"Oddly enough, Final Fantasy’s first testing of the murky sequel waters is a sequel in the deepest sense of the word. Often when we say sequel, we mean it in the way that, for instance, Donkey Kong Country 2 is a sequel to its first part: simply a new story with the same characters and settings. Usually, video game sequels don’t follow directly from their predecessor, as producers don’t want to alienate potential buyers who haven’t tried the first title. But Final Fantasy X-2 is a true seq..."
Oddly enough, Final Fantasy’s first testing of the murky sequel waters is a sequel in the deepest sense of the word. Often when we say sequel, we mean it in the way that, for instance, Donkey Kong Country 2 is a sequel to its first part: simply a new story with the same characters and settings. Usually, video game sequels don’t follow directly from their predecessor, as producers don’t want to alienate potential buyers who haven’t tried the first title. But Final Fantasy X-2 is a true sequel -- it directly continues the narrative of Final Fantasy X, though a little time has intervened between the two titles. You’ll want to have finished X before you pick up X-2, but both are worthwhile games.
Just as in Final Fantasy X, we are faced with an adventure in the world of Spira, and naturally our cast of characters is inseparably intertwined with this adventure and indeed, the fate of the world and universe at large. X-2’s heroine is Yuna, the female lead of the original game. In that title she was a disappointment, yet another in a lengthy string of disposable female summoneress leads that began with Final Fnatasy VIII’s Rinoa. While tasked with saving the world (and succeeding, of course) these women displayed all the maturity of say, fourteen year olds, had little character development, and were largely uninteresting. Yuna looked especially bad in comparison to the male stars of FFX, Tidus and Auron, both of whom seemed to overcome apparent one-dimensionality to grow into compelling figures. Long story short, I wasn’t really looking forward to a game starring the Yuna I knew. Fortunately, in the years that have passed since the conclusion of FFX, Yuna’s had a bit of a turnaround, trading in her summoner’s staff for pistols and becoming generally more kick-ass and exciting.
One thing you’ll quickly notice about Yuna is that she’s really moved up in the world, trading in deadweight losers like the mute Ronso bull-man Kimahri for the Spira High cheerleading squad, consisting of returning veteran Rikku and newcomer Paine. Rikku achieves the seemingly impossible by dressing even more whorishly than she did in FFX and coming off as even more of a ditz. Paine fills the goth/punk role admirably on appearance alone, styling a fashionable studded collar as the key accessory of a trendy black ensemble. These aren’t very deep characters, as you might have guessed, and the supporting cast is pretty shallow as well, though updates from familiar faces like Lulu and Kimahri provide some interest for those looking at the story. What’s really weird, is that you probably read the start of this paragraph and felt a negative vibe. But “ditz” and “teen punk” are character forms that fit right into the world of Final Fantasy X-2: Spira is no longer a world centered on survival and death -- indeed, it has become a sedate media culture much like our own, and Yuna is the Britney Spears to its fat, couch-bound masses. Literally -- the game begins with a rock concert featuring none other than the esteemed artiste Yuna herself.
Perhaps because of this, the operational fighting cast is cut back from a traditional six to nine, to our mere trio of girls. This limited set of battlers doesn’t reduce the variety inherent in the fighting system, however, because a development process reminiscent of the Job system holds infinitely branching choices for growth. This incarnation of the job system centers on a diverse wardrobe of outfits. Much like Barbie can play doctor, soldier, or astronaut depending upon what she wears, Yuna, Rikku, and Paine can put on one of many costumes and gain different associated abilities. They can even change in the midst of a ferocious battle. This Dress Up system, in addition to being somewhat self-mocking, is a welcome improvement from the Sphere Grid in FFX, providing a wide range of choices without leaving limitless room for growth. Furthermore, instead of using the completely turn-based system of FFX, Square here returns to its old standby “Active Time Battle.” While using any abilities, or changing Dress Spheres, the battle will continue to progress, so players will need to react quickly and organize attacks decisively. On the other hand, mashing buttons will not be as successful as it might have been in previous games, because in the spirit of teamwork X-2 offers new combo attacks; when two or three girls have a full turn gauge, they can unleash a joint attack with added power. Battles in X-2 often move so fast as to be genuinely difficult and demand strict concentration, but certainly an increased level of difficulty is a welcome change from the most recent Final Fantasies.
