Final Fantasy X, a Twenty Year Reunion

Final Fantasy was a formative keystone in my passion for video games. Growing up after the video game crash of 1983, purchasing games at home was a selective process for my parents and, by proxy, myself. I would get one, maybe two new games a year, and each one that I chose had to have a ton of replay value. That’s why I have fond memories of titles like Dragon Warrior (free with Nintendo Power subscription!) and Kabuki Quantum Fighter, although I’ve never met another person who has played this game. The upgrade to the SNES was a major one, especially with a massively replayable title like Super Mario World being available right out of the box, but it was when the Final Fantasy titles started arriving that my eyes got really opened.

I was actively trying to finish my homework as fast as possible to squeak in an hour or less during the weekdays. I was fascinated in finding out the secrets of Cecil and Kain in Final Fantasy IV and used to legitimately do two player mode for Final Fantasy VI when I slept over at friends’ houses. I learned to play Shadow and Celes’ themes on my saxophone by ear. When the PlayStation eventually dropped a Final Fantasy, I thought I was going to drop out of school. I called up my friends at eleven at night to hold up my phone to the television so they could “hear” Sephiroth being defeated (they all called me a liar, which was typical at that time). JRPGs are the bread and butter of my existence, and Final Fantasy is the delicious artisanal loaf that costs so much but is so worth the price.

The assumption that I wouldn’t just say “Sephiroth is your dad” or something is frankly insulting.

But time went on, and I fell out of touch with the games. Final Fantasy VIII was my last full Final Fantasy, and it was sort of a strange game with too much whining and an offbeat approach to magic. Final Fantasy IX barely got a couple hours of play from me due to my part time job and school activities. I didn’t get a PS2 when it launched: I was getting ready for college, and, because I was a video game junkie, I needed to focus on my grades so I could actually get out of my hometown. PlayStation and I kept a very distant relationship after that, as my family and I invested in the Nintendo 64, the Gamecube and beyond.

Oh sure, I played Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, and it was a freaking neat experience with a dorm suite full of nerds with Game Boy Advances, but it clearly wasn’t the same thing. I heard rave reviews about other games on the PlayStation 2 and, eventually, 3, but it never called me back. I’m a Nintendo kid, and I kept investing my time and money into each iteration, no matter how it performed in terms of game available and sales. Even now, amid my new generation consoles, I keep my Wii U warm so that I can revisit the first Splatoon, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Bayonetta 2 whenever I get the urge. It’s a symbiotic relationship, as I’m one of the few people in my new city who even had a Wii U, much less continues to use one.

Then I got a Vita. I was checking the local sales and some dude in Ibaraki wanted to offload his first generation Vita for a paltry sum, and I was intrigued. My wife had a PSP, and I liked the form factor and some of the game library, though I was less interested in Japanese high school simulations than she was (oddly enough). The Vita, I had heard, had a more robust library and better screen, so I took the plunge for a song and picked up the handheld. Besides rocking the classic piano black and a shockingly undamaged screen, it came with one game: Final Fantasy X/X-2.

Here it was. The one that I had totally overlooked due to time, money and just coincidence. I was tangentially aware of Final Fantasy X, having seen several screenshots, heard about Blitzball, and listened to a bit of the soundtrack. I mean, I’ll listen to anything composed by Uematsu Nobuo, the man is a freaking genius. But I still hadn’t really cracked the seal and took the plunge on this enigmatic game, the Final Fantasy that made its mark on the best selling console of all time. So, with the twenty year anniversary of the game looming, why not finally dive in? I’ve got the goods, I’ve got the time (somewhat), and I have the accessibility thanks to the portable nature of the Vita. This was my chance. Let’s play Final Fantasy X!

Me. screaming at my Vita to hurry up and let me play.

Playing Final Fantasy X after being away from the series for so long is like being visited by an estranged relative you haven’t seen in decades. The last time you saw them was a different chapter in their lives, but, for you, you don’t know what’s evolved or been altered since last you met. You remember them being great at telling stories, with beautiful descriptions and characters who you felt deeply connected to and wanted to know more about. Your relative, Final Fantasy X, shows up and they look different.

