Alright everyone, let's get the obvious joke out of the way first.
"How can it be called Final Fantasy if there are thirteen dash two of them?!"
Okay. Everybody good? Now we can move on.
What started as a last-ditch effort to save a failing video game company in 1987 has turned into the longest-running (and probably most-respected) role-playing game series of all time. As its title suggests, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the sequel to Final Fantasy XIII. If you played that game, you'll already be familiar with most—but not all—of this game's characters, situations and mechanics. If you haven't, XIII-2 is a merciful mistress who catches you up pretty quickly through a combination of hand-holding tutorials, flashback videos and reassurances that guys, it's all going to be okay.
Although actually, even veterans of XIII may find themselves disoriented when they pop this game in. It opens with an awesome-looking cinematic set in Valhalla, which mythology nerds and Thor readers will recognize as basically the Norse version of Heaven. There, one of our heroines from last game, Lightning (side note: characters in this game have terrible names) finds herself under attack from a mysteriously powerful dude-who-can-turn-into-a-robot-dragon, Caius Baltar. I mean Caius. Just Caius. The two duke it out and you get your first (albeit limited) taste of XIII-2's battle system, and then a new character named Noel drops out of thin air. Why? Because he "made a wish at the end of time." Noel, apparently, is the last human ever to be born. He's been brought to Valhalla because it's his first step on the path to saving humanity. He and Lightning have a pow-wow, and Lightning sends him off to find her sister Serah (what did I say about names?), a minor character from XIII who becomes the other main actor here.
Responding to criticism that XIII's story was too linear, the team behind XIII-2 puts a pretty interesting spin on things. Instead of traveling around a world, this game finds you traveling throughout time. As you gain experience and explore your world, Noel, Serah and the rest of your party can jump around to numerous different locations and times. Someone's messing with the timeline, see, and your goal is to set it right. That gives this game a pretty strong sci-fi element not present in many older FF installments. It also brings out some pretty fun gameplay, since you can jump to the past, make changes, then immediately jump to the future and see what your irresponsibility hath wrought. In that sense, it's actually kind of like Chrono Trigger, a 1995 RPG from the same company some of you more avid gamers may be familiar with (you can also get it on the Wii Virtual Console now, by the dubs).
If you're up on your Final Fantasy, playing this game isn't very different from last time around. A few tweaks have been made for the better—for example, after taking a break in XIII, random monster encounters are back with a cool twist—but mostly the battle system and whatever is the same as in the last game. However, if you've been away for awhile, like say you're a slightly older blog writer who hasn't played a Final Fantasy game since IX when you got it at a Gamestop because "X seems too modern," you'll have some catching up to do. A lot of the things that make Final Fantasy special are here—character customization, intricate plots, cool magic, all that jazz—but XIII brought about a serious change to the battle system that some older-school players might find it hard to get behind. Instead of selecting character commands one-by-one, you now pre-program "paradigms" of set actions that your guys will perform in a fight. You can set one guy to be a "ravager" who just attacks with fire and swords, for instance, or make someone be a supporter who casts heal spells when needed. It makes for quicker, more chaotic battles; you'll do a lot of the work of fighting in your down time through character menus. That style of play's not going to be for everyone, but if you really dig it, CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE THE FUTURE.
Visually, FF XIII-2 is great. Games are moving closer and closer to having playable sequences move seamlessly into movies, and XIII-2 is a step in that direction. Character designs are excellent as ever, though newcomers to the series might find it odd that everyone is vaguely unracial and of indeterminate age. The more science-fictiony elements of XIII-2 let robotics mingle with swords and sworcery, which produces some cool effects. On the audio front the game's good; most of the American voice actors seem like good fits for their characters. Although again, longtime FF fans may mourn the loss of composer Nobuo Uematsu's score; XIII was the first game in the series to not use anything he wrote.
So, will you like XIII-2? Probably, yeah. After a lengthy and limiting tutorial section the game opens up and gets really fun. Its time-travel aspects hold a lot of promise for an in-depth story and repeatability. Mechanically it's a little better than XIII in execution, but some of you may think it's a step down from I-XII. At its heart, though, it's still Final Fantasy. And if people don't buy it, it could be the final Final Fantasy. So if you've been on the fence about trying out these games you should say to yourself, "Finally, I'm going to play Final Fantasy. And that's final."
Alright, I'm done.