Review by DDJ
"Tidus was right: this is his story, not a history"
There are some people that give low ratings to popular games solely to be controversial, or to somehow attempt to purvey an image of having a heightened, more refined and cultured eye for video games, and thus the ability to distinguish between the really great games and those that you stupid blind masses seem to enjoy.
My goal for this review is to convince you that I'm really not one of those people. I've got some legitimate quarrels with this game that I think really impact its overall quality, and I think its popularity is largely due to these problems being overshadowed by some more visible, accessible -- or in many cases, simply later -- features. Put more simply, the last two hours of the game are really strong, and most people don't even begin to write their reviews until the end, so the impression is more positive; this review, though, was written throughout my play through the game.
Granted, I'm not exactly ripping the game apart. I'm not crazy enough to give a game this good anything below a 5, but even the 6 I'm pinning on it is notably below the average score it garners, with an average rating of 8.8 and only 12 of its 150+ reviews daring to give it as low as a 6 (or lower -- a 2/10? Seriously?).
My intent had been to review Final Fantasy X according to my standard "The Good, The Bad, The Verdict" method, but that's exactly the problem with the game -- there's really no aspect of the game that's bad. The problem is that almost every single good aspect of the game has one terrible flaw in it -- not bad enough to make the feature itself a negative, but enough that the feature leaves the player distinctly wanting for more.
So rather than looking at the good and the bad of the game, we're going to look at the good-buts; things that were really good in the game, but that have an annoying 'but' attached to the end. You'll catch on. And one other note: as with all my reviews for games that are more than a few years old, this review makes no claims to being spoiler-free. In spirit, it's more of an analysis of the game than simply a review, so there will be spoilers.
We'll start off with a pretty easy one: the graphical element of the game, from the regular world view to the battle screen to the FMVs. When I refer to 'graphics', I don't solely mean the images themselves -- I also mean how they're used, including camera angles, stylistic choices, etc. -- anything that plays into the visual appearance of the game.
It's good because..., well, look at them. They're gorgeous. The game uses the PlayStation 2's new technology the same way Final Fantasy VII used the PlayStation's. Where that installment really took RPGs into the realm of accessing 3D in any way, Final Fantasy X took them to the point of using 3D for everything. Fully explorable worlds, multidimensional areas, a truly moving (not just scrolling) camera -- all were relatively new innovations supplied by Final Fantasy X. In some ways, most PlayStation-era RPGs were 2.5D, not truly 3D -- 3D images rendered in a 2D way.
It's not just about the technology, though -- plenty of games are made for the PlayStation 2, so why is Final Fantasy X any different? It's also about the applications of the technology. The camera especially sticks out as an example of what I'm getting at here -- the camera moves and pans and zooms and everything to make the game a truly cinematic experience. The 3D layout of the entire game world means that it takes a step away from a game and towards a movie; rather than creating a visual appearance, you actually create a world and simply situate a camera within that world. The product is a game that appears much more multi-dimensional, immersive, and flat-out real.
But the problem is... that the developers fell way too in love with the camera, especially in the early parts of the game. Along with voice acting (which we'll get to later), the developers had multiple tools at their disposal to make the game-playing experience much more cinematic and movie-like. Scenes could be constructed where, like a movie, the camera shifts from character to character. The inclusion of voice clips means that it no longer has to be structured to allow room and time to read those pesky text boxes, and real voices can be added in without having to over-play dialects and slang just to get a character's personality across (I'm looking at you, Barret). In every way, the new technologies make the game creation experience much more movie-like -- great, right?
In some ways, yes, but not when you lose sight of the fact that as much as you can make the game look like a movie, it isn't one, and it shouldn't be either. We play games to play them, and when I drop the controller and start playing Solitaire on my computer because the scenes are taking so long, the cinematic nature has been over done. Keep the game moving, keep the player playing, and develop the plot as we go along -- this isn't Xenosaga, we shouldn't need to stop the action to develop the plot. I'll qualify this point by saying, though, that this protest does fade as the game continues -- it's especially the early part of the game that is far too scene-laden.
