Final Fantasy XIII-2
For many, Final Fantasy XIII was the black sheep of the series (excluding 14, that was more like the dead sheep of the family), and there were many reasons for this. Some were valid (linearity of the story), while others simply took some getting used to (the new battle system). However, after the players made a ruckus like none other, Square Enix attempted to fix those issues. And fix them they did...for the most part.
Story - To being this review, I'd like to start by reviewing the story, the most admittedly weak part of the game. I don't want to spoil, but saying time travel is involved, along with a fairly weak desire to save people doesn't thrill me as much as traveling the world, helping people, falling in love, and then having that love persevere through the final boss battle. However, it's not all bad. The time travel elements are, in my personal opinion, quite well done, and remind me greatly of Chrono Trigger (a definite compliment for those who haven't played the game). Something about the story just doesn't connect well with me, and I suspect it might be the same for you. I know this might sound just terrible, but hang with me for....
Characters - Some people might rag on them a bit, but I have no personal qualms with the characters of this edition of Final Fantasy. Serah wasn't all that present in the first game (seeing as she was trapped inside a magical crystal), but she actually carries herself quite well, ever determined to reach her goals, as well as help people. And really, how different is that from beloved protagonists from previous games like Cloud or Squall? She might not be quite as badass, but she'll shoot you before you hurt her friends and family, and you will NOT get in her way.
Noel Kreiss is the other main character in this game, and he's not bad either! I'll admit that he does remind me greatly of Sora from Kingdom Hearts, but again, is that a bad thing? I find him to be the more heroic "let's crush everything" character, which is something we've had since the beginning of the series (Snow, Wakka, Barrett, and many more). He's always questioning, always ready for a fight, and always there to protect our lovely Serah.
Mog. I would suggest you forget the fact that his voice changes more often than a professional impersonator. And that you will hear the word kupo more times in your life than ever before. Because once you forget those two facts, Mog becomes the cute element that's needed in a rather depressing world. Not to mention he's incredibly useful in-game (but you'll find that out as you play)
Chocolina is the shopkeeper. Well, they gave us back shops, that's for sure! However, they gave us a shop with the most irritating and grating voice I've ever encountered. Luckily, her dialogue can be skipped, so don't about that too much; she's quite entertaining if you can get past the voice!
Gameplay - This is where Final Fantasy XIII-2 shines so brightly. Is the Paradigm system still in use? Absolutely. Have they gotten rid of the terribly long paradigm shifting animations? Yep! Battles are so fluid now that it was a bit of a shock for me at first - you will probably find yourself wondering how a battle could have changed so rapidly, or be shocked when one of your characters is unconscious and you didn't notice. This is a lot more noticeable for me, as I like to input the commands myself, and I recommend you do too - you can change the settings to have the default location at Abilities instead of Auto-battle, a very small change, but something that really impressed me. But be prepared, it's a lot faster!
In that regard, I want to applaud Square Enix for adding in a new system that doesn't hurt the game, but rather adds both a fun element and practical uses as well: monster capture. In this game, capturing monster happens randomly after you defeat an enemy, and it's common enough that you won't lack monster companions. However, for those of us who are completionists or perfectionists, this new system is perfect. Each monster has one role (Commando, Medic, etc), and cannot switch from that role. However, you can choose up to 3 monsters to put in your paradigm sets at once, allowing for more variation than you'd think. Add the fact that there are 150+ monsters in the game to collect, train, and use, and you'll find yourself marveling at the thousands of potential paradigm combinations available. The best part is that monster can actually be trained through their own individual crystarium using items received after battles, allowing the player to keep up with the difficulty curve if they're particularly attached to a monster.
Speaking of the crystarium, this element has also been improved in my mind for the human characters. No more is the Crystarium limited by locks and levels. In this game, if you've got the CP to get the next node, it's yours! The separate Crystarium areas for each role have gone by the wayside as well, and you now pick the role you'd like to level up as you go through each node. I'll admit it was confusing for a while, but now that I've got the hang of it, it feels much more natural than 13's slightly unwieldy system.
Graphics and Sound - Jeez. I, for one, found 13's graphics amazingly beautiful. 13-2? Just as good, or better. You'll find yourself in so many different areas, each with their own wildlife and backdrops, that you will be astounded. It seems like every detail has been taken care of, down to the blades of grass on a giant turtle's back, or extra flan heads popping out of the side of another larger flan. It makes me wish I could see it in person, and that's the sign of great graphics.
Sound is definitely not Uematsu-esque. At all. Prepare yourself for a very very different soundtrack than previously heard. There's pop, there's rock, there's heavy metal, and there's fluff. There's even pieces and songs you'll recognize from 13's soundtrack. Is it bad? Absolutely not. Could it have been better? Absolutely. I can't imagine the gamers will ever agree on the perfect soundtrack, and I'm sure some folks will go crazy for this one. However, if it's not your style, it's no big deal - pop in your headphones, turn on subtitles, and enjoy the rest of the game's great aspects!
Replayability - I wanted to touch on this aspect of the game, because it's something we as players haven't really seen before in a Final Fantasy game. Throughout the process of the game, you'll travel to many different places and many different times. Each is separated into its own level of sorts, and each can be closed through the use of an item in-game. Using this item will reset the level, allowing you to go through it again to get a different ending, or get a different item from the in-game conversation choices (I didn't touch on those, but they're minor). It's a nice touch for players who love the feeling of going back to an old locale and just whomping on some weenie enemies, or those who need to capture that last monster in a location. I myself haven't reached that point yet, but I already know I'll be spending a great deal of time going back and re-doing certain areas or fighting bosses again that I really enjoyed.
Overall - I know I might have started out a bit harsh ragging on the story, but I feel I should be honest: it's not the best we've ever seen. However, the gameplay aspects, graphics, sound, replayability, and functionality of many other aspects have been improved so so much from 13. It's so nice to go back and see the developers actually take our complaints and attempt to fix them. While others rag on the game because of its predecessor, I'd like to praise the game for its improvements. It's highly polished as we expect from Square Enix, it's got a heck of a battle system, and it's added a lot of mini-games and activities that are really and truly enjoyable. I'd like to extend to you a welcome to the game, and a welcome to a fine addition to the Final Fantasy series! 8/10 (if you want a numerical value :D)