No other title within the mainline canon of Square Enix's oft-enshrined flagship RPG series cut into the bonds of loyalty and respect tied to its core audience much like 2010's Final Fantasy XIII. With its overly dramatic, frequently laughably un-PC narrative, questionable secondary characters, linear progression methods, lack of freely explorable towns, uncommunicative NPCs, and a battle system that was drastically different than that of its pixelated ancestors, the game had longtime Final Fantasy devotees threatening to toss their hands up and walk away from the franchise, dismissing it as a victim of its own boasted longevity.
When a direct sequel to such a fan-maligned (critically, the game fared much better) entry was announced, it's no surprise that trepidation levels were extremely high. One such case of an absolute console Final Fantasy continuation exists in the form of Final Fantasy X-2, a game that divided its intended demographic almost as much as Final Fantasy XIII did years later. FFX-2 toned down the heavy-handedness of Final Fantasy X's combat and story, offering a flamboyantly playful, lighthearted adventure that, while enjoyable, fell short of the epic endeavor players expect from a Final Fantasy undertaking. Thankfully, after over three decades of combined craftsmanship, Square Enix appears to have learned from its erroneous decisions, producing a title that corrects nearly every mistake made by its dissenting predecessor, essentially giving fans what they want across all categories subject to snap-judgment criticisms. As someone who begrudgingly bestowed FFXIII the benefit of the doubt upon 100% completion, I can say with certainty that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not only a radical improvement, but likely the most noteworthy Final Fantasy chapter to surface in the wake of the last semi-masterpiece, 2006's Final Fantasy XII.
Truthfully, FFXIII-2 is nowhere near perfect, with the game's most blindingly obvious issue, besides its bizarre niche electro-pop musical score, being the managed preservation of FFXIII's batshit storyline, albeit with less of a focus on stark religious overtones, blunt elitist jingoism and cultish themes. Initially picking up three years after the events of FFXIII, FFXIII-2 is a time-traveling yarn in the vein of Square's seminal Chrono Trigger, with your goals revolving around jumping from timeline to timeline, solving anomalies and paradoxes through fetch quests, puzzles, and, of course, battling hordes of uniquely designed enemies. The player has two characters to operate this time around, as opposed to FFXIII's six. Serah Farron, the docile younger sister of FFXIII's tenacious heroine Lightning—who has curiously vanished from the current era, serving as some sort of warrior goddess on a distant ethereal plane—serves as the central protagonist here, and she's assisted by a mysterious, confident young man from the future by the name of Noel Kreiss, who is flung through a time-gate after all but giving up on his own world, lost to the destruction outlined a possibility at the conclusion of FFXIII. The third spot in your battle party is filled out by a monster that you can acquire by defeating in the field and obtaining its accompanying crystal (some are exceedingly common, and some, the valuable ones, can be quite difficult to locate and recruit).
If at first this addition of a CPU creature to your team seems like a Pokémon-esque gimmick, it actually manages to be quite the opposite due to the fact that leveling up your critter is the polar opposite of stressful, hardly any prolonged duration of your playthrough need be spent on figuring out which way to go about increasing the stats of your beast. Every individual monster has one constant job corresponding to the game's Paradigm system that's carried over from FFXIII. Those who played the prior installment will be very familiar with the learned roles: Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, Synergist, and Medic, each with their own pros and cons. Fusing together a string of any three Paradigm roles between your party and constantly shifting them during fight sequences (this time with a much more fluid battle animation) is the key to claiming victory in battles. The character enhancement system, dubbed the Crystarium, makes a return from FFXIII, but with a number of welcomed modifications. Most notably, the level-advancement caps from FFXIII have been cast aside, allowing players who cherish level-grinding to do so as they please, souping up their characters to unnecessarily lofty heights to render boss encounters a breeze. Secondly, both Serah and Noel are capable of learning every possible role in the Paradigm, as opposed to FFXIII's limiting tactics wherein only certain characters can assume specific classes. The leveling and battle systems are far and away the best aspects of FFXIII-2; from the outset, building your character's strengths is player-progressed, instead of storyline-propelled, amounting in a remarkably addictive, immediately satisfying regimen that never comes close to mirroring the restrictive nature of FFXIII's growth mechanisms.
Be it that the polestar of FFXIII-2 is time travel, developing an endlessly interesting, easy to adapt manner of date-skipping was something that Square Enix had to nail down on all points, and they've done just that with the Historia Crux. Plainly put, its simplicity is its ingenuity. Once certain artifacts are discovered throughout FFXIII-2's generally expansive universe, various gates that lead to other periods are unlocked. Upon arriving at your next destination, that locale is added to your accumulated Historia Crux, a menu that can be accessed at any non-combat instant with the press of the start button. Instead of having to run around to an available gate to journey across the past, future, and present-alternative, which would be very Square Enix in its backtracking methodology, stations can be selected here at will, making the whole process not only acceptably effortless but particularly liberating.
Freedom of exploration and decision-making is at the nucleus of FFXIII-2, and the foremost contributing factor to its ultimate success. This game has towns! Plenty of them! With NPC-activated side quests! Field battles are much more intuitive, with the introduction of the Mog Clock, which initiates at stage green (you're all good) and slips to stage red (you're screwed) when a previously invisible enemy steps into your temporal zone. You can then attack the now active adversary pre-battle to cause an advantageous preemptive strike that will advance the foes stagger gauge, eventually leading to heavier damage totals. To balance the frequency of the series's overlong cutscenes, FFXIII-2 employs context-sensitive QTEs during combat (players press on-screen button commands to execute timely maneuvers) and Live Triggers during dialogue rounds that prompt the player with a number of different choose-your-own-response options. These adjustments add the necessary interactive thrills to begin a restoration of the true Square Enix RPG vibes that were squandered throughout most of FFXIII.
It's ironic that FFXIII-2, a game dealing heavily with repairing errors in time is the Final Fantasy chapter that has presumably mended the severed ties between Square Enix and its closest followers. In going back and transmogrifying the blueprint put forth by its elder sibling, Square Enix has created a title that, mechanically, is as about as sound as an RPG can get. If you're able look past its allegorical missteps and garish soundtrack blunders, you'll discover a delightfully untroubled, visually competent gameplay experience and a slight spiritual rebirth for the hallowed series.