Final Fantasy XIII deserved every word dedicated to panning the ultra-linear passage play which forced its heroes to march and fight for 20 hours or more with few side-paths or secrets, and no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel.
This sequel attempts to compensate for virtually every sin its predecessor committed. On loading the disc, players are presented with a 13-part "beginner's primer" which explains the story so far. A cynic might suggest it's really aimed as much at players who quit the first game early, out of boredom, as it is at the newcomers.
FFXIII was slow, awkward, and dull for a grand chunk of the ride, but its sequel is fast, fluid and exciting. Just don't expect it to always make sense. Considering how much dialogue there is in this game, what we have here might be the most plot-light Final Fantasy ever. You're Serah and you're teaming up with the not-so-heroically-named Noel, on a time-travelling quest to find Serah's sister Lightning, the hero of FFXIII, and resolve paradoxes in the space-time continuum by bouncing between locations and points in history until you mould time itself in such a way that you unlock the path to your destiny.
The gift of time travel opens up the world far more than anyone might have hoped for as they trudged through the soul-sapping drudgery of the last game - so much so that there is a serious risk of distraction. Mercifully, each time a player loads their saved game, a TV-style recap tells you what you've done so far: Search for Lightning, correct paradoxes.
The automated fighting system has been made more strategic and fun with the improved paradigm shifts, which allow you to switch your party's character classes in an instant to match your enemies' attacks and defences, bringing a new level of pace to battles.
There's something Pokemon-ish about the collection, training and battling of captured monsters. They are incorporated into your party paradigms, and gain skills in the same way you do - by receiving points allocated on the Crystarium class progression board, brought over from FFXIII. The monsters also have their own limit breaks, of sorts, thanks to a system called the Feral Link - no relation to the state of Auckland's inner-city buses after dark.
So, while its predecessor choked on its narrowness, Final Fantasy XIII-2 risks going completely insane with its abundant freedom and wayward focus. Fortunately there is enough pure action for all but the pickiest of gamers to overlook. The combat is challenging for warriors of all stripes, and the exploration is generally rewarding - sometimes spectacularly so. The future looks bright for Final Fantasy once again.
Reviewed on Xbox 360, also on PS3 (M)