If you've got Nobuo Uematsu composing, there can't possibly be anything to complain about, right? Maybe, maybe not. Audio, to me, encompasses multiple elements: the most important one for games like this is the music, though sound effects and voice acting play a role, too (though I'll deal with the latter under the Characters section).
It's good because... the music, like the graphics, is absolutely beautiful. The quality is incredible, the simplicity some parts and complexity in other parts is extremely fitting, and in most places there's an adequate willingness to shift from the norm musically. It's not simply about the songs themselves being pleasant -- in most cases, they match the on-screen developments or environment quite well. They build suspense where suspense is needed, they invoke nostalgia when nostalgia is needed, and they set the stage for strong shifts in mood when such shifts would otherwise blindside the player and completely take them out of the game world. And with the world appearing so visually separate from any other RPG world yet created -- medieval yet futuristic, fantasy stylization with plenty of realism -- the willingness and tendency to use many instruments that are not often heard, especially to augment the aquatic motif, is great.
The sound effects, too, are quite well done. Everyone loves a nice running sound effect, but the in-battle effects are especially notable. Stronger spells have and will always be accompanied by more visibly powerful animations, but to a large extent those have hit a limit: we've seen everything from Sephiroth's Super Nova to Eden's attack to Anima's Overdrive, and we've been inoculated against being impacted by the over-the-top, stylized attack depictions. But the sound picks up the slack -- with the perfectly timed and sharper audio that goes with more powerful actions, Firaga actually feels stronger than Fira; Anima's Overdrive punches actually sound like hard-hitting, damaging punches; and critical hits, especially, really feel like critical hits, as the extra "umph" that goes with the sound effect really suggests a deeper slice or harder hit.
But the problem is... two-fold. For the sound effects, I don't have anything to comment on -- they're brilliant. But musically, the game suffers from two shortcomings. Neither are terribly major, but both are notable. First of all, there is at times a blatant lack of originality on the part of some musical pieces. Don't get me wrong -- it's not common by any means. 95% of the game's music is completely original and unique to the world of Final Fantasy X. But there are notable instances where the music shifts to something extremely familiar, to the point of taking the player out of the game by their recollection of the music's similarity to a past piece. Throughout playing, I jotted down three examples of this: first of all, the music in most of the Cloisters in the world matches the music from Final Fantasy VII's Temple of the Ancients far too closely. It's almost impossible to wander those halls without picturing purple blobs bouncing around and offering to heal you. The nostalgic music used at times (not the more common piece, but the less frequently-used piece) matches the nostalgic music from Final Fantasy VII as well (though apologies for not remembering either piece's name). Finally, this last one might be nit-picking, but the time it occurs is terrible: the final few bars of the song that plays right before the credits start to role echo the final bars of the chorus of Eyes on Me from Final Fantasy VIII. Yes, it's only a momentary similarity, but the timing couldn't be worse -- right after Yuna's moving speech, I shouldn't immediately think about Rinoa. It just takes you completely out of the game.
The second problem is the frequency with which some songs are used. A good use of music has the same songs cropping up just often enough to draw a connection between certain events in the game, to alert the player of an underlying pattern or preempt an important event. An excellent example of this is in Final Fantasy VIII -- the music player when a sorceress appears is used just rarely enough to really set the mood and tone, as well as mentally prepare the player to witness an important scene. Final Fantasy X misses the mark terribly in this regard -- the two or three most common musical tracks in the game (what I would call the theme that plays over the final The End screen, the hymn of the fayth, and a few others) are used so frequently that they draw no kind of connection with the player -- they are simply "the music of Final Fantasy X". They largely fail to set the stage, to signal important events or anything else that recurring music should be used for. They set a tone, as any music does, but little more than that.
