When Final Fantasy XIII-2 was announced, it was hard not to ask yourself why a sequel was necessary. It’s not that the original game was bad, but it just didn’t hit the usual gold standard that the Final Fantasy series is capable of delivering. After all, the series has some installments that hold special places in the hearts of gamers, with some emerging often on “best game ever” lists. Final Fantasy XIII, while good, didn’t quite hit that mark. After spending extensive time with its sequel, however, it was hard not to fall in love with the emotional storytelling and exciting new gameplay elements—giving ample reason for players to give the world of Pulse and Cocoon another go.

At the center of the tale is antagonist Caius, who disrupts events in time in the hope to save Yuel, a seeress he is meant to protect, who dies from her ability to see the world’s entire timeline, while doomed to reincarnate and repeat her fate forever. Our heroes, Serah, the sister to original protagonist Lightning, and Noel Kreiss, whose last name sounds oddly close to a certain religious figure, are trying to stop him at the behest of Lightning, who is fighting him in Valhalla, a realm outside of time, requiring the protagonists to fix the timeline in order to save the world. Still with us? Good.

Caius and Lightning Clash

Lightning, who adorns the box cover and promotional trailers, takes a bit of a backseat in this game, compared to her major role in the original. The game’s opening, however, gives ample opportunity to flash her skills while demonstrating her struggle with Caius in brilliant fashion—this sets the mood and style for battles players will encounter throughout the game, especially where live trigger events are prevalent. More on that later. Serah, who spent the majority of the original game encased in crystal and was portrayed as a typical little sister archetype, is given the chance to spread her wings and develop more personality. While she still doesn’t take that opportunity to evolve her personality into anything beyond what is necessary for the plot, shes has become significantly more badass. Her innocent sweetness will warm players’ hearts, making her a likable, though not terribly unique protagonist. Noel is a completely new character whose story is expanded throughout the game. He is from a future where he is the last of humanity due to Cocoon colliding with Pulse. He has been summoned by Lightning to travel to the past, find her sister and save the world from it’s bleak fate; a chance he can hardly pass up. He plays the typical good guy protagonist, and he is an easy character to care for. He remains easygoing despite some terrible hands he’s been dealt, a refreshing contrast to series protagonists in the past. The two make a nice pair, though there are a lot of missed opportunities for emotional development and tension between the them. They are also the only two playable characters, so those that love the conflict and laughs a cast of varied character personalities will garner might be a tad disappointed.

Caius makes a great villain, because while ruthless and seemingly cold, he is a tortured soul who believes what he is doing is right. While destroying time in order to save one person might be just a tad extreme, one can’t help but sympathize with a character that is simply fighting to protect someone he has watched die countless times. Caius is one of the most interesting characters, but the game doesn’t allow his story or his relationship with Yuel to flesh out as well as it could. Another issue is the sheer amount of time taken up by inner monologues. They happen a lot and, while it’s sometimes nice to get some insight into the characters’ feelings and opinions, it often drags down the pace of the story. They are moments where you miss the text-only days of gaming.

The voice actors are actually quite good and don’t rip players out of the story as some some tend to do. The actors do their best with the script that is provided, which can be a pitfall if poor translation is present. This isn’t often the case here. Caius’ voice is a tad melodramatic for my taste, but Serah and Noel are spot on. Even the bouncy, squeaky-voiced moogle, Mog, doesn’t irritate as much as one would think. In fact, the actor behind his voice makes him an incredibly lovable, and often funny, character, especially when you toss the poor little guy in an attempt to grab faraway items. His pleas for help using the iconic “kupo” will keep you smiling amongst the abuse.

XIII-2 invents the sport of Moogle tossing

The story, at its heart, is a time traveling adventure that surprisingly weaves itself as a believable follow-up to the original game. Like most stories involving time travel, messing with the time line is part of the fun. The two travel through history, fixing what they call paradoxes, or things in a time period that don’t belong. One thing to take from this game is that anything and everything is a paradox that needs fixing. While time travel is typically a device used when all other ideas have been exhausted (i.e. jumping the shark), this is not the case with FF XIII-2. In fact, it works well with both the story and other gameplay elements, such as the ability to unlock gates that are specific moments and places in time, and the ability to close those gates and relive entire story points over again in the overworld map, known as the Historia Crux. Making decision in the past with an impact on the future, such as grabbing items or speaking to characters, makes your actions feel impactful. Your moogle pal, Mog, also helps reveal objects lost in time that players can snag once he works his magic. Certain story sequences allow for players to make a choice in how to respond to dialogue or take action in a given circumstance. While some choices simply allow players to control the flow of conversation, others alter how events will play out in the game. They can even (you guessed it) create paradoxes.

The Historia Crux

The Final Fantasy series’ strength lies with its stellar game design, which is consistently genius, always reinventing fighting mechanics and gameplay to revolutionize the genre. With battles, Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes a good thing and switches it up a bit. The game essentially uses its predecessor’s stellar combat system, like using paradigm shift to switch roles, but the developers threw in a few extras to sweeten a pot. The third spot in the line-up is devoid of any other characters and is, instead, left open for a monster recruitment system. After defeating monsters, they will sometimes drop their crystals, which players can use to level and develop into some truly powerful and valuable companions. Each monster has its own roles and unique skills that can be leveled by using monster materials, either purchased or obtained through battles. Players can even infuse their monsters with other monsters for skill absorption. It can be time consuming and tedious, but an extremely rewarding process.

