You play as Serah, a young woman who works as a teacher in New Bodhum. She leads a relatively carefree existence with her friends in their beachfront village but remains haunted by the conviction that her sister (warrior woman Lightning, who starred in the previous game) is alive, even though every else is convinced she's dead. Serah's fiancé Snow is the only one who believed her, and now he's gone missing too.
Enter Noel, who comes crashing into this peaceful little world riding the back of a meteorite. He says he's come from the future, and that he's seen Lightning and has a message from her for Serah. Lightning is trapped in Valhalla and needs her little sister to come rescue her. The day she disappeared, something happened that shouldn't have happened and it's not just Lightning that got lost in the shuffle - all kinds of things have been messed up, with objects appearing in the wrong centuries and events occurring that never should have been. See also: Group test: what's the best PlayStation game?
It's up to Noel and Serah to fix it, and so begins their epic journey through futuristic sci-fi cities, ancient ruins infested with monsters and sweeping grassy plains. Many locations are available to visit in different time periods and timelines, so you get to see how they've changed through the ages, solving paradoxes along the way and returning things to the way they should have been all along.
The gameplay focus is far more on exploration and discovery than the rather more linear Final Fantasy XIII, which is as it should be. The nagging suspicion that there's only one path to follow which plagued Final Fantasy XIII is gone; open exploration and towns are back in Final Fantasy XIII-2, sure to appease the many fans lamented their absence from the previous game. In these town areas you can safely wander about without fear of random encounters, talk to people and accept quests to help them (or not, if you're feeling mean) and do a little shopping. They're fun breaks from the action, and it's good to see them back. See also: Group test: what's the best Xbox game.
But freedom comes with a price, and because Final Fantasy XIII-2 is more non-linear than it's predecessor there will be some occasions where you'll be aimlessly wandering around without a clue as to what to do next. As you have the ability to (to a certain extent) choose which areas and time periods you open at what time, you can end up getting ahead of yourself a little. You will also find yourself spending a lot of time searching for wild artifact fragments and other gate-opening items, many of which are quite well-hidden and tricky to find. Even the general locations of these fragments aren't marked, so playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 can sometimes literally feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Which is one of many haystacks, existing in several time periods, and your needle could be in any one. Also, it's invisible.
The battle system is more or less the same as the last game -- that is, you lead a team of three and assign each character a role. For example, you could be a Medic (healing, curing status ailments), Ravager (attacking with magic) or Commando (attacking physically). A set of these roles (for example, Commando, Commando, Medic) assigned to your party is called a Paradigm. The key to winning battles is to switch paradigms as the situation calls for it -- for example, if you're not doing so good, you could try switching to the Salvation (three Medics) paradigm to help get you out of a tight spot. Once you're all back at full health, then you could switch to Cerberus (three Commandos) for an all out attack. Visit GamePro UK.
This time, disappointingly, there are only two playable characters -- Hope and Serah. Almost everyone from the first game puts in an appearance at some point, but you can't control any of them. It takes away an awful lot of the fun of building up and levelling a team of balanced characters, as well as being able to get to know them all and discover their personal history. Also, as a result of your playing the same two characters throughout the entire game, it doesn't take long to learn all their skills, which is slightly depressing. After all, battles start to feel pointless when you progress to the stage where you know there's no new skills to unlock with your hard-earned experience points.
To counterbalance this staleness and add a third contender to the party, sometimes you'll be able to capture monsters you fight and make them members of your battle squad. Each monster has its own fixed role -- some are medics, while some are synergists, and some are saboteurs and so on. You can level them up too, with special items you get (mainly) from winning battles. You can also (rather pointlessly) make them wear silly accessories like a blue flower and a train conductor beret.
Thankfully most of the monsters and characters in Final Fantasy XIII-2 are believable and likeable -- although the only two you'll really spend much time with are Noel and Serah, plus their Moogle (which also transforms into Serah's weapon), one of the most irritating video game characters ever made and one that somewhat detracts from the enjoyment of the game. Beautifully-rendered cut scenes where the two protagonists have deep, dark conversations about time paradoxes and the end of the world are rendered somewhat foolish by this Moogle squealing 'kupo kupo' throughout them. A callback to previous Final Fantasy games, the Moogle does not make the transition to talkies well, and rivals Final Fantasy XIII's Vanille for irritating vocals.
The soundtrack is magnificent, with professional-quality songs (written just for this game) accompanying your in-game actions. For example, when you're riding a chocobo a heavy metal headbanger of a track starts up with lyrics like "so you think you can ride this chocobo?!" When you're sifting through the ruins of a dead world, a gentle ballad serenades you, with wistful lyrics about how the singer remains "the last of my kind in the world", while in a later location a woman sings sadly about how she believes "no one will come and save me." It's fantastic work, and if you can get a deal on the game that includes the soundtrack it's well worth the expense.
You can lose whole days in Final Fantasy XIII-2, and for the most part those days will leave you with fond memories of time well-spent. The game will occasionally frustrate serious players with confusing quests and piss-poor voice acting, but it definitely does more right than it does wrong. Particularly if you were bitterly disappointed by the last game and swore off Final Fantasy for good, XIII-2 could well make you fall back in love with the series.