Looking Back at Final Fantasy X
So, Final Fantasy X. I have a funny history with this game going back eighteen years at this point. In the summer of 2002, my brother and I got it into our heads to rent a PlayStation 2 from Blockbuster for a week along with this game, but goofs that we were, we neglected to buy a memory card. This spawned a challenge where we tried to get as far as we could without a single save, pausing for meals, toilet breaks, and sleep.
We made it as far as the Calm Lands. Malboros are the worst.
Undaunted, we thumbed our noses at the Game Over screen, returned to the start, and began the whole thing over again. This second time through, we almost got to the end of Mt. Gagazet.
Anyone who is at all familiar with the later stages of Final Fantasy X will know exactly how we met our end that time.
2019 was my Year of the Vita, for all intents and purposes. I played games on other systems, but I made a point of trying things for that handheld in particular. Of those, one was Final Fantasy X Remastered, purchased as part of the FFX/X-2 Twin Pack edition. I powered on through it, and it was surprising how much I recalled from the playthroughs of a decade and a half previous. Frankly, I was also amazed that my brother and I made it through ninety percent of the game without a safety net. I was not so carefree this time.
But once the game was done with, the question was whether to write a review or not. On the old site, we have twenty different reviews for Final Fantasy X, six of them official staff reviews and a seventh by a future staff reviewer, so it’s not something the site really needs, per se. So instead, I’m taking the opportunity to look back at this game, nearly two decades since its original publication, and share my thoughts.
One item that I’ve noticed being mentioned from time to time is that this game is as linear as any that have ever been in the series, XIII included. And yet, this works quite well in its favor, which I would attribute to the overall treatment of the plot. It’s not like RPGs haven’t presented players with effectively a single track to follow for much or all of the game experience; it’s just that some are better at hiding it than others, or at making the player not care.
Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VIII, for example, both made good use of a chase narrative for large parts of their length. It was possible to get the player to rush through and not worry about seeing the sights when in pursuit of a mad villain. Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, flipped the script into a fugitive narrative for almost the entire length of the game, which could have worked if other issues (e.g. gated access to the battle system) hadn’t spoiled the experience for many.
Final Fantasy X threaded the needle with a well-supported pilgrimage narrative, providing a concrete goal in the form of the ancient ruins of Zanarkand, a serious mystery in Tidus and his purpose on Spira, an absolute reason not to return to previous areas, and a masterful level of plot misdirection and misinformation when it came to what Tidus (and thus the player) actually knew about the state of the world.
And what a world it was. As the first of the PlayStation 2 games of the series, Final Fantasy X already had a leg up on all of its predecessors, and the graphics made the most of this. It is my opinion that this was the first Final Fantasy game that had a world that actually felt like a complete, contiguous setting. The pilgrimage narrative provided an impetus to keep going, to see more of the world in a manner that emphasized the cultural continuum of Spira as a whole, and everything just fit. That more than anything made it easier to ignore the corridor-like nature of many areas. The game was the journey in every way.
This even worked itself into the character advancement system, i.e. the Sphere Grid, a complicated mandala design upon which each member of the party traveled a route of their own. It puts one in mind of a meditative labyrinth, a complicated route which nevertheless cannot lead one astray, as its twists and turns serve only to lead the mind in thought as one travels through life.
Another thing that helped Final Fantasy X along was the obvious and distinct division of labor between the party members. The game’s bestiary had five basic categories for monsters to fall into: heavy, quick, flying, elemental, and mechanical. Each of these broad categories brought with it a particular challenge when it came to bringing on the damage, and the solution always depended on bringing out the right person for the job. Tidus rarely missed quick enemies, while Wakka could peg a flyer from any distance, just as one set of examples. A majority of the party members, and thus their roles, were available from an early point in the game, and this provides a contrast both to games from earlier in the series where the capabilities of individual party members were not so distinct (Final Fantasy V, for one) and from later in the series where these capabilities took far too long to be made available (Final Fantasy XIII). Final Fantasy X then hit a sweet spot for providing variety in its combat and — more importantly — providing a reason to make use of that variety from an early point onward.
