Great Games: Final Fantasy X
The magnum opus of the Final Fantasy series
NOTE: For this review I played the original PS2 version of FFX.
SPOILER ALERT: Plot details for FFX, FFX-2, and FFVII follow.
Do not be fooled by its festive island colors and fast-paced water sports, Final Fantasy X is among the more melancholic games in the Final Fantasy series. It is a bleak world where catastrophe is routine and victory is fleeting. Where the religion everyone looks to for moral authority, is broken by corruption and hypocrisy. At best, people can only hope for a brief calm between each cataclysm. No matter how happy things may get, this underlying weight never really disappears.
The Last “Great” Final Fantasy
FFX is very much a transition game between eras in FF. Released in 2001, this was the first FF game to have voice acting and fully-rendered 3D backgrounds. This was also the last FF game under the Squaresoft label before it merged with Enix, and the last single-player FF game to have FF creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, as executive producer. This was also the last FF game to have Nobuo Uematsu as the main composer, though even here he was aided by Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamazu (who would later score FFXIII).
Great Games: Final Fantasy IV
“For the first time, console role-players weren’t given a few generic heroes and charged with stopping the evil wizard…
Many fans, myself included, remember FFX as the last great single-player FF game. I have heard great things about FFXI and FFXIV, but I don’t have the time for online games, so I won’t comment on them. While a lot of hard work was put into FFXII, FFXIII, and FFXV from Square’s best talents, they didn’t quite carry the same magic as the previous entries. FFX felt like the last single-player FF game where everything came together.
The production of FFX cost a hefty $32.3 million dollars. A sign that video games had become so advanced, that they were costing as much as blockbuster films. With the advent of 3D, video games were also starting to look like movies, too. In fact, the first feature length Final Fantasy film, The Spirits Within, was released the same year as FFX in 2001.
Great Games: Final Fantasy VII
“If the previous versions of this series were a puppet show, this one was a real film…”
This was also going to be the first FF game with voice acting. FFX’s director, Yoshinori Kitase, revealed in an interview that he wanted to include voice acting as early as FFVII. Kitase was insistent that they not use pop stars for the voices, as he didn’t want gamers to associate the characters with any celebrities. By suggestion of the animators, the PS2’s Facial Motion System was used to add realistic facial expressions.
Great Games: Final Fantasy VI
SPOILER ALERT Plot details for Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII follow.
This was also the first FF game with no real world map. In every FF game prior, a giant version of your character would walk around a small map, with towns and other places loading up as soon as you entered them. FFX, however, opted for a more realistic effect, with your character staying roughly the same size, and with most of the environments fully loaded. An unfortunate side effect of this is that it led to the game being more linear than the previous FF games, though nowhere near as linear as FFXIII.
By The Sea
The game opens in media res, with the now-iconic scene of Tidus’s watersword, Yuna’s summoning staff, and Wakka’s blitzball together in the ground. Tidus looks on at the ruins of the city he once called home, as Uematsu’s somber piano keys play on. He asks us to listen to his story and we are taken back a thousand years into the past, when Zanarkand was once a bustling metropolis.
Tidus is the first professional athlete to be the main protagonist of a FF game. He is the MVP of the Zanarkand Abes in a futuristic sport called blitzball. The sport looks amazing in the opening cutscene; rugby inside a sphere of water. Zanarkand is then attacked by a monstrous being known as Sin, and amidst all of the chaos, he is sent one thousand years into the future. He lands in the foreign world of Spira, which is subject to routine devastation from Sin. The Church of Yu Yevon, which dominates Spira, has summoners go on pilgrimages to defeat Sin, whereupon Spira is rewarded with a brief period known as a “Calm,” where Sin’s attacks are absent. On the island of Besaid, Tidus gets caught up with one such summoner, Yuna, who is about to embark on one such pilgrimage with her guardians.
FFX came out in the early 2000s, a period which, for some reason, was marked by a lot of major games which either had a beach or island theme: Beach Spikers (2001), The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (2002), Super Mario Sunshine (2002), Kingdom Hearts (2002), Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire (2002), and of course, Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball (2003).
