Game Reviewby Todd Ciolek,
Final Fantasy XIII-2
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Following the events of Final Fantasy XIII, the floating city of Cocoon is abandoned and heroine Lightning is somehow trapped in a mysterious new world. Back home, her sister Serah sets out on a rescue mission with the help of a time-traveling boy named Noel. The two explore different eras of history and combat a menace that threatens reality itself.
Was Final Fantasy XIII really that bad? This is a question one should ask before taking on its sequel. If you detested Final Fantasy XIII to its core and thought it beyond redemption, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will not salvage your opinion. Rather than reinvent its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII-2 just improves its ideas in smaller ways. It's more casually enjoyable than Final Fantasy XIII, but it's still unsatisfying in the long run.
Those who made it through Final Fantasy XIII will recall that most of its plot arcs were wrapped up, however confusingly. After much babbling about l'Cie and Cie'th, the floating city of Cocoon was ultimately freed from its false-god masters, and heroine Lightning saw her sister Serah similarly liberated from a prison of decorative crystal. Seeing no major unresolved conflicts, Final Fantasy XIII-2 invents new ones by rewriting the previous game's ending: Lighting actually disappeared due to a bizarre fracture in the space-time continuum, and Serah's struggling to find out where she went. Meanwhile, Lightning wanders around the realm of Valhalla, where she wages gorgeously overblown battles with a purple-haired fellow named Caius. In order to contact Serah, Lightning recruits a young man named Noel Kreiss, who hails from the future (and the bleak end of human civilization). Noel's sent through time to meet Serah, and the two of them warp to various points in history, all in an attempt to fix paradoxes. It makes the least sense of any Final Fantasy storyline, and that's saying something.
Yet it's for a good cause. In their quest, Serah and Noel can freely hop between time periods by digging up “artefacts” and unlocking gates. While there's a main storyline to move forward, players can take on side quests, defeating specific enemies and grabbing items from other time periods. The freedom is a welcome change, and it fixes the straight-line approach of Final Fantasy XIII. In fact, it's not hard to get lost and end up in a wintry past or a vast plain where overpowered monsters block your way. And unlike its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't take hours to get moving. After a short introduction, Noel and Serah are booted into the Historia Crux, a convenient time-travelling nexus that opens up new realms before them.
Most importantly, Final Fantasy XIII-2 substantially improves the battle system introduced by Final Fantasy XIII. Players once again use paradigms, pre-set battle teams in which each character fills a role: aggressive Commando, magic-wielding Ravager, stat-boosting Synergist, or the self-explanatory Medic and Saboteur. It removes a certain measure of in-battle interactivity for the sake of speed and planning, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 strengthens the whole idea. Paradigm switching is quick and effective, a sleek distillation of the typical RPG combat. Unfortunately, the designers still lean on the auto-battle feature (apparently by player request), and it once again makes a lot of the characters' separate attacks blur together in a meaningless barrage.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 also presents a novel approach to combat. Final Fantasy XIII has enemies wandering the landscape and triggering battles when the player gets close, but this sequel mixes that idea with its chaotic approach to time travel. Enemies randomly burst out of thin air, leaving Noel and Serah to outrun them or strike first. And the scenery itself is far more interesting to explore. Both characters jump freely, and the dungeons include actual puzzles—something completely absent in the original Final Fantasy XIII. The Crystarium, a web of skills and upgrades, also makes much more sense this time around.
And there's plenty to do beyond the battles. Noel and Serah recruit numerous monsters to fill the third slot in their party. These allies gain abilities just like their human masters, and players can even dress them up and name them. Yet the most useful all is Serah's spirit sidekick, Mog. Despite being the ugliest Moogle design in Final Fantasy history, Mog proves instrumental in ferreting out hidden treasures and reaching far-off items. Other pieces of the game's world directly address player gripes. There are towns full of talkative citizens, plus an item shop run by the ubiquitous and annoying Chocolina.
All of these general improvements to the gameplay overshadow the story, which never quite fulfills its end of the bargain. Final Fantasy XIII's plot was sluggish and confusing, but it at least had some good ideas and a sense of propulsion. Its sequel gropes blindly for purpose. While it covers an interesting variety of worlds, there's a strange emptiness at its heart, and it fuels the theory that Final Fantasy XIII-2 wasn't made with any particular story in mind. A messy take on time travel doesn't help. Director Motomu Toriyama, who many blame for Final Fantasy's decline, looked to the Super NES classic Chrono Trigger for inspiration here, but the comparison isn't flattering. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a bit like someone dropped Chrono Trigger repeatedly on its head.
A lack of interesting characters hurts the game even beyond battles. There's nothing particularly grating about Serah, who's shed most of her whiny victimhood, or the generic heroism of Noel. But there's nothing particularly notable about them either, and their journey boils down to slightly troubled teenage optimism. The rest of Final Fantasy XIII's main cast shows up, some more often than others. Dense rebel leader Snow and lost little kid Hope return in older, less irritating forms, but the original's most likable characters, Fang and Sazh, aren't around much. Lightning's limited role is especially disappointing. She was a likable main character in the original game, and she's promoted heavily in Final Fantasy XIII-2's ads and opening footage. But she's not the focus of the game. Maybe she'll return to the fore in the sequel that Final Fantasy XIII-2's main ending so obviously shills. Yes, the game leaves you with a “to be continued.”
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is almost as pretty as its predecessor. It moves just a little slower, though the sheer variety of scenery is impressive at any speed. The soundtrack is mostly solid, though it stumbles into some embarrassing nu-metal parodies when venturing outside of the usual orchestral fare. It's offset by some consistently good voicework, though actors like Troy Baker and Laura Bailey seem limited by such one-note characters as Snow and Serah.
To its credit, Final Fantasy XIII-2 fixes the faults of its predecessor as far as gameplay is concerned. It's enough to carry the weaker side of the storyline, but there's something missing even at its better moments. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is all too concerned with making amends for past mistakes, and it seems lost whenever it tries to find a path of its own. At least it's having fun along the way.