Final Fantasy XIII-2: The First Eight Hours

In the opening scene of Final Fantasy XIII-2, when protagonist of the previous episode Lightning rode in her new divine outfit carrying a silver shiny shield, I was in tears.  I could not breath and my emotion ran high.  This is the pinnacle of video gaming when audience are fully immersed into the story, or rather, a series of stories.  International fans have played through part one.  We were moved and we want more.  For a moment, perhaps a brief moment, we could forgive and forget how the game developer Square Enix destroys the franchise by releasing the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV Online.  So, time for a rewind.  We move forward from episode thirteen to episode fourteen and now back to thirteen part two.

I sincerely hope that the genre Japanese Role Playing Game remains as it is.  Trying to please the West too much may lose this genre’s unique flavor – beautiful animation, deep dialogues, and wild imagination in all possible dimensions.  Not to say that I do not enjoy Western RPG.  I do.  But the two should have distinct flavors.

In some ways though, the inevitable influence is there.  This new installment has been improved upon based on international fans’ feedback.  The story is less linear.  Many cut scenes you could choose not to trigger if you prefer action to sit back and enjoy a good anime clip.  Even the cinematic clips now demand your full attention.  Some of these moments play like action games such as God of War III.  The English version of Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3) is a new game released last week and I have spent eight hours so far with it.  Two chapters I have completed.  Barely scratching the surface, for sure.  If you have played or heard of the previous installment and wish to know what improvements or changes have been made, look no further.  Here is a breakdown for you.  I will write another post once I arrive at the next milestone.

Does Time Travel Make the Game Less Linear?

What a coincident that the two games – FF13-2 and WoW – use the same concept of time traveling in roughly the same development period.  Both looks upon end time on how the future may have been and both stories send ripples to the worlds by allowing the heroes to change the events in the past.  In FF13-2, Lightning the new Goddess of Warrior reined over a mystery world called Valhalla, which seems to be constantly under siege by evil forces.  Noel, the last of the humanity, goes through the time portal hoping to change the past, meets Lightning.  Lightning sends him back to the past to find her sister Serah.  In Serah‘s reality, Lightning has disappeared after the fall of Cocoon.  In the previous episode, it was Lightning who searches for her sister.  In this episode, it is the other way round

In FF13, we pretty much follow a linear story that is filled with lengthy cut scenes.  In between the thirteen chapters, there is an open world called Gran Pulse for us to quest and grind.  In FF13-2, each chapter is separated in time and place.  There is a main story that we can go back and forth.  And there are branches to other side stories too.  It may appear that there are choices to be made.  We get to decide how the story is consumed.

Another point to note is that unlike FF13, FF13-2’s map has more options for exploration.  You could of course head from one story trigger to another.  Or you could spend some time to explore and be rewarded with extra items and more side quests.

Where are the Quests?

It seems to me that in FF13-2, we are encouraged to talk to people who are wandering around the area.  It gives you a good sense of where the story is heading.  More importantly, some are quest givers who you would not have known had you not talked to them.  This is old school.  We are so used to newer role playing games that feed us with the question marks on top of the quest givers.  In a strange way, I enjoy this aspect of exploration.

Where are the Monsters?

Vanished.  You hear right.  Unlike FF13 and other role playing games, the monsters in FF13-2 are invisible.  They ambush you instead.  As you walk, all of a sudden, the monsters may appear.  You then have a few second to turn around, move to the monsters, and attempt to hit them before they sense you.  That is the new Preemptive Strike mechanism.  If you remember FF13, this mechanic requires you to go behind a moving monster, which can be a bit frustrating.  I quite like this new mechanism in FF13-2.  Also, it seems more interesting not to see a world populated with groups of monsters that pace around a fix location.

Thank God there are breadcrumbs on the mini map.  I would have been disoriented by the change in direction, all the time.

Where are the Other Members?

Gone.  That’s correct.  Gone are the days when we get to pick which main characters we wish to bring along for a party of three.  In FF13-2, we have Serah.  And we have Noel.  In FF13, from the role playing perspective, if we do not like certain characters, no problem.  We can swap them out.  Not so for this new episode.  We better love Serah and Noel because we are stuck with these two.

I do not think Serah has the well loved character of Lightning.  She does not have the ever so positive personality of Vanille either. As for Noel, he is not as demanding as Hope (phew).  But he does not have the strong personality as Serah‘s now disappeared boyfriend Snow.  Maybe it is still early in the game.  I am hoping to see more from the duo.

Now, to compensate for the lack of playable main characters, we can tame monsters.  Almost every monster out there can be tamed and can join the party.  Each monster is preassigned with one role.  They can be leveled up with raw materials, very much like how weapons in FF13 can be upgraded.  The whole monster management business is in fact pretty complex.  You will need a good guidebook to take you through.  I happen to use one (see the advertisement below).

