Fans of the cast of XIII will be sorely disappointed. For one thing, you barely see Lightning. She is featured more predominantly in the promotional material than she is the actual game. Returning for a few voice overs and present in a handful of CGI sequences and a cutscene, the older Farron sister is placed on the back burner in favor of her little sister. Serah, uninteresting and feeling rather out of place in the first game, really shines in the second. In the years since Cocoon’s fall she has matured, and the young lady sniping monsters in this game feels like a completely different character. Lightning isn’t the only XIII favorite to be sidelined. Snow is encountered briefly, and Sazh gets even less screen time. Hope becomes a key player in the madness, but despite whipping out his boomerang more than once, he never joins your party.
Without giving too much away, the main plot of the game is truly terrifying. Lightning is protecting a goddess — the goddess whose death means the end of harmony and the hostile takeover of the entropic entity known as Chaos. Serah and Noel trudge through the ruins of Paddra, a city of people who could see the future. Ghosts call out to Serah and Noel. Sometimes phasing in a human anomaly with Mog’s ability results in them dying instantly, right before your eyes. There is a creature who in the future weakens the crystal pillar holding up Cocoon and eventually brings it down, destroying Fang and Vanille in their crystal stasis. You hear mentions of the goddess on multiple occasions — but the goddess is absent, and the weight of fixing all of space and time falls on the shoulders of Serah and Noel. It’s all very real, sinister, and harrowing.
However, XIII-2 suffers from the same problem at XIII — a lot of the information you need, as well as tidbits of story that offer welcome supplements to gameplay, is found only in the datalogs. Diaries from Snow, Mog, and a handful of other characters as well as recorded prophecies and slices of Pulse’s history lie buried in the Fragments. Much of the answers the player needs to understand the game are again removed from actual gameplay and regulated to the menu.
Whereas the adventure of Lightning and company was linear to a T, the story of Serah and Noel requires a significant amount of stop-and-think moments. It’s difficult to keep track of where you’ve been and where you should be going next, or which version of what person you’re speaking to in this time period. Some time jumps are made without explanation, and select characters find their way 500 years into the future with truly lame explanations and plot devices. It requires a lot of patience to sift through certain chains of events, and especially confusing when returning to the game a second time to obtain paradox endings. In the long run the time travel idea worked, but could have been tighter.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 demonstrates to fans that yes, Square Enix was listening to complains about XIII. While some things could still use a bit of tweaking, others such as monster recruitment are a welcome addition to the fray. What XIII lacked in heightened emotional moments its sequel more than makes up for, painting a picture of a world that is constantly in flux between hope and despair, prosperity and annihilation. With relatable characters and an antagonist worthy of the coveted final battle slot, it’s hard not to care. Sporting major improves with minor difficulties in execution, XIII-2 improves in almost every way on its forerunner.