The second thirteenth time's the charm...
It's not uncommon for mainline Final Fantasy titles to receive a direct sequel. Continuations featuring characters from VII and X are the most well known, but both IV and XII also received modest follow-ups. Whereas those games were constructed as celebrations of and to their predecessors, Final Fantasy XIII-2 was born under much different circumstances. Though it scored well, Final Fantasy XIII ultimately suffered under the weight of its aggressively disenchanted fan base. XIII's intense linearity along with a vacant checklist of series’ staples instantly charged any sort of sequel with correcting its mistakes. Thus, XIII-2 seems to be the first time Square-Enix has been forced to make a Final Fantasy with their backs up against the wall.
Listening to fans isn't easy, and in the case of Final Fantasy it usually isn't practical. Entering its 25th year, the series is practically defined by its willingness to jettison mechanics and ideas that characterized each iteration. If Squaresoft had been content to always give us what we wanted, we'd all still be playing Final Fantasy VII over and over again in some sort of Dragon Quest-like time loop. With Final Fantasy, you have to be careful what you wish for.
In XIII-2's case, fans were quite vocal about their wishes. Non linear progression in the form of time travel? Yes, please. Side quests? Absolutely. Recruiting monsters for party members? Great idea. Quick time events to enhance cut scenes? Check. Meaningful dialogue options typically found in Western RPG's? Roger that. A Gold Saucer styled casino with Chocobo races? Sure, why not? Pseudo random battles? Wait guys stop, you're adding too much. How about a nebulous half girl half Chocobo weapon seller like that guy in Resident Evil 4? Uh, guys?
Needless to say, a lot of different mechanics and systems have found their way into XIII's architecture. Most evident, and most fundamentally divergent, is XIII-2's means of advancing the plot. The Historia Crux exists as a menu of sorts for selecting different times and places in time. Not unlike Radiant Historia's White Chronicle, you'll be able to come and go from various time periods as you wish (and, later, reset them if need be). Best of all, you're not forced to do them in much of an order. A direct quest line does exist, but somehow I even managed to stray from that by completing most of Episode 3 before even beginning Episode 2. Wider variants within the timeline often require wild “artefacts” to be found in the field before they can be applied to time gates and accessed, which is kind of a pain in the ass, but merely finishing the game isn't much trouble.
Unfortunately, the narrative threads holding XIII-2 together are almost always in shambles. XIII-2's opening cinematic implies that Lightning is locked in some sort of endless existential battle with an apparent villain, Caius Ballad. Noel, who looks like he fell out of the Kingdom Hearts universe, is delivered to Lightning as a means to an end before quickly being exported off to Serah, Lightning's sister, back in her own timeline. Together Serah and Noel gain the ability to travel through time lines and seek to correct paradoxes and figure out what the hell is wrong with Caius, thereby finding and freeing Lightning from her eternal struggle. Despite copious instances of voiced exposition none of this makes very much sense, and very few of the characters, even those whom return from XIII, have an arc worth following. Maybe I'm getting older and yearning for the days when simple stories could entertain a malleable mind, but even X-2's Paine seemed to carry more expression and sympathy than anyone stopping by in XIII-2.
It's really a shame because playing with time and affecting timelines is such a cool idea, and Square-Enix seems uninterested in exploring that concept beyond its most basic foundation. Furthermore, the plot rarely makes any sort of sense. Japanese RPG's have always reserved some level of incoherence in regard to their narrative (and little interest in hiding plot holes), but XIII-2 does it one worse by failing to maintain a contextual foundation to its world. Throughout XIII-2 I understood, literally speaking, what was happening, but I failed to grasp why any of it would motivate or affect its characters beyond simply saving the world. In a way, this humorous tweet by @kidfenris isn't too far off the mark.
XIII-2's battle system is largely the same as XIII's, and, given that I felt XIII represented the pinnacle of the active time battle, that certainly isn't a bad thing. XIII-2 also doesn't waste as much time with explaining its finer intricacies, and allows the player to indulge in its depth almost right away. The same roles can be shuffled in familiar paradigms, but seem to allow for a better sense of variation when practiced. In XIII, for example, there seemed to be one way the game wanted you to complete a battle, but in XIII-2 it felt like I could skate by in a myriad of options. Perhaps because of this XIII-2 comes off as a tad easier (and XIII-2 even boasts an easy mode if you're getting really frustrated), but what it loses in objective challenge it makes up for in much needed customization.