What the Mog?

Mog is a stuffed toy that flies.  A creature sent by Lightning to Serah through Noel.  And Mog is now Serah‘s companion.  Its job (so far) is to hunt for near invisible items.  Yes, keep your eyes wide opened when playing FF13-2 and look out for those near invisible objects.

How cute is the Mog?  Check out the trailer below.

Action Cinematic and Dialogue Choices

Cinematic clips now require us to pay attention on the screen and press a combination of control buttons.  Very much like Heavy Rain.  Failing to execute the combo will lose extra rewards.  However, you will be rewarded with an alternative clip.  The end result is the same (I think).

This same action feature also becomes a must during battle, when your party’s controlled monster charges up a full bar of Feral Link.

Some dialogues now have four options.  I am unsure if it matters which option I pick.  It plays a different clip though.  Long time ago, I debated on why a linear game may not be bad because we get to see all the contents in one run.  Now, we may need to play it multiple times to see the different dialogue clips.  If you are a completionist, that is.

Paradigms, Roles, and Crystarium

The concept of paradigms and roles do not change much, although FF13-2 seems to reward us for shifting paradigms often during battle (ATB fully charged every other turn when shifted to another paradigm).  Crystarium has undergone a revamp.  Instead of the three dimensional “talent tree” that gives you options of which non-mandatory point to pick, FF13-2 flattens the entire Crystarium into one linear scale.  We now pick which role we level.  Crystarium expands once we reach a certain cumulative level and allows us to pick a bonus (such as ATB+1 or a new role).  It does not affect me too much.  Perhaps simplification is good, much like what WoW is going to do with the talent tree in Mists of Pandaria.

Optimization of Serah and Noel‘s Crystarium is not easy.  I use a guidebook that comes with tables and charts.  I do not think I have time to play a second run in near future.  So I prefer to do it right on first try.

Do We Need to Grind?

I don’t mind grinding.  But I know some do.  If you don’t read the guidebook and play the game as you like, you would probably grind less.  I follow the guidebook’s recommendation to tame certain monsters.  And taming takes time because not every battle yields a crystal.  I ended up going back and forth trying to encounter a particular type of monster and hope to tame one.

This takes time.  But I am not complaining (yet) because I am rewarded with in-game currency and raw materials that can be used to level up the tamed monster.

A Guidebook, Recommended?

I bought the official FF13 guidebook after I have finished the game.  I wish I had one during my initial play through.  This time, I invested on the official FF13-2 guidebook upfront.  I have the Collector’s Edition.  It is beautifully bound and contains tons of useful information presented in eye pleasing colored format.  To get the best out of the game, I would strongly recommend you to get the official guidebook.

Strongly recommended.

Too Long Didn’t Read

Are you a fan?  If you are, buy FF13-2 and play.  You won’t regret it.  The changes are mostly good.  It still plays like the game you have adored a year ago.  Be ready to commit time if you wish to see every aspect of it.

Final Fantasy XIII Scores Very High In My Book

I have always said that Japanese’s imagination knows no bound.  And their commitment to production quality is truly an inspiration.  If I am to combine all the cut scenes from the game Final Fantasy XIII, it can easily be one beautifully made anime in full HD glory (1080p).  It takes me 80 hours to see the ending (still not completing the game yet) and I have lost track on how many and how long the cut scenes are.  Especially in the beginning, I could literally spend a few minutes playing the game and then here comes the cut scene.  It is long enough for me to make a cup of tea, finishing eating an apple, and wash my hands.  As the story unfolds, the gap between the cut scenes lengthens depending on how fast or slow you progress.

Quite a few friends of mine asked if FF13 is indeed linear.  To be frank, non-linear game does not mean that it is good.  Linear game does not mean that it is bad.  It is all about execution.  In terms of storyline, there is nothing you can do to change the outcome, unlike other games.  That also means that you do not need to play the game multiple times to see the complete set of sub-stories.  For FF13, you play it once and be totally immersed.  There is a fixed number of characters and gears you can develop,  But which ones to pick is entirely your decision based on your preferred strategy.  In fact, looking at the game play, the key feature that sets the game apart from the rest is that it has little to do with your reflex actions.  It is the strategy you deploy prior to each battle and the ability to think on your feet every 5 seconds or so during the battle.  The combat system is unique and has earned a lot of praises.  There is no need to mess around with the positioning of your characters during a battle and it does not require you to frantically press the buttons on your controller to beat the enemy.  At a macro level, you control the roles of your characters and switch them at one go by up to 5 defined sets created by you.  At a micro level, you can choose to execute a specific action for the character that you have a direct control with.  And because of the variety of enemies, you are forced to adopt a different strategy for each battle.  Be it as a different role set combination, or even a different set of characters and gears.

