So, I finished Final Fantasy XIII-2 (including Requiem of the Goddess), and man, what a weird game. The time-hopping paradox-based narrative, amazing art direction, unique soundtrack, and charming lack of self-seriousness has me wanting so badly to love it; but the awful combat balancing, yawn-worthy sidequests, incessant backtracking, stuttery pacing, lack of satisfying story arc, and lame ending DLC left me feeling, at best, ambivalent about the experience.
When I say the story wasn't "satisfying", I don't mean that it should have had a happy ending. The brutal one-two punch of Serah dying and chaos enveloping the world initially rubbed me the wrong way, but upon reflection, it's very fitting for a game with such a fatalistic, "no good goes unpunished" streak. The problem is that the writers didn't acknowledge the way the material events of the game would be nullified by building meaningful smaller-scale narratives. Serah and Noel's relationship is functional, but considering they're the two main characters of the game, there's a severe lack of development, conflict, and general complexity between them. The closest I remember the game coming to a weighty moment between the two was Noel disagreeing with Serah about the potential consequences of her visions. They felt much more like strong acquaintances than genuinely caring friends, and it made the ending feel forced and unearned. I'd extend that sentiment to say there wasn't a lot of complexity or dynamism to the relationship of any two characters, and most of what did exist was a holdover from XIII.
Snow -- who the game occasionally reminds you has a pretty significant role in the plot -- feels more like a cameo than an important character. To my recollection, he's never seen after the moment you resolve the Sunleth Flan paradox and Serah notices his l'Cie brand as he fades out of existence. I read his Fragment descriptions, so I had some sense of what he was up to, but if his actions were really so vital, you'd think they'd be addressed in the main story. I watched the paradox endings on YouTube, and was blown away by the one in which Snow busts in as Alyssa's giving you the Chapter 5 artefact and reveals that Alyssa's working with Caius, someone's going to assassinate Hope in 3 days (wait, what?), and that he's been flying his motorcycle through time solving paradoxes. I suppose I knew he was doing something, and that there was something weird going on with Alyssa, but why the hell were such important details about two of the game's small handful of important characters left to secret post-completion endings? It's not as though there was so much going on in the main plot that they couldn't risk confusing the player.
I can't think of any more diplomatic way to put this: this game's sidequest design is horrendous. I can't shake the feeling that its designers didn't understand the value of the feature in the first place, and thus weren't equipped to make it relevant and enjoyable.
In most cases, the sidequests in an area are required to be played in a specific order. Sometimes, this genuinely makes sense from a story perspective, but more often it's completely arbitrary. I ended up using guides to do a few areas when I started burning out, and seeing the arbitrary flowchartedness of the quests in such stark terms really shone a light on the utter soullessness of it all.
The CP (EXP) rewards for the quests are laughably insignificant, the items you get are basically worthless, and even the fragments don't matter much unless you're crazy enough to collect them all. If I could go back (and dispel my inherent tendency to do side content), I'd have skipped most of it and grinded for a while before the last boss if it turned out be necessary.
Speaking of the end, XIII-2's difficulty spikes up dramatically in the last area. It wasn't insurmountable, but after mostly breezing through the first 95% of the game, hitting a point where monsters were all of the sudden capable of nuking characters was jarring. Proto-Behemoth, an unskippable encounter directly before the point of no return, is essentially unbeatable unless he's focussed to stagger nearly immediately.
The interminable string of final bosses ended up being the most fun I had playing the same. Some combination of luck and min-maxing left me at a perfect-feeling level for the encounters. They reminded me what I loved so much about XIII's battle system: the constant competing pressures, risk-reward situations, tactical considerations, snappy control, ATB refresh rhythm, and satisfying difficulty. It's a system that only really works within a narrow "goldilocks zone" of difficulty. If it's too easy, there's rarely any reason to not just ATB refresh between two COM-COM-COM paradigms; if it's too hard, it becomes gruelling to keep your head above water; and when it's just right, it's a pretty masterful work of game design. When I went full-on hail mary and focussed down Jet Bahamut as his doom spell was about to drop, I was shaking and leaning into the screen like a lunatic. It was awesome, but in a bittersweet, "why did I have to wait until the end of the game for well-balanced fights?" way.
I'd heard that the Requiem of the Goddess DLC contained the "true" ending, so I figured I owed it to myself to check it out, especially since the DLC is all half-price now. The gameplay was ridiculously tedious -- the lion's share of the episode consists of grinding the same near-unwinnable fight against Caius to get Lightning up to level 5-6, since beating him at all -- let-alone 5-starring his battle, which is required to continue -- is very difficult until then. There is a certain satisfaction in learning to exploit his (and Bahamut's) patterns, but it's overshadowed by the sheer tedium of repeating the same lengthy fight half a dozen times.
The final Bahamut fight ended up taking me something like 25 minutes. I took a few sloppy hits and got down to red health early on, got a handle on his patterns, worked out a very conservative pattern that I could take him down with, and stuck with it to avoid potentially having to redo the whole thing.
The story parts, in light of the Lightning Returns trailers that I was finally able to watch, really should have been in the main game. The marketing for Lightning Returns specifically references Lighting's "crystal slumber" on Etro's Throne -- an event that someone who only played XIII-2 as shipped wouldn't know about. The uncertainty about what happened to Lightning in XIII-2 was, I think, pretty admirable, but felt much less so after Requiem of the Goddess demystified it and used said demystification as a hook for a sequel.
The scene with Lightning and Serah felt similarly cheap. I respected the way the initial ending didn't give the player the obvious heartwarming and/or bittersweet reunion between Lightning and Serah, but then the DLC went and gave me exactly that. It wasn't bad so much as puzzling, because it undercut the brutal "everything's fucked" note XIII-2 so brazenly ended on, and made the whole thing feel a bit scattered as a result. Pulling punches that were very core to the narrative tone of XIII-2 just plain rubs the wrong way. There's nothing inherently wrong with Requiem of the Goddess' scenes, but I wish they'd chosen a tone and stuck with it.
Looking back at what I just wrote, I feel bad about laying into the game like this, but these disappointments ended up defining my experience with Final Fantasy XIII-2. It's not a bad game, and that makes the way the bad parts overshadow the good parts all the more frustrating.
If nothing else, Final Fantasy XIII-2 made me respect Final Fantasy XIII even more. XIII -- somewhat ponderous ramp-up notwithstanding -- is a better game in nearly every way. It's easy to bag on aspects of XIII's storytelling, but relative to XIII-2, I thought it did a much better job of developing satisfying interpersonal arcs, gradually contextualizing the world, and conveying clear narrative goals; and seeing how XIII-2 so thoroughly screwed up combat balance makes XIII's tighter progression control and strategically-doled-out challenge all the more impressive, and contrary to many complaints, plainly justified.
I remain excited about Lightning Returns. I'm still invested in the characters and want to see how this all plays out; and with any luck the modified battle system will re-capture the magic I thought XIII-2's lack of difficulty precluded. I'm glad I played Final Fantasy XIII-2 -- I just wish it wasn't so manifestly flawed.