Final Fantasy XIII made a lot of series fans very, very angry. Whether or not the game was actually any good, many felt it wasn't a "real" FF game and were vocal about their displeasure. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is pretty clearly an attempt to apologize for its predecessor's break from tradition, as it veers away from the design decisions that made XIII so divisive. The return to a more classic form should earn Final Fantasy XIII-2 some goodwill from longtime fans, but a few missteps prevent it from being truly great. XIII-2 isn't particularly memorable, but at least it won't make you angry.
XIII-2 picks up where XIII left off and references that game's story a lot, but thoughtfully provides a narrated summary for anyone who skipped XIII or just needs a reminder about who did what to whom. XIII-2 begins with Lightning, the star of XIII, sending Noel back in time to find her sister Serah. Serah and Noel then begin traveling back and forth through time to try and rescue Lightning and save the future. The dialog gets a bit overwrought at times (crazy for a Final Fantasy game, I know), but even at its most dense, you shouldn't have too much trouble following along with the basic plot. The future sucks, so making a tweak here and there in the past should fix everything, or at least make the future suck a little bit less. Even if you can't quite follow all the specifics about Cocoon, Fal'Cie, and Gran Pulse, you'll still care enough about Serah and Noel to want to see them succeed.
If you hated how linear Final Fantasy XIII felt, the structure of XIII-2 should help. You'll revisit many locations from FFXIII, across several different time zones and alternate realities; most time zones have more than one gate out, letting you explore a variety of branching paths. The tunnels and corridors have been replaced with forests, open plains, and neon cities, each more lovely than the last. Most time zones contain a sprinkling of side quests in addition to their main story quest, and some zones are completely off the main story path. The side quests encourage you to explore a location throughout several points in time, but they're little more than fetch quests and not terribly inspired.
The combat of XIII-2 rewards RPG fans who enjoy obsessing over minutiae (you know who you are), but may feel too fiddly for anyone else. Fighting is a hybrid of turn-based and real-time battle that can often feel frantically out of control. You have the choice of hand-picking a chain of commands or letting the AI select your actions. Your enemies won't wait, however, so unless you know exactly what you want to do, and in what order, you're going to get your ass kicked while you make up your mind. XIII-2's Paradigm system, which lets you switch between different combinations of battle specialties, helps alleviate the feeling of helplessness. Serah and Noel can learn different specialties as they level up, allowing you to experiment with mixing and matching their abilities by switching Paradigms on the fly. One build might favor fast and furious physical battle damage, while another relies on heavy defense and buffs. You won't have to do too much extra grinding to go toe to claw with most enemies, as the leveling curve seems to balance well with the proportion of random encounters. The same cannot be said for the game's economy, however. I had buckets of gil, but nothing to spend it on once I'd picked up the most powerful weapons for Serah and Noel. The immensely annoying shopkeeper adds new stock to her shop so slowly that by the time you have access to new items, you no longer really need them.
A successful battle will occasionally reward you with a monster that you can add to your party. The monsters are a fun way to supplement your party, but their leveling system isn't quite robust enough to be more than a diversion. They can't change jobs, and though they can acquire passive skills by absorbing other monsters, they can't acquire skills outside their job type. A Medic is not going to learn a Fire spell and a Saboteur won't be reviving you when you fall. You can create different packs of Paradigms to suit every combination of battle mechanics you feel like pursuing, but I wish the monster raising went a bit beyond buying them cute things to wear.The most disappointing element of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is, believe it or not, the casino, which as of the moment boasts a single slot machine, chocobo races, a mystic, and a bunch of stuff that's "coming soon." The casino isn't relevant to the core game and certainly lends itself to DLC, but for it to be so shockingly bare from the beginning is inexcusable. Either have a casino that's enjoyable on Day One, or don't - leaving a placeholder that promises great things to come is insulting to your player .
Bottom Line: Final Fantasy XIII-2 is beautiful and packed with tons of tiny details that will keep you interested even when you've run into your umpteenth random battle. It misses a few opportunities and at times bogs down with its story, but overall provides a satisfying adventure.
Recommendation: It'll wash the taste of Final Fantasy XIII out of your mouth, if you need it to, and it's a decent RPG in its own right. Its fine qualities edge out its shortcomings, if only just.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.