I don't remember the circumstances of why I picked up XIII-2. I had never played a Final Fantasy game before (besides a little bit of III which I did not enjoy), and did not even play XIII. I think the reason was either I was in my experimental phase of gaming where I was finding out what genres I liked, or I was simply bored of the other games that were being released. Either way, I bought the game not long after its initial release. What I didn't know is that I would soon be playing one of my favourite games of 2012.
After learning what happened in XIII thanks to XIII-2's in-game primer, I started the game. As with Final Fantasy XIII before it, one of the things that hit me as great right away was the graphics. XIII-2 is a visual stunner, with beautiful locales and detailed environments. I would pause to look at the environment on occasion, as there was so much going on. As I continued playing, the gameplay became extremely addicting. The Paradigm system made you constantly think on your toes, and you always had to make sure you had the right paradigm at the right time. Also present in XIII-2 was monster collecting, the thing that appeals the most to this collecting fanatic. Monsters helped out in battle by providing skills, healing, or tanking. The soundtrack also deserves mentioning. While some tracks felt a little out of place for a Final Fantasy game (hip hop?), they still added to the overall mood of the game and it brought in some musical variety.
If I had to knock on one part of the game, it's the story/characters. While I liked Serah, and Caius was a fine villain, I wasn't a fan of Noel. It just seemed like he became more and more of a wimp as the story went on. This is in stark contrast to Serah, whose resolve only got stronger as the odds stacked against her. The story was a bit of a mess, and I had a hard time understanding what was going on. The ending is probably the worst part of the story, and it killed what respect I had for what was happening.
Regardless of the story, pretty much everything else about Final Fantasy XIII-2 was superb. I loved the gameplay that was fast-paced and strategic, the quirky soundtrack, and the amazing graphics. I would love the chance to forget my experience to play through it all over again for the first time.
Final Fantasy XIII is a game I'm glad I played. It has issues, but I enjoyed exploring the late game areas, and the Paradigm system remains one of my favorites in the series, so I was willing to look past a lot of problem areas to keep playing. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is also a mess at times in regards to its plot. Really, the only thing that could convolute XIII more was the inclusion of time travel, and oh yes, it went there.
But damn if I wasn't invested in this sequel more than some of the mainline FF games. Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki knocked it out of the park with memorable music, which served to strengthen XIII-2's best asset: an engrossing setting. Several locales across the game are gorgeous and/or fascinating to explore, but nothing quite hits as hard as the 700 AF time period. The ambiance is stunning, the music — Noel's hauntingly beautiful character theme — moving, and the insight into the XIII's trilogy's best characters fascinating. I like Serah enough, but Noel and Caius' roles as Guardian to the Farseer Yeul was what made the game for me.
These guys wanted the same thing, for Yeul to escape her terrible fate. Their methods varied greatly, but it was a refreshing motivation for a villain, far removed from a clichéd "I want to rule the world because I like power"-type, and both characters' voice actors just nailed their roles. My take is interestingly in stark contrast to Nathan's, not only in that I enjoyed the characters, but I loved the ending. Or rather, I loved that the developers were willing to do what they did: It was shocking as hell, and I applaud them for being willing to end the game in such a way. Love it or hate it, you can't deny it was a bold choice, on par with the biggest surprises on the TV show Lost.
Yes, the writers on Lightning Returns grossly misunderstood Noel's motivation, and turned a noble "big brother" type of love into a weird romance, so while his character arc was destroyed in the third game, I loved just about everything in Final Fantasy XIII-2. And while I unabashedly adore Final Fantasy X-2 (for its gameplay, not so much the bubblegum plot), it's not even close. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is secretly the best Final Fantasy sequel, and the only game to date I liked enough to get a platinum PSN trophy.