Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy X (2001) is highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best, of the Final Fantasy (FF) series. Replaying this game fifteen years later, I still find the story solid, the mechanics solid, the game play solid, and the mini-games so god-screamingly fubar that I want to murder a game developer. For this revisit, I bought the Remastered HD version for PC.

The HD remaster looks very, very nice, while retaining the bright colors and vibrancy of the original version. Thank you, artists, for not ruining the wonderful aesthetic. FFX is truly one of the most beautiful RPGs ever created.

The story itself follows the understandable Final Fantasy arc. We get a team, a crisis, a journey, eventually leading to an airship, and a final boss battle in an etherial place. It's what they did from there that made the story work. This is the first FF (I think) where a major point of the story is the romance between the hero and the heroine. It's a tragic love story. Over the course of the story, we learn that if she succeed, she dies, but if he succeed, then he dies. Our lovers are star crossed, their eternal longing certain. It's the success of this element, played straight, that expanded the story from being a boy's story to being and everybody story. Add to that the story of the previous generation, told through flashbacks, the stories of all the other companions, and the stories of other peoples, and you get a FF so packed with story that it splits its seams when it laughs.

You see all the usual FF classes, all the same, and yet all a little different. Yuna is both a summoner and a white mage, and the Aeons she summons don't just flash through for a round, but stick around and fight as their own beings. With the Aeons being so powerful, it means that Yuna is easily the most powerful character in the game when you need her to be. Lulu is a black mage, down to her black dress. She doesn't have a pointy hat, but her stuff animals that she uses to cast spells are of all the cutsie creatures that his version of FF didn't use (such as moogles and onion knights). Kimari combines the powers of a blue mage and a dragoon, in the most disappointing combo in the game, not being a strong enough spellcaster to matter and not being a strong enough warrior to matter. Rikku is both a thief and an alchemist. Auron is a swordsman. Tidus is another swordsman with elements of a bard. Wakka is an archer in the guise of a blitzball player, his specialty being status ailments.

The advancement system is like nothing that I've seen before or since, with the characters buying spheres on a grid, growing in power not by leveling, but by traversing the vast sphere grid. As the characters fight, they acquire both sphere levels and spheres for activating those levels.

Power doesn't just proceed linearly, it proceeds laterally. Rikku enables the modification of weapons using collected items and spheres. A few encounters allow the same with aeons, also using collected items and spheres. Combine the right things together for the right kinds of fight, and your characters can now grow powerful in completely new ways.

As all FF games, this one has bosses galore. Sometimes the boss fights are fun, sometimes they're annoying, and sometimes they are grinding long, especially at the end. Most of the time, I had fun with the bosses. My only annoyance with them is that they are immune to anything interesting that your character do. This makes sense, as the game developers didn't want you using any "I WIN" spell combo to trivialize the boss fight.

The PC Remastered version came with controls to increase or remove random encounters, a mechanical auto-fight, and a gameplay speedup. This helped in many instances later in the game when things got grindy.

Along with all the good comes a little bad. While some of the mini-games included were fun, for the most part, I found too many annoying, and some flat-out murderously frustrating. The monster arena subquest, where you seek to catch 10 of every monster, proceeds quickly at first, but in the later dungeons, some of the encounters show up so rarely that you can spend hours grinding just to get to 10 encounters. (I'm looking at you, Tonberry.) One subquest required that I dodge lightning bolts, but I dodged 0 lightning bolts in 30 or 40 tries. I think that my video was lagging behind the software so that when the image appeared on my monitor, I was already too late to dodge the lightning bolt. Even so, you had to dodge 200 of those thing in a row. That's FUBAR crazy. Challenges are one thing, but self-torture is entirely a different thing.

Getting to some of the best spells in the game proved rather hard. At this point, I haven't found enough Lvl. 4 key spheres to unlock any of the best spells. With enough work, yes, I can collect them, but that just brings us back to the grind. I had this problem on the first play through. Fortunately, you don't need the best of everything to complete the game. I think that those super spells were there to satisfy the completionist and challenge-obsessed players. They like the crazy hard challenges thrown into games.

The characters have all sorts of special celestial weapons that they can acquire, which is fun except for all the mini-games that have to get played to acquire said weapons. There's even a few hidden aeons that can be acquired.

This HD version is descended from the International version, which introduced dark aeons to the game. For some unfathomable reason, the designers put super-impossible (but not impossible) aeons into places where you had to face them, whereupon you got butchered. I found that they sucked so much fun out of the game that I used a game editor to remove them. I had no problem with the challenge, but I had every problem with the designers requiring you to power up your characters so that you could get the items that you needed to power up your characters. By the time that you can defeat the dark aeons, you don't need the special items at all.

As normal, the final boss fights are insanely hard and long, with multiple stages of defeat. Fortunately, you can work them out. The problem in losing, of course, is that you need to go through all the cut scenes all over again, and you can't skip.

My main problem with the end game is that it got rather grindy. I ran into this problem when I first played FFX. I can grind valiant at first, but soon I flag. There soon comes a point where the potential reward is offset by the tedium of the journey. The offered challenge is just not enough to draw me on.

And then there's Blitzball. I figured out more of it this time, but truth be said, the game bores me and your opponents run over you for so long that playing the game just gets unrewarding fast. Even worse, some of Wakka's best moves are tied to the blitzball subgame, so if you don't play it, one of your characters doesn't get his best stuff. Evil!!!

That much said, don't let my rants about the endgame fool you. The flaws of the endgame stand out so starkly because the reset of the game works so fabulously well. And for some, the flaws are what they love. There are people who love blitzball. There are people who love the challenges. There are people who love the crazy side quests. It's all good for somebody.

I hope that ten years from now, I take the time to play it again.