The Sphere Grid
By now Square has a reputation for creating new and innovative battle equipment systems. Just looking at the PlayStation era and onwards, we have the Materia system, the Draw system, the License Grid, and this: the Sphere Grid system. But underneath its attractive and very
It's good because... it's an incredibly unique, original, and very tangible level-up system. It breaks away from many, many of the norms -- there are no more level counters or stats that you never pay attention to, and level grinding (while completely unnecessary) takes on a much more accessible meaning. When you level up, you're immediately aware exactly what the impact of your levelling was. You can set sights on actual goals, and attain them. There's an element of permanence in that characters learn skills forever, so unlike some systems in the past it's much more about developing your characters and less about customizing them.
And unlike many RPGs, there is a definite somewhat-enforced class system in the game. Yuna is naturally a white mage; Lulu, a black mage; Rikku, a thief; and so on. There is no more of the Final Fantasy VII problem of every character being more or less equal at every "job" -- or worse, a completely absence of jobs altogether. Characters do play their own roles in Final Fantasy X, and forcing a character out of its role is typically not easy. This impacts more than just the battle system: it impacts the depth and strategy of the game as a whole. You can't completely de- and re-equip to prepare for a particular boss; your characters' skills are what they are. It also has an underlying and less obvious impact on the game's narrative as a whole: refer back to Final Fantasy VII again. Cid's a rugged, cursing, masculine pseudo-war veteran -- and yet you can make him into a magic-casting white mage? That has a negative impact on his character out in the rest of the narrative. By matching characters' classes with their personalities and game roles, their position in the game is reinforced.
But the problem is... two-fold, again. There are two major problems with the Sphere Grid system, and while most will not be apparent to the majority of the players, they have an underlying impact that really negatively affects the game.
First of all, while it's good that there's a somewhat-enforced class system in the game, Final Fantasy X actually goes too far away from the Final Fantasy VII problem of classlessness and over-enforces those classes. Aside from the early decision made regarding whose path to send Kimahri down, there is no customization whatsoever. Each character has their own path -- deviations are technically possible, but are not plausible. There's not a place on the normal course of any character's path where it's truly viable to veer off their own path -- the option is there, sure, but at a steep cost to the character. To put it in concrete terms, Lulu's path allows you to veer off and follow Wakka's about halfway through. ...who the heck is going to do that? The system is essentially completely linear. At a truly practical, mathematical level, it's actually no different than a standard level-up scheme -- traditionally, you gain a level and your stats go up or you learn new skills; here, you gain a level, move a spot on the Sphere Grid, and use a sphere to activate a node that, once again, raises your stats or gives you a new skill. There's no practical difference between the level-up system of Final Fantasy X and that of Pokemon.
I'll pause here a minute and take care of an apparently contradiction in my review. What I just said boils down to "it's good because characters have classes, but it's bad because characters have classes." How does that make sense? The only way I can explain it is to define two problems, and show a system that solves both. The problems are: the game needs to give characters classes that reflect their narrative role, but still needs to allow the player some customization opportunities. Now, take Kimahri -- based on the layout of the Sphere Grid, he can easily become a brute-force fighter (Auron's path), a nimble fighter (Tidus's path), a mage, or any other class. Imagine if every character's grid was laid out like that -- not such that every character can choose from every path, but so there are options for each character. Give Tidus Rikku's 'thief' option; give Rikku Tidus's 'time mage' option. Let Lulu choose between different types of classic mages from games past. Give Yuna more distinct 'white mage' and 'summoner'-style paths. The point is, options can be provided where all options still fit in with the game's overall narrative.
The second problem is a lack of balance on the Sphere Grid's part, in more ways than one. I've always admired game developers' abilities to ensure they provide enough experience throughout the game and raise the enemies' strength evenly such that the game always prevents a somewhat constant challenge. It seems trivial, but really, how do you make sure your final boss is of a strength that's challenging to a player who's fought thousands of battles over the course of the game? How do you predict their strength and accommodate accordingly, without using a dynamic system like Final Fantasy VIII's? In the case of Final Fantasy X, the answer is simple: they don't. During the course of my completely normal play through the game, my characters ended up levelled up so high that I took out Omega Weapon in under a minute. I'm not trying to brag, I know people have taken him out in a single shot -- my point is that as one of the big secret bosses, the spiritual successor of Emerald WEAPON, Omega Weapon and Ozma, the game's normal levelling process should not make you strong enough to completely annihilate him. And yes, I'm aware that the Monster Arena provides much harder bosses -- but Omega Weapon is still an optional boss intended to test your strength, and it does not. And while I'm also aware that final bosses are notoriously too easy, I can't think of any that compare to the final boss's inability to even take a turn before being destroyed in my game. Again, I'm not trying to brag about how awesome I am at this game -- my point is precisely that anyone could have had just as easy a time as I did.
