With very hesitant steps forward, Final Fantasy seems lost.
If there's one word I feel like can sum up the way I viewed Final Fantasy XIII-2 as I played through it, that word would be "reactionary." It's predecessor is an intensely divisive game, and one I never felt very positive on myself, and throughout this game, it seemed designed to take to heart many of the criticisms lobbed at Final Fantasy XIII.
As if developing the game with a checklist, Square Enix managed to polish up, or categorically improve, many of XIII's fatal flaws. XIII-2 is most definitely not extremely linear, as the previous game was. Characters have greater depth, especially the villains. Along with this, many additional mechanics and side-activities have been added to give the impression of a game with a much larger breadth and depth of activities, and arbitrary caps on character progress have been ditched entirely.
Yet, the game does not always knock it out of the park with its changes.
There are two ways you could view the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2. There's the cynical approach, that views the ret-conning of XIII's ending and the introduction of time travel as a cheap and nonsensical cash-in, and is intensely frustrated with certain Japanese storytelling tropes, such as disembodied voices and aimless philosiphizing. Then there's the open-minded approach, that is willing to make certain concessions for video game bullshit and accepts the new story on its own merits.
I happen to be in the latter group; and when judged on its own merits, I came to feel like Final Fantasy XIII-2's story is probably the best story Square has managed to pull off since Final Fantasy X, even if there are some bumps along the way.
Lightning's disappeared, and only Serah, her sister, can remember that Lightning returned to them, and that things shouldn't be the way they are. Noel, a young man from 700 years in the future, travels back in time by way of the "Historia Crux" from the end of days, searching for a way to avert the disaster that led to the slow death of humanity. Serah joins Noel, hoping their attempts to correct the timeline will reunite Serah with Lightning, and avert Noel's apocalyptic future.
Hope Estheim (perhaps the character of the previous game with the most depth), in the years since XIII, has become a well reknowned member of The Academy, a group of researchers formed after the events of the previous game, searching for ways to improve human technology now that they are now longer bound to the will of the fal'cie, which were essentially Gods, forcing them to be dependent on their power. As Serah and Noel jump through time, you work tirelessly with The Academy to avert the fall of Cocoon, which eventually leads to the death of the planet several hundred years in the future.
XIII-2's story benefits hugely from having the background of the world, and several of the characters you encounter along the way, previously explained by virtue of the player having completed XIII. There is no need to get bogged down in too much exposition, and I didn't feel confused by the throwing-around of pointless fantasy terms like I did in XIII. Perhaps the best thing about XIII was the cast of characters, if nothing else, and reuniting with certain characters along the way had me very interested, and I felt connected to them and their situations as soon as I saw them.
Because of the time travel elements, the game is free to experiment with all sorts of weird plot devices, and I enjoyed almost all of them. I decline to say much more than that, as I view the story as the shining jewel of XIII-2. There are twists and turns, an interesting and fresh take on time travel, and a villain with truly well-intentioned and sincere motivations, to the point that calling him a "villain" almost seems unfair. All of which makes this story far more interesting to watch play out than XIII's, despite a controversial ending.
The Combat System
Final Fantasy XIII's combat system was less than ideal for me, but it was at least attempting something different. It was a very tightly controlled system, and though I felt like it lacked depth in practice, there could at least be interesting strategy involved when engaging in boss battles if nothing else. XIII-2, unfortunately, simplifies this system even further, and the lack of balance turns the combat system of XIII into a bit of a mess.
There are six different combat classes in XIII-2 that you can combine into paradigms, as previously. Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Medic, Synergist, and Saboteur. Each of these serves a distinct, and very strict, type. Ravagers are good at staggering, Commandos are good at keeping them there. Sentinels can absorb a lot of damage, and Medics heal that damage. Synergists buff, and Saboteurs debuff. All of these roles are fairly straightforward.
However, with the removal of story caps on character progress, and the much lowered importance of staggering anything that isn't a boss, the system becomes unbalanced as all hell. Even just midway through the game, my battles were typically not lasting any more than a few seconds, and I was rarely ever forced to change paradigms. It reached the point that I was beginning to question why there was even a battle system there at all, as the game was just throwing more and more trash mobs at me that I was decimating literally within seconds.
Anyone who isn't rushing through this game as quickly as possible, or completely incompetent, will just not be challenged by this game in any way until the last couple hours of the game. The paradigm system works only when tightly controlled so as to present every combat encounter as a challenge that requires the juggling of roles. When that element is removed from the system, XIII-2's entire battle system basically becomes a barely-present joke, especially as the game will auto-battle for you, almost always using what is most appropriate in any given situation.
For all those that say "Well just stop using the auto-battle, then!", there is literally no reason not to until a boss fight. Random encounters never present a serious challenge, and aside from the Ravagers, most classes don't even have that many abilities to manually choose from in the first place. The days of carefully picking your abilities from lists of spells seem to be over, and with it, essentially all thought as well. Refusing to use the auto-battle, with only few notable exceptions, is pointless make-work that does not improve the quality of the combat, and there is nothing about this system that is dynamic or engaging, aside from the flashy graphical effects of the spells and abilities. And that basically sums up the combat: Flashy.
