A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy X-2 (PlayStation 2)

SPOILERS ahead. It’s showtime, girls.

Final Fantasy X-2 is not an aberration. Since it’s no longer the only direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game, it cannot be classed as such. But let’s not mince words here: X-2 only exists because Square was desperate. The crippling fallout of The Spirits Within has already been documented but it bears repeating, and it was only through the success of FFX and Kingdom Hearts that Square wasn’t in worse shape by the end of 2002. The critical and commercial success of both titles belied the company’s shaky financial state, and shareholders were only just beginning to regain confidence. It did, however, speak volumes to the new, cash-strapped management.

In doing so, they would break with a 15 year tradition.

The benefits to making a direct sequel are obvious. For one, art assets can be re-used, significantly cutting down on expensive development time. Characters and settings have already been established, saving the hassle of having to come up with them from scratch; after all, creating an entirely new premise and world is a much greater task than merely continuing an existing universe. Narratives, at least, should be fresh, but all the pieces are in place to make the process a great deal easier than the alternative.

But part of Final Fantasy’s charm was its commitment to making each entry feel familiar yet unique. A direct sequel runs counter to that stance, and almost feels like an affront. Take the much-maligned FFII – it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Square, having narrowly avoided financial disaster through the original game’s success, to slap together some tile-sets, beef up the Light Warriors and call it Final Fantasy 2: Return of Garland. Instead, they took a risk. Many thought it spectacularly backfired, to be sure, but it was a creatively fruitful and instructive risk nonetheless.

Putting cynicism aside, X-2 must have been a tantalising prospect. Spira remains one of the series’ most compelling worlds, one whose history was hinted at but never fully unearthed. Revisiting it within a new context would give the developers the necessary tools to dig into its secrets and scrutinise the ramifications that the end of Sin and the dismantling of a world religion would have on a paralyzed world.

But that’s not where director Motomu Toriyama’s priorities lay. One of the writers for FFX, and a prominent behind-the-scenes player in the company, this was Toriyama’s first directorial effort. It shows – his handling of the disparate narrative threads, flimsy as they are, is slipshod, never retaining the gravitas and atmosphere of FFX’s plot. Toriyama, in fact, doesn’t even seem interested in navigating plot, or characters, or setting. What were his priorities? Fan service. Hours upon hours of cloying, incongruent, unnecessary, embarrassing fan service.

That’s not strictly true, of course. On paper, X-2 is just as much of a risk as the second game; in theory, it’s one of the most progressive and forward-thinking games in the series. It’s the first game to feature an all-female party; the first game to feature non-linear progression by offering up the entire world from the get-go; the first game to emphasise side-quests and exploration throughout; the first game to feature (very rudimentary) platforming… the list goes on.

In practice, it’s a broth of confused ideas, jarring tones and unsure presentation that simultaneously empowers and objectifies its ‘strong’ female leads. Returning fans from FFX must have been even more baffled. Coming from the morbid and contemplative Spira of that game, it’s easy to imagine gob-smacked players spit-taking at X-2’s CG intro sequence, which serves as a glorified music video to the (insanely catchy) J-pop ditty ‘Real Emotion’.

Let’s look at that intro, shall we? Compared with X’s cataclysmic show-stopper, X-2 is equally disorienting in a completely different way. Final Fantasy intro sequences are known for thrusting the player into an unfamiliar environment and demanding they get to grips with their new, strange surroundings. That in mind, it’s easy to imagine the questions a first-time player might ask when confronted with the opening salvo: “What’s a Garment Grid? Who’s that emo chick? Why are Rikku’s thong straps hiked halfway up her waist? How are the blonde lady’s breasts contained in her dress? Why is Yuna dancing? Why is Brother trying to have sex with his cousin?”

Much like its predecessors, FFX-2’s intro sequence sets the tone for the game to come: A light-hearted, pop-culture-riffing romp with idol heroines, an excruciating script and, most prominently of all, wide-eyed embarrassment. It’s a bold enough move for a sequel to stray so dramatically from the previous example, but X-2 seems to relish its emancipation with gleeful, winking abandon.