...And Other Systems
I considered merging this section with the above, but there was too much to say about the Sphere Grid to take away from this category. While the Sphere Grid system will likely take far more of your attention than any other system in the game, there are several others that deserve attention and analysis.
It's good because... as I've sworn by before (and will later in this review), one secret to game success is to ensure varied game play. To much of any one kind of repetitive task does get irritatingly redundant after any long period of time, so the truly great games strike an excellent variance in gameplay styles. You'll switch between battling to a mini-event, then to a puzzle, then to plot progression, then to character customization, then to shop exploring, then to sidequests, and so on. You're not stuck doing any one thing for too long. The presence of so many systems itself is a negative (as I'll mention in a moment), but it reflects this varied gameplay. But I have an entire section dedicated to varied gameplay later in the review, so we'll pass that for now.
The other positive part about all these systems is that, for the most part, each system is itself rather good. The customization of equipment by using rare items to add abilities, for example, is itself a great, deep system. The aeons learning skills adds another new dimension to their role in battles, making them a viable frequent tool rather than a super-powered summon saved only for boss battles. And Blitzball is likely one of the deepest minigames of all time.
But the problem is... that there are just so many of them. Honestly, let's look at all the systems in the game. By 'system', I mean any element of the game where it is beneficial to at least have some basic understanding of how to get the most out of the process. There's obviously the Sphere Grid (which I would say is really two systems -- long-term progression and using the rare spheres), but what else? Equipment customization. Aeon skill customization. Aeon stats customization. Blitzball skills and strategy. The monster arena. Yojimbo's attacks. The Magus Sisters' attacks. The Cloister puzzles. Overdrive modes. The overdrives themselves, which differ for every character. Quite simply, it's just too much of a cognitive load to handle. There's too much going on in the game, and it's all far too different.
This isn't meant to just be mindless whining about how hard elements of the game are to understand, though -- far from it. If it was simply a matter of taking more effort, that would be fine. But the result is something far more negative -- except the most advanced players, I predict players in general will neglect some systems in favor of others. It's just natural -- when there's too much of a cognitive workload going on, it's common to dismiss some elements that are deemed less important. In this case, the victims are the equipment and aeon customizations -- I don't believe for a moment that most players play with the items they need for customization constantly in mind. The Sphere Grid dominates far too much and is far more visible, and thus keeps these more minor elements suppressed. But these "minor" elements aren't minor at all -- the game's best skills don't come from the Sphere Grid, but from equipment customization. But it's overshadowed so much by the Sphere Grid and other systems that most players miss out on it.
The battle system I separate from the sphere grid and other equipment systems because many features are very discretely restricted to the time between the glass shattering and the spoils of battle. Some of the greatest graphical advancements in the game come in this realm, but there's a lot more to the battle system than just that.
It's good because... it's a far more flexible battle system than any we've seen in the past. RPGs in the past were constrained to a very concrete, structured us-vs.-them Our guys are on one side, theirs are on the other -- run over and attack, take turns, and eventually someone wins. A boss battle plays very much like any other random encounter.
In Final Fantasy X, the battles add an incredible degree of flexibility. Characters in many instances actually move forward to get closer to enemies, or around to the side to pseudo-surround them. Enemies are replaced by other enemies during some sequences, forming a more cohesive, ongoing battle sequence. The various types of battles are great as well, such as the battles on the airship platform against Sin and Evrae, and the six-platform battle in the temple in Zanarkand.
