Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X is the tenth game in Squaresofts long running role playing game series. Over the past ten years the series has evolved across four console formats. NES, Super NES, PlayStation and with this latest installment PlayStation 2. This finally arrived in the UK, one year after its Japanese release and six months after its USA release.
Dedicated followers of Squares opus in PAL territories are used to long waits for the PAL releases, but this was almost unbearable for many (including myself) who desperately wanted to see how the series transferred into 128bit gaming. However square did make up for this long wait with an enhanced release based on the Final Fantasy X International version that came out in Japan after the release of the first version. This includes a bonus disc of features on the making of the game, but rather ominously the preview of FFIX is missing, causing more UK gamers to wonder of Squares online rpg will ever make it to the UK and Europe…
The extras also include tweaked enemy difficulty, a choice of sphere grids, Standard or Expert and some extra monsters to battle. However on the debit side the PAL conversion overall is rather shoddy, there is slowdown and borders which is quite aggravating when you consider how long its taken to get it out over here. But despite all this the game is still a compelling experience.
FFX is very much a game of two halves. On the one hand it is admittedly a hotchpotch of the best gameplay elements found in the last few Final Fantasy games. It is also very linear and lacking in the freedom to explore the game world we have to expect in other games. However it is also the best and most beautiful 128 bit RPG currently available. It allows almost unprecedented freedom of character building and customization, has one of the most elegant turn based battle systems ever to grace this type of game and finally has a bold and thought provoking story line that is only partially let down by poor scripting and variable voice acting.
FFX begins with a young Blitzball player called Tidus being swept up by a malign force called Sin as it attacks and destroys his hometown of Zanarkand. Zanarkand is a thoroughly modern city, full of light and technology. When Tidus reawakens after his encounter with Sin he find himself 1000 years into the future; the planet now called Spira. His city Zannarkand is gone, destroyed by Sin and the planet has regressed backwards. There are several races now inhabiting Spira, the Lion-like Ronso, the lanky, slightly creepy Guado and humans. Most humans, Ronso and Guado abide by the teaching of an ancient summoner called Yu Yevon. These teachings forbid the use of “machina” unless Yevon allows it (for example Blitzball is still played in Spira and the stadium technology is allowed). Under the teachings of the temple of Yevon, Spira has become a quiet agrarian society.
Tidus soon finds out that Spira is trapped in a cycle of death. Every ten years Sin rises up and causes death and destruction to the people of Spira. The saviors of Spira are the summoners. They pray at the temples and use their powers to summon strong forces know as Aeons (Ifrit, Shiva, Bahamut are some familiar names to Final Fantasy series fans). When Sin arrives the summoners go on a pilgrimage across Spira. They visit each temple and summon the Aeons tied to that temple. As they progress they prove themselves worthy to summon the final Aeon in the ruins of Zanarkand and defeat Sin bringing the Calm to Spira for a short time at least until Sin rise up and the cycle begins again.
Tidus quickly meets a young summoner called Yuna and becomes her guardian along with the Ronso Kimawari, the black mage Lulu, the Blitzball player Wakka, the Ronin Auron and later in the game a young girl called Rikku. Rikku comes from a group of renegade humans (Al Bhed) who reject the teachings of Yevon and believe machina can save Spira from Sin. They are persecuted by the Yevonites and nearly wiped out, dismissed as religious heretics. Tidus also quickly finds out that the father he lost ten years ago, and who he hated as a drunken bully was also sucked up by Sin and sent to Spira, where he helped Auron and Yunas father take Sin on during its last reign of terror.
There is also some conflict in the group as Wakka, is a devout Yevonite. He hates the renegade Al Bhed, but is forced to question his beliefs when faced with a friendly Al Bhed (Rikku). Right from the beginning Tidus is told that Sin was a punishment for the over-reliance on technology humans had. Everyone on Spira apart from the Al Bhed believe that it was technology that bought Sin to Spira in the first place and so rejecting technology will drive Sin away one day. Unfortunately so far Sin only leaves for periods of ten years at a time, reappearing to inflict more death and destruction until the summoners can send it away again. It is this quest that Yuna and her guardians set out on.
In fact if FFX could be said to have an overriding theme, then the theme of death fits it well. For such a bright and upbeat looking game graphically, it has quite disturbing undercurrents. Death drives everything you do. The fiends you fight are the twisted souls of those people whose souls were not ‘sent’ peacefully after death by the summoners. The spheres they drop after battle which you use in the grid to learn abilities are explained as the accumulation of memoirs and experiences of the dead. The Aeons you summon are powered by dead summoners who stay in an undead limbo to allow others to draw upon their power. There is a feeling of impending doom though much of the action as first one then another character comes to the realization that their actions are going to lead to their death.
