Monday, April 22, 2013
Review: Final Fantasy X
Throughout the years, I've tried to wrap my head around Final Fantasy X. It's my first Final Fantasy game, one of my first games with the Playstation logo on it, and one of my first JRPGs. It was the game that said to me “yep, the PS2 is miles upon miles ahead of the Nintendo 64 in terms of raw technological prowess”. I mean, that cutscene where Sin blows up Zanarkand? Holy shit, it looked so fucking real to my ten year old brain in the year 2002 that I had to buy it to experience more! However, graphics age, and like human beings, you start to see it for what it really is once its looks start to wither. In this case, it's a game with great ideas, bound together by hit and miss execution. Some parts work finely, but other parts work about as well as Sony's online security. Oh, and unlike human beings, games don't gain wisdom with age; they don't realize that we change when we're given additional responsibilities and expose ourselves to different personalities and whatnot at high school or college or whatever. Sadly for some games, when human beings gain wisdom with age, they just don't look so great. I guess you could say that they outgrow aspects of it, or the games entirely, and Final Fantasy X has its fair share of things that haven't held up to repeated playthroughs or the passage of time in and of itself.
To clarify, this isn't a bad game, but it does make some big mistakes, especially in the storytelling department. The concepts it presents are workable ones that can offer an interesting story, but poor writing, aimless directing and crap pacing ruin it. The story is that Tidus gets transported from his home in Zanarkand, to another part of the world of Spira... about a thousand years into the future. From there, he meets up with a group of people – in particular, the summoner Yuna, who he develops one of the most awkward relationships this side of any given human being's first relationship with. She and the rest of the group are on a journey to pray to the temples all around Spira on the way to the temple to the north of the world in order to acquire the final Aeon (or summon creature) and defeat Sin. To put things into perspective, Sin destroys entire villages and even futuristic cities by simply passing by and maybe shedding its skin. Because it's so fucking huge, it conjures up tidal waves. If it feels threatened, it'll fire a beam out of its mouth that'll destroy everything in its way. So yeah, you'd want to stop this thing as soon as possible... except Yuna's dad and various other summoners throughout the years have already done this. So this would only serve to calm down Sin for... what, a few years before he's back to destroying the world?
It's a story that serves to get worse as time goes on. At first, the worst that the story offers is a lead protagonist who seems more like a cocky yet whiny sidekick than, well, a lead protagonist. Wouldn't it have been more logical to make Yuna the main protagonist? I mean, it's basically her story – she's the one who has to save the world from Sin, and she knows maybe a teeny bit more about Spira than Tidus does. Other than that, you do admire the personalities of each characters, like Tidus's more positive traits (cockiness), Wakka's heart of gold (even if he sometimes says the wrong things because he's a bit of a dickhead), Lulu's intelligence laced with her kind heartedness, short fuse and lack of a smile, and Yuna's naïve kindness, practically humanitarian behavior despite living a sheltered life (eh, Kimahri just kind of exists). Eventually, the bad pacing starts to set in when they spend more time talking complete shit than actually progressing the plot or developing the characters. There's this one sub plot where they initially learn a bit more about their journey, and then the most transparently evil villain of all time wants Yuna's hand in marriage. Cue about 2-3 hours of her thinking about the decision while doing nothing else. There's the whole “it's about the journey and not the destination” argument you could use, but I'll retaliate by saying that none of the characters are all that interesting.
To go with the new direction of every scene being voice acted, characters are given maybe a tiny bit of character development, and then it's basically dropped in favor of plodding scenes that are more interested in boring you to sleep than giving you insight on the characters and whatnot. Long scenes aren't bad as long as they progress the story or provide the player with entertaining exchanges. However, they're bad when it says virtually nothing with characters that are wafer thin for the most part. They're even worse when they spend 10 minutes dramatizing something bad everyone except Tidus knew was going to have to take place anyway. That one scene that'll be unnamed for the sake of keeping this spoiler free, for instance, was painful to watch – it was long, it told me nothing that I didn't already know or couldn't figure out on dialogue prior to it, and it was just dramatic for the sake of being dramatic because at the end of the day, this is a really simple story with mostly simple characters – Auron breaks the mold by being that calm father figure and mentor type character to Tidus while trying to make up for the mistakes he made in his journey with Yuna's father. Simplicity is never a bad thing, but then you've never played this game until the end, haven't you?
