Somewhere around Final Fantasy XIII-2′s seventh or eighth final battle — there are so many of them, it’s hard to keep track — I had to save the game and quit playing for the afternoon. I was fighting some tag team coterie of dragons who seem to have flown in from another game. That happens a lot in JRPGs and anime, doesn’t it? Someone turns into a dragon for no reason other than dragons are cool. This guy in Final Fantasy XIII-2 was so cool he turned into a whole mess of dragons.

After the jump, the light at the end of the tunnel

Anyway, I’d been slogging through the end of the game for well over two hours, frequently having to restart battles because someone thought the very end of the game was the best place for a brutal difficulty spike. Unfortunately, there’s no way to save from anywhere but the starting point, prior to this long series of battles that goes on for who-knows-how-long after these random dragons. I lost at least an hour of repetitive hit-or-miss cheap-trick battles in which enemies instantly healed, summoned guest enemies, or segued adroitly into stages three, four, or five of their multistage battles when you “beat” them. I’d had enough of this.

And, frankly, for the last ten hours or so, I’d had enough of Final Fantasy XIII-2, a lengthy, ambitious, sometimes gratifying, but mostly and ultimately exasperating example of JRPGs at their most JRPG: brightly colored Wagnerian J-pop soap opera slathered over hours of erratically paced gameplay.

A lot of XIII-2 is an emphatic reaction to criticism that XIII was too linear. Hence this game’s cool time travel framework, in which you bop around among various levels and time periods, pursuing optional quests and gathering collectibles. The story ties neatly into this conceit, with lots of earnest hand-wringing about destiny and changing the future, and a few memorable time twists and alternate timelines. This works partly because it gives the game license to wildly vary, but it mainly works because of the two main characters. They’re each slickly animated, neatly adorned with distinct visual flourishes, and enthusiastically voice acted by Laura Bailey and Jason Marsden, often in spite of some godawful dialogue. And, most importantly, they’re both likable. I might go so far as to say I actually — could it be? — cared about each of them. When Noel starts to unveil his endgame secret, I didn’t have to pretend to be interested.

But it’s mostly the female lead, Serah, who carries Final Fantasy XIII-2. The fundamental dramatic conflict is a young girl looking for her older sister, who’s been erased from time. And while the plot is self-contained enough to make sense to someone who didn’t play Final Fantasy XIII — your guess is as good as mine as to why I’ve therefore spent 30 hours playing XIII-2 — that game’s events and characters loom large. I wouldn’t know Fang and Vaneel, who “died” at the end of XIII, from Adam, but they’re hugely important to XIII-2, and by the time the game is over, I felt like I knew exactly who and what they were. And in fact, just writing the above paragraph pulls at me ever so slightly to sit down and grind those hours again just to find out what happens in the end.

But unfortunately for whatever parts of the story work, the gameplay is eventually a liability. Final Fantasy XIII-2 starts out strong, coasts for a while on that strength, and eventually runs out of steam entirely, at which point you have to get out and push if you want to get to the end. The first ten hours are like an advent calendar of cool gameplay systems. Chains! Trainable monsters! Who can wear bunny ears and hats! Infusions! Roles! Artefacts! Outfits! Outifts? Where are the outfits? Oh well. Gear! Puzzles! Crafting! Minigames! Exploring! Side quests! Achievements!

But the pacing in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is horrible. Once all these systems have been unveiled, right around the ten hour mark, a cruel truth emerges: there isn’t much of a game here. It mostly comes down to combat, which is the traditional menu-based JRPG system, but with the bulk of the decision-making between battles. The idea is that you tune a few configurations, then swap among them as needed in combat. Once you work out the basics of healing, tanking, and DPS, it all comes down to juggling your configurations in real time. Battles are a hands-off auto-pilot formality 95% of the time, flashing by in real time with a maximum of splashy effects onscreen, as colorful, pointless, and epilepsy inducing as a Pokemon cartoon. These are grandly entertaining the first fifty times you see them. Thereafter, you can’t get through them quickly enough. Which is the point according to the stingy system of unremarkable rewards.

The other 5% of the battles are moderately difficult probably because you forgot to spend your experience points. Go spend them. See how easy it is now? Then there’s the odd boss battle that you’re either not supposed to beat yet, or that you have to replay several times to beat. When the battles are challenging, you’re suddenly expected to use potions, but the pacing of the game is such that fiddling around with potions instead of attacks probably isn’t worth the time. And even if it is worth the time, nothing in the game has conditioned you to learn which potions counter which effects which are indicated by which icons. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is as confused as you are.

Another weird aspect of the battle system is how it emphasizes your trainable monsters over your main characters. The characters progress up a straight and mostly featureless skill tree. The monsters are the focus of what little gameplay choice is offered. It’s a bit odd when the main character development takes a back seat to a handful of random monsters tagging along, such as a felt cactus, a cat in a cornucopia, a steel armadillo, a blob wearing a construction helmet, or some random robot. These weird beasts are the only place in the game with any meaningful choice of skills or cosmetic options. I guess it’s like a Pokemon cartoon in more ways than one.

I do have to admit that the production values are fantastic, even during these silly swirling battle sequences. The settings, the character graphics, the animation, and even just the level of imagination are all spectacular. If you’re going to end the game with something as annoying as the Labyrinth of Chaos, at least make it look this good. Why can’t Biowares games look this good, and why aren’t the various pockets that compose their worlds this lovely? Production values go such a long way.

But it all comes down to where the game is taking me. If there’s no payoff — or, as is the case here, if the payoff is hidden behind such a clot of unavoidable tedium that it ultimately overwhelms how much I care about reaching that payoff — then hasn’t the game failed? The balancing act for any game designer is to make me care in proportion to the challenge level you throw at me. And given how close I must be to the end, and how little I care to push on, Final Fantasy XIII-2 ultimately fails.

2 stars
Xbox 360