What's in a name? In the case of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the answer is quite a lot, actually. Consider it. Say it out loud. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a name that prompts players to stack a laundry list of questions.
Unlike other Final Fantasy games - whose worlds, stories and characters have no connection with their numerical forebears - Final Fantasy XIII-2 continues on from the storyline of Final Fantasy XIII, a game that took players the better part of 48 hours to finish and then rinse completely for extra content. Without having played its predecessor, diving into the plot of FFXIII-2 is like starting The Wire halfway through its third season - you won't know what the hell is going on.
It doesn't help that FFXIII was divisive. While the game has shifted well over 2 million copies, there's been a vocal backlash against its linear structure, with many fans complaining that things didn't really get going until the last few stages. So there are a couple of conundrums: If you're new to this genre or series, is Final Fantasy XIII-2 a good entry point? And if you're a long-time fan of the series burned by XIII, should you give its sequel a wide berth?
As is the way with Square Enix's flagship JRPG series, the answers are rather complex. XIII-2 is every bit as eccentric as its predecessor and demands complete surrender from anyone hoping to appreciate its unique delights. Square Enix, it seems, has also taken quite a bit of the XIII's negative feedback to heart, producing a game that feels both streamlined and filled out at the same time.
FF XIII-2 begins with Lightning staring out over the beautiful vista of Valhalla, before being attacked by a man named Caius wielding a sword roughly the same size as a tree because, well, that's the sort of thing that happens at the beginning of a Final Fantasy game.
During their battle, which wrecks large sections of Valhalla, a man named Noel Kreiss arrives. Lightning charges him with finding her sister, Serah, and then sends him back through time with a Moogle to help him. Noel and Serah join forces and their journey takes them through time and space, visiting different parts of Cocoon and Pulse in various ages.
Along the way, they find out that they can alter time so that Lightning can finally reunite with her sister, and the age from which Noel hails - which is 700 years in the future - need not herald the end of humankind as we know it. Handy.
If all of this sounds a bit difficult to follow, well then… that's because it is. The game's story shunts its protagonists back and forth across the space/time continuum, mentioning anomalies like paradoxes, broken timelines and alternate futures, but the overall plot ends up being quite disposable. The characters are also pretty flat and the dialogue uniformly awful, making the game's protagonists and story difficult to actually care about. There are a couple of instances - one involving the revelation that someone is remotely hacking Cocoon's timeline - that initially sound promising, but they ultimately don't add up to much.
The game's breathtaking presentation, however, almost makes up for this lack of compelling narrative. Whatever criticisms one may level at XIII-2, only the most churlish could fault its visuals and soundtrack. Working from a slightly lighter palette than XIII, the developers have once again crafted a series of locales that stand as some of the most beautiful and unique vistas ever presented in the medium.