Three steps forward, two steps back. There were a lot of areas of improvement in FFXIII-2, but a lot of those improvements fell apart in some way.
Lets start with the battle system. The battle system has been shifted so that you have a bit more control over what each paradigm does in terms of enemy targeting. It’s also easier to use abilities manually over just spamming auto battle due to slight changes in the control scheme. There have been a lot of other small changes as well, such as launching not being as common or having as much of an effect, and thus making getting staggers less of a focus as well except for bosses. All of these lead to battles that are similar but different enough from the predecessor. I suppose I prefer this game’s battles overall, though ultimately I feel its more of a preferential change then a definitive improvement. They also fixed some obvious issues, such as the issue with the leader dying automatically resulting in a game over by having essentially two leaders you can switch back and forth between at will which leads to a lot less frustration. These leaders are essentially the only two party members, Noel and Serah, who very quickly gain access to all roles, though there are roles that each is more suited to. The third slot in the party is taken up by a monster from a paradigm pack of three monsters assigned to that paradigm. Overall, I think this is a pretty great system. There’s more flexibility overall, especially from the monster slot due to the fact that monsters are a lot more diverse than a single character with different roles. However, I have some issue with all that flexibility being given immediately right off the bat. FFXIII had a problem where it took too long for the game play to open up and give the player options. In this game the issue is that opposite, in that player may well have control of the full scope of the battle system before the end of the second area, and going forward only make slight tweaks to the strategy they have at that point. The game play is fast and reasonably enjoyable, so this doesn’t ruins battles completely, but it does get very repetitive during the trash mobs during the later portions of the game. Though not as bad as FFXIII, though this is in part because it is about half as long. However, it overall never felt like it was dragging on pointlessly as FFXIII did, so that’s perfectly fine.
Next up, FFXIII-2 is not linear. It’s not open world, but it actually has a series of locations that are relatively open and are meant to be explored thoroughly. As the game is heavily focused on time travel, most of these locations have multiple versions depending on which timelines they belong to and at which time. There are less locations in FFXIII-2 than the FFXIII, but because these areas are more open and the time mechanics allow you to revisit several versions of each area, FFXIII-2 actually felt a good amount larger than FFXIII. The biggest benefit of this is that in the end, unlike FFXIII, in addition to the main story, FFXIII-2 actually has a lot of other content. Some of the alternate versions of areas are completely optional, and can be visited and played through in whatever order one wishes to. Most every location, both one the main path and side areas, has side quests, with many side quests involving going across regions or times. There are incentives to explore every area thoroughly as well as incentives to capture every monster in the game, including hidden ones. There are hidden non-canon endings as well as other hidden story elements. There are a bunch of puzzle like mini-games where you close rifts, though some of the mini-games get really annoying in later levels. There’s even a casino with slots and chocobo racing. The game may take less time to complete, but because this shorter length along with the more varied content leads to it being better paced, I’d definitely say that that’s an improvement.
The story is an improvement, but still pretty bad. The story now features Serah and Noel, a time traveler from the end of the world, magically travelling forward through time along side the Moogle Mog to reach Lightning in Valhalla, all while solving paradigms and facing Caius, who was seemingly Noel’s close friend at one point. Along the way they encounter a multitude of old and new interesting characters in unexpected places (and times) and slowly unravel how the timeline develops into the end of the world, and ultimately execute a plan spanning centuries to stop it, all of it coming to a pretty epic conclusion in a battle with Caius in Valhalla. It sounds like a pretty good plot honestly. However, the writing and execution of that plot is still just as badly done as FFXIII. A lot of the plot seems completely random and makes no sense with plot devices added randomly and terms meant to sound cool used arbitrarily. Plus a lot of important parts of the story aren’t revealed all that clearly Still, I can’t say that it as bad. Better than FFXIII due to the much more lighthearted adventure type feeling the game maintains. However the ending was completely terrible. It seems to be ending well enough, but it suddenly and without warning turns into a complete train wreck simply so it could act as sequel bait. I get how it makes sense for that to happen in the overall story, but ending the game at that point just leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
There are a number of other areas it excels in as well. The graphics are still really good with great art direction, so some areas such as the Academy are simply stunning. The soundtrack is completely bizarre at points, but somehow I’d have to say I still like it. And a lot of the other small issues from FFXIII such as the store system or upgrade system being a complete pain have been solved as well. This was a solid attempt at improvement that clearly listened to fans on what to improve, but didn’t hit its mark with all improvements, and managed to royally screw up in a couple other areas. Thus a solid improvement over FFXIII, but not a tremendous one.
I’m probably going to play Lightning Returns eventually. Not immediately, so I have no clue when, but eventually.