Ask anyone which of the Final Fantasy X games is superior to the other, and nine times out of ten X will be chosen over X-2. Ask fervent Final Fantasy X fans if they even like the sequel, and you’ll receive a wide range of reactions, many bordering between distaste and outright rage.
I’m not one of those fans.
In fact, I think the game is a great exploration of various themes and ideas that started in X, and host to some of the most intense and engaging gameplay the series has ever had. While I won’t say the game is superior to its predecessor, I do think it’s worthy of being its companion, and I’m here to make the case for why X-2 deserves a little more gamer love.
It’s no wonder this game unsettles many fans: if you were to play the games back to back the tone from one game to the next — even with the Eternal Calm segment placed in between — is jarring. Even with X‘s occasional light humor and awkward moments (just think the laughing scene between Tidus and Yuna) X-2 starts full of straight up comedy camp.
In fact, much of the game straddles the line between full-fledged sequel and a B-rate parody spin-off, a J-Pop themed version of Charlie’s Angels movies with a little My Little Pony thrown in (though I hear the latter has quite the male following on the internet). Seeing Yuna take the stage during the opening credits (or, minor spoilers, a version of her) and do a quasi-Sailor Moon transformation, quasi-Lynda Carter Wonder Woman spin into a singing diva was just a weird way to follow up a story that ended with the death of a monstrous leviathan that had been destroying the cities of Spira for a thousand years.
But there’s more to the game than concerts and comedy, more for serious gamers to enjoy and explore.
Yes, the game has some silly side-quests, and some have argued that the entire game is pretty much three girls venturing through Spira catching up on the latest gossip of characters they met in X after defeating Sin. But that’s a very minute portion of the game, and there’s something much stronger in the continuation of this story: what happens after — as Idris Elba’s Pacific Rim character Stacker Pentecost puts it — you’ve “cancelled the apocalypse?”
The most interesting thing about the backstory in X was that Spira’s entire culture was built upon a lie. A lie that grew and built over a thousand years to become hard fact, an inescapable truth to everyone in the society but perhaps the Al Bhed and a few others. So X-2 isn’t just a premise built on the idea of “We thought Y2K was coming, now it’s not, woo hoo.” No, an entire faith and way of life was destroyed by a few courageous heroes destroying what was thought to be irresistible divine punishment.
What do you do after that?
X-2 explored some interesting territory, both with the New Yevon followers and the Youth League. The New Yevoners hoped to maintain the austerity of the Yevon faith; the Youth League was driven by young passionate citizens who wanted to see Spira grow based on its needs, not on some thousand year old religion. This argument is all too well mirrored in real life between atheists and “true believers” of various faiths: the former with trying to advance life with scientific fact and progress; the latter typically viewed as criticizing science for trying to remove religiously-driven morality and faith-driven beliefs out of their lives.
But even then, there was depth to the divide between factions in X-2: the New Yevoners weren’t opposed to new ideas, they just wanted to adjust to all of the many changes at their own pace. Their motto was even “One thing at a time.” The Youth League, for all of its focus on recovering Spira’s lost history and encouraging growth, became known less for its advances and progress and more for their hot-blooded desire to fight verbally or physically, especially against their philosophical rivals in the New Yevon faction. And then, unopposed by either side was the Machine Faction, who ignored either argument and merely aimed to increase the use of machines in Spira by providing machina to everyone.
These were big ideas and vitally important to the core of X-2‘s narrative, but often forgotten in lieu of the game’s tone.
The biggest issue with the narrative of X-2 was that the world of Spira went from being a grim pilgrimage to stop a terrifying evil to being an episode of Hannah Montana crossed with Sailor Moon. In between all of the battles, daring escapes, and risky gambits were the pop star “Y! R! P!” poses, perky dialogue and J-Pop concerts. You can’t even mention or feature content from X-2 without playing “1,000 Words” in the background, making the game feel more like a Spice Girls video game than the successor to one of the most celebrated franchises in the world.
So yeah, I understand the issues and the new, more “girly” direction, but I have to say…
Who cares? And why not?
