So It's Come to This: Final Fantasy X-2
by Pitchfork



Back when it was still SquareSoft, an up and coming video games developer with a reputation for putting out consistently stellar titles, Square adhered to a simple rule in developing new entries of its Final Fantasy series: no direct sequels. Sure, there were a slew of common elements that crossed over from game to game -- the play style, the aesthetic, plot themes, recurring motifs, weapons and spells, enemies, etc. -- but no new Final Fantasy game was ever built as a continuation of a previous one. Each new Final Fantasy's story, world, and characters (give or take a Gilgamesh) were designed to be exclusive and limited to that game, which was made to stand as a complete work in itself. If people clamored for an elaboration on somebody's backstory or wanted to know what happened to Cecil or Terra after they saved the world, it was up to the fanfiction and doujinshi hacks to provide it. Square was too busy creating new worlds to continue dwelling in their old ones.

One of the reasons snobs like me (re: overeducated and underemployed) despise sequels in books and film is because they're just too easy. It takes a considerable amount of time and sweat to create, out of nothing, a fully-formed cast of characters, a world for them to inhabit, and the complete story of the crisis that will define their lives. Most people can't do it, or can't do it well. But it takes a whole lot less work to take an old story, wind up the crank, and get it moving again (which is incidentally why fanfiction and doujin have so many practitioners).

Take, for instance, the Rocky series. The first film, released in 1976, was a low-budget, surprise hit that told an original (if not familiar) story about an underdog defying incredible odds through determination and discipline. It won three Oscars, raked in almost seventeen times what it cost to make, and still has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then along came Rocky II through VI (Rocky Balboa). Wind the crank, do it again. Wind the crank, do it again. Wind the crank, do it again. Wind the crank, do it again. Wind the crank, do it again. Repeat until Stallone dies or people stop buying tickets. Check Rotten Tomatoes again: Rocky II has a 68% rating, and each successive sequel dips lower until hitting its nadir at Rocky V, which received a critical beating during its theater run and maintains a 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating. (Of course, the reviews didn't stop it from earning almost $120 million worldwide, but it did make Stallone wait more than a decade before trying his luck with a fifth sequel.)

The qualities that make sequels get on conoisseurs' nerves so much is precisely what make studio suits and publishers love them so much. A sequel takes much, much less effort to market and assemble than an original film, and it's safe, regardless of how ill-conceived or shoddily-assembled it might be. Unless the first (or most recent) title left a particularly awful taste in the public mouth, there's no way another one won't turn a profit. As long as the public sees a familiar face in a familiar setting in a familiar scenario, they'll flock to the theater, book store, or Best Buy in droves for the latest installment, regardless of how terrible the critics and reviewers keep saying it is. (Not that all sequels are terrible by default, of course -- but I encourage you to take a moment to remember and consider The Matrix: Reloaded, Metal Gear Solid II, and the Cameronless Terminator 3.)

How were the early Final Fantasy games different? Even though Square produced sequel after sequel, they were actually pretty bold in how they went about doing it. In addition to its steadfast refusal to listen to character-obsessive fans' demands for more of the same, Square earned international renown for reinventing what Final Fantasy was from game to game. Whereas rival developer Enix clung to a very specific formula in making its Dragon Quest games (Mistah K. calls them video game comfort food), SquareSoft liked taking risks. Final Fantasy II, as you'll recall, was a console RPG that completely nixed experience points and character levels (in 1987!). In designing Final Fantasy VI, Square brushed aside seven years of lighthearted medieval fantasy predecessors to present an apocalyptic steampunk saga with an aesthetic inspired by the European Renaissance and industrial revolution. VII ventured into cyberpunk territory during a time when RPGs were mostly rooted in basic swords n' sorcery settings, and carried something extremely rare in video games back then: overt social commentary. And Final Fantasy VIII -- well, regardless of how much anyone likes or dislikes VIII, it's practically a checklist of flaunted console RPG conventions.

But in 2001, SquareSoft took a risk and lost big. Once again, enter The Spirits Within, the failed experiment that cost SquareSoft $98,000,000. This is not a loss anyone can walk away from easily, even a powerhouse like Square.

The instant success of Kingdom Hearts in 2002 must have come as a relief, but Square was still hurting. It would still be a few years until a Kingdom Hearts II could start generating wealth, Final Fantasy XII was stuck in a developmental purgatory, and the corporate brass was still wrangling with Enix over merger details. Square needed a quick, easy way to make money. These were desperate times...and desperate times call for direct sequels.

Like anyone crossing over to the dark side for the first time, the folks at Square must have been astounded at how incredibly easy it was putting together Final Fantasy X-2. The story was already 80% written, considering how there was no need to pay a brain trust of artists and writers to design an original fantasy world and its history from scratch. There was likewise no need to pump tens of millions into a budget towards programming and map design, since virtually all the areas from X could just be recycled and thrown into X-2 as they were. (In order to keep from looking completely cheap and lazy, they did design three attractive new areas, expanded a few old ones, and whipped up some simple textures for a handful of assorted unimportant "branching paths and dead ends" dungeons that could be assembled with your most basic level editor software.) The character models and animations? Recycled from X. Monster models and animations? Recycled from X. Battle effects animations? As many as possible recycled from X. Battle system? Well, rehashing X's might have been too obvious, so they went ahead and used a bootleg, watered-down version of Grandia's instead. And as for the practical considerations, they probably reckoned they could amp up sales amongst female gamers if all of X-2 featured all-female player characters, and they could do it without scaring off male consumers as long as Yuna and co. showed a lot of skin. It's equally likely that Yuna's redesign was implemented with Lara Croft's enduring popularity in the overseas market in mind. And it probably wasn't until a bit later that they decided to additionally feature her in glamorous pop performance sequences that would lend themselves to television ads and soundtrack sales, and increase the game's overall marketability, since glitzy commerical pop was huge on both sides of the Pacific.

