Part 26: A Decent Recovery From Digital Dysentery
We begin this episode with a bang. After a brief struggle, the Gullwings join forces with Leblanc to investigate a mysterious behemoth hidden in the recesses of Bevelle. Leblanc posits the beastly contraption is capable of unleashing untold destruction. As superficial as this premise may be, it culminated nicely. Fighting Bahamut may well be the best "twist" in the game. Knowing how much the Aeons meant to Yuna makes their adulteration more tragic.
There's one issue worth mentioning. Having one of the primary story conceits take place in a "hidden" subterranean city is lazy storytelling. The writers found themselves in a hole and dug another hole to escape this anachronism. The doors and pathways that lead to Vegnagun were not present in Final Fantasy X. The idea Vegnagun was in a deep slumber, while Sin was annihilating Spira, is equally absurd.
This dances around my fundamental issue with Final Fantasy X-2. I HAVE NO IDEA WHY ANY OF THIS SHIT IS HAPPENING! Can one of you tell me why Yuna gave up on her job as a High Summoner? Why did she retire her religious robes for hot pants? My bafflement continues when discussing the game's antagonist. Ultimately, who is the antagonist? Is it Vegnagun even though Shuyin is manipulating it? Is the villain Shuyin despite the game's efforts to humanize his actions? Does Vegnagun break free from its shackles before or after Shuyin controls it? Why does Vegnagun burrow into the Farplane? How does Shuyin know where to find Vegnagun?
In the last episode, I forgot to mention the game's initial surfacing of Paine's backstory. Paine is the only character I felt interested in knowing more about, but I found her entire character arc frustrating. Having her be a member of an underground paramilitary organization is convenient. It is indisputably engaging when it comes together, but HOT DAMN is it one-dimensional. To their credit, Square conveys a character who warrants having their angst, but at the same time,
Part 27: NOPE, This Is STILL The Digital Equivalent Of Having Dysentery
Before we continue with the story, let's talk about Garment Grids. What started out as a novel reimagining of the Sphere Grid, has quickly soured on me. There are too many Garment Grids presented without rhyme or reason. Progressing the story will occasionally provide new Garment Grids, but their extensive breadth makes it impossible to get invested in any of them. Just as I wrapped my mind around one, a superior Garment Grid would be introduced. Plus, the lack of a Garment Grid progression system makes them no better or worse than your equipable items.
All right, I'm just going to say it. Everything she contributes to the story is groan-inducing. Her dialogue is terrible. Every time she utters "Noojie-Woojie" a part of me dies. Her character model is everything wrong with female JRPG design. Her outfit poses no practical application, and as a result, it comes across as exploitative. A character can have sex appeal without being overbearing, and this factoid isn't "Breaking News," unless you're Hideo Kojima or Square.
Navigating Bevelle is an unmitigated nightmare. Not only does Final Fantasy X-2 subject you to the worst Cloister level from Final Fantasy X, but knowing where to go is a colossal pain in the ass. When you first enter the main temple, you have to parse out a series of floating chariots and touchable pillars. Making sense of anything in the environment is up to the player to figure out. Unless you are the developer, it is easy to get stuck.
Take, for example, the final portion of Bevelle moments before you fight Baralai. As part of this "puzzle," there are a dozen electrical towers each with a different glowing symbol in front of it. What do the symbols represent, and how do the various towers get you closer to your goal? The game doesn't care to explain! It instead expects you to use trial and error to discover the right combination of symbols before progressing to the next level. This infernal contraption is not a puzzle; this is a waste of my time.
It hurts the level design is atrocious. Like the previous dungeons, Bevelle's buried network subjects you to another dark and drab environment that feels repetitious after ten minutes. It hurts the underground city exposes a colossal anachronism in Final Fantasy X-2. The subterranean metropolis is somehow more substantial than Bevelle. Square wants you to believe the same religious organization that couldn't hide the fact its leaders were zombies, could conceal a teeming megalopolis. FAT FUCKING CHANCE!
Part 28: At Least Chapter Two Can Stick Its Landing
I enjoy how chapter two ends, but I have a few burning questions. What's the "master plan" of the characters? Leblanc tells the Gullwings about the danger Vegnagun poses, and everyone departs to invade Bevelle. We know they need to confront Baralai, but what do they plan on doing with him once they capture him? There's a slight hunch Nooj and Leblanc want to destroy Vegnagun. How this will be accomplished, and to what ends, is left ambiguous.
