Final Fantasy 13 reflected the character of its heroine, Lightning: an elite, standoffish soldier who would let nothing come between her and her mission. The game presented a journey so focused and linear that its first 25 hours could be mapped out as an unbroken corridor. And Lightning's purity of focus saw Square Enix discard many Final Fantasy tropes so she could pursue her goals without distraction.
The series may reinvent itself with each new entry, but the games have always been tied together by common motifs: crystals, summons, Chocobos, airships, Yoshitaka Amano's Klimt-esque concept art, and that tinkling harp arpeggio. In Final Fantasy 13, both towns and exploration were discarded as extraneous trappings, unnecessary to Lightning's mission or - as it was referred to in the game's terminology - her Focus. Rarely has a game been so focused as to discard so much of its own heritage.
Serah, Lightning's younger sister and heroine of Final Fantasy 13-2 - a rare sequel to a mainline Final Fantasy title - is a primary school teacher in a seaside village. She has none of the steel composure of her elder sibling, none of that dogged determination that makes Lightning such a difficult character to empathise with. And the game world reflects this from the first moment.
Towns are back, sprawling areas filled with people straining at their pre-set paths to request your help in finding their lost something-or-other. Hironobu Sakaguchi's series may have always been about saving the world, but only in Final Fantasy 13 did that goal come at the expense of helping out the lost child, the neglected wife, the weary worker, the little guy. In rediscovering the joy of extra-curricular procrastination in the face of an impending apocalypse, Final Fantasy 13-2 recaptures something of the series' heritage that was lost. Serah is caring and sentimental, and that personality infuses the game with renewed warmth.
It's not just about Serah, of course. Final Fantasy 13 was a conflicted, awkward game, a simple tale obfuscated by arcane terminology and confusing philosophising, all wrapped around a beautiful battle system and very little else. Square Enix's designers have approached this sequel as lab technicians, answering every criticism levelled against the previous game with precision and grim determination. Final Fantasy 13-2 may be billed as a sequel, but in truth, it's a multi-million-yen apology, and its creators should be praised for their readiness to make amends - even when those attempts miss the mark.
At the very highest level, the designers address the linearity of the first game by hard-coding non-linearity into its premise. Final Fantasy 13-2 is a game about time travel and multiverses. It is, in essence, a save-the-girl story in which Serah must find and rescue her older sister (for some reason, she isn't too fussed with locating her missing fiancé Snow). But rather than being locked in some remote castle, Lightning is trapped in an alternate timeline. Only by venturing back and forth through time, dipping in and out of different realities and solving anomalies, can history's true course be unravelled and Serah be reunited with her sister.
"There are shadows of Chrono Trigger - although, this being Final Fantasy, things are never as clear or as easily digestible as in that tight Super Nintendo classic."
There are shadows of Chrono Trigger - although, this being Final Fantasy, things are never as clear or as easily digestible as in that tight Super Nintendo classic. A few hours in, you reach the Historia Crux, a sort of level-select screen from which you access different locations at different points in time across the multiverse. There are around 30 to investigate. Actions taken in one location may have repercussions in related ones, and many fetch-quests have you tracking down objects at one point in time to deliver to a character in another.
However, to gain access to each, you first need to find its associated access gate, not to mention the relevant key (known as an artefact) needed to unlock it. Artefacts can take any number of different forms, from simple crystal-like objects lying at the side of a pathway to towering monsters that must be defeated before they'll give up the key - and a great deal of your time is spent looking for these objects to unlock new places in space and time. As well as Artefacts, you're tasked with finding Fragments in each location - 160 in total - usually doled out as rewards for completing side-missions.
It's a good structure that, perhaps more than any Final Fantasy game before it, allows you to feel as though the journey is your own. After the first 15 hours of play, you are granted generous freedom to plot the next step in your adventure - perhaps choosing to leap forward to the end of time to an abandoned school house on the precipice of the universe, or wind back the clock to help a farming community on the Archylte Steppe rid their hunting grounds of a fire-breathing dragon.
It's even possible to reset your actions in a particular episode (while keeping all of the artefacts you discovered) in order to try to resolve the story in a different way for a different reward. These narrative vignettes are generally short and engaging, and give you a reason to keep playing even if the overarching story doesn't interest you.
"Final Fantasy 13-2 is a mixed success, then. Smart, engaging mechanics and a novel structure ensure that it is compelling on a functional level. But it presumes you care about fixing a broken world that the previous game failed to make loveable, or even knowable."
Beneath this high concept, there's a host of mechanics to tinker with. The excellent battle system from the previous game, which allows you to switch the offensive and defensive classes of your characters on the fly by changing 'paradigms', remains largely untouched. However, now it's possible to recruit monsters you meet on the field into the third team member role.
Monsters have their own development trees and can be named, dressed and even fed other captured monsters in order to inherit their abilities. The wild flexibility here to develop your characters on a molecular level, then at a squad composition level, can be immensely satisfying, if a little overwhelming. Defeating a tough boss enemy after a 20-minute battle, with a Chocobo that you tamed in an alternate reality 500 years in the future, trained from the ground up, and then led to victory through tactical use of paradigms, is a rare kind of high.
The characters, however, remain mostly irritating or forgettable, full of fuzzy or weak motivations and stuffed with tortuous, posturing dialogue. It's a game written for sentimental teenagers, full of long ruminations of the nature of life and love and yet never quite managing to hit upon truths that might inspire you to engage with its themes. As the series has blossomed from 8-bit to 16-bit to HD visuals, the world has bloomed with it, but the dialogue has been embellished in less welcome ways - and that's never been more clear than it is here.
The soundtrack, too, suffers from a lack of coherent direction. Long gone are Nobuo Uematsu's orchestral manoeuvres and defining post-battle fanfares, replaced by nonsense acid jazz and screaming heavy metal power chords that utterly fail to match the ambiance or tone of the scenes they play behind.
The hotchpotch world design - which feels as though a hundred artists went off into separate rooms to work on different places in isolation, before coming together to merge their work into a lumpy whole - is more forgiveable here than it was in Final Fantasy 13. The inconsistent art is explained away by the game's structure. However, the world lacks a coherent sense of place, not least because there's no sense of geography; after all, you access different locations from a menu screen.
It was a bold move on Square Enix's part to ask fans that struggled to engage with Final Fantasy 13's world to suddenly care about multiple versions of that world. Beyond the raw video game draw of solving each location's problems, few players will care about piecing together the jigsaw of its story.
Final Fantasy 13-2 is a mixed success, then. Smart, engaging mechanics and a novel structure ensure that it is compelling on a functional level. But it presumes you care about fixing a broken world that the previous game failed to make loveable, or even knowable.
Nearly two decades ago, Chrono Trigger demonstrated that skipping between eras, making changes in history and marvelling at their butterfly effect through the centuries, could offer up some of the most exciting interactive storytelling anywhere. But Final Fantasy 13-2's world is too ethereal, disjointed and abstract to offer the player a firm hold on how historical cause leads to contemporary effect. It's a better game than its predecessor, but there is no escaping the fact that it builds on Final Fantasy 13's weak foundations.
For all its mechanical cleverness and forward-thinking design, Final Fantasy 13-2 is also convoluted, complicated and unfriendly to newcomers. In Square-Enix's desperation to discover what its flagship series looks like in the modern world, what should be an interesting curio has been inflated to blockbuster proportions. Hurling money at a development team that has been labouring without firm creative leadership for close to a decade now has led to a game that is, in many ways, as disjointed as its world, as rambling as its lead character. In those fragments excellence, confusion, beauty, strangeness, wonder and loss may all be found.