Platform: PlayStation 2
Review Date: 3/2/04
Two years after defeating Sin and ushering in the Eternal Calm, High Summoner Yuna is taking a well deserved rest. When her cousin and former Guardian Rikku shows up with an interesting and nostalgic sphere, Yuna decides to live it up a little and go adventuring with Rikku and her mysterious friend Paine. But in the wake of the Eternal Calm, numerous political factions are vying for power to rebuild Spira as they see fit, and at the center of these struggles is an ancient doomsday machine that spells certain destruction for all of Spira. Naturally, it's up to Yuna, Rikku, and Paine to save the world through the power of light, love, and song, and look good while they're doing it.
FFX-2 represents a lot of firsts for the franchise, most notably that it's the first sequel in the series of otherwise standalone adventures. While you don't have to have played "Final Fantasy X" to enjoy the game, knowing the backstory makes it a much deeper and more fulfilling experience. FFX-2 is also very silly and light-hearted, features non-linear mission based progression, and is the first game in the series to feature female leads. That's what sold me on the game - no whiny and annoying male protagonists to deal with, just pure female action satisfaction. Running around with Yuna, Rikku, and Paine is loads of fun, even if the gameplay mechanics aren't. At its core, it's still a "Final Fantasy" game, which means the vast majority of the game consists of tiresome random monster encounters. Just like every other FF game, this one is much more fun to watch than it is to play. They really should just release all of the FF games as movies and drop the gameplay altogether.
Fortunately, the pain of actually playing the game is lessened by the fact that YRP (or YuRiPa in Japanese) are so engaging and fun to watch. If not for them, there's no way I would have bothered finishing the game. Girls just want to have fun, and what's more fun than getting together with your friends to ransack the countryside and slaughter the local wildlife? Yuna is your typical Japanese "good girl" - quiet, shy, reserved, naïve, graceful, demure, polite, and overly feminine. (she also bears an uncanny resemblance to Japanese model Kasumi Nakane) However, hanging out with Rikku and Paine, she's dropped some of her inhibitions and is making a genuine attempt to have fun and be outgoing. She's also ditched the long robes in favor of a pair of hot pants, knee-high boots, a cropped top, and a couple of guns. Gotta love it! Rikku is your typical Japanese "ogenki" type girl - overly exuberant, exhaustingly enthusiastic, sickeningly cute, clumsy, air-headed, and very friendly, flirty, talkative, and immature. Pretty much the epitome of kawaii. While she's not as adorable as she was in "Final Fantasy X", she's decided to let her hair go completely wild and show off as much skin as humanly possible. Then there's Paine. Dear, sweet Paine... She's your typical Japanese "bad girl" - dark, brooding, rough, mysterious, independent, strong willed, and exudes a strong combination of feminine sensuality and masculine aggression. She also wields a gigantic sword. In short, she's perfect. Actually, to my mind, Rinoa Heartilly from "Final Fantasy VIII" is the ultimate expression of feminine grace and beauty, but Paine touches me on a much deeper level. Her name is also fitting, and the irony of being in love with Paine seems all too appropriate.
As far as the game itself goes, it is graphically one of the most beautiful games I've ever seen. The environments are rich, colorful, highly detailed, and very emotive, and the lighting and particle effects are brilliant. Of course, there are those who complain that the game just uses the same assets and locations as FFX, but that in no way diminishes their beauty and impact. Character and monster designs are superb, and their animations are smooth and realistic. Unfortunately, Yuna really runs like a girl, which weakens her character considerably, but it becomes tolerable after a while. One area where the "Final Fantasy" games always excel is costume design, and FFX-2 really pulls out all the stops in this department with its dress sphere mechanic. Each job skill in FFX-2 is associated with a different costume, which adds an interesting costume collecting angle to the gameplay and makes for some very enjoyable battle aesthetics. The music and sound effects are wonderful and moving, and fit the overall tone of the adventure perfectly. Once again, there are those who complain that the score is too pop-oriented, but they just need to lighten up like the rest of the characters in the game have. Another area where the FF games have no equal is in their animated cut scenes. Most of the story unfolds through well scripted engine-driven animations, but there are a handful of pre-rendered sequences as well. The pre-rendered movies are absolutely gorgeous, although curiously enough, the in-game model for Yuna is much more attractive and expressive. Her features are stronger and more emotive, and she looks less "puffy" than the pre-rendered model. I wonder if part of that is because I got so used to seeing the in-game model, that any slight deviations in the cut scenes were immediately apparent and glaring. Even more curious is the fact that different movies appear in the Japanese and American versions of the game to match the localized renditions of "1000 Words." I actually prefer the American version, which has Yuna and Len singing together. The voice acting is excellent, although the dominating girliness can become grating at times. Hedy Buress and Tara Strong (Tara Charandoff) reprise their roles as Yuna and Rikku with light-hearted strength and conviction, and Gwendoline Yeo's performance as Paine is utterly delicious. Additionally, voice actress Masasa gives a delightfully spirited rendition of the villainous LeBlanc.
Love it or hate it, the core gameplay revolves around gaining experience through an endless gauntlet of random monster encounters. FFX-2 uses a more real-time battle mechanic than the previous games, which can make these encounters seem much more intense and interactive, but their unrelenting frequency quickly makes them tiresome and tedious (not to mention stressful). Not being a "Final Fantasy" or RPG veteran, I found the game overly frustrating and difficult to play. A strategy guide is essential, and it took me a good 4-6 hours to finally figure out how the combat system worked. Unfortunately, by the ten hour mark the monsters became so powerful that I was forced to cheat through the rest of the game. The game is shorter than previous FF games, meaning that it only takes about forty hours to complete instead of the typical 80-100 hours required by most RPGs these days. I'm certainly not complaining, since I tend to lose interest after twenty hours anyway. Still, this game was a six week commitment for me, and I can't imagine how people find the time to play games that are longer.
The mission based progression model gives the game an open-ended feel, and mixes up the action a bit. My two favorite missions are handing out balloons at a concert and giving a massage to an unsuspecting victim. Both of these missions are utterly hilarious, and really enforce the light-hearted silliness that is at the heart of the game. Other missions include capturing and raising chocobos, selling concert tickets, digging in the desert, and hunting for cactuars, but ultimately everything leads to fighting various monsters and machines. All things considered, I enjoyed FFX-2. The wonderful characters kept me going when things got rough, and the compelling story gave me a goal to strive for whenever I got frustrated. I can't say that I'll ever try to make it through another FF game again, but if Paine is involved, you can bet I'll be there.