The Final Fantasy saga has had a very interesting timeline, to say the least. The original, Final Fantasy, was so titled because it was Square’s final attempt to avoid bankruptcy. Today, Square’s one title has expanded into one of the most massive franchises of all time, featuring thirteen full titles and a huge variety of spin-offs.
As I’ve stated in a previous post, the series has been on a massive downturn since VII, the title generally considered to be the best of the sequence. This week, I’m going to look at a game that made it really clear that the series was starting to lag: Final Fantasy X.
Now, Final Fantasy X is by no means a bad game. In fact, it’s one of the better installments to the franchise. But X is really the first game where the marriage of gameplay and world failed – where one was vastly better than the other, and the one that didn’t work revealed just how far the writers had fallen.
It all begins in Zanarkand, a futuristic world of technology and splendor. You play as Tidus, star player of the Zanarkand Abes, one of the leading sports teams of the time. Though it hasn’t been revealed yet, you live in a world engulfed in the flames of war as the technologically superior Zanarkand battles against the magic-centric Bevelle.
But then you start getting into what made the story and setting terrible. I have to start with the most infamous of all, the blitzball. Because this is a game that makes absolutely zero sense. Here’s the premise: blitzball is like soccer (or football), where two teams meet on a field and try to get a ball into a goal. Here’s the catch, though. It’s played entirely underwater.
And no, the game doesn’t explain how it works. Blitzball is played in massive spheres that are filled top to bottom with water, and then two teams try to get a ball into the opponent’s goal. How do the players breathe underwater? Apparently, just by holding their breath. Never mind that this is being done for roughly five minutes at a time while doing strenuous activity.
Plus, as expected, there’s a vast difference between what happens in a player-initiated game of blitzball and a game that appears in a cutscene. During the cutscenes, all the players are doing insane stunts, even flying outside of the sphere at some points, and doing all kinds of fancy acrobatics. The game itself, however, is played on a two-dimensional plane, and every encounter with an opponent turns into a miniaturized battle where combat stats are compared. All in all, it’s just a terrible, terrible game with no basis in reality and some plain awful design.
But blitzball is just optional, right? Well, aside from one part of the game, yes. And honestly, if blitzball were the only thing that detracted from the game, Final Fantasy X would be amazing. Unfortunately, there are a number of things that really turned people away from the game, and blitzball is but the tip of the iceberg.
For starters, there’s the voice acting, which is awful. Even the star of the show, James Arnold Taylor (famed for voicing Ratchet in Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series) can’t seem to say his lines without sounding like a whiny nine-year-old. Aside from the talented Matt McKenzie (Auron), almost all of the characters are either overenthusiastic or completely unable to say a line like a normal human being. I would even grant that part of it is the dialogue, especially in the character of Tidus,Taylor’s character – which really says something about the writing team of Square Enix. Lousy localization aside, Final Fantasy VII had an epic story and great characters. Final Fantasy X has a variety of people who are either whiny, overly cheerful, or just plain angsty. And unfortunately, Tidus is all three.
Beyond the bad voice acting is the story. While it’s not terrible, per se, it is quite messy at times. The plot basically follows Tidus as he joins up with a summoner and her guardians to defeat Sin, a creature born to wreak havoc across the land of Spira as a reminder of the sins of the Bevelle-Zanarkand War. This is all well and good, but then it gets weird. Because it turns out that Sin isn’t just Sin, it’s actually Tidus’s father, Jecht, who sacrificed himself to continue the cycle of Sin’s death and revival. Then it turns out that Tidus isn’t actually Tidus, he’s actually just a dream created by the fayth, which are human souls trapped in stone to provide power to summoners. When the team defeats Sin for good in the game’s finale, the fayth stop dreaming, and thus Tidus disappears. It’s just a bizarre plot twist that doesn’t make any sense – and doesn’t even show up until fifteen minutes prior to the final boss battle.
Now, with all of that said, why is this a TRTG article? It’s got a terrible minigame, bad voice acting, and a weird, incomprehensible story. What made it good? Well, as bad as everything else was, all of it can be forgiven for the game’s combat and leveling system, because both are absolutely stunning (and of course, never again repeated).
You see, Final Fantasy X marked the end of Square Enix’s reliance on its classic Active Time Battle system, which had been in use since Final Fantasy IV. Instead, the game returned to the series’ roots as a turn-based RPG – but with a twist. Rather than having a static turn order based on a speed stat, each character’s turn is dependent on what action was performed the previous turn. Using an item, for instance, could bring the character’s next turn up rapidly, while casting a powerful spell would drop them down in the list. Plus, for the first time ever in a Final Fantasy game (and indeed, in most RPGs), the entire party traveled as one, and characters could be swapped out at will. This was a huge development for the series – in every game prior, the party was locked to three or four characters at any given time, and often could only be changed at a save point.
Enhancing the game’s combat system was its extensive leveling system. Gone were the days of gaining a level and having every stat increased. In place of a traditional system, Final Fantasy X featured the Sphere Grid, a vast grid of stat increases and abilities that could be traversed by gaining movement points through combat. Once each character reached the end of their track, they could start branching into other characters’ tracks to utilize that character’s strengths. The sphere grid system was an incredible attempt at giving the players freedom in character building, and though the first track forced characters into a certain development path, everything afterwards allowed the player to decide how their characters could grow.
So what’s the final verdict here? Truth be told, you can probably get past the story. Honestly, it’s not all bad, it just gets terribly weird. So long as you can stomach the awful voice acting and the one game of blitzball you have to play, the game is very enjoyable. But X marked a pivotal point in the history of the series, because every game after it has featured mediocre to just plain bad writing and gameplay.
Will the franchise live on? Almost certainly. After all, even a game considered by many fans to be the worst in the entire franchise (Final Fantasy XIII) has garnered not one, but two sequels. Dozens of spinoff games have been built around older titles, such as Crisis Core (a prequel to Final Fantasy VII) and an entirely separate series was born from the multiplayer-focused Crystal Chronicles. But gone are the days when every title was an incredible work of art. Now are the days when every game has a twist – and unfortunately for hardcore fans, few of the twists are good.