Final Fantasy X-2
The first sequel in Square's epic series has finally arrived. Come and find out what makes the all-girl trio tick!
By Ben S. Dutka
In the past, Square has delivered some memorable games, most notably in the role-playing realm. Their recent coupling with Enix, another high-quality Japanese developer, has left fans of the two companies drooling for some classic RPG goodness. And for years, fans of the Final Fantasy series have been screaming for a sequel, a legitimate sequel that builds on a storyline that already exists.
However, one should also note that, in these years of ever-rising video game popularity, the industry has come under fire for a "lack of lead female roles," and a female has never played the lead role in any Final Fantasy. Of course, with the likes of Lara Croft raking in millions of dollars from merely average games, a couple of movies, and hordes of calendars and other merchandise, this writer questions such accusations. Nevertheless, it seems that Square Enix's newest title is killing two birds with one stone.
As usual, Square Enix flexes its considerable graphical muscle in this production. Final Fantasy is known worldwide as a series that always provides the gaming public with unbelievable sights and visuals, and Final Fantasy X-2 does not disappoint. Your jaw will drop at the opening cinema, and more breathtaking cut-scenes and movies will follow. If I had to choose one word that would best define these scenes, it would be this: polished.
The gameplay graphics are very similar to those found in Final Fantasy X, with a few minor enhancements. The backgrounds and environments are still the most impressive; parts of certain towns such as Luca, Besaid, and Kilika almost look like photorealistic snapshots. The characters are wonderfully designed, but as was the case in X, the textures aren't as sharp as they could be, and there is still some shimmering going on. All in all, though, Final Fantasy X-2 is a visual showcase and occasionally, even a masterful graphical production.
In terms of sound, Konami may still be the best in the business, but Square Enix could be sitting solidly in second place if they keep producing titles like this one. Final Fantasy X had the best set of soundtracks since Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy X-2 breaks away from the traditional set, giving us a heftier helping of pop, rock, and even alternative music. The sound effects are sharp and clear, but can get muddled in battle when the characters speak. Although, this is a relatively rare phenomenon, and most should appreciate the overall technical effort.
Contrary to popular belief, the Final Fantasy series has never been purely turn-based. Speed is a factor in all of the titles, and in strict turn-based games (i.e., Disgaea: Hour of Darkness), speed is not considered. Your character(s) move, and then the computer gets its turn; it's that simple. Final Fantasy operates a bit differently. Furthermore, with the addition of the ATB (Active Time Battle) that was in place before FF X-2, there can be an even heavier emphasis on the action if the player wants a change of pace.
This sequel takes it a step further, and the action in battle is faster than ever. The enemies attack at an almost real-time rate, and it will be the player's responsibility to think and act quickly. This is great for the sake of flow and pace, but with more options than ever before in battle, it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Remember, in this case, the game tutorials are your friend.
The defining aspects of FF X-2's gameplay are things called Dress Spheres and Garment Grids. A Dress Sphere allows one of the three characters to change into a new costume, thus changing their class. Those of you that remember Final Fantasy Tactics will remember the Job System, and this is somewhat similar. These Spheres are placed on Garment Grids, and can then be accessed at all stages of the game, including battle.
There are many Dress Spheres to find in the game, and they range from Gunner, Warrior, and Thief to Dark Knight, Samurai, and Alchemist. The traditional Mage classes are back, including Black, White, and Blue. However, the "Blue Mage" here is the Gun Mage, who uses the Blue Bullet ability to learn enemy skills. You can place these spheres strategically on a Garment Grid, so by changing classes in battle, you can actually raise your characters' statistics by passing through "gates" on the grid.
Changing classes in battle is as simple as pressing L1, and selecting where on the grid you'd like to go (i.e., which class you wish to change to). Each class has a set of specific abilities that, of course, can only be learned by using that class in battle. You gain AP (Ability Points) with each enemy you defeat, and you may learn one ability per class at a time. As a side note, each character has a special Dress Sphere that will cause all three members of the party to merge into one massive attacking machine, but you must change into all the classes currently equipped on your Grid before you can make this awesome transformation.
The sphere hunters, Yuna, Rikku, and Paine, are easily controlled in battle, despite the number of options you may have. If you find that the battle is progressing too quickly and you need a break, you can always just hit pause and take stock of the situation. Believe it or not, you may find yourself doing this often in tough boss battles.
The new action-style, mission-based gameplay in FF X-2 works extremely well. Each chapter has many missions to find and complete, and you are free to explore the world right from the beginning with the versatile and always-available airship. Be certain to explore every nook and cranny of Spira, completing all the missions you find, because it will usually contribute to the overall game completion percentage.
Also, while it's not exactly a platformer, the Final Fantasy characters are a bit more active when roving the landscape. Yuna can leap across gaps and clamber up rocky slopes simply by pressing and holding the Circle button. This isn't difficult to do, but it can be frustrating when you fall in a particularly annoying area. Still, there's no need to worry about gauging the distance of jumps or anything like that.
The missions are diverse and cleverly designed, the world of Spira is full of interesting characters and strangely beautiful places, and battles are absolutely everywhere. The speed can be troublesome at times, and you may not like the new number-driven mini-game (Sphere Break), but in the end, the gameplay is a wonderful blend of action and complex role-playing; a merge that is not easily accomplished.
The game features well over 40 hours of gameplay, and that is only for your first time through. You may go back through FF X-2 after clearing the game, permitting you access to even more goodies, and ratcheting up the gameplay time significantly. Tons of spheres to find, missions to complete, abilities to master, and classes to experiment with; FF X-2's depth is undeniable. The Sphere Grid in FF X was excellent, but this format gels beautifully with the style of gameplay.
For the guys out there afflicted with the "machismo bug," and can't find enjoyment in a game with no major male roles, you're missing out. All three of the girls are interesting and even likeable, with the possible exception of Rikku's occasional "teen brat" routine. Both Yuna and Rikku were characters in Final Fantasy X, and Paine is the new member of the FF team. She's quiet and doesn't smile much, but she's also deadly in battle. It's entirely up to you which classes you use most, and how you assign them to each character, giving you a great sense of freedom.
The game's story revolves around the three Sphere Hunters. They collect these spheres, and within each sphere is a portion of the past, viewed in fuzzy movie clips that are hints to help explain the overall picture. Final Fantasy X veterans will easily recognize parts of these spheres, but the developers don't give too much away for those that have not yet played X-2's predecessor. With the character design and development, solid storyline, and glossy finish, the presentation of Final Fantasy X-2 is nearly perfect.
In retrospect, I must say that I was one of the few fans that opposed the idea of a sequel, and after the rumors of an over-emphasis on "girl power," my hopes weren't very high for this particular installment. However, after the first Chapter, I was sold. Underneath the gorgeous exterior, the intense battles, the menu screens loaded with abilities, grids, and spheres, and the tons of missions, there is something else: fun. To be perfectly honest, all these other things don't mean much of anything unless the game is fun, and I must say that I have enjoyed myself very much.
It may score a smidgen lower than Final Fantasy X, but in all fairness, the games are actually quite different, more different than I would have expected. Square Enix has given us a worthy sequel, and even better, one of the best games of the year.
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Final Fantasy X-2 (520x340)
Gorgeous video sequence including lots of in-game action.