Sunday, 28 July 2013

Final Fantasy X (PS2)

Final Fantasy X title
Today I thought I'd take a quick look at Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2 and see what that's all about. Depending on who you talk to it seems to either be the best in the series since FFVII or a complete mess, so I'm curious about which side I'm going to end up on.

Final Fantasy X began development back in 1999, which was a crazy time for the franchise seeing as Square was also simultaneously working on Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy XI as well as the epic (financial) disaster that was the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie. It's real shame that film wasn't put into development just a couple of years later, after the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies brought the fantasy genre into fashion, as we might have actually gotten a proper Final Fantasy movie out of Square Pictures before it vanished. With Chocobos and Black Mages and everything!

Instead the closest we've got is Advent Children and that's just sad.

Final Fantasy X title screen
Wow, that's a bit of a break with tradition. For one thing the older title screens for the SNES and PlayStation games tended not to look like total ass. Though it's nice to see they've added multiple redundancies for the title, in case part of the screen happens to be obscured by a cat sitting in front of the TV or something. So many games just take it for granted that the player will know what they're playing from the title on the box, the title on the disc and the title that flashes up when you put the disc in.

Oh and they've also added a website address! Seems a little strange to me to call the official website 'playonline.com' when the game can't be played online, but I'm sure the main focus of the site was probably the new Final Fantasy XI MMO so I can see the sense in it.

What, no flashy CGI intro sequence? Were all the animators busy working on Spirits Within or something

Final Fantasy X was the point that the series finally dropped the pre-rendered backgrounds that had served it well for the last four years and jumped to full real-time 3D, utilising the extra polygon pushing power of the PlayStation 2. This also seems to be the point that they decided to add voiced dialogue, as one of the characters has just started narrating!
"This may be our last chance."
And that's all he says... then the title appears one final time. So I can confirm that I am indeed playing Final Fantasy X.

Then suddenly I'm in a futuristic city, walking in from a boat. Presumably the majority of the game is a flashback explaining how those seven people came to be sitting around a campfire in awkward silence and why anyone should care.

Here I'm given direct control of our designated hero for this adventure, a famous blitzball player called Tidus, and I'm allowed to walk about 10 meters down a pier before hitting a dead end. It just won't let me off the screen! I guess I'm going to have to start talking to NPCs until I find the right one to trigger the next part of the plot.

Signing a couple of balls did the job in the end and also started an automatic conversation that revealed that I'm kinda supposed to be playing in a professional blitzball match, like right now.

I finally made my escape from the docks, just in the nick of time to overhear some backstory about Tidus's father as it's broadcast throughout the city. This actually works pretty well to quickly establish that his old man was called Jecht, he was a great blitzball player, he vanished ten years ago, and that Tidus has been stuck living in the guy's long shadow. And Tidus's own feelings about his father are made crystal clear just by the expression on his face when he catches a glimpse of his dad peering down at him from a billboard. A bit of a step up from the PlayStation characters, who had their faces painted on and had to do exaggerated gestures to get their feelings across.

You know I bet that bastard Jecht even had someone to drive him the stadium back in his day. Or maybe he just drove there himself in a 500 chocobopower twin-turbo supercar. I'm a celebrity dammit; I shouldn't have to walk all the way to work.

Alright I've finally got Tidus to the stadium and now the CGI video extravaganza can begin! Blitzball seems to play similarly to many other team sports ending in -ball, with players trying to get their 'ball' into a 'goal', except that it takes place entirely inside a giant sphere of water.

Fortunately for the players, breathing seems to be optional for the people on this planet and they're just at home underwater as they are on land. Actually now that I think about it, the characters in Final Fantasy V could do the same thing.


MEANWHILE:



Well this isn't going to end well; the blitzball pitch is going to be flooded!

Look at this guy, he knows you only get one chance to make a first impression so he decided to make his entrance into the game by posing on top of a building and toasting a tsunami with his one good arm while his empty coat sleeve waves dramatically in the wind. Well, it's definitely more impressive than Tidus autographing balls.