Another noticeable difference compares to other role playing games is that the enemies in FF13 do not level as your characters level.  You can go back and revisit your old foes that gave you a hard time and beat the crap out of them in seconds.  Or you may get trashed by some unknown enemies that are so powerful that in the early stage of the game, all you can do is to flee.  Because the enemies re-spawn, there is no shortage of action.  In later part of the game, you can explore the area in any direction you prefer.  Tackle the missions in any order you prefer.  Or if to see the ending is all you want, you could skip the side missions.

While the enemies do not level, at the end of each battle, there is a 5 stars rating system.  The more powerful you become, the target time goes down.  In another word, you still need to work hard for a 5 stars rating.  In some cases, it pays off to get that rating.  Some of you asked if there are a lot of grinding, like other role playing games.  I suppose the choice is yours.  But I find it rewarding to do a bit of grinding to get more powerful and to farm materials to improve the gears. 

Majorities of the battle are quite easy, I must say.  The boss fights from the main storyline are often long (like more than 10 to 15 minutes of intense thinking).  The boss fights from the side missions can be extremely hard.  Some of the tough battles you may take a defensive stance, sacrifice the 5 stars rating, and win.  Others will slab you with a doom counter if you are taking too long.  A doom counter is one that you must beat the boss in 3 minutes or there will be an instant death.  In short, there is no shortage of excitement.  Needless to say, some are so tough that you have to further develop your characters and return for another attempt later.

Judging FF13 from the Western standard, it may fall short a bit (it is after all a Japanese RPG).  But I happen to be thrilled by how beautiful the game is made – the colorful and unique environment, the memorable characters that are so easily to fall in love with, and the dramatic story development.  These days, it is hard to find a non-violence game that does not come with blood and gore and sex – like FF13.  If you wonder what the game play is like, here is a brief breakdown.

Part One – Stories And More Stories

In the first part of the game, you do not get to choose whose is or are in your team.  It depends on how the story unfolds.  There are lots of cut scenes.  The combat system progressively gets more complex, a good learning curve that I like.  Some comment that this part is too linear.  I happen to like the fact that I am forced to learn how to cope with different characters and different team composition.  In FF13, all the characters have different strengths and weaknesses.  Part one took me about 30 hours to complete.  It also accounts for the story of the 13 days prior to where you first started the game.

Part Two – Open Side Missions

Once you reach Gran Pulse, you get to venture to different parts of the map.  As you complete side missions, portals are open to aid you in warping to a different location in the map.  In this part, you also get to pick your team composition.  You do not have to complete all the side missions.  But they are rewarding.  It did not feel like grinding to me, although I have to pass the same area multiple times.  There is always something to be discovered.

Part Three – Head to Chapter 13

FF13 is divided into 13 chapters.  After Gran Pulse, you can do one chapter and return to do more open area exploration and complete more side missions.  The last two chapters can get pretty hard.  That is where the experience (and confidence) you gather while doing the side missions pays off.  Personally I love the story of FF13, although I must admit that I do not quite understand the logic of the Japanese.

Part Four – Open End Game Missions

This is where I am at right now.  After the final boss of the main storyline is beaten, after the story is concluded, I am brought back to the save point right before the final boss.  The difference is that I can now further develop my characters.  There are 64 missions in total.  Quite a number of them are designed for the end game.  Missions can be retaken if getting a 5 stars rating is what you are aiming for.  Or just for the fun of it.

Talking about save points, another good thing about FF13 (compares to other JRPG I read) is that there are tons of save points.  You can pick up the controller, play for 10 minutes or so, stop and do something else in real life.  I find that very useful.

So You Want A Final Fantasy XIII “Growth Egg” As Early As End Of Chapter 11?! Yes You Can!

Arguably one of the most important items to obtain in Final Fantasy 13, “Growth Egg” doubles the Crystogen Points (or experience points) you earn that are needed for your character development.  Who wouldn’t want it as soon as possible?  To obtain a “Growth Egg”, you need to complete a class A mission that is opened for you at the end of chapter 11.  It is a very hard mission and I reckon it is designed as an end game activity.  But if an average gamer (me!) can do it, there is a high chance that you can too!  Here is how I made it, not without blood and sweat.  And in the mist of it, I have obtained a 5-star rating and unlocked the “Limit Breaker” trophy or achievement.  That is a 100,000+ damage in one shot!

Prerequisite

After the final boss in Chapter 11, instead of moving forward and trigger Chapter 12, move backward and obtain Mission 55 “Can’t We All Just Get Along” from the rooftop of a deserted school.  I chanced upon this because I have missed out one of the components to repair Vanille’s toy (another pretty rewarding thing to do).  If you need a guide to obtain that mission, click here.

