JRPG Journey 2020: Final Fantasy X + Final Fantasy X-2 (November)
Autumn bonus game: Final Fantasy Adventure [“Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden”]
December’s game: Super Paper Mario
Final Fantasy X is nothing like what I imagined. While my experience with the Final Fantasy series is still limited, having only played XII, IX, and VII prior to this game, from everything I had heard over the years about the tenth installment, including all the hype when it came out, I was expecting a traditional JRPG with high production values, lots of things to explore and do, and plenty of side content. Final Fantasy X (FFX) is most of those things, but all at the wrong time. My biggest gripe with the experience is that it’s incredibly linear and hardly feels like a proper RPG. I often wanted to be able to run around and do things at my own pace, but for the most part, the game doesn’t allow this until near the end. This is more of a conflict of expectations versus reality on my part, and once I understood what kind of experience I was in for, I enjoyed FFX for what it is, but I still wish it went for a more traditional structure. However, I can see how the series started heading more and more in the “scripted sequence” direction since FFVII (and possibly before that, though I have yet to play any of the earlier games), and this feels like a culmination of that.
For one, the music is fantastic—the best I’ve heard so far in a Final Fantasy game, and it’s not close. The added synths and poppy production of several songs fits the world and characters well (although I can’t help but wish it included a proper version of the Final Fantasy Prelude on the title screen). There’s even a smooth sax that I loved hearing in one of the later tracks. Spira as a world is meticulously crafted and holds up against the best of the best settings as far as JRPGs go. The cinematics too, including the cutscenes, are all top-notch for 2001 and hold up today. Some of the best parts of the game are learning about Tidus, his past and conflict with his father, the threat of Sin, and how it all ties together. All in all, this is probably the best story of the Final Fantasy games I’ve played. FFVII’s was more emotional, IX’s better written, and XII’s more epic in scope, but FFX includes a perfect mix of all of the aforementioned, plus great character moments.
The combat system, too, is more complex than it seemed at first. While Final Fantasy X is overall a rather easy game, I don’t mind, as easy combat can be fun as long as plenty of options are available to the player, which I’ll discuss shortly along with the Sphere Grid. It also helps that the battle theme is amazing, right on par with Final Fantasy VII’s “Fighting” (the gold standard of JRPG battle themes, if you ask me), and on some days I think I prefer it more. Crafting a battle theme that doesn’t get tiresome for the entirety of a game is quite the feat, and Nobuo Uematsu (and his team) smashed it out of the park on this one. Beyond the music, I loved being able to swap a party member in and attack all on the same turn. This provides the illusion of having more freedom than you actually do, which goes a long way in a combat system like this, where many enemies have specific weaknesses designed for only one or two particular party members to exploit.
Aeons, too, are a nice twist on the classic Final Fantasy summons, and in many ways I prefer this system to how summons were implemented in, say, FFVII or FFIX. Instead of feeling like I had to use summons whenever possible, it’s nice to be able to treat them as a “get out of jail free” card to clean up when a battle is taking too long, or against certain tough bosses. This is all relative, however—as mentioned before, the combat in FFX is never very difficult, but due to how integral they are to Yuna’s story, it felt natural to pull them out from time to time and wreck shop.
Next up the Sphere Grid. I’ve read that the international version of FFX as well as the remaster feature a new Sphere Grid with more branching paths, but since I played the original NA PS2 release, I can’t judge that version. However, I found the standard Sphere Grid offered enough flexibility for me to spend plenty of time in there, figuring out who to teach what, how best to use the special spheres, and how to become as powerful as possible as quickly as possible. Turns out, as in many JRPGs, the answer to that is magic. My main party consisted of Tidus, Yuna, and Lulu for much of the game. While I understand that Lulu’s effectiveness falls off in the postgame, during the main story she’s a straight-up killer. I used Black Magic Spheres to also teach Yuna some of the most powerful spells and had little trouble obliterating everything with my two-mage lineup. Tidus, on the other hand, was my time mage, and the combination of Haste plus strong melee attacks made him just as effective as my black mages. I’d swap Auron in when I needed massive damage, Wakka for fliers, and poor Kimahri never saw much use. (There’s always the one lame duck, right?)
