Final Fantasy XIII-2 follows on from the events of XIII and takes place just 3 years later on. Lightning, the sister to Serah has vanished and no one even remembers her being on the plains beneath Cocoon, no one except Serah that is. With the arrival of a mysterious stranger called Noel she learns that her sister is alive and that she is fighting a battle in a place called Valhalla. There's something wrong with the timeline and Noel has been sent to get her, take her through time and sort things out!
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes a non-linear approach to the gameplay, presenting large sprawling maps compared to XIII, with places to explore and alternate routes to find. There's always something to do and many of the locations have towns, NPC's and side-quests to keep you occupied. It's a good step in the right direction and with the aid of the Historia Crux, a literal gateway to time; you are free to approach the campaign in any way you see fit. You may find that you need to solve problems in alternate times, other eras and so forth, to open the way forwards.
Many of the side-quests have objects that need to be collected, many of the objects are lost in other eras - so you'll be jumping back and forth through time quite a lot in the game. As a fan of Doctor Who, that suits me down to the ground. There's also Serendipity, a time locked casino and game venue that provides a welcome distraction from the main campaign a little further down the time line. Once open, you may return there at any point, do some Chocobo racing, try your hand at the slot machines and there are other game modes to be released at a later date (probably via DLC).
Core gameplay has changed since XIII as well, whilst the game feels familiar to the previous title, it also feels a world apart due to several refinements. The navigation system is smoother, you have a Moogle now that can help you access treasure chests that are too far to get (you can throw him ) and he can also reveal unstable pockets of time that sucked objects in, allowing you to get at them. The random battles of previous Final Fantasy greats like VIII are back, though you can still attempt to avoid a fight if you run far enough away from the enemy spawn. Be warned though, the Mog Clock gives you a finite amount of time to leg it, fail and it locks the battle's retry option. You can also jump manually, don't forget that if you think you can't get to a particular part of a room or something.
You may save from the Historia Crux or from the pause menu, a first for a Final Fantasy game and probably one of the best additions to the series to bring in new gamers who are a concerned with a less hardcore experience. Because lets face it, hardcore gamers don't usually drive new sales. There are also two difficulty levels to the game, Easy and Normal, with more item rewards being offered on the Normal setting. Again this removes a barrier to entry and makes XIII-2 a good place to jump in for new players.
When you do get into battle there are more options this time around, you can switch leader mid fight, you can swap Paradigms much quicker and the whole system is much smoother this time around. You can also have monsters in your party for that Pokemon feel. This addition means that you can really customise your battle tactics and build up a strong group of warriors. The usual roles are there from XIII: Ravager, Synergist, Commando and so on, and with just two primary playable characters, you can really concentrate on making the best of their abilities.
Combat with Active Time Battle (ala XIII) is quicker, more responsive and the fact you can now customise the Paradigms (and save them to 3 slots) with extra tactics, such as concentrating on a single enemy, using more area powers and so on means that you have far more control over how a fight goes with a single powerful enemy or a group of foes. You also have a chance to deal far more damage on many of the major encounters - there will be small QTE (Quick Time Event) scenes that give your characters a chance to really shine. Get them right and you deliver a massive bonus to damage, score and a Cinematic Perfect gives you cool rewards too.
You also need to watch out for a new feature in the game, that of Wounds. You can wound monsters and they can do the same to you. This will reduce your actual max hp each time you're wounded and can only be healed by certain methods, such as chugging a wound potion. These dangerous effects can end a fight quickly if you're not too careful.
With a monster in your party you can also call upon their Feral Link skill, once their bar is full. This is kind of like their Limit Break power and each monster has a unique one. You may need to do a bit of QTE prodding to get the full synch out of the ability, but it's not going to fail if you don't get the prompts spot on.
So with combat and exploration getting some tweaks, the Crystarium has been upgraded and you also now get Gil from battles. No more hunting in chests for that damn stuff, grinding is a lot easier too due to the fact that CP and Gil are rewarded per battle. Noel and Serah (along with your tamed monsters) are easy to upgrade and the Crystarium is simple to use, compared to the previous one. Gone are tedious wait times and vast swathes of frustration.
You are free to put CP into any role that you desire, building the characters you want. After a certain amount of CP has been spent, the Crystarium expands and you now gain a choice of several things to upgrade - do you go for that Medic role, the Sab, the Synergist. Do you take a new ATB segment or a bonus to your other roles? All of these choices are yours to make and in the new upgrade system that's the driving force behind the game's design - choice, choice and more choice.
Monsters are upgraded with components, rather like the weapons of FF XIII and they also gain important role choices as they progress.
Lastly there are the Live Trigger sequences that occur in many of the game's dialogues. Allowing you to choose from a variety of responses and gain Live Trigger rewards from certain sequences. These can be anything from adornments for monsters to potions and so on.
There are other gameplay elements can come to the fore as the story progresses, these we will leave for you to discover since they are nice little surprises.
There aren't many CGI sequences in the game and XIII-2 ships on one disc for the 360 as well. Square has used a refined version of their in-game engine for most of the sequences and the game looks very nice indeed. There's a solid level of graphic fidelity to the characters, the environments and the whole aesthetic. It's a fast moving game too, rock solid frame-rate and superb special effects. It has all the hallmarks of the epic over the top action/adventure visuals that we've come to expect from Square in their Final Fantasy series. The locations are also extremely well designed and they have a far less modular feel than the previous game.
There are some great facial animations in the game, the combat animations are all fluid and extremely lively and the walking/running animations are once again spot on. Square usually don't miss a beat on this kind of thing and they haven't with XIII-2.
There are some impact based attacks that knock you up into the air, or prone and so on. Nothing much that needs expanding on in any great detail.
With the emphasis on Roles in this game, the AI is pretty sharp and performs based on the chosen Paradigm at any given time. With the customised Paradigm commands it is easy to make the AI do what you want in battle, this goes for your partner character and a monster in your Paradigm Pack. Though monster roles are set, the AI is extremely good at the chosen role, especially when running Medics.
The enemy AI is brutal at times and the bad guys know how to use their abilities to keep you constantly on your toes.
Square-Enix has always managed to do great sound for games and this is no exception. The ambient sounds are solid, the battle sounds are superb and the quality of the sound in the whole game is spot on.
A varied soundtrack accompanies the game with some truly memorable melodic pieces, old favourites and twists on established tracks. There are a few stand-out exploration compositions and some of the battle music straddles the line between Linkin Park and J-Pop...something you have to hear to get the gist of. Overall the music is excellent.
The voice work in the game is spot on, with Noel being a well written and well voiced character. Serah retains similar features from XIII but becomes more established as the game progresses. Mog's voice makes us smile.
The dialogue for the game is well written and whilst the story is as always, strangely incomprehensible at times, the words are crafted with far more clarity than FF XIII.
Nope, singleplayer only.
On the right tracks?
Yes, XIII-2 is a better game that XIII in many ways. It's non-linear and varied, the approach works well and thankfully there's less head-scratching at some of the design choices. It's a welcome step in the right direction and the time travel element means that it's great fun to check out alternate timelines, changes and replay certain sections over again.
It's also a huge game!