FINAL FANTASY X-2 / Squaresoft / Playstation 2

FFX-2 was controversial right from its announcement, simply for being the first direct sequel in the Final Fantasy series. Though it's since become common practice with FF7 getting a couple of follow-ups and FF4, 12 and 13 each getting direct sequels, some people initially took this as a harbringer of unprecedented Square whoresmanship of their fondest memories. This impression wasn't helped when gameplay details, shots and videos began coming out. FFX-2 didn't just shift in tone from the fairly serious and emotional prequel, it appeared to be going right off the cliff into fanservice J-Pop candyland, with Yuna weilding two guns like Tomb Raider and wearing a light breezy cotton affair sans bra while giving music concerts.

Upon actually playing the game? ... Yeah, it's fanservicey, and it's bubble gum-y, but initial impressions didn't convey the surprising amount of depth that's actually found here. Pop Star Yuna turns out to be a bait-and-switch, as she's really one of Yuna's treasure-hunting rivals in disguise, and the opening tutorial mission consists of disrupting her concert and recovering the "Dressphere", the game's central combat mechanic. The origins of it are never really explained, but it basically represents a new twist on the old class-change system seen in FF3, FF5, and later in FF11 and 12. Each character equips a "Garment Grid" which can hold a limited number of character classes. In battle, or anytime outside, you can choose freely between any of the jobs on the grid (but if done during battle it eats up a turn as you transform.) Yuna can't do any Summoning anymore due to lack of the Fayth in this new and settled version of Spira, so she's taken up trade as a Gunner instead. You also start out with the Thief, Warrior, and Dancer classes, and will find a bunch more as the game goes on.

Yuna, Rikku and gothy newcomer Paine now ply their trade as Sphere Hunters, cruising around the world in the airship from the late stages of FFX. Yuna and Rikku got into this line of work after the discovery of an ancient sphere that shows someone who looks an awful lot like Tidus trapped in some underground dungeon. In a nice break from the stifling linearity of the first game, you're allowed to go anywhere in the world right from the start - the game is divided into "chapters", each of which has a series of "hotspot" locations that you can see from the airship menu. To advance the plot, you simply visit the "hotspot" locations and do the missions there ... but the meat of the game is in side-questing outside of the "hotspots" in each chapter.

My first impression of the game (in the two tutorial missions at the outset) wasn't great. In what is apparently a part of the weird Tomb Raider nod in Yuna's character development, some awkward quasi-platforming has been added to your movements around Spira's various dungeons - you now press O to jump and climb at certain "context points" where it's allowed, including jumping across platforms in some of the dungeons. The encounter rates in most areas are also quite high, and the combat is spazzy and frantic, particularly if you don't adjust it to "wait mode" while you're going through your own menus at first. Initially at least, however, these problems are neutralized by how easy and forgiving the game is. Platform-jumping mistakes never have lethal consequences - if you mistime your O press when approaching a ledge (which is easy to do), Yuna simply does a stumbling animation that does nothing more that waste a couple of seconds. The combat for the first two chapters is uniformly very easy, with the enemies not really powerful or equipped well enough to take advantage of how much extra time they get while you're fumbling about in your menus figuring out what to do. You're also plied with heaps of healing items, and money with which to buy them, a necessity since you don't even get the White Mage class until a few hours into the game.

The platforming and encounter rates never really improve, but they're a relatively minor annoyance. The combat does take an upswing once you get more dresspheres and classes, and thus more options in battle. Fans of this game seem to hold up the combat as the most enjoayble quality; I found it a little better than the system used in FFX, but still a little too tedious and repetitive when taken across the whole of the game. It's roughly comparable to the "active time" system in Chrono Trigger, except the enemies seem to attack far more frequently, and you're able to disrupt each other's techniques and use "chain hits" with well-timed attacks. I think the biggest problem is that, for the extra layers of complexity added from FFX, battles are still rarely to never actually challenging unless you go way out of your way to make them so. Unfortunately, the most reliable way is to be intentionally underlevelled, which is done by skipping most to all of the optional sidequests and simply ramrodding through the "hotspots." Which also means skipping the bulk of the game's content. The advanced qualities of combat, such as chaining combos, are really obtuse and never covered by any kind of interactive tutorial; between that and just not really needing them due to the low general difficulty, they tend to just go unused.

The side-quests are also a mixed bag, but it has more of an effect on the game overall than they usually would in a standard RPG, since they constitute so much of the game's playtime. The best of them let you see Spira in the wake of Sin's defeat, a heretofore-unexplored peek into what happens in an RPG world once the Big Evil Threat is offed and everyone can (ostensibly) live happily ever after; what actually ends up happening is that there's only two years of relative peace before people start finding their own trivial reasons to start making war on each other again. The best of these  add extra development to supporting characters from the first game, or just have some goofy fun at their expense. The worst of them, however, are aggravating time-fillers of the type that were seen in the Ultimate Weapon Hunts in FFX.

On the subject of side-quests, the game will also kill OCDs who insist on having 100% of any arbitrary number bar that the game throws in their face. Not only does the game not inform you that watching cutscenes counts toward your percentage, and you'll miss out on the points if you skip them, there's tons of little things you couldn't possibly be expected to know about that you can easily miss along the way that can't be returned for (the most notorious being a semi-hidden NPC that you have to go out of your way to talk to at the very beginning of the game.) The game seems intentionally designed to sell strategy guides to the obsessive, but if you're not so inflicted, you can cheerfully ignore the completion percentage to no detriment, as it only gives you a shorter and less interesting ending upon completion.

FFX-2 is a really tough game to summarize. It somehow transcends being a T&A fanservice-fest while still being a T&A fanservice-fest. Nearly ten years after release I'm still not sure if it's a brilliant meta-commentary/self-parody or just a game about ogling Yuna's ass that got lucky in the chaos of its experimental elements coming together into something more substantial and enjoyable than it had any real right being. The fact remains, the game is kind of a fun romp all the same, somewhat in the way that Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was; little to no actual challenge, but a combination of creative design, a unique battle system, colorful presentation and nice music somehow combines to make for an enjoyable ride anyway, provided you're willing to check some of your inhibitions and lofty critical standards at the door. Used copies in good shape go for less than ten bucks, so it's not much of a financial gamble to give it a chance.

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