Final Fantasy X

I… I didn’t know it could be like this…

You see, I’m not twelve anymore; I am twenty-nine years old with lots of gaming under my thumbs and discerning tastes. You can’t throw a Lord the Rings: The Third Age at me and expect me to enjoy it just because the graphics are good and the movies are popular. Nor can you tempt me with a Baten Kaitos which, despite its dreamy visuals and intriguing combat system, has a soul made of styrofoam pellets. I’m not sure why they even bothered to make the character art in that game; they should have just represented each character as a sack of styrofoam pellets. These pellet sacks could then be set on a quest to jump into a big cardboard box. And you certainly won’t catch my attention with a Tales of Symphonia – if I want to watch bad anime while playing a twitch-control game, I’ll just pop in some Sailor Moon and load up Street Fighter Turbo on the SNES.

I knew it would be hard to find a game as good as Chrono Cross, but my search has ended with FFX. Of course, my search probably should have begun with FFX, what with it being the RPG series that tends to set the standard for all others, but I didn’t have a PS2 until recently. Anyway, I think what makes FFX so special is the attention they paid to the plot and characters. I’m not going to lie and say that the characterization is brilliant, or the plotline is amazing, but it was good enough for me to get engaged – and that’s saying a lot if you think about most RPGs out there. I enjoy a game so much more when I have an investment – intellectual, emotional, or both – in the story. FFX makes a strong commitment to telling its tale, and it does so in manner that I would have to describe as compelling.

Well, “compelling” is perhaps too strong a word. The main character is named Tidus; you can rename him so I changed the name to “you pig” so that I would get dialogue like, “Thank you for saving us, you pig!” As I mentioned, I am not twelve, which is why I didn’t name Tidus something like, “dickweed”. Anyway, Tidus is a pretty annoying character for the most part, and somewhat sterotypical as the good-looking, you-can-do-it, J-hero. I guess all the characters are moderately stereotypical, but most have enough personality and backstory to keep you involved. The seven characters you pick up throughout your travels have so many scripted sequences, pre-rendered cutscenes, and involvment in the story, that you almost feel like you’re right in the middle of an anime series. As a player, you gain some attachment to the characters because of this, moreso since you are actually manipulating the characters in battle.

From a mile-high view of the plot, the land of Spira has been terrorized for centuries by a creature named Sin. People known as Summoners travel throughout the land with a group of Guardians, going from holy temple to temple, accumulating powerful creatures known as Aeons. A Summoner has “gotta catch’em all” before they call summon the Final Aeon which is a being capable of defeating Sin. Once Sin has been vanquished, Spira experiences a Calm where Sin refrains from wiping out cities and causing mayhem, but eventually he always returns. Now, that sounds like your average RPG plot, but that outline is just an eggshell that shatters as you delve deeper into the game. Overall, I found the story to be really interesting and quite different from the normal RPG drivel.

One of innovations of FFX is that it does away with “leveling” in the traditional sense and introduces what it calls the “sphere grid”. As a computer scientist, I would change the word “grid” to “graph” because the sphere grid is simply a large, bidirectional collection of connected nodes. Characters start out at different parts of the sphere grid, and are able to traverse it using movement points that they can accumulate when they defeat enemies. Most of the nodes on the grid can be activated to give your characters increased attributes and abilities, but you can only activate nodes to which you are on or adjacent, and only if you have the correct sphere to do so. For example, to activate an HP node, which raises your characters hit points by 200, you would need to use a Power Sphere. The really interesting part comes in when you have the option to take your character down different paths of the grid – should you lead your character to a place where there are more magic nodes, or more warrior nodes. Also cool are the rare spheres that allow you to break the rules of the sphere grid, e.g. a White Magic Sphere lets you activate any white magic node anywhere, or a Friend Sphere allows you to instantly move to a node occupied by another character.

At this point I could probably carry on about all the aspects of the combat system, but I’ll stick to the highlights. One of the things I really enjoyed was that you are presented with a priority queue for all the participants in a battle; if a player or monster is at the top of the queue, then they are up next. The queue appears in all battles and enables you to really plan out your attack. You can also select an action for your character to perform, then see how that affects their status in the queue before actually committing to that action. Also kind of neat is that you can switch your character out for another one with no penalty. Then there is the added dynamic that Yuna, the Summoner, can call forth an Aeon. When she does this, your party runs off the screen and you then direct the Aeon against the enemy. I also enjoyed that weapons and armor were done with a simple elegance that avoided the standard upgrades of most RPGs. You know, replace your copper sword with steel, replace the steel with mithril… Instead, all weapons and armor have slots, and these slots are what defines the weapon. Moreover, you can customize the slots so you can basically build whatever equipment you want, just as long as you have the items to do so. Near the end, one of my characters had a sword with Initiative (gives party chance at preemptive strike), Evade and Counter (dodges most physical attacks, then counterattacks), Deathstrike (instantly kills many enemies), and Sensor (reveals HP and info about enemies).

The game does have its annoyances. Whenever you try to obtain a new Aeon, you have to go through a temple that contains a really annoying puzzle. Some of them were okay, but most of the time it was just work. In other words, it was less of, “find mate in five moves” and more of, “solve this Sudoku puzzle”. Then there was Blitzball. You are forced to play one Blitzball game – a really shoddy, difficult-to-control, underwater polo/soccer sport. Following that, you can play Blitzball at any save point, and even scout for players throughout your travels. You can buy contracts for your players and compete to win the big prize. I avoided all that because I found Blitzball to be ridiculously awkward. Another thing that frustrated me was the 9,999 damage limit imposed on all characters. This was a problem near the end of the game when Auron (the battle-scarred veteran full of wisdom and secrets) and Tidus were easily hitting for 9,999 every time. You can solve this problem by finding the secret “celestial weapon” for each character. Not only do you have to get the weapon, but you then need TWO more items to enable all the abilities of the weapon. So to obtain and enable all the the celestials for all 7 characters, you need to do 21 extra tasks, and many of those tasks are a huge pain. I wound up getting 2 or 3 of the weapons and getting Tidus’s weapon to full strength. This was a blessing because I could then make certain attacks for like, 30,000 damage, which both saved my ass and kept the game moving along.

I had best stop writing before this entry gets any longer. FFX is a deep game with a high-value presentation: gorgeous backdrops, beautiful music, and even decent voice acting. From a mile-high view, the game is simply: 1) battle through a random-encounter area, 2) reach a town/city/outpost, 3) enter a “temple” where you face an annoying puzzle, 4) repeat. But as FFX progresses, you find that the designers have struck a pretty pleasing balance between story, puzzle, mini-game, and good ol’ dungeon crawling. When your party finally reaches the hauntingly melancholy scene that appears whenever you power up the PS2, you’re struck by the game’s sense of poetry. In order to rate this game, I’ll first invent my own 1-10 scale:

  • 10 = Perfection
  • 9 = Must be played
  • 8 = Shades of brilliance, but not complete
  • 7 = An amusing diversion
  • < 7 = Crap

I give Final Fantasy X a 9/10.

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