In fact, it’s easy to say that Final Fantasy X has one of the best balanced party ensembles in the series, both from a narrative and a mechanical point of view. There is just one real issue to bring up for this, and unfortunately it is a tragic one for a particular fuzzy blue character.
Kimahri Ronso should have had it better. I truly think that the developers dropped the ball with him. Not for plot; his contributions are frequent and important, and in the plot he largely avoids the Worf Effect by virtue of being both the party’s armor-cleaving strongman and (as it turns out) the runt of the litter as far as his fellow Ronso are concerned. He’s rarely the center of the plot, but he supports it well.
The part where the game fails him is that, for all intents and purposes, the combat mechanics make him suffer the Worf Effect continuously in order to make the rest of the cast look better. He’s the armor-cleaving strongman… right up to the point that Auron signs on with the main party and does the job better. His section of the Sphere Grid is central to the entire design, but it’s also the smallest individual section and the player can easily waste time and spheres figuring out what to do with him later in the game. If they’re anything like me, they may end up ignoring Kimahri for long periods, bringing him out mainly for his command of the Libra spell.
Because the truth is, in a game where individual combat roles are important, Kimahri soon loses his uniqueness. As mentioned, Auron replaces him as the heavy-hitter almost immediately, and Kimahri’s only real asset beyond that is his Blue Magic. Which is where the ball was well and truly dropped.
Every other character in the game with magic or magic-like ability has general free use of those abilities. The ability may be greatly enhanced during Overdrive, but its principal use is available whenever. Except for Kimahri’s. His Blue Magic is only available during Overdrive, and while the game does throw him a bone and put him into that state immediately upon absorbing a new ability, that does not change the fact that few, if any, of the Blue Magic spells are actually on a level to be worth the effort.
What does Lulu do in Overdrive? She casts as many iterations of a chosen spell as she can. At high levels and with the right equipment, that could mean half a dozen Flares for 6 MP. Yuna? Summons Eidolons at advantage, with their biggest and baddest powers fully charged. Rikku? Massive alchemic explosions. Even Wakka’s blitzball shots get supercharged. But Kimahri? He gets to jump, or spin-kick, or shoot fireballs, or do any one of several other tricks that are about on par with what anyone else in the party can do on their turn in regular combat, only he has to build up to Overdrive status first.
The developers took the one thing that was well and truly his, and then gated it behind a system that can take multiple battles before it allows a single use, even though none of the tricks are game-changers when compared to the party as a whole. It really does seem like someone decided that the big, tough-looking cat man was too tough, and they wanted to take him down a notch so as not to outshine everyone else.
But in doing so, they took someone who could have been an excellent pinch-hitter, a jack-of-all-trades who filled multiple roles at once, and made him mediocre. And that is a shame. In a perfect world, the Remastered edition would have been a re-do, at least in part. It could have fixed the balance on those post-game bosses that appeared before the game was beaten, and it could have graced Kimahri with both useful skills and an Overdrive version that boosted them beyond greatness. Perhaps in another twenty years, we shall see Final Fantasy X truly remade for the PlayStation 12 in full holodeck mode, and this oversight may be rectified.
Until then, I shall hold a torch for our fuzzy blue friend.
I hated FF10 when it was new. The linearity was far more obvious than other entries, and the lack of a free-roaming world map made the game feel smaller to me, with no real reason to revisit locations. FF13 was far worse in both respects and didn’t even let you backtrack if you _wanted_ to.
While both games have grown on me over time, FF10 was still far more exploratory in it’s environments. FF13 felt even more linear because it offered a literal A-to-B-to-C path to follow where there were only slight dead-end alternate paths where you’f find a chest (those were “chests”??) or extra mobs to fight.
Linearity is fine if the narrative can sweep you up in it. But FF13’s characters were mostly annoying and unsympathetic, living in a very obtuse world and story where you had to go into a glossary just to figure out what was going on. At least with FF10, you got to learn about the world right along with Tidus which made for better storytelling.