The battle-situated sound bytes also add an incredible amount of cohesiveness to the game as a whole. When characters actually comment on using a new spell or make actually mention some characteristic of the enemy, it makes the battle characters feel closer to the narrative characters outside the battle screen. The culmination of these, in my opinion, comes in summoning Anime during the final battle with Seymour -- he actually comments on the summoning. Not doing so would make absolutely no sense, but most other RPGs would not support such references.
Other common conventions that Final Fantasy X breaks with positive results include the standard caps on HP, MP and damage inflicted, the ability to sub people in and out of battle, and the absence of straight-out stat increases from weapon and armor purchases. It's also notable that Final Fantasy X took what appears to be a step backwards in backing away from active-time battles, but the turn-based results are quite good, leading to a far more strategic, thoughtful battle progression.
But the problem is... in another good feature -- the ability to substitute characters in and out of battle. The feature itself is good; it allows more strategic usage of individual characters and roles, and ensures that you can level all the different classes without much extra effort, avoiding finding yourself trapped because you chose the wrong characters to use early in the game.
But there's a big problem with this system. Here's the conflict: on the one hand, it is always beneficial to sub more characters into battle. The total experience gained isn't distributed across all the characters, so any battle that doesn't have all the characters see action is a battle where some possible experience is missed out on. So, the logical course of action is to make sure all characters participate in every battle. On the other hand, though, most battles can be resolved in under seven turns -- so in order to pursue that "best course of action", you're forced to intentionally handicap yourself to keep the battle going until all seven characters have joined in. That can get really old, and while it's not necessary, it's always more lucrative.
If you've read my reviews before, you know I swear by varied gameplay. Varied gameplay essentially means that you're never doing the exact same task for too long at a time except by choice. Multiplayer play is excluded from this for other reasons, but with respect to single-player modes, no modern game can succeed without varying the types of gameplay the player engages in.
It's good because... Final Fantasy X succeeds in providing lots of different gameplay styles. At varying points in the game, you'll fight through a dungeon, witness a plot event, customize your players' equipment, advance their Sphere Grids, play one of many minigames, pursue several sidequests, collect items, solve puzzles, and any number of other tasks. Put simply, Final Fantasy X provides plenty of games in one.
But the problem is... the game does not alternate between the different styles nearly often enough. It's almost comical, really. At one point, you'll spend basically 20 minutes watching one scene after the other (and not toward the end, where that's acceptable). At another, a single non-optional area takes an hour to move through, with no save points along the way. The provided minigames are nice, but a single game of Blitzball for example takes around ten minutes all things considered. And don't even get me started about the half-hour-long Cloister puzzles. Overall, the point is that the gameplay doesn't alter its general style often enough, and so the game has a strong tendency to become plodding and annoying.
I've seen a lot of odd criticisms of the characters of Final Fantasy X before. It actually surprises me a lot -- in my eyes, the characters are a good bit deeper than most video game characters.
It's good because... it's surprisingly deep and varied, and has the perfect number of supporting characters -- there aren't so many that the player forgets who many are, but there aren't so few that the game feels too small and insignificant.
Among the main characters, the designers use classic archetypes quite effectively to form very accessible characters early on. From just the very beginning, one can easily identify Yuna as the quiet supportive character, Tidus as the brash youth, Auron as the wise sage and so on. These characters also break character at the perfect times in order to emphasize the significance of certain developments, such as Lulu with Yunalesca and the overall change between Auron's past and current selves. And as important as anything, the characters' battle identities -- largely separate from characters' narrative identities in other RPGs -- reflect their actual personalities.
The supporting cast is excellent as well. The game does an excellent job of recognizing that the limited screen time afforded to the supporting cast inherently means that less development can happen with them -- but at the same time, it still includes adequate character development to make them believable. sure, some developments are unbelievable -- Isaaru attacking Yuna, for example -- but on the whole the supporting cast is expressed quite well.
