As long-running and robust as the Final Fantasy series has become, it certainly is fair that Square-Enix has explicitly come to consider each installment as a franchise unto itself. This way of thinking has already been put into practice numerous times, starting with Final Fantasy X-2 and the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, but also more recent examples like Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. What makes Final Fantasy XIII-2 such a different case is that XIII was built to be a franchise – dubbed Fabula Nova Crystallis – from the very start. While XIII was a great game in its own right, its sequel might serve as a more accurate indicator of Fabula Nova Crystallis' long-term viability as a franchise.
What's It About?
Unlike the other Fabula Nova Crystallis games in the pipeline, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a direct sequel to its predecessor, taking place three years after the conclusion of that game. The cast is markedly smaller this time around, focusing primarily on Lightning's sister, Serah Farron, who was very much a side character in the previous title. Serah is accompanied by newcomer Noel Kreiss, literally the last human in existence, granted the chance to travel through time and change his species' fate. The party is rounded out by long-time Final Fantasy mainstay Mog, who in this game transforms into Serah's weapons and otherwise serves a support and guide role.
The game plays much like Final Fantasy XIII, bringing back its unique version of the ATB system as well as on-the-fly job class changes known as Paradigm Shifts. The twist here is that the third party member slot is occupied not by Mog or another regular character (although there is talk that FFXIII's Sazh Katzroy might be coming to that third slot via DLC later on), but by any one of a host of monsters that can be captured in battle. Collecting and raising these monsters via the same Crystarium board that Noel and Serah use to level up is an extremely fun element of the customization system. There is plenty of experimentation available as you work out which three monsters complement your playstyle best at any given time, and then watch it all come together. In practice, it still feels almost exactly like FFXIII did, which might just be attributed to the Fabula Nova Crystallis franchise, but still offers a glimmer of hope that Final Fantasy as a whole might be settling into a definitive identity for the first time since the 1990s.
One new mechanic being introduced here is the wound system. What this does is accompany some forms of battle damage with wound damage, cutting the target's maximum HP for the remainder of the battle. This might seem a bit much in a spinoff of the fastest-paced Final Fantasy game yet, but it isn't so overused that it supercedes its intended role as a signal that you should probably start thinking about wrapping up whatever battle you're stuck in. If anything, it's actually a rather harsh hint system on how to play the game, as just like in the previous installment, an overly conservative starting gameplan here can extend what should be a reasonably short battle exponentially.
Why Should I Care?
In this new era of player-developer communication, Final Fantasy XIII-2 plays like a true product of fan feedback. One of the most common complaints about Final Fantasy XIII was just how linear it was. This is alleviated tremendously in XIII-2, with maps that are built for exploration and a narrative that abandons handholding almost entirely. That isn't to call the game completely non-linear, but it doesn't carry with it the same almost-patronizing atmosphere that its predecessor had. In fact, the only time you'll find yourself watching the game more than playing it is when you land in an instance of "Cinematic Action", which is basically a branching cutscene loaded with Quick-Time Events (or "press this button now" instances). It's hard to say exactly why Square-Enix decided to include these here, as they feel like an especially awkward addition to Final Fantasy XIII-2, but they're mercifully rare and won't make or break your playthrough.
Why Is It Worth My Time And Money?
You'll be disappointed if you approach Final Fantasy XIII-2 expecting another hundred-hour epic like the original. The main quest should only take you about 30 hours, and the endgame, while solid in its own right, won't give you what Final Fantasy XIII did. What XIII-2 does well is provide you with a worthy extension of the FFXIII continuity and experience. You will get the chance to see how characters like Lightning, Hope, and Snow have developed in three years since the end of XIII, and hints at some more ambitious possibilities for the Fabula Nova Crystallis series (you don't have to squint too hard to see consistencies with the Chrono franchise well beyond the core time-travel concept prevalent in XIII-2). In the end, you're getting a great companion to Final Fantasy XIII that should have no problem giving you the customary 40 hours of gameplay generally expected of RPGs. It may be a bit short for Final Fantasy, yes, but it would have been lengthy enough if it had been released under any other name. Most importantly, it's a fantastic offering from a genre we don't see nearly enough of anymore.