Great Games: Kingdom Hearts
Kingdom Hearts is a Disney fan’s dream come true, indeed, it is the ultimate exploration of the fantasies that Disney…
FFX was no exception to this trend. From the game of blitzball to the islands of Killika and Besaid, this is very much a summer beach game. This particular look was also due to the developers wanting to give FFX a distinctly Asian flavor. Most FF games had adopted the medieval European aesthetic well-known to the fantasy genre, with the few exceptions being FFVI’s steampunk, FFVII’s cyberpunk, and FFVIII’s futuristic boarding school. While Asian themes have popped up here and there in the past, like FFVII’s Wutai, this was the first FF game to be defined by the aesthetics of Southeast Asia. FFX’s character designer, Tetsuya Nomura, referred to Thailand, the South Pacific, as well as their native Japan, as influences on Spira. Kitase said that he chose an Asian-themed fantasy in order to challenge the common idea of a “fantasy world” in most people’s minds.
The battle system eschews the Active Time Battle (ATB) of many previous FF games. Adopting instead the Conditional Turn-Based Battle (CTB) system, which is similar to the take turn battles of the first three FF games, but with some added features. For one, there is a list of turns on the right of the screen, which shows you who will go next. How many turns you get often depends on how fast your party members are and what actions they use. This feature is quite useful in planning whether or not to heal, defend, or attack before an enemy’s turn.
FFX gives you a maximum of six party members, and chances are, you’ll use all of them rather frequently. Some enemies that fly are vulnerable to Wakka’s blitzballs, elemental enemies are weak to Lulu’s elemental spells, and Kimahri’s Lancet is also helpful is stealing enemy abilities like The Big Guard and White Wind. This is all made very easy by FFX’s new feature of allowing you to switch characters in and out of battle. This not only ensures that nearly every character gets some experience out of each encounter, but it allows for more fluid and complex strategies than many prior FF games.
The Limit Breaks also make a return here in the form of Overdrives. The Overdrive gauge is a yellow bar underneath your character’s stats, which fills up whenever the character takes damage. Once the gauge turns orange, you can use a powerful attack, which often depends upon a certain set of conditions. For instance, Auron’s Overdrive requires that you press a series of button combinations before the timer runs out. As the game goes on, you can customize how the Overdrive gets filled. The modes that fill your Overdrive if you heal party members or deal damage to enemies are among the most effective.
Leveling up also involves customization. Each character has a Sphere Grid, which is a map of the unique stats and abilities that they can acquire. You can use a variety of spheres to activate or unlock different nodes. Powerful abilities like Ultima, Doublecast, and Auto-Life, are hidden behind locks and are trickier to reach. Once a character has completed their respective grid, they can cross over into the grid of another character and start gaining their abilities. Kimhari has the smallest grid, which means that he can copy other characters from very early on. This system also means every gamer will have a slightly different party depending on the choices they made in the Sphere Grid. This style of leveling was later adopted by FFXII as the License Board, by FFXIII as the Crystarium, and even by the FFVII Remake.
You also do not need to grind that much in this game. The battles are actually pretty easy until you run into Seymour, the Sanctuary Keeper, and the most annoying boss of all, Yunalesca. Most of your grinding will occur before the fight with Sin, in places like the Monster Arena and the Omega Ruins. The end game, though, becomes insanely easy as soon as you customize your weapons with the 1 MP ability. Imagine. Lulu can Doublecast Ultima for only 2 MP. Yuna can use Curaga or Holy for only 1 MP. Tidus can use Hastega or Quick Hit for only 1 MP. Quick Hit is an especially broken move, because after it lands, it allows Tidus a faster recovery time, which gets him more turns before the enemy’s. When combined with Haste, spamming Quick Hit can allow Tidus four or five extra turns before the enemy can get a single blow in.
Considering that FFX is the story of a summoner, bringing out Aeons is an important part of the gameplay. In the previous FF games, a Summon only comes out once per battle to perform a powerful attack, but here, all party members briefly leave and the Summon fights for you. This shift in Summoning soon became the norm for FFXII, FFXIII, FFVII Remake, and even the Kingdom Hearts series. Aeons are best used as a last resort to avoid status effects or to finish off a boss. Some of the most powerful Aeons are Shiva and Bahamut, who can also use spells and impressive Overdrives. There are, of course, secret Aeons. Some, like Yojimbo, are easy to acquire provided you have enough Gil on your hands. Others, like Anima, demand quite a bit of running around, such as finding every secret item in the Cloister of Trials.
