Final Fantasy XIII-2 drops you in the shoes of Serah, Lightning’s younger sister. She is having dreams about her sister, who was thought lost in the world-changing events of the previous game, locked in an endless battle with a shadowy man named Caius in some strange realm called Valhalla. Just when Serah thinks she is truly going crazy, a man she recognizes from her latest dream appears in her village saying he knows how to reach Lightning. This is Noel, the last surviving human from a terrifying future devoid of life. He says that the two of them have to fix the timeline or else all life on Gran Pulse and Cocoon will be extinguished forever. Together, the pair travel through various time gates scattered throughout history to change the future and eventually reunite with Lightning in Valhalla.
Fixing the timelines and creating an ideal future is the main crux of the plot in XIII-2. You use gates to jump from time period to time period, solving paradoxes that warp the timeline, and fight back against Caius’ meddling. As may be expected from a time-travel story, it can get a little confusing at times. Unfortunately, most of this confusion comes from poor pacing instead of mind-bending paradoxes. For much of the game, you are just using each gate you come across with an intent of always moving forward. Most of the time I felt like I was just doing what the game told me to because that’s what I needed to do to progress. Occasionally, you will be tasked with fixing a paradox that has an apparent effect on the timeline, but the results often don’t feel as big and meaningful as they should seeing as how you’re changing history. I suppose all the things I was doing were technically working towards this “perfect” future the characters wished to create, but I rarely felt like what I was doing had this meaning.
The story does picks up steam near the very end, with very clear cause-and-effect actions you perform to save the world. Unfortunately, it also chooses to dump an astounding amount of exposition in this last 5-10 hours, probably more so than the rest of the game combined. You learn the truth of the various characters, what your actions have really meant the whole time, and what you must do to finally succeed. It feels like the characters purposefully hold back some of this information just for these final reveals, which was frustrating to no end. This exposition dump also has the adverse effect of coming right when you think the game is about to end, extending its length by several more hours. Also, the ending is a pretty massive cliffhanger that had me aching to know what happens next (slightly less annoying since the next game is already out at this point). As I stated above, it really feels like a pacing problem. It’s nowhere near as bad as Final Fantasy XIII’s 20+ hour buildup, but the developers still didn’t get the pacing quite right.
While the events of the story relatively intriguing and thought-provoking, it was really the characters that I found myself enjoying the most. Noel (voiced by Jason Marsden) has an interesting backstory, coming from such a dire future where he lost everyone he knew and cared about, and plays a typical role–that of a protective male–in a different way. He wants to protect whoever he can but doesn’t run into combat brashly and risk his own life to save others; instead, he values the intelligence of not fighting battles he can’t win and scaring those whom he wishes to protect. It’s particularly fun seeing him clash with Snow (a character from 13) who embodies those stereotypes perfectly. The villain Caius (voiced by the excellent Liam O’Brien) looks to end the world simply because he wishes to end the eternal suffering of Yeul, a girl gifted with the vision to see the future who is doomed to be reborn throughout history and die at a young age. Even a minor character named Alyssa has some fascinating character motivations that I won’t dare spoil here. The interactions between these characters are what kept me driving forward when the story had me scratching my head and aching to know more.
While you run around a bunch, solving paradoxes and talking to people, most of the gameplay in XIII-2 consists of the excellent combat system from its predecessor. If you’ve played the original, know that the combat here is pretty much identical, just a lot peppier (particularly in the Paradigm shifts). For those who haven’t played it, it is one of the fastest combat systems I’ve seen in a JRPG to date. Instead of focusing on choosing the correct spells to exploit an enemy’s weakness, combat is much more about choosing the correct Paradigm to deal with whatever is currently happening in the fight. These Paradigms can be offensive, defensive, or healing/buffing in nature and can be switched between on the fly in battle. When a hard hit is coming, switching to a defensive Paradigm can help ease the blow. When the enemy is vulnerable, switching to a hard-hitting Paradigm can help burn through its HP pool even faster. It’s a system that can be very boring or super intense, depending on the difficulty of the encounter: the more Paradigm switches necessary, the better the fight. It’s complex and hard to understand at first but really grows on you once you get used to it. I can easily call it my favorite JRPG battle system of the last generation, due to its intensity and flair.
