A young man, a strange land, and a journey to save it.
These are all common and clichéd aspects of your typical JRPG, but Final Fantasy X manages to take these key components and make them feel fresh. While originally released on the PlayStation 2 in 2001, for my first time playing through this game I did so via the HD Remaster on the PlayStation 4. Regardless of which platform you choose to play it on (it’s also available on PlayStation 3, Vita and Steam), the game is mostly identical, with a few visual upgrades and new encounters in the Remaster. This ensures that all players get to experience roughly the same masterful experience.
Final Fantasy X tells the tale of Tidus, a young man transported 1,000 years into the future after an evil entity known as Sin destroys his home. He finds himself in the strange land of Spira, which is still caught in an epic struggle with Sin even after all these years. The only hope for the land comes in the form of Yuna, a young summoner on a mission to travel Spira in search of the power to defeat Sin. Along with a ragtag group of guardians, Tidus joins up with Yuna to help her on her quest and bring about a new age of calm to the land.
Thankfully, the story manages to avoid many of the common pitfalls that plague these types of stories. This is largely due to the stellar cast of characters. Each member of your party is extremely well written, complete with interesting backstories, ambitions, and personalities. One of my favorite parts of the game was getting to know these characters and learn what they believe in and why they’re fighting alongside you. As the game progresses, you get to learn more and more about each character. I found myself bonding with the cast just as much as Tidus was, which is a remarkable feat as far as I’m concerned.
Final Fantasy X also doesn’t shy away from discussing some heavy matter. Where most stories would have the characters progressing on their journey with confidence and a smile on their face, the characters here are grappling with the fact that their quest could end with their deaths. This is easily the most somber Final Fantasy game I’ve played and I think it’s all the better for it. These characters struggle with the obstacles they face and find themselves questioning their task, which makes them feel more realistic in the process. However, as grim and murky as the game may get, there’s always a promise of hope, and the bond that forms between these characters despite the strife they face is touching.
Fans of the older games in the series (such as myself) will be pleased to know that this is a return to the slower, more methodical turn-based combat. Although the signature ATB (Active Time Battle) system is gone, the turn-based system still performs excellently, and is how I actually prefer my Final Fantasy games. Each character has a basic attack option, but they can also learn special skills and magic to gain an edge in combat. Magic is pretty straightforward, allowing you to deal elemental damage or cause nasty status effects to your opponents, but it can also be used to buff your party’s stats and recover health. Skills and specials work similarly, but have a wider plethora of effects. There’s also an Overdrive system, which can be changed to fill in different ways (dealing damage, receiving damage, healing allies, etc.) that will unleash a powerful special move that’s unique to each character.
Instead of a traditional leveling system, Final Fantasy X introduces the Sphere Grid.
When a character participates in battle, they gain AP (Ability Points). After receiving enough AP, they’ll be able to move along the Sphere Grid and use special spheres awarded from random encounters to level up stats and gain new abilities. The grid is massive and extremely daunting at first, but it becomes more manageable the more time you spend with it. Each character starts on a different section of the grid, complete with abilities and stat boosts best suited for them, but you eventually get the ability to have characters cross into each others parts of the grid to learn their abilities and increase their stats further. It takes a while to get used to, but I found it to be one of the most interesting and fun leveling mechanics I’ve encountered.
Being a summoner, Yuna can call on the force of powerful Aeons to aid her in battle.
These creatures can deal massive damage and have Overdrive gauges of their own, which activate some of the strongest abilities in the entire game. You only start off with the flamebird Valefor, but your roster of Aeons increases as you progress through the game and prove yourself worthy enough to have them join you.
While the early levels of the game are predictably easy, the game ramps in difficulty pretty fast. If you don’t take the time to learn the intricacies of combat and the sphere grid, then you’re likely to encounter trouble. However, even with careful preparation, Final Fantasy X manages to be considerably difficult. Some earlier battles can be conquered via brute force and determination, but later fights play out more like a puzzle, forcing you to seek out elemental advantages, carefully buff your characters with magic, and cause status ailments to your enemies. Some fights even offer special commands to manipulate the battlefield or specifically target parts of bosses. I died a significant amount during my 50+ hours with the game, but while this normally wouldn’t bother me, death is handled rather poorly here. Dying immediately sends you back to the main menu, where you have to load your game and try again. This is made all the more annoying in boss fights, where you might have to sit through a 5-minute cut scene again every time you die.
As with any RPG, you’ll be spending a lot of time traversing a large world on your adventure. While Final Fantasy X does indeed have a large map to explore, it’s considerably more linear than the games that came before it. Gone are the large open kingdoms and sprawling lairs, making room for narrow passages, small towns, and straightforward dungeons. That isn’t to say this is an inferior approach. In fact, the more linear design makes you become more intimately familiar with these locations than in previous games. As much as I love the older games (yes, even the weird ones like Final Fantasy II), I wouldn’t be able to recall the layout of their worlds as vividly as I can with this entry. That might just be because I’m coming directly off of playing this one, but I think the world of Spira is by far one of the most unique and highly memorable settings the series has offered.
I also love that as you progress, more things open up in earlier areas of the game, encouraging you to backtrack. I don’t mind revisiting areas I’ve already been to, so long as they offer new things to see and do, which Final Fantasy X does. New bosses appear, new paths open, and you can even partake in mini-games like Chocobo Racing and Blitzball (which is more or less underwater soccer). Unfortunately, Blitzball is also the weakest of these features. It’s heavily based on stats, with each individual player on your team having different ranks for their movement speed, ability to pass, ability to shoot, and ability to guard the goal. It’s extremely frustrating because every team you play against has players with stats that are 2-3 times higher than yours, making early games nearly impossible to play. Unless you get extremely lucky, or scour the world for new players to recruit and level up, you’re not likely to win any matches. Unless you’re a completionist, I would honestly recommend skipping Blitzball entirely.
Sadly, there are a few more problems plaguing the game.
For the most part, the voice acting is hit or miss. Some characters are great, some are just alright, and one or two are actually pretty bad. The great writing and characterization helps balance some of the performances, but I would be lying if I said they didn’t bother me a little bit. There’s also a few occasions where the lip-synching is off, with characters moving their mouths too early or too late. Then, of course, there’s the awful laughing sequence, which has become an infamous meme. I won’t say too much about it, other than it’s one of the most awkward sequences I’ve after sat through.
Last, but certainly not least, I would be doing a great disservice if I didn’t mention the soundtrack. The Final Fantasy series has always had stellar music, but Final Fantasy X is the only one that I’ve gone out of my way to listen to even while I’m away from the game. The tracks in this game are perfect at setting the tone for each encounter and locale you visit, more so than any other game I’ve played in the series. It’s worth heading over to YouTube to given the soundtrack a listen.
Although there’s a few minor problems present, Final Fantasy X is quite possibly one of my favorite JRPG’s I’ve ever played. The story and characters are the heart of the game, but the combat and leveling system is deep and rewarding and makes you want to never put down the controller. If you’re looking for a lengthy game to lose yourself in, you could do much worse than Final Fantasy X.
– Zack Burrows