If there’s a flaw in the gameplay of FFX, it’s blitzball. The cutscene of Tidus’ match gets you so hyped up for playing the actual game. You expect something rather high-paced and exciting, but the game itself is quite slow and boring. Granted, I didn’t go through the tutorial, which takes half an hour to sit through, so maybe the game is more fun than I give it credit for. Maybe.
Three composers, Nobuo Uematsu, Junya Nakano, and Masashi Hamazu, created FFX’s diverse soundtrack, which not only brought a relaxing island mood, but also dabbled in heavy metal and 2000s electro-pop. The most famous track was Uematsu’s “To Zanarkand”, the solo piano piece which opens the melancholic journey of FFX. Some other great tracks composed solely by Uematsu are the somber “Via Purifico” and the electric “Fight With Seymour.” Nakano’s best stuff is in his collaborations with Uematsu, such as the tranquil “Movement in Green” and “Yuna’s Decision.” Though Nakano also provided some great solo hits, like “Luca” and “A Contest of Aeons.” It is Hamazu who really stands out. He helped Uematsu compose one of the game’s most well-known themes “Hymn of the Faith.” When I met him at an anime convention, he told me that he loved the world of FF more than any particular character, and that definitely shows in his lovely themes for Besaid, Macalania, and the Thunder Plains. His best track is “Assault”, which clearly influenced his masterful “Blinded by the Light” for FFXIII.
The vocal themes for the game are also quite notable. There’s the metal song, “Otherworld”, which was composed by Uematsu, but had its lyrics written by the localizer, Alexander O. Smith. They even had death metal vocalist, Bill Muir, sing the Yeats-inspired lyrics. The love ballad of FFX is “Suteki Da Ne” (“Isn’t It Wonderful?”), which is sung by the Okinawan folk singer Rikki. The song is among FF’s most beautiful, and I appreciate the decision to keep the original Japanese intact for the English version.
Needless to say, the CG cutscenes still hold up impressively well. They almost don’t even need the dialogue. My favorite scenes were Yuna’s sending ritual by a red sunset in Kilika, the exciting raid on her wedding to Seymour in Bevelle, and the beautiful “love scene” between her and Tidus in the water beneath Macalania Woods.
I always found Tidus to be a delightful character. Some gamers may find him annoying, but his bright outlook serves as a needed counterweight to the tragedy of Yuna’s mission. Being an outsider to Spira, Tidus naturally questions the religious traditions that most others follow without a second thought. He rushes into the temple to save Yuna, despite the taboo against outsiders and is the most vocal in opposing the tradition of the summoner’s self-sacrifice.
Tidus, though, is also not without his own demons. The long shadow of his father Jecht looms over him. Tidus has always felt the pressure to live up to Jecht’s legacy, who was once Zanarkand’s greatest Blitzer. Jecht was also a poor father, often absent at home and showing little concern, if any, for his son. Tidus naturally starts out the game hating his father, a hate which intensifies when he learns that Jecht has become Sin, the source of all of Spira’s terror. This hate, however, turns to pity for the suffering that Jecht endures in this twisted state. By also looking at the video recordings left behind by Jecht, Tidus learns that his father grew as a person traveling through Spira and had come to truly love his son. He simply did not know how to show it.
Yuna is not only one of the best characters in the FF, but also one of the best female video game characters of all time. Like Tidus, she is also trying to live up to the legacy of her father Braska, who had earlier defeated Sin. Her clothes clearly draw influence from the Japanese kimono and hakama. They reflect not only her special position but also her conservative upbringing. I can’t help but subconsciously connect Yuna to the great shamans of Japan’s past, like Queen Himiko.
Yuna’s English voice actress, Hedy Burress, described her as “a gentle, yet forceful presence.” Yuna can lean into her femininity while also being strong. Yuna’s strength, however, is not merely physical. She carries an unwavering resolve to fulfill the difficult path of the summoner. We later come to understand that this involves strenuous prayers with the fayth, and eventually, the summoner’s death. In spite of this great burden, Yuna remains kind and happy, or at least, she wears the mask of happiness. Consider the oft-derided “laughing scene” between Yuna and Tidus.