Final Fantasy X-2 began development in early 2002 and was released in Japan in March of 2003. It has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of four million copies worldwide, and has 86% and 85% rankings on Game Rankings and Metacritic. IGN gives it a 9.5, calling it "brilliant and addictive" and praising Square for "finally beginning to listen to the outcries of its fans" and producing a direct sequel, while Gamespot calls X-2 "every bit as poignant, endearing, and engrossing as its forebears." The now-defunct Official U.S. Playstation Magazine evidently gave it 10 out of 10 -- a perfect score.

Critics. What do they know?





The Cast

YUNA

After discovering a sphere recording that apparently shows her beloved blonde beau still alive and whining, Final Fantasy X's heroine dons her hot pants, halter top and combat boots, grabs a pair of pistols, and embarks on a quest for the truth with all the sass, charm, and you-go-girl power she can muster. Her metamorphosis from reserved little priestess to J-pop Lara Croft might not be so inexplicably out of character as some players have complained, especially if you think of it in terms of Alaskan singer Jewel's transformation between the Nineties and the Zeroes: both girls' handlers simply thought it would make them more money. Final Fantasy X-2 seems to mark the first time Yuna has ever run in her life, as she flaps and flails her arms around slightly more than someone treading water and slightly less than someone trying to fly.


RIKKU

Yuna's little cousin Rikku returns in X-2 with all the ebullient jailbait charm fans came to love from her first incarnation, but is now legal in thirty-eight states and wears half the clothes. Having recently entered the "wild" phase of her mid-teens, Rikku has taken to flouncing about in a very mini miniskirt and a visible g-string. Final Fantasy X's Rikku was a knowing wink to the sizable WE HEART UNDERAGE GIRLS subset of the JRPG consuming demographic, but X-2's Rikku is just shameless. She's one dirty blonde hair away from tossing off her bikini top (the only real garment above her waist apart from a scarf and frilly armwarmers covering barely enough skin to put her over the "skank" threshold and safely within "tramp" territory) with a perfunctorily-feigned carefree innocence and fondling Paine's chest while doing the ol' OPPAI YAA~N! routine for the camera. The resin figure industry is still mailing Square Enix thank-you cards.


PAINE

The pissy, vaguely masculine goth chick who joins Yuna and Rikku in lieu of Lulu, who's off on maternity leave (and, at twenty-four years old, might as well just be dead). "Hurt time!" or some variation thereof is her catchphrase, and you can look forward to hearing it whenever the cutscenes and minigames let up long enough for a boss fight (which isn't often). As the only member of YRP (she's the "P," by the way) whom we haven't already met in Final Fantasy X, the responsibility of meeting the party's mysterious past quota falls entirely on her. Evidently she used to be best buds with Baralai, Nooj, and Gippal, but then something occurred that caused them all to distrust each other and go their separate ways. The guys all went on to become Spira's new leaders, while Paine got herself stuck selling balloons and hawking amusement park sales pitches with Yuna. No wonder she's so pissed off all the time.


THE GULLWINGS

Yuna, Rikku and Paine are the field team of the Gullwings, a six-member sphere hunter organization that flies around Spira in an airship that looks likes it was engineered from a Tetsuya Nomura fashion design translated into a mechanical blueprint. while YRP does all the exploring, fighting, and balloon selling, the male half of the team remains on the Celcious and handles the technical aspects of the business. The pilot and leader is Rikku's older sibling Brother, who looks and acts like Borat and Bruno fought each other to a standstill for control of Sacha Baron Cohen's body. The navigator and unscupulous capitalist Buddy is the quiet, bland, and therefore most likable one. Lastly, the lisping little geek in the hazmat suit is Shinra, the information gatherer.

Let's take a closer look at Shinra for a moment.

See this kid?



His name isn't just an homage to VII's evil megaconglomerate. According to interviews published in the Final Fantasy X-2 Ultimania Omega guide (god damn it Square), Nojima figured that this little snot from X-2 should propagate a line of descendents that build rocket ships, leave Spira, land on VII's world, colonize it, and start a planet-dominating electric company. You can read all about it here.

So there you have it: official Square Enix canon states that Final Fantasy VII is actually a distant sequel to Final Fantasy X-2. Just think about that the next time you're waxing nostalgic about Cloud and his adventures in Midgar.


LEBLANC




Meet the head of the Leblanc Syndicate, a clan of sphere hunters competing with the Gullwings. Leblanc is shrill, supercilious and vain, and as Yuna's "rival" she's sort of like Sephiroth or Seifer might be if you found yourself alternately gagging and rolling your eyes every time they stepped onscreen. Even her henchmen have a hard time tolerating her, and can be heard making cracks about her age behind her back. Judging by the look of things, the old hag might even be a hoary twenty-five years old. (As you know, the twilight of a woman's prime is somewhere between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two.)


ORMI & LOGOS




Leblanc's right and left hand men, Ormi and Logos are the Tonzura and Boyacky to Leblanc's Doronjo. The fat, obnoxious sack of crap is Ormi. The scawny gunslinging man-princess is Logos. They seem to have some sort of Japanese Laurel and Hardy routine that gets lost -- lost, abducted, and molested -- in the translation. Along with Leblanc, the ratio of Ormi and Logos's actual screen time to what their importance to the plot should entitle them is something like 16:1.


BARALAI & NEW YEVON




New Yevon is the Young Republican Nation Federation Spira's political spectrum, risen from the crumbled remnants of the all-powerful theocracy seen in X. Despite Yevon's being thoroughly discredited as a corrupt, power-mongering, and outright false religion two years ago, New Yevon has attracted a great number of followers by appealing to nostalgia for the stability of the good old days -- back when the church told them what to do and think, and everyone was constantly under attack by a monster the size of Giants Stadium. New Yevon's leader is the adorable little Baralai, who fights like he's from freaking Dynasty Warriors.


