|System: Xbox 360, PS3*|
|Dev: Square Enix|
|Pub: Square Enix|
|Release: January 31, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Drug Reference, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Violence|
by Angelo M. D’Argenio
The only numbered Final Fantasy sequel to exist up to this point was Final Fantasy X-2, and that was nearly universally criticized as a horrible game and overall bad idea. Luckily, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not Final Fantasy X-2. It's a wholehearted attempt by Square Enix to listen to their fans and fix the myriad of flaws in Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XIII-2 manages to bring back most of what you loved from classic JRPGs and will introduce a couple new modern gameplay mechanics as well. It has few weaknesses, mostly in its story, but overall it falls more in line with the expectations of a traditional Final Fantasy fan.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is seriously wonky. Mere minutes after having saved Cocoon from the Fal'Cie, Lightning suddenly disappears. Also, the timeline is now all screwed up for some reason, and a man name Noel travels from the future to take Lighting's sister Serah on a time-traveling adventure. Their goal is to fix the broken timeline and save Lighting from having to fight an endless battle against a purple-haired villain named Caius whose motivations are actually pretty poorly explained. Great Scott!
Yes, unfortunately the Final Fantasy XIII plot is sloppily retconned in order to fit with the new Final Fantasy XIII-2 storyline. Luckily, the rest of the story isn't nearly as fan-fictiony. Much in the style of beloved classic Chrono Trigger, you get to travel between multiple different times and alternate universes. Throughout the story and even the side-quests, you get to see how your actions in the past affect the future. Most of the characters you meet are actually genuinely interesting, and you'll feel compelled to see how your time-traveling antics affect each of them.
There is plenty of JRPG melodrama still around, but the half-hour soliloquies about nothing that Final Fantasy XIII was so happy to shove in our faces are pleasantly absent. Overall, it feels like the plot is more responsibly written. Characters only talk when they need to rather than to fill the space between one dungeon and the next. The actions of many characters are believable, if only in a sort of "this would happen in an anime" sense. The overall metaplot, while convoluted, will keep you playing till the very end. It's an enjoyable time-travel story that I would say is more compelling than the story of the original XIII.
Actually, I would say the entire game is far more compelling than its predecessor. Think of any flaw you could find in Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 probably fixes it. The linear corridors of XIII are gone, instead being replaced with wide open mazelike dungeons. Towns make a return, giving you a chance to rest, shop, and talk with the local populace. Side quests are present throughout the game and become available only a short way in. Exploration is encouraged, not only in your current time period, but through multiple times and locations as well. The game has an open feel that brings you back to the classic Final Fantasies of the SNES era.
Some people have criticized Final Fantasy XIII-2 for reusing maps. To their merit, you do revisit a lot of the same locations multiple times, but mostly in different time periods. The maps of these locations are pretty much the same in every era with only subtle differences in layout setting them apart. While some say this is lazy, I say it's actually a rather innovative way to keep exploration from being tedious. If you've navigated a map before, you'll remember how to navigate it again in another time period. You'll simply have to adjust for the small changes that will alter the path you take through a dungeon. It's also kind of neat to see how time changes the many locales you visit during the game. A pristine temple in one time period will be a crumbling ruin in the next.
The combat system, paradigms and all, has transferred over intact from Final Fantasy XIII. Once again, the primary strategy of the game lies in shifting between Paradigms (class loadouts) while letting the auto-battle figure out the best thing to do. The auto-battle is very intelligent though, and you'll need to switch between Paradigms with twitchy, almost fighting game-style reflexes just to keep up with the pace of the now-faster ATB battle system. Luckily, Paradigm Shifts no longer trigger long cinematic animations to break up the flow of battle. The basic "buff your party, debuff the enemy party, build up the enemy chain meter, stagger the enemy, go to town with your highest damaging skills" battle formula still applies, but enemies are more powerful now. If you aren't on your toes, an unexpected attack can wipe out your whole party.
You can now change your party leader mid-battle, so if you absolutely need to use a specific skill from any of your party members you can always switch on the fly. You'd be surprised how often this comes in handy, especially when fighting multiple enemies at once. This also means your game doesn't end if your leader dies. Instead, you just switch to the next character and carry on.
Speaking of party members, you really only ever have two. Serah and Noel make up your main party for pretty much the entire game. Your third party slot is now filled with a monster companion—there are over 150 different monsters you can train and customize to your liking. Unlike Serah and Noel, who just change roles when a Paradigm Shift occurs, you actually switch between different monsters themselves every time you change a Paradigm. Monsters also give you access to unique monster skills and a feral-link limit-break type of attack that, obviously, the human characters never gain access to.