Lightning defied destiny in Final Fantasy XIII and finds herself trapped in Valhalla after saving the world. Final Fantasy XIII-2 begins with Lightning riding Odin in a post-apocalyptic backdrop about to fight Caius Ballad, this game’s villain. The two characters clash and you control Lightning as she soars through the sky shooting Chaos Bahamut. Cinematic actions, essentially Final Fantasy XIII-2’s take on quick time events, are introduced here as players flick the analog stick to slash at Caius. During the battle, Noel drops in through the sky. Lightning catches the wandering time traveler, pulls a moogle out of nowhere (a stark contrast from the ruinous world), and asks him to find her sister, Serah.
The story then switches to Serah who has been living with NORA and working as a teacher. What’s NORA? Final Fantasy XIII-2 glosses over the details and expects players already know the characters and mythology established by the previous game. I think newcomers can still jump right into Final Fantasy XIII-2, but they’ll see the story as a time paradox resolving romp with jargon like "Fal’Cie." While Serah knows Lightning is alive, everyone else believes she’s dead. Well, Noel knows too and he comes into Serah’s life crashing from the sky again. A light envelops Serah (that magically changes her clothes!? Serah points this oddity out too.) and she runs outside in the middle of a warzone.
Noel hands Serah the transforming moogle and the two of them take on monsters using the Command Synergy Battle system. Just like Final Fantasy XIII, you rapidly change roles using the Paradigm Shifts to switch between attacking, chaining, and defending. Most encounters take seconds to beat, if you blast monsters with magic and follow up with commandos to deal damage. Square Enix made a few tweaks for Final Fantasy XIII-2. You can change leaders during a fight and if Serah gets knocked out control automatically goes to Noel. Monsters can "wound" characters and deal blood damage that lowers the amount of HP they can recover until an encounter is over. The biggest change is the third "member" in your party. Serah learns how to control monsters in the first few hours of the game and a creature takes up the remaining party member spot. Each monster has a single role like Commando (melee), Synergist (buffer) or Healer. Since you can rotate between three monsters in battle by using Paradigm Shifts its usually best to have monsters with three different roles.
Monsters have their own Crystarium and instead of experience points they require items to grow. You can also add passive skills through infusion, which has players sacrifice a monster to transfer its abilities. Leave your Pokeballs and negotiation skills at home, you gain new monsters in Final Fantasy XIII-2 from crystals simply earned as battle spoils. While many monsters are palette swaps, they have a unique set of attacks and limit break style Feral Link. Chocobos kick enemies to death with Kweh and a Garchimacera uses multicast. Having a Chocobo is pretty neat, but most of the monsters fall into the generic creature category even after decorating them with ribbons and Carbuncle statues. Square Enix changed how Serah and Noel develop too. Both characters move along a Crystarium grid where all roles are merged into one. You can unlock other roles like Medic, Synergist, and Saboteur pretty quickly or opt to add more ATB bars instead of paradigms.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 gives players choice how they want to progress through the game. Using the Historia Crux system you can see the world at different points in time. It’s possible to visit areas out of order and even enter some dungeons early, but Final Fantasy XIII-2 is still essentially linear. You need to find specific Artefacts, out of place objects due to the time paradox, to open each Time Gates, which is a door to a new area. Areas are more open with treasure to find and side quests (usually item fetching) if you stop to talk to wandering people. The world feels less lonely since Noel and Serah overhear conversations where NPCs prattle on about cats and dogs. Instead of "towns" with multiple shops, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has what I would say are "town squares" populated with people and one bikini-wearing time traveler. You’ll see Chocolina again and again peddling weapons and accessories.
Square Enix also threw in distractions like Serendipity, Final Fantasy XIII-2’s answer to the Golden Saucer, which has slot machines and Chocobo Racing mini-games. Want to take a breather from the main story? There are 160 fragments hidden in the game to find. You can even rewind time and reset an area to before Serah and Noel arrived. This allows players to replay areas and make different choices. All of these features are introduced quickly and it’s clear Square Enix want Final Fantasy XIII-2 to feel more varied than the previous game. For the most part it works, but Temporal Rifts, Final Fantasy XIII-2’s puzzles, feel shoehorned into the game. Certain areas force players to run on vanishing tiles or make crystals disappear by standing on clock hands. When you’re curious about what’s next in the story… it’s time to connect colored crystals.
Fan feedback about Final Fantasy XIII didn’t go unnoticed by the 1st Production Team, but I think fans may be disappointed about the story in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Serah is the exact opposite of Lightning and acts as a stereotypical insecure lead. Noel steals the show with an empathetic back story of being the last human and being a character with enough gall to point out how one dimensional Serah’s fiancé is. Hope reappears with an air of maturity and while it’s nice to see how much he’s grown you’ll probably scratch your head asking where’s everyone else in the game. Serah actually asks Hope about Sazh and that’s all you’ll hear about him. Even Serah’s relationship with Snow was only quickly addressed with awkward interactions between the couple. Other than Lightning and Hope, the other characters from Final Fantasy XIII take a backseat to Serah’s time traveling adventure.
It appears Square Enix will fill in the gaps between the two games with downloadable content. Other features like the coliseum appear to be DLC only too. While you can visit the arena, there isn’t anything to fight since the Omega boss battle is a pre-order bonus. There’s still plenty to do in Final Fantasy XIII-2 and more after you complete the game once. Paths for alternate endings open up, which should keep Final Fantasy fans playing XIII-2 well beyond the twenty hour main story.
Is this the Final Fantasy fans have been clamoring for? I’m not sure. Square Enix responded to Final Fantasy XIII criticism in an unprecedented way by checking off an Internet wish list. While the game feels disjoined at times as you’re whisked away from one area to the next, Final Fantasy XIII-2 addresses gameplay concerns. Perhaps, we’ll see Square Enix tackle questions about Final Fantasy XIII and now XIII-2’s mythology with future games or DLC when fans complete XIII-2 and discuss the game’s story.