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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy makes the leap to the sixth generation, with Square giving their all to make the tenth game just as groundbreaking on the Playstation 2 as VII was on the original Playstation.  But does Final Fantasy X push the series to new heights, or just send it tumbling down the staircase to irrelevancy?

Square's popularity exploded on the Playstation, with VII being regarded as one of the greatest games of all time and raising interest in the series to new heights.  Two followups came, though they met with a more mixed reception (balance issues and overly drawn-out gameplay and animations at the forefront), the series attempted to branch out into the realm of film (with less than stellar results) and just about every prior game in the series got a port to the Playstation as well.  When the shiny new Playstation 2 rolled around, however, Square was not ready for the occasion, attempting to hold their fans over with a mediocre beat-em-up called the Bouncer while their next big game was in the works.

Final Fantasy X was released in late 2001, and would probably become one of the most divisive games in the series after its release.  While the game undeniably looked gorgeous and had a stellar soundtrack - that had all but become Square's moneymaker at this point - its gameplay was simplified in many respects and made unnecessarily complex in others, while its narrative was hampered by irritating voice acting and just feeling like it was just going through the motions of a generic JRPG plot yet again.  And as those who know me know, I did not care at all for the new direction it took the franchise in.

From Final Fantasy VIII on, the franchise's main selling point was seemingly only its aesthetics, with immaculately-detailed backdrops and characters and animations drawn out to the point where they've basically become a running joke among genre fans.  Final Fantasy X continues in that trend while seemingly going out of its way to add as much detail to every aspect of the game as possible, even when it makes no sense.  To that end, virtually every object and character is rendered with frills and asymmetrical details that are seemingly designed to lend it a whimsical fantasy feel rather than feel practical in the slightest.  It lends the game a showy feel at first, but before long I just found it unnecessary and distracting.

Another change for the worse comes in the game's overall design.  Simply put, Final Fantasy X is far more linear and railroaded than any prior game in the series, almost to a comical degree.  The whole game is basically just one linear path, with only a few chances to stray off and do sidequests.  Even when the airship is unlocked late in the game, there is no "world map" to travel across, instead just giving you a list of previous checkpoints you've encountered and letting you warp straight there.  This, again, seemingly ties into the game's presentation, with Square wanting to show off graphics as much as possible even to the detriment of gameplay and the feeling of exploration that has been central to the RPG genre since its inception.

Combat is also changed up in many ways, for both better and worse.  Encounters are still random, which by 2002 was beginning to feel very dated.  The famous Active Time Battle system is traded in for a more traditional turn-based one, though it still operates on something of a time scale - characters get turns at set intervals based on their speed stat, and certain actions taken can make turns come faster or slow down others.  For example, Tidus has an ablity called Quick Hit that does less damage than his standard attack, but causes his next turn to come more quickly, while Delay Buster will cause the target's next turn to come later if it hits.  This adds a bit of strategy to fights by letting the player sneak in turns more quickly or delay an enemy's strike if they're about to use a big attack, affording an opportunity to put up a barrier or heal the party before impact.  Characters can also be freely swapped in and out mid-fight, which can occasionally help get a weakened character out of harm's way; however, the game still ends immediately if all three active characters are incapacitated.

Other hallmarks of the series are changed up as well, for both better and worse.  Summons now work much differently, essentially replacing the party temporarily with a new single character until they die or are dismissed; I generally didn't find these too useful, however, as having a single target for multiple enemies to hit just means they die that much more easily.  Overdrives (limit breaks, essentially) work as they did in Final Fantasy VIII, with some taking the form of simple damage-dealing minigames while others work as more traditional Final Fantasy mechanics - Kimahri can cast Blue Magic while Rikku can mix potions together for a variety of powerful supportive or damaging effects.  The best effects generally require spending rare and expensive items, so they are best saved for difficult battles.

Another clever change comes in the fact that, in some scripted battles, puzzle elements are occasionally worked in.  One early boss is knocked back after taking a big enough hit, and enough hits done in this fashion will allow the player to knock it off a cliff and kill it instantly.  Others come into play over the course of the game as well - using Lightning to activate a crane to damage enemies, teleporting between various pads on the field to evade a bosses' big attack, and so forth.  Sadly, these only appear in scripted events - random encounters are just the typical line-up-and-fight Final Fantasy fare.

The mechanics outside of battle are more of a mixed bag.  One notable changeup is the Overdrive Modes; simply put, these cause your Overdrives to build in ways other than simply taking damage.  Warrior will cause the Overdrive gauge to fill when you take damage, for example, while Victim causes it to build when a character is inflicted with a status effect.  For the most part I didn't find these worth bothering with; they either take too long to build up to be useful or just require the player to be at a significant disadvantage, and since limits are not nearly as grotesquely overpowered as in earlier games, I generally just stuck to the standard setting of Stoic.

(It should be noted that another ability causes bonus experience points to be gained instead of filling the Overdrive gauge, and when used in combination with the Loner setting and a turbo controller, the player could get absurd amounts of XP in relatively short order by simply killing off the other two characters and repeatedly passing turns.  That said, this was only present in the original Japanese release and removed from all other versions.)

The customizability certainly doesn't stop there.  Instead of weapons with fixed effects, Final Fantasy X has something of a crafting system, with each weapon the player finds having a set number of slots.  These can be equipped with various abilities - stat boosters, inflicting status effects, and so forth - and doing so will change the weapon's appearance and name to match.  This ends up being downright broken in some cases, as one can acquire an item that give the Stone effect early on and equip it on their weapons, giving them a 30% chance of an instant kill against any random enemies they encounter and chopping a huge portion of the game's challenge.