When I entered Bevelle, I was implored by many to locate the Dark Knight dress. I accomplished this, but at the cost of my sanity. What I object to most of all is the lack of useful iconography in Final Fantasy X-2. There is no reason to think an ominous treasure chest perched in the foreground has the most broken dressphere. Until this point, the treasure chests dole out a random assortment of practically useless items. Final Fantasy X-2 conditions you into thinking chests are worthless. To hide the best dress in an innocuous trunk is wasteful.
Of the new characters introduced in Final Fantasy X-2, Baralai is one of the few I enjoyed. He's not a violent sociopath like Seymour, but is a hypocrite and knows. When he encounters Yuna, he recognizes that New Yevon warrants her skepticism. He admits to concealing Vegnagun and not actively pursuing its destruction. He instead hides its existence under a vague veil of religious mysticism. Baralai does so believing it will avoid throwing his society into upheaval and views his actions as serving a "greater good." When you finally battle Baralai, he openly regrets the need for violence while also accepting it as an inevitability. What Final Fantasy X could never accomplish with Seymour, X-2 achieves with Baralai in a single scene.
My good feelings continue when Yuna confronts Bahamut. In this brief but poignant moment, the game uses Yuna beyond having her act as a bland cipher for the player. Having Bahamut set into motion the game's ultimate premise is a nice addition. There is a pained expression on Yuna's face when she confronts Bahamut, and once she defeats the Aeon, there's a lingering feeling of regret. In this context, Yuna's soliloquies to Tidus develop a new meaning. Her dazed and confused words develop a heart-rending undertone as she pines for the past.
Part 29: Chapter Three Is A Parade Of Nothingness!
Chapter three is an oddity only one-upped by the red-headed stepchild that is Final Fantasy X-2's fourth chapter. What I find disappointing is the third episode starts off with a sound foundation. Upon defeating Bahamut, Buddy informs us Spira's temples are under siege by a wave of monsters. When YRP investigate the first "hotspots," they find Nooj and Baralai have disappeared. Lacking strong leadership, Spira is falling apart at the seams.
Final Fantasy X-2 appears to be priming Yuna to take up a leadership role she previously shunned. Spira needs a guiding hand, and she, more than anyone else, is the heir apparent. During these initial moments, I thought the game was aiming to frame Yuna as a hero who denied her destiny. The conclusion of Final Fantasy X frames her as being a figurehead for the people of Spira. As she takes on missions, it appears Yuna is more comfortable about shepherding her fellow citizens. Then, for reasons I can only imagine, Yuna's characterization goes nowhere. Like the rest of the game, it is held in stasis until the story lurches to its climactic end.
There's no sense of progress with Yuna's character arc in chapter three. Each scene and set piece plays out the same. Yuna visits a temple, is informed of the situation, locates a Dark Aeon, defeats the Dark Aeon, and everyone lives happily ever after. Not since Haruhi's "Endless Eight" storyline have I seen "wash-rinse-repeat" storytelling this brazen. Chapter three is less about contextualizing the events of Final Fantasy X-2, than it is Square going through the motions. When it is finally over, we do not end up with an appreciation of the story's machinations or a feeling of empowerment. Personally, I was left as bewildered as Yuna.
Chapter three is less perverse and voyeuristic than its predecessors. It takes the time to frame itself as being the climax to Final Fantasy X-2's lackadaisical attempt to copy the five-act dramatic structure. There are moments here and there worth praising, but once again these moments are held back by Square's anemia. The pivotal boss battles against the Aeons boil down to JRPG rigmarole. Sabotaged too is the narrative's sense of urgency thanks to Final Fantasy X-2's wearisome open-world. Nothing of note happens until the tail end of the chapter, and this underscores the game's uneconomical use of the player's time.
There are three set pieces in chapter three with any form of player agency. You heard me right, three. THREE! And what are they? To add insult to injury, you fight the exact smattering of Aeons you saw in Final Fantasy X! There is nothing in chapter three that is not a rehash of shit you have already seen! The missions themselves aren't even compelling. You watch nameless characters get wasted by the Dark Aeons before personally dispatching the Aeons with relative ease. I don't know what else to feel about this portion of the game other than disappointment!