Actually, since this is game 10 in the main series, I feel like taking a moment here to look back at all the protagonist introductions I've seen so far:

FINAL FANTASY PROTAGONIST INTRODUCTIONS!

  • FF1: The user-named warrior of light begins his (or her I imagine) quest standing on the overworld in front of the city of Coneria.
  • FF2: Firion starts his adventure getting his ass kicked in an unwinnable fight.
  • FF3: The hero eventually named Luneth enters the game by falling down a hole into a cave.
  • FF4: Cecil begins kitted out in full Dark Knight armour in command of a full airship fleet while having flashbacks to the time he ordered the death of some folks and stole their crystal.
  • FF5: Bartz is just out camping in the woods with his faithful pet chocobo.
  • FF6: Terra wakes up with amnesia, only to learn that she spent last night obliterating all who opposed her with astounding magical powers while under mind control. Then she runs off and falls down a hole and has to be rescued by moogles.
  • FF7: Cloud enters his game by doing a handstand to disembark from the roof of a train, then cuts down some poor innocent guards with a sword taller (and wider) than he is while on his way to blow up a power station.
  • FF8: Squall is introduced in an FMV sequence getting his face sliced open in a training fight by his cheating asshole nemesis, then immediately returns the favour.
  • FF9: Zidane first appears climbing down a pole inside an airship and then stumbles around in a dark room for a bit looking for a candle to light.
  • FF10: Tidus gets up from a campfire, puts his hand on a girl's shoulder, stares off into the distance for a bit, and then reminisces about the time he signed some balls.
Personally I have to give this one to Squall, but then maybe I'm slightly biased as I think FF8's intro is perhaps the finest moment in PlayStation gaming, single-handedly justifying the console's existence. Second place goes to Cloud and I suppose Cecil's introduction would come third. (Feel free to explain why I'm totally wrong in the comments!)

Oh and then the tsunami starts firing off missiles as well, levelling the city of Zanarkand. This is not a good night for blitzball. Not one bit.

Fortunately our hero Tidus survives the destruction of the stadium and meets up with the mysterious rooftop samurai, who turns out to be a friend of his called Auron.

Auron explains that they're being attacked by a sea creature called Sin, and it's spitting out monsters all over the city. Tidus manages to slip onto his ass while panicking, so Auron hands him a sword and then lifts him back to his feet with it.

And then Tidus just slips right back onto his ass. I think we've got a new contender for least competent FF protagonist. To be fair Auron did also mention that it was his father's sword and that alone was probably enough to send the guy off balance.

Anyway, I have finally hit gameplay!

The battle system seems at its core to be basically the same as it ever was, which surprises me a little to be honest. When a character's turn comes up I get to select a single command for them, then everyone stands still to let the enemies beat on them for a while until the next turn comes around.

Though after a run of six games, the Active Time Battle timer system has finally been scrapped, so I have all the time in the world to decide my next move. In practice this actually speeds things up as I don't have to wait for a bar to fill up each turn. They've also added a turn order box on the right to let me know who gets to move next, which reorders itself dynamically depending on how long my select action would take to carry out and recover from. Which seems like a huge improvement to me, as it gives me an idea of how the battle's going to play out, letting me plan my next move.

This time though I think I'm going to go with 'attack'.


AND THEN STUFF HAPPENED.


I fought a few more tutorial battles and then got cutscene'd away to an entirely different set of flooded ruins. So now I have a water level to navigate, which isn't much of a struggle seeing as it's mostly a straight line and I have an objective marker on my minimap.

It's so weird seeing a Final Fantasy character swim though, I don't remember ever being able to do that before.

Whoa, an underwater battle, with a completely new set of attack animations for Tidus. It's nice to finally hit some gameplay that isn't entirely scripted.

And then a giant fish interrupts us halfway through the fight and Tidus has to escape in an exciting cutscene sequence. Oh well, it's probably for the best anyway; I didn't want to have to play through tedious underwater random battles anyway.