It’s also important to consider the subtext. The Spira of FFX and the Spira of FFX-2 are different worlds: the latter, we quickly discover, is in the throes of a sudden technological revolution following the dismantling of a thousand year theocracy, the consequences of which they are not entirely prepared for. Two factions – the traditionalist New Yevon and the anti-establishment Youth League – have arisen in Yevon’s wake to vie for ideological control of the world. In the middle, the Al Bhed-lead Machine Faction supplies arms and tech to both sides. Straddling the periphery are ‘sphere hunters’ who, as the name implies, hunt artefact spheres containing secrets of Spira’s forgotten history.

The climate of FFX-2 is a volatile one, and the sensory whiplash of the game’s intro helps prepare the player for a radically different world than what they might be expecting. Defeating Sin didn’t magically solve Spira’s problems overnight. The scars run deep, and there remains a great deal of underlying tensions for its inhabitants to grapple with. Meanwhile, from their space-lobster airship high in the clouds, Yuna, Rikku and Paine – YRP – are too busy high-fiving each other and having heatless conversations about nothing to fret too much over Spira’s fragile sociopolitical fault lines.

The strongest moments of the plot revolve around the conflict between young and old, religion and science – palpable dichotomies in real life – but the characters at the centre of these conflicts, most notably the Youth League’s “mevyn” Nooj, are so absurd as to stretch credulity. Conversely, the scenarios are often too innocuous to create any tension. Playing match-maker for monkeys in Zanarkand, for instance, does nothing to underscore its change from solemn citadel of death to garish tourist attraction. In fact, it actively undermines the effect.

Zanarkand is a prime example of how the writing drops the ball with Spira’s transformation. The script simply doesn’t have the consistency or the nuance to eke out deeper meaning. Instead, it’s content to bash the player over the head, yelling about how much Spira has changed without interrogating what relevance this has to our own society. Alternatively, it buries incisive moments of clarity beneath mountains of banality. Perhaps the game is simply too light-hearted to expect more thorough explorations of darker themes, but it remains disappointing nonetheless.

So, if the setting’s a let-down, what about the characters? In a game full of crushing obviousness and brain-dead exposition, Yuna’s arc is surprisingly subtle. She may be packing heat and sassing goons when we get re-acquainted with her, but she’s still somewhat the naïve priestess trying to find an identity. Like Spira itself, she’s trying too hard to change, trying to instigate maturity without understanding what it means. As the game progresses, she slowly shrugs off her reservations, gains her confidence and grows into an independent, assertive and go-getting young woman whose decisions are entirely her own.

And that’s it. That’s your lot for characters. Rikku exists to sell resin figurines and body pillows to man-children; Leblanc and her anime goons, despite the amusing performances, are irritating losers; the rest of the Gullwings are one-note cut-outs; the NPCs are universally insipid… the list goes on. Paine, standing in for the “pregnant” Lulu, tries her hardest, but she’s burdened by her designation as ‘female Squall’ and therefore doomed to ellipses and lines like, “Hurt time.”

For every engaging character beat or narrative turn, there are 17 instances of groaning tedium. A sizeable portion of this imbalance is linked with the game’s focus on side-quests. I’d estimate that 80% of the entire game is wrapped up in its peripheral content, making the main plot seem even more inconsequential. Moreover, the majority of these side-stories are time-wasting bollocks that add nothing to either the story or the subtext. So where does that leave the player?

What reason does the player have for snagging randomly arbitrated PR points for random mini-game dispensaries in the Calm Lands? Why on earth would they feel compelled to calibrate lightning towers on the Thunder Plains? Who could possibly be intrigued by the bastardisation of Blitzball? Yes, this stuff is optional, and that freedom of choice is one of X-2’s great strengths, but when even the side-content feels like pointless busy-work, what incentive is there to indulge it? This isn’t exactly Majora’s Mask, where completing the side-quests is incentivised and highly rewarding, both mechanically and emotionally.

The only real reason to complete X-2’s extra business is obtaining Dresspheres. Dresspheres are explained in the plot as spheres containing the memories of certain people that resonate with the possessor or some nonsense, but don’t be dismayed by the technobabble – they’re Jobs. As in, FFIII and FFV Jobs. There are 14 (16 in the HD re-release) this time, which doesn’t sound special by itself, but X-2 also reverts to Active Time Battle and traditional level-ups/experience points. (CTB would, tragically, never receive another full outing.)

The game’s greatest mechanical innovation is the ability to swap between Dresspheres on the fly in combat, greatly expanding the player’s options. Though learned Abilities don’t carry over between Dresspheres, the option to change from one to another at no extra cost negates the drawback. Combined with innate buff abilities on most Garment Grids, the ability for all three girls to attack simultaneously and the Chain mechanic where combo damage stacks, it’s a deliciously satisfying system that accommodates an expansive range of strategies.

Here’s the problem: you don’t spend much time battling. When you do, it’s mostly throwaway random encounters or by-the-numbers boss fights at the end of a copy-paste dungeon. Excluding Via Infinito, the 100-floor post-game gulag, the game’s simply too easy to take full advantage of its brilliant combat.

FFX knew how to curate its battle mechanics, emphasising its strengths with a heightened difficulty and crafty bosses that necessitated critical thinking. Its sequel has one of the deepest, fastest and most exciting battle systems in the entire series, but battles feel entirely secondary to the sluggish march of terrible mini-games, insufferable cut-scenes and nauseating fan service that defines the rest of the experience.

This actually happens.

I’ve (seductively) danced around the subject for some time, but fan service is the game’s greatest failing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fan service – see: Bayonetta – but when it exists solely for titillation without adding anything to the character – see: MGSV’s Quiet – it can only be classed as incongruous. None of the women in the game, with the possible exception of Rikku, flaunt their sexuality as a personality trait, and yet Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs emphasise their bodies to a laughable degree.

The camera during cut scenes is apparently determined to focus on our heroines’ busts and rears at every given opportunity, usually panning suggestively up or down from them. The perverted male gaze extends to battle, where swapping Dresspheres is accompanied by a Sailor Moon-esque transformation sequence. There’s an actual, honest-to-god ‘hot springs’ segment where the giggling ladies compare the size of their breasts, not to mention the mortifying ‘massage Leblanc’ mini-game. It’s pure Charlie’s Angels pap, designed exclusively for male gratification, with all the loathsome baggage that comes alongside it.

X-2 is embarrassing to play. From the J-pop nonsense of the intro to the excruciating ‘1000 Words’ concert to the mind-numbing exchanges between the Gullwings, playing through this game is like taking an ice-pick to your brain stem. Playing it with an audience – as I did during multiple sessions – is one of the most excruciating experiences I’ve had in my time playing video games. As a young teen, I could suspend my gag reflex and gloss over the guff, smiling as Yuna capped a Cactuar. As a grown man, I am no longer capable of doing so. “It’s still a good game,” I told myself. “It’s got a great battle system,” I told myself while the camera burrowed upwards into Rikku’s anus.

X-2 is not a good game. More development time (another year, at least), a better script and a more competent director might have unearthed the great game buried within, but the final product is a mess of conflicting priorities. The player is given unparalleled freedom to explore a world that has nothing substantial to offer. The brilliant combat system is never permitted to reach its potential. The soundtrack – the first without Nobuo Uematsu – is initially refreshing but quickly turns grating, with repeated tracks and repetitive hooks. Its single great character is drowned in a swollen ocean of useless background voices.

Ultimately, and most damningly of all, Final Fantasy X-2 is soulless. It feels like a lazy cash-grab designed for maximum profit with minimal effort, re-using a litany of assets from its predecessor and farmed out to an overworked and understaffed development team with a lot of ideas and no time to implement them. There are fleeting snatches of brilliance here and there, but it’s all smothered by crushing monotony and rapidly diminishing returns.

Perhaps appropriately, X-2 was the last game released by the original Square before the merger with Enix was finalised. Overseas, in the Americas and Europe, the game would be released under the banner of the ‘new’ company: Square Enix. The old way was dead. Now, the milking could begin.

Next time, uncharted territory. The erstwhile black sheep of the series, massively multi-player and all online: Final Fantasy XI.

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