"Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world. I wanna be the one to walk in the sun. Oh girls, they wanna have fun"
So sang Cyndi Lauper in the eighties, and it would be easy to apply these lyrics to the main protagonist of Final Fantasy X-2. The games of the Final Fantasy series are role-playing games (RPGs) which each tell a unique story, with certain trappings (such as recurrent monsters and magic spells) to justify the moniker. Generally the world is in danger and a troubled young man must make things right. X-2 breaks new ground for the series in two major ways: it is a follow-up to the story of Final Fantasy X (FFX), and it does not feature a male lead.
Yuna was the strong but troubled damsel in FFX, which stayed focused on its hero Tidus. In this first direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game, Yuna tries to shed her conservative image (and clothes) as she takes front stage to learn more about herself and her travel companions. Disguised in hotpants, Yuna is joined by former castmate Rikku, the perky Al Bhed who I found so much more likable this time around. Rounding out the trio is Paine, a mysterious and reticent young woman with her own motivations. In my time with this trio I got a vibe different from that of past Final Fantasies. There is a lot of light-heartedness in this game, and some of the girls' interactions had me laughing out loud—a nice change of pace from the typically somber RPG.
One thing I'd like to address is regarding Final Fantasy X-2 being too "girly" a game. The comparisons to the stars of Charlie's Angels are apt. Goofy and silly Rikku is an underage Drew Barrymore. Tough-yet-feminine Paine has shades of Lucy Liu, which leaves Yuna as the demure girl-next-door Cameron Diaz. Together, they travel the world and bust baddies with plenty of weaponry, costume changes and high heels. I think that calling X-2 a girly game, though, is to miss the point. Although fashion plays a role, so does the gamer, learning about the new Spira and its onetime savior Yuna. If FFX was Tidus' story, then X-2 is Yuna's. And her story is funny, bittersweet, poignant and downright witty in turns, all wrapped up in some tight but stylish gameplay. The female cast may be new to Final Fantasy, but this game is still recognizably part of the franchise known for its story-telling and quality gameplay.
These three adventurers are driven by the desire to be top-notch sphere hunters. In an effort to learn more about their past and improve the future, people throughout Spira hunt for spheres which have recorded bits of information, like little movies. These movie spheres are an ingenious device to help move the plot along. A sphere featuring a mysterious man who looks like Yuna's lost love puts the plot in motion. The spheres are one of my favorite features of X-2. Playing a sphere is like watching a grainy movie, and I never knew what I might see in a sphere.
The quirky adventure story is joined by a fluid battle system that makes for a fun and fast-paced game. The dynamic gameplay of Final Fantasy X-2, based on dresspheres and garment grids, differs notably from its turn-based predecessor. Dresspheres provide the equivalent of jobs or character classes, reflected in the sassy outfit each character wears when a particular dressphere is active. Dresspheres must be equipped on a garment grid, which may possess inherent abilities. Getting the right combination of grids and dresspheres for each character was very engaging.
The beauty of this system comes into play during battle, which returns to the Active Time Battle (ATB) gauge system familiar to Final Fantasy veterans. When a character's ATB bar is full she gets a chance to act according to her current dressphere. But some girls just wanna have fun, and by electing to change dresspheres the player gets to see a stunning transformation sequence as a girl's outfit changes into something better suited to the job at hand. Whether a gal's style is stealing enemies' items, whacking monsters with a samurai sword or gunning them down with twin pistols, there is a dressphere available. I could do all these things with one character by changing dresspheres during a battle! There are many dresspheres to find, often during optional missions, so it helps to explore Spira. One of my favorites was the Gambler, which turns its bearer into a sultry personification of Lady Luck who attacks with slot reels or magic dice.
X-2 features an interesting score, a definite departure from traditional Final Fantasy fare with a focus on modern-sounding music, often with a J-Pop feel. Credits are shared by Noriko Matsueda (Bahamut Lagoon, Front Mission) and Takahito Eguch, who worked together on The Bouncer. I didn't care for it at first, but over time it's quite grown on me and I really enjoy the soundtrack. The U.S. release of X-2 features translated versions of the opening song "Real Emotion," and of "1000 Words," which are very good although I still prefer the Japanese version of "Real Emotion."
I'm hard-pressed to think of anything that holds this game back. The gameplay certainly does not. I think this is the toughest Final Fantasy game since the 16-bit era. During my first few battles I was constantly quaffing potions and phoenix downs to restore health and life, because I found my party dying—definitely not expected from a modern Final Fantasy. The game stays hectic throughout, and occasionally I would run into a powerful monster that left me no alternative but to run away. This meant I had to stay on my toes, and it was nice to feel challenged. Sometimes it was hard not to be dazzled and distracted by the dressphere transformation scenes. Fortunately these can be abbreviated or eliminated by options settings. I do wonder why Square Enix still refuses to put sound adjustments in its games. I'm used to console games that let me adjust music and sound effect volumes, and it's a minor complaint that X-2 doesn't follow this trend.
With X-2, Yuna fulfills the yearnings of Cyndi Lauper by leaving behind the boys to take the lead role and have fun with it. Her journey through Spira, both sunny and stormy, had a satisfying conclusion. Looking past the graphically pleasing surface, there was plenty of gritty gameplay to hold my attention. Building up my characters by learning new dressphere abilities was more enjoyable than leveling in recent RPGs, as was the earnest and lighthearted telling of Yuna's story. Final Fantasy X-2 is a great reinvention of the long-running series, and worth the time spent visiting its world.