Count me among the number of gamers who were somewhat disappointed in 2010's "Final Fantasy XIII." Having grown up with the franchise from its days on the NES, I had come to expect a lot from Square-Enix's flagship series and, frankly, "Final Fantasy XIII" failed to live up those lofty expectations.
Yes, it was linear and the story took far too long to grab my attention, but it wasn't a bad game at all. It's just that "FFXIII" lacked that certain something, that special magic, that has always drawn me back to the series.
With the launch of "Final Fantasy XIII-2," Square-Enix has set out to correct and fine-tune much of what went wrong (the linearity and the pacing) with the original, while still maintaining what worked so well (the combat and the leveling). But most important, "Final Fantasy XIII-2" brings back that indefinable magic that was so sorely missing in its predecessor.
This is the game "Final Fantasy" fans have been waiting on.
As "Final Fantasy XIII-2" begins, we witness Lightning -- the protagonist of the first game -- standing watch over the realm of Valhalla. Soon, an attack interrupts the serene moment and we are introduced to a new character, Noel, who literally drops into Lightning's lap during the heat of battle. Noel is tasked by Lightning to travel through time to find her sister, Serah, and bring her back to Valhalla. This sets the stage for the time-traveling adventure that follows, as Noel and Serah, the two characters that players will spend the next 25-30 hours controlling, bounce across time and space in search of Lightning and answers to the mystery surrounding the shifting time lines.
The ability to jump through time gates to access new areas at different points along the timeline, and to see how your actions have influenced these places, gives "Final Fantasy XIII-2" the open feel that was absent in the original. And the dramatic introduction of Noel, along with the return of Serah and a few more familiar faces, made it easy for me to become engrossed in the story right from the start.
While the aforementioned changes were welcome, the Paradigm-driven combat system thankfully returns intact. Both Serah and Noel can be assigned Paradigms, roles that govern how they will behave during the game's many real-time combat sequences. The ability to trigger Paradigm Shifts, which switch roles during battle, not only gives fights a strategic element, but adds to the improved pacing by keeping the combat flowing.
One of the biggest additions to combat is the ability to add defeated monsters to your team and use them in battle. Each monster has its own strengths and weaknesses, and you can create custom Paradigm Shifts by adding different creatures to your group. Monsters can also level up their stats and learn new abilities through a most streamlined Crystarium, the leveling system introduced in "Final Fantasy XIII." The same Crystarium is used to level-up Noel and Serah, allowing you to customize their abilities and Paradigms as you see fit. The Crystarium offers a ton of freedom in how you develop your characters and remains a revolutionary addition to the RPG genre.