NOOJ & THE YOUTH LEAGUE




The Youth League is composed of Spira's rambunctious, anti-establishment liberals who want change and want it now. They are very passionate about their beliefs (though they usually aren't very specific as to what they are), and enjoy throwing protests that turn into riots. Their leader is the gimping "deathseeker" called Nooj, whose misfortune in a losing a leg to Sin, being possessed by a vengeful ghost, and having a really stupid name are all dwarfed by his finding himself the sole object of Leblanc's obsessive affections.


GIPPAL & THE MACHINE FACTION




These are Spira's futurists and machina junkies, whose only political platform is gadgets now! The Machine Faction acts as pillar of neutrality in the conflict between New Yevon and the Youth League, and gladly sells their artillery and slaughterbots to both factions. Their leader is the dope tech superstar Gippal, who is a hideous mutant amalgamation of Steve Jobs and some insufferable MTV personality from the late Nineties.


LENNE




A famous pop diva and summoner from old Zanarkand who died a tragic (eh) death alongside her lover Shuyin when she tried to dissuade him from activating Vegnagun. A portion of her essence inhabits Yuna's Songstress dressphere, so whenever Yuna equips the Songstress job, she not only dons Lenne's clothes but allows Lenne's thoughts and emotions to diffuse throughout her own, causing god this is so stupid why am i


VEGNAGUN




A partially-intelligent machina weapon capable of planetary-scale devestation, Vegnagun was constructed by Bevelle over a thousand years ago during its war with Zanarkand. Because of its instability it was never activated, and has been collecting rust and cobwebs in the city subterranea for the last millennia. If you've played more than two console RPGs from the last twenty years, you can probably guess where this is headed.


SHUYIN




The inhabitant of old Zanarkand on whom Tidus was based. During Zanarkand's war with Bevelle, his famous singer girlfriend was drafted to the front lines, so Shuyin broke into Bevelle to hijack its doomsday weapon and put an end to the war. Lenne followed him (somehow) and prevented him from activating Vegnagun, but the two of them were gunned down by Bevelle soldiers. A raw deal, sure -- but Shuyin took it like a little bitch to such a nigh impossible extent that his spirit couldn't die and has been sulking inside the Den of Woe ever since. Anyone who visits the place becomes so depressed that they murder themselves and everyone around them. Like Seymour from X, Shuyin is on one of those I'll make the world a better place by killing the world trips, and possesses Nooj and Baralai in order to find and activate Vegnagun. After his magical piano-powered death machine gets blown up, Shuyin mopes, separates himself from Baralai, throws a hissy fit, and fights the girls himself. He may not be Tidus, but murdering him with guns and swords and knives is nevertheless very satisfying.





The Story

In order to really convey the essence of the Final Fantasy X-2 experience, I think we're going to have to do something we really haven't until now: a chapter-by-chapter plot summary. Strap yourselves in.

CHAPTER ZERO

As you'd expect in a Final Fantasy title, the first matter of business is the opening FMV. Just to put X-2 in context, let's compare its opening sequence to those of its predecessors:

FF VI -- Short and very minimalist by today's standards, but runs down the checklist of what your basic expository sequence in supposed to do. It sets a tone, establishes the setting, introduces two crucial characters (Terra and Kefka), and provides the player/viewer with The Story Thus Far a' la Star Wars. Simple. Effective.

FF VII -- The series' first FMV intro introduces an important character, conveys a sense of mood and place, and also encapsulates an overriding theme of the game's plot. Aeris is an anonymous face out of a million in the city of Midgar. The Planet is an insignificant speck in the reeling cosmos. Final Fantasy VII is a story about the twining threads of human drama and the chronicles of a living planet; the juxtaposition between the massive and miniscule, personal and cosmic is there right from the beginning.

FF VIII -- A dramatic montage hinting at the scope of what's to come, as well as perhaps SquareSoft's ambition (or unabashed self-importance) to take the video game to new dramatic heights. Its lack of focus on any specific setting and the consistently massive size of its actors (as opposed to the tiny SFC/SNES sprites and the shrinking Aeris) shows that it's a plot concerned primarily with people rather than fantastic places and events.

FF IX -- Final Fantasy IX was designed with the expressed purpose of transplanting the setting and mood of the early games (I through V) into a sophisticated new title powered by superior hardware and greater financial resources. Therefore, IX is all about setting and certain familiar tropes and archetypes. So! How many recurring Final Fantasy plot elements can you spot in the opening movie?

And now, X-2's opening. To appreciate its full impact, watch it all the way through from the beginning without skipping forward, pausing, or looking away. Imagine spending fifty bucks on Final Fantasy X-2, booting it up for the first time, and finding yourself staring at this:



So. As we've seen, every opening to every Final Fantasy game more or less epitomizes the whole experience following it. Final Fantasy X-2, sadly, is no exception. The truest mark of Square Stockholm Syndrome is buying X-2, saying "what the fuck was that?" at the intro, and still deciding to go ahead and give the rest of the game a shot. (I speak from experience.)

So. Fans of Final Fantasy X might already be complaining that this is all tremendously out of chracter for X's vestal heroine -- but hold the phone! The Yuna we see onstage is actually her sneaky rival Leblanc, who has stolen her garment grid and is posing as Yuna to throw a sold-out pop concert and smear her image in the public eye.

Excuse me while I take a cigarette break.

Anyway, so after Rikku and Paine chase Leblanc around a while, our modest, clergy-raised priestess Yuna finally shows up to set the record straight and prove she hasn't sold out by backflipping onto the scene in a halter top and hot pants and unloading a few clips into her rivals' faces. Sass is exchanged, poses are struck, Yuna reclaims her garment grid, and she and her buddies victoriously return to their airship.