See, you eventually get to a point where there's this big revelation that serves to make the plot more convoluted. The actual twist could've worked really well, but given that it comes in the form of a brief coma fantasy, it's just slapped onto the story, feeling like an afterthought. It's like Square went to themselves “you know, Metal Gear Solid is a best seller, let's try and be more like that by adding in some crazy plot twist that makes no sense because that's all Metal Gear Solid is apparently”. Fuck me, this is stupid and only serves to make the rest of the story irrelevant at that point because it did everything in its power to eschew anything remotely cool about the beginning. Oh, but it'll work itself into being a dramatic final act, eh?? Bitchin' – throw yourselves a fucking party Square, because no matter how good or bad that final act is, you've still officially lost me. Before then, you only had me going in and out because it ranged from plodding along to actually having something happen. But then you drop this bombshell that serves to confuse the shit out of me and make me wonder why in blue titties I should even care if you can just drop in more bombshells that come out of nowhere and exist just for dramatics without anything resembling good writing to back it up. The worst part is that it's a concept that could've worked and given the game something really cool to stand on from that point onwards... if it was competently integrated into the fucking story! Oh, and telling me to read the Wikia will result in an automatic “go fuck yourself”, because a game ought to be a standalone experience. Yes, there are interpretations you can make – that's why shit like Braid gets praised – but there's making your own interpretation of the story and then there's just stuff that feels randomly slapped on because hey, we have all these ideas but no idea on how to coherently integrate them into the overall game. Whatever good was found before is either gone or ignored. What a shame, but that's what mostly 1 dimensional characters and badly written storylines do to people I'm afraid.
Really, Final Fantasy X would've lost my interest long ago, had it not been for the gameplay. Funny how it's the gameplay that keeps me interested in a JRPG when it's just there to justify itself as a game in a story driven genre, but actually, it's pretty well executed for the most part. Okay, so a linear world map might not be to your taste, but neither is sex with a live human being so that solves that. Given what I've said about the story, it'd be a pretty empty sandbox if they went with the design of old where it's open for you to explore and whatnot. The more linear world map works because there's more emphasis placed on progressing the story – no distractions like sidequests (well, you can get started on a couple at a point in the latter portion of the game) and all that, but there are still people in this world to interact with to try and help you give a shit about it. It gives you a sense of cause-and-effect as you travel down the paths that make sense to travel down within the context of the story, which is meant to help immerse you into the world even if the story blows ass. It also helps to eliminate grinding as keeps you on track. Now, this might sound like a bad thing, but quite frankly, empty sandboxes are even worse – at least this stops the game from having to spend hours loading and actually forces Square to design bosses with legitimate difficulty instead of just relying on you to grind your way up.
The actual battle system is simple enough to get the hang of. Rather than the ATB system from the last bunch of games, it goes back to the traditional turn based system as seen in Final Fantasies 1-3, and encourages tactical gameplay. You can see who's turn is coming up next and when that character's next turn will come up depending on what attack they use next (cooldown time, to be precise). Besides that, it's all determined by their speed stat. The higher it is, the more likely you'll get the first turn and get more turns. For a while, that's about as far as it goes because a lot of enemies and even bosses just deal damage to you, sometimes inflicting poison onto you and rarely turning you to stone (if all three party members are turned to stone, it's game over – get some healing items out before this happens). But the bosses towards the end of the game will employ more status inflictions and tactics that work to their advantage if just annoying you with damage and like a buzillion status inflictions isn't enough. There are four bosses that especially love to do this, two of which are infamously tricky due to their tactics (both utilize a status infliction that makes it so that healing magic hurts you; one of them forces you to keep it or else you get a game over) and the other two not being much easier in that regard. Hell, the enemies get harder as you progress as they deal more damage and can inflict some status inflictions. Given that the idea is to give you a feeling of true progression, I have no issue with the fact that a lot of enemies are palette swaps – sure, it can seem tiresome fighting the same dogs, bats (WILD GOLBAT APPEARED!!) and lizards (two kinds actually – an armored kind and a more flexible kind), but at least they get stronger the further along the path you go.
