X-2 Dares to be different and loves every minute of it
I really like FFX-2. This is not an objective judgment of the various components; this is my appreciation as a JRPG enthusiast of a JRPG that openly flips the bird to convention and expectation. The story itself is ultimately an unnecessary inflation of what was already a fairly long winded main game. The greatness of X-2 is more in the idea behind it: take X, a heavy handed exploration of religion, free will, and destiny, and turn it into a girl-power funhouse.
The opening is really fantastic. X ended on a really solemn note with Yuna. X-2 opens with Yuna singing some J-pop stuff at a concert. The message was clear: this is not the FFX sequel that you were expecting. The first outing was a highly linear, dark-ish character driven narrative- this second game is a giant ongoing side quest full of games and goofy characters. X-2 is almost a parody of the minor criticisms X received: the first was too slow and dark, now you "score" items when you open a treasure chest; the game was too linear, now the main story is about 30% of the game; battle is too slow, now it's a frantic ATB scramble.
And that brings me to really the best part of X-2: the battle system. ATB is back, and it's awesome. Part of my frustrations with the whole RPG genre is that too many things can just be solved by level grinding. Technique, equipment, upgrades, strategy, tactics, these should all be part of the deal, but often are just left out of the picture mostly or entirely. Leave the ATB on active and the speed on normal. If you change these, you're ruining a lot of the game for yourself. The game is actually very tough, and that makes it great. If you don't stay on your toes, enemies will murder you- especially bosses. Gone is the ease of sifting through the menus at your leisure. Anything but base attacks require planning and quick thinking. It's really refreshing after just tons of straight turned based games.
Beyond the ATB game, the tactical framework is a modernized classic. X-2 brings back essentially the same class system popularized in V, Tactics, and anywhere else FF classes are to be found. These classes are disguised as "Dress Spheres" in the parlance of the game, but they're still classes. Abilities, stats, everything and tied to class and change with it. The catch though is that these can be changed (along with a classy video sequence) as many times as you'd like in battle. And change you will, as you'll often need to mix and match skill sets to survive and thrive. And even beyond the class system, each character is assigned a "Garment Grid." These are literally boards on which classes can be arranged. When a character is a certain class, those classes to which the character can immediately switch must be directly joined on the grid. Furthermore, each grid assigns significant bonuses. Some are passive statistical bonuses, others are passive traits (fire resistance, for example), while some allow different skills to be used that might otherwise not be available. On top of that, further bonuses may be gained by swapping classes during a particular battle and passing over symbols within the grid, or even more by making every connection on a grid.
The point of all that being: the game is surprisingly deep. The vibe of the game is light and carefree, but the combat is fast, and the planning and setup required is significant. You must have at least a decent RPG IQ to hack it and balance the twitch requirements of the ATB system and the tactical planning and execution of gear, classes, and garment grids. There are definitely harder RPGs out there, but X-2 definitely surprised me more than anything. The rigor relative to my expectations was much greater than with most games.
So now we come to the summary. Clearly, there are a lot of things that I love about X-2. There is a lot that I don't like, however. it is a shiny and fun diversion: the story is more or less pointless; the art assets are mostly recycled from the first game; it is essentially a string of little narratives for each area of the world broken out into many, many side quests and fetch quests for each of the games' chapters. By itself, X-2 would be a three star game. it has great SE production values, the battle system is snappy and engaging, everything along those lines is great. I give it that fourth star though because it really dared to be different. So many sequels are so highly derivative... So much more of the same. X-2 is a totally different deal, but it lives as a great extension of the main quest. It's alright that there isn't much story, because the story is already there. This game answers the question: "what if I could just jerk around in Spira and do all these fun non-linear deals for 30 hours? Also, what if Yuna, Rikku, and a new friend had a dress up party?" It revels in being different and in many ways totally complementary to X.
In the end, it's ironically about the intro. It's one of the few times I've just dropped my jaw and muttered "Holy Shit." during a video game. It's a message from the director: "I know what you think you were going to get, but I'm going to do some weird shit for a while and make whatever game I want. It's going to be goofy as hell and you may not understand what's happening to you, but in the end you'll probably feel pretty good about it."