It was three months ago that Square Enix shook the world when they announced the Final Fantasy XIII saga for PC. The five year long Fabula Nova Crystallis series came to a conclusion earlier this year, and most thought that would be the end of things. It was a flawed, yet somewhat enjoyable trio of games that unfortunately didn’t live up to the exceedingly high expectations fans had established. With Square Enix fully embracing the PC community over the last few years, this announcement overjoyed many as it has been a long time since a mainline Final Fantasy title, outside of XI and XIV, came to the platform. Unfortunately, their first attempt with Final Fantasy XIII was met with disappointing results, once again not living up to gamers’ expectations. Regardless, the company has made good on their continuously effort to improve their PC ports, this time releasing the best game in the trilogy.
While Final Fantasy XIII had a somewhat antiquated and erratically paced story, Final Fantasy XIII-2 steps it up to a whole new level. For whatever reason, during the conclusion of the last game, Lightning’s role in saving the world is distorted as she is called to Valhalla to protect the universe from an even greater threat. She is now considered one of the few that sacrificed their lives to save Cocoon, and tasks newcomer Noel to go back in time to protect her sister Serah. The plot and pace can be all over the place, but in a good way. Serah and Noel are unfortunately some of the least compelling characters to grace a Final Fantasy game, but the story they’re put in will have you hooked until the very end. It certainly helps there are multiple paradox endings to find, having players explore every nook and cranny of the various timelines. There’s a shocking amount of variety in what to see in each era, from luscious forests to futuristic city settings, Final Fantasy XIII-2 won’t bore players with what’s on screen.
This ties into one of the biggest and best improvement Final Fantasy XIII-2 has over its predecessor: the world. While Final Fantasy XIII was far more about enclosed environments and linear pathing, XIII-2 is about an open setting filled with plenty to do. Side quests are scattered across each map, and with new monsters to find, recruit and level up, adventuring is far from discouraged. That’s not to say the entirety of the experience is open ended as there are linear sections to be found, but this is still a huge improvement that helps establish the universe as a massive, explorable entity. Familiar faces will pop up from time to time, but it’s the newly integrated antagonist Caius who will see most of the screen time. Caius continuously hunts down the two time travelers, and while he seems like a generic enemy looking for vengeance, his story runs far deeper.
Outside of these gameplay changes, the combat system has remained primarily intact. This is for the best considering how strong it was in the past. Players will receive experience to be used in the Crystarium, leveling up Serah and Noel how they see fit. Each will have various jobs or boosts that will unlock as trees are filled, improving on what you feel each character should focus on, whether it’s magic, attack power, defense, or more. Paradigm Shifting is still a significant part to combat as in battle, players will need to continuously swap between jobs in order to get the jump on enemies. A great deal of monsters, including bosses, require staggering to actually perform meaningful damage, so it become a little more strategic than sticking with the all-out commando class. Even switching to Sentinel, a class usually designated to draw agro, is good to simply equip to take less damage against area of effect strikes.
As mentioned before, instead of recruiting various party members with stories of their own, players will need to find and take on C’eith that are defeated in battle. This is an enjoyable change of pace as, while Serah and Noel are far from the best characters available, it allows for more customization in a party than originally thought. Having a Cactuar, Tonberry or anyone one of the various iconic Final Fantasy monsters on a team is something fans have always dreamed of. It would’ve been nice to see a guest character or two, but this is a fun experiment none the less. Outside of battle, a couple new mechanics have been added to be a bit more “modern.” These are Cinematic Actions and Live Triggers, coming in the form of quick time events and selectable questions, respectively. These have very little impact on what’s going on in the game, but they do give out rewards, such as items or extra damage to an enemy. These are interesting new systems that, while most don’t want quick time events in their games, it does keep players on their toes. Just be aware that playing with the mouse and keyboard can be troublesome as there are various keys strokes that will pop up.
Square Enix is well known for developing their games on consoles and handheld devices, and while they will continue to put priority in that, they have made significant strides over the last couple of months on PC. While Final Fantasy XIII was met with a disappointing launch, Square Enix was able to fix some of its problems while bringing what they’ve learned into the sequel. Firstly, the resolution is no longer internally locked at 1280×720 with plenty of options available. There are offerings up to 4k resolution if you have the capabilities, but it would have been nice to see more than just 720p and 1080p for the windowed mode. The graphical options are pretty light for a PC game, delivering only anti-aliasing and shadow resolutions, so it’s something Square should strive to improve for future releases on the dynamic platform. The increase in shadow resolution improves the artistic style greatly, and coupled with the ability to achieve a frame rate of 60 fps, Final Fantasy XIII-2 becomes a strikingly beautiful game.
It’s not all positive, though, as there are some cringe-worthy special effects, and the even for a three year old game, this is a fairly demanding port. Mainly outside of battles, the frame rate can take massive hits, even on hardware well above the recommended specifications. When it does run at 60 fps, it looks game changing, but you’ll need some impressive hardware to maintain it. Outside of the visual upgrades, Final Fantasy XIII-2’s PC port also has the original Japanese voiceovers for those who are into that. In addition, most of the downloadable content released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 throughout 2011 is made available, which mainly consists of costumes and extra characters to be recruited. Finally, the keyboard and mouse controls are usable, although the inability to remap specific commands can be a bit frustrating. It’s not the perfect or preferred way to play, but it works just fine for those without controllers.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the best entry in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, offering far improved gameplay systems while giving players access to a highly diverse soundtrack and various timelines to explore. While the two protagonists are among the weaker of the franchise, the ability to recruit monsters into your party is a delightful change to the formula. The PC version is also a step up from what Square Enix offered a couple of months ago with Final Fantasy XIII, establishing more graphical options than ever before, but they still have a ways to go. While the seemingly automated combat system may turn some people away, and the lack of control of party members can be discouraging to some, it’s all streamlined well enough that players will enjoy how battles turn out. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a step in the right direction for Square Enix, paving the way for future releases from the Japanese giant.