Ever since Final Fantasy VII was released in North America in 1997, the series has become the archetype of what every RPG should be. This reputation carried across many releases, and when Squaresoft (which subsequently became Square Enix) announced their titles it became a foregone conclusion that the review scores would be high, and every other developer would be scrambling to make something similar. Somewhere along the line, in more recent times, Square Enix has faltered slightly in this regard. Since Final Fantasy X-2 was released (the first direct sequel in the franchise's history), some feel that the series has been resting on its pedigree. That is not to say that the titles which came after were bad, they were just... not exceptional. Enter Final Fantasy XIII, the most maligned of the series iterations. While the fan base gave it a lot of credit, there were many who felt that its gameplay was even more "on rails" and forced than ever before. When the aggravating save system and annoying characters were factored in, some had even declared that the series was past its prime. Now, for the second time, Square has released a direct sequel to FF XIII, in what appears to be a valiant attempt at declaring a "mea culpa" and correcting the situation...
The first noticeable difference with FFXIII-2 is its surprisingly short storyline, running approximately twenty-five hours of gameplay from start to finish. The Final Fantasy titles have always been epic in scope, with eighty-some-odd hours of gameplay to offer; so while a twenty-five hour experience is about average these days for a single-player adventure, it falls drastically short for the series. If it can be said that this title's predecessor was "too linear," then it can be said that FFXIII-2 is "too fragmented." It's not like any of the quests one might try to partake in off the main storyline are so full of excitement and whiz-bangery, after all. There seems to be some really confusing design choices (the excruciating platforming sequence toward the end of the game comes to mind), as if they were trying to throw anything that wasn't in the first game into this pot, just for the sake of being new and different.
Righting past wrongs seems to be the theme running through this title. Both the storyline itself as well as the raison d'etre for there to even be a FFXIII-2 seem to be engulfed in this theme. With all of the panache of the Back to the Future series, FFXIII-2 sets out to rewrite the ending to FFXIII by convincing players that the ending they saw back then may not have been what actually happened. In fact, everyone except one character in the game (Serah) saw and believes the same ending us gamers experienced. Now it is up to Serah McFly... er... Farron to explain and convince everyone that all may not be as it seemed. Here, three years after these events, our adventure begins. It is actually one of the better and more interesting stories to come from the series, despite the "hackneyed" theme of time travel.
Graphically, the game is a beauty to behold. This was also part of Square's Final Fantasy reputation, so to say that they did a phenomenal job on the graphics probably won't surprise anyone. This review is based on the PS3 version, and everything seemed to run beautifully and buttery smooth. The gorgeous fantasy world settings will really immerse you in this universe if you let it, and if you are also immune to the sometimes over the top, "soap opera" style of acting these games are known for you will realize that through all of the issues and annoyances of late, Square Enix still has what it takes to deliver a compelling story worth your gameplay time.
The music is also quite beautiful and befitting the series' reputation. It cues the right emotions at the right time and serves the locations very well. Square has also expressed that this title would bring back the beloved towns the fans love visiting, but most of the townsfolk act more like cardboard cutouts and seem as if they were thrown in just so the town didn't appear to be suffering from a zombie apocalypse.
The gameplay is practically unchanged from FFXIII. There is a creature in the place of a third human AI, and the Eidolon summons are gone. If you liked the revamped battle system in FFXIII, then you will like it here as well. If you did not...
Final Fantasy XIII-2 delivers on its promise to right past wrongs, even if only marginally. While it still cannot be said that the series is back to the quality the name Final Fantasy is synonymous with, it can be said that FFXIII-2 is a lot more fun than its predecessor, and definitely a step in the right direction. It may take another title or two, but Square definitely seems poised to re-claim the title of the world's best RPG developer.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of Final Fantasy XIII-2 provided by Square Enix.