Time travel. It is at once a writer’s best friend as a catch-all way to explain away pretty much any bizarre event and his worst enemy, an omnipotent tool that should technically render any hardship an absolute non-issue. ‘Quick, Hermione! Throw me the Time-Turner,’ yelled Harry… that’s how every one of young Mr Potter’s challenges could have been overcome had Rowling not written out the magical time travel device as quickly as it was introduced, while a preposterously young Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter playfully Melvin the rulebook, the mere suggestion of time travel is enough to paradoxically resolve an incident for comic effect with the help of a bin. But there is no rulebook (whoa) and, with no real-world guidelines to follow, depictions of time travel in modern – and indeed not-so-modern – media are riddled with loopholes, contradictions and paradoxes. Indeed, while stories that try to employ time travel in a serious manner often end up confusing audiences with mind-melting off-stage possibilities, those open to have a little fun with it often get away with playing the Time Goblin far better.
But even after finishing it, we’re still not entirely sure which of the two camps Final Fantasy XIII-2 falls into. It plays it straight most of the time – the talkative lead duo ever keen to gibber on about how changing the past alters the future, and vice versa – but occasionally, things descend into the kind of ‘remember a trashcan’ lunacy that raises both eyebrows and the possibility that Noel might actually be his own grandpa. Instead of slotting comfortably into either category, XIII-2 seems to opt instead for secret option number three, the notion that if it can sufficiently baffle the player with fractured timelines and locations that somehow exist in neither time nor space, we’ll all be too confused and embarrassed to ask questions in case it ends up looking like we just didn’t understand something which is, in fact, largely incomprehensible. It generally holds together in its own daft way, and the concept of mending things in the past to improve your odds in the future works well when pushed on you by the narrative, though on the flipside there’s not a lot of scope for the kind of minor Ocarina Of Time-esque tweaking between eras that would have really reinforced the concept. Similarly disappointing is the predilection for journeying into the future, every location set at a time after FFXIII’s ending when we’d have loved to have been able to delve into Cocoon’s past a little as well. Another missed opportunity then, but it’s hard to stay mad at Square Enix for long when XIII-2 shows such clear signs of its creative team taking feedback from XIII’s divided user base on board.
Picking up shortly after the original’s Leona Lewis-stained finale leaves off, XIII-2’s narrative quickly spirals out of control as it emerges that Lightning went missing shortly after the curtain fell. So with the help of future fop Noel, Serah takes off to find her sister on a brain-twisting tour of mostly familiar locations from FFXIII. Seeing these crumble, grow or change under the unfeeling boots of time’s relentless march is a joy, though with such a gap between each visit it’s only really the locations themselves and the effects of previous events that can be witnessed – only very rarely do you get to see a direct change in the people, making it kinda tough to get a real feel for the passage of time. That said, many areas have temporal anomalies tucked away in the deepest recesses, which can reveal people, objects and relics from another time to really confuse matters and make some of the side-quests particularly fiddly.
How so? Well, while most of the time gates pertaining to the main storyline are opened with bespoke artefacts, those that lead to extra-curricular locations – usually familiar places, just further up or down the time stream – can only be opened with Wild Artefacts, troublingly elusive (and barely visible) key items which are among the rarest items in the game. Even when you do luck out and find one, there’s no indication of where a new gate will take you until you spend your precious item. As such, following one particular side-story is more luck than judgment, though attentive players should be able to hunt down enough Wilds to open up a decent number of the additional areas by the time the story wraps up.
XIII’s combat was an action-heavy revelation in a genre obsessed with menu-driven battles, and XIII-2 evolves the ATB system further still, albeit with some pretty severe changes. For one, there’s no longer any need to select party members – Serah and Noel will be two of your three fighters for the entire game, the third slot filled by any of the monsters you manage to tame on your journey. It seems limiting but most JRPGs offer casts bulked out with filler characters, so all Square Enix has really done is saved you the trouble of going online to find out what the best party setup is. The duo soon grow to learn all six of the Paradigm roles present in XIII (and we mean soon, too – you can max out your first role in just a few hours) and although they each slots into particular preferable roles – Serah focusing on magic while Noel boasts a naturally higher Attack stat – there’s plenty of grounds for fiddling around with Paradigm decks all the same, especially with so many monstrous allies to recruit.