Speaking of the postgame, I didn’t do much of it. I like to play much of an RPG’s side content while I’m going through the main story and take on the final boss as the last thing I do in a game. This feels right to me. Defeating the final boss closes the story out gracefully and should be the endcap of the experience. In FFX, that’s just not possible, as most of the side content becomes available only after finishing the story, yet after defeating Brask’s Final Aeon, I lost any desire I had to keep playing. While this is typical for me and I’m used to it, it does make me wish FFX offered more than a hallway filled with cutscenes for most of the game. It’s a shame, too, because what’s there in the main story truly is astounding. All of the environments are beautiful, the English voice acting is decent, the music sublime, and the story itself is pretty good for a late-era Square JRPG. I didn’t see many of the twists coming, which is more than I can say for other JRPG series. (Tales, anyone?) Finally, for all the game’s linearity and lack of sidequest content available during the critical path, it took me 41:25 to finish the main story, and I spent a total of 45:25 with the game, putting it right around the sweet spot for JRPGs in terms of length.
I’ve touched on them a bit, but let’s discuss more about the characters. Final Fantasy X’s characters are great. Pound for pound, this is the best cast of the Final Fantasy games I’ve played so far. While it took me awhile to warm up to Wakka, I eventually did, and each of the other characters had at least one or two interesting story hooks that kept me engaged. Tidus is a standout for obvious reasons, as he’s key to the plot, but Yuna’s journey to become a Summoner also kept me interested for the duration of the game. Auron, too, felt like a natural inclusion due to his relevance to the plot and history with Tidus’s father (I was thrilled when I found out he’d be a permanent party member), and even the less important characters like Lulu and Kimahri never felt superfluous, unlike, say Cait Sith from FFVII or Freya and Quina from FFIX.
Wait, I didn’t mention Rikku. That’s because she’s barely a character. When she was first introduced, I thought she was going to be important to the plot since she was used to familiarize Tidus with the future of the world of Spira and since I remember her being featured prominently in the game’s marketing back in 2001, but she quickly became nothing more than eye candy. I don’t have anything against eye candy; in fact, I quite like it in my JRPGs, but there’s simply not much to say about her beyond that.
What else is there to cover? Oh, right. Blitzball. It’s not fun. I played the mandatory match for the story and never touched it again. Perhaps if I were a kid with tons of free time, I could have gotten into it, but there’s nothing there that appealed to me as a guy with a ton of JRPGs in the backlog. Janky controls, difficult-to-understand rules, and severely underpowered players make this game a chore rather than an entertaining piece of side content, and that’s all I have to say about that.
Well, that brings us to the end of this review of—wait. Final Fantasy X has a sequel? It’s the first Final Fantasy game to have one, and it’s called X-2 of all things? I’m not sure a review of Final Fantasy X could be complete without at least touching on its successor, so it’s a good thing I played X-2 in November too.
Final Fantasy X-2 feels like an entire game made up of the side content that should have been included in the base Final Fantasy X. Together as whole, they make up a much stronger and more complete game than either accomplishes on its own. As with the first game, I played the original NA PlayStation 2 release of X-2, so my thoughts here only apply to that version and not necessarily the remaster.
Starting from the introductory cutscene, I knew X-2 would be a vastly different experience to its predecessor. The game has a lighter, sillier, Japanese tone. Cool, I guess, but not what I expected. Suddenly Yuna is a singer—huh? Of course, this is all explained soon enough, but even so, the story is convoluted and doesn’t make much sense. By the end, I had little idea what was going on, but that’s OK. As mentioned in previous reviews, stories are not the main reason I play JRPGs, and I’m OK with silliness, especially when it makes the gameplay more fun. For the most part, that’s true with Final Fantasy X-2. Two years after defeating Sin, Tidus is nowhere to be found (for some reason — I’m still unclear on why), and Yuna and Rikku have formed a group of “sphere hunters”, which are essentially sky pirates who search around the world for spheres of all sorts. At first I got quite the Skies of Arcadia vibe, though that game is far superior to X-2.