Part 30: Another Moral Dilemma Without "Teeth"
Yuna eventually finds herself putting a stop to the flow of fiends coming from Besaid's temple. Right off the bat, the cheap production values rear their ugly head. Besaid isn't devastated, nor is it on fire; the village is in the same state you last saw it. There isn't even a visible flow of monsters waltzing out of the temple. When Yuna reconvenes with Wakka, there's nothing in the environment to contextualize his present condition.
A little world-building would have gone a long way. Where the fiends are coming from is left a mystery and defeating the Dark Aeons brings us none closer to the answer. Regarding the Aeons, the game never addresses if the monsters we fight are the same summons we called friends in the previous game. Of the game's five chapters, the third accomplishes the least in progressing the story. Like a marshmallow, it is a bland wad of nothingness that leaves you with an overpowering saccharine aftertaste.
The worst of Final Fantasy X-2's superficiality is yet to come. At the steps of the temple, Wakka and Beclem are seen debating what to do about the fiends. Wakka believes the temple is a part of Besaid's history and should be protected. Beclem argues it should be burned to the ground to stop the tide of monsters. Square's writers desperately want you to view this as a legitimate moral dilemma, but again, the writing falls flat. Beclem has been nothing but a thorn in Yuna's side, and Wakka's proposal appears more humane.
Dark Valefor populates Besaid's temple, and I have to be honest, I was surprised the developers got the locations right for the Aeons. This praise is fleeting because you have to wonder what could have been accomplished had they used new Aeons. Part of the story boils down to Vegnagun "awakening" the underground portion of the Farplane. How great would it have been if the game showcased a new batch of Aeons more grotesque than anything we have ever seen? That would have grafted a fleeting sense of novelty to familiar backdrops. But alas, Square needed a quick buck, and in their quest to churn out an immediate hit, they went with the lowest of hanging fruit.
But you know what? Everything else in Besaid is more than serviceable. Yuna's emotionless facade is cracking ever so slightly, and even Beclem has an opportunity to be more than the sum of his parts. Among his usual extremist mannerisms, he chastises Wakka for not considering his pending fatherhood. Wakka takes the rebuke in stride and realizes memories aren't worth dying over. Moments like these do wonders to highlight how much Spira has changed since Final Fantasy X. Wakka does well to remind Yuna the importance of cherishing the present more than the past. Like before, Besaid has a poignant lesson worth remembering.
Part 31: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Dona?
I can't believe the same team who crafted a semi-decent moment out of Besaid, also made the chapter three hotspot in Kilika. It not only repeats the same structure of Besaid but throws in an unwarranted minigame. An already bore of a level becomes a slog when Square tries its hands at a stealth sequence. Much like YRP's botched attempt at infiltrating Leblanc's Chateau, I have a hard time stomaching this scene on principle alone. Why is YRP sleuthing past a rinky-dink border fence after storming Bevelle?
There's a tenuous side story regarding Dona and Barthello. Dona helps Yuna get past the border fence out of concern for Barthello's well-being. When you encounter Barthello, he asks Yuna how Dona is doing. You cannot make a romance subplot any more barebones and less fulfilling. Part of the reason I bring this up is the game attempts to frame Dona and Barthello as being Kilika's equivalent to Wakka. Wakka provides a heart to every story moment in Besaid, and the slow progression of Dona and Barthello's relationship attempts the same. The ultimate issue is there's too big a chasm between the two, and what it accomplishes with Dona and Barthello isn't especially fascinating.
The elephant in the room comes down to the game's use of New Yevon and the Youth League. Despite outlining the two factions as being at each other's throats, we never see evidence of this fact. Instead of providing a real-world conflict between the two organizations, the game yadda yaddas them out of existence. After ghosting Nooj and Baralai, the forces of New Yevon and the Youth League are seen listlessly wandering Kilika as monsters besiege the city. Kilika inexplicably becomes populated by an army of soulless automatons.