Players also have the option to humiliate their monster slaves

As previously mentioned, the fighting mechanics haven’t changed drastically from the original. Complexity has been eased and the difficulty of battles has been toned down. The amount of skills available to the characters has been cut significantly, but there are just enough to allow for a fair amount of strategy. Players might find themselves hitting auto-chain a lot, since leveling up and shifting to the appropriate roles are about all you truly need to do. The computer has a good handle on things. Strategic monster development may take the place of a complicated battle system, but this doesn’t diminish the enjoyment. Following the main storyline won’t prove too difficult, so players looking for a real challenge will have to seek them out. Rest assured, they are there. Cinematic Actions are events that make boss battles that much more satisfying. A few simple button presses (or live trigger events) have the characters dodging enemies’ attacks or finishing them off, both in a colorful and often over the top fashion, adding a sense of involvement and immersion when flashy finishes are required.

Serah knows how to press all the right buttons

The world map has changed a lot from the original, giving players more room to breathe. Jumping, swinging and other elements help players feel more connected and fluid in the environment. While the worlds are still fairly linear in terms of main story content, the game not only allows for multiple worlds, but multiple versions at different periods in time. Certain eras are not accessible without lots of prerequisites, so those with a sense of exploration will have plenty of challenges to look forward to. Each map has fragments to collect that can be obtained through solving paradoxes, most often in the form of missions. Missions will be provided through the main story, but can also be given by NPCs who need help. Gates are also strewn about levels and can also only be opened with artifacts collected through missions and exploration. Each gate will open a new timeline and another area, each with an appearance by Chocolina, who is one of the most obnoxious characters in Final Fantasy history. While meant to be an eccentric, chocobo garbed, time traveling merchant, she often just impedes the pace the of game by engaging players in pointless conversation both before and after they attempt to buy necessary items in her shop. Since they are effectively the only shops in the game, save the casino area, it can be terribly grating.

She's just awful

Serendipity is the casino style theme park area that is a reprieve from the main story. If you enjoy gambling, collecting special items and Chocobo racing, then this is a place where you can spend hours of game time. The Mystic, who is stationed in a building on the west side of Serendipity unlocks additional skills in exchange for fragments collected throughout the game. These skills can be turned on or off on the menu screen and give players abilities including double experience (or CP) and the ability to jump further. She also teaches players the ability to throw Mog, which is both crucial and hilarious.

Temporal Shifts are puzzles that keep with the time travel theme, each representing a paradox of some sort. They are essential to the progression of the game. The required puzzles can be frustrating, but the hardest are saved for those who explore side content and enjoy tearing their hair out. Each Shift is separated into a number of stages. It varies based on how many stages there are, but each one is progressively more difficult than the last. There are three types of puzzles, but the most frustrating is one called the Hands of Time, a clock themed puzzle. It will have you tossing your controller on the floor in utter frustration and screaming at the screen till you’re hoarse (at least that’s how I handled it).

Academia 4XX AF: the future where humans are no longer required to walk like chumps

Like Final Fantasy X-2 and all good time time travel games, there are multiple endings. After completing the main game, there is plenty of content to explore, something that should be required with games. Players can go back and challenge enemies that were previously too difficult for them to fight. Defeating them creates a paradox (see, there are a lot) and allows for an alternate ending where the effects of the paradox are seen. Speaking of endings, this one has a doozy. Without spoiling anything, it ends with a “to be continued” and leaves a lot of loose ends. This was specifically done so DLC could be implemented later on. Whether you are for or against the need to dig out some more pocket change to complete the story is up to you, but it is required. The Colosseum DLC will have to tide gamers over until then. The Colosseum allows players to challenge powerful enemies and possibly recruit them to their party. These foes are unique to this area and include acharacters from the original game, such as Lightning herself. Gamers might not be happy with the current DLC available, but keep in mind the first game had no DLC at all.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack is one of the best you’re liable to hear. The majority of tracks involve sweeping piano melodies, often accompanied by strings and a powerful horn section, keeping with the feel of the first game. What makes this one different is its range of musical styles. You could be walking the map to a techno beat, battle to a rock and roll ballad and then ride a Chocobo the rest of the way to head-banging metal. No kidding, they have a metal Chocobo theme and it’s amazing. Another brilliant and beautiful aspect is the addition of vocals and lyrics to several of their tracks, typically sung by a female with an almost heavenly voice. The music is rich and gorgeous, and it made for one of the most enjoyable experiences in the game.

Rarely are sequels better than the originals however, in many respects I found this game much more enjoyable than the first. Without the same amount of character development and variation, though, it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by its predecessor. An identical battle and leveling system makes it feel too much like a copy of the original, but the additional freedom to explore, ample side content and the inclusion of DLC keeps the game playable for hours beyond the main story. The characters are likable, though perhaps not incredibly memorable, and the story is rich, even heartfelt in many places. Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn’t a perfect game, but it is a great game and a damn good sequel. It is absolutely worth your time to play through.

Here’s the rundown:
+Story is solid and pulls you in
+Additional content is fun, addictive and will keep you playing
+Improves on a lot that was lacking in the first game
+Stellar Soundtrack
+Story sequences at every turn can drag down the pace
+Battle system is oversimplified

7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 was developed and published by Square Enix for the Xbox 306 and PlayStation 3. The game was release in North America on January 31, 2012 with an MSRP of $59.99. The copy used in this review was provided to RipTen by the publisher for the purposes of review.