If the philosophies concerning the criticism of sequels weren’t convoluted enough, the Final Fantasy series makes things even more complicated. Given the reception of Final Fantasy XIII and the framework that Square Enix created for it, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is explicitly about correcting the mistakes of its predecessor and providing as much fan service as possible while doing so. XIII-2 is XIII with a different story and a checklist of changes requested in popular reviews and on message boards. Contrast this with Final Fantasy X-2, which had a completely different set of mechanics than the game before it and just how transparent XIII-2 is as a fix becomes clearer. A lot of XIII-2’s value comes from the correct choices that it made to improve, but it also makes you wonder if Square Enix improved the right things.
All in all, this is a testament to a company listening to its fans. Players complained about not having areas filled with NPCs, and they got it. Freedom to explore? Check. Flexibility with the party? More item creation? Mini-games? All there. We even got quick time events just to cover all the bases. However, all of these qualities are grafted onto what was XIII and feel especially hollow. Sure, you don’t get tunnel-like maps anymore, but instead, you get a whole bunch of one-area maps that you still barely interacted with. You can choose what sequence of places you visit, but there is still a very strict, unchanging storyline that forces you to complete them in a certain order. These mechanics might calm the fans that just want their old JRPG back even if it results in pointless grinding and uninteresting battles, but the main issue is that fans don’t always know what they want. Grasping for the familiar is everyone’s gut reaction, but not necessarily the correct choice.
The problem with XIII is that it was already trying too hard to cling to the past. The development team involved didn’t construct all of our favorites, yet they are trying to implement all of the series’s mainstays. XIII-2 perpetuates this attitude of “We don’t care what the game is like, just give us ATB, moogles, and spiky hair!” The series found itself at a crossroads as a result of some bad timing. With the boom of open-world games and player-driven narratives, there’s an expectation for Final Fantasy to change alongside the evolution of other RPGs and to have a reason for its design decisions outside of providing fan service. Because Final Fantasy has been gliding on its laurels for so long, not even the fans actually know what they want except just another Final Fantasy. In XIII-2’s case, adding in more traditional elements didn’t make it a better game, it just shows how little ingenuity went into these games.
Something that did need to change from XIII is the battles and the strange dissonance that players feel when when they are used to controlling the actions of their party members. Instead, players were given a system that makes them a director or general, who manages tactics. XIII-2 doesn’t try to rectify that strange feeling of wanting to do more than wait to hit “Auto.” Rather, it tries to add in more spice with monster collecting. Unfortunately, the monsters that the player collects actually hinder the team because they are only accessible by roles, and the main characters are typically better at said roles than the monsters. The Crystarium was only slightly edited, really just a glorified aesthetic makeover to typical leveling, as you can max out your characters’ abilities easily before the end of the game. This feels out of place in both games, whose narratives imply tactical moves and attention to cause and effect. It makes the beginning seem more interesting, but as you get closer to the end it becomes reminiscent of the blandness that was Final Fantasy XII’s class system at the end game. Square Enix tries to jam choice into a system that is not built for it. Something successful about XIII was how many elements reflected the dramatic situations of the characters. Choice wasn’t something those characters had the luxury of, rather, running and adapting was. And really, there is no choice in the narrative of XIII-2. Instead, the use of time travel gives the illusion of flexibility. The series has long relied on the illusion of choice to manage its narrative, and slapping on time travel to a game very focused on one particular event reveals the games’ innards, and they aren’t pretty.
Can this game placate fans upset about XIII? Sure. However, for anyone who mostly enjoyed or wanted something different from XIII, XIII-2 is going to look like a company grasping at straws to keep their cash cow intact. There are some that won’t blame Square Enix for regressing to serve its fans, but that doesn’t mean a good game is a result of doing so. It shows that the series is failing to adapt to the changing landscape of the gaming industry and is satisfied with just cranking out numbers instead of fantasies.