If FFX-2's consideration of feminine identity is schizophrenic, so too is its game play.
Publisher: Square Enix
Multimedia: Final Fantasy X-2
Platforms: PlayStation 2
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Square Enix
US release date: 2007-07
"What can I do for you?"
This question is pounded out on synth-pop beats in a flashy and frantic pop concert FMV that opens Square Enix's first ever direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game. Former High Summoner Yuna saunters on stage in her familiar white traditional kimono-esque attire, whirls around and transforms before our eyes into a leggy, Japanese pop princess in a notably black (read: bad girl) loose-fitting blouse and too short mini-skirt. This Yuna has changed from the sedate, controlled, and self-sacrificing savior of Spira from Final Fantasy X into a pert party girl in the blink of an eye. If Final Fantasy X-2 is a departure from the series in its less serious tone and more free form and fast paced game play, this image of Yuna's transformation is the visual cue that signals that change to long time fans.
But, hardcore fans will ultimately not be surprised by this initial transformation. Images of Yuna in short shorts brandishing paired pistols have been appearing on the web and in gaming magazines for most of this year. We have known that this FF would feature more action elements (the ability to jump and climb while moving around Spira's environs) and that Square has seemingly taken a page from the Tomb Raider series in sexing up its female leads while still maintaining a respect for female empowerment. (And, hey, what is more empowering than a young woman with twin hand guns?)
Indeed, the same tension that emerges through the iconic Ms. Croft seems to lie at the heart of the transformative themes of FFX-2. Lara is tough and independent but still a fit subject for the male gaze (or, in less academic terms, a Maxim spread) and that same war between taking women seriously as characters (and especially protagonists) in video games and treating them as sex objects seems inherent in Square's decision to focus on Yuna, returning FFX character Rikku, and newcomer Paine as the leads in this girl power fueled game.
This FF is not revolutionary in presenting a female lead character (witness Terra the lead of FFVI -- released as Super Nintendo's FFIII in the States), but this is the only FF to feature only female characters in your adventuring party. Square has also never shied at creating interesting and complicated female characters (again, the aforementioned Terra or the FFX incarnation of Yuna, or even FFX's resident voluptuous goth-mage, Lulu), but then again it has also often copped out by using the virgin-whore dichotomy to represent femininity in their games (*cough* -- FFVII's Aeris and Tifa -- *cough*). What Square seems to have done here, though, is to take a page from the girl power excess of the last decade (from the Spice Girls to the Charlie's Angels revamp) and play both stereotypical sides at once.
The reason I bring this concern up is that Square seems to be reaching out to a female audience with this game with its complete emphasis on female characters and the introduction of ostensibly "girly" game play mechanics like the dress spheres that allow the characters to switch character classes along with their outfits. When Yuna declares in the "Eternal Calm" video (released in international versions of FFX but also available in subtitled versions on sites like www.rpgamer.com that her impending new adventure -- a search for her lost love Tidus (the male protagonist of FFX) -- will be "my story" (an echo of Tidus's description of the previous FF narrative), Yuna claims FFX-2 for herself and her gender. The freedom and independence this implies is found throughout the game's nonlinear structure and through features like the dress spheres, which not only let you choose how the girls look in battle but also what role and powers they possess. Instead of following the traditional RPG standard of characters defined by their classes (fighter, mage, thief, etc.), each of the girls can be any or all of those classes. Thus, their distinctness is based not on the role they play but literally on who they are, getting us familiar with the various tics of Yuna, Rikku, and Paine.
Yet, that this is their story (a female quest) is dampened by the sexed up versions of the girls through sexual innuendo like the lyrics of Yuna's opening song, "What can I do for you?" and the girl on girl action hinted at through mini-games in which you give Yuna's half dressed rival-turned-ally, Leblanc, a "satisfying" massage.
If FFX-2's consideration of feminine identity is schizophrenic, so too is its game play. While the change from the traditionally demure Japanese girl with downcast eyes to the new flavor of the month Japanese pop diva seemingly signifies FFX-2's transformation from rigid, orderly, and narrative-driven traditional RPG game play to a more spirited freeform, nonlinear format, the same tension between tradition and progressiveness creates a similarly frustrating schizophrenic game play. FFX-2 has a dominant story line: the quest to discover the whereabouts of Tidus and a power struggle in Spira between the older authority of their religion and the new ideas of the Youth League. There are also a host of side quests, some focusing on combat and some on mini-games, which can be taken on or ignored as the player chooses. Due to this convention, the game can be completed through the main missions in about 20 hours or extended by another 20 or 30 hours playing through the remaining side quests. Unfortunately, the effect this "nonlinearity" has on game play is more like an artificial extension of a shorter, less cohesive and less well developed plot than FF has customarily given us in the past. Some of the missions and mini-games are fun and add to the overarching plot and our sense of the characters but some are simply tedious. Since the environments in the game are borrowed from FFX, players will feel nostalgic at first, re-encountering old enemies, characters, and places from the prior game. Yet, after running over the same old ground over and over again (you will likely visit each of the locations in the game 4 or 5 times over the course of its five chapters), the nostalgia fades and the game play simply becomes monotonous.
If FFX-2 initially seems to be about progression and change, it seems to be more so a rehash of old environments, an old game engine, and the old thematic tension of femininity and power. It seems, much like the Tomb Raider games or the recent Charlie's Angels movies; unable to resolve the tension it produces between feminine autonomy and subjectivity. Players here will find some autonomy in their ability to build a party their way but also still at the mercy of a less than progressive RPG with a weaker story and far less drama than its predecessor. If the game draws female gamers, they will find themselves in this same bind -- a bind that they are likely to be familiar with -- between the traditional roles that they have been cast in with only some sense of the hope that one day they too will be able to experience their story.