Saturday, February 11, 2012

Retro Review: Final Fantasy X

-------My Rating System-------

A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)

B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good or even great game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)

C(-)(+) A mixed bag. Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)

D(-)(+) Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase. (Sonic Heroes)

F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)


Last fall, I reviewed Final Fantasy XIII for the Xbox 360 and PS3. It’s a very underrated game in my opinion and I think it deserves more credit than it gets. (The direct sequel actually came out just a few weeks ago, and I’ll probably be reviewing that at some point as well.) Playing through it actually rekindled my interest in the series and I've found myself playing the games more often, and one of the games that I was actually very interested in was the tenth installment on PlayStation 2. Though I never beat it, I liked it a lot as a kid and I have a bit of nostalgia for it - well, the first ten hours anyway. This is, after all, a retro review, so I can't be wearing nostalgia goggles. It also was the first Final Fantasy game to feature full voice acting and broke a lot of other series traditions as well, such as having more linear progression among other interesting things, which I will get to when the review officially starts. Oh, and apparently it’s getting an HD remake in honor of its tenth anniversary, so there’s that. I was going to wait to play it again until the port came out, but due to my impatience and reluctance to buy an upgraded version of a game I already own for full price, I found myself playing through the game on PS2. So, now that I’ve finished it, let’s see how it holds up.


Visually, Final Fantasy X is a mixed bag. In some ways, it’s aged surprisingly well, while in others, it’s…kind of laughable. To start with, the environments actually look really great to this very day. There’s quite a bit to look at, and it’s all really beautiful, particularly in the lush forest environments. Cinematic sequences are simply amazing and show off some really impressive production values and art direction. All of the most memorable and spectacular moments of the game’s storyline will take place during these sequences, and the character models for the main cast and monsters, especially animation-wise, look pretty impressive given the time. Beyond that, though, things don’t fare so well. Character models for most side characters are really blocky and lazily put together and facial animations, even for the main cast, are ridiculously hit or miss – usually miss. Rarely, they’ll actually look really natural and expressive. Sometimes they’ll look really mediocre, sometimes they’ll look downright creepy, and almost half the time they’ll look laughably bad. This is easy to forgive since it is, of course, an old game, but at the same time hard to ignore. Musically, though, things fare a lot better, and why wouldn’t it? It’s Nobuo Uematsu, after all. Nothing else needs to be said.

Moving on to matters of importance, let’s discuss the gameplay. Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy X is quite a big departure from previous games in the series in three main ways: its lack of an exploration-encouraging overworld map, having a different character growth system and having a brand-new battle system. The battle system is probably the most interesting of these differences. At first glance, it may not seem much different from the ATB system used from IV through IX. It’s still turn-based and plays similarly in that, upon a character’s turn, a command list is brought up that gives you a list of options that determines that character’s actions such as using a normal attack, using a special move, using a skill, using white or black magic, or using an item. However, the ATB gauge is gone for both you and your enemies; things keep moving and there’s no waiting involved, which makes battles much faster. When a character or enemy takes his or her turn is determined by a variety of factors and can be affected by using different commands or even attacks and spells. While such spells as Haste and Slow sped up and slowed down the ATB gauge (respectively) in games past, now they give characters and enemies extra turns or make them wait longer to take their turn, and such moves as Quick Hit and Delay Attack also affect who takes their turn and when. In the upper-right corner of the screen, there is actually a box that displays the turn order and actually allows you to plan your moves around it.

You can only take three characters into a battle at once, but they can be switched out at any time, a feature which you will be making use of a lot. This is because all of the characters have different uses in battle. There are seven characters that you will be controlling – Tidus, Auron, Rikku, Wakka, Lulu, Yuna, and Kimahri. Tidus, Auron, Wakka and Kimahri are all effective physical attackers, but have specific uses. Auron can effectively do damage to armored enemies with his giant sword and can learn attacks that weaken the enemy, Wakka can attack flying enemies since his weapon is a ball (no, I am not kidding) and learn attacks that cause status ailments, Tidus can learn helpful spells such as Haste and Slow, and Kimahri can learn enemy abilities with his “Lancet” move. Rikku can steal items from enemies and then use said items against them or to aid the party, Lulu is your black mage, and Yuna is your white mage and summoner. Speaking of which, unlike in previous games where summoned monsters used a single attack and then flew away, you can actually control them like normal characters this time around and they come complete with their own sets of skills and limit breaks (or overdrives, as it were). Overall, the battle system is really fun and strategic and one of the game’s highlights.

