Reviewed On: Xbox 360

Available For: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360

Publisher: Square Enix

Developer: Square Enix and tri-Ace

Genre: Role-Playing Game

Age: 16 (PEGI)

Click here for screenshots

I won't lie - The Final Fantasy series does it for me. The fantasy storylines, the well orchestrated combat and the sheer scale of the games have me engaged. Final Fantasy XIII on the other hand was one of my least favourites, so I wasn't particularly enthralled by the announcement of a sequel. But then I played it.

Lightning, our hero from Final Fantasy XIII is trapped in Valhalla with no means of escape. Wrapped up in a battle of epic proportions with magic, steel and summoned everywhere, she fights hard against her enemy Caius Ballad. Suddenly, Noel Kreiss falls from a time gate, plummeting to what should be his death. Amidst the mayhem Lightning catches him and escorts him to another time gate.

On the other side of the gate Noel finds Serah Farron, Lightnings sister. Because it's three years since Lightning was last seen, it's largely thought she's dead. But when Noel explains to Serah that he's seen her sister, the duo set of on the grand adventure known as Final Fantasy XIII-2 When a video game developer making a sequel claims to have learnt from their mistakes and listen to what the people want, you can usually expect one or two differences which may or may not be for the better. After playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 it's become clear that when Square Enix said they would make improvements, they really meant it. Every aspect of the game has been tweaked, modified or over-hauled for the better.

Square Enix have made the world of Pulse and Cacoon a much bigger and more multi routed haven of exploration by adding something called the Historia Crux. By using this, players can not only choose where they want to travel to, they also have the option to visit those places in different eras. Going back to a location at a different point in time not only means that fashions, fauna and weather may have changed completely, but certain places within that location may now be accessible. To collect everything from each location and to discover all that it has to offer, all eras available for that location will need to be explored.

The Historia Crux is accessed through gates found scattered throughout the lush and variable locations. Although not open to begin with, each is unlocked with the help of a key known as an Artefact. The location of these aren't initially known, and the finding of them often requires a great deal of exploration and combat.

There was little wrong with the combat of Final Fantasy XIII - the Paradigm Shift System meant that characters could take on different roles within the group to suit there needs. Now however, these Paradigms can be switched in mid battle. This means that the characters could be Medics one second and Commandos the next – they could even be a mixture of roles. This creates a mass of options and fighting styles that require a great level of strategy whilst managing to maintain the fast-passed action.

The Paradigms you switch between can be customised and set-up as you need them, some set's work better against some monster and others against others. Your Paradigms can then be saved as a set and loaded back within the menus at any time. It's particularly handy to be able to do this when entering a boss battle that has the potential to last a long time and may call upon a completely different style of combat.

As well as the usual generous smattering of cutscenes that Square Enix always lavishly shower upon us, there's a new type that goes by the mighty exciting name of Cinematic Action. It's during these moments that players must respond quickly in order to press the same buttons being displayed on screen. These sections cant be failed, but negative effects can occur. On the other hand, if the buttons are pushed perfectly, a higher battle score will be awarded.

Players are rated on how they cope with each battle and are awarded not just items and money, but also Crystarium Points – a currency for levelling up characters.

The levelling up of characters has always been a huge part of the Final Fantasy series and none more so than with Final Fantasy XIII-2. Expanding on the Crystarium, a system introduced in Final Fantasy XIII, players can spend their hard earned Crystarium Points on upgrading their characters statistics and abilities as and how they want. Unlike it's predecessor, this latest delve into Pulse and Cacoon enables players to choose how and when they want to level-up instead of being restricted by where they are in the story.

My favourite new addition is the ability to recruit monsters into your team. You'll only ever fight using two characters but the team will be made up with a third entity – a monster. If a monster is captured during a battle it can then be made part of the team. Each monster has its own skills and abilities and can even be tagged to a particular Paradigm, so when you select that Paradigm, the monster associated will then join the battle. If you're low on health, you can call in a monster with the Medic ability. If you need hardcore combat, you call in a Commando.

But the fun with the little critters doesn't stop there. Each of them can also be upgraded in the Crystarium, and can develop new and exciting abilities. Not only that, but they can learn these new found skills off each other. This means that one monster will be lost, but the other will get stronger. There's so much fun to be had in trying to create the ultimate monster – it's like being Frankenstein.

With over 150 monsters to be captured, utilised and upgraded, the level of customisation is absolutely mind-blowing.

The Live Trigger is another new element drafted in. When the games characters are in dialogue, there's occasionally a choice of responses available. Sometimes you'll only be able to choose one and your choice will reflect on how that conversation continues. There's sometimes even an item at stake for the right choice made. Fear not however, any section of the game can be replayed by resetting a gate.

Temporal Rifts are great for breaking up the hi-octane cutscene and the furious combat. These throw a puzzle element into the mix and can really get the brain juices flowing. Each has its own objective which is explained clearly and concisely at the time. They don't occur very often, but when they do, they're a much welcome addition.

But there's one big bellowing belcher of a fly in this otherwise perfectly formed ointment. As the storyline progresses, it goes off the boil slightly. Although it concretes the path perfectly for our heroes' adventure through time and space, it still manages to get itself a little lost. Conundrums of epic grandeur hinder the couples progression whilst they come to the conclusions far too quickly. I'm not saying the storyline is bad – it's certainly not – it's just always very convenient.

The Final Fantasy series has long been one of my favourites, and this latest instalment is amongst the best of them. There's little doubt that this is one of the finest and most feature rich role-playing games I've ever had the good fortune of playing. It's technical in the fact there's so much to do and remember, but it's never to technical that it to retract from the fantasy based funfest it really is.

If you played Final Fantasy XIII and liked it, there's no doubt what so ever that you'll enjoy this. If you disliked XIII, there's so much new included included that you may actually enjoy it this time round. If you never played XIII – doesn't matter – this slice of near perfection is as good a place to start as any.

SCORE: 9 / 10

PROS: Great graphics, a wealth of things to do, great new ideas like the monster collection.

CONS: The storyline gets annoying because it's always too convenient.