Final Fantasy XIII-2 manages to surpass its predecessor in every way possible, and returns to the series' past glamour.
As mentioned, the plot follows Serah's journey between different timelines in order to find her sister Lightning, who's trapped in an endless battle in mysterious city called Valhalla, which is at the end of time. The story picks up three years after the events of the previous game (for the sake of avoiding spoilers, we will not discuss them), when the city where Serah lives is suddenly attacked by monsters, and a mysterious guy named Noel falls from the sky along with an equally mysterious meteor. It seems that Noel was sent by Lightning to locate Serah and help her on her journey through time. As befits the Final Fantasy series, this strange story only grows more complex, and to follow it successfully requires maximum attention to dialog, and great endurance for exposition. However, it seems as if the developers really tried to help the player follow the story, because the game contains a quite useful summary of the events in FFXIII, and takes care to remind the player "the story so far" frequently (enough to be annoying).
Speaking of annoying, it is important to mention the characters that inhabit the game world. Unlike the main characters in the story, which can act settle and are able to communicate a simple conversation without running into too many clichés, most of the minor characters you meet during the adventure sound and behave both ridiculously and annoyingly. Serah might not be dripping with personality, but at least she's dubbed in an appropriate and believable fashion, overshadowing the other characters in the game. It is unclear whether the dubbing, clothing, or their puzzling dialogue lines, but a conversation with each of the supporting character soon becomes a lesson in tolerances and restraint, which usually end in failure.
Fortunately, there is a very fast and efficient way to discharge the accumulated rage after a long conversation – the combat. The combat is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, and despite being based on the familiar mechanism of turns, is still intense and fast paced. Like the previous game, it's a winning combination of turn-based and real-time combat: as in most turn-based games, each character has an action bar that allows it to carry out several attacks, each of which depletes the meter a bit. The twist with the new combat system of FFXIII-2 is that this bar is filled with real-time, i.e. right after the attack, so the player must react quickly and "think on your feet "during every battle, because the enemy does not have to wait his turn, and is able to attack as soon as its action bar is filled. To make it easy on the player, the game allows him direct control over only a single character during combat, tagged as the "leader". This character is under the full control of the player, while the rest of the characters act according to their role, which can also be controlled by the player.
Assigning roles and replacing them during combat is carried out by the "Paradigm" system – the characters' roles sets. The player assigns a particular role to each character, whether it's a magic-user, a melee-combatant or a medic (for example), dictating its behavior during combat. Of course, it is possible to switch between those paradigms mid-combat, and the game even encourages it. Given that your party includes only two people (Serah and Noel), there's a fairly limited number of possible paradigms; at least initially, before the various monsters begin to join the party.
When a monster is defeated in battle, there is a chance of receiving it as an additional member of the party, and use it during combat. Any such monster has its own role, which cannot be changed, but you can switch between three different monsters and assign them to specific paradigms. These monsters essentially party members, and can even be upgraded and enhanced with special items. They do not participate in the story, and appear only during combat, but soon you will find yourself becoming attached to certain monsters, adorning them with a variety of symbols and clothing and give them names. This new addition to the combat replaces the Summons for previous Final Fantasy games, for better or worse; each monster has a special powerful attack, each with a different effect, but these attacks do not compare the power and beauty of the summonses. On the other hand, it's definitely fun to collect monsters and adjust them your playing style.
The playing style is influenced by the monsters that are in your party or the way you upgrading the two main characters. Every battle rewards your party members with points which can be used to purchase a higher level for one of the character's basic roles. The higher you character's level, the more roles in can learn. For example, Serah starts as a magic-user, but after a few levels you can decide to give another role – a medic or a saboteur. Each of these roles has new abilities that help in certain situations and against different opponents. Of course you can continue and focus on the original role of each character without having to purchase additional ones, but the characters level so fast, acquiring a secondary role for each of them does not slow them down at all, and can very helpful in difficult battles.
The Pièce de Résistance of the combat in FFXII-2 is undoubtedly the boss battles. These (mostly) giant creatures are varied and beautifully designed, and each such battle feels epic and intense. These battles require sharp instincts and finding an effective strategy against each boss. Yes, here and there you will encounter bosses that will only frustrate you, especially if you reach them when the main characters are weaker, but the sense of satisfaction after a victory is well worth it. Most boss battles combine Quick Time Events, which gives a cinematic angle to the battle and enhance its epic sensation. These boss battles only emphasize all that is fun in the game's combat system, and each one of them is a worthy challenge, which requires the proper amount of strategic planning and some trial and error to overcome it successfully.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not just about monsters and battles, awesome as they may be. At its core, it is a role-playing game with a rich world and a complex plot that sweeps the player into countless new and spectacular locations. Each of these places has a unique character and a creative look different from his predecessors in almost every aspect, contributing to the sense of discovery and originality of the game. FFXIII-2 gives the linear structure of its predecessor a rest, and allows the player to explore every region, and to take his time doing so. There are whole areas that do not take part in the main storyline, but reward the player's exploration efforts with new objects or side missions. There is always the option to simply leave the world/timeline you're in and go exploring other places without losing any progress already made. This freedom to jump from place to place definitely helps keep the game flowing, minimizes the cases in which the player feels stuck, and encourages the player to try and find as many new areas as possible.
It's a pity that such a trip across the map involves countless random encounters with various monsters, and the fifth battle in the span of ten minutes will really grind your nerves. There are ways to avoid random encounters, and you can always just run away from a battle, but it's a real shame such a good combat system becomes a chore the moment one just wants to explore the game's stunning environments. To break the monotony of these random encounters, FFXIII-2 offers from time to time more intellectual challenges in the form of various puzzles. They are not very diverse or difficult, but it is a welcome respite from the intensity of the combat and the confusing plot.
To its credit, it can be said that FFXXIII-2 is a beautiful and interesting game, with every minute full colorful visuals and emotional music. The main characters in the story, including the two heroes and the characters from the previous game, are well-dubbed (better than might be expected from a Japanese role playing game), and despite their dialogues bordering on the corny and the sentimental, they are performed in a professional manner and are completely believable. There are cases where the frame rate drops slightly, but only on rare occasions when the screen is full of explosions and other colorful effects. The significant amount of cut-scenes can also be a bit annoying, especially when they come in succession, but the graphics are usually nice enough so you can simply enjoy what is happening on the screen, without paying much attention to Serah's dramatic monologues.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 manages to surpass its predecessor in every way possible, especially in its gameplay, which grants players more freedom. The new combat system is definitely the highlight of the thirteen series, and the design of the monsters you'll fight against and the environments you'll explore is one of the most original and versatile we've seen this year. Yes, like any game, this one too has its problems that sometimes drastically reduce your enjoyment, or are just annoying; whether it's the unclear story or the unnecessary sentiments of the characters, FFXIII-2 is dripping with melodrama that could deter players new to the series. Nevertheless, this is a great game for those who have never experienced the famous Final Fantasy series, partly because of the faster battles, and also because of the relatively short duration of the game, of less than 30 hours. Bottom line, we can certainly say that apart from some annoying habits the series still could not shake, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game that can really lead Final Fantasy to a better future.