Nowadays, Yuna is running with the Al-Bhed side of her extended family. Calling themselves the Gullwings, they travel Spira's skies in Brother's souped-up flying eyesore and scour the world for spheres, the home movies of the ancients. See, at the end of Final Fantasy X International, Yuna discovers a sphere containing a video of someone who looks and sounds exactly like her vaporized boyfriend and wants to see if she can find more information about him.

WE GOT SPHERE WAVES COMING FROM THE MOUNTAIN RUINS, announces Buddy (of course our dead civilization's thousand-year old home movies and magic mutable wardrobes emit electromagnetic radiation that can be detected halfway across the planet) and the Gullwings are off! The Celcius swoops over the ruins and spits out our heroines onto a narrow stone bridge above a some-thousand foot drop without even slowing down. Yuna loses her balance and slips. The camera tries very hard to look up Yuna's hot pants as she dangles over the edge, Brother spouts a torrent of histrionic horny gibberish, Rikku says "DISASTERIFFIC," and Paine says something cold and snarky. Welcome to the dynamic of pretty much every cutscene you'll be watching for the next twenty-five hours.



So here we have the first dungeon, the first of three locations in X-2 that weren't either recycled from X or thrown together out of a basic "corridors and clearings" map and flavorless textures. Our heroines take death-defying leaps, fight Leblanc and her goons (again), race to the summit, and battle a gargantuan spider demon to acquire the treasure lying at the heart of the ruins: a sphere containing ten seconds of some dead schmuck's iSphere video footage taken from the queue outside a Zanarkand concert venue. Yes, this is what all these sphere hunter groups are scrambling to shoot and sabotage each other to get their hands on.

(There's also a black mage's soul living in the sphere, which makes it a dressphere.)

(And the black mage's soul is revealed to belong to Maechen, the historian from X, who -- as we later discover -- has actually been dead for the last thousand years and exists in Spira as ghost, even though his spirit lives inside the Black Mage outfit that's also a fuzzy ten-second home video from his old camcorder.)

I'm going to go smoke some more.



CHAPTER ONE

Since Final Fantasy X-2 gives you the airship right from the get-go, the first chapter consists of tracking down new spheres and stopping by familiar locations from X to how Spira's changed over the last two years. The first sphere is in Besaid, where you can catch up with two of Yuna's old party members. The gothic superbabe Lulu is supposedly nine months pregnant, but since the designers couldn't be bothered to change her model, it's just as likely she's only been faking it to keep her pudgy, sports coach bumpkin of a husband Wakka from trying to put it in her every ten minutes. (That baby she's holding in Chapter 5? Could have come from anywhere.) Sphere number two is in Zanarkand, where you can watch Yuna and Rikku yell at Cid for turning the ruins (formerly the single most remote and sacred location on the planet) into a tourist attraction. Just to the left of where the airship drops off Yuna, you see the campfire from X's introduction burning in the same location and with the same intensity as it did two years ago. This is, of course, owed to Cid's painstaking efforts to restore and preserve it in its original crackling splendor in honor of Yuna's first quest. (This should be obvious, but there's always the chance that some people might misread it as X-2's developers not giving two damns.) If you care enough, you can also swing by Gagazet and visit Kimahri, who rules over the Ronso tribe by standing around with his arms crossed and making limp pronouncements in slow, broken English.



After wrapping up the mandatory missions at Besaid and Zanarkand, the Gullwings catch word of an Awesome Sphere discovered in Kilika, where Spira's two opposing political factions are squabbling over possession rights. The Gullwings bust in, strike some poses, fight a boss, and make the brilliant tactical manuever of ganking the Awesome Sphere for themselves and pissing off the two most powerful organizations on the planet just for the hell of it. Everyone cheers themselves for being so clever and fabulous.



CHAPTER TWO

As it dawns at last on our heroines that making powerful enemies on a whim may not be the smartest survival tactic, and after discovering that the Awesome Sphere contains chilling footage of an immense doomsday machine underneath Bevelle, Yuna and friends decide that now might be a good time to throw a party on the deck of the airship.

Afterwards, the Gullwings discover that Leblanc has broken into the ship and ganked one of their spheres. "OH POOPIE," says Yuna, and they rush to get it back.



Unfortunately, busting into Leblanc's headquarters in Guadosalam is out of the question: there's a pair of guards standing watch at the entrance. Nevermind that the girls have already shot, shanked, and butchered their way through some dozens of Leblanc's uniformed goons since the game began -- it's time to spend a few hours bounding across the world to find female Leblanc henchmen and steal their clothes. This entails going to four different locations, murdering about fifty uniformed goons (as opposed to just the two guarding the doors), and fighting Logos and Ormi another three goddamn times in the process.

After finding three uniforms, sneaking into the Syndicate's headquarters in disguise, giving Leblanc a super-sexy back massage, and fighting Logos and Ormi another three fucking times, the Gullwings at last bury the hatchet with the Syndicate and travel with them to Bevelle to look into the "monstrous armegeddon machine that's going to destroy us all" situation. The good news is that we're finally done fighting these people every fifteen minutes. The bad news is that they're following Yuna around now, contributing another three middling voices to every tiresome conversation.



After however many hours of aimless hijinx, X-2 finally remembers that it's supposed to be telling a story and hurries to make up for lost time. In the high-tech Bevelle catacombs (the second of the three new areas), the spectral Tidus-lookalike Shuyin takes control of Baralai's body to steal the doomsday weapon Vegnagun. Yuna and friends beat up a possessed Bahamut, but fail to prevent Shuyin from taking Vegnagun even deeper underground and out of reach.



CHAPTER THREE

Spira is in chaos. Vegnagun is missing. Nooj, Baralai, and Gippal have all disappeared. Monsters are erupting out of mysterious pits inside the Yevon temples and mauling people. Without their leaders, the Youth League and New Yevon are on the verge of open war with each other. The Gullwings embark on a three-pronged course of action!