Final Fantasy X at its core was about bringing light and hope back to Spira. During the entire journey, Tidus was reminded that Yuna as a summoner had to smile and hide her pain, because it was her duty to continue to inspire Spira. That was the one positive and absolutely necessary part of the cycle of Sin — without that hope, without that confidence, Spira would descend into chaos and madness and quite possibly never recover. It was that false hope — and Blitzball — which kept morale high and helped citizens to make it through the dark times, until the next period of Calm.
But Sin was defeated. That cycle, over. That faith, proven a lie. And a new type of darkness took the place of Sin, overcoming the hearts of Spira’s citizens. In many ways this chaos was worse: at least Sin gave everyone a common enemy, one that rallied them together against a common foe regardless of beliefs. But the one thing X-2 proved was that the same disunity that arose in modern day Spira was the very same needless enmity that made factions go to war 1,000 years ago, eventually giving birth to Sin in the first place. So how do you prevent another disaster like Sin?
How do you keep up morale in Spira? How do you inspire people to be good people without some looming, otherworldly threat? And even for the player, how much darkness can we endure before we’re swallowed up in the same emotional undertones of the previous game? The same dark undertones of many of the Final Fantasy games for much of the series?
As mentioned above, I’ve heard people say that the game is basically catching up on gossip. Learning what happened to characters after X and keeping up with the trivial things. “Oh, she had a baby?” “Oh, they’re dating now?” But it was much more than that. It was a way to explore what certain charaxters would do when faced with the end of the world, and surviving it. What kinds of things would we do if pushed to the brink of death and insanity, pushed beyond grief and tragedy, and then all of a sudden just given free range to do whatever we wanted? I might throw on a new costume and travel around the world hunting spheres myself, honestly.
X-2 attempted something risky: to bring a bright side to Spira. And perhaps it was also reaching out to its female demographic, too. There’s no covering up the fact that X-2 seems geared toward a female audience in tone and presentation, so much that I’m surprised the game didn’t come packaged in a pink plastic case covered in ponies.
But again, why not?
Games have long been geared exclusively towards males, with damsels in distress and warrior men with long phallic swords. X-2 didn’t completely take away what males typically love about games: fast action, challenging gameplay, and a host of abilities to unlock. We were given an entire world to explore again at our leisure, a treasure trove of secrets to uncover, and later a Creature Creator which allowed us to bring monsters into battle to fight for us. And let’s be honest: females love these things too. Gamers are gamers, no matter the gender, race, lifestyle or creed.
The occasional J-Pop song or dance number didn’t bother me because I was still getting a damn good game and an engaging story. And if we’re to be honest about it, plenty of male-oriented shows and cartoons have much of the same silliness and camp, especially those from Japan. There’s been song and dance numbers, crazy costumes, and completely ridiculous segments in both American and Japanese shows for boys, and while I’m not saying we enjoy them all the time, it’s not anything explicitly gender-based or exclusive to females.
And speaking of preceived gender-based content…
One thing that always divides gamers on X-2 is the gameplay. Gone is the team-based tactical approach introduced in its predecessor, with each character given a defined role and encouraged to dabble only a little in others’ abilities. Gone is the turn system, replaced with the standard Final Fantasy ATB system. Gone is the simplicity of combat, now with this fast-paced, job-switching, costume-changing imposter.
I must admit: when replaying both games in a row during the review of the Remaster, it was a little odd for me to be facing enemies that were previously a walk in the park in X, and now posed a larger threat. X‘s combat was a breeze. It was easy. Easy to learn, easy to perform, easy to win with. Sure, it certainly had its challenges as the game went on, but everyone had a place in battle and all you needed to do as the player was swap people in and out and let everyone play their part. Cut and paste, know where to put them, react and respond.
X-2 wasn’t nearly as easy.
In X-2, everyone could be anyone. The Dressphere system allowed for instantaneous class-switching during combat, based on the needs of the battle. It’s easy to see how it inspired the equally praised and criticized battle system introduced in the later XIII series, given the emphasis on combat roles instead of micromanaging attacks.
But unlike those later games, X-2 never took the strategy out of combat. Players were still given a wide, wide variety of abilities, buffs and debuffs to learn, which could be unlocked mid-battle and which shared similarities with some of the other dressspheres. Figuring out exactly which dressspheres were most likely needed for the battles ahead was an interesting challenge; figuring out what garment grid to use for which character based on the bonuses they’d need for the roles that suit them best was a powerful but subtle dynamic; figuring out how to best make use of the characters as a constantly-shifting team was something that only improved the nuance of the combat system even more.
