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January 11, 2013

Final Fantasy 13-2: Good Morning, Kupo! (Part 1)

All right.  Let’s talk about anime for a minute.

I’ve made it no secret that I have some deep respect for anime and manga.  I won’t say that either medium is perfect (especially from story to story), and my passion for it has cooled off since I first got into it, but I think that just like any other medium, the stories therein aren’t to be ignored; they have just as much -- and maybe more -- affecting power and merit as anything else out there, provided the story is handled competently.

Competently -- or adroitly, if you prefer.  That’s the key element.  And I’m sure you know where I’m going to go next with this, but let’s play this game for now; I promise this’ll all make sense before the post is over.

I’ll be honest: I can see why people might be less than receptive towards anime and manga, and Japanese games -- JRPGs especially -- by extension.  One of the biggest walls (besides cultural barriers and stylistic choices, of course) is that anime is very “rule-based”; that is, more often than not there’s an internal logic to it that defines each story and its elements.  Because of that -- and the fact that you can deal with a story that is handled continuously by as few as one person over the course of more than a decade -- in many cases it’s near-impossible to just start watching anime and be satisfied.  You have to start from the very beginning to know who’s who, what’s what, and why there’s a kid who can turn pink and punch a leopard-man in a suit with a flurry of stretchy-armed punches.  Those that stick with a good series often find their commitment rewarded.

But that’s an inherent problem: commitment.  Some people are justifiably unwilling to put in the hours needed to understand every element of a story (as of this writing there are about five hundred eighty episodes of One Piece, each one spanning about 22 minutes; to get fully caught up with the series, you have to be willing to blow two hundred thirteen hours).  There’s a wealth of information that needs to be known and understood for the full effect -- and sometimes it’s not worth the effort.  And that’s where the problems start; because it’s a visual medium, some people are willing to go by audiovisual cues alone and base their judgments on that.  “Why is there a talking reindeer?  Why isn’t that man wearing pants?”  And so on. 

Rather than relying on understanding and fact, there are people who would just confine anime to stereotypes.  “This show makes no sense!” Or maybe “Anime is weird.”  Or some offhand comment about tentacles.  Stereotypes are some powerful stuff; I have a hard time convincing my brother that there’s more to anime than just the power-level, fight-happy frenzies of Dragon Ball Z or Naruto, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (i.e. Bakuman, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Boogiepop Phantom, Nichijou, Yakitate!! Japan, Space Brothers, and more recently Maoyuu Maou Yuusha -- a story which, of all things, may very well serve as a primer on macroeconomics).  I won’t say that the stereotypes of anime don’t exist, because they do in spades -- some of which I’m surprised even exist.  But it’s more than possible for the medium…technically, any Japanese-heavy medium, games included, to surpass the stereotypes that have harmed their reputation in recent years.

That optimism does not extend to Final Fantasy 13-2.

Part 1: The First Twenty Minutes
(Or: All That’s Missing is a Linkin Park Song)

So, here we go.  

I know I’m the one that embedded the video, but a part of me is compelled to say “just skip it” and describe it for you myself.  So whatever option you decided on, I’ll go ahead and provide a little summary.  Lightning, the lead heroine of the first game, has been transported to this world called Valhalla (almost immediately after her victory against the baddies in vanilla 13).  She now serves as a knight and bodyguard to some manner of goddess, and has been granted powers that make her -- to paraphrase the manual -- “something beyond human, and a goddess herself.”  And she uses that power to apparently wage war with the purple-haired Caius Ballad.  Suddenly, a new entrant -- the parachute pants-brandishing Noel Kreiss -- falls out of the sky from some point in time, and drops headfirst into the middle of their battle.  With a slight lull in the action, Lightning gives Noel a mission: travel to the present, and bring her little sister Serah to her.  She gives him a Mog that transforms into a bow and sends him on his way -- into a time gate that’ll take him just where (or when) he needs to be.  And so in a climactic burst of energy, Noel escapes and Valhalla is presumably wrecked the hell up, starting your adventure in earnest.  Er…sort of.