Even here the game wastes a perfect opportunity at introspection. Lacking strong leadership, Spira's two dominant sources of political and religious influence fail to function. It is a scenario we are all too familiar with as Yevon experienced a similar rise and fall in Final Fantasy X. Does the game use this scaffolding to provide a cautionary on the dangers of a "cult of personality," or how totalitarianism can arise in any society? NOPE!It instead juxtaposes to another Dark Aeon battle and puts the kibosh on the conflict between New Yevon and the Youth League altogether!
Part 32: Yuna Could Have Been The Heart Of The Game. She's More Like The Stomach
In the previous two episodes, I harped on Yuna a great deal. I want to make something apparent to those of you reading this series. I do not hate Yuna. I don't even dislike Yuna. What I dislike is how Yuna is rewritten to fit the bubbly and upbeat tone of Final Fantasy X-2 with reckless abandon. I find it exhausting watching Yuna and Rikku commit enormous blunders when I know they are better than that. I hate seeing Yuna sing and dance seamlessly when I haven't seen her practicing either skill. I feel alienated in a world I know and love, populated by characters I grew to enjoy.
Yuna's actions make it challenging to role-play in what is a roleplaying game. Yuna's penchant for late 90s slang doesn't help either. That aside, there are fundamental issues with Yuna's characterization that do not add up. She and her compatriots do not behave logically or consistently. Her train of thought during one scene is not echoed in a succeeding scene. Imagine a marionette where half of the strings are severed. That's Yuna in Final Fantasy X-2.
Yuna solves everyone's problems without rhyme or reason. Initially, I developed a suspicion the people of Spira gravitated toward cults of personality. I was disappointed. Some of you may claim such a dramatic undertone would be out-of-place in Final Fantasy X-2, and you might be right, but my main point still stands. Without a purpose, Yuna wastes large swaths of her time performing errands. By failing to connect these chores to the main narrative, the entire game feels disjointed.
This rambling inevitability leads us to Final Fantasy X-2's side quests. If you ever wanted an emblem of how few fucks were given in the production of Final Fantasy X-2, look no further than the chapter three side quests. The world is under attack thanks to a glut of fiends, and none of the environments reflect this. Upon entering Luca, you find the city enamored with what is ostensibly a trading card game. The Mecalania Woods boil down to a chase sequence after O'aka. The Calm Lands become an exhausting exercise of arbitrage. And does any of this bullshit have anything to do with the main story?
I fail to grasp how Sphere Break is a "game." Before you ask, I'm not talking about its insufficient interactivity. It is a math problem in a franchise with a storied history of passing off math problems as immersive "puzzles." What I do not understand is how Sphere Break provides a two-player experience. What is the other player doing? Are they placing numbered coins on a board and hoping their opponent cannot do basic arithmetic? How is this "game" any fun for the opposing player?
Part 33: Bullet Points For Side Quests I Cannot Be Fucked To Care About
I would posit over half of chapter three is optional content. As mentioned earlier, none of these quests provide substantial narrative rewards, so X-2's reliance on them is dubious. There are dresses and Garment Grids to gain here and there, but beyond that, there's no reason to interact in the greater world. I find it challenging to talk about Final Fantasy X-2, far more than any of my previously covered Final Fantasy games. No joke, deconstructing Final Fantasy VIII's story was easier than stirring up the motivation to write about Tobli or Sphere Break.
For the first time in over a year, I'm calling an audible and busting out Giant Bomb's table feature to assess non-story related side quests. For those of you who have followed this series since its inception, you will recall I have not done this since Final Fantasy VII! Jesus Christ, I have been plugging along with the Final Fantasy franchise for damn near three years. What in the world am I doing with my life?
The race to defeat more Machina than the Machine Faction is an arbitrary exercise. Worse yet, it cannot be bothered to culminate in a fight against a new line of Machina. Fighting the Machina also highlights the game's structural shortcomings. In chapter three, Yuna's mission introduces the Machina being in a state of dysfunction. Her investigation of the cause occurs in episode four. The resolution of her inquiry takes place in chapter five. Why is this irrelevant side quest stretched so long?
Count your lucky stars, Yuna explores Guadosalam without a needless boss battle against Leblanc! Leblanc is depressed thanks to the disappearance of Nooj, but the story gets interesting when you interact with Maechen. Yuna and Maechen muse about whether the footage in several spheres depicts Tidus, and the two leave the conversation equally unsure. The less said about the game making light of Logos being a pervert, the better.
