Every time you return to playing Final Fantasy XIII-2, the game sees fit to remind you what has happened so far. Through cuts from previous scenes and narrated by one of the characters, you are put back into the story as the game wants you to think about it. This happened and then this. Normally, this would be helpful to those coming back to the game after extended periods away, yet for a game about traveling through time, it’s an odd choice. One of many.
It’s hard for me to play Final Fantasy XIII-2 and not think about the past. After all, this is one of two direct sequels in a series that often prides itself on games that, while they have have the same basic title, are completely different in story, mechanics and structure. Yet, this game is an extension of Final Fantasy XIII in that, while it shares some characters, it is about the same problem all over again. What became one of the central threads of the plot in FFXIII, trying to save one world without destroying another, is resurrected again. The difference this time is that, instead of one long path towards this goal, it is about, well, traveling in time.
The first thing it reminded me of was Chrono Trigger, one of a very few games that has tried to take on the idea of marrying time travel and an engaging plot in the same game. Jumping from one event to another, often across hundreds of years, will definitely give you the feeling, like playing CT, that some actions are inevitable and that it is useless to try to change them. What once happened is doomed to occur again and again. The catastrophe that will lead to oblivion is ever on the horizon, traveling across the timeline can’t and won’t change it. You must only pick the point you are going to fight from and then engage with the enemy from there. Events can’t change. Well, normally.
One of the few things I really loved about Final Fantasy XIII-2 was its willingness to split the timeline. Due to choices made in the game, there will be two concurrent timelines that the characters jump between in order to progress the story. At a later point in playing the game, the characters are in a position to be killed, yet because of a plot device called an Oracle Drive, a recording of events to come, they are saved. Their current event was recorded, and later viewed, by people in the past. They saw the mistake that lead up to it and the timeline changed. Instead of one future, there are now two, 0 and X. From then on, the events progress the same in both. In one timeline, the dates are marked with zeroes and in the other X’s, the only difference being this one major event.
In that way, it is very similar to Chrono Cross, the sequel to Chrono Trigger, too. In that game, like FFXIII-2, many side-missions revolve around people, items and actions taken in one timeline, in one way or another, affecting those in another. Things that lost and people who were killed can be seen again by jumping between them. Certain materials that only exist in one timeline, at one point in history, must be collected and taken to another. The worlds seem the same, but the minor differences make them more important than another depending on whatever is the current criteria for judging it.
From its own series, FFXIII-2 shares many things with a previous game, Final Fantasy X-2. In the complaints made against it’s prequel, Final Fantasy X, it was created to give the player all the things that they did not get the first time. More side-quests? Check. The ability to move between missions and visit different areas nearly whenever you want? Check. Add in minigames and make some choices matter? Check and check. Romantic story closure? Triple check. When playing FFX-2, after playing FFX, it becomes painfully obvious that the fans were heard and things were changed. Many of the more major differences came not from story reasons, such as character growth, but directly from fan complaints.
One of the most noticeable changes is that one of the protagonists is morphed immediately. In Final Fantasy X-2, this is Yuna who, in the previous game was a Summoner and whose internal conflicts came from her duty to her job and what she comes to learn about her friends, is changed into a gun-toting attacker. Her role change is radical. She went from traveling with a group who was protecting her and acting in a support capacity during battles in one game, to one of the main warriors in her new collection of friends in the next. In the very first battle, she changes clothes, and roles, as part of the new battle system that was added to the game. Final Fantasy XIII-2 follows a similar model.
The very first scene is that of Lighting, one of the protagonists from FFXIII, fighting an unknown enemy. This serves to ground the new game in a world that the players know. Lighting, one of the “good guys”, is battling some force and thus this force must be “bad”. Not long after, the battle system is introduced and events start to enfold. These serve to progress the story up to the reintroduction of Serah, one of the main reasons why two of the main characters of FFXIII care about the events in that game. She is presented as an innocent and her fiancé and sister fight to eventually save her after she is attacked and turned into crystal as part of the plot in that first game.
Yet, in FFXIII-2, within minutes of playing, that same innocence is washed away quickly. She is literally changed from wearing white to a more pink and metal costume as a wave of time energy passes over her. This is followed by her gaining a weapon in the form of a transforming Mog (a Moogle) and pushed into fighting to protect her new town. She retains, at moments, a naivete about some events of the wider world, yet remains an anchor to that first story. She delivers the necessary narration, often to introduce new places, by describing how, in the previous story, certain people or events happened in one place and at a certain time. She speaks to her sister, now missing, in the form of a travelogue throughout as a summary of events at the end of story moments.
For all of its changes and history, one of the more interesting differences is a lack of love. Final Fantasy VII is, famously, about the love players projected into the relationships between characters. Cloud loves Tifa or Aerith — or even Barret. Final Fantasy VIII is about the future and, as the game progresses, the relationship between Squall and Rinoa. Even Final Fantasy X (and X-2) is about finding a way for Yuna and Tidus to finally be together. Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn’t have this. The two main protagonists don’t love each other romantically and neither is trying to save the world for any one person.
Noel Kreiss, the other protagonist with Serah, is motivated, at first, by his lost memory, as a result of the timeline being changed, and then later by wanting to stop Caius, the main villain. Noel does not seek to save his love or bring peace to certain location. Roughly, his job is to be the next Guardian, a title that Caius currently has held for several centuries. It is in holding this title for so long, as a result of the job’s mystical responsibilities, that has driven him to madness and prompts him to change the timeline in order to save Yuel, a girl who, in each generation, is a reincarnation of previous Yuels and whose job it is to see the future and record upcoming events in Oracle Drives for others to see.
Serah has her fiancé Snow, one of the protagonists from FFXIII, and is not seeking another partner. Noel, towards the very end of the game, seems to want to take up his responsibility to kill Caius and become the next Guardian. Neither though are fighting for a cause built in love for another person. Sure, yes, they want to stop the world from ending, but neither has a relationship that is touched on other than friendship with others that serves as exposition. Noel’s relationship with a future Yuel is important only because it is connected to Caius. Serah, who was the focus of several plot threads in the previous game, can explain why certain people are in their current positions.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an extension of its prequel. In both the best and worst senses, it is a product of its past. The same mechanics are borrowed, yet undercut because of a reduced character set. The story is similar, an at times overwhelming echo of the first game. Even the plot is an amalgamation of previous game’s attempts at writing a story that takes place in the same world, yet features different people in the role of protagonist. It tries, at times, to stand on its own, but relies on knowledge and an understand of a world that was presented in another game. Even the ending, dramatically different from others in its series, positions Final Fantasy XIII-2 as nothing more than “the story so far.”