They’re not as tall as you recall, and they’re dressed differently, somehow both more elegant and shabbier in the same breath. Like they stole a well-used tuxedo from a richer person. They’ve got a wild look in their eyes, but they are genuinely happy to see you. Smiling, albeit uncomfortably, you ask them if they can tell you a story like they used to. Grinning back with a mouth that seems impossibly large, they immediately launch into a new tale to tell, and you can’t help but think: “Oh, no, they’ve gotten heavily into cocaine.”

Final Fantasy X begins with such a wild ride you’d swear that the roller coaster had gone off the tracks seconds after the launch. Trying to follow what’s happening with Titus and Yuna is an utterly insane task that somehow only gets more complicated after the initial shock of watching everything get destroyed, watching Titus get rocketed one thousand years into the future, and then having the entire narrative shift in just under three hours. I played the game all the way through and still needed to go back and consult with some people over at an RPG Discord just to ensure that I totally understood the entire thing.

There are too many moments where important things and unimportant things are spoken about in the same breath. Given that the game is about twenty years old at the time of this write-up, I don’t think I’m going to spoil anything for anyone, but, please be advised, I’m going to spoil this whole thing. Because your dad being the host for the ultimate evil who is literally named Sin is wacky and levels of JRPG nonsense that can barely be tolerated. I mean, I grew up with a game where a dude decides that fucking around with statues to blow up the world is a good idea, and I was totally on board with that. But having these whole tracks of time loops, the ideas of reincarnation and sacrifice being tied to metaphysical magics and corporeal ghosts, and then washing the whole thing down the toilets and putting Titus and Zanarkand in a reality outside of reality for…reasons.

I get why some people hate Final Fantasy X-2, as it’s supposedly goofy and a rare direct sequel for a Final Fantasy game, but who the hell is doing the measuring? Because I just watched the longest experimental student film in my LIFE, and it ended with someone coming up out of the water with zero explanation as to how he got there or what transpired afterwards. It’s Kingdom Hearts levels of disjointed explanation, but there aren’t any Disney characters to justify the insanity.

Hey, cool, they got my dad to do some lines.

Which is such a shame, because there are amazing technical elements of Final Fantasy X that I positively adored. First and foremost, the combat. I had seen Square screwing around with various ideas over the years (Materia, the Draw system) and combat within FFX feels tight and coherent. It’s got some pretty decent QTE moments for special attacks, and seeing OVERKILL when you smash down on enemies is incredibly satisfying.

The enemy variety is decent enough that I wasn’t bored, even doing some classic grinding moments, but Final Fantasy X overcomes those by making sure that you’re constantly engaged with the fights you’re having. Yuna is on point with magic, Auron is often too powerful in a majority of the fights you can actually have him for, and Rikku’s stealing is more pivotal than most games where stealing is a useful combat option.

For most of the game, you keep party members for the duration, swapping them in and out of battle as you’d like, making it possible to have almost everyone participate in a single fight. After years of watching certain companies grind out generic JRPGs through RPG Maker and GameMaker, this was a massive breath of fresh air that didn’t feel like it needed to reinvent the wheel in order to make something fun. It’s honest, tight, enjoyable combat with enough flair to keep you on your toes.

Plus having the summons take over battle was always a freaking ride.

Also, the Sphere Grid was actually really interesting in terms of making calculated risks and movements towards leveling up your characters. Instead of just hoping that EXP was going to give you the needed boost to get over the next hurdle, you can plan out how you’ll progress your character, trying to figure which path you’ll take next. Instead of it being totally open ended like you might with a D&D adjacent game, you have set but open paths as to how the game will progress for each character.

Knowing that Lulu will be able to pick up a new spell or that Kimahri is going to learn Magic Break in another node helps to really shape the game as it’s happening, and also to give you a real feeling of moving forward. Leveling up and getting an extra 10 HP or something often feels flat and minute: having an orb give you a whopping 200 extra HP or add in three defense points is a whole different ball game.

Let’s just leave all our crap here, we’ll pick it up after the cutscene is done.

Speaking of ball games, why the hell does everyone hate Blitzball? Okay, it’s a hokey mini game inside of an RPG: while it was newish at the time of Final Fantasy X’s launch, it wasn’t the first (who didn’t waste time playing Triple Triad?) and it’s definitely not something you NEED to do. Alright, if you want some of those sweet Overdrives for Wakka and to power up his celestial weapon, yea, sure, you gotta go play water soccer.

