Many good aspects watered down with excessive cutscenes.
Modern day Square seems to have lost their ability to make good RPGs, as of late. Final Fantasy XII was a pretentious, narcissist game that was in love with itself to the point where it did not want any gameplay mucking up its story. Final Fantasy XIII does not seem to be making matters better, as it is so egomaniacal that it is already having a few sequels developed, even though it has yet to be finished, let alone released. Chrono Trigger DS is bound to be nothing more than a very lazy port of the PS1 port, which had its fair share of flaws, like annoying load times and superfluous anime cutscenes that failed to replace the ones they were attempting to depict in the first place. However, the company was not always like this. There was a time when Square could still make great games that would often make a “best games of all time” list. That time was 2001 (and anything before that) and one of those games happens to be Final Fantasy X.
Released a year after the launch of the PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy X follows the story of Tidus, a star blitzball player for the Zanarkand Abes. However, after winning the game, Tidus ends up being swallowed by a giant, whale-like monster called Sin, and is thrust forward a thousand years into the world of Spira, where his home has been destroyed and become a holy place for summoners on their pilgrimage. He eventually decides to follow Yuna, a summoner, on her pilgrimage, hoping to find the answers to all his questions. This entire story is told through a huge amount of cutscenes, often times eclipsing the gameplay. These cutscenes cannot be skipped, the best solution being to mash the X button until you are in control again. However, there are two flaws with this: not all the cutscenes are able to be skipped, and mashing the X button before a boss battle can put you in a bad situation.
The worst part is that in some instances, the game could’ve perfectly allowed the player to control the events depicted in the cutscenes without compromising the storytelling. A perfect example of this would be the aforementioned game of blitzball. Right before Sin strikes the city of Zanarkand, Tidus goes to a blitzball game, stealing the spotlight and winning the game. This could’ve easily been made playable, but for whatever reason, was not. There is also an abundance of CGI cutscenes, which is ironic due to the fact that Final Fantasy VII, the only other game infamous for it is wealth of pre-rendered cutscenes, has far less of it than Final Fantasy X, yet advertised only the pre-rendered cutscenes, while Final Fantasy X had some gameplay interspersed throughout it is advertisements.
However, an abundance of cutscenes does not automatically make a game pretentious or narcissist (although it can, as was the case with Final Fantasy XII). To its credit, Final Fantasy X has an amazingly good story that follows the natural progression of storytelling, complexity and character development that Final Fantasy has adhered to over its 20 year history. Although not the first game to do so, Final Fantasy X addresses topics like religion and the role of death in society. However, unlike previous games that attempted this (Terranigma, Dragon Warrior IV, Illusion of Gaia), which focused on religious symbolism and an insight into morality in general, this game makes religion a much larger part of its world and debating the finer points of religion, like moral purity and how even the highest heads of the church can be corrupt and power hungry. All of this is told rather clearly and in an understandable manner, never becoming confusing with needlessly Shakespearian-esque speech or words that are only found in SAT practice tests. The only really confusing thing in the storyline is the nature of Tidus, but this never reaches the level of confusion that other games have reached with their stories, like Final Fantasy XII, The 7 Saga and Dirge of Cerberus.
That being said, the story is not without its flaws. For example, quite a lot of the characters are incredibly hard to care about. The only ones who really matter are Auron, Tidus and Yuna, and the game admits this to an extent by calling the former two guardians, a summoner’s bodyguards who protect them on their pilgrimage. Other than that, most of the cast is unnecessary. Wakka is an interesting combination of religious zealot and blitzball disappointment, the early parts of the game revolving around his team’s complete failure to win a single game of blitzball in his entire life. Kimahri is most fitting of the term guardian, but really does not blossom as a character until later in the game. Until then, he is fairly easy to ignore in favor of the other characters. Rikku really holds no purpose when you first meet her, and is nowhere to be found until around 30% of the game is completed. However, her only purpose is to argue with Wakka over the nature of Sin, the summoner’s pilgrimage and Yevon (the god of Spira’s only religion). Lulu, the black mage of the party, is perhaps the easiest character to not care about. Her back-story is presented in an optional sidequest, and even there, it is not really fleshed out to the extent you would expect from a Final Fantasy game.