But the problem is... the voice acting. It's been blasted before by many others, so I won't dwell on it too much, but the voice acting in several places (take note: not in all places, just in several places) is absolutely terrible. The shame in it is that it seems that the more rarely a character is heard, the better their voice acting is. Jecht, the various other summoners and Seymour are all fantastically portrayed. Wakka, Lulu, Kimahri, and Rikku are all good. But Yuna and Tidus? Ack. Terrible. The problem is especially with Tidus's voice -- it's shrill, obnoxious and overall suggests that the voice actor was not given the motivation behind many lines: instead, he was just locked in a room and told to read a script. The true 'acting' element of the role is largely ignored, to the detriment of Tidus's character as a whole. It's been pointed out that the voice does match the character, and I'll concur with that; however, the matching is more that of a caricature. The voice takes Tidus's character elements and blows them up to absurd proportions. The slightly immature, impulsive teenager becomes an over-the-top ticking time bomb of emotion. And while some have attributed the voice acting problems to a need to sync with the visual lips, that syncing failed so badly that if they really were attempting to, it's impossible to tell except in the most rudimentary of ways.
Oh, the plot. That's important, isn't it?
It's good because... of the ending. Not just the part after the final battle or anything, but building from Bevelle onwards to the end. The subtle alterations in the expected plot sequence are very strong, the overall emotion invoked is excellent, and overall the falling action of the game finally brings the plot around. But that's pretty much it, in my opinion.
But the problem is... the rest of it. The first 3/4ths of the game are terrible, plot-wise. There are multiple problems with the first majority of the plot, some of which are simply my opinion and others which I daresay are actually factual. First, my opinions. In the first part of the plot, there is far, far too little actual information provided to the player. General characters and a framework are set up -- difficult for any game as unconventional as Final Fantasy X -- but other than that there are very, very few actual plot developments. This touches on my opinion that part of the game's plot weakness is that it leaves far, far, far too much mysteries unsolved, but that's such a substantial item that I'm reserving an entire category for it later in this review.
The more factual criticism I have on the game is that it suffers from a terrible, terrible lack of progress indicators. In my opinion, slightly less important than varied gameplay is a true feeling of progress through the game. One has to consistently feel like they're not only advancing toward a goal, but that they know where they stand in relation to that goal. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a great example of this; there is a discrete number of temples to visit before the game is complete, and the player is constantly aware of how many they have left to do. They understand their position in relation to the overall plot.
Final Fantasy X outright fails at this. While the player is aware that they're progressing through some plot (visiting temples, new areas, etc.), there are no markers of that progress in relation to some broader whole. There's no way of knowing how far one has come, and how far one has left to go. Aside from Zanarkand, you don't hear about any locations until you're on your way there, and thus the world is communicated from a very egocentric point of view -- it feels like a plot, not a world.
The biggest problem with this, though, isn't just that the game fails to provide these progress markers -- it's how bloody easy it would have been. Certain plots simply don't lend themselves to progress markers: take Final Fantasy VII for instance. Because the direction of the plot develops as the plot goes on (that is, at the beginning, the characters don't have much of a plan), providing plot markers is more difficult. For Final Fantasy X, it would have been easy as anything: just tell the player how many total temples there are. That's all it would have taken. That way, the player would actually have a sense of "I've finished four of six temples, I must be approaching the ending". But instead, upon completing the Cloister in Bevelle, the player is suddenly struck by "oh, I'm almost done? Weird."
The plot also provides a few things I just have to take a moment to rant about. The Sphere Grid: it has absolutely no plot relevance. It's completely unexplained where this grid exists and why it impacts the characters. Not even an unsatisfactory half-answer like "wisdom of the Ancients" or "they're trained to draw magic at the gardens" is provided. The Cloisters: why in the world would someone build elaborate puzzles like that? And how does Yuna always seem to just float past it while Tidus has to run around like a fool moving random spheres around? The final battle: why the heck is auto-life automatically in effect the whole time? The battle would have been pretty cool if you could, you know, lose, but because auto-life is always in effect, it comes across as a formality and a chore to complete. The ending: it's sad. Sad endings are ok for short stories and smaller novels, but if I've spent 50 hours going through a plot, I want a happy ending dang it. Seymour: what relevance did he actually have to the plot? As far as I can see, the entire plot of Final Fantasy X could have easily existed without him entirely. He serves no purpose, which is even worse because his motive is completely unbelievable. Alright, rant over.
