Final Fantasy X-2 has taken longtime fans of Final Fantasy on an emotional rollercoaster since the game was first announced. Diehard fans of the franchise have always hoped to see developer Square Enix (the developer and publisher formerly known as SquareSoft) revisit some of the memorable characters from the various entries in its popular role-playing game franchise. When word of Final Fantasy X-2, a sequel to the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Final Fantasy X, started trickling out, there was much rejoicing in the virtual streets of the Internet as fans speculated on what the game would be about. The rejoicing changed to bewilderment as more information and assets appeared--assets that had Yuna kickin' it in a pair of hot pants and packin' a pair of pistols. The perceived defiling of such a beloved character stung many fans who were hoping for a more traditional sequel. Of course, that didn't stop anyone from buying the game when it was released in Japan earlier this year. We'll admit that, despite the initial shock at seeing the formerly nun-like Yuna apparently "ho-ing" up her look, we were quite pleased with the import game and looked forward to the US version. We finally got an exclusive look at a localized preview version of the game, and we are still taken with the game, as it has impressed us even more now that we can fully get a grip on the story.
For those unfamiliar with Final Fantasy X-2's plot, the game picks up some time after the close of Final Fantasy X, and follows Yuna, the young summoner who played a pivotal role in the final battle against Sin in FFX. But, as we mentioned, the Yuna you'll meet in FFX-2 is quite a different person from the last time you saw her. 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, and Paine, a quiet sword-wielding warrior. The trio are part of a "sphere" hunting clan known as the Gullwings. 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 decision to join the clan was motivated by her discovery of a sphere that contained footage of an imprisoned man who looks suspiciously like Tidus, her protector from FFX. 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 into the story by the presence of a rival clan, led by the busty LeBlanc, a woman who clearly doesn't know the meaning of the word "modesty."
The quirky story, which appears to be an odd mix of serious and zany material in the import, is maintained in the US version, but some impressive tonal shifts in the narrative have been implemented as well. Over the course of the game we're privy to Yuna's thoughts as she comments on people and/or events as they happen. The internal dialogue takes the form of a direct address to Tidus as she fills him in as to what's going on in her life. The segments appear throughout the game and end up having a wistful air to them that's surprisingly effective. Nostalgia also plays a large part in the game's appeal as, over the course of her adventures, Yuna will revisit many of the locales from FFX-2--like Besaid Island, Zanarkand, and Mount Gagazet. In addition, you meet with old friends, like Wakka, Lulu, and Kimahri. The silliness is, of course, still there, albeit with some context, to provide some goofy fun. As you'd expect, the game's localization is on par with Square Enix's usual high standards.
The mix of lighthearted and serious elements in FFX-2's story are also reflected in its gameplay, which expands on many elements from Final Fantasy X. The game's structure may initially appear to be much more linear than FFX, due to a pretty standard mission-based structure. However, you'll find a free-form experience lying in wait if you want it. The core set of missions will be arranged in a tiered story system through which you advance. Groups of missions comprise a numeric "story level" that increases as you complete them. So, if you complete the core missions that make up story level one, you advance to story level two and then gain access to a new set of missions. While this may sound pretty linear, there's actually more to it. After you've cleared some of the early missions in story level one, you gain access to the entire world map via the Celsius. Missions required to complete your story level show up as highlighted "hot spots" on the world map and feature star ratings to give ideas as to their difficulties. One-star missions are a cakewalk, while five-star missions can be some work. While you obviously want to tackle the active link missions to move through the game, you have the option of exploring just about any location on the map that you'd like.
While you only find a handful of hot spots at any given time on the map, you can highlight other locales. You get a brief bit of text describing the area and are also alerted to any missions available in it. Missions you access in non-hot spot areas are essentially side quests you can take if you want. They usually yield something nice for your efforts and can possibly open up other quests that may add something to the main plot. You also find that checking out areas with no available missions may end up offering something after you go around and talk to people. The side quests don't differ too much from what you do in the main game and feature a mix of campy and serious tasks.
Exploration and combat in FFX-2 offer a new twist on the basic mechanics seen in FFX. Your party for the game is limited to three people: Yuna, Rikku, and Paine. During your exploration of the various locales, the game handles a lot like FFX did, although there's a bit more platform jumping thrown into the mix. As far as combat goes, Final Fantasy X-2 beefs up the gameplay seen in FFX. 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, like physical and magic attacks, are now supplemented by the sphere grid system, which is quite possibly the wackiest element ever seen in an RPG combat system. The system is a variation on the one seen in FFV and also seen in the PlayStation and GBA Final Fantasy Tactics games. However, it has a dash more eccentricity to it. You can switch any of your character's outfits, on the fly, during a battle. This option recalls the aeon-summoning cinematics from FFX. The outfits open to you depend on what you've collected in the game so far. Each new set of threads affects the character's stats and combat options, and provides such perks as more hit points, improved defense, new attacks, and/or special moves. Additionally, each new set of threads for the ladies opens up a host of new skills and abilities that can be earned and mastered, adding a surprising amount of depth to the feature. While it sounds and looks bizarre, the dress-up option adds an impressive tactical element to the combat that keeps you on your toes.
As far as the graphics are concerned, FFX-2 offers a marked improvement over FFX. While both games may look pretty similar at first glance, FFX-2 outpaces its predecessor in a number of ways. The new game features a higher level of detail and exhibits improved facial animation of the main characters. The cleaner detail is especially apparent as the girls switch between outfits, radically changing appearances. The environments in the game, a mix of new areas as well as some seen in FFX, also look pretty snazzy, thanks to the graphical overhaul and new design for the areas from FFX. As with every modern Square game, FFX-2 uses a mix of real-time cutscenes and gorgeously detailed CG movies to tell its story.
The game's audio works pretty well, overall, thanks to a mix of voice acting, nice ambient sound, and an eclectic selection of tunes. The game's voice cast is made up of vets from FFX--for all the returning characters--while newcomers voice the eclectic cast of new faces. The cast isn't quite as free and enthusiastic as the aggressively peppy Japanese voice actors, but there's nothing that makes your ears bleed. The ambient sound perfectly complements the various locales you visit, providing a bit of personality to each area. The game's music is a very, very eclectic mix of staid piano music, J-pop, and disco-oriented fare. The disco even goes so far as to recall Shaft in some spots. We won't go so far as to say it's funky, but there's certainly a groove to it. While the mishmash of tunes may be a jarring combination for some, it all works in the context of the game. For those who can take advantage of it, FFX-2's audio includes Dolby Pro Logic II support, which offers a suitably impressive audio experience.
While we thought Final Fantasy X-2 would end up being viewed as an aberration in the Final Fantasy franchise, we're not so sure anymore. The localized story stays true to a lot of the classic themes the Final Fantasy games are known for, silliness notwithstanding. The distinct change of pace in the game's story, its gameplay, and its presentation certainly keep the game from being a stale retread of its predecessor. Square has often been criticized for what many perceive to be its "by the numbers" approach to the Final Fantasy series, and FFX-2 is certainly anything but that. FFX-2 may still mortify some fans of the series, but, if the dismayed can get over their shock (and whatever other emotions they feel after seeing Yuna in daisy dukes), the game isn't really that blasphemous. Ultimately, the game has an undeniable charm, thanks to its engaging story, high production values, and involving gameplay. Anyone looking for a decidedly different RPG experience will want to keep an eye out for Final Fantasy X-2 when it ships this fall for the PlayStation 2.