Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Miniature Final Fantasy Marathon Begins: Final Fantasy X

So for some odd reason I recently found myself craving an old school, bog standard, Final Fantasy game. But I only had FF XIII on hand and that game is garbage. So I ordered a copy of the FFX remaster and dusted off my PS2 so I could replay FF XII.

I tried restarting where I'd left off over a decade ago in X on my PS2 but the game's menus are garish to the point of being hard to look at now-a-days and the remaster offered a significant graphical upgrade.. Also I'd never given X-2 a try and I'm curious aboutit. Thus far X is the only game I've finished in my mini-marathon of the last 3 Final Fantasy games. I remember getting really far and then quitting out of sheer boredom in the '00s, but until finishing the game I didn't realize just how close I had been. I was basically sitting at the door before the final boss and I was just so sick of playing I shelved it for over a decade. I definitely understand what I was thinking back then as the game is a weird mixture of puzzle game and RPG slog that failed to produce a particularly satisfying gameplay loop for me. Almost every enemy needs to be dealt with by a party member corresponding to one of several attributes (flying, magical, armored, etc.) which leaves most battle more a matter of switching characters in and out to play matchmaker than the more traditional JRPG ethos of hit stuff until it does. In a way I like this system, up until the last quarter of the game random battles are blazingly fast, but they happen often enough that they make even a short trek feel daunting. It's a system I loved in Shin Megami Tensei IV where you can avoid battles to some extent, but I learned to loathe it here simply due to overexposure. The leveling system, the gridsphere, is also ponderously lacking in a sense of reward when slowly traversing it's largely linear pathways. Kimahri is the only character the player has much freedom to build until midway through the game and that leaves him feeling like a bad copy of whomever's path you take him down. By the time you're able to open things up a bit more you'll be too invested to try anything else without a massive amount of grinding being necessary, though the end game sees the gridsphere evolve into something with massive potential for customization. Just like access to the airship's travel system it's something that would have been VERY welcome much earlier on. The actual puzzle sections, the temples, are designed well enough for the time the game was released but I don't find they hold up great these days. I spent a lot of time trying to move pillars but instead running into and around them that left a bitter taste in my mouth every time a temple section popped up.

The story in X is the real meat of the game for me. I barely remembered anything about it but it's largely a treatise on organized religion that's relatively nuanced for an RPG. I say relatively because it's hamfisted enough to have you killing god as usual, but it treats the religious as people with hopes and dreams that were used by the leaders for their own ends. Even the leaders are largely humanized, be it by their vanity, their fear of losing power they'd gained or a desire for vengeance they've all got their reasons for lying to, and to a certain extent using, their followers. It doesn't so much hammer time after time that religion is bad but that it's followed by humans and run by humans who come up with their own explanations for why things are the way there are. It can be equally a force for good or evil. Also god is a large glowing tick that lives in a whale.

The characters... are a mixed bag. I hate Tidus, he's a whiny obnoxious moron and one wonders why he was made the primary protagonist when he's easily the least interesting character. He gets some pathos with the strained relationship he has with his father but it's weak and poorly explained. Really the only thing that makes sense to me is that they had a much more in depth story about his father's abuses and struggles with alcohol but cut most of it to avoid upsetting anyone. Kimahri is a visually interesting character, and he does get a passable story at the very last minute but for 90% of the game he's just a big blue cat monster man who says a handful of words. It feels like a massive waste.  I have much the same quarrel with Auron who gets some really excellent story that comes at the last possible moment leaving him the quiet and detached adult of the party who knows all the answers and isn't sharing until the very end. There's an effectiveness to his story dump but giving us just a little more earlier on would have been greatly beneficial. Lulu is my middle ground, she's got an interesting design to her as a fur clad goth from a tropical climate and it feels natural how she slowly warms up to Tidus's presence whereas Wakka and Yuna's abrupt acceptance of him had me wondering for a while. This is explained well on the part of Wakka, and it's explained early, just a small part of what made him possibly my favorite character in the game. He starts out as something of a religious fanatic teaching his uncomfortable friend who knows nothing of religion to pray and demanding reverence of his customs from someone who clearly doesn't share them, but he's a very nice guy. It was during these moments I saw a lot of myself in Tidus, never knowing quite what to make of religion but wanting to be friends with it's followers all the same. As the game progresses Wakka expresses bigotry, he's disillusioned with the church and finds himself confronting the false basis for hating an entire people and he comes out the other side as a better person for the experience. Of all the characters nobody grows as much as a person as humble Wakka. Also he was my most powerful physical attacker all the way through to the end so I learned to like his weird idle animation where it looks like he's doing a small bit of the dance Travolta does in Pulp Fiction. I'm sorry, I don't know dance names. Yuna, for as boring as she was at the start, really grew on me as the story went on. Her best moments are when she stops being the quiet demure girl who tries to handle everything on her own and branches out, let's other people help her and starts making some demands. At the very end when she tells Tidus she loves him it's a shitty end to a bad love story but it's a great moment of growth where she exposes her humanity and is so much better for it.

Lastly I really feel compelled to note how poorly the animations have aged. For the time it was a nice evolution over what had been seen on the original playstation but compared to XII or other games it all feels very janky and cheap. Motions are awkward and they resume their ideal positions quite awkwardly, everyone moves like a plastic doll and it's just really glaring how bad it is given I've been playing the gorgeously animated XII at the same time.

Overall I'm inclined to think it was kind of a shit game despite somewhat enjoying the opening hours which were so much more impressive back when the game first released, but it makes for a decent anime. I wouldn't recommend playing it over watching a Let's Play of it, but I can think of far worse ways to waste some time. I'm glad I beat it after all these years, it's some closure if nothing else.