The Gameplay Experiments
Previous to the game's release in Japan, Square Enix talked a big game about trying to include inspiration from Western RPG tropes into their games, in a way to meld the best of the West with the East. The result is, unfortunately, is a lot of tacked on systems that seem to lack much depth to them, and no example is as perfect as the dialogue menu.
Occasionally, the player will be presented with a list of dialogue choices, which can be selected with the four action buttons. Most of the dialogue options, though, just seem dumb. There's usually one serious answer, followed with a redundant response that asks a question you already know the answer to, along with two options that seem like they're just ripping off the joke answers of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The addition of the system at all seems like an afterthought, as it doesn't really draw the conversation into trees of dialogue, and most of the options are one-off choices that go nowhere.
The same can be said for a lot of little inclusions in XIII-2. Sidequests are an admirable addition, but they never really seem to be interesting. Nearly all of them are fetch quests that require you to find an item out in the wild and return it to an NPC, or to just play messenger boy (or girl) between two NPCs that apparently are incapable of just talking to each other on their own. There are one or two very good sidequests that tie into XIII, but 95% of them are just total filler, that seem to exist purely for the purposes of a marketing bullet-point.
A monster collection system was also added, which is directly comparable in some fashion to the Persona series, more than the popular comparison to Pokemon. You capture enemies in battle, and can level up those monsters with monster items you pick up (or buy) along the way, and then infuse those monsters and some of their abilities into other monsters. Yet, once again, this system lacks much depth, and the vast majority of monsters are not very useful, even when fully upgraded. A monster I collected in the Sunleth Waterscape early on in the game remained in my party until the end of the game. I never found one better that I could realistically upgrade to that level. I used only three Ravager monsters, and two Sentinel monsters.
The system is a very good idea, but it's one that will almost assuredly be tossed out the window and never iterated on ever again, and like other new mechanical additions to this game, feels like more of an afterthought. As if a meeting was called, and all of the developers discussed what new systems they could add that would be as easy as possible to make. No depth or creativity went in to any of these new systems. Other games do them all better, and seeing a series that was once the flagship of the genre try out sad imitations of other systems, is a depressing spectacle.
It goes even further. Though Square Enix added shops to this game, after many justified criticisms in Final Fantasy XIII over their absence, the shop only returns in the form of an omnipresent half-chocobo lady, who is a decent character, but is literally everywhere, and is basically a reskinned version of the terminal that you bought items from in the previous game. Once again, when faced with the question of solving a problem with as easy a solution as possible, or trying to develop something interesting to solve it instead, Square chose the path of least resistance.
Not to mention the harmless, but odd, inclusion of Quick Time Events. Something that isn't very intrusive, but confusing that they were there to begin with. The music is another example of this desperate experimentation, as it varies from very good, to ear-bleedingly bad, with several different composers all working together to produce a bizarrely varied soundtrack of every music style you can think of aside from country music. There are also a handful of different types of puzzles the game presents you with to solve paradoxes within a rift in time, which are interesting at first, but quickly overstay their welcome as you have to complete multiple puzzles just for one paradox, in an area that will have more paradoxes than it probably should've.
And there's a casino called "Serendipity" that exists outside the timeline, including a mystic that will grant you abilities for collecting fragments throughout the game, chocobo racing, slot machines, and other gambling fun, but when asked of the attendant what other games there are in the casino, you will get the response "stay tuned for more games coming in future downloadable content!" Gross.
The sense that SE was essentially throwing as many random ideas they could come up with at the wall and seeing what stuck, was something I couldn't break throughout my time playing Final Fantasy XIII-2, and I felt more like a guinea pig than anything else.
In the End...
I feel very hot and cold on Final Fantasy XIII-2. On the one hand, its story is quite interesting and different, and the ability to see several different areas and characters over the course of different times, struggling to avert a future disaster, is something that stokes my deep love and appreciation for time travel in any sort of fiction. On the other hand, the mechanics of XIII-2 are increasingly simplistic for a JRPG, and many of the new additions to the game lack almost any depth or complexity.
While many have criticized Square Enix recently for the sense that they seem aimless and not sure of themselves with the Final Fantasy brand, nothing has quite convinced me of that feeling more than XIII-2. The seemingly desperate addition of numerous shallow mechanics seem like an attempt to innovate, but nothing that really move the genre, or even the series specifically, forward.
These furious attempts at variation in the Final Fantasy formula result in something that is a better game than it's predecessor, but nothing that really makes it stand out on its own merits. I can go so far as to say that I feel this game is, on the whole, good. But where Final Fantasy XIII was five steps backward, XIII-2 is merely two steps forward. An improvement, and I'll applaud it, but other games are now doing what Final Fantasy used to be great at, better, and if Final Fantasy wants to be top dog again, they need new people in charge, and a back to the basics approach.
As much as I want to believe in this once great series, I don't expect them to do that any time soon.