I remember GameInformer describing the opening to the same effect in a preview, and admitting pretty quickly that it doesn’t make much sense.  And I want to stress that it was in a preview; even if reviewers savage games upon release and their subsequent reviews, typically they have nothing but praise in the previews.  It didn’t exactly bode well for the game, but the only way to know for sure was just what Squeenix banked on: people would have to buy 13-2 to judge for themselves.  It’s something like a Venus fly trap, or a pitfall, or a plate of hot dogs set atop a raft in the ocean and guarded by Portuguese men-o-war.

“All right, you -- enough rambling,” you snap, arms folded and finger tapping against your elbow.  “I watched the video AND read your summary.  So what’s so bad about this opening sequence?  Are you so biased against spectacle that you can’t let a game developer provide visual stimulation?”  No, I’m not biased.  I enjoy spectacle as much as pretty much anyone else.  But there’s a key element that should never, ever be missing from moments of spectacle: stakes.  And therein lies not only the first problem with this opening, but suggests that Squeenix has learned virtually nothing from its past failures.

A question, reader: who exactly is Lightning protecting in Valhalla?  I ask, because for the life of me I can’t give a solid answer.  It can’t possibly be Etro, because she’s out of action (I assume; I can’t tell from the video if she’s been frozen in place or if her chair is just really, really ornate).  She’s not doing it just for herself, or for her friends.  So, who’s in Valhalla?  What’s its purpose?  Why is it there?  Is it a sacred den of the gods?  If so, how many of them are there to require a massive city?  If not, then who lives there?  Did everyone die?  Did Caius kill them all?  What is Valhalla to the story, if not just a backdrop for some multimillion-dollar cutscenes (the visuals of which have clearly taken a hit, as compared to vanilla 13)?  I’ll admit that beating Caius is a top priority, as it should be, and as it will over the course of the game…well, relatively speaking, but I’ll get to that.  But as it stands, there’s absolutely no context about what’s going on.  Because of that, we don’t know what’s at stake.  Because of that, there’s no tension.  No danger.  It’s just two virtual gods going at it for damn near twenty minutes.

And that brings up another problem: it really is just two virtual gods going at it.  I mentioned this before in an earlier post, but I'll repeat it as long as games keep pushing this boneheaded angle: power in itself is boring.  You can get some flashy visuals out of it, sure, and you can impress those that are willing to turn off their brains, but then what?  What’s the point of showing off what a character can do?  And as I suspected, 13-2 has no valid answer.  There’s no tension when these two characters are super-powered beings with vaguely-defined but incredibly-bombastic powers go at it -- especially when you know neither of them will die, because, you know, it’s the game’s first twenty minutes.  It’s like two six-year-olds making believe, and coming up with new powers and spiffy moves on the spot.  “I can summon a lot of monsters!”  “Oh yeah?  Well I can summon a lot of monsters, too!  And I can turn into a dragon!”  “Oh yeah?  Well I can summon a sword that has all these angel feathers spinning around it!”  “Oh -- oh yeah?  Well MY sword shoots energy balls, and it’s huge, and…and it looks like Soul Edge!”  “So what?  I can shoot lasers and lightning bolts, and you can’t hurt me ‘cause I can just heal myself instantly!  Nyah nyah!”  “Nuh-uh!  ‘Cause I can use the powers of chaos to bend the world to my will, and stop time!”  “How would that help?”  “It doesn’t, but we can jump all over the place now with these platforms!  Boosh-boosh-boosh!”

An excess of powers opens up all these holes in logic that I can’t even begin to fill.  If Lightning and Caius can both summon a bunch of monsters, why do they stop doing so?  Why don’t they go for a Zerg rush?  Individually they’re not much, but surely they can wear each other down.  And nigh-immortality isn’t much of a problem with the proper application of powers; if Caius has the power to stop time in a local area, why doesn’t he stop Lightning with it?  Why bother going sword-to-sword with someone who can’t die that way?  And even if the big bubbles he creates aren’t time distortions, then it’s safe to assume that they’re gravity fields instead; why not bind Lightning to the ground with it by virtue of quadrupling her weight?  For God’s sake, even characters in Bleach -- a manga series admittedly mired in bad decisions and poor writing -- have shown an ability to use their powers in unique ways.  Why can’t you, Squeenix, given that you’re handily aping that series on its worst days?