Leveling your characters has also been simplified. The Crystarium still technically exists, but now processes Crystarium Points in a linear fashion for every role. The cost to level up a role increases regardless of which role you’re trying to boost, leaving you to choose what role you want to allocate it into. By the end of the game I had Serah and Noel at 99 with their Ravager and Commando roles, respectively, with the remaining five roles apiece ranging from 20-50. XIII-2 could have been clearer about the larger nodes carrying bonus points for specific roles, but the game was so easy it didn't seem to make much different that I hadn't figured that out until I was half way through. XIII-2 is also a relatively short game (my clock had 21 hours on it when I finished the story), which made the sense of character progression unexpectedly, and most favorably, brisk.
With Serah and Noel being permanent members of your party, the third slot is reserved for a monster companion. Virtually every normal roving monster can, with varying degrees of luck and skill, be crystallized and collected into your reserves. Monsters can be infused with other monsters or leveled up through their own Crystarium using "monster materials," which are usually in no short supply due to XIII-2’s copious amount of loot. Their development is pretty simple, there aren't any branching paths to take and you're more or less just dumping points, but it is effective. Every monster also has a predefined role, meaning every Cait Sith defaults to Medic just as every Goblin Chieftain will be a Sentinel.
Monster recruitment makes zero sense in regard to XIII-‘s2 story, but this isn't to a fault. The end game boasts some uncharacteristically tough fights, and tagging in my ace Medic Flanninator, which is a giant jelly monster with an active police siren affixed to its head, added a charming bit of whimsy to an otherwise dreadfully serious event. A playful, almost carefree nature made X-2 immensely enjoyable, and most of your monster customization and use evokes a similar vibe in XIII-2.
XIII-2, seemingly as a direct response to the criticism of its predecessor, also comes with a bit more interactive variety. The most abrasive of which are Live Triggers, which are Square-Enix's attempt at emulating Mass Effect-like dialogue options. In practice these are often abrupt and disjointed, making one think that Square-Enix copied Bioware's design without proper knowledge of how they're actually supposed to work, but in effect Live Triggers are completely harmless. They're also occasionally amusing, sporting some rather insane responses to otherwise honest questions. Oddly, there appeared to be one "right" answer at each instance, which would result in an item reward.
Distractions are also aplenty at Serendipity, a place in time concerned with gambling activities. Presently only Chocobo racing and slots machines are available, with, like the Coliseum, more promised through future downloadable content. XIII-2 also sports a bunch of side quests and dungeon puzzles. Usually tied to fetching an item in a different time period, side quests healthy distractions with tangible rewards. I wish wild artefacts, which allow access to otherwise optional time lines, were available more through defined quetsts rather than absurd placement on the field map, but generally fetch quests do little to offend.
XIII-2 stance on exploration is also worth mentioning. Rarely a straight line, almost every area features winding turns with tricky access. Mog, your constant companion, has an ability to find hidden trinkets and bring them to light, and, should you notice one on your own, you can even literally throw him over to retrieve it. Variability can be found Archlyte Steppe's weather changing machine, which allows for variable enemy layout, but I can't say I was a fan of what I was tasked to do in Academia. While there, a crisis unfolds and you're charged with finding your way through a poorly lit maze. That's fine, but for whatever reason every five seconds the player is spammed with meaningless, easily defeatable enemies. To add insult to injury they don't offer any significant battle rewards, and serve only to annoying the living crap out of you while you’re trying to find your way around.
In fact, that stems to a larger complaint, XIII-2's pseudo return of random battles. Normally XIII-2's method of enemy encounters, which spawns them in front of you and present you with the option to preemptively strike for a bonus or run away and try to escape the enemies increasing radius of engagement. That's elegant to a point, and a great way of introducing battles without plastering enemies all over the map, but there are a handful of times when XIII-2 seems to forget what it was doing and just starts tossing out monsters with every other step. In reminded me of the dregs of the 16-bit era, where one couldn't go a few moments without a monster picking a fight.
The soundtrack was an unexpected bright spot. If you would have told me that half the environmental songs would feature j-poppy vocals, that the boss theme would be composed of death metal, and that bits of rapping were to be inserted elsewhere, I might have cried. Thankfully it all works quite well and, in a game that borrows so much from others, the music supplies XIII-2 with an identity all its own. The same can't be said for the visuals, which offer few memorable locals and double down with frequent frame rate drops. I suppose XIII-2's relatively short turnaround time meant the team employed designs from discarded XIII environments, but the poor performance, once exclusive to the 360 version, is now universal.