Spira & its Mysteries
Finally we get to the big boy -- my main element of both praise and scorn for this game. The game creates one of the most cohesive, distinctive worlds yet scene in a Final Fantasy game. Whereas most other game worlds bear notable similarity to planet earth, Spira is different in every feasible, realistic way. But there are some mysteries of Spira that are simply never answered.
It's good because..., like I just said, Final Fantasy X creates one of the most unique, cohesive game worlds ever seen in video games. It strikes a perfect balance between several different elements. Unlike earlier Final Fantasy games, it is not too earth-like -- it definitely has a fantasy feel to it, stretching every aspect. But it isn't like Skies of Arcadia or Baten Kaitos (two of my favorites, though they are) or other games, where the world is so un-earth-like that it can't tap into any true feeling of realism. It strikes that balance perfectly, and creates a game world that is certainly separate and apart from our own, but still feels like we could live in it.
Part of the way the game achieves this is through being, in my opinion, the single greatest game in history at one thing: themes and motifs. If I was crazy enough to write one of those silly Top 10 lists (yeah, right), it would be the Top 10 motifs in gaming, and Final Fantasy X would rank #1. For the literarily challenged among us, a motif is a recurring thematic element that draws a connection between various aspects of the game. Final Fantasy X has two incredibly pervasive ones: water and spheres. Spira is basically an aquatic civilization -- you notice that most of the cities lie on the water, their main sport involves the water, and basically every relevant location in the game comes back to water. It's so pervasive that three game characters have to be able to swim just to get through the game.
But the more significant motif in the game is spheres. Spheres are everywhere -- the Sphere Grid, Cloister puzzles, and blitzball are among the more obvious ones. But it goes much, much further than that. Look at the buildings in every town. The prayer rooms in every Cloister. The airship. Bahamut. All of Seymour's later forms. The path to Omega. The path to the final battle. Basically the entire game is a giant circle or sphere. Everything comes back to this one shape, and it's this that ties the game together visually better than anything else ever could.
But the problem is... huge. Really, this to me is the one fatal flaw in Final Fantasy X. The game, quite simply, proposes so ridiculously many mysteries, then fails to answer any of them. And they're not just big mysteries either that remain enigmatic by going unanswered. They're really fundamental things that would go a long way towards helping the player actually understand the game's plot. That's why this review's title is a play on these rabid mysteries -- they're simply never answered, and it left me deeply unsatisfied with the world of Spira, solely because so little of it seemed to fit together and make sense.
Take Yevon for example. By the end of the game, here's what you know: Yu Yevon is some beetle-looking thing that created and controls Sin. Yevon refers also to the 'church' of the outside world, which believes in teachings that state that machina resulted in Sin's creation, and atonement will rid Spira of Sin. That's about it.
Right there, there are so many mysteries that are not only strange, but fundamental to understand the world of Spira as is. Mysteries like what? Where did Yu Yevon come from? Who or what is it? Why does it look like a beetle? Did it always exist? If so, why did it suddenly decide to create Sin? If not, where did it come from? Why is it able to create Sin? Where did the "teachings of Yevon" come from? Where did the notion of Yevon hating machina come from? Did Yu Yevon talk to the people? Did Yu Yevon appear and say "hey guys, I don't like machina, so I'm going to kick your asses until you 'atone' for it"? How did the "Church of Yevon" start? Why is 'Yevon' used throughout the game to refer to so many different things? How did the pilgrimages start? If Sin's creation relies on bonding with an aeon, where did the first aeon come from? Who built the temples? Why? How did they know to? How did the cycle get started? Why is Yu Yevon defeatable by the final aeon? Why were Tidus and company able to beat it when others weren't? How does the guardian become a aeon, and then a fayth?
