I cannot talk about this game without touching upon the ending. I won't overtly spoil it but I'm afraid it can't simply be glossed over.
So, with that said...
TO BE CONTINUED!!! Really? REALLY? The ironic thing is I actually thought the ending up until that point was pretty good. It wasn't your standard happy ending and it actually made sense within the context of the story and what you had been told at certain junctures by certain characters. So, for me, to practically ruin a good ending because you've already planned out the downloadable content to cover it is outrageously offensive. Final Fantasy games getting sequels is almost unprecedented so to think that they had the gall to do this when FFXIII-2 was lauded as a big budget apology for the perceived failure of FFXIII is breathtaking. I couldn't shake the notion while playing through FFXIII-2 that this started out as DLC for its predecessor. But, after the litany of issues Square were probably too insulated to expect to hear, they decided to just flesh out what they had into a full game while checking off a list headed "fan rancor".
Still, I did think FFXIII-2 was a fine game. As I've said more times that I can remember now, I can put up with anything in a JRPG if it has a good combat system. I was always a fan of FFXIII's and felt it got some unfair criticisms. Can you just smash X to get through the game? Yeah, to a degree, you can. The question that doesn't get asked is what you would be doing instead. Fighting a bomb? Just choose a water spell. Fighting an ice elemental? Pick a fire spell. Are you really making choices? I'm not for a moment advocating that FFXIII's combat system is one of the best but it is what it is and instead of focusing on the negatives it should be enjoyed for its fast paced nature and the strategy of planning out your paradigms and expertly flipping between them underpinning it. Sadly, FFXIII-2 is so incredibly easy that it betrays that aspect more than a little. In fact it's so easy that that one of the last trophies I got was to paradigm shift a thousand times. I accept a part of that will be down to my learnings from it's predecessor but there was rarely ever a need to use Synergist, Saboteur or Sentinel throughout the course of the game. Even more so than I expected going in, everything could be run through with some combination of Commander and Ravager. The monster system, while fantastic, may make you think hard about your paradigm packs but I believe it painted the whole combat system in to a corner. This point will really hit home upon defeating Archylte Steppe's solitary Long Gui. Hardcore players who fondly remember the complexities of farming Shaolong Gui in under two minutes will inevitably lament the fact that only having access to half the jobs in the third slot chokes tactics into numbing simplicity.
Laying aside what the monster system may have done to the combat I still think it's the best introduction they made to the game. It's pretty exciting to think every time you encounter a mob that you could get him as a member of your party and level him up with you. That's only the tip of the iceberg though as you discover that you can infuse old monsters in to new ones. It's around this discovery where addiction sets in. Suddenly you're planning out all these combinations you could make and wondering how overpowered they could get. I think I've spent about ten hours grinding for stuff that involved raising monsters. As soon as I saw the fruits of building a ridiculously overpowered minmaxed Chichu I set out to build my own equivalent of a Ravager using the DLC earned Lightning which took over three hours to plan out, grind for and get around the hidden inherent passive hierarchy system. This is one amazing aspect of the game and they seem to have set the coliseum up as a conduit for DLC. The thought of having great battles against famous characters from Final Fantasy's extensive history then earning them as a monster to use is enthralling. We may groan at paying for more content but I certainly feel as though I got my £1.59 worth out of this first small content pack.
FFXIII-2's story was okay I suppose, a standard Final Fantasy affair with a bit of Chrono Trigger mixed in. I still had that strange feeling when watching the cutscenes that I remembered getting during the first game. I'll be watching and enjoying then suddenly feel the impossibility of suspending my disbelief any further. I thought about this for a while and came to the conclusion that Square just really suck at conveying emotion in their games. I don't know whether it's something that gets lost in translation or that the high degree of realism in the graphics causes a jarring effect when what the characters are pouring their heart into saying isn't matched by the body language we're all subconsciously conditioned to expect. Watching Serah scream at misbehaving kids was perhaps the game's nadir.