Actually, no.  Bleach lends itself to some hefty criticism at times, but it can be more than competent and has proven itself worthy of being one of Japan’s most notable franchises.  What we have here is a deleted scene from Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children.  Really, the resemblance is uncanny.  We have a sullen-yet-godlike protagonist at the mercy of a company prone to forgetting what made the original characters so appealing (though I use that term sparingly with Lightning).  We have another godlike -- and undeniably handsome -- antagonist with a massive sword and a messiah complex.  Both of them can fly for some reason.  One of them uses a sword to gain additional altitude.  Both of them use the debris of shattered buildings to continue their fight.  The backdrop of their fight takes place in a colorless urban area, with every other character in their respective canons inexplicably missing.  There’s some remarkably ill-fitting religious imagery, with the hero ultimately presented as a melancholy savior.  There’s an evil form of Bahamut, the hero gets to dual-wield at one point, and all of it comes together to leave a much-adored feeling of wasted time.

JRPGs -- as per their anime-tinged natures -- take a lot of flak for being clichéd or stereotypical.  As I hope you know, there are a LOT of exceptions, and stereotyping only goes so far in the wake of games such as Lost Odyssey or Devil Survivor.  But 13 and 13-2 do the genre no favors, especially not 13-2 given that it takes all the worst elements of Advent Children while adding nothing to raise the net worth.  “What is Final Fantasy about?” one might ask an uninitiated observer.  And they might answer, “It’s about beautiful people fighting without physics for…some reason!  But it looks really cool!  Sort of!”  It’s the stereotypical presentation in the first twenty minutes that smacks of either a lack of effort, a lack of talent, or a lack of restraint -- in other words, the pandering/proselytizing double-whammy.  It’s as if they understand how to make a fight scene, but not WHY to make a fight scene.  Or a game, for that matter, but we’ll get to that.  (The gameplay, especially -- because I have a lot of ammo regarding that one.)

Anyway, let’s get back to the cutscene.  I would like to note that the appearance of Noel Kreiss in this opening pisses me the hell off, primarily because it features almost shot-by-shot reproductions of key moments from Kingdom Hearts’ opening (and reminds me that 13-2 was developed and released before KH3 has even become a blip on the radar).  Seriously, look at this, and then look at the Noel parts from 13-2 again.

I see what you did there, Squeenix.  I see what you did there.  (By the way, I also noticed that you invoked the specter of FF7 when Cauis dips his lady friend in the water. Classy.)

Anyway, Noel.  Yep, that's his name: Noel Kreiss.  Noel.  Kreiss.  I still can’t get over how stupidly on-the nose that name is, or the fact that Squeenix tried to hide it with some pronunciation and spelling changes; really, they might as well have called him Christmas Jesus.  That aside, Lightning catches Noel on her own Bahamut -- though why she had to jump off and slash the summoning crystal in sloooooooooooow mooooooooooootion is beyond me -- and engages in another battle with Caius, who’s turned back into his Bahamut form.  Why exactly he transformed into Bahamut, then human, then Bahamut again is a mystery I’m probably better off not solving; what’s important is that through these two mock battles, I managed to confirm that, no, the gameplay hasn’t evolved in any significant way besides “mash X to win.” 

I know it’s a little unfair to judge a combat system’s merits in the opening hours of a JRPG, but given that other games have put up a much better showing and actually managed to require the player’s strategy to evolve, it’s a pretty grim forecast.  And while we’re on the subject of battles, why is it that during the quick-time events, numbers pop up in what is ONLY a cutscene?  You don’t get to fight human Caius outside of a cutscene, so what’s the point of showing numbers popping up over his head?  It’s jarring, it’s unnecessary, and it makes no sense.  (Get used to me saying “it makes no sense” a lot.)

Okay, focusing back on the cutscene now.  After you shoot Caius down -- or at least you scare him off; there’s no telling where he goes -- Lightning and Noel touch down on solid ground and have a quick discussion.  Noel wants to know how to fight Caius, but Lightning says it’s not his battle.  Now I’m going to put a quote here, and I want you to remember it for later, because oh lordy lordy is it going to open up a whole host of problems…some of them almost immediately.