More significant than the change to the battle system is an overall shift in the layout of the game from strictly linear to widely selective. Players can essentially complete various missions in any order they want, and many of the missions are optional and even difficult to uncover. Finishing actions ups the player’s completion percentage, and finishing with higher percentages affords one the chance to experience another Final Fantasy trend breaker, the multiple endings of the game. What’s annoying is that it is very easy to miss certain objectives, there’s no real indication when you do miss one, and objectives often must be completed in a precise order or be voided, destroying the freedom from linearity this game purportedly possesses. In fact, like most RPGs, following the story requires you to go from place to place, mission to subsequent mission. One can visit other places but the story only advances in one direction. X-2 is a wide road, and you can pick your lane, but it’s still one road and you can only drive it one way.
This is a more generally stunning departure from previous Final Fantasy games. Not so much in terms of the all-female cast, or the more multilinear plotline, for those are cosmetic alterations, but at a deeper level. The classic themes of Square’s series -- urgent and deepening threat, world level crisis, and unavoidable and often unpleasant self-discovery -- are not present here. They have been dropped in favor of upbeat themes like teamwork and friendship, and while many will argue that it does not “feel like Final Fantasy,” this new feeling is a conscious change on the creators’ parts. FFX-2 is superb for what it is: a mission-based, pick up and play, action RPG. Its connection to the rest of the series is obviously motivated more by brand capitalization than by spiritual similarity, but for once it’s a Final Fantasy that’s fun to play.
Visually, this game offers us nothing really new. The graphics are essentially the same as those of Final Fantasy X; indeed, many of the locations are virtually identical, most of our enemies are similar looking if not identical, and while Yuna et al. have different styles of dress the character models have generally been lifted whole from the first game. It’s not especially bad, however, because the bright colors and sharply realistic world of X and X-2 fits this sequel better than it did the original title, gracing us with lively hues and vibrant cities and towns. The calm beaches and tranquil lagoons of this watery world resonate with the player, putting you genuinely at peace, and one is also delighted to see the small but significant changes to familiar locales. The exception to the overall sameness is the wholly new array of spectacular FMVs. Square has really perfected this art; the opportunity to view these spectacles is reason enough to complete mission after mission.
While nothing much has been done to enhance the visual experience, the flavor of the sound has taken a momentous turn in X-2. Fitting with the generally upbeat tenor of the game, poppy music permeates the score, and the orchestral style that has become a standard of Final Fantasy soundtracks is abandoned in favor of heavy synthesizer and keyboard use. Charming guitar interludes and steady, driving percussion highlight the best of the pop-style pieces. The main featuring tying the X-2 score to previous Final Fantasies is the presence of piano; most of the more somber songs are lead by piano melodies, and I think the overall effect is quite successful.
It would have been difficult, I think, for Squaresoft to supercede what was achieved in Final Fantasy X if they had attempted a sequel along the same lines, especially with a lot of resources tied up in the creation of Final Fantasies XI and XII. Wisely, Square has created a game in a significantly different style, and I find the effort far more successful than I would have anticipated. Told in 2002 that Square would take arguably the weakest character from FFX and put her front and center in a game filled with pop imagery and infused with a teenybopper demeanor, all in their first attempt at a Final Fantasy sequel, I would have predicted a bomb. A million-selling bomb, to be sure -- this is Final Fantasy, after all -- but a crappy game nonetheless. However, Yuna has experienced some remarkable character growth, and the game is perfectly crafted to play up the poppy, girly style without seeming stupid. This was definitely not the “safe” way for director Yoshinori Kitase to go with this title. But Squaresoft rarely goes the safe way, and while this experimentation sometimes results in bad games, like UNLIMITED Saga, it also keeps Final Fantasy lively, fresh, and fun even in this second part of the tenth incarnation.
Community review by denouement (April 24, 2004)
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