Spoiler warning: this feature discusses the endings of Final Fantasy X and X-2.
An audience watches on as a young woman appears on stage. As the spotlight reveals her to be Yuna, the shy but brave young heroine who saved the whole world from oppression and suffering two years before, they cheer in delight. Yuna takes a few steps forward before gracefully turning on her heels.
Her striking Eastern dress - adorned with images of the hibiscus flower with which she shares her name, and evocative of her faith in the humanitarian principles which helped her to lead by example - simply fades into nothingness in the midst of a delicate twirl. Threads of fabric appear in its place, glowing as they reform into a ruffled sleeveless blouse, coupled with a matching wisp of a skirt. Then Yuna starts singing.
This is Final Fantasy X-2, a game I can never forgive.
The first sequel to a fully-fledged Final Fantasy game, X-2 finally hit Europe in 2004. But before we discuss its failings, let us flash back to 2002 and the release of its forerunner, the first Final Fantasy game for the PlayStation 2.
"Listen to my story," says Tidus, just before the words 'Final Fantasy X' appear on the screen. But no matter how many times he repeats his claim, Final Fantasy X is not Tidus' story. His is superficial and absurd; his father a demonic villain, himself a time-travelling anomaly. The real story is Yuna's.
A kimono-clad teenager from a small village, Yuna wishes to protect her people from Sin, the demon that is destroying her world. Like a soldier leaving for war, Yuna sets off to do exactly that - despite clearly being far too young for the task. The military analogy evolves as we learn that Yuna is the only hope to end the conflict, and must sacrifice her life to do so. In our eyes Yuna transforms into a messiah, but beyond her quiet determination she is still the same child soldier from the small village; youthfully fragile and honestly fearful of death.
Upon her journey she finds Tidus, who becomes her protector, and in him she finds love and a reason to live. As she nears her goal she strives to cherish what they have, but she is always mindful of her fate. She tries to hide it, unsuccessfully. "She's naive, serious to a fault, and doesn't ask for help," observes Auron, mentor to Tidus. "Yuna's easy to read... but hard to guard."
By the end, much has changed. Yuna's faith in her religion has been shaken, but she uses that to find the strength to stipulate that no sacrifice be made in her defeat of Sin; she wants the perfect ending. Ironically, it was never hers to have. She loses Tidus, his unreal story concluding as he fades out of existence. Like Juliet waking up to see Romeo dead before her, Yuna rushes tearfully to embrace Tidus , only to fall through his shadow and stumble to the ground. In that single moment at the end of her journey, her face devoid of expression, we watch Yuna finally grow up. And her loss feels real.
Two years later, a singing, dancing, Yuna tells us that X-2 is her story. The emphasis, though, is on the gender of the personal pronoun. It's not Yuna's story, not at all. It's her story.
More accurately, it's the story of Square Enix's perception of her, of woman, designed to reflect what the developer saw at the time as the growing appreciation for strong female action heroes on TV and movie screens. In that opening sequence Yuna is joined by two other ladies, the returning Rikku and new girl Paine. The trio leaps and twirls its way through copycat male guards before sliding into cheesy sexy-but-deadly poses. They flash pretty smiles at the camera as the image takes on a sparkly gold hue, and the letters YRP appear beneath the ladies in red, gold, and purple. The producer, Yoshinori Kitase, admitted that the team had a Charlie's Angels style "in mind as a concept."
The decision to make the girls change their outfits during combat by switching out dress spheres along garment grids was to help express the change of direction in X-2. Motomu Toriyama, the game's director, told IGN: "Yuna and [the] others try to live positively and the fashion reflects their state of mind. With these changes for the girls, we came up with the idea of "dressing up" and what you see in the game - dress-up system - is a result of that idea."
Even with the naming of dress spheres and garment grids, terms that evoke a vanity which detaches the heroines from selfless efforts, the outfit changes are remembered most for the transformation sequences. These were inspired by what Kitase described as "anime series featuring magic girls who have the ability to transform... that have existed for a long time in Japan."
The similarities to Devil Hunter Yokho and Sailor Moon are patent; the clothes shimmer and ripple off the ladies as the camera pans across their nubile bodies. Paine's transformation into her Lady Luck outfit - a sort of mermaid sash combined with a very revealing black bikini - sees her appear sat on the ground with one leg cocked in the air, as if posing for a photo. She then gets to her feet, spins a double ballet twirl, then bends forwards, arching her butt up and chest out. As she does so she breathlessly says (to her enemy, supposedly), "You think it's just a game? Your life is on the line".
