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Under pressure: is FFXIII-2 a step back from the brink?

Monday, 6th February 2012 14:43 GMT By Alex Donaldson

Final Fantasy XIII-2 may have topped the UK charts last week, but is it enough to steer Square’s flagship back on course? Thankfully, Alex Donaldson reckons the rudder’s been turned the right way.

Developed in under two years, XIII-2 is an example of what the team at Square Enix can do if that pressure is in place once more. Playing it, it’s clear that there was a sense of urgency and momentum about its development lacking with XIII.

Is Final Fantasy in free-fall? Japanese Media Create figures for the series in recent years are showing a trend likely to worry lovers of the monster franchise – dwindling sales.

Final Fantasy VII sold 2 million units in its first week in Japan, whilst VIII did a little more at 2.5 million. FFX was down with 1.7 million, but X-2 held interest with 1.4 million and XII improved with 1.8 million. Final Fantasy’s HD debut, XIII, managed 1.5 millon units in its first week, but XIII-2 sold only 524,000 week-one copies – a fraction of every other entry in the ‘main line’ series.

While it’s dropped in as the UK number one this week, it’s safe to say it’s debuted lower than previous games, as it has in Japan.

While those sales are nothing to sniff at – half a million units is something some franchises dream of – Final Fantasy is notorious for long development cycles and expensive CGI. Things need to change. XIII-2 is the game that’s aimed squarely at fixing problems from both a development and gameplay standpoint, making this entry theoretically more cost effective for Square Enix while providing a tighter experience for the player.

And the game itself has been improved. After the meandering, rambling experience of XIII, which took the best part of 20 hours to place all of the gameplay mechanics into your hands, XIII-2 has you doing the most difficult stuff within a few short hours.

The action-packed, exciting-looking battle system from XIII returns with a touch of Pokémon added in the form of a new monster-hunting mechanic. You capture, level and train monsters – most of which were battled in XIII – to become the third member of your party.

It shows Square Enix’s 1st Production Department still has the spark that made it change core mechanics significantly between every FF title in the past.

Go west

The desire to reach back into those higher sales brackets has had some obvious effects on FFXIII-2′s structure. The influence of the west is clearest in BioWare-style dialogue branches – or Live Trigger, as it’s known here. While not as intricate as the systems in BioWare titles, Live Trigger offers a vague feeling of narrative control over a series which traditionally has been one of the most linear storytellers.

“That time was lost.” Let’s hope not.

More freedom is offered up by time travel, a clever design decision indeed. Assets are reused throughout as you head to the same areas in different periods, as well as visiting aged sections from XIII, but it also allows the player to hop around at will.

The narrative releases the scruff of your neck and lets you go where you like within the Historia Crux, the game’s time travel hub. While there’s a clear goal in sight you’re free to revisit areas, go back to grind and find more loot, or even cross your own timeline and outright replay an entire story section from earlier. After the “pretty corridor” of Final Fantasy XIII, it’s an impressive amount of freedom.

A plethora of other features, including more control over ally AI, in-battle Quick Time Events, puzzles and a Gold Saucer-like area complete with a casino and Chocobo races, make this a Final Fantasy that has interesting stuff to do outside of the story; and that really was missing from XIII.

Tell me a story: please

It’s not all good, however. Final Fantasy XIII-2 packs one of the most mundane, senseless stories I’ve seen in any medium in years, confused into submission by its own time travel mechanics. Luckily, the core RPG is good enough to make it worth sitting through.

This is the crux, really. I have a theory about creative geniuses, visionaries. Square Enix still has many, but I think that given enough time and money even the greatest fail.

Look at Star Wars. Lucas made three fantastic movies under incredible pressure with very little money, but later, given almost limitless funds and technology, his thirst for the perfection of his ever-changing vision poisoned not only the new entries, but contaminated his original masterpieces too.

An example from the music world is Guns n’ Roses. Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy album is a story of delays to feed a neurotic search for perfection that sounds depressingly similar to Final Fantasy XIII’s development. Comparing Final Fantasy to an aging rocker is sad, but apt. Fortunately, Final Fantasy is no longer about one man – especially with Sakaguchi and Uematsu now both detached from the series – and new blood and new attitudes can revitalize its image.

If you want a picture of the future of gaming’s largest Japanese RPG series, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the game you should be playing. While it’s going to take longer to win those lost sales back, some of the momentum has at least been regained.

The series that had delivered the sprawling VII, VIII and IX in four years took that long just to deliver XIII, the team chopping and changing things in a chaotic search for for the series’s soul. The end result was, of course, a mess.

Developed in under two years, XIII-2 is an example of what the team at Square Enix can do if that pressure is in place once more. Playing it, it’s clear that there was a sense of urgency and momentum about its development lacking with XIII.

Some flaws carry over from XIII thanks to the shared world, creative team, engine and assets – but even so this is a better game. ‘Cheap cash in!’ some might cry, seeing asset reused from XIII. All I care about is that the game itself is a marked improvement over its predecessor, and a step in the right direction.

If you want a picture of the future of gaming’s largest Japanese RPG series, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the game you should be playing. While it’s going to take longer to win those lost sales back, some of the momentum has at least been regained.

Alex Donaldson is editor-in-chief of RPGSite.

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10 Comments

  1. LOLshock94

    alex mate av missed ya, how ya been you still pulling the clunge?

