A sequel is tricky to assess. It's always compared to the first/original game, so it has a lot to live up to. Where are the story and characters going next? How will the developers tweak the gameplay formula this time? Is it going to be more of the same, or wildly different? Can it meet everyone's expectations??
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a sequel that's more of the same. Everything I reviewed about XIII -- a cool technomagical world, pedestrian story and characters, pretty graphics, fun and fast-paced gameplay -- holds true for XIII-2. Square-Enix tweaked the formula here and there, but by-and-large this is a conservative sequel that struggles to stand on its own.
The story picks up shortly after XIII's finale. Lightning has gone missing, and the spotlight now turns on her sister, Serah. When Serah crosses paths with Noel, a warrior from the future, this is her chance to search for Lightning's whereabouts. So their time-travel journey begins: Serah to find Lightning, and Noel to find and confront his mentor-turned-nemesis, Caius, who betrayed him. And of course their fates are all intertwined with each other.
What makes sequels appealing is the chance to revisit familiar locations and characters. XIII-2 does a fine job bringing you back to XIII locations that are reimagined and feel fresh and look great. I enjoyed exploring places like Lake Bresha and Oerba village, and discovering how the heroes and supporting characters of XIII have been shaped by past events. Of the new locations, my favourite was the city of Academia, which is the spitting image of modern-day Tokyo or Hong Kong. Out of place, maybe? But for Serah who comes from a fantasy beachside village, Tokyo must look exotic!
I especially enjoyed the music. All the tracks sound so fitting: each one matches the visual aesthetic and mood of its location, and all work together as a coherent musical picture of XIII-2. The light electronic tracks also make for great easy listening!
The story is serviceable but not outstanding -- just continuing the serviceable but not outstanding story begun in XIII. It felt more intimate since it focused on Noel and Serah's personal growth. Noel was more interesting than Serah, and at one point I thought he was actually developing beyond his Japanime male-lead tropes, and that the whole story will subvert its JRPG conventions. So I was disappointed by the ending, I guess it was too much to expect a FF game to abandon its tried-and-true-if-boring story formula for something really groundbreaking. But even that ending would've been alright -- if it hadn't followed up with an "ending after the ending" which was clearly a setup for FFXIII: Lightning Returns. That took away whatever little satisfaction I had!
Overall, XIII-2's story had potential but suffered from being in the middle of a trilogy. I think it would've stood up much better as a standalone story of Noel vs. Caius.
Narrative gripes aside, the game is fun. Everything I said in my review of XIII holds true here: the fast-paced, strategic "command synergy" battle system is great, character levelling is still the same linear progression, and most of my enjoyment came from building my paradigm deck and mastering it in battles. Some mechanics were streamlined, eg. You can now swap between controlling Serah and Noel's actions in the middle of battle, which wasn't possible in XIII. The monster deck is a new feature and provides an additional source of variety: you pick a third squad member from this deck, and all monsters have unique levelling progression and skills. Combat continues to be the strong suit of XIII-2.
The time-travel gimmick shapes the gameplay, and I thought it was effective. Serah and Noel move up and down the timeline, visiting and revisiting various places in different eras. Each location-in-time is a discrete map connected to a central hub (the "Historia Crux"); more maps unlock as the story progresses, and you can revisit them anytime later. The story is presented linearly in small episodes, so in spite of the time-jumps, it was easy to follow.
There are more sidequests in XIII-2 than the very focused first game. I have an irrational hatred of Final Fantasy mini-games and grind, but I liked how XIII-2 integrated the sidequests with time travelling. Pursuing them felt meaningful, and I was rewarded with setting lore and more insight into Serah and Noel's personalities. I especially liked discovering the "alternative futures" endings. There are also two mini-game locations in the form of the theme park Serendipity and the superboss Arena at the end of time, but I didn't feel like I missed out on the meat of the game by ignoring them. Somehow, XIII-2 struck a balance of providing more things to do than XIII, while keeping sidequests meaningful and optional mini-games purely optional.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 was a decent sequel that walked closely in its predecessor's footsteps and inherited all its strengths and flaws. While I enjoyed it a little bit more than XIII, it didn't have that "spark of personality" that say, distinguished FFX-2 from FFX, that other FF game/sequel pair. Ultimately, XIII-2 is wholly defined by its predecessor and struggles to stand as its own game. Like big sister, like little sister: Lightning has already blazed a trail, and Serah doesn't do much more than just follow behind.
Cross-posted at We The Players.