Another point of contention pertains to Paine and her scatterbrained story arc. The collectible items called "Crimson Spheres" obfuscate Paine's characterization. The design team of Final Fantasy X-2 pulled a lesson from the most frustrating part of Final Fantasy X (i.e., the Jecht Spheres). Paine is the only "new" character afforded a decent character arc. Her difficulties provide moments of poignant storytelling free of shameless pandering. So, why make it this hard to learn more about her?
Congratulations Final Fantasy X-2! You made the Thunder Plains nominally better than they were in Final Fantasy X! That isn't saying much as lightning dodging is one of the worst things Square has passed off as "gameplay" in a Final Fantasy game. Back to the Thunder Plains. I refuse to calibrate the towers. I just can't. Each tower is its own rhythm game, and none of them are especially fun to play. It hurts each minigame goes on far longer than it should.
Fuck everything this game does to O'aka XXIII. It takes one of the most charming NPCs from Final Fantasy X and devolves him into a craven and corrupt business person. With Final Fantasy X-2 already populated by the likes of Cid and Tobli, the game's depiction of O'aka is unnecessary. Resolving the bureaucracy of his side quest fairs none better. After dishing out an arbitrary amount of money, the player defeats a series of monsters that have killed several unnamed characters we have never met. Does the scene culminate with a climactic boss battle? NOPE, and that's why I found O'aka's affair in Macalania stunningly superficial.
What a crock of shit. In the previous chapter, Kimahri warned Yuna his citizenry were demanding retribution against the Guado. All the same, the game only has us go toe to toe against one disgruntled Ronso. What should be an empowering moment, ends up feeling hollow. Yuna defeating Garrick Ronso is a foregone conclusion; she defeated Sin for pity's sake! If Yuna were up against an angry mob, the mission's melodrama would have been more palatable. At least the mission culminates in a boss battle we haven't seen before.
They couldn't be fucked to design cool looking Cactuars, even though the "Jumbo Cactuar" character model has existed for DECADES! The adult Cactuars are just regular ass cacti who talk to people. Fuck everything. Fuck the fact this mission is a series of fetch quests. Fuck the Cactuar shooting minigame. Fuck the laziness of the mission design. Fuck this game.
|The Calm Lands|
Yuna's tussle with Dark Yojimbo is a visually impressive affair. What I am less enthused by is the math-based minigame in the caves. Here the player assists trapped denizens out of a cavernous dungeon. Let's not bullshit; this nonsense was included to pad out an otherwise throwaway mission. At least it is mercifully short.
Sphere Break sucks, but the Lady Luck dressphere is fun. That makes this side quest's carbon footprint on my soul net neutral.
If Final Fantasy X-2's chapter three side quests were a college student, it would average a That's what I call a mark of quality! Before we transition to the third chapter's concluding scene, there is one more side quest worth deliberating. That would be the optional mission in Bevelle.
Part 34: I'm All Out Of Love, I'm So Lost Without You
I mentioned it in my notes on Guadosalam, but hiding Paine's backstory in side quests is a waste. She is the one player character you do not know about and serves as the connective tissue between Final Fantasy X-2's disparate story arcs. Worse yet, traveling to obfuscated levels in already familiar locations is a bore. It doesn't help the game's front-loading of Paine's relationship to Baralai, Nooj, and Gippal is also buried in a side quest.
Learning more about the relationship between Baralai, Nooj, and Gippal was oddly compelling. For once, Final Fantasy X-2 crafts a moment where the characters could stand on their own merits. I would even dare to say the Mexican standoff between Baralai, Nooj, and Gippal is the best scene in chapter three. It is one of the few times we see the pensive and collected Baralai crack. When Baralai confronts Nooj about a past betrayal, it develops a sense of mystery I wanted to explore.
That is where my praise stops. How the story presents Vegnagun is DOGSHIT. Baralai states that Vegnagun, the infernal machine which has set much of the story into motion, responds to hostile human emotions. I'm not joking. He says this in the game. That's the plot. An adult wrote this script. I don't know what's real anymore.