“Bring my sister to me.  Her name is Serah.”  That line.  Remember it.  Not the name part; just the part about bringing Serah there.

Lightning summons Mog (and I wish you could see my face, because the moment I laid eyes on him I just did this nervous twitch) and has him transform into a bow for Noel to give to Serah.  Presumably it’s to be used as a weapon, but Lightning calls him a “good luck charm,” so I guess she intends to have Serah wear Bow-Mog around her neck.  While Noel prepares to head for the time gate that Lightning pointed out, the “goddess” herself has Odin launch her skyward -- oh boy, just like Advent Children -- so she can intercept a giant-ass death ball launched by Caius -- again, just like Advent Children.  Just as it starts wrecking Valhalla, Noel makes a suicidal dive and reaches for the time gate.  And with that, the action pauses, allowing Lightning to give us some meaningful words.

“My hopes go with you, Noel Kreiss.  Become an arrow through time, and speed your way to Serah.  Be there for her…because I no longer can.”


Lightning mentions -- in what is, remarkably, a throwaway line -- that she can see everything, so she knew Noel was coming.  In other words (and IIRC, this is confirmed by the manual), Lightning can see all of time at any moment.  I’ll go ahead and assume that she can’t see the future that lies ahead for Valhalla by virtue of it presumably being some sort of chronological dead zone, and that I can buy.  But if she knew what was going to happen, why did she faff about for so long?  Why wait for Noel to fall out of the sky when she could have just sent, say, Odin back through the time gate which has -- unless proven otherwise -- always been there?  Why not go back herself?  Am I supposed to believe that she’s been fighting Caius without end since she got dropped off in Valhalla?  No, that’s impossible, because we see her kneeling before Etro’s throne; at the very least, she has a few minutes to dive into the past, grab Serah, and explain what’s going on -- and since it’s time travel, she can be back before Caius even starts his assault.  

I’ll get into this later when I discuss the time travel element, but as I understand it, this plot is entirely unnecessary, and it’s all Lightning’s fault.  Ignoring the question of why there’s a time gate just sitting there, Lightning sends Noel through it to get Serah.  Sooooooooooo…why isn’t there a gate that immediately leads back to Valhalla?  Shouldn’t she have foreseen that Serah and Noel would spend dozens of hours of game-time wondering how to get back to Valhalla?  And again, why send Noel, someone who barely knows how to time-travel (so to speak; the game is really inconsistent on whether he knows everything about time travel, or is learning as he goes)?  Why not have Lightning -- you know, the goddess -- go back herself?  What is so important in Valhalla that she absolutely, positively, cannot leave?  What’s stopping her from using Etro’s divine power from creating a shortcut to the present and back, if time travel is as byzantine as the rest of the game suggests? 

And by the same token, what’s stopping Lightning from popping into the past, then returning an hour before Caius’ onslaught with Serah in tow?  And by THAT same token, what’s stopping her from venturing out to when Caius first gained his uber-powers and slapping that shit out of his hand?  Why would Lightning lead Noel to that gate -- the one gate in the game that takes the characters exactly where they need to go -- with no hope of returning except through the most circuitous path possible?  Why doesn’t she leave Noel a note on how his time-travelling adventure will work?  Why doesn’t she tell him what Serah looks like?  Sure, they have the same hair color and similarities in hairstyle, but what if he missed her?  What if he encountered someone who also had pink hair -- which is a real possibility given that there are people walking around, in-universe, who sport orange, blue, and silver hair?

Twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes is all it takes for you to realize that if you even dare to think about what’s going on for a single second, you’re in for a lot of disappointment.  There is no internal logic here -- and if it is, it’s so obscured by needless, unexplained rules and plot-prolonging obfuscation that it hardly becomes worthwhile.  I know the answer to a lot of my questions is “Because otherwise there would be no game.”  But here’s the thing: that isn’t a good answer.  I need the game to explain to me why this is happening in exactly this way.  I need rules.  I need framework.  I need justification.  I need a common ground with the writers and developers.  What I DON’T need is twenty minutes of the Squeenix collective getting their rocks off at the sight of wings and feathers.