Despite all this, Final Fantasy X still forces you to use every character in battle throughout the game, even if there is a reasonable way around what the game is forcing you to do. A good instance of this is when you first get Auron after being sent to Spira. Most of Auron’s weapons come with the piercing ability, which allows him to cut right through an enemy’s defense and deal more damage. One of the early enemies requires this ability to be used in order to be killed quickly, but can be killed with the combined force of the other characters. However, whenever Tidus strikes the enemy in question, none of the other characters will shut up about how Auron is supposed to be doing the job and not Tidus, until of course he comes out and hits the enemy.
This feature does draw mixed results, because although it feels incredibly forced and transparent, it also allows all the characters to get an equal share of experience, as they do not gain any if they did not participate in battle. This is all part of the new battle system, dubbed Conditional Turn-Based Battle by Toshiro Tsuchida, is a mix of the Active Time Battle of the previous six installments and turn based battle of countless RPGs, something of an oddity, considering that Active Time Battle was originally a mix of turn based and real time battle systems. Like turn based systems, your characters and the enemies attacking them do not act until directed to do so, whether that be by input from the player or computer, respectively. However, there are key differences between turn based battles and CTB that make it stand out enough on it is own. Instead of all characters having their actions inputted at once and then seeing them act out, the action is immediately performed (like in Active Time Battle). You can also see when your characters and the adversaries have their turns, which can be changed by certain actions and spells, like using items or casting Haste on your party. This is meant to give a more strategic feel to the battles, allowing you to plot out your actions without any sort of pressure or time limit, but feels as strategic as Active Time Battle or turn based or just about any other RPG battle system. What really seems to set Conditional Turn Based from other games is the cinematic aspect of the boss battles. A lot of the time, certain characters will have trigger commands, sometimes story related, but a lot of the time not. But the good thing about it is that it successfully mixes gameplay, strategy and story into a pleasant form that works well and sometimes takes up the whole of the boss battle.
There are also several other flaws with the system, like the Overdrives (this game’s version of Limit Breaks) summons get. They will do a lot of damage, sure, but the enemies will get a ridiculous amount of time to be you down until you die. This was probably made to balance out the power of the Overdrive, but it ends up leaning in the enemy’s favor, as the amount of time they get is enough to kill your Aeon (the name summons are given in Final Fantasy X).
On that note, Yuna is the only one who can summon Aeons, a move obviously made to give her individuality. However, this is not a move made specifically for Yuna, as each character can be customized through Final Fantasy X’s leveling system: the Sphere Grid. In battle, you gain AP that eventually accumulates into points you can spend moving around on the Sphere Grid. Each node contains a certain ability or stat raising attribute that you can activate using spheres that you gain through battle or treasure chests scattered about the world of Spira. The system was designed not only as an alternative to the level grinding common in the genre (odd, given how level grinding is still reasonably possible), but also to allow the player to see their characters progress and mature throughout the game. In that respect, it works fairly well, especially later in the game, when you zoom out from the map and see how far they have progressed from their origins. Although it may sound like the system is very limited by the amount of spheres you have, this rarely happens, as the enemies drop more than enough of them to fuel your adventure through the game. And while the actual grid is shared between all characters, they all start in nearly polar opposites in the grid, eliminating the risk of characters feeling the same and identical (unless a stupidly high amount of grinding is involved). But like everything in Final Fantasy X (and everything in general), this, too, has its flaws. For example, there are too many restrictions imposed on where you can and cannot go at the beginning, and this problem does remain persistent throughout most of the game.
