Early in “Final Fantasy XIII-2,” Square Enix’s time-travel-infused, role-playing game from Japan, a character expresses envy of the game’s era-hopping heroes, saying she’d like nothing more than to find a comfy point in history and just settle down and start a life there.
In a way, that’s what the most ardent fans of the long-running series want, too. Every “Final Fantasy” nut has a favorite, usually 1997’s “Final Fantasy VII,” which helped popularize Japanese-style role-playing games in America and sits comfortably in many players’ “best games of all time” lists.
Every time a new “Final Fantasy” game comes out, it’s saddled with unrealistic sets of expectations from gamers who were hoping for something more along the lines of whichever “Final Fantasy” happens to be their favorite. No game ever quite measures up. Games and their players change with the passage of time. It would seem that being able to travel back to the Clinton administration and play through Cloud Strife’s adventure for the first time, over and over, on the PlayStation is what people really want.
No matter which lens you view it through, “Final Fantasy XIII” was bloated and self-indulgent, the video game equivalent of Yes’ 1973 progressive-rock opus, “Tales from Topographic Oceans.” Instead of long, noodly solos from Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman paired with faux-mystical mumblings from Jon Anderson, we got a meandering plot that took 20 hours to get going, a squeaky-voiced pixie girl who was too cute by far and 10-minute, non-interactive in-game movies. Still, brilliance shone through. The combat, which returns largely intact in the sequel, is tactical and satisfying. The world of Pulse and Cocoon is gorgeous, and the back story is gripping.
As has been noted by others, “Final Fantasy XIII-2” plays a lot like an apology for its predecessor’s excesses. Instead of funneling players down long corridors with nothing to explore, “Final Fantasy XIII-2” sends them hurtling through time and space to explore alternate histories and resolve paradoxes. Serah, a peripheral character from the last game, tries to reunite with her sister, Lightning, “FFXIII’s” heroine, and of course there’s a bunch of stuff about saving the world.
Whereas “XIII” had those long, meandering movies, “XIII-2” tries to pepper the cinematics with button prompts to keep the players engaged. While many of “FFXIII’s” characters return, the time traveling means you’re encountering older, less annoying versions.
(If you’re confused by the unusual numbering system, each “Final Fantasy” game takes place in its own world and has its own set of characters. So there’s no narrative continuity between “Final Fantasy XII” and “XIII.” “Final Fantasy XIII-2,” however, is a direct sequel, sharing a world and many characters with its predecessor.)
New to “Final Fantasy XIII-2” is the concept of monster collection, which will remind a lot of gamers of Nintendo’s “Pokemon” titles or From Software’s middling role-playing game, “Enchanted Arms.” As Serah and companion Noel Kreiss journey through time, they collect monsters that they defeat. These creatures can be leveled up, fed to one another and used in battle alongside the two heroes. It’s a fun, obsessive process even if I never seem to have enough ingredients to level up all the creatures I want to develop.
Despite changes for the better, “Final Fantasy XIII-2” is riddled with artistic and game-design missteps. Serah’s moogle, a puffy, white, cat-sized creature indigenous to the “Final Fantasy” games, is the first of its kind to talk, yet it sounds like a toddler as it lectures players on how to resolve rifts in the space-time continuum. It’s like listening to a baby read Stephen Hawking. Additionally, “Final Fantasy XIII-2” reintroduces the casino, a diversionary locale where characters can go to engage in tedious mini-games like racing giant birds called chocobos. This was a novel, occasionally fun idea in 1997, but in 2012, it feels like pandering to nostalgia.
As a “Final Fantasy” game, “XIII-2” will suffer from comparisons to past efforts. As a time-travel game, though, Serah and Noel’s adventure is one of the best the subgenre has to offer.
Each time Noel and Serah unlock a new gate, they’re dropped into a fantastical new world in which they need to resolve some problem. Even if the problems are nearly always solved by killing monsters and searching for fragments from other eras, the whole thing feels a little like the early 1990s TV show “Quantum Leap,” in which Scott Bakula traveled through time fixing people’s lives and dressing in drag.
Admittedly, I’m grading on a curve. The game industry shies away from time travel, no doubt wary of being criticized for recycling settings several times in a game. Even when publishers do back time-travel games, the results are often linear and scripted, with none of the free-form game design the subgenre should encourage.
“Final Fantasy XIII-2” isn’t the perfect time-travel game, but in letting players hop around the timeline and view alternate histories as they traverse its narrative, it’s a huge step in the right direction.
“Final Fantasy XIII-2,” rated T, costs $60 for the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. For this review, I played a copy of the game provided by the publisher.