Friday, May 2, 2014

Impressions #4: Final Fantasy X-2 HD

Of course, after playing Final Fantasy X, I just had to jump into the other game in the HD collection. Final Fantasy X-2 presents an interesting time in the history of the Final Fantasy series. This game was the very first in the main franchise to be a “true” sequel. Up until its release, each main installment of the Final Fantasy series took place in an entirely different world with an brand new cast of characters. Final Fantasy X-2 changed that by taking place in the world of Spira two after years of Final Fantasy X, and even had one of the game's two leading characters reprise her role as protagonist. For better or worse, this is the game that helped pave the way for the Final Fantasy XIII sub-franchise. Having played through more than half of the game at this point, I have quite a bit to say about it.

One of the things I love most about Final Fantasy X-2, and was preserved in the HD release, was the revival of the ATB system from prior games. Though FFX's turn-based combat was still very solid even by modern standards, I vastly prefer the combat in Final Fantasy X-2. I have said, and will always say, that Final Fantasy X-2 represents the pinnacle of the ATB combat system. The ATB allows combat to have the strategy of a turn-based game, but with the real-time mechanics. Enemies and allies make move in real-time, with various gauges representing when they can make their moves. This gives the overall impression of more of a brawl between two parties than a tightly structured, “line-up” battle, which really adds to the game's verisimilitude.

While the ATB system was good, it is not the reason I like X-2 as much as I do. No, that reason is the Dressphere system. One of the main conceits in Final Fantasy X-2 is that the three party members have devices called Garment Grids that allow them to utilize special spheres called “Dresspheres” to change classes. Though this is similar to previous Job Class systems like in Final Fantasy III, V, and Tactics, it is fundamentally different. In previous games, players had to select classes before battle. FFX-2 allowed the three characters to class change in the middle of combat. Players can choose to assign different Garment Grids to the character and the positions of the Dresspheres in the grid. At any time, the girls can change to a Dressphere that is adjacent to their current one on the grid. The character will immediately switch classes in a Sailor Moon-inspired transformation sequence. This allows players to react to changing situations on the fly by switching to a Dressphere that is more advantageous to the current situation. The sheer freedom this system offers in combat feels a lot cooler than the turn-based combat of the previous game.

Character advancement also works in ways similar to older Job Class systems. Though the main party levels up as they would in a typical RPG, they do not learn abilities in the same way. As they use skills and dispatch enemies in battle, they gain AP which is used to learn skills for the currently equipped Dressphere. (The game presents a list of skills a given Dressphere can learn, and players can choose, within limits, which one to allocate future AP to.) This gives players the ability to truly customize their battle tactics and have each player character specialize in Dresspheres of their choice. Combined with the ability to change Dressphere's mid-battle and the revamped ATB system, Final Fantasy X-2 was a delight to play because it truly gave players freedom to do as they pleased.

This new-found focus on player freedom seems to have affected the storyline in Final Fantasy X-2 as well. Though the story will generally follow a similar course and reach the same final boss no matter what the player does, players are encouraged to explore the world at their own pace. The game expressly marks which areas in the game absolutely needed to be completed to advance the plot, but players are encouraged from the get go to put them off for a bit to explore and look for side-content. Further, some scenarios and situations will play out very differently depending on the things players choose both to do and not to do. It is a very reactive game at its core, both in the way players choose to develop their characters and in the way it gives players options.

One of the more contentious points of Final Fantasy X-2 is the overall tone of the story. Compared to its predecessor, the tone of this game is much more lighthearted. The female lead from FFX, Yuna, takes center stage as the protagonist along with her cousin Rikku, who also in the original party with her. Joining them is a new character named Paine. The fact that all three characters are female gives the game a distinct “Charlie's Angels” feel. Some people may be put off by the games “cutesy”-er nature compared to other Final Fantasy games, but those who are not can find plenty to enjoy here, despite a fairly mediocre overall plot. It is fairly campy and does not take itself all too seriously, which in my opinion improved the experience. I can see where people has a problem with it, but I personally did not mind.

As with the HD version of Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2 brings the extra content from the International version with it. However, unlike the case with its predecessor's Expert Sphere Grid, the content does not change the game in a very fundamental way. The game adds a few new dresspheres, the Festivalist and the Psychic. These both add some new and interesting skills to the overall skillset, but they are hardly game-changing and could be safely ignored by most players. Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but still a nice addition.

The other new feature brought into the game is the new Monster Capture mechanic. By completing certain main story events and participating in Monster Arena tournaments, players can earn “Monster Pods”, which can be use to capture monsters and event some human NPCs to use in combat. Once a pod has been obtained, the player can lay them down in specific areas to catch monsters. S-size pods capture small monsters, while M- and L-sized pods capture medium and large monsters respectively. Once captured, monsters can be swapped into the party in the place of one or more of the three main characters. A small monster only needs to replace one member, a medium will replace two and a large will replace all three. Players do not have direct control over a monsters action, but they can control a monster's moral. High moral will make them act more aggressively and low morale will cause them to be more defensive.
Monsters will level up just as a normal party member would, but only if they participate in battle. They can be further developed by feeding accessories to them to boost stats and learn abilities. Abilities can also be learned by monsters Blue Magic-style, where getting hit by certain abilities will teach them their own variant of it if they have one. Because of these limitations, it is highly unlikely that most players will even take notice of or use this feature. When a party member is replaced by a monster in battle, they do not gain experience or AP towards their equipped dressphere. This gives the player little incentive to utilize monsters. After all, every battle that a monster fights is one that a party member is not gaining anything from. Since the dresspheres offer enough variety in the way party growth/development can occur, there are almost no reasons for players to even think about using creatures. There is a “Monster Arena” that players are told can be used to test their creatures' abilities. However, since the main three protagonists can fight in there as well, monsters will still get neglected. It is extremely bizarre because I honestly cannot think of much of a reason why anyone would use them.

Lastly, it would be criminal to talk about an HD release without touching on the updated graphics. The HD update seems to be even worse here than in the HD release of Final Fantasy X. It is truly bizarre to see such low-resolution models and movements of many of the NPCs juxtaposed on this otherwise higher-res environment. The main character models fair a bit better since they have more detailed models that were easier to up-res. However, since most characters in the game are minor characters, it is easy to notice the lower resolution compared to Final Fantasy X HD. I am normally not a graphics snob, it would have been nice to do more of a touch up here because of how obvious and jarring the problem is.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy X-2 is a hard game to recommend. While I would say that it certainly plays better than most games in the franchise, the story is divisive. Further, it requires some knowledge of the previous game to truly understand the significance of many of the events of the game. People who dislike the new, extremely lighthearted tone of the plot might also have trouble getting into the game. Still, there is a lot in the game for people who do like Final Fantasy, or at least did during the PS2-era. The value here is extremely subjective, but I would say it is worth trying out at least.

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