Being a direct sequel, this review contains unavoidable spoilers of the original Final Fantasy X.
Yu-Ri-Pa... Ready! Mission Start!
Peace has returned to the land of Spira and night has fallen over the Luca Blitzball Stadium, home to valiant displays of athleticism in its legacy of sporting tournaments. The thousands of cheering people gathered there tonight, however, have not come expecting grand competition and intense action on the field, but rather, for a truly special musical event that none are likely to soon forget. As flood lights orbit and engulf the magnificent arena with illumination, a woman bearing a striking resemblance to the Grand Summoner takes a step out onto the stage, bringing J-pop sensation Koda Kumi’s hit "Real Emotion" with her. But when heroines Rikku and Paine break through the crowds and chase the mysterious performer to the outskirts of the city, two women who share Yuna’s image confront each other. Who is the real summoner?
That’s former Summoner Yuna to you.
The tale of Final Fantasy X-2 picks up right where its predecessor left off, although only a few years into the future. Even in the wake of Sin’s mass destruction, the people of Spira have managed to rebuild their lives and prosper once again. Organizations of people known as "sphere hunters" have emerged, seeking rare artifacts containing images of the past. Among these groups is the Kamomedan, or the "Seagullers," comprised of Grand Summoner Yuna, the cheerful Rikku, and the despondent Paine: veteran in the field of sphere hunting. To Yuna, however, their task is a very personal one. Being unable to cope with the loss of her beloved guardian Tidus, she discovers a sphere containing a video of the great hero from Zanarkand. He is restless, locked within a jail cell and screaming for help to "protect the summoner." The images within this sphere fuel Yuna’s quest to seek out more and more spheres with the intention of solving this mystery and being reunited with her guardian.
Things are always easier said than done, and the road Yuna must travel is not without obstacles. Her entourage must contend with Le Blanc, a rival sphere hunter who has taken up residence in Seymour’s manor. Then there are Nooj and Baralai, the respective leaders of the Young People’s Alliance and the New Yevon order. These socio-political organizations are at odds with one another for many reasons, the first and foremost being the Vengagun: an extremely powerful, ancient weapon discovered deep beneath Bevelle Temple. If the possibility of total annihilation wasn’t ominous enough, the heart of Final Fantasy X-2’s storyline is fleshed out when vengeful spirits from Zanarkand’s past begin to manifest themselves in the present, intertwining themselves in the lives of Yuna and her companions.
However, this truly promising storyline is not without flaws; many of which exist due to the incredibly incompatible gameplay system used to further the plot. FFX-2 is the first in the Final Fantasy series to employ a mission-based quest system rather than having one continuous storyline. In Final Fantasy X-2, Yuna’s home base is the airship Celcius. The craft is available from the beginning of the game until the very end, and is the port of departure for all of Yuna’s quests. On the airship, the player can look at the world map and select "Active Links" at various places where spheres can be retrieved or other events can occur. A multitude of side quests are also available in each of the game’s five "story levels," or chapters of play, but many of them aren’t necessary in order to complete the game. In fact, FFX-2 can be finished with less than a 50% completion rate.
This system of storytelling isn’t intrinsically bad, however, the incredible potential that non-linearity presents for an RPG must be treated carefully. When not planned well, as illustrated in FFX-2, the result can be disappointing. What spoils the experience is that more than half of the quests found throughout the game have absolutely nothing to do with the overall plot. Most of these missions consist of tedious fetch quests or "talk-to-everybody" events with arbitrary new characters that are not only uninspired and underdeveloped, but entirely expendable in the scope of the drama. The entire adventure felt completely rushed; leaving me disappointed the majority of the time I spent with the game.
Despite these hardships, I hoped gameplay could still save Final Fantasy X-2 from its demise, but unfortunately suffered from the same mediocre performance. FFX-2 was supposed to introduce new and innovative actions like jumping and climbing. This could have added a great platform element to a traditional RPG a la Xenogears, but managed to fall short in FFX-2. Yuna is restricted to using these actions to very specific points on the background. Sadly, these hot spots are not indicated on the map or radar whatsoever. This led to several quests in which I had to hold the X button and run along walls to ensure that I didn’t accidentally miss one of these points. Square could have put a little more effort into reworking this part of the engine and could have brought something fresh and new to the table. Again, this part of the gameplay isn’t necessarily bad, but it certainly could have been better.