Personally, I felt that Final Fantasy XIII was quite easy. Very few fights gave me any trouble and I pretty much breezed through the entire game. XIII-2 has a much spikier difficulty, which can be more engaging but also more frustrating. Every so often, I would come across a boss fight that was significantly more demanding than anything before or after it. Some bosses, however, were laughably easy and felt like they fit into the progression much better. I never knew what I was going to get with a new boss encounter, which could be exciting but also very hard to prepare for. The biggest issue with these difficult fights is a mechanic called wound damage, new to XIII-2. Some hits inflict wound damage which lowers your highest potential max health for the rest of the fight. Longer fights, of which there are many, would eventually wear my characters down to a point where I had to claw for every second of survival. There are potions you can use to heal this damage, but I rarely had them on hand when I needed them (although to be fair, I could have bought more from the plethora of vendors). Without this mechanic, I really feel the harsh spikes of difficulty would have been better mitigated. Since all your damage is healed between every fight anyway, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to this mechanic other than to add difficulty.
The worst instance of this difficulty spiking, however, comes at the very end of the game. After the lengthy exposition dump I mentioned above, you are dumped into the end-game dungeon. This dungeon features the hardest encounters in the game, severely harder than any random encounters that come before it, and a LOT of them. Characters who aren’t prepared with enough levels or gear will get flattened over and over again. To make things even worse, this dungeon features some touchy platforming and an insanely confusing layout that had me practically pulling my hair out in clumps. This part of the game really soured my feelings on the game and had me wanting to turn off the system more than once. Most of this annoyance probably stemmed from my desire to see the end of the game already, after that exposition detour, but I still felt frustrated in a way that I hadn’t since the Moon in the DS version of Final Fantasy IV.
Presentation-wise, XIII-2 is one of the best looking PS3 games I’ve played. It’s one of the few games on the system that actually displays in full 1080p, and it shows in the fidelity of the character models and particle effects. I really adore the artstyle as well, particularly in the designs of the characters (although Serah’s new outfit is ridiculously short…). Some may take issue with the very Kingdom Hearts look of some of the new characters, especially with Noel. The one issue I had with the visuals is that I felt not enough was done to distinguish the different time-period versions of areas, outside of one breathtaking snowy area. Musically, XIII-2 is kinda all over the place but in a way that I can appreciate. Some of it sounds very traditional, but there are several tracks featuring electronic, pop, and even metal styles. Unlike Metal Gear Rising, a game that I felt used metal to good effect, I think metal doesn’t fit very well in XIII-2. It’s hilarious every time I hear it, but I appreciated the other tracks in the game on a more appropriate level.
I can understand why people don’t like Final Fantasy XIII-2 and its predecessor. Both games are plagued with confusing, layered narratives that take a long time to make sense. For those willing to give it a shot, there is interesting material to discover. Should it be better spread across the length of the game? Absolutely. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth seeing. It may not be the most original or memorable story, but the voice actors did a fantastic job making me care about the character even when the story was twisting my brain in knots. I also can’t say enough good things about the combat system. It may seem very sedentary and boring at times, but the intense fights where I was forced to switch Paradigms very quickly were always fun and engaging. Even the difficulty spikes can be fun to overcome, if you have the patience to do so (unlike me).
For those who enjoyed the original 13, this game is a no-brainer: you will enjoy this game, at least on a gameplay level. For those who hated 13, don’t even bother. You won’t have a good time. For everyone else? I urge you to give this a shot; even if you don’t like the clunky story, the action-packed combat is too good to pass up.