Tidus managed to escape into a ruined temple (looking like something ripped straight out of Dark Souls) where he decides that he's going to have to start... a bonfire. Fortunately it's just a plot bonfire, not a Dark Souls respawn bonfire, and there's actually a save point orb here where I can save my game.

It's funny, when I first started playing Final Fantasy games I was frustrated that I wasn't allowed to save any time I felt like, now I'm just grateful that I can activate the save point in the level instead of having to pointlessly open up my menu and select the save option there when I'm standing close. They've broken me down and crushed my fragile spirit.

Anyway, I thought this quest might have led to some gameplay, maybe even a fight or two, but all I had to do was walk up the stairs to grab some bonfire components and then return to the center of the room, where I was rewarded for my participation with a cutscene and a boss encounter.

Oh shit, a Special Forces fashion squad has breached my fortress door and interrupted my boss battle! You know, I'm starting to get the feeling that the developers had absolutely no faith in their gameplay, seeing as they're absolutely determined not to let me finish a single bloody fight.

Tidus gets knocked out with a single punch to the stomach and is dragged to their ship where he finds himself at gunpoint being yelled at in a foreign language. Fortunately the girl who knocked him out is able to speak his language and explains they've got a job for him to do.

I gotta say, I am really impressed with how well these actors are able to say this complete gibberish and make it sound like they mean it. It's a bit of a contrast to the NPCs I met in Zanarkand earlier who had English dialogue but sounded absolutely terrible.

This Al Bhed language is actually just English with its alphabet scrambled, so if you substitute in the correct letters you can make sense of what they're saying. There are 'Al Bhed primers' to collect during the game which replace one letter of the alphabet each, so if a player is diligent and persistent enough to grab them all, eventually they can learn what the gun wielding assholes are yelling at them.

Pointless trivia: indie RPG Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden comes with the option to allegedly play the entire game in Al Bhed. Though if you know or care what that is, you probably knew that already.

Alright, a bit of freedom at last! Oh no, wait, they're just letting me stretch my legs for a second and save my game. There's nothing actually here on this tiny slice of deck but an Al Bhed primer and a save point, and I have to go talking to the characters until one of them triggers the next bit of plot. Again.

Oh by the way I should mention that there's no camera controls that I'm aware of. It just does its own thing as I'm walking around.


ANYWAY, MORE STUFF HAPPENS.


Thank fuck my old buddy Sin the sinister sea creature showed up to save me from those Al Bhed. I don't think I can take having to do another one of their missions if they're all going involve swimming around a painfully slow underwater dungeon with nothing in it.

Anyway take a glance up there at my minimap for a second, that's a wide open area that is; full of opportunity and possibilities. I think I might have actually washed ashore on the Island of Gameplay.

Of course there was actually nowhere to go and nothing to do. Instead I was dragged into another cutscene where Tidus tries to impress some local blitzball players by bragging about being a star player for the Zanarkand Abes. But that doesn't go over so well as Zanarkand was destroyed by Sin a thousand years ago and the ruins are now a holy place. Which kinda sucks as it means that we've apparently fallen through a time portal at some point and even if we could get back, there's nothing left to go back to.

Fortunately the friendly blitzball players just dismiss Tidus's bragging as the ramblings of a man driven half mad by Sin's toxin and the leader, a guy called Wakka, offers to help him out.

And then about ten steps down the path Wakka literally shoves Tidus off a cliff into another water level. I knew I shouldn't have trusted a man with the name of an Animanics character and the voice of Bender.

Fortunately there were a few enemies underwater (I can't believe this game has made me desperate for random encounters), so I was able to level up my characters a bit.

To level up a character in Final Fantasy X you use a new system called the Sphere Grid, moving around from node to adjacent node on a board representing a character's potential growth, unlocking their bonuses as you go. I can move one node forward around the board for every Sphere Level I've earned in combat, but I have to unlock adjacent nodes using the appropriate Ability Spheres (also earned in combat) to acquire the upgrades.

The thing is, the grid doesn't just unlock new skills and magic, it affects what attribute points you get as well, giving the player the ability to fine tune every aspect of their character's development. Well, in theory anyway.

