Caution: Contains minor spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2
Looking back on my time with Final Fantasy XIII, there were a few things I really enjoyed. The fast-paced battle system and beautiful graphics were true highlights of the game, but on the opposite end of the spectrum the lack of freedom, minimal character development, and poor storytelling hindered the experience too much. When I finished the game, I was left with feelings of frustration and disappointment. In my review, I even referred to the game as a hollow chocolate bunny as it looked delicious on the outside, but was not very filling. So how did Square Enix address these issues with the follow-up, Final Fantasy XIII-2?
In a Q&A with Gamasutra's Christian Nutt, Final Fantasy XIII-2 director Motomu Toriyama told Nutt that the game's "ultimate goal is rectifying every single point in Final Fantasy XIII that has been criticized by the users." Toriyama continued to proclaim that the development team had "tackled them completely and thoroughly." While I believe that ultimately XIII-2 fixed a lot of what was wrong, Toriyama still fell into one of the worst traps possible in design. He addressed the loudest critics while ignoring those who quietly enjoyed the original. Many critics complained about the game's linearity or its lack of towns, but I felt that those were not its worst offenses by far, so is a game "completely and thoroughly" better if you're only
addressing those simple complaints?
My most critical complaint about XIII is how it restricts players' options for way too long. It is not until Chapter 11 that players have any control over party customization. Many fans have stated that the game "gets good" in that chapter, but what actually happens is that the developers finally take off the training wheels and grant gamers options. Only after twenty-five hours do we finally get to select our team, change the party leader, access new combat roles, and actually roam around an open area. It is by far the most offensive issue with Final Fantasy XIII, mainly because it seems to be the easiest to fix.
To address this in Final Fantasy XIII-2, players are given full control over Noel and Serah from the start. Players are also given a third slot to fill with one of many recruitable monsters. We now have full control, but it's not without a cost. In granting this freedom the playable cast has been reduced from six to two characters, neither of whom are really that interesting. Don't get me wrong, the monster gathering system is great and offers lots of variety, but for someone who wanted more character development it's disappointing. Even the DLC characters merely serve a role in combat, nothing more.
This leads right into my second complaint about Final Fantasy XIII: the cast. I found almost all of the characters to be completely lacking, not because of who they were, but because I felt like I never got to know them. With the playable six, I wanted to get to know them, to care for their mission, and to feel like I was taking a part in their story, but it mostly felt like I was watching them on screen, not taking part myself. This was especially true of the villains, as ancillary antagonists such as Jihl Nabaat and Yaag Rosch received very little screentime and when they did, I found myself not only struggling to care, but to even remember who they were. By the end of my fifty hours with this cast, I had very little investment in them. There were too few cutscenes with actual depth to really get to know the cast. Villains were killed off, characters made major decisions, but I never felt like I knew their motivations for why. This diverse group of heroes had so much potential, as did the PSICOM villains, but we never got to see it.
To address the issue of not focusing enough on the cast, XIII-2 focuses on only two characters, but neither really stand out. Both characters grow very little throughout the game, and neither really gain any depth. Serah is simply looking for her sister and Noel's along for the ride since he has met Lightning and was asked to help. Noel's relationship with the villain gives him some motivation, but we still learn too little about either to really care about them. Characters from the original game's cast even receive cameo appearances, but it feels hollow and goes nowhere. So instead of creating a cast of fantastic characters or bringing the original crew back and developing them further, Toriyama simply gave us two characters to focus on, but still left us high and dry.
The main reason for this lack of character development in Final Fantasy XIII is that the game was focused more on style rather than substance. I felt XIII's story was not well told. I wanted to know more about Cocoon and Pulse. I didn't even mind nonsensical terms or irrational characters, I just wanted a payoff from it and it never happened. Instead we got glorious cutscenes with characters jumping all around, doing fantastic feats, but nothing more. I would be willing to bet that more time and effort went into creating this cutscene from the start of Chapter 12 than into the plot of the chapter itself. Outstanding visuals should be a supplement to a game, not a large focus of it.
While Final Fantasy XIII-2 does a better job of focusing on the relationship between the protagonists and main villain, it still has a tendency to be flashy instead of interesting. There is still the nonsense vocabulary, but also the addition of time travel. Sadly, that feels more forced than it should. One reason Chrono Trigger is held up as a video game standard for time travel use is how
well it blended the mechanic into the narrative. The game simply told its story and time travel was a function of that, but with XIII-2 players are beat over the head with paradoxes and timeline changes. Honestly, this is a minor complaint, as XIII-2 does keep things more interesting, but the ending ruins most of that. Instead of wrapping up nicely, it ends with a cliffhanger that is likely part of a planned DLC campaign. I'm all for DLC to expand a game, but not at the cost of having the main game feel incomplete.
When looking at both of these games, Final Fantasy XIII-2 clearly addresses issues that were major complaints in the original, especially the lack of control. But while players now have choices, those choices are still limited. XIII-2 would have benefited from a larger cast with more development. That combined with the robust monster capturing system would have made for an even greater experience. Most of all, scaling back the style in favor of substance is the key change that needed to be made. I appreciate beautiful graphics as much as the next person, and they really do bring things to life, but the game needs to have some heart before the graphics really matter. There was more focus on this in XIII-2, but it still could have been better.
While I enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XIII-2 more than I did with the original, I don't think it was the answer to my problems with Final Fantasy XIII. Instead it was merely another game in the same world with a similar battle system, but with a different feel. It felt more like an epilogue with finely-tuned gameplay, and maybe that was the point. It did address the major complaints of the first game, but by no means is this what the original should have been. I can only hope that Square Enix continues to listen to complaints about their games, but instead of addressing what gamers are complaining about, focus on figuring out why they are complaining in the first place.