Upon seeing that Tidus is depressed, she suggests that he should try laughing. She had been taught from an early age to put on a smiling face whenever she felt sad. They force themselves to laugh, and they sound terrible, but point is that they’re trying to find a release for their pain and frustration. That scene is followed up on after Djose Temple, where the whole group teases Yuna about how long she takes to fix her own hair. They have a good laugh, but Tidus later realizes that only his laughter was genuine. It was at this point that the melancholy of the game hit me. There is no true happiness in Spira. It is all either a mask or a distraction.
Auron serves as the father figure that Tidus never had, and is a kind of bridge between Spira and Zanarkand. Auron is also the wise old teacher of Yuna’s group, using his past experience as a guardian to guide the party. Auron wants to put to rest his regrets over having witnessed the death of Braska, the transformation of Jecht into Sin, and his failure to defeat Yunalesca. Auron is also dead, but little hints about this are put throughout the game, such as his refusal to enter the Farplane.
Wakka is a comic relief character who is also more strictly religious than anyone else in the game, even the leaders of Yu Yevon. Having also lost his younger brother, Chappu, Wakku tends to see Tidus as a replacement for him. Wakka’s fundamentalism causes him to be hateful towards the Al Bhed race, since they embrace the “machina” which Yu Yevon supposedly forbids. It was only once he started to see the contradictions of his faith that he let’s go of his bigotry.
Lulu is the sexiest character in FF since Tifa, though not even Tifa let us see so much cleavage. Though she predates the recent internet obsession with the “big titty goth gf”, she fits quite well into the mold. Sex jokes aside, Nomura’s design for Lulu is very cool. She wears a dress made of belts and uses a moving doll for her attacks. Lulu is also a sort of older sister to Yuna, who had previously failed to guard her former Summoner. With Yuna, she wishes to redeem this failure by helping her complete the pilgrimage, but she later learns that true redemption would mean stopping the pilgrimage altogether.
Rikku is the flagship spunky, cute girl, like FFVII’s Yuffie or FFVIII’s Selphie. She’s one of the more popular characters to come out of this game. She not only took a leading role in FFX-2, but was also one of the first FF characters to appear in Monty Oum’s fan film Dead Fantasy. In terms of gameplay, however, Rikku is the weakest character. She’s only useful for stealing rare items from enemies or using Al Bhed Potions.
FFX’s handling of religion is very well done. While the Church of Yevon was clearly influenced by aspects of Shinto and Catholicism, it could easily apply to numerous religions and cults throughout the world. It is not uncommon, for instance, to see religious leaders who act contrary to their stated principles. Yevon condemns the Al Bhed for their use of the forbidden “machina”, and yet not only allows it for blitzball, but also for the central temple in Bevelle. Through the character of Maester Seymour, we also see how charismatic leaders use religion to achieve power. His attempted marriage with Yuna was a failed exercise in this. Through the treatment of the Al Bhed, we see how some religions teach their followers to fear and to hate those who act outside of their teachings.
The game also understands the feelings of mysticism and hope which religion brings. There’s the sacred, enchanted atmosphere that comes with entering every temple, as well as the beautiful “sending” ritual that Yuna gives the dead of Kilika. There’s a moving scene when, after the Al Bhed witness the destruction of their home by Yevon, they sing the “Hymn of the Fayth.” They are hated by Yevon, but still find comfort and promise in its central hymn. Another great scene occurs at the Farplane, where one can reunite with the souls of the dead. Yuna and Wakka both see ghostly visions of Braska and Chappu, though neither vision is able to speak. Rikku offers a secular explanation, that pyreflies trick them into seeing these illusions. We are never given a clear answer as to which side is correct.
The long arc of Yuna’s character is to refuse the path of her father. She begins the game as a faithful devotee of Yu Yevon, believing that if she gives her life, she can grant the people of Spira a respite from Sin. Her hope is that if enough summoners go along this path, the people of Spira will eventually be free of Sin forever. Yuna later learns from the first summoner, Yunalesca, that this is not the case. Yu Yevon is a parasitic entity who depends on Sin to live eternally, using the summoner’s Final Aeon to rebuild Sin’s armor. There is no final salvation. They are to live in eternal abnegation to Yu Yevon, while clinging to cycles of false hope. Yuna rejects this, choosing true liberation from Sin, even if that means destroying Yu Yevon himself.
