There have been a lot of adjectives used to extol the virtues of SquareSoft's Final Fantasy series since its debut on the NES in the late '80s. One word that probably hasn't been used much is "fabulous," spoken with the inflections usually reserved for hair salons or the sidelines of fashion show runways. However, the word is very appropriate for describing the goofy fun being served up in Final Fantasy X-2, which revisits the Final Fantasy X world to tell an original story. We recently picked up a Japanese copy of the game and have been exploring what is arguably the most original title from Square in quite some time.
Final Fantasy X-2's story opens some time after the close of Final Fantasy X, and it follows Yuna, the young summoner who played a pivotal role in the final battle against Sin in FFX. But the Yuna you'll meet in FFX-2 is a far cry from the person she was in the last game. The young woman's quest to find her place in the world has led her to hook up with Rikku, the perky thief from FFX. The pair have become part of a "sphere" hunting clan known as the Kamome clan. In the wake of the battle against Sin, clans of sphere hunters have risen up to look for these mystical items, which have been scattered throughout the world. Yuna's attraction to the profession stems from her discovery of a sphere that contains footage of an imprisoned man who looks suspiciously like Tidus. Eager to learn more about the imprisoned man, Yuna sets out with her clan aboard the Celsius, a swanky multilevel airship, complete with minibars and disco music pumping through its halls, to explore Spira. A bit of drama is injected by the presence of a rival clan, the LeBlanc gang, which is led by the busty LeBlanc, a woman who clearly doesn't know the meaning of the word "modesty."
If the game's story sounds like an odd mix of serious and zany material, that's because it is. FFX-2 doesn't really make any bones about the fact that the experience it offers is dramatically different than FFX, as evidenced by the J-pop-dance-number/battle it opens with. The game's tone is pretty much set by the opening sequence, which harks back to the campy style of Charlie's Angels and Modesty Blaise. You'll find that the numerous real-time and in-engine cinematic sequences used in FFX-2 maintain that tone, although the game does manage to insert some serious elements into the story. As a result, the game seems to have a rather schizophrenic personality, in that it alternates between light, campy moments and heavier moments on the fly.
Final Fantasy X-2 takes several of the core mechanics of FFX and puts a new spin on them. The game features a pretty standard mission-based structure, but if you spend a bit of time poking around the world, you'll find a decidedly more free-form experience lying in wait. Your missions will be arranged in a tiered story system. Groups of missions will comprise a numeric "story level" that will increase as you complete them. So, if you complete the missions that make up story level one, you'll advance to story level two and gain access to a new set of missions. While this may sound pretty linear in theory, there's quite a bit more to it in practice. Once you clear some of the early missions, you'll gain access to the entire world map via the Celsius.
The required missions for your story level will show up as highlighted "active links" on the world map and feature a star rating to give you an idea of their difficulty. One-star missions are a cakewalk, while five-star missions can be quite a bit of work. While you'll obviously want to tackle the active link missions to advance, you'll be given the option to explore just about any location you like on the world map. Checking out areas that don't contain active link markers will produce varying results. In some cases, you won't find much to do outside of chatting up the people milling about, but you'll usually find something to occupy yourself with, be it undertaking a side quest or uncovering a new snippet of plot. As far as the actual tasks you'll be performing in the missions, expect a disparate range of objectives that matches the campy/serious tone. Traditional action levels that send you looking for an item in an area are balanced out by far loopier missions that involve everything from delivering massages to stealing outfits.
As far as gameplay goes, Final Fantasy X-2 beefs up the gameplay seen in FFX with an intricate job system and a bit of traditional platforming during the exploration sequences. The core turn-based mechanics are back, but they've been brought a little closer to the traditional active time battle system Square has been perfecting throughout the long history of the FF series. However, standard combat actions such as physical and magic attacks are now supplemented by the dress-up system, which is quite possibly the wackiest element ever seen in an RPG combat system. The system is a variation on the job system seen in FFV and the PlayStation and GBA Final Fantasy Tactics games, but with a much more "fabulous" spin to it. You'll be able to switch any of your characters into a different outfit on the fly during a battle, in a sequence that recalls the aeon-summoning cinematics from FFX. The outfits you'll have open to you will depend on the character you're controlling and the outfits available to him or her on the miniature sphere grid. The cosmetic change affects the character's stats and combat options, providing such perks as new attacks or improved defense. Additionally, each new set of threads for the ladies opens up a host of new skills and abilities that can be earned and mastered, which adds a surprising amount of depth to the feature. While it sounds and looks magnificently bizarre, the dress-up option adds an impressive tactical element to the combat that will keep you on your toes.
The graphics in Final Fantasy X-2 are a notable improvement on the graphics in FFX. While the two games may look roughly similar, the visuals in FFX-2 are far sharper. You'll notice a higher level of detail and improved facial animation on the characters, as well as a different look for many of the locations seen in FFX. Yuna, Rikku, and Paine all sport a high level of detail and sauciness, thanks to some impressive character design. The environments are a slick mix of real-time and rendered elements with a nice amount of animation and activity to bring them to life.
The game's audio is a mix of enthusiastic voice acting, solid ambient sound, and an eclectic selection of tunes that's highlighted by the game's support of Dolby Pro Logic II. Yuna and the gang sound great in Japanese, and the voice work certainly captures the different characters' personalities. The ambient sound complements the various locales you'll be visiting perfectly and provides a bit of personality. The game's music is a very, very eclectic mix of staid piano music and far more disco-oriented fare that goes so far as to recall Shaft in some spots. It may be a jarring combination for some, but, believe it or not, it all works in the context of the game.
Final Fantasy X-2 is likely to be viewed as an aberration in Square's acclaimed Final Fantasy franchise. The game is a distinct change of pace from just about everything the developer has done before in terms of story, gameplay, and presentation. While FFX-2 is likely to mortify some fans of the series, we have to say we're impressed that Square has taken such a creative approach in its development. The company has often been criticized for what many perceive to be its "by the numbers" approach to the Final Fantasy series, and we're pleased to see it taking some chances with FFX-2. While the language barrier prevents us from getting the most out of the game's story, its presentation and involving gameplay certainly have an undeniable charm that should appeal to open-minded fans of the series and newcomers. While SquareSoft hasn't confirmed a US release yet, you can bank on Yuna and company showing their faces stateside at some point. Look for more on the game in the coming weeks.