Final Fantasy X
Year released: 2002
NOTE: As with my Final Fantasy VII review, this analysis will describe certain elements of the plot and gameplay that may be considered sensitive material to those who haven't experienced it themselves. I have camoflaged certain parts of the text that I feel would spoil the suspense, but those who have not completed the game should still be aware that this review might reveal things they shouldn't know about until later. Proceed with caution.
You know, I felt a bit guilty starting this game. I felt obligated to play the Final Fantasy series in chronological order, Japan-only games and anthologies notwithstanding. But when someone offers you a game like FFX for free, you don't turn them down. And now, I'm quite glad I broke from my resolution and went ahead in playing this game, because while Final Fantasy X isn't the best game in the series, it certainly finds itself in the company of the upper-tier titles. However, there is a lingering worry about the state of the series, since the game's chief detraction is what the series used to pride itself on.
The game opens with a young athlete named Tidus, who is somehow whisked away into a faraway island, 1000 years in the future. His homeland is now in ruins, but not only that - it marks the destination of a pilgrimage that certain chosen people known as summoners take in order to obtain the means necessary to defeat a gargantuan monster known as Sin - which, incidentally, was the creature that brought Tidus into the future to begin with. Tidus enlists as the guardian of the local summoner on her pilgrimage, but as the game unfolds it becomes apparent that this pilgrimage - and the religion that espouses it - isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
At the start of the game, I felt very disconnected to what was going on. Tidus feigns amnesia to get the other guardians to explain how and why they do what they do, but it still feels like the first half of the game is all exposition. Only when Seymour, one of the head monks of Yevon, is unmasked as the villain and the teachings of Yevon start to crumble, does it really feel as if there's much of a conflict in the game. Before that, you're just walking from place to place, fighting monsters when the need arises. Even worse - right from the outset, you're told that even if you defeat Sin, he'll just come back.
FFX is also the first game in the series to incorporate actual voice actors in the story. That's an ambitious undertaking, and it's nice to see that they can write solid, believable dialogue without constant references to excrement like FF7 employed. But while the dialogue is pretty good, the people reciting that dialogue are pretty bad across the board. Yuna's responses of "Yes" and "OK" sound rushed, Auron and Lulu speak in monotones, Rikku sounds like a young Fran Drescher, and Seymour... well... he doesn't sound like he's particularly interested in marrying Yuna, if you catch my drift.
Once the plot turns the corner of exposing Yevon as the farce it is, though, things start to get interesting real quick. Suddenly, the early plot element of Sin continually being reborn isn't as permanent as it once was, and I immediately felt myself get more engaged in the situation. This game snowballs in much the same way as FF7 - only that this time around, it holds your interest right through to the end.
The audiovisuals for the game are also quite good. The graphics - particularly the FMVs used in a number of scenes - are awesome. Scenes which use the polygonal characters are also quite good, with the choppiness held to a minimum. When you're in battle, the screen displays all sorts of important information, not the least of which is a chart showing when everyone's turn comes up. This is especially useful when fighting enemies and coming up with strategies for level-building. Musically, this is not Nobuo Uematsu's finest hour. I give the Atmosphere grade a perfect 5 mainly because there are a few themes that are postively fantastic, but the soundtrack as a whole is a bit on the bland side.
The game controls fairly well. Ironically, the places where your control is at its worst is in background features. For instance, when you play Blitzball there's a pretty significant delay between pressing the Square button and seeing the list of commands - enough of a delay to bring those defenders close to you. When on the Sphere Grid, you don't always move in the direction you pressed. And in the menus, pressing Circle doesn't always cancel the menu out - sometimes it just moves it down to the bottom choice. But traveling the terrain and fighting battles are quite intuitive (although it can be difficult to know how to move between enemies).
The game design employs one of the most unique methods of player development I've seen: the Sphere Grid. Instead of instantly boosting all of your stats upon a level-up, you navigate along a giant matrix of nodes, most of them adding to your HP and MP maximums, increasing attributes, or even teaching abilities when activated. Even if the actual practice of the Sphere Grid might be in fact a bit of a placebo (you gain levels more quickly, but since each node only affects one statistic, you need to activate several nodes for the equivalent of a level-up in other games), I certainly felt like I saw getting stronger more rapidly than in other games.
The battle design in the game is also quite remarkable. Many of the characters specialize in defeating creatures of a certain ilk - Tidus is adept at fighting nimble creatures, Wakka takes care of the airborne foes, Auron can knock off the heavily-armored enemies, Yuna is the all-purpose healer, and so forth. Even better is that you can switch characters in and out of the party while you fight. This is especially important because if everyone gets involved in a fight, they all get the experience. And this time around, it's not divided up - everyone gets all the experience that the enemies had to offer. Not only does this aid in the speediness of level-building, it adds a dimension of strategy in the fight sequences that's not present in earlier games, which can sometimes devolving into mindless mashing of the Decide button.
What's most interesting about the challenge of this game is that unlike early renditions of the series, where the enemy battles are mainly busywork to get to the uber-challenging boss battles, this game is the other way around. You really have to keep your eye on your HP when fighting regular enemies, and be particularly careful about monsters that can cause status ailments. (Luckily, save points now also refill HP and MP, so braving the wilderness is easier than it'd be otherwise.) But when you get to a boss, most of the time you aren't put in very much danger. In fact, there are only about three boss battles that I'd consider the least bit difficult, and the final battles aren't on that list.
Knowing what I know now about the plot and the conflict, I'm much more willing to go back and try this game again than I was when I felt like the game was just an exercise in futility. The game's ending was emotional, but not sad exactly - I felt a couple emotional tugs in certain spots, but it didn't move me to tears like FF6 did once. And it's much better than FF7's ending, which to this day makes very little sense to me. The majority of the time, I was enjoying the game, not to mention its side-quests - scoring my first goal in Blitzball against the game's toughest goalie made me feel really good, and chasing butterflies and racing chocobos were amusing as well. There were a couple places where my enjoyment flagged a bit - namely in the Thunder plains where enemy attacks occur at a much higher rate.
In the end, the plot is quite a bit weaker than usual for a game of this series, but most of the other facets of the game really help to make up for it. If you've got a PS2, you should definitely give this game a try.
|Design and Control: ||4/5
|Total Score: 84%|