Winner: Final Fantasy XIII-2
If you loved Final Fantasy XIII’s unique take on the RPG genre, you might not be happy to hear that, in many ways, XIII-2 was a return to the ways of old. It’s less linear. There’s more exploration. The game, on the whole, feels more like a traditional Final Fantasy game. Then again, there’s a good chance that those things are what you missed the most in XIII – and, in general, XIII-2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor. It caters directly to longtime Final Fantasy fans, unlike its vastly divergent (and therefore highly divisive) predecessor. The return of the moogle is symbolic of this, but its classic tendencies are manifested throughout the game, most notably through its increased focus on exploration and discovery.
If FFXIII was an exercise in form over function, its successor is an exercise in working with what you've got – and doing a brilliant job of it (for the most part). It does some things better than its predecessor, some things worse, but what's most impressive about Final Fantasy XIII-2 is how much of it feels new and different, despite sharing most of its guts with XIII. It’s a wholly new game set within the same universe, and it’s impressive just how fresh Square Enix managed to make it seem.
Runner-up: Soulcalibur V
Soulcalibur V is an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. On the surface, it seems like a fighting sequel that few people actually asked for, yet as you dig deeper into it, the subtle improvements reveal a game that delivers in droves. From new characters that evoke classic ones (but with a clever spin) to stellar visuals, gorgeously fluid framerates and faster-paced gameplay, it’s a striking retort to people who claim the series hasn’t been good since the second game.
There’s depth here for competitive players to jump in and explore, both online and in local tournaments, and there’s an accessibility that lets more casual players enjoy it with friends on the couch. We can’t predict what kind of legs it’ll have, but we hope it catches on with both audiences. It’s a fighter that deserves it.