Spheres, as far as I’m able to understand, are the generic magical/magitech item that powers this universe: in addition to recording memories and providing powers in combat like in FFX, special types of spheres can now change a party character’s appearance and grant a custom set of abilities to match, in what is essentially this game’s version of the job system. These are called dresspheres, and dresspheres and the garment grid systems are the standout feature of X-2. A garment grid is a representation of the dresspheres a character can use, and multiple characters can use the same garment grid if you wish. Each garment grid has a certain number of slots wherein dresspheres can be placed, and each comes with special passive bonuses as well as bonuses that become active when switching between certain dresspheres in combat. In general, I found dressphere switching to be largely a waste of time—I’m sure I could have gotten into this system if I wanted, but the long animations (even when you choose short animations in the settings) and the fact that switching a dressphere takes a character’s entire turn made me want to stick to a single dressphere per character per battle as much as I could. This is all well and good, as X-2 is just as easy of a game as FFX. Using a particular dressphere automatically builds up and unlocks class abilities for the character using it, which is an addictive system that kept me interested for the duration of the game. At first, I used Yuna as a Gun Mage, an interesting class with abilities that are strong against certain classes of monsters, and eventually she fell into mainly a support role as a White Mage. Like usual, magic is broken in this game, and by the end, I equipped her with an item that reduces all mana costs to zero—free healing every turn is quite nice. Eventually, in times when healing wasn’t necessary, I found success using Yuna as a Lady Luck, an allegedly high-risk, high-reward class which is, in actuality, mostly low-risk if you use it right. (In particular, the Two Dice and Four Dice abilities usually deal high damage and never have a drawback.)
It doesn’t matter much which class each character uses. Rikku was my Black Mage (still my favorite class in Final Fantasy—I’m a sucker for magic) for most of the game, and while this class’s effectiveness falls off by the endgame, by that point I had switched her over to a tanky Dark Knight for tougher battles. Paine, a new character and the third party member of this game, was a high damage-dealing melee Warrior for about half the game, again until I unlocked the Dark Knight dressphere. After that, I kept her as a Dark Knight and never looked back—Dark Knights have a ton of HP, especially with an HP boosting item, in addition to high damage, and using them makes most battles a joke. Of course, it helps that I did as many sidequests as I could find at the start of each chapter, which boosted my level far above where it needed to be for the main story content.
Speaking of the story, Spira itself is much the same world as in Final Fantasy X, and most of the pleasure here is visiting the various map locations any time you want, finding new quests, catching up with old friends and adversaries from FFX, and seeing how each location has changed, even if in only minor ways. The sidequests, on the other hand, are hit or miss in a major way. X-2 has a lot of what I call Japanese bullshit. That is, mission objectives tend to be unclear or confusing; it’s often difficult to tell what parts of each map you can climb on or otherwise navigate; several missions have bizarre puzzles that take a lot of experimentation just to understand; and through all of this, there’s a ton of random battles that slow progress to a crawl. The Charm Bangle (which eliminates random encounters) helps to mitigate this, but I wish I didn’t have to keep swapping it on and off one of my party members (usually Paine, since her melee dresspheres don’t need any accessories to be effective) just to progress without going insane from time wasting. All of these problems could be due to some clarity being lost in the English translation, but as I don’t speak Japanese, I don’t know for sure.
This time, Rikku is a real character, although a thin one. Her bubbly personality contrasts well to Yuna’s more serious facade, she contributes ideas and plans that make sense and pan out, and in general I found her much more enjoyable than her appearance in FFX. I mentioned Paine earlier, but there’s little else to say to her. She has very few lines, no personality aside from generic goth bitch, and that’s all the analysis on her I can provide.
Well, I’m done discussing this game. All in all, I spent less time with it than FFX, 32:42 and got 76%, and that’s about all I could stomach. It started off very fun, but around two thirds of the way through, I was getting tired of the aforementioned JRPG bullshit and bizarre mechanics. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as the general online fan reception would have you think, but it’s also not on par with Final Fantasy X except, perhaps, for the dressphere and sidequest systems.
For the final game of my JRPG 2020 Journey, I’ll be discussing Super Paper Mario. I had originally planned to play Persona 3, with Dragon Quest III being a winter bonus game, but finishing up X and X-2 took longer than I’d hoped, and I had already started Super Paper Mario, so a (much) shorter JRPG is in order to close out the year. See you at the end of the month!