Matt has already posted a review on Final Fantasy XIII-2 in the past, and if you are curious about it, you can find that here. For the quick version of it? He scored it 4.5 out of 5 stars and gave a very detailed explanation as to why he was so fond of it. So what am I doing here? Offering a second opinion as I have recently beaten the game myself. Continue on if you are curious as to whether or not we are on the same page about this game.
I will start by saying I enjoyed the first Final Fantasy XIII despite the fact that there were shortcomings that made it a very divisive title for fans, and I agree with Matt's assessment in his review that the Final Fantasy series has become something of a victim of its own success over the years. After having such a long run since the original game and having been responsible for so many epic RPG games, I think there are expectations so lofty that the series may never meet them again.
That being said, there were some legitimate concerns from the first game, such as a story that many people felt was difficult to follow, some characters who annoyed for various reasons (whether it was Snow's cheesiness or Hope's whining), and the very linear structure of the game itself. The flip side was that there were features in XIII that did resonate with people, such as the striking visuals, fluid combat system and flexible leveling systems
Final Fantasy XIII-2 impressed me on several fronts, because it was clear to me that Square Enix heard the fan feedback and made changes accordingly. The good aspects to the game were kept, and many of the more disappointing ones were addressed in one fashion or another. Unfortunately that is not to say the follow-up was perfect as there are some things I still wish had been handled differently.
The graphics are still very good, with vibrant colors and lots to look at throughout the game. This is using the same engine as the original game, which is a couple of years old now, so it is perhaps not quite as impressive as when Final Fantasy XIII first hit the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but I was still impressed more often than not.
The audio is a bit more of a mixed bag, because while I found most of the voice acting to be pretty solid and the sound effect varied, this was one of the more disappointing musical selections in my opinion. There were a couple of tunes that worked well for me, especially some of the slower, vocalized harmonies when you are wandering expansive landscapes that lend themselves to the feeling of isolation, but there were a lot of heavy metal and rock tracks that just felt out of place to me. The wild chocobo one was particularly jarring in my opinion.
The game itself still plays well as you can easily navigate the menus, the leveling system is solid (though I eventually maxed everyone in my party out, somewhat taking away from that feeling of customization in the end) and the combat system returns with a couple of small tweaks like the inclusion of quick time events in a few of the key battles.
Without a doubt the biggest complaint from the original Final Fantasy XIII game was that it was too linear, not really opening up until the very end of the game, which is a sharp contrast from the open world feel most Final Fantasy games have. That being said, I was never particularly bothered by the linear paths of XIII, but it was refreshing to see things opened up and for exploration to be encouraged once again.
For the most part, both Serah and Noel are decent protagonists. They are not up there with some of my favorite Final Fantasy characters of the past like Cloud, Auron or Lightning, but they are not as grating I found Hope, Snow or Tidus in the past either.
In addition to the overall exploration/combat/cut scene formula, there are a handful of different types of puzzles worked into the game. These are something of a mixed bag for me, as puzzle elements can offer a nice change of pace from what you are doing, but if you stumble onto a particular frustrating one, it can really grate on a person's nerves. Some of these puzzles were pretty easy, like the connecting of crystals, while others like the clock-like one drove me a bit nuts at first as I tried to wrap my head around it.
The story was still a bit of a letdown for me. It was at times a bit confusing - not impossible to follow as I have read in other places, but after a time all you hear about are paradoxes and how the only resolution is to travel to some other time. The time travel mechanic was interesting and almost serves as a sort of fast travel. Instead of opening up a map like you would in Skyrim or Fallout, you access a menu that lets you access any unlocked times and locations as rushes you to either the start of that level (if you have not been there before) or resumes right where you left off (in the case of a return visit). Also, I do feel like a game's story should be self-contained. I am fine if there are openings for sequels, but without giving away any specific plot points, this one leaves you hanging on a sequel that I am sure will come, but has not been announced yet and leaves the gamer wondering what will happen since the story is basically incomplete.
There is a lot more side content this time around, with objectives like gathering fragments (some of which can unlock additional game modifications like increased/decreased enemy encounters, heightened enemy difficulty/rarity, playing the game at increased speed, and more), collectible creatures with a very Pokemon type feel to them that you can level up (more on that in a moment) and plenty of side quests. There is a lot to do, but most of it is not terribly difficult. I sunk in around 70 hours, but I unlocked every last thing and achieved my first Platinum Trophy for the PlayStation Network, which was fun.
I mentioned the critter capture system above, which was fun, but also highlighted one of my problems with the game. Most Final Fantasy games (there are a few exceptions like Crisis Core) have large parties of characters that you can swap in and out so you can tailor your team to your preferences. Here you only use Noel and Serah and whatever creature you use for the third character. I suppose this does allow for a more structured narrative and since all of the combat roles can be learned by both Serah and Noel, there is less of a need for multiple characters, but I still would have liked a bit more diversity on that front. Plus, quite simply, I missed Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Now, Lightning is a part of the storyline, as all of the original cast makes some sort of appearance at some point or another in this game, but you never control any of them this time around. At least unless you buy something like the Lightning/Colosseum DLC (which I did, simply because I wanted to make Lightning my third character in my party). This was Square Enix's first run at DLC content and I thought that went fine. I know some people cringed at the idea of it, but if you want outfits, they were there to be purchased and worn. If you wanted something like a weapon, an episode featuring a character or Colosseum opponents you could beat and then add to your party, you had that option. I only bought the Lightning/Colosseum, which was fine by me. It was all segmented out well enough that you could pick and choose what, if anything, you wanted to buy.
Now that the price of the game has dropped quite a bit (it can be picked up on Amazon new for about $20 right now), it might not be a bad time to try Final Fantasy XIII-2 out, especially if you enjoyed the first game. Overall I feel this sequel was a better game than the original, and while far from perfect, was one I was more than happy to sink some time into.