Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the publisher's attempt to mend this relationship. At times, it feels like the development team just went down a laundry list and added everything that fans believed Final Fantasy XIII lacked. Non-linear dungeons? Check. Sidequests? Check. NPCs and towns? Check, check. In other words, the whole game seems like one big apology. To top things off, Square Enix has reached back to its glory days and borrowed a mechanic from one of its critical darlings, Chrono Trigger. Instead of just roaming through a series of areas or flying across a world map, your characters travel through time, changing history and solving puzzles as they go.
All of these trappings help make Final Fantasy XIII-2 far more appealing than its predecessor, but they don't make it great. For every dazzling landscape or satisfying puzzle, there's a niggling flaw or baffling moment that will make you wonder why you're still playing.
The story, for starters, opens simply enough: protagonist Serah sets off to rescue her sister, FFXIII star Lightning, with the help of a time traveler named Noel. Soon enough, the plot takes a turn for the nonsensical, veering into the land of Weird Proper Nouns and confusing use of terms like "artefact" and "spacetime" and "kinky robot slave" (I might have made up that last one). I lost interest around the tenth time something was explained as a "paradox."
Perhaps this might all be easier to swallow if the game had competent dialogue or voice acting that didn't sound like a hammy 80s sitcom set to quadruple speed for maximum squeakiness. There's one particular character that I would love to erase from history: a bubbly shopkeeper named Chocolina who follows you across time in order to sell items at absurd prices and scream irritating things in your ear. It's tough to relate to the motivations and desires of characters whom you want to smack in the head.
As someone who has been playing Final Fantasy since before I could walk on two legs, I was particularly disgusted by Final Fantasy XIII-2's soundtrack. One of the series' greatest strengths has always been its elegant, sweeping harmonies and catchy, infectious tunes, but Final Fantasy XIII-2's music is average at its best moments and abominable at its worst. One particular boss theme (a scream-packed metal ballad) was so infuriating that I got up and muted my television until it was over. No title, Final Fantasy or otherwise, has driven me to do that before.
The boss fights aren't just tough on your ears; they're tough on your thumbs, too, thanks to the game's challenging combat system. Final Fantasy XIII's class-shifting battles return for the sequel, and they remain mostly unchanged. (As a bonus, this time around it doesn't take 15 hours to unlock all of your options.) What's great about this system is that it forces you to think ahead and experiment multiple times with different class combinations and routines. Some of Final Fantasy XIII-2's bosses can be extremely difficult. One boss, for example, starts going into super Saiyan mode when half his health is depleted, so the only way to take him down is to unleash combos and impeccably time each attack in order to finish him before he gets too powerful.
To help take on these challenges, Serah and Noel can recruit a variety of the game's monsters. Each monster has its own class and its own array of abilities, which you can customize by fusing creatures together and leveling them up. I didn't play around much with this system, but Pokémon fans are bound to dig it.
Exploration of Final Fantasy XIII-2's locales, while always brief, is handled with far more care than anything in Final Fantasy XIII. Gone are the tubes and hallways. Instead, you'll be swinging on vines across a jungle, riding chocobos to reach hidden crevasses and hunting for MacGuffins among gloomy ruins and sun-drenched villages.
Sadly, the wonder of exploration is marred by one terribly jarring moment that is perhaps an omen for the series' future: While exploring an optional casino, in which you can spin slot machines and race chocobos, there's an attendant who teaches you about the different available mini-games. She gives you a few options to select from. Upon picking one, she told me, "To be unlocked with future downloadable content." It's okay if you want to puke. You can use my bucket.
Ultimately, if Final Fantasy XIII took the series five steps back, Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes it one hesitant step forward. Features like non-linear dungeons, optional side quests and NPC-populated towns are wonderful and all, but they were RPG staples twenty years ago. While Final Fantasy XIII-2 does quite a bit to fix the mistakes of its predecessor, it does very little to stand out on its own merits. It's enjoyable, but it's also disappointing in many ways. Final Fantasy deserves better.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Final Fantasy XIII-2, provided by Square Enix.
Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.
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