When it comes down to it though, this is basically the shape of the path ahead of me, with the red nodes marking paths blocked off with a lock. So assuming the game isn't going to be handing out keys for those locks during the first few hours of the game (or else why even have locks), that means I get a choice to visit a short side path every... 15 upgrades or so. That's with Tidus anyway, for all I know the others will actually have choices to make.

But to be honest, I don't really want to make choices here. Because the Sphere Grid is such a pain in the ass to examine that it seems deliberately designed to discourage forward planning. There's no simple way to see at a glance what you're going to get if you choose a different path, just lots of faded cryptic icons.

I finally made it down the river to a town at last, it's a miracle! And so the game finally begins. Except all the shops are unmarked (assuming that there even are shops here), and this bastard won't let me leave as 'I should be praying'.

Again I've been trapped in a tiny area just big enough for me to stretch my legs and chat to a couple of NPCs before the next cutscene starts. I'm trying to keep playing long enough to give the game a proper chance, but it seems like this intro section is going to drag on forever. I'm actually starting to worry that this is it; that this it's all it's going to be like until the end of the game: cutscene, stretch my legs, cutscene, scripted battle, cutscene, stretch my legs, cutscene...


30 SECONDS LATER.


Oh hang on, I've actually been allowed to do something myself here. I took the 'praying comment' earlier as a clue that I was meant to visit the temple and here I found myself in a puzzle dungeon where I have to carry spheres across from door to door to activate machinery. Wait a second, this is a temple for a religion that believes machinery is evil so why... never mind, I don't even care.

It's not really a puzzle, more like a 'figure out what ball it wants me to put in the slot' trial and error minigame. Man, it seems that everything in this game is about balls or water, or both.

Inside the temple Tidus eventually found... the summoner girl you can see around the campfire in the intro cutscene, who thanks him for breaking in and being no help at all. Of course Yuna is really hot and so Tidus falls for her immediately, leading to a dream later that night where his subconscious tries to deal with the fact that he's fallen for the Al Bhed girl who punched him in the stomach as well.

It's not the first dream sequence in the game so far (Tidus gets knocked out a lot), but it's easily the best as it introduces...

... Tidus's father Jecht! Who then immediately steals away both of Tidus's potential love interests and then mocks him when he gets upset about it!

And Tidus is reduced to a whining angsty seven year old again. Gonna cry again Tidus? Cry, cry.

This isn't the first Final Fantasy to try exploring the protagonist's childhood and their issues, it's been going on since the SNES era (and was turned up to 11 in Final Fantasy VII), but the voice acting and relatively detailed character models bring a new level of nuance and sophistication to it. It really helps when the characters can emote.

Completing the 'sit and wait for the dream sequence to end' quest earned me a new sword! I can only equip two pieces of gear in this, which is a bit of a let down after FFIX, and they don't even have stats. Instead they have different abilities, like 'Strength +5%' in this case, which are only active when the weapon is equipped. On the plus side I can swap out equipment mid-fight to fine tune my set up for each encounter.

Man, look at that menu; you can barely even tell it's from a Final Fantasy game.

Final Fantasy X map
Anyway now all that business is concluded I'm finally free to travel the world! Well, free to walk down the road to a dock anyway, accompanying Wakka and the rest of the summoner's guardians as they travel to catch a boat.

Yuna is travelling to temples around the world on a mysterious pilgrimage you see (well mysterious to Tidus anyway, and only because people assume he must already know), and Tidus is tagging along in the hopes of running into Sin and getting back home, or at least finding a blitzball match he can join in with.

And so my quest finally begins in earnest.

Actually no this is basically just a straight road to the docks with tutorial battles popping up every few steps like land mines.

It's nice that the fights more or less take place on the field now, instead of dragging me off into a separate 3D polygon battle dimension like the PSX games. Though the unfortunate side effect is that it seems even more ridiculous when I run into an invisible enemy trigger, a cool transition effect shatters the screen, and then a line of monsters appears across the road. The more realistic the graphics, the more this stuff stands out as being unrealistic.