Final Fantasy X also (in)famously attempts to retain the open-ended character growth of its predecessors, though its handling is less than stellar.  Rather than traditional levels and skills, Final Fantasy X utilizes the Sphere Grid - a sprawling "board game" of sorts where the six playable characters, represented by "tokens", move across the grid and can spend points to unlock stat boosts and abilities on any squares they land on.  A novel idea, but a lackluster execution, as it's largely pointless; for much of the game, characters are all but locked to specific regions of the grid and forced into a particular archetype (with Kimahri infamously being closed into a small portion with only eight or so spaces until about a third of the way through the game, rendering him all but useless).  But even once the locks begin to open and grant characters access to different choices, it only presents a non-dilemma; do you want to be really good at, say, Fighting, or be mediocre at both fighting and casting White magic?  And if you change your mind later, it's not as simple as going back to the previous fork and going back down the other path instead; you actually have to earn more levels and spend more points to backtrack and go down another path.  In essence, it chokes off one of Final Fantasy's defining features and just adds a lot more grinding to the game.

Worse than this, though, are the numerous minigames and sidequests seemingly crafted as exercises in pure frustration and tedium.  Blitzball is a hybrid of an RPG and a sports game (and a near point-for-point ripoff of Tecmo Cup Soccer for the NES) that proves to just be infuriatingly slow-paced and tedious with its drawn-out animations and terrible starting team stats that the player has to slowly grind up to acceptable levels.  Lightning dodging on the Thunder Plains requires split-second timing lest you get knocked down and forced into more random encounters, while the chocobo racing minigame is a frustrating affair of fighting against non-responsive controls in an effort to get bonuses and ultimately achieve a time of less than 0.0 seconds.  Worse, all of these are required for full game completion, and often to absurd degrees - Wakka's ultimate weapon requires completing 200 games of Blitzball while Rikku's requires dodging lightning 200 consecutive times.  It's one thing to require a hefty grinding component of gameplay; it's another when the game makes no attempt to make it fun, instead just slow, tedious and, in the case of chocobo racing, infuriating.

But by far the most grevious of Final Fantasy X's flaws, at least in my eyes, is its storytelling component.  While I generally try to avoid talking about this on RPGreats, I'd be doing a disservice by not mentioning it here.  Final Fantasy X's story, simply put, is awful.  The game's protagonists are the most generic of archetypes, with personalities that are bland at best to downright sociopathic at worst, which makes it awfully hard to care about their plights and get invested in the journey.  It certainly doesn't help that all the dialog and acting has a smarmy, cutesy tone to it that really grates on me, and they don't ever shut it off, even in the story's serious moments.  In particular, I think of one scene:

Rikku's ancestral home is being burned to the ground and everyone she knows and loves is dying horribly.  And this is... amusing to you?

Other, substantial portions of the game's story simply don't make sense, either.  It is established early on that the spirits of the deceased must be sent to the afterlife in a ritual that only priestesses can perform, lest they become the mindless beasts that roam the world.  However, this idea is casually discarded at the midpoint with no satisfactory explanation - characters both good and bad can now die and come back at will, not mindless and in fact seemingly no worse for wear.  The big reveal to the real movers behidn the game's plot was a twist I saw coming a mile away, and it only became more cringe-worthy after the later reveal that a character knew what was happening behind the scenes the whole time and said nothing.  This, in turn, means he just has a lot of blood on his hands as, should he have spoken up at any point prior to the bads making their move, he could have saved quite a few lives from being needlessly lost.  Even the moral dilemma it tries to set up is laughable, as it just gets handwaved away in the final hours by a deus ex machina that would even make Disney cringe with its mawkish sappiness.

Worse still is the fact that the game is just so full of itself, seemingly thinking it's carrying some great, groundbreaking and important message to the masses when in reality it's just treading once more down the whole "evil organized religion" plotline that, by 2001, had already been done to death across anime, manga, comics and video games.  Final Fantasy X really doesn't bring anything new to the concept, and in attempting to put a new spin on it, they forgot to have it make any sense whatsoever.  Which is all the more baffling when one considers they already did this idea in the past several times, and it was much better there - Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears and Parasite Eve all indulged in similar themes, and unlike FFX, they never once came across as preachy, pretentious or as cheap confirmation-bias pandering.

But the single most damning thing about this fiasco, in my eyes at least, is that I know that this heavy-handed message isn't one delivered in earnest.  It's something far worse - a disingenuous ploy thought up by Square's marketing department in an attempt to squeeze angsty atheist gamers for a quick buck by pandering to one of their hobby horses.  They wanted a game where a monolithic church pushes a hollow lie and the protagonists discover and overcome it in a childishly simple way because that's what would earn them brownie points among a demographic and, in turn, earn themselves money.  Making a polished and fun game was an afterthought; making a quick and relatively effortless buck for their rich (and in all likelihood, religious, conservative and heavily politically motivated) board of directors was clearly their priority here.  While this is understandable to a point - Spirits Within's commercial failure put them on shaky footing financially - it still just strikes me as scummy marketing on the whole.  Treating one's audience as easy marks in the name of making a buck off of a substandard product is a bigger insult to my intelligence than any degree of underdeveloped design, and it's for that reason that this is one of my most despised Final Fantasy games.  Not the worst one, mind you, but it's certainly an experience I'd be perfectly happy to never come back to.  At least several years later we would get Final Fantasy XV, which is the same general premise executed with far more emotional maturity, much less grating dialog and no childish, duplicitious preaching or lame deus ex machinae.

Developer: Square
Publisher: Square Electronic Arts, Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, PC
Released: 2001, 2002, 2013, 2015, 2016
Recommended version: If you must check it out, the more recent HD versions polish up the visuals and music and add some extra content, and both also come packed in with X-2, which I have heard is a closer match gameplay-wise to the older games in the series in that it has dedicated job classes and abilities reminiscent of games like Final Fantasy 5.