Final Fantasy XIII was not a "4" for me, but I wouldn't have given it much more credit. The story was, at times, confusing and very hard to follow, the proper nouns it used made my ears hurt, and the summoned, transforming Eidolons were so silly that I was embarrassed for Square Enix and videogames in general.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Final Fantasy XIII's story kicked off with the surly, pink-haired, ex-soldier named Lightning fighting against her former military mates while dodging a civilian evacuation of her home planet, the floating planet named Cocoon. The evacuation and ongoing war between the citizens of Cocoon and the military faded into the background for Lightning, as she was solely focused on saving her sister, Serah, a girl considered to be an enemy of the military.
He is Noel, a traveler from 700 years in the future where he lives as the last human born, and he has been tasked by Lightning to help Serah save the future. In a role switch, Serah is now out to save Lightning. Final Fantasy XIII-2's story centers around time travel. Somehow the whole timeline of history has been altered, resulting in multiple paradoxes. Serah and Noel work to hop through history to resolve these paradoxes with the hopes of setting the future straight so that humanity does not come to an end in 700 years.
I was worried when I first heard about XIII-2's story, as a sequel that uses a time travel gimmick could easily go very wrong. I imagined revisiting old locales, running through unimaginative missions in an attempt to get more mileage out of XIII's visual assets, with some nonsensical story strung throughout. Although some assets are reused and some previous locales are revisited, there are plenty of new locations, characters, and enemies, while the time travel element actually ties nicely into the game's story.
As smart as the aspect of time travel has been handled, I don't want to give the story too much credit. It's certainly stronger than Final Fantasy XIII's story, but since it was built on its predecessor's uneven foundation, it never feels completely whole or in any way less nonsensical than before. The overarching storyline does its best to work with what there was to work with and continue on with something that's entertaining and sometimes surprising, but the smaller bits of story that center around unresolved time paradoxes rarely makes sense. I suppose some might say that these sections are intentionally strange, as they deal with a warping of time, but I feel like the time spent developing these segments could have been better spent on the background characters.
If you want to get the most out of this game's story, you're going to have to dig, getting into the optional quests, hidden paradox endings, and in-menu log reading. Even then I suspect that most won't be fully satisfied. It's a shame, as Square Enix has packed some really strong ideas and character possibilities into the story.
Be warned that the game's ending is easily spoiled. You won't find spoilers in this review, but know that they're out there, and they will come to find you once this game is released in the West. Get in, keep your head down, and see it for yourself! It's a strong ending, though, and a real visual treat. I thought the game's conclusion was thrilling and very surprising, but I'm sure others are going to take issue with how this one is wrapped up.
Final Fantasy XIII-2's gameplay positively shines when compared to its predecessor. Gone are the narrow corridors that run you into forced battles with faceless soldiers. XIII-2's time traveling nature leaves you wide open to explore, bouncing from era to era to take on missions and quests at your own pace. There is a solid story structure with navigable timeline called the Historia Crux, but you're mostly free to conquer it in any order. Time gates open up in each locale, and when you've found the proper Artefact in each era, you're free to use them at gates to open up new locales. Most of these places are open, expansive worlds packed with hidden items, fighting challenges, NPC quests, and lots of extra story bits. Once you find all the Artefacts and open all the Time Gates, the entire game's timeline is at your fingertips, as a simple press of the start button pulls you back to the Historia Crux, letting you jump to any time and place you wish. You're also free to stop anywhere you'd like as Final Fantasy XIII-2 breaks new ground for the series with a save anywhere option, assigned to the Start button.
When you want a break from item hunting and time traveling, XIII-2's Serendipity zone should serve as a nice distraction. Anyone that enjoyed Final Fantasy VII's Golden Saucer will find a lot to like here. This lost-in-time casino is packed with scantily clad bunny girls, slot machines, casino table games, and even chocobo racing. The latter diversion is so deep that it almost could be turned into its own game, with options for leveling, betting and training. Gambling and race winnings can be traded in for rare game items.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes its predecessor's battle system and runs with it, which is great because the battle system was easily the best part of that game. The Paradigm Shift system is still in place this time around, and with it comes its wonderful mix menus and fast-paced action. Again, the key battles make excellent use of lesser used Final Fantasy spells and effects. For instance, Poison is actually effective on bosses. Likewise, casting defense altering spells, like Deshell and Deprotect, is a valid strategy now. Paradigm Shift is faster this time around, with almost direct switching from one paradigm to the next, letting you shift tactcs on the fly without waiting for change animations. There's one new damage type in XIII-2 called Wound, and receiving this type of damage subtracts from your total maximum available hit points in a battle. But, at its core, the battle system here is largely the same as that of Final Fantasy XIII's, so if you hated that one you're not going to like this one much more.
Each monster has its own special attack, which becomes available after filling an attack meter. Collected monsters also have their own Crystarium, letting you level them up, change their abilities and even transfer abilities from one monster to another. This incredibly deep system lets you create your dream party. I took in a Chocobo early on in a battle, trained him, leveled him up to a ridiculous level, and liked him so much that he dealt what looked to be the final blow in the very last battle. He was a beast, and his special screaming "Kweh" attack never stopped being funny.
Cinematic Action sequences are also new to the Final Fantasy series, making their debut in this game. These are prompted battle inputs that give players some control of interactive cutscenes -- quick time events, if you will. Most of these take place during battles, where standard fighting seamlessly transitions into a scene that, if timed correctly, will let players avoid attacks, stagger an enemy or deliver flashy final hits. Most of these sequences are flat-out awesome, with all the dynamic camera work and flashy lighting you'd expect from a Final Fantasy cutscene. There isn't a penalty for missing prompted button and stick inputs during these sequences, but there's often a benefit that could make your battle easier, and perfect performance brings about an item reward.
Shopping in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is really weird; you won't find the traditional RPG town store here. Instead you'll find a being that looks to be part human female, part Chocobo, with plenty of exposed skin, but feathers covering her crotch, breasts and arms. Oh, and her hat appears to be a dead chocobo head. She calls herself Chobolina and she travels through time to be right where you need her when you need her most. She sells typical healing items as well as weapons and upgrades. Her prices never change and the selection rarely does either, but what she has to say to you every time you encounter her does, and it's almost always hilarious. Sometimes she screams "Choco-boco-lina" when you see her. Other times she becomes philosophical and talks about how she's not quite human. It's almost as if Square Enix is using Chobolina to apologize for how terrible shopping was in Final Fantasy XIII. The real gift from Square Enix comes when the inevitable Chobolina cosplay trend begins this year.
I've heard the same question many times in the last few months: Will those disappointed by Final Fantasy XIII enjoy this sequel? I think so. In fact, it seems like Final Fantasy XIII-2 was made with these people in mind as it seems to address many of the criticisms of its predecessor. Many of the best aspects of this game seem to be direct responses to concerns raised on the last game, so now the combat is deeper, the customization options are wide open, and the pacing is sensible and anything but linear. Lack of substance? Not here, I'm glad to say. The story, while still a bit stunted in the character development department, is vast, and now offers a lot in the way of player choice. There's better writing for better characters, and the performances for these characters are outstanding.
THE VERDICT - Final Fantasy XIII-2
Reviewed by Dale North