Final Fantasy XIII brought with it great expectation upon its release in 2010.
The twenty-five year old series first appearance on a new generation of consoles brought with it beautiful visuals, a fast-paced and more organic combat system, and Japanese melodrama in the grand tradition of the J-RPG.
Unfortunately it also brought a sluggish story, linear level design, and Japanese melodrama in the grand tradition of the J-RPG. Criticisms that Square Enix has vocally embraced during the development of XIII-2, promising more freedom, a better story, and a refined combat system.
The story begins three years after the original, with Lightning still missing after rescuing the inhabitants of Cocoon. Everyone assumes she's died, but her sister Serah, this time assuming the role of protagonist, is convinced that she's still alive somewhere. Her suspicions are strengthened when she meets Noel, a mysterious figure who claims to be sent for Lightning to reunite the two sisters.
He gives Serah a gift from her sister; a Moogle that that transform into a weapon as well unearthing hidden treasures in the many worlds that the three will visit: worlds and locations found throughout the time line that they must travel to in order to find Lightning and to save the worlds from numerous paradoxes arising everywhere.
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Overwhelming? As in immediate information overload, maybe. But the game's premise and story holds together quite tightly, as the focus stays on two characters despite the leaps between locations, rather than the multiple story lines in FFXIII as characters regularly split and divided over the course of the adventure.
Nor are there many lengthy cut-scenes lingering on character relationships. The pace of narrative has picked up considerably, while the new Cinematic Action feature - glorified QTE it may be - ensures that you're seldom passive bystander in what sequences there are.
To break off from the linearity of the first title the studio has adopted a world hub system called Historia Crux. At heart its a level select not far removed from classic platformers, but with the added twist of it branching off to alternate time-lines as long as you've collected hidden artefacts from previous eras.
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The system makes straightforward work of skipping along the time stream, but also reveals some negative aspects of the worlds' design.
Each area is relatively small, which makes XIII-2 feel like a compact take on the usually large treks one would take in a Final Fantasy adventure. Though it's good to return to the worlds of FFXIII, it doesn't aid matters that many locations are reused with little variation depending on what year in the time-line you choose to visit. Some of this recycling is excused by way of the main story, as you can witness the consequences of your actions.
However, there are many areas only there to lay the basis of side-missions, and the lack of variation does mean a slight monotony of locale sets in far earlier than you'd expect from a meaty RPG.
Another problematic point with the Historia Crux system is the collection of artefacts. While experimenting with different time portals is a great incentive to drop into new areas and eras, you run the risk of running out of artefacts prematurely: a nagging notion that consciously restricts exploration to the sticking straight to the main story.
That's what happened to me, forcing me to spend a few hours at Chocobo racing to earn enough cash to buy my way to required artefact. A frustrating situation that held me back from trying more side missions until the main story was finished.
A new feature to the combat system is the ability to recruit monsters, with each matching one of the familiar roles that include Medic and Ravager. These guys can be upgraded using materials dropped during battles, letting you split your time between levelling up your characters and improving your allies' abilities.
The system works really well, offering a smart alternative to the third role in the battlefield, and there are echoes of the popular Pokemon element embedded in the collection aspect of tracking down all possible monsters.
The Paradigm Shift returns from XIII with little in the way of tweaks. Entering combat is different however, thanks to the inclusion of your Moggle travelling companion. Stumbling on enemies in the field will initiate a Mog Clock, a circular icon at your feet counting down until battle commences.
It lets you create enough distance between you and your foes before time runs out to cancel the conflict, and likewise its colour-coding lets you know if you've time to initiate a fight and therefore grant a preemptive strike. Its a small addition that eases the series further from wasteful battles.
Combined, its clear XIII-2 is an improvement over its predecessor, with a much clearer and better delivered story, and much more freedom in our interactions with it. However, the hub system feels a sacrifice to the franchise and genre's long-standing affair with wide-open worlds and adventurous treks across wildernesses, and as such there's a disconnect between us and the locations on offer.
Yet the game does offer the gameplay breadth associated with the series, even if it is divided so obviously. There's plenty to dig into with this game, be it the large amount of side missions, or monster collection side-quests alongside the main objectives. If you're a fan of the franchise, and particularly of Final Fantasy XIII, then reuniting with familiar faces and locations, and having another stint of active time battles makes this a reunion worth making.
8 / 10
Less linearity, a better pace, and a better handling of the main story.