Previous Final Fantasy games have all contained overall motivating themes. FF6 was driven by the sadness caused by loss early on in life. FF7 took the struggle for self-identity as its main theme. FF8 was about the power of love and how it can overcome the barriers of time and space if it is powerful enough. Even the lightweight FF9 had a strong overriding theme of escaping a predetermined destiny, whether social, genetic or cultural. Due to the text based nature of the games and the general impatience of many players these often quite deep concepts have been overlooked. Perhaps most infamously with FF7, a hugely complicated story of one persons struggle to find himself seems to have left many players bewildered or uninterested.
However unlike these previous games FF10 has the luxury of voice acting to help bring its discussions of life and death themes right into the foreground of the players consciousness. As the most important innovation in this long running series it deserves some analysis. Does it work? Well I have to give it equivocal thumbs up. Certainly the arguments are expressed more passionately, but poor scripting in many places means that despite the generally decent voice talent the complex themes are rather dumbed down in execution. However I realize that many gamers may not wish to engage with the concepts on a deeper level than that presented through the spoken dialogue. Also the character modeling and voice work doesn’t quite yet have the gravitas to present the ideas in a totally realistic manner. Wonderful though the graphics are, the faces and body movements are still too stilted to convey pure emotions properly. In effect this dilutes some of the more emotive parts of the game. In previous Final Fantasy’s the fact that the characters where very unnatural looking and did not speak meant that your imagination was able to provide the requisite empathy. Here with the characters talking and looking almost real its harder to fill in the gaps as it were.
Still overall I felt the voice acting is a welcome addition to the series and hopefully in the next non-online installment the scripting will be able to justice to the central themes of the game. There is no getting away from the fact than in every other respect FF10 is an astonishing game. The graphics are without doubt some of the most beautiful ever seen on a home console. In game graphics merge into gorgeous FMW without jarring leaps of quality. All the characters and monsters are beautifully designed and the leveling up an battle are huge fun and building up yopur characters courtesy of the sphere grid is never boring.
The sphere grid is the replacement for leveling up. No longer do characters gain levels as they fight, they gain spheres. Each characters starts on a portion of the grid relevant to their character type. So for example Auron starts on a path that gives him much strength and HP, but little magic. Yuna the summoner and Lulu the black mage both start off surrounded my magic bonuses and spells to learn. As you battle you are given AP, which converts into sphere levels. The more sphere levels you gain the more movers you can move across the sphere board, activating ‘nodes’ as you go which teach you characters new skills and raises their stats. As you progress though the game you can unlock different areas of the grid. Once you have tough Yuna all her white magic spells you may want her to follow Lulus path and learn all the black magic spells. Or you may decide her strength and HP need building and have her go down Auron’s path instead.
When you add to this the fact that you can customize weapons and armor using items you collect after battle you soon realize you have an unprecedented amount of choice in how you raise up your characters and how you approach combat. Each character can learn special attacks to perform when their Overdrive bar is filled. These can be set to fill up when the characters takes damage, or when the character damages an enemy, when the character heals and enemy and so for encouraging you to think how you characters will fight as a team. Only Yuna can summon Aeons and these can also learn abilities. The Aeons stay in the battle and can fight, cast spells and use special attacks the same as the normal characters. Several of the stronger Aeons can break the holy grail of 9999 max damage. The strength of the Aeons is tied to Yuna’s development. Use her a lot and you Aeons will become unstoppable. When I ended the game my Bahamut was swatting down Bosses with 75,000 damage per hit. It does tend to make the final battles very easy, but there is a tricky Monster Arena game where you can tackle outrageously powerful Bosses without fear of a game over!
Unlike previous Final Fantasy games this drops the world map and simply sees the party travel from place to place with little opportunity to backtrack and explore. Only right at the end does the Airship (complete with a Cid!) become available and you can revisit old locations and do the many side-quests such as collect monsters for the monster arena, catch Cactuars in the desert, race Chocobos and search for the best Aeons to summon. There is also the Blitzball minigame which I didn’t find as involving or as easy to get into as the previous card games. It’s a kind of turn based underwater netball game and you can revisit it via the save sphere and recruit players on your travels. There are also some frustrating and boring mini-games which really should have been weeded out at the testing stages. The chocobo racing, the butterfly catching and the lightning dodging games are all frustrating and tedious. The fact that they are the only way to get some supercool weapons for your characters only makes them more annoying to replay over, and over again.
However, despite this FF10 is still a recommended game. It is highly accomplished with an addictive battle system and awesome flexibility in raising characters and Aeons. It has a thought provoking and quite radical underlying story and combines breath taking visuals with atmospheric music. I played it obsessively for two weeks, forsaking all other games. Driven by the need to find out the next twist in the plot or a few hours spent battling to teach my characters new and awesome abilities I was totally sucked in. Traditionalists may find the forced linearity frustrating and it is by far the easiest Final Fantasy game I have ever played. But as it stands, it’s simply the best RPG experience available on any current console. It contains likeable characters, it’s fun to play and when I finished it I had a tear in my eye. Not just because of its touching ending but also the realization that the game that had taken over my life for a fortnight was over and it was time to reenter the real world.