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Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.

In the centre of a crowded arena, surrounded by a halo of brilliant white and orbited by a swarm of guitarists on futuristic hoverboards, a platform emerges. In the centre of this floating stage stands Yuna, dressed in her traditional summoner garb with a forlorn expression on her youthful face. Suddenly, as if by magic, she transforms in a swirl of light, her familiar, modest dress giving way to a frilly silk shirt, short black skirt, and knee-high boots; our heroine’s mood changing just as suddenly as she begins passionately intoning the gloriously camp lyrics to a fevered K-pop power ballad. In the background, Messrs Rikku and Paine are seen decimating venue security for an as yet undisclosed reason to the accompaniment of Yuna’s melody, these two sets of concurrent events building to an almighty crescendo that concludes with the words Final Fantasy X-2 bursting onto the screen in an explosion of luminescence and song.

Upon witnessing this unusual opening scene, I’ve always imagined players falling into one of two categories. The first rolling their eyes in exasperation at the absolute absurdity of the scene, certain in the knowledge that what would follow would be equally ludicrous. The other half, unable to suppress a slightly sheepish smile at the sheer originality and ostentation of the preceding events, eagerly looking forward to the incredible adventure that must surely follow such a distinctive beginning. I was very much in the latter group.

Sure, I’d have been mortified if my mum had walked into the room as Yuna was belting out the lyrics to ‘Real Emotion’, frantically changing the TV input to something neutral in the same way a teenager caught watching porn would. But, aside from a few moments of potential embarrassment, my memories of Final Fantasy X-2 are almost entirely positive.

The story seems like as good a place as any to start this trip down memory lane; not least because, though I quite like it, the central thrust of the narrative isn’t actually that compelling.

The long of the short of it is that, having discovered a grainy old sphere appearing to depict Tidus, Yuna, accompanied by her companions Rikku and Paine, decide to become ‘Sphere Hunters’; scoring Spira in search of other artefacts that might shed some light on this bizarre coincidence and, perhaps, even re-unite Yuna with her lost love. Along the way, an almighty spanner is thrown in the works as Yuna discovers her pop star attire is inhabited by the memories of a thousand-year-old singer/summoner named Lenne (who looks uncannily like Yuna) whose blitzball-playing boyfriend Shuyin (who looks uncannily like Tidus), or at least a twisted shadow of his former self, is plotting to avenge Lenne’s murder a millennium ago by destroying Spira.

It’s all a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, to be brutally honest. However, the political backdrop to these events, i.e., the fractious relationship between Spira’s leading factions in the aftermath of Sin’s defeat, is genuinely interesting.

The competing agendas of the disgraced Yevonite religion attempting to reassert its moral superiority over the populace; the primarily Al Bhed machine faction seeking to use previously lost, taboo technologies to advance civilization along their own lines; and the Youth League, who seek to provide the disillusioned masses with an honest, dependable alternative to Yevon through the questionable application of military might.

Put simply, whereas the first game was about the disparate peoples of Spira coming together to repel a common enemy, Final Fantasy X-2 is very much about disunity; about influential individuals vying for supremacy in a suddenly changed world, not necessarily for themselves, but for the benefit of the average citizens they represent.

The end result is a story that’s slightly subtler than many of the older Final Fantasy tales; one more concerned with the vagaries of politics and the complexities of society than telling a straightforward tale of good vs evil.

And one of the main reasons Square Enix is able to delve deeper into these aspects of Spiran civilisation in the first place is because the physical world itself, including its historical and mythological past, has already been established in FFX.

Geographically, to play Final Fantasy X-2 is to retrace our steps through a familiar world – there isn’t a raft of new locations or previously unvisited continents to explore. So instead, Square offers us a metaphorical exploration of Spiran society, encompassing everything from the changing attitudes amongst Besaid’s once tranquil inhabitants and the growing racial tensions between the Guado and the rest of Spira, to the dramatic transformation of Zanarkand from the holiest of holies into a kitschy tourist attraction designed to fill the coffers of the Machine Faction.