1.) Visit the temples, kill all the monsters flooding out from underground, defeat the head monsters (which, coincidentally, are Yuna's old Aeons under Shuyin's control) and save people's lives -- in exchange for all their money. Three cheers for disaster capitalism!

2.) Visit all the places in the world unaffected by the rampaging monster swarms and take a few hours to help lovesick monkeys find their soulmates, run PR campaigns for amusement parks, dig around in the desert for scrap metal, search the world for eligible brides for some twit, play the Spira equivalent of pogs (or Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Beyblades, Bakugan, or whatever the hell it is the uncool kids think is cool this year), or chase chocobos. The innocent people getting ripped to shreds can wait. Not like them or the monsters are going anywhere.

3.) Have a lot of asinine conversations, sparing the player from having to do even an iota of mental work for himself:















Eventually, Yuna gets shoved into a pit, wakes up in the Farplane (which is underground now, apparently) and meets Shuyin. Mistaking Yuna for his dead girlfriend Lenne, Shuyin tells her his plan to use Vegnagun to blow up the planet, then vanishes. Nooj and Gippal go off after him, leaving Yuna by herself. Yuna stomps around and yells till she goes blue in the face and passes out.



CHAPTER 4

After rescuing Yuna, the Gullwings come up with a foolproof plan for resolving all the chaos and strife in the world: they'll throw a tremendous pop concert and invite everyone! Naturally, their venue of choice is the Thunder Plains, since it's a wide open space plagued by unrelenting thunderstorms only all the time. Yuna sings a duet with the deceased Lenne -- whose soul, as luck would have it, lives inside Yuna's Songstress dressphere -- and everyone is so moved by the performance that they all agree to set aside their differences and coexist harmoniously from now on.



Let me just say that I would be less embarrassed if my sister, mother, or Naomi Klein entered my room without knocking and found me with my pants around my ankles and a Victoria's Secret catalogue in one hand than if any remotely sentient organism caught me holding a PS2 controller while this scene played on my television.

Afterwards, Rikku wastes a lot of time and breath explaining how Lenne and the ghostly images of old Zanarkand appeared -- "he said it might be some kind of, uh, interference with the sphere waves...Yunie's dressphere and the sphere screen reacted with each other and...the consciousness burned into the dressphere was projected onto the screen" -- when all she really had to say was "spheres did it," since the player/viewer must understand by now that spheres are capable of doing absolutely anything the writers need them to.



CHAPTER FIVE

Yuna's performance may have achieved instantaneous world peace, but there's still the matter of the insane ghost preparing to blow up the planet. "I MUST GO TALK TO SHUYIN AND TELL HIM HOW LENNE FELT," resolves Yuna, and for a moment you might be genuinely worried that there's not even going to be a final boss fight waiting at the end of the last dungeon -- just more fucking talking and singing.



Yuna and her girls dive underground, murder a couple of old friends, and plow through the third and final area that X-2's developers put some actual effort into designing. Soon it's time to face off against Vegnagun and Shuyin -- but not before the obligatory pre-final battle cutscene where Yuna talks about nothing for nine minutes!











Being forced to repeatedly sit through the same dragging pre-battle cutscenes after losing a boss fight is a common pet peeve amongst the console RPG crowd. Square must have finally caught on to this, as Final Fantasy X-2 often gives players the option of fast-forwarding past cutscenes by pressing start and tapping the square button. But for reasons only Square knows, that option is nixed during this, one of the game's longest cutscenes, and one that people trying to finish the game will have absolutely no desire to watch more than once. Stellar work.











[00:30:04] ThePolly: yunababble.avi IS VERY IMPORTANT PAT
[00:30:08] ThePolly: YOU MUST HEAR WHAT SHE HAS TO SAY
[00:31:25] Pitchyfork: i hate everything
[00:31:35] ThePolly: but you love Yunababble
[00:31:55] ThePolly: Truly
[00:31:59] ThePolly: now the world of real emotion
[00:32:02] ThePolly: has surrounded you
[00:33:14] Pitchyfork: ekotjaerkl;jgrwk;ljh
[00:33:19] Pitchyfork: i cannot die again
[00:33:23] Pitchyfork: i am not watching this again
[00:33:30] ThePolly: You have to :O
[00:33:32] ThePolly: It's vital!
[00:33:49] Pitchyfork: okay. it's end this game time.
[00:34:02] ThePolly: ohhh
[00:34:07] ThePolly: you're so cute when you're resolute
[00:34:44] ThePolly: alright I'm goin to sleep. Go beat your girly game

[01:40:37] Pitchyfork: .................................
[01:40:43] Pitchyfork: oh my fucking christ
[01:40:45] Pitchyfork: okay
[01:41:46] Pitchyfork: yuna learned an ability during a battle. one of those dark knighty "exploder" abilities
[01:41:54] Pitchyfork: So I figure I'll blow her up and revive her!
[01:42:03] Pitchyfork: BUT IT REMOVES HER FROM BATTLE *ENTIRELY*
[01:42:22] Pitchyfork: PAINE AND RIKKU GET THE THING DOWN TO < 5,000 HP
[01:42:36] Pitchyfork: BUT SINCE I WASN'T ABLE TO KILL IT IN TIME WITHOUT YUNA, BOOM
[01:42:43] Pitchyfork: EVIL ROBOT FIRES CANNON
[01:42:44] Pitchyfork: GAME OVER
[01:42:45] Pitchyfork: FFOFIEJIOGrhgk;lejgnreg
[01:42:46] Pitchyfork: rd;gsk;gjdfsgjtsog
[01:42:56] Pitchyfork: WHERE ARE MY CIGARETTES











At length, Yuna and her girls manage to dismantle Vegnagun and beat up Shuyin. Lenne's spirit uncouples itself from Yuna and says "HI THERE." Shuyin gets on his knees, shoves his face into Lenne's crotch, and the two fade away together. And that's the end of that.