Key Strategy

For this class A mission, you have to face a very tough boss called Neochu that can take down casters with one shot.  And it has quite a few hyperactive adds called Picochus that hit very hard, very fast.  The encounter is very much like its little brother nearby (which I hope you have tried).  Take down the boss first, and then worry about the adds later.  To do that, you will need Vanille (hence picture above!).

Battle Team Setup

Interestingly, Neochu is not immune to Death spell.  So the key is to have Vanille picking up that ability (under Saboteur role) after the expansion of Crystarium at the end of Chapter 11.  To have a better chance to pull off this debuff strategy, upgrade the Belladonna Wand to Malboro Wand.  I have upgraded the weapon level to close to 40, which may not be necessary.  I have Snow equipped with Paladin and Hope equipped with Hawkeye.  Both equipments are at star level.  By the way, all the upgrade components I have obtained from mob drops (or spoils).  It is very doable if you have been doing some side missions.

I set up Snow as the tank (Sentinel) and Hope as the healer (Medic).  As for Vanille, she switches between Saboteur (for debuff), Ravager (for damage), and Medic (for extra heal).  So in total, only 3 Paradigms are required.  To manually execute the Death spell, I have picked Vanille as the leader.

Prior to the final boss of Chapter 11, all my characters have maxed out their Crystarium for three roles (out of six, for all six characters).  After the boss fight, I choose one role to specialize and max that out.  I didn’t make any special purchase for this mission.  I suppose wearing accessories for extra health points would help in some ways.

Stage One – One-shot the Boss

Preemptive strike is out so left with the options to either use the shrouds to buff up your offense or defense before engaging the boss.  I walked into the battle with neither because I forgot (see, I am your average gamer).  In retrospect, buffing up the haste level may work better.  It may speed up the process.  The target time to finish the battle is 28 minutes.  I have earned the 5-star rating.  So I must have taken lesser time than that.

I went in with Snow tanking and Hope healing (for the entire fight).  As for Vanille, I spammed Death spell.  If Neochu hits Vanille first before Snow grabs the aggro, it is game over.  If Vanille unable to land the Death spell and one-shot the boss within 5 rounds, it is also game over.  The combined damage of Neochu and its annoying little creatures is just too much for one healer to take (before end game that is).

I read that some spent hours one-shooting the boss (only to be overwhelmed with the little ones – how sad!).  It didn’t take that long for me.  Maybe upgrading the wand helps.

Stage Two – Heal Up!

Once the boss is down (which is the easy part), it is time to survive the group of cute little Picochus.  Even with two healers and a tank, my team could barely survive.  Especially when my tank lost the aggro.  You could either fast switch Vanille between the Medic and Ravager roles to heal and to spam the area of effect spell Firaga.  Or if like me, the tank was down and soon faced an inevitable wipe, I called in the cavalry.

Stage Three – Summon the Eidolon

Some say Eidolons in Final Fantasy 13 are pretty useless.  It is quite right that these god like creatures don’t seem to be as powerful as they should be (given the fact that it is such a pain to make them yield and be your own).  As for me, Eidolons have turned the tide in the past when I faced with seemingly insurmountable battles.  And I must say, I love the over-the-top animation for these Eidolon encounters.

After Vanille summons her Eidolon, Hecatoncheir, your job is to keep both of them alive for as long as you can (which is not long).  Before Hecatoncheir gets decimated by these little adds, switch to Gestalt Mode and unload some punishment to the Picochus.  I manage to half their health points, which in retrospect, it is really not bad.  Meagre amount of damage dealt aside, the beauty of summoning an Eidolon is that when Eidolon leaves the battle, all the party members are back up with full health.  Time for round two!

Stage Four – Taking Down the Adds

This is the most nail biting moment.  I mean, I have come that far.  I really don’t want to fail here.  With Snow tanking the little mad Picochus, Hope can barely keep him alive (he is my best healer in the game).  I have to switch Vanille between Medic and Ravager mode to balance between staying alive and killing off the enemies.  It is a painfully slow process.  The good news is, as you wear down the number, it gets progressively easier.  Later on I found out that I could cast Imperil debuff on the little ones to lower the spell resistance.  That made the job done much faster.  If I am to do this again, I would cast the area of effect debuff, Imperilga, before the area of effect spell Firaga.  You may be tempted to one-shot the little ones with Death spell.  I don’t like the extra aggro on Vanille.

Some find it hard to take down the adds.  At bare minimum, if you have Snow on tanking position and both Hope and Vanille on healing, you should be able to last indefinitely.  Hope should also be able to solo heal Snow most of the time (there is some randomness in FF13 after all).  If you can’t, you may need to further develop your characters and gears with the side missions.  If you can, it is simply a matter of patience.  And “Growth Egg” is a reward you would love to have.