There was never any certainty in X-2, at least for much of the game, because the battles kept players thinking, moving and shifting their approaches around constantly. And every newly introduced dressphere only added to the many options in maximizing your team’s efficiency, exploring new abilities, and finding the best match for any particular group of fiends you’d encounter.
Yes, at it’s core, it seemed like it was all about girls playing dress up. Each new dressphere had a new look, and a custom animation when the ladies of the Gullwings transformed during combat. But let’s be honest, fellas: how many shows “made for boys” had the same idea? Every “Super Sentai” themed show — and all of its influences and successors — have the heroes transforming into cooler new forms, complete with new powers. Everything from Power Rangers to Dragon Ball Z to Naruto and on have characters who can achieve new forms, new costumes and new looks just to receive a power boost and new abilities.
At the very heart of our favorite cartoons of all time is the idea that being stronger and godly means putting on shiny new armor or a dashing new outfit to stop evil with our radiant and glorious power. So how about we stow the “dress up is for girls” issue with X-2 and move on from it?
The last of X-2‘s most oft-cited criticisms is the change in Yuna. She’s seen as this soft-spoken, near damsel-in-distress who all of a sudden became a gun-toting badass sword-for-hire. So was X-2 an easy way to give Yuna the Xena makeover, or does it all make sense?
Yes, she is reverent and polite. But all throughout Final Fantasy X she was also shown to have this inner, wilder fun side, one made of childlike innocence and glee that had been waiting to come out. But she had to constantly hold it in to perform her duties and be the type of person she was expected to be. So what do we have here? Someone with repressed desires suddenly making a brash, sudden change to explore themselves and have a little fun? Completely unbelievable, I’m sure.
This was a sheltered, reserved woman who let her crazy carefree cousin talk her into loosening up and taking an adventure around the world. Who wouldn’t take that offer? For the first time in her life, she was doing something solely for what she wants. Everyone can relate to that, at any age, of any background.
But most importantly, Yuna’s the same Yuna from before: she’s just trying to have a little more fun with a little help from her girlfriends, sistahs, or whatever else you want to call close female companions. Guys may not like the unending list of comparisons this may connect X-2 to, like Sex in the City or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or what have you; but games often have very typical “male” experiences, like gouging out the eyes of evil gods and swinging around giant phallic swords. So why not typical “feminine themes” like exploring yourself and hanging out with your friends? At least X-2 attempted to marry these themes into one game: I could be wrong, but Carrie never fought giant monsters, so X-2 has to be something more akin to Charmed than How Yuna Got Her Groove Back.
Also, Yuna was never helpless. Remember the scene where Yuna was kidnapped by the Al Bhed in X during the Blitzball tournament? When Tidus, Kimahri and Lulu finally got to her, the door opened and she had already knocked out her immediate captors. Lulu said “I hope you hurt them,” to which Yuna responded (with a playful giggle) “A little,” and calmly walked on after stepping over her defeated foe. Couple this with an entire journey of killing monstrous fiends of all sizes and taking on Sin itself, and you have to admit, Yuna was always pretty badass. X-2 was just an excuse for her to cut loose and let it all out.
Final Fantasy X-2 isn’t perfect, and neither am I arguing the case for that. And while we’re at it, neither was Final Fantasy X, which had its own laundry list of fantastic pros and minor cons that gamers either ignored, or hated. I know I can’t convince everyone of something they’ve had over a decade to let saturate into their minds, that X-2 is an inferior follow up, the Danny DeVito of this set of twins.
But one thing that was reinforced in me as I replayed X-2 was that it was a blend of ideas that could cater to everything players needed from a game. A sinister plot that could only be stopped with guns, swords and skill. A social commentary on religion’s affect on society or how society reacts to major change. A story that was part-bildungsroman, as a coming of age story on finding identity and embracing change. And just a fun, crazy, silly, engaging, wild, comedic way to past the time.
If you didn’t really embrace the idea before, try it again, and give it another shot. There may be more to the game than you really understood before, especially if you were a youth like me who wanted a specific experience from games as a young, brash typical male. It’s been more than ten years that you’ve had a grudge against this game: why don’t you give it another shot and just have a little fun?