Serah was better than I expected her to be though admittedly those expectations were swirling around in the depths with her 'anger' emotion. I actually don't consider her FFXIII-2's lead but Noel instead and he did a damn fine job. I'm laughably unqualified try and squeeze him on to some sort of best lead scale but I can say with certainty that he's a world away from Vaan. Caius as the antagonist was really great and I enjoyed him as a villain immensely. His beliefs in what he was doing were understandable and supportable and it didn't hurt that his sword was fucking bad ass (can't wait to see some crazy cosplayer build that). Of the returning crew, Hope was a shockingly good character. He went from being an inconsequential whining kid in the first game to a smart, insightful adult who understood and aided in everything that was going on across the timeline. How about that for redemption, eh? Shame the same can't be said about Snow; he's as fucking annoying as he was in the first game, possibly worse. No wait, definitely worse because at least that stupid beanie hat gave him an excuse to be a fuckwad before. Fang, Vanille and especially Sazh aren't worth talking about. Lightning was as bad ass as ever even if she was mistakenly relegated to a peripheral character.
An addition to the game I'm informed was more or less lifted from Final Fantasy VII was Serendipity and boy should it have stayed there! To start with the slot machine... I'm sorry but any mini-game that requires a five minute tutorial is automatically far too complicated. Why do players go to somewhere like Serendipity anyway? To take a break from the grind and relax, right? Nothing is fun about the slot machine, nothing. You press R1 to enter a coin, you pull down on the left stick for the lever, you press the face buttons to stop the reels. After doing that about ten times you resort to just holding L1 to do it automatically. After about fifty turns when you've won essentially nothing and realize that there are trophies tied to this bullshit you figure out a way to keep the L1 button held down while you sleep. But guess what! Playing the slot machine by using L1 automatically lowers the chance to win by 33%. How's that for a kick in the nuts? As if to add a steel toe cap the machines have moods so you'll get to reload repeatedly until it's like a hot summer's day! Chocobo racing isn't bad I guess but you've first got to know how to raise one to a point of challenging for everything and even then I found fighting fate almost impossible no matter which items I used. The card game is built in DLC for later which I'll no doubt not pick up along with the costumes. Can we please just have Blitzball again?
Was there an argument from FFXIII that it needed more puzzles? I recall enjoying the FFX puzzles but don't really remember what they were now. What I look for in a puzzle found within a JRPG is that I have to stop and think about the solution because then I feel inner reward upon solving it. What I don't like is a clock forcing me to hurry so imagine my dismay when I'm faced with a puzzle that is a clock with a clock making me hurry. The picture and crystal puzzles were okay but the whole triumvirate felt tacked on to appease a problem that didn't exist rather than to be a worthwhile addition aiding the flow of the game.
At least one point of unquestionable praise I can happily laud upon FFXIII-2 is the soundtrack. FFXIII's was generally of a low standard with a few outstanding tracks, all of which have returned to supplement its sequel's. There's a wide spectrum of genres here but much of it is minimalistic and beautifully serene. For every Crazy Chocobo there's ten Ruined Hometown's with wonderfully soft lyrics and catchy electronica beats. Whenever I hear Noel's Theme I will think about watching him desperately struggle across a desolate wasteland as the only person alive. When a song can instantly evoke such powerful, emotive images I don't think any praise can be higher. Even the few tracks I wasn't initially keen on ended up growing on me by the end. If I ignore FFXI, I don't think a Final Fantasy game has had so many songs get stuck in my head or had me humming them to the passengers of my Battlefield USAS-12 ship before. I kid, but I'm happy it's of such high quality because the only thing worse than a bad soundtrack is one you can't remember. Looking at you Ivalice.
I had a blast playing through FFXIII-2, its predecessor and no doubt the eventual sequel or DLC that closes the story. Even after my platinum popped I had an urge to keep playing before deciding to put it down for a while so I don't get completely burnt out as this is going to be a busy year for JRPGs. I may have one down but there's still Ni No Kuni, FFX HD, Tales of Graces f, Last Story, Pandora Tower and possibly Toki To Tawa to go around all the other games on my list for 2012.