Final Fantasy X: "I'm Ready For My Closeup, Mr. Sakaguchi."
by Pitchfork

(Thanks to Mistah K for the screencapping hardware)




Okay, here we are. I've been finding excuses to put it off for as long as I could, but the time has finally arrived. Once I finish typing this, I am going to begin playing Final Fantasy X.

I have not touched this game since 2002, and I don't remember it being one of my favorites. I recall enjoying the battle system, but not much else. Many of my friends back then were impressed I actually had the stomach to play all the way though. Of course, it didn't help that I went in hoping for and expecting an experience on par with how I remembered VI and VII. That was probably my mistake.

But for the sake of this little project, I'm trying to go in with as open a mind possible. After all, I played Final Fantasy X around the same time I first picked up and attempted to read Walden, which I threw back on the shelf sixty pages in and cried "OVERRATED AND BORING" whenever it came up in conversation. But earlier this year, I picked it up again and read the whole thing -- and loved it. Tastes change. Maybe X will surprise me the same way Thoreau did a few months back.

Enough stalling. Time to plug in and fire up the old PS2. See you in three to four weeks.





Well. That was something.

Let's take it from the start. In most cases, the beginning of a Final Fantasy game (even more so than many other story-driven games) is meant to be as disorienting as possible. Bombard the player with so many strange images, unfamiliar names and terms, outlandish scenery, strange technology, and things blowing the hell up -- preferably with as little context possible -- so as to dazzle him into a state very much like hypnosis. The aim is to make the player unwilling to set down the controller until he's figured out what the hell is going on, and it's the reason why a.) the first two or three hours of a JRPG are often the most memorable and fun b.) JRPGs can become tedious once the player has progressed far enough and has familiarized himself with and figured out the in-game circumstances.

But the beginning of Final Fantasy X has a dual function. Since it's the first Square game on the PS2, the first couple of hours are equal parts exposition and tech demo for the new hardware. Let's run down the checklist here:

- The game opens with our heroes solemnly gathered around a campfire outside the Zanarkand ruins. This is actually the first Final Fantasy game (well, with the exception of Tactics) to begin in media res. It's an incredibly effective way to throw the player off balance right from the get go: presenting him with people he can only assume are the hero and his party members, but not giving him the slightest hint as to who they are, where they are, or why they're there.

- Square shows off what the new graphics engine can do: extreme close-ups, changing facial expressions, rotating perspectives, subtlety of gesture and movement unseen in console games at the time, etc. For an audience accustomed to PSX graphics, the realization that they were seeing the in-game graphics and not an FMV must have caused swooning.

- The flashback begins! You've got your poppy remix of the original Final Fantasy tune. (Jesus Christ that was a long time ago.) You meet the hero and, as usual, have the option of changing his name (even though keeping this old relic of the series around ensures that he can not even once be mentioned by name in the voiceover). You're introduced to a beautifully-rendered city which is at the same time modern and futuristic, familiar and foreign. And you meet the hero's creepy friend whom only the hero can see or hear, and who only shows up for a couple seconds but is sure to be really important later on.

- The FMV sequence begins. This is Square saying "if you think the in-game graphics are nice, then take a look at this" and then unzipping its pants and letting a four-foot penis roll out and land on the table with a sharp THUD.

- Let's do some battles! Check it out! A seamless transition from the field map to a battle screen! Check it out! Limit attacks that require the player to succeed in basic hand-eye coordination exercises!

And so on. As far as game openings go, Final Fantasy X is about on the same level as Final Fantasy VII's now-legendary introduction. Even now, with the PS2 on its way to becoming a relic, it's hard not to be impressed with what Square manages to do on its first go with the new hardware.

Final Fantasy X is a game-changer for the series. Although it isn't as stark a change of direction as VI choosing dark steampunk over sunny fantasy or as much of a technical leap as VII was in 1997, it brings a lot of new things to the table. Replacing pre-rendered backdrops with 3D environment effectively changes the game on almost every level, from aesthetics to exploration to how cutscenes play out. The Active Time Battle system has been replaced by the new Conditional Turn-Based Battle system. The overworld field screen is for the first time totally absent. Experience points and character levels have been abolished (if only ostensibly). But more importantly, Final Fantasy first true example of what is now popularly referred to as the "cinematic RPG," even though it doesn't carry the concept to the same extreme as, say, the Xenosaga series. (But more on this later.) Moreover, it is the first fully-voiced RPG Square ever made.

Oh, yes. The voices.