I’m a little uneasy about using a term like this, because I don’t like making sexual jokes.  Yeah, I’ll use phrases like “stiff in the trousers” and “improbably buxom”, but that’s about it.  But I don’t have any better words to explain what goes down here in 13-2, its opening in particular: it’s blowing its load.  In some twenty-ish hours of game time, I have yet to see a sequence that even tries to near the “highs” (and there aren’t quotes big enough for that one) of the opening.  It’s all just a load of faffing about.  It’s almost poetic in its ability to drag on; a game that’s all about time travel is so hideously adept at wasting yours.  And for what?  So we can get the answer to the completely-unnecessary question of “Is Lightning truly happy?” in spite of that answer not only being given at the end of the first game, but events of the second game essentially stomping on any happiness, sense of levity, or spirit she had left?  So Squeenix can simultaneously pay the bills with a game that’s worse than even a sub-par fanfic and whisper sweet nothings into their 1:1 scale Lightning hug pillows?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this game is terrible and I fucking hate it.  But as bad as the first twenty minutes are, there’s still a long…long…long…long…looooooooooooooooooooong way to go.

And it only gets worse from here.  

Part 0 -- the start.
Part 2 -- SOS, Old Navy.


  1. That Random Game BloggerJanuary 11, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    Mmm.. your FF 13-2 reviews wouldn't happen to have been inspired by the Spoony one's reviews of the other games in the series? you have a similar way of adressing complaints :P

  2. I wish I could say "This is all me!" but, well, I'd be lying if I said I didn't take inspiration from Spoony and his videos. He does good work, to be sure -- cracking open games and picking them apart piece-by-piece. It's a style that works, especially for games like this.

    FF 13-2 is a game that makes you ask questions, but for all the wrong reasons. There's a severe lack of internal logic and rule-establishing that makes it nearly impossible to believe that the actions taken by its characters is ever the best choice. When you think about an instance for even a moment, it opens up this whole network of questions -- asking how or why that works, why people are doing what they're doing, and why they don't make use of better alternatives. Basically, the player can out-think the lead characters (heroes and villains) at every turn...not the sort of thing that makes for a compelling story or game, as you can guess.

    You'll see what I mean later on. Especially when I get to...that. I like to think of it as "The Subplot" -- and boy howdy, is it a doozy.

  3. I don't want to be a dick right now, but just because Spoony has done FF videos, does not mean, some one else can't complain about an FF game. I know you didn't mean that but it grinds my gears that Spoony is brought up while someone else is talking about FF. He was not the first person to complain about them.

  4. .... *sigh*

    That was the worst first twenty minutes of anything I have EVER seen. Even the first episode of the dumb, overblown 'Ergo Proxy' did not anger me as much as this. 20 minutes of nothing but pretty pictures and logic-and-physics-defying action. Not to mention that the dialogue is pretentious up the @$$. (Is talking like NORMAL people a crime of the highest degree, Square Enix?!) Why has no one who worked on this FF13 "saga" been fired yet?

    I'm sorry you had to endure this game. I'm so sorry. I pray for your sanity. :'(

  5. "Not to mention that the dialogue is pretentious up the @$$."

    Yeah, about that...it doesn't stop. Like, at all. Ever. I'm going to get into this later, of course, but I guess I might as well say it now: Lightning from FF13-2 is ALMOST NOTHING like Lightning from vanilla 13, because she's constantly talking in overwrought gibberish. None of it sticks, none of it makes sense, none of it matters, and worst of all it's primarily delivered through blathering voice-overs. That's right -- Lightning is barely even in the game, and somehow she STILL manages to ruin it.

    Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. Honestly, I haven't even been able to touch this game in more than a week. There was an instance in the game -- which I call "The Subplot" -- which is so utterly stupid that it very nearly broke me in two. I think that's a first for me; it certainly says a lot about a game when I start thinking Resident Evil 6 makes more sense, or when I long for the days of vanilla 13.