The latest Final Fantasy is a frustrating example of a studio moving a game franchise as many steps back as forward.
A direct sequel to the thirteenth game in Square Enix's titanic series of role-playing games, it begins where its predecessor ended. Humanity has descended from its home on an artificial sphere in the sky to resettle the planet Pulse, a wild world filled with ancient ruins and imaginative beasts that wouldn't seem out of place in a Hayao Miyazaki film.
But something's not right. People's memories don't match their realities, and heroes who survived the first game have vanished. Our new protagonists, Noel and Serah, skip through time trying to resolve temporal paradoxes and set right things gone awry.
It's a compelling premise, but the character Serah, a dainty waif of a woman prone to pigeon-toed poses and doe-eyed gazes, sabotages the story. It's hard to believe her capable of saving herself, much less the world. She represents a backwards leap for Square, which had delivered an appealingly strong female lead – Serah's sister, ironically – in the previous game.
And Serah focuses our attention on another problem: Awkward, overwrought dialogue. Cultural disparities and middling translations have always made Japanese RPGs an uneasy fit with Western audiences groomed on grittier stories, and the issue is only exacerbated by the presence of an up-talking adult heroine given to child-like musings and high-pitched sighs.
For the most part, these reverse strides are countered by Square's largely successful attempt to respond to the most common complaints leveled at its previous game, Final Fantasy XIII.
That game's linear paths have been done away with, replaced by the ability to hop between locations in space-time at will. Indeed, many of the side quests offered by secondary characters – another wish granted the precursor's critics – require us to lithely surf the centuries.
And I couldn't get enough of the real-time combat system, especially during delectably challenging boss battles. I realized this midway through a marathon session that saw me playing for eight hours straight (while my family was away). I haven't done that in years.
Its cleverness comes from the way players switch between aggressive, defensive, and tactical postures, rather than select specific attacks and spells. Players act as conductors providing guidance to an orchestra of combatants, relying on them to effectively exploit their unique skills.
It's also benefitted from several clever modifications, the most notable of which is that we now fight alongside creatures and machines that were once our foes. Players collect scores of these new enemy-allies throughout the game, each with their own abilities and growth paths. It's a bit like having a hundred new playable characters.
But as brilliant as the fighting is, it may not be enough for players without a high tolerance for the innate inanities of Japanese RPGs. The genre's one-dimensional characters and gooey dialogue are becoming increasingly difficult to stomach for an audience accustomed to the graver flavours of Western games.
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release: January 31, 2012