And those are just questions about Yevon. I could go on. In fact, I will. If the dead can just walk around like that, who cares that they're dead? Were supernatural things like the farplane, the walking dead, the aeons, Yu Yevon and everything else still around in the original Zanarkand time period? If not, how did they come to be, and why did the world suddenly become a supernatural fantasy wonderland instead of a realistic rational place? If so, why was Tidus so surprised to hear about them when he arrived in Spira? What about the other cities in the world? Did they exist in Tidus's original time period? If not, where did they -- and more importantly, the races that inhabit them -- come from? If so, why is Tidus so unaware of them in Spira?Where did Sin go after defeated previous times? How can the dead (Auron) or a dream (Tidus) actually cause physical damage to anything? Why were Jecht and Tidus able to stop the cycle? If the guardian becomes an aeon and the aeon becomes Sin, then what happens to the summoner? If Jecht still had some free will when Tidus and company arrived, why did he go around killing people as Sin? How does he control Sin? Yuna encounters multiple other summoners on her pilgrimage -- what if someone beats her to beating Sin? Does she just chill out until it comes back? What if she's already obtained her own final aeon? If guardians become aeons, aeons merge with Yu Yevon to become Sin, and then are subsequently destroyed by the next final aeon (itself a former guardian), where did the aeons Yuna gathers as a summoner come from? Shouldn't they have previously merged with Sin, only to later be defeated? Do any aeons come out of 'nowhere', not from a guardian?
The plot sequence, from the beginning of the game to the end, makes sense. But the world it is situated in, in terms of the traditions, history and current beliefs, conventions and society, just doesn't fit together or make any sense. The game tells a story instead of creating a world and situating a story in it.
There's a real impact to this beyond just giving me something to whine about, though. Many of the game's plot twists do not really occur within the context of the plot -- they're revelations to the characters about how things have always been. Yuna dying if she summons the final aeon; Tidus being nothing more than a dream; Auron being dead; there being no final aeon, and a guardian getting sacrificed to supply one. None of these are twists that happen within the time period between the beginning and end of the game -- they're historical background. But because so much of the historical background is mysterious, confusing and poorly explained, these "twists" barely even feel like twists. Learning that Auron is dead or Tidus is a dream fits in perfectly with the game's back story because we have no bloody idea what the game's back story is. The impact of the twists is completely lost by the game's inability to provide a strong enough back-story to make alterations to that back-story significant.
Released in 2001, Final Fantasy X has become one of the most popular games in the world since its release. No game is perfect and every game has its flaws -- and Final Fantasy X is no exception. But what sets Final Fantasy X apart is the huge discrepancy between how well it does every individual element, and how terribly it misses one major detail with every single one.
It's good because... it's a visual masterpiece, first and foremost. One of the biggest reasons for Final Fantasy X's success is its visual appearance. I don't mean this as the patronization that some people mean it as -- visual appearance goes beyond just the fact that the PlayStation 2 gave more processing power. It's how the developers used it: they created a visually cohesive game world, tied together by multiple motifs and a generally consistent overall feel, and then situated a camera within the game world to express it to the viewer. Where other game worlds do not exist outside the bounds of the screen, Final Fantasy X gives you a window into an actual, visual world.
Beyond that, Final Fantasy X breaks so many common conventions that it's impossible to count. From its flexible battles to its interesting level-up system to its various innovative sidequests, the game breaks the mold in nearly every possible way. It truly stands out from the pack. And while every major feature has a truly fatal flaw (as I've painstakingly described above), the overall quality of each overpowers their problems, in every case with only one exception.
But the problem is... that one exception. It's an incredibly ironic juxtaposition with the game's graphical nature. From a visual, technical perspective, we talked about how Final Fantasy X is the first game to create a three-dimensional world, and then situate a camera within that world to express it to the viewer. But from a narrative level, they do the exact opposite -- they do not create a world in anything but a visual sense; instead, they just tell a story within some disjointed, makeshift world where affordances are made wherever possible to accommodate the plot events they've predetermined will occur. The story itself is great, but without a logical, cohesive history underlying it, the player is left with far too many questions. Tidus is right: this is his story, not a history.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 09/24/09, Updated 02/02/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy X (US, 12/17/01)
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