Final Fantasy XIII-2's box art features the indomitable Lightning, looking strong and feminine in her tough-as-nails armor and flowing skirt of feathers. You remember Lightning, of course: she spent the majority of Final Fantasy XIII trying to release her sister Serah from a crystalline prison. Don't let that gorgeous portrait of the daunting heroine fool you, however. She has a part to play in this direct sequel, but it's Serah's turn in the spotlight now. Serah's not the powerhouse personality her sister is, but that doesn't keep Final Fantasy XIII-2 from delivering a satisfying mix of poignant storytelling and exciting action.
That isn't to say Final Fantasy XIII-2 is as epic an adventure as you may have expected. The story isn't long as far as Japanese role-playing games go--maybe 25 hours for a standard playthrough. There are reasons to linger or return if you're the completionist type, but the length is a consideration for series fans hoping for a Final Fantasy-sized adventure. If those 25 hours were jam-packed with challenging action and dramatic cutscenes, perhaps you wouldn't notice the story's brevity. Alas, a lengthy fetch quest makes the game drag considerably, as does a protracted platforming sequence that causes the pace to chug as you near the conclusion, right when you'd expect the tempo to take off. The cinematics and battles both burst with occasional thrills, but it's as if developer Square Enix decided that unnecessary padding was the proper solution to the problem of Final Fantasy XIII's overly linear progression.
If that sounds like a lot of negativity, don't worry: Final Fantasy XIII-2 may not be the super-great RPG you might have wanted in a series known for reinventing itself at every turn, but it's still a very good one. You could say the same thing about lead character Serah: She's a good, not great, leading lady. She doesn't have the steely strength of Lightning, though she isn't as annoyingly dainty as Final Fantasy XIII's Vanille, either (though she does have her overtly girlish moments as she twitters with the affected chirps and sighs of the prototypical Japanese RPG heroine). But she's a perfectly serviceable "every girl" who teaches school in her village on the world of Pulse, just a few years after the bitter victory that concluded the previous game.
Being wounded diminishes your health bar for the remainder of battle. But most battles are so easy you rarely worry about it.
Serah's purpose is to find Lightning, who is assumed to be gone for good--perhaps inhabiting the crystal pillar holding up the orb of Cocoon, along with Fang and Vanille. But Serah remembers events no one else does; most importantly, she remembers her sister's blessing to marry Snow, though Lightning was not always so fond of him. She knows Lightning must be alive, and she's right, of course. Lightning resides in Valhalla, a realm that exists outside of the constraints of time, where she's locked in struggle with a man called Caius. The game's initial moments dramatize this conflict in fine fashion. Caius speaks with a quiet confidence, his voice filled not so much with rage as with brazen purpose. He and Lightning stare mercilessly into each other's eyes and their swords meet, emanating a blaze of blue light. Soon thereafter, you take control of Lightning atop Odin in his form as a mechanical steed, fending off the ominous winged Bahamut in the game's first tutorial.
It's a pity that the game's two most engaging characters--Lightning and Caius--have considerably less screen time than Final Fantasy XIII-2's protagonists. Caius is a compelling villain, in part because his villainy isn't the typical in-your-face, menacing, power-hungry gnashing of teeth. It's sorrow that drives him, and as the source of this sorrow becomes clearer, your empathy grows. His emotions are distinctly, authentically human, and he isn't inherently evil; thus, he is a much more interesting villain than the usual frothing maniac. Caius gets his chance to chew the scenery a number of times, though where male characters are concerned, your focus is generally on Final Fantasy XIII-2's other lead: Noel. Noel's from the future--a future in which Cocoon has collided with Pulse many years before. He arrives in Valhalla where he witnesses the clash of the two titans, but he escapes to the past (and to Serah's side) at Lightning's behest. His hopes are somewhat loftier than Serah's. She wants to find her sibling; he has an entire future to change.
Wish you could see how things might have turned out if you chose differently? No big deal--just go back to the level and do it again!
And so the two set out on a journey across time, hopping from one level to another, with each one representing a different place or time. The two make a blandly pleasant team, and apart from a third slot designated for voiceless monsters (more on that to come), they are your sole party members. Where Final Fantasy XIII's party members had plenty of interpersonal conflicts to overcome, Serah and Noel get along nicely enough. Moments that could have had great poignancy in the first half of the game--multiple reunions among them--are curiously bereft of tension and emotional impact.
On the other hand, the game's second half features an extended sequence that combines gameplay and narrative in powerful ways. To fully describe them would risk spoiling what makes them so intriguing. But consider this circumstance: you wander through desolation, citizens of another time appear as semitransparent figures. You can normally phase transparent objects into your own time, thanks to the moogle that hovers and whirls at your side (useful when you find a treasure sphere, shimmering and bobbing somewhere nearby). When you phase in one of these human figures, he falls to the ground dead, crying out to his goddess. It's shocking and heartbreaking, yet not a major plot point; it just happens as the result of experimenting with a routine game mechanic. This may seem a mere detail--a subtlety you could overlook. But it's this kind of touch that gives the game's latter hours so much heart and heft.
If you wished Final Fantasy XIII had real shopkeepers, the sequel's grating Chocolina might have you rethinking your position.
You won't mind spending so much time with Noel and Serah. The actors deliver their lines in earnest, though other characters aren't so uniformly excellent. Final Fantasy XIII's Hope and Snow both reappear; Snow as stubborn as ever and Hope less whiny than before. You could even call him strong and likeable. Hope's assistant Alyssa, on the other hand, is insufferably precious, while feathered shopkeeper Chocolina's soprano screech might have you shoving chocobo feathers in your ears. Inconsistent acting aside, Final Fantasy XIII-2's production values are impressive, the occasional frame rate dips notwithstanding. But the sequel is more visually diverse. In Augusta Tower, neon yellow and orange accents provide a striking contrast to the blue checkerboard walls. That area couldn't be more different from the Archlyte Steppe, where the grassy plains harbor grazing sheep and a machine allows you to control the wind and weather.
Of course, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is more than a semicoherent time-traveling tale threaded through a hodgepodge of beautiful settings. It's a full-fledged role-playing game that builds upon its predecessor in sensible ways. Does that make it ultimately a better game than the previous one? Not necessarily. It certainly addresses the issue of linearity that irked so many of XIII's players, though. Rather than follow a narrow path toward your eventual goal, XIII-2 offers room to breathe. Many areas--too many--are still collections of constricted paths. But in regions like the aforementioned Archlyte Steppe, you can venture off on your own and uncover the secrets waiting for you. (Caution: touching a cactus may not have the expected effect!) Citizens may offer you tasks, though these are few and usually amount to no more than "find me some missing items" or "kill a big monster." If you're so inclined, you can also head to Serendipity--a casino that exists outside of the normal constraints of time and space. Play the slots. Enter your chocobo in some races. Such side activities are good for the occasional diversion, but they're not so urgent or addictive that you would lose hours to them.