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No return to form.

ONCE upon a time, the name "Square" was a byword for excellence and having Final Fantasy on the box meant the game was something special.

But since the Japanese firm's ill-advised foray into filmmaking and merger with Enix, the developer'sS output has largely failed to capture the magic of their illustrious past.

Indeed by 2010's Final Fantasy XIII, with its un-F-like linear corridors and tunnels, it began to feel like the firm was running in the wrong direction and fans were quick to voice their considerable ire.

Some have suggested XIII-2 might be the apology for that misstep and while it is true the return to Cocoon and Gran Pulse is a great improvement, it is no second coming.

Picking up where its predecessor left off we find angsty heroine Lightning now defending a timeless realm from what appear to be evil forces.

Midway through a stunningly animated cutscene battle she meets a stranger from the end of humanity and sends him back in time to bring her formally crystalline sister Serah to her.

The pair then spend the game hopping back and forth through time in a Chrono Trigger-esque series of thankfully rather open levels.

No longer following a single, set path, you are offered webs of rooms to explore and with plenty of treasures hidden away to keep even the most ardent explorer busy this at least feels far more like a traditional Final Fantasy game.

Add to that the optional diversions from the main story - which only probably takes around 25 hours - and there is enough to keep fans coming back for more.

Improved too is the battle system. While Serah and her time-travelling companion Noel are the only playable human characters, the third slot in the party is filled by a monster ally. Defeat a beastie and there's a chance you'll tame it, then have the option to make use of its special skills.

You've got to admit that if the Pokemon series teaches us nothing else it's that "catching them all" has a particular allure, even if the levelling system feels a little undercooked.

The Paradigm Shift mechanic also makes a return, though vastly sped up, which helps give combat a welcome adrenaline boost and the autobattle option seems to make sensible choices based on what you know of your enemies.

However, improving the gameplay comes at a high cost. By abandoning the focus of a linear story in favour of a modular exploration, it robs the narrative of coherence. Indeed, beyond the motivation to try and reach Lightening there is little driving the plot forward and that dilutes any intended emotional punch the finale is meant to have.

But that is far from the worst offence XIII-2 commits.

For a game in a franchise where we have come to expect soaring, memorable music - to the point of involuntarily humming To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X while eating your Cornflakes - the score is an abominable assault on the ears.

The vocal-heavy soundtrack veers wildly across genres and you could be forgiven for playing the entire game with your TV's volume on mute - not least to escape the equally terrible voice acting. Add to that the inclusion of a downloadable content feature, which bodes ill for any gamer who wants to feel they've a complete game from the outset, and the overall feeling is a little soured.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a diverting enough game and one more deserving of the name than it's predecessor. But Square still need to go back and learn some of the lessons about what made their previous games great.

This is a baby step in the right direction, but it's nowhere near enough to silence those who would like the firm's next game to be a remake of Final Fantasy VII.

MICHAEL BROWN Final Fantasy XIII-2 Platform: PS3, Xbox 360. Developer: Square Enix. Price: pounds 39.9.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 3, 2012
Words:655
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