Today's lesson is that some enemies are weak against certain types of magic, as demonstrated by my team's black mage and avid belt collector Lulu. Wait, is she carrying a stuffed moogle doll? Well I suppose it could be worse, she could be throwing a blitzball at enemies. That would be absolutely insane.

You know Wakka, I can forgive Tidus for sticking with his groundbreakingly ridiculous outfit considering that his wardrobe was destroyed by an Eldritch Abomination a thousand years ago, but you have no excuse for going into battle with dressed like that. Man, this would have been the perfect time to introduce visible armour into the series, if just to save the characters from their own fashion sense.


WALK, FIGHT, WALK, FIGHT, WALK, FIGHT LATER.


Reaching the boat rewarded me with a chance to walk around a small bit of deck and chat to NPCs until I'd found and spoken to the right one to unlock the next cutscene. I'm definitely starting to spot a pattern there.

Yuna reveals that she believes that Tidus actually is a blitzball player from a thousand years in the past, because she had actually met another person from Zanarkand ten years ago: a blitzball player called... Jecht.

I think he takes the news pretty well considering. He doesn't even scream "I HATE HIM!" then run away to cry.

And then it's right into boss battle time again. Actually I'm not sure this even counts as a boss battle anymore, seeing as almost every fight in the game has been like this so far. Oh wait, never mind, it actually says 'Boss' on the turn list.

The trouble I'm having here is that the boss is all the way over there in the background, tethered to the boat with a harpoon cable, and my current team aren't so good at hitting things at a distance. Fortunately I can swap out characters mid-fight to bring in Wakka and Lulu without even losing a turn. I'm not generally a fan of huge parties in these kinds of games, but that's a feature that actually kinds of justifies it. This battle system really does seem like a step up for the series.

There's not much point in me describing how the fight played out though (I chose 'attack' a lot).


TWO BOSS FIGHTS IN A ROW LATER.


With the crisis resolved we disembarked at our destination only to find that Sin had gone and wrecked the place. The game graciously allowed me to walk a few steps forward and save the game, and then we got right back to the cutscenes as Yuna performs a ritual to help the spirits of the dead find peace in the afterlife. Hey, she's doing the dance from the background of the logo!

Well I think I've seen enough of this know to get a good impression of how it'll continue from here, so I'm turning it off now.


Final Fantasy X has got me wondering what exactly it is about the Final Fantasy franchise that appeals to me. Because the game has a reasonable storyline, likeable characters, one of the best battle systems in the series, and incredibly impressive cutscenes; all the ingredients of a good Final Fantasy game, and yet I keep waiting for it to start. I do appreciate story in an RPG, I think the games would seem pretty empty and meaningless without one, but when it comes down to it, Final Fantasy for me is about getting a team together, going exploring, getting stuff done, building up my skills, then dragging my weary crew back to town to spend my coin on rest and shinier swords. You know... playing a game.

This on the other hand is so restrictive so far they might as well have taken out the walking sections out entirely and just had cutscenes and battles. I honestly think that could be an improvement over the game as it is, because so far I've been lucky to make it across a screen or two before hitting another dialogue scene or battle and it just makes me wonder why they bothered letting me walk in the first place.

I think FFX should be judged more on its story than its gameplay, as that seems to be the main focus of the game, and I have to say that it's just not grabbing me. The idea of a famous athlete trapped in a fantasy world sounds like it's straight from a terrible comedy movie, but thankfully it's played pretty straight. It's just laid back to the point where it's sending me to sleep. Honestly I think I'd rather put my Spirits Within DVD on instead.

Also Tidus has dumb looking trousers. No gold star for you!


Well that's what I think about Final Fantasy X anyway, but it's always cool to hear what you think about a game, or what you think about what I thought about a game, or about my site in general.

2 comments:

  1. The surprising part is that after half game hearing about blitzball you discover that you can play it XD

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And it's not as awesome as the game makes it out to be...

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