The entire Final Fantasy XIII saga is a tale about cheating fate, about recognizing one’s own mortal frailty and acknowledging that
Final Fantasy XIII was linear. XIII-2 is the extreme opposite, offering so much opportunity for exploration it’s dizzying. Navigating the Historia Crux, the game’s time-travelling system, is admittedly daunting at first. Certain areas become available upon completion of certain quests in others. The game will often suggest which time period you should warp too next by leaving its gate in the center of the screen, but players can choose to visit another or re-visit a previous era. The excellent thing about this is that you can rewind time in areas you’ve already beaten, essentially allowing you to start the area over but keep the treasures you’ve already plundered from it. Gates are opened by items called artefacts, which are sprinkled throughout the worlds and usually obtained through fetch quests, puzzles, or viewing certain scenes. The straight corridors are gone, and while the game does point to the next place you should be headed on its maps, there is far more than one way to get there.
Some environments are revisited in different time periods, and in each instance the area changes. There are new treasure chests and new creatures, and sometimes a dramatically different climate. The people you meet may be the same NPC model pasted over and over with differently-colored clothing, but no two people will offer the same information or ask for the same thing. Square Enix has taken the barren, empty shell of a world of Final Fantasy XIII and replaced it with one teeming with people — living, breathing, feeling people. It is clear the game’s goal is to present a portrait of humanity over time — from its formative years to its destruction. The sobering idea of human frailty and mortality hangs over everything, and none feel it more acutely than hero Noel Kreiss.
A few words about Noel. On the surface Noel is a hard-worker, proud, and determined to guide Serah to Lightning. But as the story moves along, Noel’s inner demons creep out — and we learn that he is lonelier than we think, sadder than we think, and hiding a deep and sordid history involving a handful of other characters. One of the more refreshing aspects of XIII was its character-driven story. However, in an attempt to craft a complex plot packed with intricate connections and grand pronouns, most of the story’s heart was lost and little explanation was given for many of its overarching concepts. XIII-2, for all intents and purposes, has two main heroes: Serah and Noel. While players watch the sheepish, optimistic younger Farron sister grow into a thoughtful and brave young woman, it is the girl’s gentle acceptance and support of Noel that allows his tale to unfold before our very eyes. There is nothing convoluted in their stories, and there is something pure about the way Noel assumes his burdens and swears to rectify the paradoxes in the time line — even if it results in him ceasing to exist. That being said, Noel is an excellent addition to the cast of XIII‘s world.
While its predecessor’s battle and development systems were a little clunky, XIII-2 has streamlined everything, making for a smoother experience in developing characters and executing attacks. Paradigms no longer run an animation when you change them, making for quicker execution during crucial moments when switching is a matter of life and death. The death of the party leader no longer means defeat of the party — should the player-controlled character die, control will automatically switch to the other. Cinematic Action sequences with Live Trigger commands create a sense of urgency — repeatedly pressing X to Auto-Chain just doesn’t cut it anymore. Correctly entering Cinematic Action commands will reward you with some truly impressive action sequences as well as a couple hundred, or thousand, extra damage points.
The monster recruiting system is pretty intuitive. Tamed monsters already have an established paradigm role when caught and can be advanced along the Crystarium using special items that be found wild or purchased. You can even dress your monsters with silly decorations, such as newsboy caps, tattoos, and flowers. There is also a name bank that suggests a score of names to further personalize your monsters. During my playthrough I became significantly attached to Regulus, my Buccaboo Ravager. I even gave him a little Carbuncle doll to sit in that weird hole in his body.
There is an endless number of things to do in this game. Bored with the section of story you’re in? Go train in the Coliseum. Procrastinating on finding that artefact you need? Go kill some time racing Chocobos or playing slot machines at Serendipity, the game’s casino. Some time gates feature nothing but optional tasks, offering players nothing more than several paradox puzzles to hone their solving skills. Environments are expansive and a real treat to look at, and you may want to jump on the back of a Chocobo (especially the crazy red and purple one) and take a scenic ride. There are treasure chests that can only be acquired using the Moogle Throw ability and can’t be found with just a cursory glance. And if you’re willing to hunt down the game’s 160 Fragments, you can take them to the Mystic in Serendipity and trade them up for some sweet ability upgrades.
You may not agree, but I find the time-travelling merchant Chocolina entertaining, XIII-2‘s answer to X‘s O’aka. Chocolina runs the game’s one-stop shop and is available in multiple areas of each time period you visit. Chocolina’s frantic chatter as she panders her goods is a refreshing change from sifting through a dozen impersonal shops. She is ever-aware of her current environment and the state of the game — as you move through the final areas of the game, Chocolina will state how everyone is counting on Serah and Noel, and how she will miss talking to them once the gates close.
In addition to more extraneous activities than you can shake a moogle’s bobble at, Square has introduced several new characters into the mix, including the above-mentioned protagonist Noel. Alyssa Zaidelle, Hope’s smart and snarky assistant, adds another dimension to the plot thread following Hope and the Academy. Yeul’s delicate presence on screen throws a sobering, somber blanket over all, and as her story unravels it only gets sadder.
But perhaps the best addition to this cast of characters is Caius Ballad. Caius is not power hungry, nor is he truly evil at his core. He fights with a purpose, and as the player learns more about him the man morphs into a sympathetic figure. He is human, after all, a human who has taken on a terrible burden and is running with what he knows. His sorrow-driven plight is what solidifies the game’s story. As far as Final Fantasy villains go, Caius is an excellent addition to the line-up, and his presentation from design to move set to voice acting is the shining gem in the game’s twisted plot.