The "Final Fantasy" franchise, now in its 25th year, has one of the most enthusiastic fan bases in all of video games. And those fans made their voices heard after the 2009 release of "Final Fantasy XIII," which jettisoned some of the series' long-standing features in exchange for a more streamlined, action-packed narrative.
Aficionados howled, particularly over the game's linear nature; you didn't really get a chance to explore the world of "XIII" until you were most of the way through. Where were the wacky characters who livened up previous chapters? What happened to the quaint towns where you could stock up on supplies and juice up your weapons?
"Final Fantasy XIII-2" (Square Enix, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) feels largely like a response to those criticisms. It's anything but linear; it may even be too liberal in letting you freely skip between locations. There are more characters to interact with, and more side missions to break up the main story. You can even train and race chocobos, the ostrich-sized chickens that have been the series' unofficial mascots.
The sequel begins at the end of civilization, with "XIII" heroine Lightning battling against a powerful, purple-haired enemy named Caius. Hoping to reverse this disastrous timeline, Lightning flings the last surviving human, Noel, back through time. He finds Lightning's sister, Serah, and they begin their mission to "save the future."
That entails traveling through time warps to a series of locations at different points during a 500-year span. There's a lush forest where a crystal tower precariously balances Cocoon, a city in the sky. There's an archaeological site where soldiers are fighting monsters from another dimension. There's a sprawling urban campus where scientists are trying to build another Cocoon.
At each stop, Noah and Serah have a number of ways to correct the timeline and save humanity. Eventually, the "map" of "XIII-2" blossoms into a tangle of alternate realities — even as Caius and a mysterious girl named Yeul are hot on the protagonists' trail.
As any "Lost" fan can testify, time-travel narratives can run the risk of disappearing up their own wormholes. In 1995, Square's "Chrono Trigger" deftly handled the genre's puzzles and paradoxes, but "XIII-2" is much less successful. Its convolutions left me scratching my head, and its conclusion is certain to be divisive.
And Noah and Serah are two of the blandest headliners in "Final Fantasy" history. There's nothing really wrong with them, but when some of the more colorful "XIII" characters — like the droll, mysterious Fang — pop in for cameos, you wish they would hang around a little longer and take the spotlight away from the tiresomely spunky leads.
Nonetheless, I found "XIII-2" more absorbing than its predecessor, in part because I've gotten used to its "paradigm"-based combat. Instead of controlling all three characters in your party, you control just one — though you can switch the paradigms used by the other two so they concentrate on physical attacks, magic or defense. Boss battles force you to constantly adjust your paradigms, so while the fights are fast-paced, they require strategy.
The third position on your team is occupied by a monster. You recruit these helpful creatures by beating them in the wilderness, then "training" them with rewards collected throughout your travels. This critter-collecting metagame will thrill fans of "Pokemon" or "Monster Hunter."
I also enjoyed bouncing around the different locations, which, while drastically different, all display the eye-popping graphics that are a Square trademark. There's a great deal to explore — and you can even reset completed scenarios and try different approaches.
After the disastrous release of the online, multiplayer "Final Fantasy XIV," Square Enix's CEO acknowledged that the brand had been "greatly damaged." The series may never return to its late-1990s peak, but — thanks to the input of its most dedicated fans — "Final Fantasy XIII-2" is a step in the right direction. Three stars out of four.
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