Now! Depending on whether you've talked to the right characters at the right time, arbitrarily decided to mash the X button on a certain map, and done enough optional missons, one of three things can happen:

1.) Yuna decides she's totally over Tidus.

2.) A ghost of Tidus appears and embraces Yuna, who then decides she's totally over him.

3.) A fayth pops up and says "oh hai want us to resurrect your boyfriend btw because we could have totally done it at any time apparently" The player has the choice of deciding if Yuna's totally over Tidus or not.

Either way -- for the time being, there's still the same basic closing FMV. Nooj, Baralai, and Gippal address a stadium full of their followers, agreeing to set their political differences aside and work together in spite of categorically disagreeing with everything the other two think because what's important is that they're all sailing together on this crazy ship called life, man. Yuna does the cute little anime girl "bow and peace out" routine, high fives Rikku and Paine one last time, and rides off into the sunset.



So normally, Final Fantasy X-2 concludes with Yuna saying that the good story is going to start now that the game has ended. Right. Thanks, Square.

If you finish off Shuyin with a 100% completion rate (you're a maniac), you have the option of treating yourself to a special FMV in which Tidus comes back to life and reunites with Yuna in front of the assembled cast in the most beautiful, moving, and thoroughly typical JRPG ending sequence you've ever seen in your life.

Even though Final Fantasy X-2's main plot and characters are a bust, its subtext can actually be sort of interesting. The game's world is a familiar one, as it revisits Spira after the end of Sin, the fall of Yevon, and the rise of technology; but it was also designed with this world in mind. In spite of their best efforts, X-2's developers do show some cleverness in designing a fantasy world that appears more and more like our own the more we explore it.

Two years ago, Spira managed to pull itself out of a thousand-year dark age by casting off religion and destryoing the planet-ravaging monster Sin for good. Two years later, society is fragmented, leaderless, and entering the nascent stages of a rapid technological revolution that's already having unintended consequences.The people aren't quite sure what to do with themselves now that they're not constantly fleeing for their lives and rebuilding their destroyed villages every other week. The former Yevon faithful are struggling to find meaning in their lives now that their religion has been pretty much completely debunked -- and most of them are finding it in consumerism and hedonism. Also, the forests are dying, the ice is melting, and the music everyone listens to sucks.

Does any of this sound maybe a little familiar to anyone? No?

Perhaps I read too much into things.

In any event, Final Fantasy X-2 would be a vastly improved experience if it were more like Final Fantasy I in conveying its story. Were all the character-driven melodrama slashed and burned, leaving the player to explore and figure out the game's world on his own, X-2 might not be so unrelentingly irritating. Unfortunately, since we do have to cope with the aforementioned character-driven melodrama, the weak plot, and the dozens of piddling subplots tied to the dozens of piddling sidequests in order to get a picture of what's going on in Spira, the disparate interesting bits are really just the sprig of parsley on a giant dollop of grease.



The Game

oh but i heard the story's not so good but the gameplay is pretty alright right?

I received quite a few emails asking about X-2, and most of them include a statement or question along the lines of the one above. Sure, X-2 might be the hot springs episode of the Final Fantasy series, but it also features a brand new iteration of the job system. As long as the character building and battle systems are about on par with the Final Fantasy V, which was great fun to play in spite of its lightweight story, doesn't X-2 deserve the same kind of credit?

First, some words on the new battle and job systems. X-2 is back to using the old ATB system, but it also mixes in some elements from the Grandia games. Characters' and enemies relatives locations on the screen are more important than before: a character with a melee job will attack more quickly if her target is closer, and certain special attacks have a range of effect that additional targets can duck out of, provided they're far enough away from ther main target. It sounds neat, but since there are so few of these attacks and there's no way to move characters aside from using the "fight" command, this mechanic rarely makes any significant difference in battle. Also borrowed from Grandia is the purple "wait time" bar, a new ATB gauge function. When a party member or enemy uses a special attack, there is a buffer period between when the ability is selection and its activation. This means that abilities are no longer instantaneous; they can be interrupted and delayed. But while Grandia's system is specially structured around this mechanic, X-2 seems to have just tacked it on mid-development, and it usually doesn't make much of a difference in anything. (For example, the Alchemist's charge time for her Stash command is tremendous, and she's still the game's most useful healbot. Likewise, the Warrior and Samurai's attack-delaying abilities are virtually useless.)

And we have the new job system. Final Fantasy X-2 doesn't call them jobs, though -- that would be too unglamorous, too evocative of dirty fingernails. Instead, our teen girl squad equips dresspheres, which change their clothes and thereby alter their special abilities. There's no mixing and matching abilities between outfits like in V or Tactics (barring the use of special accessories or garment grids), but X-2's spin on the job system is that it allows the girls to switch dresspheres in mid-battle, resulting in sparkly and glamorous Sailor Moon-esque tranformation sequences (whose twenty-second lengths can thankfully be abridged or cut altogether through an option in the config menu). There are fourteen dresspheres in all, and X-2 does a commendable job of balancing them by setting their number of learnable abilities at fifteen (though there are a few loopholes).

Since this is another job-based Final Fantasy game in the vein of III and V, let's have a look at some of X-2's more noteworthy dresspheres:


BEST DRESSPHERE
Mascot


X-2's fabulous ultimate job comes equipped with three unique sets of nasty attack abilities, automatic physical and magic defense buffs, and inherits other jobs' abilities. This is what I've read, anway -- I never actually managed to acquire the damn thing, as doing so requires getting EPISODE COMPLETE in every area. I consulted a FAQ that details how it can be done with a minimum (but still by no means few) amount of steps, but...well, that didn't quite go according to plan.