But it’s little more than a strategic sports game that can take a little time here and there to patch out. If you don’t care about Wakka, just avoid it entirely and move on. This is no more of a time sink than Chocobo Breeding, and, honestly, less important: you can definitely still reach most of the game without caring about Blitzball beyond the initial game that you have to play. I didn’t like it, per say, but I didn’t think it was the worst goddamn thing ever.

The hardest part of the entire Final Fantasy X perspective is just how the graphics and voice acting have aged. There are times where the game looks brilliantly gorgeous and handles magnificently, though many of those really beautiful moments are during fully rendered cutscenes. Plenty of moments happen when hands are floating above what they should be touching, mouths are out of sync with words or the dead eyes of characters are looking generally in a direction, but not really. It’s all forgivable: it’s an aged game, and I can see they were working with what they had at the time.

I mean, as an HD remaster, it’s a little less forgivable, but the graphics have never been my focal point for games. The voice acting, on the other hand, is far less forgivable. We went for years with the cast of Final Fantasy games being silent, and this, unfortunately, is where we decided to open up a whole new can of worms. The result? A whiny protagonist who is already an unhinged basket case (typical in these games) sounds even worse as he stutteringly tries to explain how hard it is to be a Blitzball player, or how he just ejaculates expositional nonsense at all the wrong moments.

When he finds out that Yuna will need to be sacrificed to summon the Final Aeon, it’s so over-the-top it almost feels like Titus is doing an exaggerated impression of himself. This is clearly a category that’s gotten better as time went on, but we already knew what bad voice acting sounded like thanks to Resident Evil: why commit to doing it unless you were certain it would be fantastic?

Don’t touch me. I’m going to do a sequel that’ll put you to shame.

Final Fantasy X is clearly an important game in terms of the franchise, but it might not be for all the right reasons. People lost their minds over the amazing graphics of Final Fantasy VII at the time, but there was also a complex plot that didn’t totally pan out (did we seriously just decimate the planet?) yet was cohesive. With FFX, it’s clear that Square Enix wanted to focus more and more on how the game looked and less on how it actually made sense. I’d like to believe that’s changed, though not before some serious failings on the part of Square Enix.

The misjudgment of what made this title sell gave rise to different conceptions of what should happen for the future of the series. Those sparkling reviews from Famitsu and IGN were for the combat, summons and graphics, but it was only the graphics that got the workup. The disastrously bad release of the Final Fantasy XIII universe almost crippled the series entirely, while Final Fantasy XIV took years upon years to be good, and even now it’s still touch and go. While I never saw what happened in Final Fantasy XII or XIII, Final Fantasy XV was a grand story with great character development and superb graphics, yet the story was wonderful enough that I played it again on the Nintendo Switch as Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition.

Now, I have a fully formed, HD update of Final Fantasy X on the go, and I honestly don’t think I’d play it again. I applaud a lot of the elements of the game: the sphere grid, the expansive world, and the solid combat. The story does get easier to follow, but it never hits a moment where I have a single coherent thought in my head: it always feels like I’m jumping between “huh” moments with cooldown in between. And it sucks, because there are SO MANY cutscenes where you just have to sit back and listen to people talk about their relationships and connections and Sin and Seymour and all that jazz. While I don’t think it’s the worst Final Fantasy game I’ve ever played, I can only say that because All The Bravest is the most insidious cash grab ever manufactured, and it happens to hold the Final Fantasy name. 

Goodbye, integrity! Goodbye! I won’t cry, I promise!

Final Fantasy X has a spot in the history of games, and rightfully so: there’s plenty to appreciate, even if I don’t appreciate it as fully as others. I’m glad that I finally sat down and played it, because it helps to fill in the gaps between what was happening from then (late 90s) and now. I wish I had gotten my hands on a PS2 to really see what the full old style was, but it’s not something I’ll lament about. This has been a very interesting step back to see what I missed, but the message remains clear: amid all the schlock about parents and children, there’s still some batshit JRPG insanity that reminds me why I don’t make as much time for games now as I used to.