    #1 3 years ago
  2. Akira_Tenshi

    WTF the article posted earlier today clearly stated FF XIII-2 sold more in week 1 than any other FF game, which has now been edited out i noticed.

    Then comes an article which totally contradicts what you reported earlier in the article about the UK charts.

    Either i am going crazy or there is just some shitty journalism on this site.

    #2 3 years ago
  3. Patrick Garratt

    God. Johnny made a mistake with it and changed it instantly. As he said on the article. We R noot bias.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. awaltzforvenus

    Ya know, a year or two back when retro was the Big New(?) Thing, Square could’ve possibly made a killing in returns on the development resources if they’d listened to some fans’ wishes for an old-school numbered Final Fantasy title. Something akin to FFVI, with a brand new story and characters that just blew away everything else. Not a retro-style cash-in sequel, like we saw with that terrible FFIV: The After, but a real, true, fully realized Final Fantasy. Instead, we got a half-realized vision of a XIII trilogy (which seems to be changing now, where exactly is Versus?), and the abysmal XIV.

    Seriously, Square needs to get their act together before they really crumble under their own weight.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. Deacon

    @2 relax dude.

    As much as I would love to think Sqenix are now heading in the right direction, I simply cannot.

    XIII had potential, but lets face it the story was shite.
    While the mechanics of XIII-2 seem a lot more modern and in line with expectations, I have absolutely no doubt at all that the story will be the same convoluted mess, full of half-baked characters whom we never truly get to know. Oh but sure.. look at their shiny shiny hair.

    If they gave us a choice for the native Japanese audiotrack, AND stopped stuffing awful-sounding love songs into their games (and trailers), AND did something about the above, THEN I believe they’ll be heading in the right direction.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. CycloneFox

    @5: I feel the complete opposite: While FF XIII was a big disappointment, FF XIII-2 used that as questionable base and what came out was… surprisingly good.
    In my opinion it is the first Japanese RPG this generation, that I really enjoy. I liked Nier and Xenoblade as well, but I was disappointed by most other JRPGs. In fact it feld like the Japanese lost their sense of making good games.
    But now Final Fantasy XIII-2 comes arround with all of it’s ideas it wanted to do with it’s predecessor already, but didn’t quite make it in time as if the game was just thrown out too early. In fact it’s release was too late already and just needlessly delayed because of the XBox version. Final Fantasy XIII-2 on the other hand already had the engine, game system and stuff it could build on and just focus on making a good game this time. It somehow feeld like my aal time favourite Xenosaga Ep. III, that showed in 2006 already how a modern JRPG should feel and play like. Now FF XIII-2 is somehow between Xenosaga Ep.III and Xenoblade with Square Enix’es polishment in terms of music. You may not be a fan of the music and the style itself, but if you were searching for something like that as I was, the msuic is just overwhelming and good. Okay sometimes there are these love-themes, but when they come, they normally fit the szene and the theme.

    I agree with you when you want to have the native adiotrack, but that’s nothing you can blame the game with. It’s just something in Square’s localization policy. They want to deliver the same quality for the Japanese and the English versions, but miss that fan’s might not want to have english songs and voice acting, or at least the possiblility to switch between them.

    #6 3 years ago
  7. Colin Gallacher

    @2

    That’s downright rude, just step back for a minute and at least think before you type. People making mistakes and correcting mistakes should never be considered ‘shitty journalism’.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. deathgaze

    To me, 13-2 is too little, too late for a series that passed it’s prime six iterations ago. Current sales, if any, are only because the fans that the series has left are desperately hoping that the next one will fulfill the promise of those by-gone games.

    This is going to take a sea-change at the core levels of Square’s production cycle. You’re not going to fix the series’ problems by putting a band-aid on it, and for all intents and purposes, FFXIII-2 is a big, giant band-aid of an expansion-pack-sequel. The series needs to be rebuilt from the ground up in order to be made relevant again, preferably by a completely different team.

    I acknowledge that project management over at Square is probably so entrenched that a complete reboot of the team and franchise is out of the question. For a long time, the focus has not been on quality but instead to make “the next” Final Fantasy game. Eschewing all that, I would suggest to Square that remaking Final Fantasy VII for the new age might be a good start. This would allow us to have things like towns, shops, overworld maps and such that Square is loathe to implement because it’s too “difficult” (Yes, they actually said that). Then, take that exact same engine and use it to make a brand new game, wonderfully fusing old mechanics and Final Fantasy tropes with new and exciting gameplay ideas.

    Another tip: Stop making glorified anime pictures out of your games and start making actual games!

    #8 3 years ago
  9. Deacon

    @6 didn’t mean to generalise on the soundtrack as a whole. XIII had an amazing soundtrack.

    I mean things like this -

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vxz2vkXuQA&feature=fvst
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsc9A2-hR8c&feature=related

    Ok they’re just ads.. but I do not like them at all.

    I’ll definitely enjoy XIII-2, but I doubt I will be at all surprised by the story it presents.

    @8 I agree with a lot of what you say, but you have to praise them for the areas in which they do get it right.

    #9 3 years ago
  10. Aimless

    @6 I thoroughly recommend Resonance of Fate if you’re after contemporary JRPGs. It’s bizarre in pretty much every respect, but it has a lot of fresh ideas and a strange charm about it.

    It baffles me how terrible XIII-2‘s storytelling is. I can only assume it’s an extreme form of vanity publishing.

    #10 3 years ago

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