Speaking of getting stronger, there's the Sphere Grid. Yep, instead of a straightforward levelling system, there's a more open ended one... at least, I want to think it's open ended, except it isn't exactly. Let me explain – when you begin the game, you're given a choice between the Beginner and Expert Sphere Grids. The Beginner Sphere Grid has a straightforward path for each character to level up the way that best suits their stats, and mostly goes on a line from their starting points. The Expert Sphere Grid bunches the characters together and encourages you to put them down whatever path you wish. Now, this doesn't work because each character is clearly defined. Tidus works best as a speedy attacker, Wakka works best as an accurate hard hitter, Lulu works best as a Black Mage (user of offensive magic), and so on and so forth. But when you go down any path that doesn't suit their base stats, it forces you to... grind. You know, that thing where you have to go back and forth in an area before the boss to fight the same groups of enemies over and over again as opposed to just fighting what's on the way because that's how the linear world map wants it to work? Sure, that's expected if you're trying to learn a useful ability and you're a level or two away from it, or maybe you're a level away from a strength level up and feel like you're not doing enough damage. Okay, fair enough. That much is acceptable (that is, if you're fighting everything on the way or just about everything). When you're spending over 15 minutes grinding though, that's when you need to realize either you're running away too much, or that the Expert Sphere Grid is a load of bullshit because it just doesn't work. It gives the illusion of open ended levelling, but it doesn't even remotely compliment the other fucking design choices! It's a good idea too – no doubt you'd be sick of a linear levelling scheme, plus it has more good ideas in the form of spheres that can fill in blank nodes and let you increase that stat! It's also pretty cool how everyone will eventually go through other peoples' paths (especially Auron's as his is where it starts, plus he has the most Strength nodes which is what will seem the most desirable for everyone not named Lulu and Yuna), especially when you engage in the sidequests involving the superbosses and require you to do a shitload of grinding just to stand a chance. But at the same time, it seems like a fucking waste! It makes more sense to either have more balanced base stats, or just have a linear levelling system! Good idea though; just sloppy execution.
That really sums up a lot of the side content on offer in this game. There's Blitzball, which is basically underwater rugby. It would be fun, but for some bizarre reason, it's got this awkward menu based style where you press square and then a menu comes up. Why? This is a fast paced sport and yet it keeps stopping so that you can choose whether to pass or shoot the ball. Oh and no Z axis? Nice one guys. Thank god you only have to play this once in the story and even then, you don't have to win... you'd have to be lucky to win anyway because the team you face are like a million levels higher than you, with better swimming, passing, shooting, tackling (or ninja kicking), blocking and goalkeeping stats. Blah. Then there are these other minigames where you ride chocobos (giant chickens) to dodge balls and seagulls, dodge lightning bolts, collect butterflies, play hide and seek with Cactuars (little cacti that are living beings) and fight bosses so buttfuckingly strong that you'll be spending the rest of your life grinding just to stand a chance. Aside from the latter, that's how you're getting your strongest weapons, which is paramount to your success in beating the latter sidequest. Eat my tits Square – I got other things I need to get done, like play the next Final Fantasy game! Oh yes, you're playing Blitzball in order to acquire Wakka's strongest weapon, and the items needed to upgrade it. You'll be playing a lot of matches, so I hope you got some time set aside to do this shit! In other words, the sidequests are basically an afterthought.
