Final Fantasy X-2  
Part 2: Hands-on preview - The gameplay

HarryIf you read the first part of our preview, it should be now clear that Final Fantasy X-2 is not going to be your classic Final Fantasy experience. Not only the game is a sequel, but also its atmosphere, its tone, and, in part, its gameplay, are different from what you have experienced in the classic installments of the enormously popular role-playing series.

A humorous game...
The atmosphere of Final Fantasy X-2 has a distinct light-hearted tone, that is justified in part by the fact that the game is clearly targeted at those who loved Final Fantasy X - Final Fantasy X-2 takes the elements of Final Fantasy X and elaborates them with humor and irony, often taking the easy road of cross-references with cinema and pop-culture in general. So, as you might have heard, it's true that the dynamic trio - Yuna, Rikku, Paine - constantly mimics the Charlie's Angels, and it's true that the three heroines often look as those teen idols so popular in Japan. The point is, will the Western audience appreciate the heavy shift in tone of Final Fantasy X-2, compared to the traditional games of the series? It's easy to imagine that Final Fantasy X-2 will become a classic love or hate game.

Exploring the world and following the storyline
Final Fantasy X-2 is the first game of the series to be entirely mission-based; there is a main storyline, but at any moment the player can choose to embark on side quests that while not necessary to complete the game, add storyline elements and, of course, gameplay time.

The main storyline is, anyhow, pretty linear. There are many moments in which your actions may affect the story, but these are still exceptions - from this point of view, Final Fantasy X-2 remains loyal to the tradition of the series. The game is divided in five "story levels"; each story level is basically a chapter in the game: once you have completed the storyline missions in a level, you reach the next level.

The Celsius.
There are plenty of "cute" side quests in FFX-2.

From the very beginning of the game, Yuna and her friends travel the world on board of the airship Celsius. This will be basically your home base throughout the game; on the Celsius you have access to the world map, which lets you select the area of the world you want to explore. If you want to go ahead with the storyline, you must select the spots highlighted as "Active Link" on the map; playing through all the Active Links will let you proceed to the next story level. Otherwise, you might want to play one of the many side missions. In order to avoid frustration to the player, each mission has been rated according to its difficulty, so players are warned before embarking on a difficult side-quest.

At any moment during the game you usually have an ample selection of places (Active Links and side quests) to choose from; anyhow, many of the side missions add nothing to the main storyline and feel more like small mini-games or "cute" (somebody might say pathetic) activities that make the overall atmosphere even more lighthearted. Adding to that, too many of the side missions we tried in the Japanese version of the game consisted simply in going around an area talking to all the non playable characters; for example, in one of the missions you'll have to help a character selling tickets, in another you'll have to help a guy finding musicians for his band, and in other missions you just have to talk with non playable characters conducting a survey about their opinions: not only these missions are frankly boring and clearly targeted at a young audience (sometimes I felt I was playing some kind of educational game), but they can also be very time consuming. Interactivity with the environments is very limited; like in the previous games of the series, exploring means just going around the nice looking environments constantly clicking on the X button, in search of some active object. Also the "platform" elements that Square announced for Final Fantasy X-2 are limited to a bunch of context-sensitive actions in a few precise spots, where pressing the action button will make Yuna jump or climb.

The classic ATB system is back.
The hyped "platform" elements are so limited, they are almost meaningless.

When you save your game, you're given a percentage indicating your progress through the storyline. Since it's not possible to play all the side-quests and paths in one game - many missions exclude others - players must play the game at least two times. People who loved the game the first time through will have more than a reason to replay it. First of all, once you've completed your first game, you can restart the adventure with the characters as you left them at the end of the previous game; then, if you get a 100% percentage of story completion, you're rewarded with an extra ending movie, that fans of Yuna and Tidus probably will not want to miss.

