(CBS) - In a particularly rare move by developer Square-Enix, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a direct sequel to FF XIII. Unlike most installments in the titular RPG franchise, which typically tell unrelated tales in familiar settings, Final Fantasy XIII-2 picks up where XIII's characters left off.
It goes without saying then that if you're new to the series, this probably isn't the best installment to jump on board. Even with the fully narrated and lengthy prologue accessible in the game's menu, new players may feel lost in the game's already confusing story and many characters and events may lack the intended impact without the emotional bonds established in FF XIII.
That said, FF XIII-2 is a fitting sequel that brings new depth to established characters and further expands the implications of the events of the original.
This time around Lightning's sister Serah takes center stage as leading lady and is joined by boy-from-the-future, Noel. While these two do a fine job of getting things done and pursuing their own respective motivations while setting the timeline back on track, they aren't especially interesting as compared to the original's motley crew.
Though you will come across a few familiar faces on your journey, these appearances are few and often lack any emotional gravitas or content. With Serah and Noel left to bear the emotional through-line, the story suffers.
Much of the story feels thrust upon the player as neither character is particularly tied to plot development and often feel like pawns in the plans of those smarter and more capable than themselves.
The fact that Serah and Noel are the only consistent members of your party means that combat has seen a few notable changes. A lot of things have been streamlined, including character combat roles. Either character can serve any role with only slight differences between the two, offering minor advantages in play styles.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing though. This, along with the deep paradigm system - which allows you to preset various sets of combat roles for each character which can be switched on the fly during combat - allows you to seriously customize your party to fit your play style.
What this means though is that most battles are primarily won or lost before they even begin. Combat itself boils down to managing your party's active paradigm sets and spamming the auto-attack option. Having the proper gear, stats and paradigm sets will determine your combat proficiency, so expect to spend a lot of time micromanaging in the menu system.
Again, while it may seem jarring to fans of the western RPG, this isn't necessarily a bad thing and fits very well with the mindset of the JRPG. Combat isn't the focus here so much as strategy, both before and during combat. Strategy in how you choose to develop your party and their abilities will go a much longer way in keeping you alive than expecting to scrape your way through battles relying on brute force.
Luckily, while Serah and Noel may be the only protagonists in your party, they aren't alone in combat. As you battle the world's various monsters, you have a random chance of adding a defeated monster to your party a la Pokémon. These "captured" creatures can then battle along side you as one third of your preset paradigms.
This, along with other new additions such as the occasional dialogue options or battle scene QTEs, help flesh out the overall experience.
As always with any Square-Enix game, the real show stealers here are the fully rendered cut scenes. These scenes not only serve to drive most of the story and emotional flair, they are spectacular to watch. The same level of care and polish that is given to each frame of these short movies is reflected in the overall game presentation. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an excellent addition to the franchise and should alleviate any fears that the JRPG is a dying breed of game.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is rated T for Teen by the ESRB. It is available now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.