X-2's perception of feminism - if that is what it is, a mishmash of Charlie's Angels frivolity and magical girl voyeurism - is not inspiring. I remember friends teasing me about picking up X-2 because of its girlishness, but my description of X above hardly lends itself to images of jocks high-fiving throughout. Final Fantasy has never been a masculine series, particularly in the PlayStation era when it was as much to do with telling love stories as it was with depicting excessively numerical combat. IX, as much as I love it, took the romance to a sickening fairytale extreme. Maybe this is why Final Fantasy X, so much the reversal and maturation of what came before, was such a welcome tonic.
If X-2 represented Square Enix's attempts to get women to play their game, it was misguided and redundant. If it was an attempt to capitalize on the Charlie's Angels movement, itself really just the tail end of the girl group movement of the 90s, then it was outdated and off-base.
Either way, all of this represents the mere platform for why I can never forgive Final Fantasy X-2. True, if X was music to my ears then X-2 was its X-Factor. It took the story of the cute little lady from nowhere, with her big heart and all, and then dumped her on stage in half her clothing and put a microphone in her hand. All that was missing was Louis Walsh trying to spin implausible comparisons to Dragon Quest. And if that was all it was, I could forgive it. I could even forgive the half-assed plot about political strife, all of which is ended by the narrative equivalent of a group hug.
You see, the one redeeming thing in X-2, plot-wise, is Yuna's inability to move on from Tidus. For all the disparity of her flamboyant new life she still sees Tidus in her dreams. So she drops everything when she finds a sphere containing an image of him, but ultimately her search proves fruitless. So she uses this to finally move on; "So much has happened," she says in the game's end, "I know that I'll keep changing. This is my story. It'll be a good one. It all began when I saw this sphere... of you."
And that would be just fine, except it's only one of the game's possible endings. Perform certain actions and you can unlock what fans have called the 'good' ending. In which Tidus comes back.
The reason is never really given, or at least it's as deep and conciliatory as Yuna's transformation in that first cut-scene. A crowd watches on as the pair embrace, whooping and cheering. Rikku and Paine smile and coo to each other. Kelly Rowland sheds a tear at the beauty of it all.
Meanwhile I stare at my screen, sat in sheer awe of Square Enix's ability to troll me across two whole games and two whole years. That game-defining moment in X, that moment that stood tall, that refused to fold quietly into the foaming mass of blandly perfect conclusions, is so neatly and so very nonchalantly steamrolled into a perfect ending. It was as if the game was saying, "Aw, that sad thing that happened? Don't be sad about it. Here, all better now. Life is always this good, really it is."
And I can never forgive it for that. Up until that point I was prepared to just accept X-2 as the black sheep of the Final Fantasy family, a Super Mario Bros 2 anomaly. But rewriting the ending to what is quite possibly my favourite games of all time? That's unacceptable.
What's so frustrating, ultimately, is that if I were able to step out of myself and my attachment to those characters and their epic journeys in Final Fantasy X, I could probably admit that X-2 does bring some redeeming things to the table, at least outside of plot. Primary of those is the job system based in those lamentable dress spheres - a job system which is full of depth and makes the return of active time battles one of the most electric and strategically interesting in the series history.
It wasn't as balanced as it could have been; the Dark Knight sphere was rather too useful. Nonetheless, working out useful combinations of jobs to employ - and in particular, knowing how and when to switch them around mid-battle, something that was new was to the series - felt fresh. It made for an interesting diversion from the trawling of lists of abilities, an activity that made previous games in the series, including X, feel saturated in options towards their respective ends.
It's that change-on-the-fly job system that is essentially the basis and instigator for how combat works in both XIII and the upcoming XIII-2. Curiously, reflecting on the lasting impression X-2 has left on me, I realize that I'm actually excited about XIII-2 despite my overwhelming disappointment with its predecessor.
My two major problems with XIII were ones most critics share: the opening half was too constricting combat-wise, while the story in the second half didn't keep up with the open-world evolution. What this all means, more importantly, is that there is no all-encompassing, game-defining moment to ruin in XIII-2.
Actually, whereas X-2 had so very much to tarnish (and tarnish it very much did), there's almost nothing to ruin in XIII-2 beyond that combat system which finally came alive in the second half of XIII, and thankfully XIII-2 isn't planning to mess around too much with that. X-2 built upon the mechanics of X while showing complete disaffection and disregard for the story that came before.
That formula is exactly what will make XIII-2 work.