However, the main focus of the game is more on story than gameplay (for better or worse), and Final Fantasy X uses every tool the PS2 has given it in order to tell the tale of Yuna’s pilgrimage and Tidus’ journey to find out who he really is. One of the biggest tools the game uses is the new graphical power that came with the new system. Environments are now in full 3D, which creates a more vibrant and alive setting, but fails to make use of the fact that it is 3D by refusing to allow rotation of the camera or anything like that. And one would assume that 3D scenery would lead to battlefields being the same between the overworld, but like the previous three installments, this is rarely the case, often times using stock settings that only vaguely resemble a certain portion of the area being explored. However, the game’s 3D environments and effects do look fairly good, being able to hold their own against modern PS2 games.
The new 3D environments are proudly advertised on the back of the box, along with the game’s newest feature, “real time facial expressions”. Used along with the voice acting, this is made to bring more life to the characters and make them seem more realistic. In that sense, it works fairly well, but could be done better. It seems that during the localization process, Square did not take the time to edit the lip movement of their characters, so wary players will notice some discrepancies between how the characters move their mouths and what they are saying. This lack of editing would be understandable for an anime or foreign movie, but not a video game, given that all that is required is changing how certain things are animated. Besides, Square had five months to localize the game for North American audiences, so it is hard to understand why this particular feature went under the radar.
This is not meant to discredit the voice acting, however. It is very good, able to compete with many movies and TV shows (which is somewhat the thing Square set out to do with this game). Despite this, the voice acting has erroneously been known as bad due to the infamous laughing scene, wherein Tidus tries to relieve stress by laughing as hard as he can. The instance has come to characterize what people believe is bad voice acting on the part of the game. This could be thinly justified by the cast itself, the voice actors having done simply awful shows and movies like Johnny Test, The Little Mermaid II, and the two Rugrats movies. However, those who look at the voice acting work are not only being selective in the works of the actors by ignoring works like Sailor Moon, the Mario shows and Princess Mononoke, they are also literally judging a book (or game, in this case) by its cover, not giving it a chance to prove itself on its own.
However, the music, unlike the voice acting, is forgettable with some good tracks dispersed in the entire game. Final Fantasy X’s soundtrack is perhaps the most nondescript in the entire series, surpassing Final Fantasy V in that respect. The only exceptionally memorable medleys are the battle theme, the battle music during the Seymour fight, and A Fleeting Dream, most of the remainder failing to stand out. The exception to this is the boss music for Braska’s Final Aeon, which is a laughably horrendous heavy metal song.
If this review has led you to believe that Final Fantasy X is a bad game, that notion is far from the reality of the situation. Final Fantasy X is a great game, even better than previous games in the series, like VII and VIII. However, like those games, while it is fantastic, it is not without its flaws. The game is fairly linear, allowing for little freedom in where you wish to go (until you get the airship, at which point a plethora of sidequests pop up all around Spira); a truly great RPG must achieve a balance between highly linear (Illusion of Gaia, Magic Knight Rayearth) and exceedingly open ended (Shadowrun, Ultima series) in order to be good. The end of the game consists almost entirely of a nonstop boss rush, many of them requiring that the player grind in late game areas until they have all the tools they need in order to take down one particularly cheap boss. The game also feels like a PlayStation game (not surprising, given that development began in 1999, parallel to Final Fantasy IX), with analog control being optional, the circle button allowing your character to walk (run is the default with the d-pad), characters going from run to stop in sublimation-esque fashion, and characters flying into the air like wooden figurines.
There are also noticeable moments of slowdown in several instances of the game, indicating that Square did not really know how the hardware was going to look in the end (again due to the development process’s early beginnings). Most of the end of the game is a boss rush, with a lot of the early bosses being criminally hard/cheap and the end bosses being so incredibly easy that it is impossible to lose, or even die (this theory being tested out in the very final battle). Despite all of these blemishes, the game still manages to be a very good RPG, definitely worth buying.