When Final Fantasy XIII-2, the series’ most infamous middle child, first came out, it was received well by people who played it but overlooked by almost everyone else. Now, having just celebrated its 10th anniversary in Japan this week, one of Square Enix’s weirder and more electrifying spin-offs is is newly available on Game Pass, and you all need to play it.
You probably know that when Final Fantasy XIII came out in 2010 it was treated by many fans as a disaster for the genre and a death knell for the series. You might even know that years later the record has been set straight on it actually being pretty fantastic. You’re less likely to have heard that its sequel FFXIII-2 is, for the most part, even better. Whereas the previous game was dinged for its linear, Halo-inspired structure and overly streamlined combat, FFXIII-2 turned things on its head with time travel and remixed combat with a Pokémon-like monster-catching side-game.
The story revolves around Serah (sister to the prior game’s protagonist, Lightning) and Noel, a time traveller from the future who is hunting paradoxes that have begun to destroy the fabric of reality. You jump to different locations in different periods to root out those anomalies Chrono Trigger-style, and along the way begin to piece together the mystery behind what set all of the chaos in motion. It’s convoluted, but no more so than your standard Dr. Who arc, and a lot easier to follow than FFXIII thanks to the decision to drop much of the jargon associated with that game’s impenetrable world building.
While the premise makes for some gorgeous JRPG sight-seeing, harvesting monsters is what stops every new dungeon from overstaying its welcome. Enemies provide the third companion to round out Serah and Noel’s party, which you capture, grow, and swap between throughout the journey. There are over a hundred, from familiar Final Fantasy staples like chocobos and cactuars to new enemies that include a range of mechanised golems. Each has a unique class and abilities you can augment over time, but filtered back down into the very approachable “paradigm” combat system carried over from the first game. It’s just the right mix of tactical customisation and satisfyingly frictionless combat. Seriously, FFXIII-2 has some of the best systems in the series.
All of this is neat and executed surprisingly well, as Kotaku elder Mike Fahey would have told you if you read his original 2012 review. But on top of this solid foundation FFXIII-2 pulses with an anxious and indomitable energy, from the abundance of puzzles, mini-games, and arcade-like timers and scores to its frenetic, house music-infused soundtrack. Some of these tunes are absolute duds, with nu metal raps that go together with the time-bending landscapes like oil and water. Others are pure jams, ranging from eccentricities to the soul shatteringly transcendent.
On Xbox Series X the game displays at 4K, but even on Series S it still looks more gorgeous than ever and runs magnificently at 60fps. That’s an admirable testament to Microsoft’s ongoing investment in backward compatibility optimisation, but also especially noteworthy considering that players still report issues with the PC version of FFXIII-2 (it’s not clear yet if the PC Game Pass version fixes them) and the game isn’t available on PS5, PS4, or even to stream through PlayStation Now. For shame.
Square Enix spent less than two years on the game, thanks in part to what it could reuse from FFXIII and assistance from outside studios like Tri-Ace. Combined with the toxic name recognition, it made it easy to overlook FFXIII-2 as, at best, a glorified standalone DLC, and at worst, B-sides to a game that soured a generation of Final Fantasy fans on the series’ modern storytelling. FFXIII-2 deserves to get out of the shadow of its older sibling and be judged and appreciated on its own terms.
Maybe we should just start calling it Final Fantasy: Time’s Paradox or something. That sounds kind of cool. Cooler at least than a jumble of Roman and Arabic numerals. Whatever you want to call it, do yourself a favour and give it a try.