive that’s proven to be blazingly fast. However, even when I installed the game onto this SSD, the load times remained unchanged. Expect to sit around looking at a loading screen for 20-30 seconds every time you enter a new area regardless of your computer specs.
Not that specs matter much
This game’s PC port is poorly optimized and a huge number of people have complained that it’s barely playable. Personally, I got around 20-30 frames per second at 1080p, which proved to be choppy, but playable. Don’t expect miracles, though—even people with monster graphics cards seem to have trouble playing this game at a reasonable frame rate, which is ridiculous; the game is definitely prettier than XIII, but the improvement isn’t anywhere near enough to justify the huge performance difference between the two.
Puzzles are an annoying waste of time
I’m not opposed to puzzles in jRPGs. In fact, the puzzles in Chaos Rings are actually fairly enjoyable apart from the inaccuracy of touch screens. The puzzles in Final Fantasy XIII-2, on the other hand, are atrocious. The story revolves around time travel and ridiculous notions like the future changing the past, so like all lazy time-travel stories, you eventually end up with time paradoxes. These are resolved through puzzle minigames. Some of these minigames are actually fairly enjoyable, such as an early variation where you have to collect all the crystals while each platform you step off of disappears, forcing you to figure out a path to collect the crystals that allows you to still reach the exit. These eventually become annoying by introducing moving crystals, forcing you to time your movement. Then there are the puzzles that are annoying wastes of time by default such as the “connect the dots” puzzle (which can hardly be considered a puzzle since you literally just connect the dots). Finally, there’s a clock puzzle that’s easier to show you than to explain, but suffice it to say that there’s a special circle of hell devoted entirely to the person who put that into the game. All in all, puzzles go from enjoyable enough toward the beginning to frustrating and tedious for the sake of being so, falling far short of the enjoyable puzzles found in older games like Lufia 2.
No more linearity
One of the biggest criticisms levied at Final Fantasy XIII was its linearity, something XIII-2 overcorrects for, veering so far into annoying open-world territory that the game has no focus whatsoever. Those who enjoy stories in games will be the first to tell you that the less linear a game becomes, the more the story suffers, and this is never more apparent than in this game. The terrible story aside, however, the lack of linearity also causes the locations to suffer. This is a time-travel game where you mostly hang around the same few areas in different time periods, so you’re often dealing with same-ish areas that prove to be a bit too large, especially since the sidequests tend to be of the fetch quest variety. Granted, the linearity of the first game was a bit annoying, but wandering around a large area identical to those I’ve explored in other time periods to find a book for some guy proved to be equally eye-roll inducing. Even worse, you’re eventually tasked with finding 5 “graviton cores,” which are mostly-invisible objects you have to run around and locate (all are in different times, too, so expect tons of loading screens).
Random battles are back
This is doubly true because of the revival of random battles. Now, the removal of random battles was one of very few things I enjoyed about XIII; seeing exactly who you’d be fighting against before you go up against them was a refreshing change from having enemy encounters when you least expect them. Naturally, in Square-Enix’s desperate bid to destroy everything I love and hurt me as savagely as possible, this system has been replaced. Now enemies will spawn out of thin air as you’re running around, and you can choose to either outrun them (which isn’t always possible) or attack them first, giving yourself a preemptive strike that boosts your enemies’ stagger bars—which return from XIII—somewhat. If you touch an enemy without attacking them or they touch you, battle starts normally. However, if they’re within range and you can’t outrun them, you lose your “retry” option.
This is a problem, especially in the “Academia” city area where the city has multiple levels. Enemies can spawn on a lower level, failing to give you enough time to run to the escalator and make it down to where they are or enough room to outrun them, resulting in the retry option often being locked. This is the only area where I had this problem, but the encounter rate in this particular area is so atrocious that it ended up eating up a huge amount of time and becoming groan-inducing.