Sin himself is a throwback to the gross and Gigeresque final bosses of FF’s SNES era, like Zeromus and Neo Exdeath. Sin is a massive, whale-like creature that must be fought first at his fins and then at his head, but there’s more! Your party must then crawl through the bowels of Sin itself, fending off its monsters as you confront Braska’s Final Aeon and Yu Yevon. I also liked how the finale involved defeating the very Summons who had been your allies in so many battles.
Being a game influenced by Asian culture, I wouldn’t be surprised if FFX adopted the Japanese concept of “mono no aware” as one of its themes. This idea, often translated as “the pathos of things”, refers to the bittersweet transience of life. Buddhism, which has influenced not only Japan, but much of Asia as a whole, teaches people to accept the briefness of life and to not have too many attachments. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the problems in FFX are rooted in the inability to let go. Many of the fiends that trouble Spira, and even major antagonists like Seymour and Yunalesca, are souls of the dead who were never properly “sent.” They cling instead to their attachments in the world of the living. Consider also that the religion of Yu Yevon is rooted in a twisted nostalgia. The endless cycles of suffering that have traumatized generations, are all so that Yu Yevon can perpetually maintain a dream version of Zanarkand. Yuna achieves a very Buddhist goal by liberating her people from these cycles of suffering and bringing an Eternal Calm to Spira. Her final weapon, for what it’s worth, is literally named “Nirvana.”
Of course, this theme would not hit home if it did not also demand a personal sacrifice from Yuna. Freeing the fayth from their toil means no more Aeons, no more Dream-Zanarkand, and lastly, no more Tidus. Yuna’s final trial is to let go of the one who taught her how to live and how to love. This is why, in the original Japanese version, her last words to him are “Thank you.” The English translation of “I love you,” merely communicates this feeling more directly. Tidus, who had rebelled against every unpleasant thing in the game so far, quietly accepts his fate, revealing his maturity as a character. His final act is to embrace Yuna from behind as begins to fade into the Farplane.
I have not played the HD remaster for FFX, but from what I’ve seen, my impressions are mixed. On the positive side, the graphics have better color and detail, and there’s even an orchestrated soundtrack. My issue, though, is with the new faces, which look puffy and cartoonish. The realism and subtlety of the original character designs is gone. Square had done a similar mistake with the FFVIII remaster, where Squall looks like an out-of-place Dissidia model. If you have a PS2, stick to that version of FFX if you can.
As far as FFX-2 goes, I haven’t played it and have no interest in doing so. This is not because I think the game is bad, in fact, it looks like a lot of fun. FFX-2 is a return to the Active Time Battle of previous FF games, as well as the Job System of FFV via the Dress Spheres. It also broke new ground as the first sequel to a FF game, setting the stage for Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, and Final Fantasy XIII-2. My issue comes from the fact that the story centers around the resurrection of Tidus. This seems to go against FFX’s theme of letting go and accepting death. It also cheapens the selflessness of Tidus’ decision to face Sin if he’s just coming back anyway. Imagine if Advent Children centered around the resurrection of Aerith. That would’ve taken away from Aerith’s death and how it impacted the characters.
FFX also had a probable influence on the Kingdom Hearts series. Like FFX, it has a beach theme, opening on the Destiny Islands and younger versions of Tidus and Wakka even show up. You spend some time gathering items for a raft, like you did gathering items for a fire. Sin may have also influenced the final Ansem boss in the original Kingdom Hearts. He has many Gigeresque parts which you need to fight in the stages, and he even has tentacle-like “Artillery” which behave in a way similar to “Sinspawn.” Yuna, Rikku, and Paine also show up as fairies in Kingdom Hearts II, and Auron has a significant cameo in the Underworld. Many fans theorize that, since he is of the undead, this Auron is the very same one from FFX. Some interesting food for thought.
Great Games: Kingdom Hearts II
SPOILER ALERT: The essay contains light spoilers about Kingdom Hearts II!!
While FFX is not my favorite FF game, I refer to it as the magnum opus of the series, because it not only synthesized the best elements of the past, but it also used graphics and voice acting to achieve a level of interactive storytelling that the previous games simply couldn’t reach. Even now, FFX has stood the test of time as a crowning jewel of the PS2 era in video games.