Square Enix took a risk creating a sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, possibly the most polarizing game in the long-running series. Many felt that Square simply needed to pretend XIII never existed and go back to a more traditional style in XV. I feel like Square Enix made the right decision with XIII-2, as it corrects virtually every complaint leveled against XIII, successfully adds new mechanics and continues the intriguing story of Cocoon and Pulse.
XIII-2 begins three years after the events of XIII. Lightning disappeared immediately after saving Cocoon, and no one remembers seeing her at all except for Serah. Everyone assumes she sacrificed herself like Fang and Vanille did, though Serah refuses to believe it. In actuality, Lightning is alive and well in a place called Valhalla, where she is in constant battle against a man named Caius. She meets Noel Kreiss, a hunter from the future, there and sends him to protect Serah and guide her back to Valhalla. From there, the pair set off on a journey through time and space, all the while trying to correct time paradoxes that have cropped up all over Pulse and Cocoon.
As you go correct paradoxes and travel through time, more and more time periods and locations will become available to you, including a casino where you can play slots or race and bet on chocobos. Sometimes you may want to replay the events of a given time period, either to gain a different ending or to fix a mistake you made. In those situations, you can actually reset that entire time slice and play it again as if you’d never been there.
The paradigm battle system from XIII makes a return, with the only difference being the removal of Technical Moves. The par time and battle ratings actually do something this time, with a 5-star rating doubling the odds of getting item drops. Additionally, the only two playable characters throughout the game will be Serah and Noel. The third member of your party will consist of a tamed monster. Each monster fills a specific role, be it Commando, Medic, or Synergist, and you can catch one of almost every non-boss monster in the game. Only three can be actively added to your paradigms at a time, but their moves and ability to absorb moves from other monsters allows you to customize your paradigms and monsters quite a bit. You can even add visual adornments to your monsters, such as putting a hat on a cat or an afro on a chocobo.
The crystarium is back as well, though it has received a number of changes for the better. Instead of each role being given a separate crystarium, Noel and Serah each have one crystarium, and each node gives an increase to HP, magic, and/or attack depending on what role was used to fill that node. Larger nodes give greater improvements, so you’ll want to use those for your primary roles. Instead of each ability being tied to a specific node, all abilities are tied to a certain number of upgrades in a role. For instance, Steelguard is learned after around 11 nodes for Serah’s Sentinel role and Firaga is learned after around 30 nodes in the Ravager role.
XIII was bashed for being too linear, and XIII-2 is just about the farthest from being linear that any Final Fantasy game has been. Another common complaint in XIII was the lack of towns. This has also been addressed, with a town area in perhaps half of the environments you’ll visit. Probably the biggest XIII complaint was the pacing, a valid complaint considering it could take anywhere from 8 to 25 hours to introduce the major elements of the gameplay. This is where XIII-2 shines, as every major game element has been introduced and used by four hours in, with tutorials for all of them optional and present in the Datalog for later use.
XIII-2 uses the same graphics engine as its predecessor, but the wide-open areas and brightly-lit environments allow it to look even better than XIII did. The soundtrack is varied and quality, and the voice acting is great, with all returning characters reprising their roles, or at least doing a good job of sounding like they are.
There’s almost no reason to forgo picking up XIII-2, with one qualifier. As you would expect, the story continues from the story in XIII. If you didn’t like the story before, I doubt you’ll like it any more now. And if you didn’t play or beat XIII, I highly recommend doing so, or at least finding a way to watch or read the story from it. You’ll gain much more appreciation for the world, the story, and the characters if you do.
Pros: Story is great; characters, addition of towns works well, feels like a cross between Radiant Historia, Final Fantasy XII and Pokemon
Cons: You won’t get as much out of it if you haven’t beaten XIII