After the clunky exposition, repetitious gameplay and join-the-dots plotting of its immediate predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII-2 couldn’t feel any more like an apology if Square Enix’s logo genuflected in front of you every time you switched it on. Although it had more than its fair share of apologists, even the most blinkered of fans had to concede that the original FFXIII stepped too far away from the core of its series’ beloved formula, creating a mongrel that upset far more people that it ever pleased. For all of its visual sheen and technical slickness, FFXIII didn’t even feel like a Final Fantasy game at all. With its considerably more expansive world, open-ended mission structure and bevy of proper side-quests, Final Fantasy XIII-2 reveals itself to be the real deal in almost no time at all.
The engaging central conceit here involves you having to correct a series of time paradoxes: reshaping unfortunate events into happy ones, and setting the unruly timeline straight. This not only brings an unusual (and very welcome) sense of systematic structure to the action, it’s also delightfully ironic: what is FFXIII-2 if not a thoughtful, re-tooled do-over anyway? By far the best thing about the original FFXIII – and arguably one of the freshest and most astute innovations in series history – was the combat, and the only real amendments that have been made here are minor and sensible; switching between paradigms is infinitely quicker, Pokemon-style monsters have their own party slots and some enemies can attack not just your health but your maximum amount of health, which occasionally forces you to re-strategise in the heat of battle.
The promising new addition of dialogue trees turns out to be an empty, kaleidoscopic gesture, but the fact that you can now save your game wherever you like (as opposed to being forced into traipsing to a store) is an absolute godsend. The crackerjack soundtrack, which spans more musical genres than we could possibly list here, is something of an unhinged masterpiece, and the game just expands a hell of a lot faster than its predecessor did, giving you access to everything that your arsenal requires in less than three hours. And just toying around with the Historia Crux – the device that allows you to “navigate the rivers of time” – is simply very neat indeed, allowing you to re-visit significant moments in the timeline so that you can play through each one again and arrive at a different conclusion.
With its typically cumbersome title this doesn’t seem like a sound Final Fantasy gateway for anybody, but the storytelling is far less dense than last time and there are a series of very punchy plot synopsis’ available via the ‘Beginner’s Primer’ menu. And if you’re a Chrono Trigger fan – and what true JRPG fan isn’t – the time travel elements are likely to call that game rather vividly to your mind, though it speaks volumes about Final Fantasy XIII-2’s overall quality that fantasising about Chrono Trigger 2 won’t distract you from it for too long. Good looking, winsome and featuring a genuinely surprising denouement, this is more or less the game that everyone expected last time. Whether they conclude this particular tale with FFXIII-3 or via some DLC, it’s a finale that remains anticipated.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is available now for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Watch the launch trailer for Final Fantasy XIII-2 below: