Familiar Faces and Familiar Places, but still Fun to Play
In 2001, Final Fantasy X came out and blew the world away. The first entry in the acclaimed series by Square on the PS2, it featured voice acting for the first time in the franchise, a brand-new battle engine, incredible graphics, and a surprisingly mature storyline about futility, sacrifice, and death, but also, and most importantly, hope. Fans of Final Fantasy theorized that because it was the tenth game, it would be the last game in the series, but the franchise continued to defy its name, and all expectations, two years later.
Final Fantasy X-2 (pronounced "Ten Two") is the first game in the Final Fantasy franchise to directly follow on from the storyline and setting of a previous game, and would later inspire several FFVII spin-offs, such as Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core, as well as the upcoming sequel to FFIV, The After Years. However, at the time, it was completely unheard of, so for that alone I've got to give it credit.
Setup finally over, let's actually get to the game. Obviously, spoilers for the previous game abound. At the end of FFX, the villainous Seymour Guado is dead (for reals this time), Yuna has destroyed the terrible beast known as Sin once and for all, and the world of Spira has been saved, though not without cost: the Fayth departed from the world, taking all of the Aeons - and Yuna's true love, the protagonist Tidus - with them. X-2 picks up two years after that infamously bittersweet ending, and while Yuna, who takes up the role of protagonist, is no longer grieving, she's not exactly happy, either.
She's taken up Sphere Hunting as a hobby, searching the forgotten corners of Spira for ancient recording spheres to see what's recorded on them. She leads her own team of Sphere Hunters, called the Gullwings, who fly all over the world in their tricked-out airship, the Celsius. Although there's a supporting cast who almost never leave the Celsius (including Rikku's brother, Brother, who must resent his parents, and a boy genius cleverly named "Shinra" who makes some indirect references to technologies from the game his name is taken from), the battle party consists entirely of Yuna and her cousin, fellow FFX alumni Rikku, as well as a new character, a girl named Paine. The story begins when they find a sphere that appears to show dearly departed Tidus being held in a cage somewhere, and Yuna is determined to find out if he's still alive or not. Naturally, there's more going on than is immediately apparent, and by the end of the game Yuna will once again be fighting for the survival of all Spira, this time against a seemingly invincible weapon of mass destruction known as Vegnagun.
The game does a fair attempt to sum up the important characters and events from the first game for newcomers, though it's really designed for people who already know the FFX storyline. The battle system is incredibly easy to use, and fun to master. Instead of using the system from FFX, X-2 uses a more traditional Active Time Battle system that will feel familiar and comfortable to series veterens. It also features a return of the much loved Job System, in the form of "Dresspheres", spheres which imbue their users with all of the skills of a certain class. For the first time in the series, Jobs can be changed at will during battle, so if you're taking a beating you can switch one of your fighters into a white mage, for example. Each of the many jobs you can acquire has a variety of skills and abilities you can learn, ranging from incredibly useful to just a little bit handy. One thing to note, though, the Dressphere change sequences seem to be deliberately designed to be similar to the transformation sequences from Sailor Moon, so if playing that kind of thing embarasses you, you might want to switch the option to shortened animations. Outside of combat, it's fun seeing old characters and old places again, and seeing how the world has changed since the first game. The village of Kilika has been rebuilt, the Yevon religion has been remade as New Yevon, and people are moving on with their lives. One of the main subplots features Wakka and Lulu, who got married and are now expecting their first child. Wakka's candid worries that he won't make a good father are surprisingly touching, though the game never reaches the emotional heights of its predessor. All the quirky species of Spira make an appearance in this sequel, and while the Al Bhed inexplicably no longer speak Al Bhed, the Hypello are still hilarious to listen to. One feature I really appreciated was that, while the game itself does not connect with FFX, no carrying over of stats for example, they continue the tradition of never vocally referring to Tidus or the Aeons, who were namable in the first game, by name. Unlike most Final Fantasy games, X-2 has more than one ending. In one, having finally completely come to terms with the fact that Tidus is gone, Yuna promises to look to the future. In the other, more difficult to achieve ending, the Fayth are so touched by Yuna's dedication to the people of Spira that they bring Tidus back from oblivion and give the star-crossed lovers the happy ending they deserve.
Nearly every dungeon in the game is an extension of an area you explored in the first game, and the level design on the new stuff just doesn't meet the standards of the old stuff. Unlike previous iterations of the Job System, there's no way to bring skills from one Dressphere to another, limiting your playing style to pre-determined roles. Blitzball is now almost entirely automated, making it next to impossible to be any good at it, putting you in a Catch-22 situation where the Gullwings aren't good enough to win enough games to become a better team. X-2's minigames, which include an action-based shooting gauntlet with extremely poor controls and a math-based number game, aren't as fun as the ones you used to be able to play. One of the major problems with the game is that it is very, very easy to accidentally skip certain Dresspheres, and most of them you cannot return for. For example, one sphere is the grand prize in a contest, one is hidden behind a breakable wall in a dungeon, and one is the reward for getting all the other Dresspheres. Other than Rikku and Yuna, none of the returning characters have had new character models made. They tell you that Lulu is pregnant, but since she looks exactly the same as she did in FFX, excessive belts, elaborate hair, and flat belly intact, I thought she'd only just gotten knocked up until near the end of the game, when she actually gave birth off-screen and I realized she was meant to be nine months pregnant. In addition the new characters tend not to be well established. The Leblanc Syndicate, a rival Sphere Hunting organization, comes off with exactly the same "ridiculous villain" vibe as Team Rocket from Pokémon, which is entertaining on the surface, but doesn't mix very well with the setting. New girl Paine initially comes off as secretive and mysterious, but in the end she's just not very well developed as a character. For that matter, the game's story is its weakest part, and it seems far too light-hearted for a sequel to the melancholy FFX. At least new villain Shuyin, fuelled by a thousand years of rage and sorrow, comes across as appropriately threatening.
X-2 was Square Enix's first attempt to revisit a world they had previously created, when before those worlds were considered closed off once the credits started to roll. They could have done a better job making the new areas match the old, and they really should have at least given all the former party members new models, especially the gravid Lulu, but while the story may be weak, the revamped Active Time Battle system is nicely done, and the new spin on the Job System is excellent, and figuring out good Grid/Sphere combos is almost as engrossing as the combat itself. I'd say for most people, the battle system in FFX-2 will be entertaining enough to get you through the lukewarm story, so if you're a fan of console RPGs in general and Final Fantasy X in particular, you can't really go wrong with Final Fantasy X-2.