[23:49:00] Pitchyfork: good news!
[23:49:06] ThePolly: oh really
[23:49:20] Pitchyfork: i overlooked a minigame in the last chapter and now i can't get the mascot dressphere without starting over or doing new game+!
[23:49:33] ThePolly: Oh fuck
[23:50:29] Pitchyfork: and since i've already blown my chance, i don't have to go running around mashing the square button to throw sales pitches at people anymore!
[23:50:29] Pitchyfork: YES!

I was only upset for as long as it took me to realize I no longer had to concern myself with scalping concert tickets, catching runaway cactuars, making sure to catch the right NPCs in the right places during the right chapters, finding the correct randomly-generated treasure scraps in the desert, catching and watching all the CommSphere conversations, or all the other frivolous RPG busywork I had no interest in doing anyway.


WORST DRESSPHERE
Black Mage


Believe it. In spite of her fabulousness, the Black Mage is almost totally useless. Flash fact: the Flare and Ultima spells are in X-2, but the Black Mage sure doesn't learn them.



COOLEST DRESSPHERE
Samurai


The samurai job has been around since Final Fantasy V, but the games' designers have often had a hard time finding a proper niche for it (except in Tactics). In V, it's just a basic melee class that equips katanas andcan sacrifice money to deal damage. Cyan's stand around and get clobbered then eventually maybe attack Bushido skill makes him one of the least useful party members in VI, and the samurai Auron in X just borrows attributes from the monk and knight jobs. In X-2, the samurai is a powerful and fabulous physical class that mixes enemy-neutralizing attacks with personal healing and buffing abilities. She's not a much of team player, but probably better at surviving and winning on her own than any of the other non-Mascot jobs.



LAMEST DRESSPHERE
Songstress

As a cross between the Bard and Dancer jobs from Tactics, the fabulous Songstress can be quite useful in some situations. But whenever you an ability under her party-buffing Sing command, it triggers a sound clip of Yuna, Rikku or Paine humming a few bars. You get plenty sick of listening to the girls talk as it is; hearing them sing five times every battle is too much.


MOST FABULOUS DRESSPHERE
Gambler

It's a tight contest -- each dressphere is very fabulous, after all -- but the glamorous and fabulous Lady Luck pulls ahead of the pack by somehow making even Paine appear physically enticing.


LEAST FABULOUS DRESSPHERE
Full Throttle


Paine's special dessphere is dark and pointy and ugly and has a nude Paine in the center. I don't think you can ask for less.


MOST SURPRISINGLY USEFUL DRESSPHERE
Gun Mage

After Quistis, Quina, and Kimahri, you'd think to not expect much from the Blue Mage, but her gun-toting X-2 incarnation is surprisingly decent. Her Blue Bullet abilities aren't half bad, she does four times the damage against certain types of monsters, and she's got an instant Scan spell to boot. She is also second to Lady Luck in terms of fabulousness.


MOST SURPRISINGLY LACKLUSTER DRESSPHERE
White Mage


She's not as useless as her black counterpart, but the White Mage just doesn't do her job as well as the Alchemist. Not only does the Alchemist's access to unlimited Mega Potions make her the superior healer, but she can also be useful for offense on occasion. The White Mage, meanwhile, is hampered by MP costs, decreases the effectiveness of own her healing magic with her buffer magic, never learns the standard White Mage attack spell (Holy), and doesn't even have a physical attack.



Sounds great, right? But the truth is, this is all just the setup for another hilarious Square Enix designer joke. The punchline is that Final Fantasy X-2 really wants you to participate in as few battles as possible. Whereas the earlier job-based game Final Fantasy V (heck, and Final Fantasy X for that matter) bombards players with difficult and tricky fights, X-2 would rather we spend the bulk of our time watching cutscenes and playing minigames than doing those things that Final Fantasy X-2's exciting what's-it-called system was designed for. Unless you really go out of your way -- and X-2 rather expects you to, judging by the preponderance of minigames and sidequests -- you're not really going to be doing that much fighting (except when you're battling Logos and Ormi over and over and over and over and over again during the first two chapters).


[22:23:24] Pitchyfork: CURSE YOU AND CURSE YOUR YELLOW THONG STRAPS, RIKKU
[22:24:16] ThePolly: That's the sound of a man that's loving him some X-2
[22:24:38] Pitchyfork: JUST LET ME FIGHT A FUCKING BATTLE
[22:24:50] Pitchyfork: THAT'S WHAT ALL THESE ABILITIES ARE FOR, RIGHT?!?!
[22:25:03] Pitchyfork: BECAUSE THEY'RE SURE NOT HELPING ME WATCH 430493059 STRAIGHT MINUTES OF CUTSCENES
[22:25:10] ThePolly: Yeah
[22:25:13] ThePolly: I found a lot of the time
[22:25:17] ThePolly: I had to go OUT OF MY WAY
[22:25:18] ThePolly: to get in fights
[22:25:48] ThePolly: also, be sure to take that one quest where the guy is trying to sell you information
[22:25:57] ThePolly: it's randomly generated so it'll take a few resets
[22:26:00] ThePolly: but one will pop up
[22:26:08] ThePolly: where you can sell the info right back to him for a million gil
[22:26:14] ThePolly: you're set the rest of the game
[22:26:23] Pitchyfork: A million gil?!
[22:26:25] ThePolly: da
[22:26:25] Pitchyfork: for what?!?!
[22:26:31] Pitchyfork: to buy back my cutscenes in luca?!
[22:26:31] ThePolly: ACCESSORIES!
[22:26:44] ThePolly: FOR USE IN BATTLES
[22:26:47] ThePolly: THAT YOU WONT BE FIGHTING
[22:27:11] ThePolly: when the game actually does let you fight, it's one of the more fun battle systems in the more modern games
[22:27:21] Pitchyfork: Agreed
[22:27:32] ThePolly: and yet
[22:27:33] ThePolly: every mission is
[22:27:35] ThePolly: GO TALK TO GUY
[22:27:40] ThePolly: WATCH CUTSCENE
[22:27:51] Pitchyfork: LOSE BRAIN CELLS
[22:27:52] ThePolly: WOO THIS IS THE PINNACLE OF GAMING
[22:28:10] ThePolly: Pat...has the world of real emotion surrounded you?


