Monday, April 27, 2015

Final Fantasy XIII-2: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

I rolled my eyes when Final Fantasy XIII-2 was announced.  Final Fantasy XIII had disappointed any desire to play another game in the series right out of me.  I was done with Final Fantasy.

Every incidental tidbit I learned about Final Fantasy XIII-2 confirmed my judgement.  The game featured Serah, Lightning's annoying and underdeveloped sister.  A moogle with a cartoon design and an annoyingly squeaky voice played an important role.  And the story had very little to do with Final Fantasy XIII, which probably meant that the writers were pulling strands of plot out of their... well, you know.

The release date for Final Fantasy XIII-2 came and went.  I ignored it.  Life continued on, and...

... and a year or two later, I quit World of Warcraft and was immediately bored.  Looking for something to do, I checked out the review for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and discovered that... they were not terrible.  Cautiously interested, I went to the local video game store and learned that the game was now heavily discounted.

All right then!  Why not.  Why not...

The Opening

The opening cinematic did not reassure me that my purchase was a good one.


The biggest issue with this opening?  We're supposedly continuing the story of Final Fantasy XIII, and yet this cinematic appears to take us completely away from that plot and throw us in media res into a new one.  That mismatch of expectations is disorienting, to say the least.

On the flip side?  This opening does an admirable job of focusing attention on the primary antagonist of the game, Caius Ballad.  His recognizable humanity, shown by the contrast between his tenderness as he lets Yeul go and his fury as he battles Lightning, is intriguing.  It hints at a story that is very personal in nature, and I think those are the stories that audiences respond to the strongest.

The Rest of the Story


Here's two ways to describe the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2:
  • All of existence is threatened by a megalomaniacal villain who seeks to crack time itself by traveling back into the past and creating paradoxes.
  • Inadvertently punished with immortality, our villain is forced to watch his love continually die and be reborn with no hope for her to find peace.  Driven nearly mad over eons of this cycle, he seeks to end this curse the only way he knows how.
Both are apt descriptions of the game, but I'm willing to bet that you find the second one more involving.  I certainly did.  And fortunately Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't make the mistake of losing focus of the latter in pursuit of the former.

What results is - simply put - incredible, a grand tale with epic sweep that never loses sight of the personal stakes involved.  It begins when Noel journeys back from the far future when he and Caius are the only humans left alive.  Foregoing his friendship with Caius, Noel joins Serah in a mad pursuit through time in an effort to fix the paradoxes that Caius has been instigating.

This quest device is interesting, as it essentially turns the game into a linked collection of short stories.  These smaller stories vary in tone, from saving a city from an invasion of demons to finding an extinct flower to place on the grave of a grieving father's child.  Each feels properly sized, with none overstaying their welcome.  And as Serah and Noel travel from time to time, they learn a bit more about the doomed history of Caius and Yeul.

A brief word about our heroes: they were nowhere near as annoying as I feared they might be.  Why not?  Simply put: because they're not whiners.  Serah and Noel and Caius all have clear purposes from which they do not deviate (which two exceptions, but these are presented as self-contained mini-stories with clear boundaries from the greater tale), and this clarity is extremely welcome.  If an audience is waiting for a climax where two trains to crash together, why slow their velocity with swerves that question whether the collision will happen at all?  Isn't it better to constantly increase their momentum?

And that final collision is grand indeed.  Here's the video; it spans the entire fight, so I'll talk about individual sections below.

00:00 - 13:30: Caius comes to destroy mankind's final hope in stabilizing time.  There's much here that will make no sense unless you've played the game, but what's neat is how various supporting characters are brought back to play a role in the finale.  It's always neat to have individual threads from the long story woven back together in the end.

13:31 - 15:49: A final confrontation between Noel and Caius.  Here Caius's controlled and calculating demeanor finally breaks, revealing the eons of pent up rage that drives his actions.  And here is when I realized the most incredible thing: I actually sympathized with Caius.  If I felt like the person I loved the most was cursed to suffer for a literal eternity, I think I might do everything in my power to free that person too.

The moment when Noel turns Caius's assumptions around is also chilling.

15:50 - 17:05: Lightning brings Noel and Serah back from the dead or something.  Okay, this part still makes no sense to me, but oddly enough - I don't mind.  Why?  Because I wanted Noel and Serah to come back and face Caius one final time.  If a story responds to the audience's desires, I think the audience will be more than willing to overlook any plot holes or other bits of nonsense.

17:06 - 25:35: The final boss fight against not one not two but three dragons!  This is a flippant comment, but in truth I was intimidated like hell when I realized what I'd have to face.  And the music that plays when the fight starts in earnest is still my favorite boss theme - dark, discordant, and full of rising power.

Note the little details as well: the red dragon fights with physical attacks, and when he appears he slams his claws against the platform.  The yellow dragons fights with magic, and he crosses his hands over his chest.  Minor details, sure, but I have much respect for the thought process that goes behind making everything just right.

25:36 - 29:25: The finale, where assumptions are turned on their heads as Caius begs Noel to kill him, and Noel refuses.  The words spoken are (generally) lean and to the point, without the overwrought excess that can sometimes haunt a story.  And Caius's final act... wow.

29:26 - 33:53: And I usually pretend the rest of the ending doesn't exist, as it goes full circle back to the opening cinematic - but only in the sense that it's disconnected from the rest of the story.  Oh well, nothing's perfect.

So, just in case you can't tell, let me say this unequivocally: I loved Final Fantasy XIII-2.  In some ways I think the game was helped by the negative reaction to Final Fantasy XIII, as it allowed the creators to forge something new for the series.  Its biggest flaw?  The cliffhanger ending that clearly indicates another sequel.  But that doesn't detract from the essentially self-contained story of the game.

And with my exceedingly positive reaction to Final Fantasy XIII-2, I found myself thinking: maybe a third game wouldn't be so bad after all...

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