They need to stop putting in monologues
I hate Final Fantasy X. I’m aware that many people adore it, but the monologues and voice acting are so terrible that I can’t make it to the end of the game. This is something Square-Enix hasn’t learned from, either, because both XIII and XIII-2 (I skipped XII after hating X, so I can’t speak to that game’s proclivity for sappy monologues) suffer from the same problem. Older Final Fantasy titles took “show, don’t tell” to heart, allowing you to witness events firsthand and draw your own conclusions about character motivations and feelings based on their personalities and reactions. Even Final Fantasy VIII, which gave you a window into main character Squall’s mind, didn’t ever let him simply state that “this is when I realized that I felt sad,” instead using that window as a secondary form of dialogue to help flesh out his character. Starting with X, however, characters began to ramble on endlessly about how things make them feel instead of leaving this to players to figure out, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the series experienced a steep drop-off in quality around that same time.
There aren’t a lot of new enemies
If you’ve played Final Fantasy XIII, chances are you’ll know how to approach most enemies in XIII-2 since they’ve been shamelessly copy-pasted from the last game. Apart from some new boss encounters, a lot of the minor enemies you’ll face are ones who you’ve already faced many times before in XIII, and this struck me as exceptionally lazy. Surely having enemies “phase in” from other time periods would allow for a varied mix, and yet they seem to be phasing in almost exclusively from the small window of time XIII takes place in.
The addition of manual jumping in XIII-2 is something I was weirdly excited by; while in XIII jumps were automatic, you have to manually jump in this entry. However, I quickly realized that there were a bunch of invisible walls that keep you from jumping wherever you want, instead forcing you to jump only between designated areas. Even worse, the manual jumping in this game eventually culminates in one of the most ill-advised platforming sections I’ve ever seen, deciding in the very last level to force you to avoid holes as you make your way to the final boss. Should you fall, you’ll respawn at the last cactuar statue checkpoint you activated. The whole thing was a tremendously bad idea.
Speaking of checkpoints…
You can technically save wherever you want in XIII-2 once you pass a certain point, but unlike XIII, saves aren’t “normal” saves that can be made and then left as backups. No, in Final Fantasy XIII-2, saving sets that save as the slot that the game will automatically save to from then on. Worse, saves file sizes have ballooned since XIII and become larger and larger the longer you play, so keeping a huge number of saves isn’t advisable for those who don’t have a great deal of free space on their computer (for example, those with smaller SSDs).
The “ending” is terrible beyond words
Like Deus Ex: The Fall and other terrible games, Final Fantasy XIII-2 literally ends with a “to be continued.” The entire ending, as well as the “story” (but not really) Lightning DLC—which is a huge grind through two fights that end in a short, equally unfulfilling cutscene and is thus also terrible beyond words—is little more than the setup to another game. I hated XIII not giving players enough information to make sense of its ending, but at least it had the decency to pretend that it was self-contained. Instead, XIII-2 abandons the veneer entirely, making no effort to disguise the fact that it exists solely as the setup to another game.
It’s pretty, but blurry
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a pretty game (though again, not nearly pretty enough to justify how poorly it runs), but it’s also caked in ugly blurring effects that seem to be a holdover from console versions. This means that not only is the game difficult to get running at a decent framerate, but you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time having the pretty graphics your computer is struggling to render hidden behind a veil of blur. On the other hand, XIII-2 forgoes the constant prerendered cutscenes of its predecessor and the few that it includes seem to be of a higher quality, so that’s appreciated. It’s also worth noting that this cuts down the download size compared to XIII, which was ~60 gigabytes. XIII-2, on the other hand, is somewhere in the ballpark of half that, and includes native 1080p support rather than necessitating the use of a third-party plugin like GeDoSaTo to play at 1920×1080.
The music is actually enjoyable
I’m glad that I always write about the music last, because it gives me the opportunity to end this highly critical review on a positive note. XIII had a soundtrack that was honestly forgettable at best, but XIII-2 crams in so much weird music that I couldn’t help but love it. Nothing demonstrates the weirdness of its soundtrack quite like the thrash metal version of the iconic chocobo theme that plays when you ride on a red chocobo: