Review: Yuna: Gimme a Y! Rikku: Gimme an R! Paine: Gimme a break.
They always say there's a first time for everything. While the Final Fantasy series has now seen 11 installments (including FFXI, not including FFXII), none of them are related to one another, whatsoever. Each game has similarities and familiar characters, but none intertwine with another. Until now anyway. Thanks to the resounding success of Final Fantasy X, the very first PlayStation 2 installment, the braintrust at Square Enix decided to take a route never once traveled ? a direct sequel. Given that the ending of FFX was quite open-ended, it left many opportunities for a continuation of the story, making it a perfect fit to take this opportunity to do something a little different.
Final Fantasy X-2 (that's ten-two, not 12, like the WWE was doing with WrestleMania a few years back) is the result, and even though it's a sequel, with familiar characters, locales, and visual engine, X-2 is a shockingly different Final Fantasy game, mixing in some trademark RPG tactics presented in a whole new style, along with a deceptively strong story and un-traditional progression. It's not the landmark that FFX was (as it is my personal favorite in the series), but few other RPG's on the PS2 can compare to the high quality of Final Fantasy X-2. Let the naysayers have their day ? they're missing out on a game that goes well beyond initial stereotypes, and truly attempts to bridge the differences between a western RPG and an eastern one, to draw new fans to a long-running franchise.
Final Fantasy X-2 picks up 2 years after the events of FFX (I suggest you find the means to view the ?Eternal Calm? video that's on the Official US PlayStation Magazine demo disc, as it will greatly bridge the gap between X and X-2, instead of leaving you scratching your head as to why Yuna now is half-naked and toting twin lawgivers and singing at Luca stadium). Sin is gone permanently, the Eternal Calm is here, and Yuna is rolling around with Rikku in an airship, hunting spheres that reveal bits and pieces of Spira's history ? history forgotten over the prior millennium, thanks to Sin's rampaging. Yuna isn't doing this for the glory of hunting spheres with her fellow friends ? instead, it's her hope of finding information as to whether or not Tidus, the hero of Final Fantasy X, is alive somewhere on Spira, or not. Along the way, the Gullwings (the name of Yuna's sphere hunting team) get dragged into yet another conflict, one that could ruin the Eternal Calm and bring more years of misery to Spira. Going any further would spoil what's otherwise an excellent story that Square Enix managed to keep under wraps somehow, and it will definitely silence the critics who think that the game is entirely a cheap Charlie's Angels knockoff.
In addition to Yuna and Rikku, the party gains a brand new member, in Paine. Paine is an interesting character, but not one I personally like. Just imagine a female version of Auron, only not as cool as Auron was, and you've pretty much got Paine. At first, she's mysterious and quiet, and actually doesn't even fit in while Yuna and Rikku have fun aboard the airship Celsius. Thankfully, her character finally takes flight later in the game, but prepare for caring little about her until then. Many familiar faces do return, such as Wakka, Lulu, and Kimahri, who of course were Yuna's guardians on her pilgrimage to defeat Sin, along with some secondary characters. Many actually enlist your help in various quests, as to dig in the fact that these are old friends and acquaintances that are pleased to see Yuna out and about enjoying the life she fully expected to sacrifice in order to topple Sin.
The 3 party system is a bit of a downsize from the 7 party system of FFX, but it's actually made up for with the Dressphere system. In a very cool twist, FFX-2 brings back the classic job-oriented system of past Final Fantasy games, by acquiring the proper Dresspheres to unlock the power to the characters. Matching the Dresspheres with a Garment Grid lets YRP swap jobs on the fly, in the middle of combat, if necessary. At the outset, only a limited set of Dresspheres are available (Yuna's standard Gunner, Rikku's Thief, and Paine's Warrior), but as you progress you unlock more and more ? some are handed out for beating a mission, others are hidden quite well or require an extensive side quest to unlock. When you do find them though, you can set up characters to compliment the party properly, be it using magic with the Black and White mages, an ultra-strong Dark Knight class that decimates weak foes, and even a riff on the old Bard class with the Songstress, that uses dancing and singing to either strengthen the party or inflict ailments on the fiends you encounter on your journey through Spira. As you fight with these Dresspheres, the characters use AP to earn new abilities, balancing out the Gullwings in case a switch is necessary ? and really, if you want to get 100% completion, you will need to do plenty of job switching if you want to beat some of the most difficult bosses and encounters. In many ways, the Dressphere system is like having a gigantic party to work with, which leads to a lot of different ways of toppling foes and building up an unbeatable party with unique skills.
The aforementioned Garment Grid is the ?replacement? for the Sphere Grid, replaced by a traditional leveling up system. It's a step backwards in some respects, but given that the SG was the way to learn abilities along with increasing the strength of your characters, it's probably for the best, as the huge amount of Dresspheres and job classes would probably cause too much of a headache with the gigantic Sphere Grid. And since you can make any character into any job at pretty much equal strength, it's not really that necessary, unlike FFX where you could make Yuna a killer black mage and Lulu into an effective thief, or whatever. Basically, if you want a character to be strong in particular class, you don't have to fight the system, since the system is right there to do just that. It ends up working very well.
FFX-2 makes a return to the more traditional Active Time Battle (ATB) replacing the Conditional Time Battle (CTB) from Final Fantasy X. While I really enjoyed the strategic CTB, and it was a nice change of pace from the hectic ATB madness, the ATB in FFX-2 works quite well and even works to your benefit often thanks to the chain system. Basically, if you time the immediate attacks at the same time, YRP will attack in succession, with each hit registering more damage as the chain builds up. If you have a group of gunners or warriors, you can pull off some devastating chains that will wipe away the HP of some tough fiends pretty quickly. Depending on the ability you use, the ATB recharges slower sometimes, meaning if you want to use the Gunner's Trigger Happy special (a perfect beginning for a chain, as you can register up to 20 hits at one time on Trigger Happy Lv. 3), it will double recovery time. Other specials use magic points and don't slow the recharge, offsetting the slowdown of Trigger Happy recharge.
Otherwise though, if you have one of the 3 mages (Gun, Black, and White) or pulling off some stuff as a Dark Knight (a brilliant and worthwhile Dressphere that is well worth hunting down, as it's fairly well hidden in the depths of Bevelle), there's a slight delay to charge up the attacks ? the White and Black mages can reduce the time by 66% by leveling up to take the heat off in heftier battles later in the game. There's also a slight delay when using items, making for some hairy moments if you're hurting ? better off to build up either a White Mage or the Alchemist to make things easier. Even when using warrior class break moves like armor or power take time to charge up, making for a bit of a delay before easing the battle a bit.
All this still doesn't stop the fact that the ATB initially is incredibly fast moving and actually a bit confusing at first, especially coming off the more relaxed CTB of FFX. Thankfully, FFX-2 lets you adjust the ATB a bit, slowing the process down and letting you set the game to ?wait' so you don't get Perdition's Flame while finding the proper healing items to prepare for it, as it pauses the combat to let you wade through your items and abilities.
The largest advancement in Final Fantasy X-2 is the gameplay itself. While past FF games have made you follow a set path that offers little room to improvise, FFX-2 throws it all out the window and breaks the traditional Final Fantasy processes. First off, you get the Celsius, the Gullwing airship deluxe, right away. As such, you may travel to all the areas of Spira, right away. Thus, progression can be different for everyone, even though some places don't have anything to do right away other than exploring and doing some of the various sidequests involving the Calm Lands.
FFX-2 is entirely mission based ? once you trigger a mission, a ?Mission Time!? screen pops up, and you start the quest. Game progression and completion percentage advances with the completion of many of the missions, though some are just silly sidequests to break up the main storyline. Some people might roll their eyes at a few missions, but if you want the holy grail of 100%, they must be done.
The one disadvantage of a free-roaming game like this is knowing where to go next if you want to progress. Thankfully, Square Enix put in Hotspots, which show where the story will progress. Locales become Hotspots either via missions in other areas, item finding, or by advancing to the different chapters that comprise the game. You don't have to tend to the Hotspots right away, unless it's a forced one (which is few and far between), letting you handle things at your own pace. The thing to keep in mind is to make sure all the non-Hotspots have been taken care of if you want a perfect 100% completion, as some quests disappear after major events or a chapter completion.
Why bother with 100% (something that is very hard the first time around, more likely on another playthrough)? Because you want to unlock the best ending right? Another first in Final Fantasy X-2 is the addition of multiple endings. Depending on how much you see of the game, be it cutscenes and other random events (there's a lot to gain a perfect score), you'll get one of 3 different endings. Naturally, the 100% ending is the absolute best, making it a good goal to go after, perhaps after seeing the other endings though. Smartly, a ?New Game Plus? becomes available after clearing the game once, letting you keep all your items and abilities the next time around, letting you get what you missed to make that magical 100% completion. FFX-2 has to be the first FF game that is worthy of playing again immediately after beating it the very first time, thanks to this.
Of course, in addition to the main game, there's a virtual assload of mini-games to undertake. Everyone's favorite Blitzball is back, in a much different form. Now, you have no hands-on activity, only coaching, as you take the Gullwings (yes, Yuna now can play Blitzball, since she's been practicing holding her breath underwater in the past 2 years) to the title. The process is familiar, and not as annoying as the FFX version. It's entirely optional though, with no bearing on completion percentage.
What IS mandatory for 100% is the Sphere Break game. If you suck at math, you'll be furious with anger, as SB is a purely math-based game that can be either mindlessly easy or aggravatingly difficult ? yet required to unlock a Dressphere by winning the Sphere Break tournament in Luca. Also required is the Gunner's Gauntlet, a shooting game that you must beat to fully complete the game. It's not as bad as the Sphere Break game, but it's pretty tough at first, requiring not only a quick trigger but also fast thinking.
The Calm Lands is the best place to play though, with some seriously quirky games taking place that mean nothing other than finding something to waste gil on since you'll be making gil hand over fist. You'll want to still check it out though, as it does involve a relaxed sidequest that only increases the games at the former hosting place of the battles between Sin and Summoner.
It's pretty difficult to really put into words just how all this works together to create a great RPG that is leagues different than any other Final Fantasy game. Nearly everything works right, and has a purpose ? even the naysayers who pointed out the silly pop diva Yuna (who continues to demonstrate how to properly create a strong, yet endearing heroine character properly, as she carries the bulk of 2 consecutive games) story will be shocked how much meaning it has to the story of the game ? the purpose of it, and how it ties in with Yuna's constant references to connections and how all the threads meet up somewhere will pleasantly surprise anyone a bit nervous that FFX-2 would lack the drama and/or meaning of other FF games. The mix of silly stuff actually makes sure that the game doesn't overdose on melodrama like FFX tended to at times, and is quite refreshing after some particularly dramatic parts (and there are some incredibly dramatic and emotional scenes to remind everyone that yes, this is a sequel to the bittersweet Final Fantasy X). The wide array of sidequests and hidden items and scenarios that only unlock via making the right choices (a very western-ish addition to the genre of Japanese RPG) will add hours to the game, even if you've beaten it a few times. There's just so much to do in Spira ? some serious, some just plain amusing, that the fact that you're exploring an area that you know from FFX can be lost fairly quickly. In so many ways, Final Fantasy X-2 is Japan's attempt at adding western-style RPG traits with traditional RPG characters and battles, and it winds up flowing very well ? especially for a first try. One can only hope that this risky business will be attempted more often in new entries to this series, to bridge the gap between east and west role-playing games.
This is not to say that the game is perfect, as it's not. There are a few moments in tedium, though they're few and far between. The ATB is done well here but it's too random at times and lacks the strategic elements of the CTB, adding a mental chess game to the boss fights. The other downside is there's only a few new sections of familiar Spiran territory, with no totally new locales to explore. There's not even a way to find hidden areas like FFX's Baaj Temple and Omega Ruins, both of which could have been goldmines for hidden items and quests for spheres, given the unknown history of the locales. The Garment Grid is also a bit annoying, as you earn so many different Grids throughout the game that knowing which one is better than others is a game in itself. Some add new elements or abilities, but it would have been better had there been less of them to hunt down.
The only other mentionable problem with FFX-2 is some mega-cheap bosses. A few unmentionable bosses use their special moves way too often and seem to get 2 turns for each 1 of yours, leading to some hard times unless you level up enough to tackle it. The sidequest bosses seem to be the roughest, most notably the nasty, nasty fiend in the Bikanel Desert who can wipe your party to bits in 10 seconds if you don't assemble the right party and have the right abilities. It can be a drag to fight for a good while only to lose, and that can happen often in FFX-2 if you're not prepared or strong enough.
Other than that, very little is technically ?wrong? with Final Fantasy X-2 ? at least not things that are worth mentioning. Everything that needs to click in an RPG clicks here, and the hours wash away when you pop the game into your PS2. Anyone who isn't an image-conscious loser afraid to play a game with 3 female leads and lighten up to have some outright fun in this genre, anyway (I find it amusing that so many whine about carbon copy RPG's yet FFX-2 tries different stuff and is knocked for it). It's probably not as good as Final Fantasy X, which had its own brand of creativity coming out its orifices, but on its own FFX-2 is a great game that goes to show that Square Enix can go beyond the typical RPG mechanics, loosen up, and just have fun instead of being overloaded with a maximum dose of melodrama.
As FFX-2 shares the same engine and locales as its predecessor, the visual presentation isn't much different than FFX. Thankfully, FFX is still impressive today, thus FFX-2 looks great. A good set of the locales are slightly different thanks to the effect of Sin's departure ? Kilika Port, once a small port town with few residents is now a thriving town, expanding without fear of Sin destroying all they've worked for. The Thunder Plains are no longer ravaged with lighting strikes everywhere, and the Zanarkand Ruins have been transformed into a tourist attraction. Yet other places remain the exact same ? most notably the beautiful, picturesque Besaid Island ? for good reason too (Lord Braska did well picking Besaid for Yuna to live, even if it means having to hear the locals say ?ya' all the time). This adds some freshness and demonstrates how things have changed, or not changed, in the 2 years since Sin was sent to bed without any dinner. The unique style of Spira is still in full force, crafting a game that looks nothing like a typical FF game; bright, colorful and varied with numerous sights to take in, making for a journey that is full of different and varied locales.
Of course, I'd be remiss without mentioning the great CG cutscenes that appear from time to time ? ever so slowly, Square Enix creates CG that looks more realistic, in terms of animations and body language, even comparing to the Final Fantasy movie bomb of 2001. They're well worth spending the gil on in the Sphere Theatre in Luca to view multiple times, most especially the exciting opening cutscene at the beginning of the game.
While the summons and the summon animations are gone, they make up for it with the Spherechanges when changing Dresspheres. The change between classes is done in a dramatic, cool style, similar to how Yuna would have summoned her Aeons in FFX. They're not overly long though, making them both nice to look at yet also done fast enough as to not wear out the coolness of them by the 3rd change. The characters themselves have gone through a nice upgrade ? better expressions and realistic eye movements along with better details and costume textures bring more life to the characters, something needed in this sort of game. Yuna's 5 foot ponytail is a bit disturbing though. It's not a wild improvement over FFX, but good enough to be considered a solid improvement.
Rounding out the game is the stellar soundtrack. There's a wide margin of variety in the FFX-2 soundtrack, with enough genres mixed in to satisfy pretty much anyone. From the hauntingly somber, yet beautiful title screen music (which is hardcore foreshadowing at its finest, really), to the silly, yet catchy poppy fight themes and character themes (especially Yuna's Theme, which is excellent), and the jazzy interludes here and there, it has variety that few other FF soundtracks can claim. As silly as it may sound to have a groove-driven dance song playing while you're hunting fiends occasionally, it portrays the fun the Gullwings are having, rather than any sense of urgency. Unfortunately, nothing is reprised from FFX, which is a shame, as some themes are better than the newer ones (such as the goofy Mi'hen Highroad music in FFX, far superior to FFX-2's incarnation). But no matter, FFX-2 carries a typically strong soundtrack, only now with a lot more variance in terms of themes. And yes, you may listen to them at the Sphere Theatre ? though I'd say it's worth grabbing the import soundtrack to listen to without distractions.
Voice acting makes its return, and overall it's pretty much on par with FFX, with a few strange moments here and there. If the character was in FFX (and wasn't either a dream or an unsent), their part has been reprised with the same actor. Thus, not only do Yuna and Rikku have the same voice actors, their friends Wakka & Lulu do as well. Brother (captain of the Celsius?scary thought, eh?) actually has even learned to speak?err?the Spiran language (can't call it English I guess) instead of blurting out everything in Al Bhed, which is a cool touch ? though his obsession over Yuna is pretty silly. Even the bit part players such as Maechen (the old guy who had the entire history of Spira locked in his rather large hat), Cid (who's a particularly funny character this time, even more than FFX) Issaru, and Dona (among others) maintain the same voices. The best part is the improved activity for the Hypello race ? the Shoopuf drivers now do some other stuff (such as Barkeep in the Celsius ? Mish Yoona, can I helpsh yoo?), and have a huge presence in Spira. There's some campy dialogue, but that's more translation rather than acting. Yuna (voiced by Hedy Burress) is especially improved ? good idea since she's now the main character and heroine ? she pretty much nails the shy summoner attempting to turn into a gun-toting badass thing. Of course, there's plenty of new voice talent here, and all of them do a nice job of playing their parts. It does seem like there's less acting going on, with more bubble windows instead, but it's not as if they eliminated the voices altogether. When it's necessary, you get the quality voice acting.