Let's get it out of the way right now: Final Fantasy XIII-2 is actually pretty good. It avoids a lot of the mistakes made by Final Fantasy XIII and provides a fresh, open RPG that gives you plenty of options in gameplay and encourages you to wander off the beaten path.
Final Fantasy XIII was far from perfect. While it was received well by critics and has a strong fanbase, there were many (accurate) complaints about how linear the game was, how it railroaded you along a single corridor for twenty hours, not even letting you level up until a few hours in.
To make matters worse, its story was a total mess: while its plot was good, about cursed individuals taking on godlike beings and unraveling a web of lies and prejudice, the game's writing left a lot to be desired. You're dropped into the middle of the action, with everybody talking about l'Cie and fal'Cie and Cie'th and... well, you get the picture. It was convoluted and messy, even giving players an in-game Cliffs Notes to explain what the story didn't.
And here's where Final Fantasy XIII-2 starts doing things right: it explains the entire first game's story in a few well-written paragraphs, and a few flashbacks sprinkled throughout its own (somewhat) simplified story. Cutting the focus down to two characters (Serah, sister to XIII's Lightning, and newcomer Noel) makes the time-hopping adventure feel a lot more personal, even if I'm wondering why in hell Noel keeps making eyes at an engaged woman.
If there was one thing I truly enjoyed about Final Fantasy XIII, it was its battle system. What was officially titled "Command Synergy Battle" was a fast-paced combination of the series' staple Jobs System and the automated Gambit System from Final Fantasy XII. Command Synergy Battle returns, promoting synergy like a boss updating what was probably the strongest part of FFXIII. Paradigm Shifts are now faster, requiring you to learn enemies' tells for when to strategically defend, heal, buff your characters and press the offensive. Yes, there are Quick-Time Events during the game's cinemas--I honestly think I'm the only person on Earth who genuinely likes them--but they're completely optional.
Like I mentioned before, Final Fantasy XIII-2 encourages exploration. While the main game itself is short for a FF game--around 25-30 hours--it enourages multiple replays and completely exploring the different branching timelines you create, opening up the game's nine different endings. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the game is Chrono Trigger quality, but it does feel like Square-Enix wanted to create a more open experience, feeling more like a traditional RPG than Final Fantasy XIII's "direct, cinematic ride." You'll even have random puzzle segments (called Temporal Rifts) scattered about the game to open up more areas and uncover paths to alternate time periods.
That "wander around and blunder into the next plot point" mentality will lead you into the path of some powerful monsters, many of whom you can recruit in place of a third party member. Unfortunately, the system is kind of limited--I only found a few truly viable options among the game's bestiary, letting almost all of the sidelined monsters get eaten by my newsboy-cap-wearing Behemoth named Furball to increase his stats.
Everything about the game feels like Square-Enix was following a checklist based on avoiding what fans didn't like from Final Fantasy XIII. It's relatively non-linear, fixes what minor problems the battle system had, gives you towns and shops (in the form of Chocolina, who reminds me a little too much of Flo from the Progressive ads) and what I most sorely missed in FFXIII--the ability to just talk to random people in towns. Final Fantasy XIII didn't let you talk to anybody--just listen in on conversations unless a person had a big yellow exclamation point over their heads.
As we've shown, the game has a "to be continued" ending--one of them, anyways. Does this mean that we're getting a Final Fantasy XIII-3? Or will it tie into Final Fantasy Versus XIII, which everybody is inexplicably excited about despite how little real information there is? In any case, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does a lot right and very little wrong. I don't think I'm ever going to revisit Final Fantasy XIII, but its sequel is the first time I've had fun with a console JRPG in a very long time. Its music, voice acting, and graphics are up to Square-Enix's usual high standards, but this time, Square has actually given us a strong game in addition to all the usual trimmings.