Dressing up... and fighting.
The basic element behind Final Fantasy X-2's battle system is the dress up system. Throughout the game, mainly completing side quests, Yuna, Rikku, and Paine will retrieve "Dress Spheres". Each Dress Sphere is a different job, which gives a character special abilities and different statistics. The jobs available are about 20, and vary from classic RPG stuff like Black Mage or Thief to more original ones like Pop Star, Gambler, or Mascot; in the same way, "classic" jobs often have also "classic" abilities; for example, the Black Mage follows the classic progression of magic abilities in previous Final Fantasy games: so you have Fire, Fira, and Firaga, or Thunder, Thundara, and Thundaga and so on. More "original" classes like the Pop Star, on the other hand, have abilities like "Dark Dance" or "Sleep Dance" that, in practice, usually cause an alteration of status on your enemies or on your allies. As you might expect, to unlock the abilities of a specific job you need to gain Ability Points by defeating monsters, and in order to unlock certain abilities you must first learn other ones (it's the case of the aforementioned magic skills progression for the Black Mage).

Mastering a single job, unlocking all its abilities, isn't sufficient to build a solid character; most of the jobs are highly specialized, and are actually useful only at the right moment - and many jobs are almost useless when used alone. In fact, the point behind the whole dress up system is the possibility to switch from one job to the other on the fly, especially during a battle. Anyhow, a character can't switch from a Dress Sphere to any other in her inventory. Dress spheres must first be equipped onto a Result Plate. You'll find many Result Plates during the game, each of them being able to hold a defined number of Dress Spheres. Each character must have a Result Plate, and during the battle can switch only amongst Dress Spheres equipped on that Result Plate - so not only it's important to choose wisely the Dress Spheres you want to use during a battle, but it's also fundamental that you have a good Result Plate with enough slots to hold your desired Dress Spheres. Adding to that, when you want to switch from one Sphere to the other on the Result Plate, you can only move following the path designed onto the Result Plate, so you must pay attention to the way you position your Dress Spheres onto the plate. This is even more relevant if we consider that most of the Result Plates also have "special gates": when switching from one sphere to the other, you may have to "pass" through these gates on the grid that activate special abilities that will remain available throughout the battle. These abilities include offensive spells like Ultima or Flare, but also stats boosters and immunity to status ailments. Next to the gate abilities, there are also default abilities that your character can use by simply equipping a Result Plate. These abilities vary from special spells to the possibility of using the skill of a certain job even if you are using another Dress Sphere - for example, curative spells of a White Mage while you are a Pop Star - and again to simple, but useful, stats boosters: these boosters, together with the ones you can activate using the proper gates on the Result Plate, proved in our game to make a significant difference during the most difficult battles.

Changing a job means also changing your dress...
...and all dresses are really sexy!

As a result of all these elements, the battle system asks the player to use a bit more strategy than in Final Fantasy X, even if, as a whole, Final Fantasy X-2 is a pretty easy game, that even the most casual player should complete with no problems. The good old Active Time Battle system, which was replaced in Final Fantasy X by a turn-based system, is back, and fits nicely into the game structure.

To be completely sincere, our experience with the Japanese version of Final Fantasy X-2 left us with the clear impression we were playing just a minor addition to the series. Final Fantasy X-2 will be a big disappointment for any fan expecting an adventure as big, as epic, and as artistically valid as the previous games of the series. The truth is that Final Fantasy X-2 is clearly aimed at building its success on the enormous fan base built by its predecessor; Final Fantasy X-2 uses the same elements (characters, environments, many themes) of Final Fantasy X, and gives to the whole thing the irony treatment, that completely transforms the atmosphere of the original.

In Japan, Final Fantasy X-2 was a success - and it will probably be a success also in Europe and North America, attracting millions of fans thanks to its shiny package and to the name it carries. But it's easy to see that Square Enix must reinvent their way of making console RPGs. In the latest two-three years, the console RPG world has enormously changed, mainly thanks to the fact that many of the best developers of PC RPGs have started working on console projects, introducing game structures that are completely new to the console audience. Console players can now play games like Deus Ex, Morrowind, and the wonderful Knights of The Old Republic - prestigious developers like Bioware and Ion Storm are now direct adversaries of Square Enix. The time has come for the big Japanese RPG geniuses to find a new route, a way to attract new fans. That's why a game like Final Fantasy X-2 is a good moneymaker, but probably Final Fantasy XI is the true future.

Special thanks to Kengo and Eric for their on-the-fly translations.

- Harry (August 4th, 2003)