With its unabashed and loving homage to Sailor Moon and the franchise’s first time casting of three female main protagonists, I intuited the joy to be found in 2004’s Final Fantasy X-2 as being closest to queerness as I could ever expect in gaming at that time. As a teenager becoming increasingly strident with their sexuality and androgyny, I was excited for the potential cultural shift the game might signal for predominant heteronorms in the JRPG genre.
But alarm bells rang early: at that point, female leads were all too scarce in the genre and those which were written fairly well (like Lenneth of Valkyrie Profile or Lacryma from the criminally underrated Kartia: Word of Fate) were often stars of underselling or uneven games. Femmes and queer characters still struggle to be positioned in banner roles of big budget games; and portraying their identities in accurate or respectful fashion often gets contentious.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that virtually all coverage from major gaming outlets focused entirely on the Charlie’s Angels optics of the lead trio. Or the glow up of two of its returning stars: Rikku, the cute little steampunk button from the last game, was now closer to a nubile Cali beach girl; Yuna was now seemingly in idol worship of Lara Croft. No matter, for once again, the sheer possibility of X-2 could prevail.
To summarise X-2’s premise, it’s been two years since Yuna fulfilled her mission to overcome the mysterious threat of Sin from destroying the world of Spira — but at the cost of losing Tidus, the boy she loved and who may never have even existed in the first place. During the eternal calm after Sin’s destruction, Spira has somewhat entered a time of renaissance, albeit with theological tension mounting between competitive political factions. After Yuna discovers a sphere which possibly indicates the presence of Tidus, she joins a sphere hunting group to assist her in uncovering more. The game is actually narrated by Yuna as a conversation she’s having with Tidus, though we never know for certain if it’s a recollection of events being told to him while they’re actually happening.
Though the bittersweet ending of X sets up the story with evocative promise, its sequel swiftly takes a less self-important route. I didn’t mind a break from the weary heaviness that Final Fantasy games so often posed. But, there were immediate issues. Grappling with the new awkward platforming elements while exploring one area, the first true horror arrived: “Oh poopie!” exclaimed Rikku during a pivotal moment of setback during a quest. Yuna repeats the same sentiment. (Spoiler: this sophisticated level of dialogue is the par course for the whole game.) Later, one of the many dull side quests culminated in a scene where the girls compare boobs in a hot spring. When I gleaned the impression that this was the tone from which the game wouldn’t let up from, those alarm bells had become a death knell.
Starkly juxtaposed with the evocative metaphysical memory of its predecessor as a parody, it fumbles the opportunity to have been one of the most inclusive titles in the franchise’s memory. It was, after all, devised as a cash-grab title to recover substantial losses sustained by Square-Enix from their doomed feature film, The Spirits Within. X-2 never feels or plays with any significant pretext other than to be as stupid as possible. But without any discernible sense of irreverence or irony; its defining characteristics are merely referential of other texts.
Basically, the game has very little agency or identity of its own.
This isn’t to assume X-2 won’t eventually benefit from the modern sheen of third wave feminism. That said, I do not personally subscribe to any revisionist review which purports to restore the intellectual property of X-2 as misunderstood, or that any criticism of how the game is appraised for its presentation is inherently sexist — because it isn’t. Final Fantasy X-2 is subjectively as it appears: a female experience through the occasionally voyeuristic male lens.
I kept thinking to myself that the scatological silliness of the game, accentuated by the unrelenting wacky soundtrack, might have been more fun if I were dosed on ketamine. The obligatory camera pirouetting around the busts and derrieres of the women, the suspect positions each character fold into when incapacitated; the perfunctory way of having to scroll through many costume changes during battle just to finally get to the job class you intend to use; the necessity of fulfilling dreadfully boring sidequests or indulging in the awful mini games littered throughout. I kept wishing for an action packed game that capitalised on the individual and team strengths of three capable women — instead I was asked to shepherd some monkeys, and then track down scattered musicians to participate in an impromptu concert to promote world peace.
Thanks to the nonlinear chapter structure and tricky timeflow of progression, excavating the heart and soul of X-2 becomes exhausting. And the payoff from attaining 100% story completion, which can be undone by something as little as forgetting to talk to an NPC at a specific time, is rather hollow. There is some depth beneath the frivolity, somewhere; mainly the sub-plot of two ancient lovers who serve as parallels to the fate Yuna shared with Tidus. The really interesting character details, however, are loosely scattered across the main theme of three buddies just casually hanging out without any discernible purpose. Which would be rather novel as the road trip which crafted the best moments in Final Fantasy XV if Spira wasn’t depicted as a world in a heightened state of socio-political unrest — or bursting with more interesting narrative possibilities than the banal events the girls instead occupy themselves with.
For a game that wants to celebrate the power of female friendship, there is also a curious lack of dynamics between the three leads. Rikku struggles in the endearingly goofy role the developers designed her to be because she’s written as infantile and dim witted; Paine, the game’s token badass, has one of the more intriguing backstories that is so easy to miss, and most of the time she just poses stoically or displays vague disdain at the immaturity around her. Then there’s Yuna: her understated personality yields moments of profound humanity, but she’s never commanding or extroverted enough to convince you that she’d be comfortable masquerading as a pop singer in one sequence, then ambidextrously wielding two guns as default weapons either. These all feel like forced tropes in place of actual writing to convey character development.
Then there’s the other wrinkle that while X-2’s combat system has all the opportunity to be progressive and challenging it plays like the sum parts of a lite version from games past. Incidentally it is also, to my memory at least, one of the least difficult Final Fantasy games that I have ever played. The incentive to unlock and master the abilities of its considerably expansive job system (beyond the visually awesome Sailor Moon costume change sequences) is certainly there, but not essential to succeed in battle or complete the whole game. You get the feeling, sadly, that the dress spheres are just a visual conceit conceived for the sake of fan service.
Is Final Fantasy X-2 a bad game? No, not entirely. The fact remains that there are a lot of queer-friendly elements to X-2’s design choices; and not to be patronising, but it’s flamboyant enough to probably appeal to a lot of children. For all of its aesthetic contrivances and Rugrats-inspired writing, it boasts creative foundations that encourage exploration and experimental freedom. If you’ve always yearned for a silly Final Fantasy game that doesn’t take itself seriously, X-2 is for you. But what it might leave you with is an empty and unfulfilling experience; almost as if Square-Enix lacked the confidence in its leading trio of femmes to be interesting or taken seriously on their own merits, the developers instead parade them through a myriad of half-hearted scenarios that never really strike all the affecting chords of the classic stories which preceded them.
In attempting to divest from the traditions of the series and gender stereotypes, Final Fantasy X-2 never surpasses the feeling of being created by a male stereotype: not paying much attention to what it has to offer beyond what appears on the surface.