I've already discussed the graphics in the opening paragraph, but I feel like it bares discussion here too. Seriously, this game was un-fucking-real back in 2002. Those FMV scenes blew me away due to how much detail was put into everything. I mean nowadays, while the buildings blowing up and villages getting hosed by a tidal wave still look impressive due to the amount of detail put into everything, the character models look like they came out of a Pixar film at the time – for reference, this was before The Incredibles came out, so the humans looked a bit glassy eyed and mannequin-esque in appearance. Definitely hasn't aged as well as the models in their first – and only – film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Advent Children wasn't made by the same people). That's not even counting the in game graphics, which are still aesthetically presentable in the year 2013 with some decent textures, designs and whatnot, but some jerky animations, horrendous motion blurs during the slow-mo or shaky sections and bad lip syncing can take you out of the experience. Doesn't help that everyone in Spira dresses like they're cosplaying their favorite sci fi characters (although Auron certainly makes the Vincent Valentine trenchcoat costume look positively badass), and I don't even know what's up with Wakka's hairstyle.
Given that this is Final Fantasy, no shit the soundtrack is going to be good. Every song is beautifully composed to fit the exact emotion that the characters are trying to convey – especially drama. Let's be real here, the real drama comes from the dramatic songs because of their composition. The violinists play music that's either meant to be sad or angry, and while the feeling is mutual when you base it just on the music, the actual dialogue and whatnot conveys jack shit, but I'll get to voice acting in a second. Outside of that however, you'll have these gorgeous pieces that can send you into a sublime state, like one that plays in the Kilika/Macalania Woods (especially when played in the Macalania Woods alongside its dreamy blue forest landscapes), or one that plays towards the end of the game just as you're reaching the end of your journey. It gives off this feeling that you're nearly there and all that stands in your way are a lot of monsters. The boss theme isn't fast paced, but given its loud, bombastic composition, it's still able to instil a sense of intensity. Oh, and we can't forget the piano piece that's played at the beginning of the game. Holy fucking shit, it is such a beautiful piece. Those are just my favorite tracks; the others aren't bad, but they don't stick out quite as much.
The voice acting is pretty hit and miss. Tidus is voiced by James Arnold Taylor, known as the guy who voiced Ratchet from the Ratchet And Clank series from Going Commando onwards, and... ehh I'm glad he got the shittiness out of his system here because his voice can quickly grate on your nerves. I guess it goes with the whole cocky yet whiny personality Tidus has, but that's an irritating trait to keep up! Most of the other characters sound bland, like they're just in line for their paycheque, and I cannot fathom why the fuck Wakka has to have a Carribean voice – didn't the first nine games resonate with that audience enough? Eh, whatever, it doesn't even sound that good, like he was half assing his way through it all. Come on John DiMaggio, I know this game's story sucks, but I also know that you can do better! Feel like you've earned that payche-- actually, no, because I'm not sure what you were actually paid, especially versus what you probably gotten paid when you voiced Bender in Futurama back in the day (for reference, this was before everyone really got into Futurama). Really, only three characters have good voices – Seymour, who sounds slimier than those things that live in the sewers; Auron, who sounds cool, calm and collected, but can conjure up the kind of tone that says “don't fuck with me”; and Rikku, but come on, Tara Strong performing badly is like Dane Cook being funny, it just doesn't work.
It's odd; Final Fantasy X actually excels at one thing that its progenitors simply had as a good point, and that's the gameplay. No, not the crappy sidequests or the badly executed levelling system; I'm talking about the battle system. It's well crafted enough to keep you engaged, and the bosses are interesting enough to keep you playing just to see what'll come next. The fact that it's designed to make you utilize your characters' strengths instead of simply grinding for 7 hours is something I've come to find impressive. Mind you, Persona does a much better job of it, but Final Fantasy X does well enough to keep your attention, but that in and of itself is impressive. Add on the crappy story that only gets worse as the pacing deteriorates to nothing and the plot twists get just dumber and less cohesive to the overall narrative, and what you have is a simple yet exciting battle system with some interesting bosses. I can't actually give this game much more kudos because that and the presentation aside, it really could've been a lot better, especially in the storytelling department. JRPGs are best known for their stories, and while gameplay is often important as that's what separates games from movies and theater, a story is what keeps you engaged, keeps you caring about what's going on. I'm just glad battling is good or this would be a complete bust.