What the fuck has Vegnagun been doing the last thousand years? Seriously, what the fuck was Vegnagun doing as Sin brought ruination to Spira? This fucking thing responds to negative human emotions? What about the centuries of discrimination the Al Bhed faced before Final Fantasy X-2? Why didn't Vegnagun awake when Seymour ordered two acts of genocide? This revelation only exists in a vacuum. Final Fantasy X-2 needs you to accept a bloodless rivalry between two political factions was enough to stir Vegnagun from its slumber.
I recognize Final Fantasy X-2's writing staff were in a no-win scenario. Final Fantasy X-2 exists because Square needed money. It did not start with a novel idea where Final Fantasy X's story should have gone next. Square needed money, and Final Fantasy X was the husk they elected to pilfer. I do not envy the position the writers were in when trying to outline Final Fantasy X-2. They triaged much of the game's story to the best of their ability. Hence, the game's enormous narrative gaps in logic.
This understanding doesn't improve my viewpoint of Final Fantasy X-2. None of Square's higher-ups could concoct a better raison d’être for the game. Either that or they didn't care. Both scenarios are lamentable when you consider how much care and craft was put into Final Fantasy X. Every location clued us into the practices and values of Spira. There was a distinct sense of culture and life to each area. For Final Fantasy X-2 to circumnavigate such world building, is a complete insult to the main reason I loved Final Fantasy X.
Part 35: What Am I Even Looking At Anymore?
With the unavoidable rapidly approaching, Yuna ferried her party to Djose Temple for another fight against a Dark Aeon. Seeing new monsters or corrupted Aeons would have done wonders for the story. I cannot shake away a feeling of convenient circumstance whenever the game forced me into a temple. There's no scaffolding how these Aeons returned to Spira, or if they are the same Aeons Yuna once summoned. Last we saw them, Yuna sent her Aeons to the Farplane as they shattered to dust.
Despite earlier encounters, Gippal appears to be AWOL alongside Nooj and Baralai. The chaotic situation worsens after Yuna defeats Dark Ixion. As the monster explodes, Yuna is knocked into a massive pit and finds herself in the depths of the Farplane. Yuna's "moment" in the Farplane is a thoroughly strange affair, and that is why I loved it. The cinematography of Yuna being stuck in what is ostensibly a void, is impeccable. For once, Final Fantasy X-2 crafts a world unlike any we saw in Final Fantasy X.
Virtually everything attempted with Shuyin is ghastly. Final Fantasy X-2 endeavors to put a face on its primary antagonist, but its efforts are cumbersome. When Yuna encounters Shuyin, she transforms into Lenne, Shuyin's former partner. We learn thousands of years ago, the two lovers were murdered and Shuyin wishes to destroy Spira out of spite. What remains in question is what the fuck has Shuyin been doing for the last thousand years? No, really, can any of you answer my question?
My inquiry highlights the most prominent skeleton in Final Fantasy X-2's closet. Final Fantasy X-2 exists in a bubble. At any point were Leblanc, Gippal, Nooj, or Baralai addressed in Final Fantasy X? I think we all know the answer to that question. A similar dilemma faces Final Fantasy X-2's driving actors. Vegnagun and Shuyin are positioned to be intimidating forces but somehow remained dormant during Final Fantasy X. No reasonable person should have to accept such plot by convenience, but Final Fantasy X-2 forces you.
There's another fundamental issue I have with the game's use of Shuyin. Final Fantasy X's parting message was the world of Spira had broken a cyclical Catch-22. After years of misery, the people of Spira were free to live their lives how they saw fit. Shuyin and Vegnagun contradict the individual freedom imagined in Final Fantasy X's final moments. Shuyin establishes an ethos of predeterminism that appears innate in Spira. Shuyin's love is posited to be fate, and the same parallel is drawn to Yuna's love for Tidus. I'm not sure if this was intended, but HOT DAMN is it clunky.
Final Fantasy X-2 isn't a bad game, but it isn't a game that warrants its title. This game neither feels like a Final Fantasy game, nor a respectful return to the world of Final Fantasy X. It's its own kettle of fish, and I cannot help to think it would be better served removed from its namesake. Yes, I know its combat system served as a stepping stone for what became Final Fantasy XIII, but therein lies another problem. Final Fantasy X-2 feels wholly removed from the quaint comforts of its predecessors. I have to ask: should this game have played a role in shaping the future of Final Fantasy?