If you have yet to play Final Fantasy XIII, you should stop reading right now, because there’s no way to adequately review its sequel without spoiling big swathes of XIII’s story. If you have played XIII to completion and loved its emotion, weirdness, and strategic combat, then jump right in as I take a look at Final Fantasy XIII-2, recently released on consoles.
If you’ve made it this far in the review and didn’t ignore the spoiler warning, you should remember that Final Fantasy XIII ends with a climactic battle against a super powerful and godlike fal’Cie called Orphan. Orphan’s demise causes the suspended Dyson sphere world called Cocoon to fall, nearly obliterating the planet of Gran Pulse below. Fang and Vanille, ancient natives of Pulse, sacrifice themselves to save their world by turning into part of a massive crystal column that stops Cocoon’s descent and holds the shell moon safely above the surface of Gran Pulse. The remaining members of the adventuring party, led by Lightning, reunite with their loved ones, and the ending is a bittersweet one.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 begins three years after the Orphan battle, and it quickly becomes apparent that our memories of the aftermath of that fight no longer are reliable. Something has happened to change the past, and no one remembers seeing Lightning after the fall of Cocoon. No one, that is, except Lightning’s younger sister Serah. Serah remembers being awoken from her crystal sleep and greeting her sister beneath the Cocoon crystal pillar exactly as we saw it in XIII, but everyone else recalls Lightning disappearing after the battle, and many assume she is in the column with Fang and Vanille. Serah remains convinced that Lightning still lives, and her fiancé Snow has departed on a quest to find his future sister-in-law.
Elsewhere in time and space, we see that Lightning apparently is indeed still alive. She leads an army of fantastical creatures and soldiers against an onslaught by a mysterious purple-haired man named Caius. As she launches into final conflict with her enemy, Lightning calls out to her sister across the void. Meanwhile (if such a term has any meaning when you’re crossing timelines), a hunter from the future has launched out of his own reality and is pulled into Lightning’s. She charges him with finding Serah and giving her a magical creature / weapon called Mog before sending him into a time gate, seconds before she seemingly perishes in an explosion.
When Noel, the young hunter, finds Serah at her new home on Gran Pulse, it doesn’t take much convincing to recruit her into a journey into time to return to Lightning. It is here that XIII-2’s story really begins, as Serah and Noel leave the town of New Bodhum to time jump back and forth through the game’s past and future. They are hunting for gates that will lead them ever closer to finding Lightning, and as they travel they must find anachronisms and dispel paradoxes that have resulted from someone’s messing with time and reality.
In true Final Fantasy form, the story becomes very complex and more than a little strange. With most of the foundation having been laid in Final Fantasy XIII, this sequel wastes little time in getting to the weirdness and the confusion. Despite, or perhaps because of, its inherent strangeness, XIII-2 presents an enthralling model of time travel and of cause and consequence. Serah and Noel are the main party characters, but you will see some familiar faces from the previous game. Since XIII-2 takes place throughout the timestream and even in multiple alternate realities, the versions of the returning characters you’ll meet sometimes are markedly different than how you’ll remember them. Some will have aged, while others will have taken unexpected turns in their lives, post-XIII.
At the center of the game’s navigation model is the Historia Crux, a crossroads that exists outside of time. Represented by a connected network of nodes, it serves as the menu from which you embark on your journeys to specific times and places. New nodes appear as you find and unlock time gates within locations you already can visit. Time gates typically are impassible until you find and use the appropriate artefact (spelling intentional) on it. Once the artefact is used to unlock a gate, a new node will unlock in the Historia Crux, allowing you access to what is essentially a new game level. It might be a location you’ve already visited but now at a different point in its history, or it could be an entirely new and different place.
As your characters explore the worlds and search for artefacts and gates, they’ll encounter paradoxes that must be dealt with. Paradoxes are anomalies caused by warped timestreams, and their existences prevent the world from working the way it should. Dealing with the paradoxes sometimes requires a boss battle, and other times you’ll have to tackle some clever spatial puzzles. Boss battles in XIII-2 differ from standard monster battles in that they occasionally include cinematic moments sprinkled with quick time events that prompt you with button mashing to complete the sequence perfectly. As annoying as QTEs tend to be, their implementation this time is better and more enjoyable than it is in most games.
Standard monster battles initiate with creatures appearing around your characters, along with a countdown clock. If you don’t want to confront these beasties, you have until the clock completes its countdown to escape from the monsters’ vicinity. If you remain nearby or touch one of the creatures, combat will begin. You also can initiate combat by striking one of the monsters while the clock counts down. This will start the battle while giving your characters an initiative bonus. The battle itself runs very similarly to combat in Final Fantasy XIII. Characters can change classes on the fly by switching in and out of paradigms, which you will set up in the menus between battles. For example, you can have each battle begin with Serah as a magic-using Ravager and Noel as an attacking Commando and then switch one of them to the Medic role when things get too hairy. Their actual attacks queue as an active battle timer counts up, another returning feature.
One new and significant addition to Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that you can recruit monsters into your adventuring party. After defeating a creature in battle, you have a chance of looting a crystal that contains the monster’s essence. You can view the monster in your party menu, and you even can level the monster up while you’re leveling your human party members. The monsters can be added into your paradigm setups, and you can swap them in and out by switching paradigms mid-battle. You might want to start combat with a chocobo (a good early game fighter) by your side, but you can swap him out for a Cait Sith (a good early game healer) when you start taking a beating. The monster system adds a whole new and deep progression system to the game with its own additions to combat strategy.
Leveling is very similar to the way XIII handled it. Each character earns experience points (CP) after important story moments and battles, and you can spend those points to expand the character’s abilities along a node-based path. The character can choose to level up in any of the given combat roles (Commando, Medic, Ravager, etc) each time he or she levels, allowing for some freedom in the way you customize your party. Monster leveling is paid for with lootable items that fuel the monsters’ paths through the level nodes.
If you haven’t played Final Fantasy XIII or didn’t enjoy it, XIII-2 probably isn’t a game you’ll want to check out. It’s so closely tied to the previous game in both content and gameplay that it really feels like an essential second act to the past adventure. If you are one of XIII’s many fans, however, this game is made just for you. The visuals are even more gorgeous than before, and the emotional story that began with the previous game continues with this one in new and surprising ways. Final Fantasy XIII is the entry that won me back as a fan of the series after years of disillusionment, and XIII-2 is an entirely satisfying follow up.