Therefore it doesn’t matter that the world’s the same physically. Because every level of society has been irrevocably altered in the wake of Sin’s defeat, exploring Spira still feels like a journey of discovery through a world that’s simultaneously new and welcomingly familiar at the same time.

The characters we meet during the adventure, meanwhile, are in some ways the antithesis of the story, in as much as, while the shortcomings of the main narrative are saved by the political and social undercurrents, the game’s trio of heroines make up for some rather lackluster supporting characters.

Perhaps the biggest offender in this regard is the Leblanc Syndicate, a group of rival sphere hunters designed (but failing to fulfill) the role of bumbling, comic relief villains. Leblanc herself is slightly too sexualized and superficial, exemplified by her choice of attire and the straight up weird massage minigame that occurs later on, whilst her henchman Logos and Ormi, are just kind of annoying; about as threatening as a wet tissue and almost as amusing. Additionally, none of the three main faction leaders – Baralai, Gippal, and Nooj – bring all that much to the table either. Nooj especially, despite his rather apposite nihilistic worldview, fails to make much of an impact on the player, coming across as apathetic rather than embittered.

Fortunately, aside from a couple of unnecessarily revealing Dresspheres, each of Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are individually strong, well-rounded characters that complement one another perfectly and, as an all-female party, provide a refreshing change of pace.

Rikku is still the happy-go-lucky, optimistic young woman she’s always been, providing much needed moments of levity during the more melodramatic moments of the plot, while Paine, despite her stereotypically goth exterior, is a tad more amiable and complex than the majority of austere, loner anti-heroes; it’s actually possible to understand why people with vastly different personalities would want to be her friend.

All the same, I think it’s fair to say Yuna stands out head and shoulders from her companions; something I wasn’t expecting, having felt she was a little bland in FFX. The stronger, more independent side of her personality that was just beginning to emerge at the end of the original shines through and is expanded upon in X-2. She’s not afraid to put herself before others or bend the rules (within reason, of course) to further her own goals, and she’s far more confident in herself and her abilities, no longer reliant on the experience of Auron or the guidance of Lulu to make a difficult decision.

But crucially, there’s enough of the old Yuna – the soft-spoken, irrepressibly nice human being we can’t help but want to protect – that makes this transformation feel authentic and thus infinitely more satisfying.

Wonderful as the trio is, however, X-2’s biggest draw is its gameplay. Though Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are the game’s only three playable characters, the impressive variety of dresspheres ensures we never grow tired of leading our triumvirate of heroines into battle.

Ostensibly operating as traditional jobs/classes, the fourteen distinctive Dresspheres (nineteen, if you count each party member’s own ‘Special’ sphere) fulfil a broad range of roles: Warrior, Dark Knight etc. cover the assault classes; White and Black Mage offer healing and elemental advantages respectively; Alchemist and Songstress provide support, etc. This, coupled with the ‘Garment Grid’ system, which enables players to equip their party with a selection of complementary Dresspheres – no one character can occupy all fourteen at any given time or mix and match abilities from different classes – and can be changed on the fly mid-battle, provides a tremendous level of tactical depth and gameplay diversity.

Outside of battle, these rich, intuitive systems are bolstered by a genuine sense of player agency that’s rare for the series. Not to the same degree as Life is Strange or a Telltale Game’s graphic novel, naturally, but there are nevertheless numerous opportunities to shape the narrative and Spiran civilization at large through the order in which Yuna completes individual missions and how she chooses to respond during interactions with NPCs. The player can decide which of the game’s major factions Yuna supports most fervently, for example, consequently changing how Yuna is perceived by the adherents of every major political group across Spira – the player can even change small things, like which entertainment company secures exclusive rights to the Calm Lands.

Taken altogether, Final Fantasy X-2 is not only a rewarding experience the first time around, but also a game that both encourages and rewards repeated play-throughs by virtue of its robust mechanics, disconcertingly relevant political and societal themes (at the time of writing, anyway), and an overall completion percentage rank that exploits, in the nicest way possible, the completionist tendencies of some gamers.

I’ve completed it twice to date and look forward to the third time when (fingers crossed) I finally unlock that hitherto unreachable Mascot dressphere.

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Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.