As for the character development system, it’s pretty interesting as well. As you fight battles, characters gain “sphere levels”, or points to use on the upgrade board known as the Sphere Grid. Each sphere level allows you to move one space on the grid. If any spaces nearby house upgrades to any of your stats or even an ability or magic spell, you can use a different sphere like a “Power Sphere” or an “Ability Sphere” to unlock it. Sphere levels are gained pretty quickly, which allows you to get upgrades more quickly. I liked this upgrade system quite a bit. However, I did find that Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium was a better handling of the “upgrade board” idea for a couple of reasons. Mostly, the Sphere Grid…really doesn’t do much to make grinding easier. XIII only gave you the essential stats to deal with: strength, HP, magic power and defense. You didn’t even need to upgrade your magic points since those were infinite in that game. In Final Fantasy X, you’re looking at a lot of different stats aside from those: speed, agility, evasion, magic defense, MP, and even luck. A lot of spaces on the grid are even completely blank and useless unless you have a type of sphere that will turn them into useful ones. When I’m grinding, speed, agility, evasion and luck, while nice stats to upgrade, just seem like roadblocks on the way to the stats I really need upgraded. The fact that it’s simpler and faster to use also made me prefer the Crystarium. But like I said, even if the series has handled the upgrade board idea better since X, the Sphere Grid is pretty nice.

Then there’s the lack of an overworld map, which is something I’m sure a lot of longtime fans didn’t really appreciate, especially given that it adds a more linear progression to it. Like XIII, I thought this worked for X from a storytelling perspective. However, it is worth noting that despite its general linearity, X does admittedly offer more to do than XIII. There are a few areas and towns that encourage a little bit of exploration for treasures and whatnot, and there are plenty of mini-games and optional side quests to distract you along the way. The most prominent mini-game in Final Fantasy X is blitzball, likely meant to be the game’s own “Triple Triad” or “Tetra Master” except for the fact that it doesn’t involve cards. However, I have to say, it didn’t appeal to me. I just found it to be pretty boring and didn’t spend much time with it. Thankfully, it’s completely optional aside from a single area in the game. It wasn’t for me, but if you enjoy it I’d say you would be able to spend hours with it. Lord knows how much time I’ve wasted playing Tetra Master in Final Fantasy IX... There are also several puzzle-solving areas in Final Fantasy X known as “Cloisters of Trials”, which are actually pretty fun and interesting if a bit tedious. They’re focused on moving around spheres, which have varying effects on the environment, so that you can open up paths to the end. Like I said, they can get tedious, but I did enjoy them quite a bit in spite of that.

Oh yeah, there’s one last thing that I need to mention here: Final Fantasy X, like all Final Fantasy games before it, uses random encounters and was actually the last one to do so. I mentioned in my review of XIII that the random encounters were my main problem with the series, but after playing a lot of the older games, I’ve gotten pretty desensitized to them. In fact, I’d say X’s linear progression lends itself to them better than any Final Fantasy before it. What annoyed me about them in the past was their apparent frequency combined with the fact that they felt disruptive to me, which made exploration less fun. X doesn’t feature as much exploration and, as such, the random encounters aren’t as troublesome. I’d say that if they really bother you, this could affect your decision to play the game, but I’d say I’m okay with ‘em here.

With all gameplay-related discussion out of the way, let’s talk story, one of the most important aspects of any JRPG. The main character of the game is Tidus, who is transported from his home in the futuristic city of Zanarkand to the future world of Spira when a monster named Sin attacks. After waking up in Spira, he finds himself constantly assaulted by monsters known as “fiends”. He receives help from a young girl named Rikku who explains, after being told that he is from Zanarkand, that said city was destroyed by Sin a thousand years ago. Sin attacks again and leaves Tidus on the shore of the island country of Besaid, where he meets Wakka, Lulu and Yuna, a summoner whose job it is to defeat Sin, and begins to learn the ropes and history of this new and unfamiliar world as he accompanies Yuna on her pilgrimage to each of Spira’s temples to receive the aeon, or summon monster, which she will use to defeat Sin. Much of the story, in fact, focuses on Tidus’ relationship with and thoughts on the world and the people around him.

Actually, I think that this was a very interesting type of story for a Final Fantasy game or even a JRPG in general to tell. For Final Fantasy X, we are given a main protagonist that knows as little about the world as we do, and most of the story is even told in flashback. This makes the world more mysterious and a lot more interesting to learn about than it would be otherwise, and Tidus’ narration also adds to it by giving a lot more insight as to his thoughts and feelings about the various situations he and his group encounter along the way. The setting is also very unique and the various ways that the world of Spira works, its constant struggles with the seemingly unstoppable Sin – who, if defeated by a summoner, will still come back after a few years – and the general tone of the game all make Spira feel very tragic at the same time that it is beautiful and surreal. The progression of the plot also, intentionally or not, gave me a sort of “road movie” vibe a lot of times, because, essentially, you’re making a trip around the world to visit several places throughout Spira and dealing with the various hardships along the way, which was another thing I found really interesting. On the whole, the plot of Final Fantasy X is really good. Though I would expect no less from Final Fantasy, the unique setting and feel do give it something interesting over the other installments.