The method of taming monsters is oddly unclear, defeated enemies seemingly offering their souls up as a rare drop after battle. Each has one fixed role and falls into one of three growth categories – some develop quickly but peak early, making them great for short-term deployment, though more balanced monsters end up far more powerful, especially those late bloomers that require significant investment before they become usable. Instead of filling their Crystariums with CP earned from battle, monsters need to be fed special items in order to grow and again, several flavours of these allow you to either balance stats or push them in a specific direction, be it towards stronger attacks or a larger health pool depending on how you intend to use them. With only three creatures ever on active duty, you need to be pretty selective with which you pick. Early doors, a Medic monster is essential, as neither Serah nor Noel is capable of healing until a little way into the game, but the wider potential opens up soon enough, especially with the ability to have one monster absorb another to inherit its latent abilities and attacks.
Combat itself is tighter too, and slicker to boot. It’s chaotic, sure, but once you start flinging around AOE spells and unique abilities, the screen erupts in colour as your beautiful party dances all opposition into submission. There’s a lot more strategy in longer encounters too, thanks to a new type of damage. Many enemies are capable of inflicting Wound damage, which reduces your characters’ maximum HP for the rest of the fight and cannot be healed by conventional means. As a result, you’ll need to be really smart with your Paradigms and battle plans in boss battles (and similarly long fights with the game’s toughest enemies) – it’s easy to find yourself cut down to so minimal a health bar that a single powerful attack will end the fight. But at least losing your player character isn’t the end of the world now; as long as one of the two main characters survives, there’s some degree of hope to cling to as control switches to the survivor for a last-ditch attempt to claw success back from the jaws of defeat.
It’s also surprising just how much the cut-scene-heavy standard format of the genre is circumvented, and, while the story is still generally forwarded in the usual watch-along way, there are at least a few occasions where it’s a little more hands-on. QTEs aren’t quite so prevalent as pre-release bumph would have had you believe, though they’re still there, and while watching out for button prompts does pull your attention away from the typically flashy Final Fantasy cinematics, timings are generous and the icons are pretty hard to miss unless you’ve put the pad down and gone off to make a coffee. There are occasional decisions offered through button prompts too – having been conditioned to rush for the buttons on command, however, it’s easy to miss the point of these and just reach for whatever button your eyes are drawn to first.
But if this or any other mishap should occur, fear not – with time on your side, no change is permanent. By finding a key item in a time zone, that particular area of time can be closed off and rewound to how you found it (save for any items you’ve already claimed, which remain collected), and this is perhaps the game’s most baffling and worst-explained feature. In essence, it allows you to replay situations a little differently – returning to the first area with a powerful party, for instance, it’s possible to ignore the option to weaken the titanic boss and tackle it head on. This odd feature also means that bosses and one-off enemies can have rare drops and/or recruitment chances without making for missable items, the bane of every JRPG player’s life and the reason many can’t play without a Wiki open by their side.
XIII-2’s fragmented design means there’s little in the way of a structured post-game, instead foregrounding an emphasis on going back through areas with your ultimate team (which renders regular battles little more than a nuisance) while looking for things to do differently and mopping up side-quests which are now way too easy. Optional bosses and supercharged rare creatures make exploration ultimately worthwhile but end-game progression is a patient man’s game here – without a goal like the last game’s Long Gui to work towards (this game’s Oretoise is feeble by comparison), it can be hard to stay motivated.
But by this point, you’ve already had some fifty hours’ worth of enjoyment out of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The structure offers so much freedom in terms of exploration and approach as you work through the narrative that it’s hard to criticise its shortcomings once the credits have rolled. It’s a unique and interesting way of handling time travel in games too, and while XIII-2 might fall foul of all the usual time-hopping pitfalls (read: it’s really rather stupid at times) it’s hard to recall a sequel that makes such major changes to a great game and still manages to get things so right. If XIII was making a case for the quickest route from A to B being a straight line, XIII-2 instead argues that a time gate directly to your destination is both more practical and more interesting. We’re inclined to agree.