The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy is, to date, the only trilogy in the franchise. Sequels have been released for other mainline titles, but a second sequel had never been done before. But we’re not here to discuss the trilogy completer Lightning Returns just yet. However, I fully argue that the ambiguous nature and criticisms of middle entry Final Fantasy XIII-2 were decisive when the decision came on whether to do a sequel or not. After all, it could also be argued that Final Fantasy XIII-2 only exists because Final Fantasy XIII was heavily – and unfairly – criticised.
Following the events of Final Fantasy, the world of Cocoon remains in place, suspended above Gran Pulse thanks to Fang and Vanille completing their Focus. As a result, the majority of Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes place in a new time period referred to as After Fall (AF). Lightning’s sister Serah, who spent most of the first game in the same state of crystal as Fang and Vanille now find themselves in, is one of the two playable characters. The other is newcomer Noel, who claims to have been sent from the future.
If you thought that introduction was plot heavy, you haven’t seen anything yet. The one thing most players would categorically agree upon is that the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy only works if you play them all. The sequels do not really cater for newcomers to jump straight into.
Serah and Noel meet in 3AF, in a world where only Serah remembers her sister and all the hard work she did to save the world. Noel tells her he has met Lightning way in the future, but her travelling to the world of Valhalla has caused time paradoxes to rip open. In an effort to restore Lightning to their world and save Noel’s future, this duo travel through time and close these paradoxes.
Paradoxes are visited through a device called the Historia Crux, and don’t necessarily need to be visited in a particular order. In fact, visiting them in different orders can produce some unexpected endings, known as Paradox endings. These aren’t the canon endings – there is only one true ending to Final Fantasy XIII-2 – but try to explain that things may not go as you plan should you tamper with time too much.
Instantly though, you get the feeling that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a much more open game than its predecessor. Clearly a response to the main criticism of Final Fantasy XIII being too linear for the first twenty hours, here now is a game with multiple endings depending on which way you decide to travel through time.
It also removed a lot of the made-up words present in the first game. Terms such as l’Cie, fal’Cie and Cie’th are used much less frequently in Final Fantasy XIII-2. In all honesty, I am a massive advocate for Final Fantasy XIII – and the trilogy as a whole – but it took me two playthroughs to establish what these terms were referring to. The main issue being these words all sound similar and in terms of the lore are all closely related to each other. Confusing them was pretty easy to do.
One area most would agree that Final Fantasy XIII shone through was in the combat system, so it was barely touched for the sequel. Part of the intricacies were lost by moving away from a roster of six down to just two. The party system in the first game allowed for some interesting paradigms to create whilst levelling them up. Here, Serah and Noel were only occasionally joined by a third character, and it wasn’t for long.
It wasn’t just them two though. Serah had a moogle companion known as Mog. Moogles have been a staple of Final Fantasy since the very beginning almost. These cute white bipedal mole looking things have had many a job in the Final Fantasy series. From recording a player’s data as a save point to a playable party member, in Final Fantasy XIII-2 Mog can trans-‘mog’-rify themselves into Serah’s weapon of choice. This is typically a bow and arrow, but they aren’t limited to just this.
The Final Fantasy series has always featured recurring elements, but another criticism thrown at Final Fantasy XIII was the lack of them. Sure, it featured chocobos, but the recurring element of crystals was used in a negative connotation. The recurring character names Biggs & Wedge – a reference to Star Wars of all things – were relegated to a name of a shop. Even the character called Cid didn’t ring true with his predecessors.
As Serah and Noel travel through time and fix these paradoxes, they encounter many of the main cast from Final Fantasy XIII. Snow – Serah’s fiancé – has travelled 300 years into the future and once again tried to do everything himself in returning Lightning to their world. Hope is now the leader of the Academy, a group investigating these time anomalies. He plays a much wider role in Final Fantasy XIII-2; his previous story in Final Fantasy XIII was one of the more interesting ones but presented in a way that made him one of the more annoying characters.
Other characters return, but in the form of story DLC. Sazh – easily the most underrated character in Final Fantasy XIII – returns, but his main focus revolves around a casino. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was the first game in the franchise to really dabble with DLC. As well as extra story content, there were plenty of DLC outfits for Noel and Serah. Some of which were based on Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed; both had their own N7 armour to wear, and Noel had a version of Ezio Auditore’s classic outfit. The two franchises reunited again in Final Fantasy XV and Assassin’s Creed Origins with a couple of quests tied into each other’s relevant worlds.
In case you are wondering, the obligatory JRPG swimsuit outfit DLC was included for both Noel and Serah.
If the plot of Final Fantasy XIII was confusing, then XIII-2 will be even more confusing. Even after ten years I am still struggling to get my head around parts of it. A character called Yeul is introduced, a young companion of main antagonist Caius. Are Serah and Noel an alternate version of these two? There are certainly similarities. Caius is fuelled by anger after being granted immortality, as that means he will see every version of Yeul that he raises die again and again. Throughout their journey, Serah and Noel will battle several versions of Caius dotted through the timelines that he has created. In true Final Fantasy style, the third act is buck wild.
It unfortunately ends in heartache though, as Serah is killed at the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2. At least in the canon ending, several of the paradox endings see her still alive. One touching one goes right back to the beginning of Final Fantasy XIII-2 where Lightning and Serah are quickly reunited. Knowing their return to each other will spell disaster for everyone else, they sit together on the dock of New Bodhum.
However, there was a sequel in the form of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII that features a character called Lumina. She has a striking resemblance to Serah…
It is impossible to talk about Final Fantasy XIII-2 without heavily referencing Final Fantasy XIII and what came before. Many of the design changes were based on feedback from the first game. As a result, Final Fantasy XIII-2 was better received, but you would struggle to play this one without having played the first. This goes almost double for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII; the reason that final games’ story works so well is because of the bonds experienced between all the characters in the first two games.
For what it’s worth, I regard Final Fantasy XIII-2 as the weakest in the trilogy, despite still really enjoying it. I adored Final Fantasy XIII and will disagree with anyone who unfairly criticises it. And for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, it is so tonally different from almost every other RPG it is a really unique game. Instead of trying to save the world in that game, you cannot stop the world from ending. All you can do is make sure humanity passes through to the next stage as peacefully as possible. But I will have more on that when it hits the ten-year anniversary in 2024.
For now, let us know how you got on with Final Fantasy XIII-2. The comments are down below. And if you haven’t played it? Well, you’ll find a digital copy over at the Xbox Store, playable on Xbox 360, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.