The return of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system was a refreshing enhancement to the world of Spira, although the reworked Job system fell incredibly short. Yuna and her friends obtain jobs through relics called "Dresspheres" scattered throughout the world. They are equipped on items known as "Result Plates" that contain a multitude of geometric patterns and slots for jobs to be equipped. Utilization of these plates is strategic, because during battle, a character can only move one space at a time on her plate in order to switch jobs. Also, depending on the plate equipped, movements to certain areas on the plate can also yield statistical bonuses in battle. Each job contains a multitude of skills, and the more time a character spends in a certain job, the more skills she will learn with it. However, the jobs are completely unbalanced, as most of them are almost useless. Taking the time to level-up the vast majority of jobs proves to be a waste of time when a single class (the Dark Knight) clearly surpasses them all. If Square had implemented a system similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, where mastering certain jobs was the key to unlocking others, then the job system would have been much more rewarding. Alas, all jobs are readily available by completing each of the tedious side quests mentioned above.
To add insult to injury, currency is all but useless in Final Fantasy X-2. Enemies drop such obscene quantities of items that players may never have to set foot in a shop. Equipment has been reduced to three generic accessories per character, and although they can be purchased in stores, players can find hordes of better gear in every dungeon. Furthermore, there is an accessory that can be obtained in the first quarter of the game through an incredibly simple side-quest that grants 9,999 damage with every hit. Take into account that the last boss boasts an amazing 25,000 HP and you can see what little challenge FFX-2 really has to present.
Considering the game can be comfortably completed in around fifteen hours, it is a good thing that Square decided to include a New Game+ option in Final Fantasy X-2. Not only does this add a decent amount of replay value to the title, but the best of the game’s four endings is only available on the second time playing through. As you might expect, all Dresspheres, skills, and so forth are carried over from your previous game.
One aspect of FFX-2 that definitely redeems the game is the visual appearance. As we have come to expect from Square, the lush environments and detailed character models they have to offer do not fall short of artistic and graphic nirvana. Water flows as fluidly as the characters’ expressions do and it is always amazing to see what incredible emotion their CG FMV is capable of conveying to the player. This was, without a doubt, one of the greatest highlights of the experience.
The musical score, on the other hand, does not fair as well as the graphics. FFX-2 is the first Final Fantasy to be scored without the direction of the series’ composer and Uematsu’s presence was definitely missed. Even though most of the compositions fit their respective places and themes appropriately, there are very few tracks that contain any sort of energy or feeling whatsoever. I was hoping for the return of some classic themes from Final Fantasy X, or at least a few remixed pieces to create a sense of nostalgia when returning to familiar locations in Spira. Instead, none of these are present. In their place are many uninspired and very generic-sounding tracks that I could not bring myself to get excited over. The heavily jazz-influenced battle theme was a main point of contention that had this reviewer frequently turning down the volume in favor of his own musical selections while playing.
American poet, Walt Whitman, stated, "I am large, I contain multitudes," and likewise, as a menagerie of sorts, Final Fantasy X-2 is a very difficult game to define. Aside from the amazing visual performance, this sequel attempts to merge non-linear gameplay with a potentially breathtaking storyline, but fails to apply much polish. The result is an experience in disarray. The entire production was desperately seeking cohesion, ultimately falling short of expectations. The adventure left this reviewer with an unshakable feeling that the game amounted to little more than an experiment. While a mildly enjoyable diversion that brought a great deal of closure to Final Fantasy X’s storyline, Final Fantasy X-2 was nevertheless, a failed experiment in gaming. Hopefully Square Enix will address some of these problems before the game is released in North America.
All images ©2002 SQUARE
Main Character Design: Tetsuya Nomura
Logo Illustration: ©2002 Yoshitaka Amano