Most of the time when you swoop over a location on the world map and accept a mission, someone approaches Yuna and drafts her into putting on a moogle suit and selling balloons to tourists. Or selling concert tickets to tourist bumpkins hanging around the river. Or approaching NPCs and trying to guess the correct sales pitch that will compel them to go to one of the Calm Lands' two amusement park companies. Or chasing butterflies. Or chasing chocobos. Or chasing British people. If you're not selling something or chasing something, you're fighting sequential battles against clusters of human opponents that drop after two hits. (And sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get to fight sequential battles against against packs of the same three or four basic monsters in different configurations.) Then you watch a cutscene you might as well skip, get an item, and board the airship to search out more fun.

By the time I got to Chapter 5 I had thrown the controller aside and was skimming a FAQ, trying to find a goddamn optional boss or two to fight before going into the last dungeon and beating the game. I went to all the trouble turning my girls into a vertiable monster steamroller and wanted to kill something big before finishing the final dungeon and never touching the game again.

After some searching, I managed to find one that looked suitably nasty, but wasn't a superboss requiring a ten hour grind to even stand a chance against. According to the FAQ, all I had to do now was head for the Mi'hen Highroad and...

Whoops! It wasn't that simple. First I needed go out and catch a Chocobo. Then I'd have to run across the Calm Lands and talk to Clasko at the chocobo ranch to make sure its level cap was higher than three. Then, after I finally managed to snag one with a sufficient cap, I'd have to feed it until it hit level four. Then I'd need to dispatch it to Mi'hen, go somewhere else and fight seven battles, and....

So much for that. So I shut the FAQ, picked up the controller, and scrolled over my options in the world map. Looked like the most promising was one Bikanel: distress call from the desert! Some tremendous ancient demon is awakening! Help!

Here's how this quest goes: after taking ten minutes or so stocking up on supplies and making sure everyone is equipped and optimized for a deep, treacherous dungeon and a showdown against a demonaically-powerful optional boss, we're off to Bikanel. Upon our arrival, an NPC approaches and says something along the lines of "the ancient demon is about to be unleashed! Go into the desert and talk to the magic cactus! She'll know what to do!"

Great.

So now we're riding through the desert on a hovercraft, en route to the Cactuar Nation. "The horrible undefeatable demon is breaking through the magic seal!" says the magic talking cactus. "Only the ten gatekeepers can reseal it! Talk to the other cacti for clues, then find them throughout Spira and challenge them to lightgun-style minigames to make them come back!"

JUST LET ME FIGHT THE FUCKING BOSS. I shouldn't have to spend two hours running back and forth between the desert and every other area in the game to prove I want it badly enough. It doesn't contribute anything to the experience. It's filler. It's time-frittering bullshit. And it's pretty much all you're ever doing in X-2.

At least there's the Via Infinito, Chapter 5's huge optional dungeon: a hundred randomly-generated maps of unavoidable random battles and boss fights every twenty levels. The deeper you go, the harder it gets. Of course, in order to finish it, you'll need to grind your way up to around level 80 (at least). And you'll need to spend a bunch of extra hours stealing and bribing and getting enough amusement park points to stockpile all the items you'll need to see you through floors 80-100 and the last few superbosses. You know, you might as well just go ahead and finish the game so you can come back to the Via Infinito during New Game+. I couldn't bring myself to try, but I'm told it's totally worth all the time and trouble -- and it's required if you want to get the good ending.

Oh! Have I mentioned Sphere Break, X-2's incarnation of the collectible, number-based Triple Triad and Tetra Master card games from Final Fantasy VIII and IX? Let's have a gander at some of Sphere Break's basic rules:







Simple!

So! What are the rewards for playing and mastering Sphere Break? Well, beating Shinra -- the toughest player in the game -- is the only way to acquire the gambler job. Aside from that? Well, that depends on whether you consider the thrill of spending hours digging around in the desert for more game spheres and playing the same group of NPCs in the same location a reward in itself. You don't? Boy are you behind the times.

Oh, and blitzball is back. Did I mention that blitzball is back? It is.



Conclusion

I don't even know what to say here. I really can't think of a reason why anyone should ever play Final Fantasy X-2. It's surely the most incoherent Square game I've ever played -- the damn thing can't decide what it wants to be. It wants to have a strong central plot, but is designed so that the bulk of the experience consists of optional little sidequests with optional little subpots. It wants the player to enjoy its exciting and well-designed (if not in need of a little polishing) battle system, but the game is built so that the player has to spend all his time participating in a variety of inane minigames instead. It wants to be lighthearted and somber, comedic and bittersweet all at once, and the designers just weren't capable of succeeding in that sort of balancing act -- especially considering how short a development cycle they were working with. (One year. The last Final Fantasy game that took only a year to develop was V, on the Super Famicom.) None of Square's work from the last decade has been very consistent, but Final Fantasy X-2 is something else. You'd almost suspect the corporate brass had it slapped together, crammed full of fanservice, and shipped out quickly as possible to help offset some huge financial deficit or something. At any rate, if you wanted to identify the Final Fantasy game that pinpoints, closely as possible, the period when Square finally and iredeemably "sold out," X-2 would be it.

I'm sure somebody else can find something they like about Final Fantasy X-2. But for my part, I suspect that if SquareSoft was putting out games like this in the early to mid Nineties, I might have spent more time reading, studying, and going outside as a kid. Dammit, Square.

And so I leave you with one final fun fact: Final Fantasy X-2's director, Motomu Toriyama, is also the director and scenario writer for Final Fantasy XIII. Hmm.





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