However, with all that said, there are some really significant things holding the story back, one of them being the characters. I don’t mean that the characters weren’t likable so much as that most of them felt really underdeveloped and like they were just along for the ride. Tidus, Yuna and Auron were the only characters that the story gave me any real reason to care about. The rest of the cast receives little development and if they do, it’s minor. While they have their back stories, they’re not really compelling or even touched on all that much. It felt to me like they were there for plot and gameplay necessity rather than actually adding something to the plot. Why is Rikku there? Because the main party needed a representative of the Al Bhed race. Why is Wakka there? Because Tidus needed someone to teach him about Spira. Why is Lulu there? Because the game needed a black mage. Why is Kimahri there? Because the main party needed a representative of the Ronso race. All of these characters could and should have been compelling, and it feels like lazy writing to me that more effort wasn’t taken to make them so.

And speaking of the writing, even aside from that it’s not very good. It’s inoffensive about half the time, but when it comes to the other half, lines can range from bad to outright cringeworthy. At its absolute worst, it makes Sonic Adventure look like Inception. That’s…kind of an accomplishment. Voice acting doesn’t fare much better.The only consistently good actors for the main characters are the ones for Rikku and Wakka. Lulu and Auron are alright, I suppose, though they definitely have their moments. Yuna’s speech is filled with awkward and seemingly random pauses and her delivery can be pretty wooden, and while Tidus’ actor is certainly talented – he is Ratchet, after all - his delivery almost never fit the context of the scene, which is probably the product of bad voice direction more than anything else. Kimahri’s voice is utterly wooden, and I doubt the broken English they wrote in the script and called his “lines” helped much. I mean, seriously, why do almost all of the Ronso in the game talk like that? Why didn’t they just give them their own language like they did with the Al Bhed? Well, anyway, side characters…actually fared a lot better than the main ones, with some ear-grating exceptions of course. If I hear the shoopuf driver one more time…

While not story related, I do have one more problem with this game, and it’s a pretty big one: you can never skip the cutscenes. This was a massive frustration. The bosses in this game can get pretty difficult, which is fine. However, many of them are preceded by lengthy cutscenes – all of which you will be forced to watch again should you fail. If you’re lucky enough, you can press “X” through some of the dialogue, but sometimes it wouldn’t even let you do that. Naturally, you aren’t allowed to skip any of the dialogue in the long cutscene before the final boss – and I mean ANY of it – and, of course, that is the hardest and most frustrating non-optional boss in the game. Actually, the part right before the final boss was plagued with enough bad design as it was. Right before the really long, unskippable cutscene, you had to, for no apparent reason other than to cause unnecessary annoyance, collect ten crystals in a room with a horrible and potentially nauseating rotating camera and, to add insult to injury, spiked icicles constantly blasting out of the floor under you and initiating an enemy encounter if it trips you up. And no, you can’t save directly afterwards, meaning that if you die at the final boss, you not only have to watch the entire pre-battle cutscene again, but you also have to collect ten crystals in a room with a horrible camera and battle-initiating icicles. I simply fail to understand the need for this. Was someone on the design team in a bad mood? Yes, it's one brief segment of a 50-hour long game, but it's one you're going to be repeating numerous times if you keep dying at the final boss.

The Good:

+ Great battle system
+ Very interesting, unique plot and setting
+ Nice character growth system
+ Very good soundtrack
+ Environment graphics and cinematics hold up well
+ Lots of mini-games and side quests
+ Puzzle-solving segments are interesting

The Bad:

- Facial animations are often pretty bad
- Most characters are underdeveloped
- Writing is inoffensive at best
- Voice acting is pretty bad
- You can never skip cutscenes
- Some bad design in the game’s final area


For all of its flaws, I’m glad I played through Final Fantasy X and I’d say it’s worth a recommendation. Gameplay-wise, it has quite a bit to offer and while the writing, voice acting, and underdeveloped characters made it harder to be engaged, I did get into the story enough that the ending garnered a legitimate emotional reaction from me and I couldn’t help but appreciate how different the setting and plot were for a Final Fantasy game. I wouldn’t call it a great JRPG by today’s standards and if you’re planning on getting into the series, I’d say there are much better places to start. However, if you just want a decent JRPG with a good story and battle system, Final Fantasy X is probably worth the price of admission. That said, I’d say it would be a good idea to wait to play it until the HD remake comes out. Let’s hope that the changes are more than just aesthetic…Nintendo.

No, as a matter of fact, I will not let it go.

Grade: B-

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