After protagonist Lightning’s sudden and seemingly unexplained disappearance at the end of Final Fantasy XIII, Serah Farron was distraught. Did she only dream the tender moments she shared with her austere sister moments before the end? And is Lightning attempting to communicate with her, wherever she is? These questions and more are addressed within Final Fantasy XIII-2, the direct sequel to 2010’s RPG, the first direct sequel to a Final Fantasy entry in eight years. Final Fantasy XIII might have spottily explored the indomitable Lightning’s journey to save Cocoon, but this annotated yarn follows the sprightly Mary Sue, younger Farron sister Serah, on a journey through time to save the world (and her sister) as she knows it.
Where Final Fantasy XIII was a sprawling yet painfully linear epic whose story and pacing meandered more than a chocobo running loose in a field of Gysahl greens, its successor is a fresh attempt at re-imagining Lightning and the gang’s lore. Brimming with fantastic sights and sounds, it’s as much of a shining, sparkling spectacle as it is a striking attempt to atone for the sins of the game that spawned it. While the previous title allowed the player little to no freedom at all, it nearly seems as if FFXIII-2 wants to suffocate you with frivolous augments, customizations, and distractions…until you dig a little deeper.
The thrill of monster collecting, conquering the many quiz terminals scattered throughout the game world, and the other more subtle augments work in such a way that navigating through it as the plucky pair of Serah and newcomer Noel Kreiss (from the future!) is a treat rather than a grind.
The name of the game this time around is keeping players engaged while allowing a short leash to explore, and FFXIII-2 does it well. Detractors of the previous game’s trend of slightly-curving paths that began at point A and run straight as an arrow to point B should be pleased to find an open invitation to break free from the chains that previously bound them. There are plenty of areas that deviate from the standard “walk until you see a yellow marker on the map” formula, though old-school Final Fantasy fans expecting a jaunt through an overworld or something similar will be disappointed.
In addition, combat has been noticeably tightened with the ability to change paradigms on the fly, making for brand new strategies that can completely turn the tides of battle if used effectively. Gone are the days of retrying a particularly difficult battle should your party leader fall, as well – they can simply be revived and jump back into battle. As small as an alteration as it seems, this eliminates the frustration of having a perfectly viable party member left at the end of a failed brawl.
Speaking of party members, you’ll never run out of options with recruitable monsters. Yes, the very same enemies you encounter in the wild can fight by your side in your third party slot that you will find available (Serah and Noel otherwise comprise the company you’ll take into battle). Should a fallen enemy drop a crystal, consider it a new addition to what will soon be a growing menagerie. Collecting monsters ties directly into the excellent paradigm system, and as you add new combatants to your stable, you’ll be charged with assigning monsters to your favorite skill sets as well. This Pokémon-esque system lends a humorous lilt to what could otherwise remain an all-too-serious affair. Luckily Square Enix has always been in tune with the lighthearted side of their lore, and it’s refreshing to see a bit of silliness return in the form of chocobo racing, accessorizing monsters, and the traveling merchant/chocobo cosplayer Chocolina.
As your party still does not draw from the traditional “level up” stable most Japanese RPGs thrive from, the Crystarium returns, now hastening the process with ridiculously quick and flexible role levels as well as the ability to level your monster party members separately. It was always an addictive experience in FFXIII, hitting the Crystarium for experience and augments, and XIII-2 only improves n the familiar system with a flourish. You’ll hit your target in no time, with plenty of Crystogen Points left over.
The numerous amounts of improvements far outweigh the steps backward Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes (the pithy “Live Trigger” responses, the odd, single-save system until a later point in the game), though it’s hard to deny that this outing is far simpler than the previous tale. You’ll breeze through the story in far less time than a more “traditional” Final Fantasy, but you’ll have done it so luxuriously amongst the glamour, glitter, and fanfare that even if it dragged on the 60+ hours its predecessor seemed to, you won’t even notice the time flying by. And that’s the mark of something great. This direct sequel isn’t an improvement in every single way, but it’s a huge step forward that corrects many of the most glaring mistakes the fan base took issue with. What of Lightning and her gorgeous Valkyrie-inspired costume? You’ll have to play to find out, and I recommend that you do.