On a more positive note, the paradigm shifting tactical battle system from XIII has returned with some fine adjustments. Players still set their characters to different roles in different paradigms and jump between them as required in battle. Classes such as spell casting Ravager and the combat savvy Commando each having their own unique properties and can be tweaked further in the paradigm menu so that, when uncontrolled or auto-battled, any character can be set to focus on area damage, single target damage, staggering or a mixture of all as the battle changes. Cinematic events also litter many boss battles and players are asked to punch in commands in quick-time event fashion that generally lead to a powerful attack or killing blow.
Unlike XIII where the player simply ran into monsters on screen, XIII-2 introduces a sickly-cute Mog. When monsters appear out of nowhere to attack, the Mog clock is activated and Noel and Serah have a few moments to attack the beasts in order to gain a slight battle advantage. Failure to take advantage of the jump, or failure to reach the radius beyond which the fight is called off before the clock runs out will have negative consequences for the party. The Mog can also be used to gather far away treasure by throwing it, or by using its ability to warp space-time and find treasures hidden in time.
The Crystarium levelling system has also had some tweaks. Instead of each role having its own tree – which invariably gets leftover points dumped into it – all roles now level off the same tree. Therefore, choosing to level heavily in one role or mixing it up will have actual consequences in how the characters fight.
Changed too is the third party member. Final Fantasy XIII-2 only has the two main characters as playable fighters. Occasionally, Serah and Noel will be joined by old friends from XIII but to fill the third slot at all other times, players can now tame many of the creatures encountered in regular battle.
Each tameable monster has a set role they would play from the six available class roles, and the player must choose three of these monsters to set in their paradigm pack. Neither of the protagonists is a particularly good healer or damage soaker? Shift in the mechanical Pulse Knight to tank or the feline Cait Sith to heal.
Each monster can be levelled in a fashion similar to Noel and Serah. The reagent required to so do is looted from vanquished enemies or bought. If a preferred monster is lagging behind in skills it can be infused with the abilities of another similarly-classed monster to absorb some of their powers, but the fused monster will be destroyed in the process. Each monster also has a unique feral ability which, when the gauge is filled, unleashes a special move that usually involves inputting a series of commands in a quick-time event.
With a reported 150 monsters to catch – take from that what you will – it does add something to the game, and collecting powerful and rare monsters can be a worthy endeavour in tiself. Being able to throw a ridiculous hat on them in monster dress-up really puts it all into perspective.
Fragment collection, another collectable option, has the player scour levels and areas, and completing side-quests for townsfolk to collect different fragments. Each quest is usually of the predictable go-and-collect-this, or a go-there-and-kill-that variety, but they can often require a jump through different time periods to complete. These fragments offer interesting facts about the world of Final Fantasy XIII-2, as well as giving options for special abilities once Serendipity is unlocked.
In order to get every fragment players will have to revisit areas at higher levels, or even close off a time gate so that a level can be replayed with different combat or dialogue decisions.
It’s true that if Final Fantasy XIII was two steps back for the series, then XIII-2 is one step forward. There is much to appreciate in this sequel: with more than 35 hours of gameplay in the main quest arc alone, with multiple endings to discover and with many collectables to complete, there’s no shortage of playtime. But time is not a praiseworthy factor in itself if the game doesn’t spend it well. XIII-2 is also missing much of what makes the series great. It’s a beautiful world, but one presented through a convoluted story with unengaging characters.
A fair instalment in the series that should leave fans happy enough but eager to move on.