The past few years have seen quite a bit of upheaval and change in the industry as developers and publishers have tried to find their way in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. Square has managed to weather the various industry changes pretty well for the most part. While the developer stumbled a bit toward the beginning of its development for the current crop of consoles, it has since found its stride and has produced some of its most engaging work yet. Final Fantasy X-2 is the developer's upcoming revisit of the world and people seen in Final Fantasy X. The game marks a break from tradition for the developer, because it's the first true sequel to any of the Final Fantasy games, and it's one of Square's most experimental games in terms of gameplay. FFX-2 appears to offer a tight graphical package that builds on the visuals used in FFX and contains gameplay that blends elements from several of Square's previous titles into something surprisingly new.
For those unfamiliar with the game's story, FFX-2 follows Yuna's experiences after the climactic battle against Sin. The final battle's price and the dramatic changes made to the world as a result have put the young former summoner at a personal crossroads. Her struggle to come to grips with everything that's happened has led her to fall in with Rikku for a walk on the wild side, which makes for a rather dramatic change in her life, as evidenced by her new look. In the wake of the battle with Sin, groups of sphere hunters have emerged to search for spheres scattered throughout the world. The spheres are unique historical items that contain movies of the history of Yuna's world, Spira--much like the Jecht spheres seen in FFX. The primary members of Yuna and Rikku's group of sphere hunters, the Kamome Clan, are Yuna, Rikku, and a fresh face, Paine (pronounced "Pine")--an amazonian 18-year-old fighter with a mysterious past whose combat skills are complemented by her facility with the Al Bhed language. The Kamome Clan's roster is fleshed out by a host of supporting characters from FFX as well as another new face. A bespectacled young Al Bhed boy, whose glasses clearly mark him as one of the brains in the outfit, joins Rikku's brother Aniki, Dachi, and Master from FFX. The supporting cast's main duty is to man the Celsius, the Kamome Clan's airship, which serves as the group's primary means of transportation. Yuna's hardy band of hunters isn't the only outfit in the sphere-hunting business, though--a rival clan called the LeBlanc Gang is on hand to offer a healthy dose of competition. The gang's leader, a busty woman named LeBlanc, is joined by two men, the rotund Uno and the lanky Sano, who look like the poster children for a big and tall store. Sphere hunting becomes the game's central focus after a sphere showing a sequence with what looks like Tidus is found. Yuna sets off to gather spheres in the hopes that she'll piece together enough information to discover the fate of her former guardian. It's a safe bet to assume that, as in any role playing game, Yuna's simple quest will likely become a much larger experience with revelations and repercussions that will come to affect more than just her own life.
While FFX-2's sequel status may lead you to assume that the game will offer a similar gameplay experience to FFX, the game actually heads off in a new direction entirely. FFX-2 will feature a fairly free-form mission-based structure that differs quite a bit from FFX's fairly rigid, linear setup. The Celsius will serve as the game's hub and let you travel pretty much anywhere on the world map. As you go through the game you'll find that certain locations on the map will offer missions for you to undertake. The missions will range from simple single-objective affairs, such as collecting a sphere or a specific item in a level, to more complicated multitask assignments. As you take on missions you'll notice that exploration has changed a bit in FFX-2 thanks to the expanded move set. You'll apparently be doing a bit of traditional platforming such as climbing and jumping on platforms and ledges. While the missions themselves are obviously linear due to their task-oriented nature, their availability is not. You'll find that the missions that become available as you go through the game will hinge on how you play. Another unique element to the missions is their tone. While the types we've mentioned are fairly straightforward and dry, the game will offer an extreme range of tasks that will run the gamut from serious to over-the-top campy missions that will inject quite a bit of humor into the proceedings. The way the missions unfold for you will also have some impact on how the story will unfold, although there doesn't seem to be much information on the specifics of that mechanic.
The humor and light tone we've mentioned in relation to the missions you'll undertake also extend to the game's combat system, which makes some notable departures from FFX's. Core combat has changed a bit--there's now a three-character limit in combat, and a few new elements have been introduced. While you had the option to take a sizable entourage into combat in FFX, FFX-2 appears to force you to be a bit more strategic in your battles by limiting you to three party members. The active battle system for which the FF games are known has seen some changes--different actions now take different amounts of time to perform. For example, using an item is a much speedier process than casting a spell, while the time required for a physical attack lies somewhere in between the two. Physical attacks will vary in the amount of damage they do. Certain characters will even be able to supplement their attacks by chaining them together and causing significantly more damage.
The most notable addition to combat, the new dress-up system, is also the craziest. While the core mechanics of the system are rooted in the job system that Square has toyed with in previous games, such as FFV, the way the dress-up system works is much less dry. Once you've collected the proper spheres, you'll be able to switch any of your characters into a different outfit on the fly during a battle. The process, done with all the stylistic flourish of FFX's summons, offers more than a just cosmetic change. The new threads change your characters' job classes and can radically affect their stats and abilities in a fight. The change is accomplished by calling up a miniature sphere grid that has spheres containing the different outfits you've found. While the initial sphere grid you'll use will be pretty small and will hold a limited number of outfits, you'll eventually find much more elaborate outfits that will have a significant impact on how you fight. The larger grids will apparently hold more than just a greater number of outfits--you'll actually see colored spheres that will unlock new abilities if you perform the proper actions in battle, which definitely changes the dynamics of combat. In addition, in keeping with the traditional character development in the job-class system, you'll be able to master different unique abilities associated with the individual outfits. So far the classes that have been revealed include gunner, thief, knight, mascot, gambler, pop star, mage, and samurai. You'll also find dark and white variations in certain classes, which will provide even more variety.
The graphics in FFX-2, while making use of some of the assets in FFX, appear to be higher quality than those in FFX. Character models are crisper, and the special effects we've seen, most notably those used for dressing up, offer a broader selection of eye candy. The high level of detail is also apparent in the plethora of areas you'll travel to in the game, and you'll find that areas of Spira you visited in FFX have changed considerably due to the passage of time or as a result of the battle with Sin.
Audio in the game should be on par with the audio in FFX, since the Japanese voice actors have returned to voice their alter egos again. The game's soundtrack has been beefed up by a contemporary J-pop track, which we've heard in new trailers coming out of Japan that show off Yuna making like a pop star.
Based on what we've seen and heard of the game so far, FFX-2 will offer a decidedly different and downright quirky experience. Many of the gameplay concepts are unique, and the zealously guarded game manages to feature its own personality. The game's light tone is considerably helped by a very consistent approach toward offering a unique experience. In many ways the game is similar to the deceptive package of Kingdom Hearts, which offered as rich a quest as any of Square's RPGs despite its cartoony exterior. It looks as though FFX-2's mission system will offer a good number of quests to undertake, with some secret ones to uncover, which should put it in the same ballpark as its predecessor. We'll be curious to see how it all comes together when the game ships in Japan this March. Look for more on the game soon.