Sparkly yet satisfying
The first prerendered cinematic in Final Fantasy X shocked gamers with a fast-paced game of what looked like handball, played entirely inside a sphere of water by players who could breathe underwater. More shocking still was the heavy metal soundtrack behind the movie. Beyond that opening scene, however, Final Fantasy X delved into matters of tradition, sacrifice, religion, love, and family with surprising grace. Plus it had one of the most satisfying and strategic battle systems of any RPG (J- or otherwise) in any game before or after. It ended on a note of bittersweet loss and hope. It was an amazing piece of media.
Likewise, X-2 starts out with another shocking-and gorgeous-musical prerendered cinematic. Yuna, the naïve yet steely female lead from X, appears on a circular stage before a roaring crowd. So far so good; Yuna was speaking to a whole stadium of people at the end of X, after all. But suddenly her dignified Summoner's robes sort of dissolve into this blue halter top and short-shorts combo and she starts singing this grating bubblegum pop song.
The message couldn't be clearer: THIS IS NOT FINAL FANTASY X. This is where FFX-2 lost a great deal of its audience, before they had pressed any button on the controller besides Start. There didn't seem to be any way that this trite, sparkly game could possibly address the deep unanswered questions left at the end of FFX. But players who stuck with X-2 after that opening scene discovered a detailed and surprisingly dark story that is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, even if it's never quite as good.
X-2 was the first and only Final Fantasy with an all-female cast, Yuna, Rikku, and Payne, though the JRPG stereotypes on display-not to mention the costumes-underline just how far video games still have to go in portraying women as people rather than window dressing. There is strength in the three leading ladies, sure, but it's buried under glitter, bikini tops, and incessant cooing and giggling. Still, the voice actresses manage to add some depth to the characters despite the lines they're given to work with. And X-2 arguably paved the way for some stronger leading ladies in the series such as Ashe from XII and Lightning and Fang from XIII. (Serah from XIII-2 once again seems to straddle that line between jailbait and steely resolve).
So what do these mincing ladies do when they're not singing to crowds of screaming teens? They are a group of sphere hunters called the Gullwings. Spheres appeared constantly in FFX as keys for puzzle solving and records of stored knowledge. It is this second kind of sphere that Yuna and her companions hunt so rapaciously. And it is all because at some point Yuna discovered a sphere that she believes contains a static-filled recording from Tidus, the male lead from X who turned out to be a living memory of the game's villain and, as such, disappeared from Yuna's life when they defeated the villain together. (Dammit, I love that game.) With that, I shall say no more about the story.
So after X-2's battle tutorial (we'll get to the battle system in a minute), the entire game world from X plus a few new locations are open to visit and explore. There are also helpful prompts on the world map that tell you how difficult a given location will be for your party at its current level. And you should pay attention to them, because X-2's battle system was, until XIII and XIII-2, the fastest, most hectic one in the series. In fact, XIII's outstanding battle system owes a great deal to X-2.
As mentioned earlier, you are stuck with only three characters in your party for the entire game, but the battles allow for a frankly overwhelming variety of party setups thanks to the Dressphere system. Dresspheres are basically jobs from FFV and can be acquired through exploration or defeating certain enemies. Battles give experience in both the character and her Dressphere, with Dressphere experience going toward job-specific abilities, some of which are permanent and some of which are only available while wearing that particular Dressphere. Within a single battle you can swap Dresspheres, which alters the character's clothes and abilities for the rest of the battle. Think of it as a slow and unrefined version of XIII's Paradigm Shifts.
You cannot choose from any Dressphere at any time, however. Your character is limited to a Garment Grid, which is a template into which you plug your desired Dresspheres before battle, and which offers bonuses in-battle as you make your changes. For example, let's say you have a two-slot Garment Grid, and you plug in the Dresspheres Gunner and White Mage. You begin the battle as Gunner, but then switch to White Mage for healing and in the process the Garment Grid buffs you with a 10% magic bonus or cast Shell. Some Garment Grids have ten or more connections like this. See what I mean about the strategic possibilities being overwhelming?
The game is set up in five chapters, during which there is something new to accomplish in every location on the map. Story-related locations are always highlighted so you really can't get lost, and there is a percentage gauge to let you know how much of the game you have completed. But if you want to reach 100% you must-and I mean MUST-follow a guide or walkthrough. Here are some things that can ruin a 100% playthrough: tackling side missions out of order (there is no in-game indication of the "correct" order, by the way); failing certain minigames; speaking to NPCs in the wrong order or choosing an incorrect response to their questions; speeding through certain dialogue scenes (but not all of them) with the X button; and skipping any cutscenes. Following a guide, I STILL had to play through the game twice to get a full 100%. If you're going for 100%, be sure to check your percentage against a guide after every single mission and every single time you save your game.
So that sucks. Let's just say it right out loud. The "best" ending you earn for 100% isn't worth the trouble anyway. However, the "good" ending you get for, I believe, 80% and higher is absolutely phenomenal. Without spoiling anything, let me just say it wraps up the stories of FFX and X-2 in a way that is satisfying, moving, and beautiful all at the same time. And, okay, maybe a little corny. Hey, this is Final Fantasy.
If you can ignore the J-Pop trappings and constant cooing and gasping from the female leads, Final Fantasy X-2 is a deep, surprisingly mature, and fitting conclusion to what is in my opinion the greatest game of the last console generation.