With the exception of a few CD peripherals (most of which either never made it or failed outside Japan), console games were mostly silent until the mid 1990s. But when CDs practically eradicated the cartridge format during the PSX/Saturn/Dreamcast era, console games were finally able to catch up with PC games, which had fully-voiced games since the beginning of the decade. Enduring old series like Sonic, Metal Gear, Castlevania, and Mega Man began featuring voiceovers, with mixed results. The successes of new series like Soul Reaver and PaRappa were practically built on excellent voice work, while those with less-than-stellar voiceacting often suffered for it in sales and reviews (Shenmue, Silhouette Mirage.) But throughout all of this, Final Fantasy remained mute. No in-battle banter, no FMV speech -- nothing. And nobody was complaining.

But with their first game on the PS2, Square meant to make up for lost time. Final Fantasy X has a lot of spoken dialogue. It's difficult to come up with a precise count, but unofficially-released DVD compilations of the game's cutscenes clock in at about eight hours. And since Square didn't want to test the willingness of their American audience to listen to eight hours of a language other than English (spread out across 40 hours of game time), it was up to Square's localization staff to dub over all those hours of Japanese speech with an equal amount of English speech, in addition to translating and contextualizing all the Japanese text.

Before we go any further, I should probably state my stance on the ongoing debate between the narrowminded and intellectually lazy dub-watchers and the elitist, snobbish subtitle nazis:

1.) It is always better hearing a recorded performance in its original language. By dubbing over a film, you are in a very practical sense undermining the vision and decisions of its director. From a purist standpoint, all a dub can hope for is to is bastardize the work as little as possible.

2.) That being said, there is such a thing as a good dub. It takes a perspicacious translator, skillful direction, stellar casting, and flexible and talented voice actors, but it is possible to recapture the most of an original work's essence in a different-language dub. (See: the English dub of FLCL, the Japanese dub of Home Movies.) And if the original has too many regional nuances to be converted into a coherent cross-cultural equivalent (see: Azumanga Daioh and the least-watched English dub ever), it is just as possible to reimagine it as something that might not be entirely faithful to the original, but manages to retain most of its spirit while effectively becoming an entirely different work in itself (see: the English dub of Shin-Chan).

3.) Final Fantasy X is not a good dub.

But you don't need me to tell you that. Even if you've never played the game, you were probably already aware. The reputation of Final Fantasy X's English dub is that bad. It's downright embarrassing. It's not a game you want people watching you play. There's no excuse for it.

What's even worse is that it's mystifying. There is no reason why it should have turned out as badly as it did. Most of the voice talent arrived at the casting call with some pretty impressive resumes (Wakka, for instance, is played by the same VA as Futurama's Bender). The voice director had previously worked on the English dubs of Tenchi Muyo, Tenchi Universe, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. What went wrong here? Who screwed up? Was it a rush job? Did the localization staff and director not understand what the original version was going for?

Am I being too harsh on Final Fantasy's dub? The paid reviewers might say so. Gamespot calls the voice-acting "surprisingly well-done." 1up calls it "excellent." IGN gives it a slap on the wrist, admitting its faults, but praising it overall. Only Edge (that Economist of gaming rags) seems to agree with me on this one. Edge's take on Final Fantasy X's dub, in one word: "nauseating." Thank you. I will grant that there are much, much worse dub jobs in other video games out there, yes -- but such low-quality work from an outfit with Square's reputation and resources is harder to excuse.

In any event, the result is the same. You have an English dub that ruined the game for more than just an obscure cross-section of players. You'll note that Final Fantasy X was voted in a 2006 Famitsu magazine readers' poll as Best Game Ever. (VII, as you'll notice, was #2). On a similar GameFAQs poll conducted in 2005, Final Fantasy VII came out on top. X made #12, but still failed to crack the top ten. I don't think it's that far off base to assume that Famitsu readers and GameFAQs poll fiends are generally cut from the same cloth. The Japanese players who went through the Final Fantasy X in its original language put it over VII, whereas a largely American demographic of gamers who were subjected only to the English dub overwhelmingly prefer VII. Granted, there are a lot of variables here, but I think the English dub is a major factor in the difference in opinion between Japanese players and their American counterparts. After all, the Americans agree with the Japanese as far as VII is concerned, and Final Fantasy X is the same game on either side of the Pacific -- except, only, for the voice tracks. Yes, the voice acting is that integral to the overall experience.

It's said that when Final Fantasy IV was being localized for North American audiences, Sakaguchi himself didn't feel that constructing a coherent, eloquent English translation of all those hundreds of lines of Japanese text was worth sweating over. If Final Fantasy X's English dub is any indication, Sakaguchi or some other higher-up at Square felt the same way when it came time to dub over all those hours of recorded speech. And just like later versions of Final Fantasy IV were touted in the advertising for finally having unborked translations, I predict that when Final Fantasy X sees its inevitable re-release on the PSP2 (or whatever), one of its selling points will be a brand new dub (or hopefully a Japanese audio option).

Now! With that finally out of my system, let's move on.




Characters

TIDUS
Comparable jobs: Squire/Thief/Time Mage
Weapon: Sword
Overdrive: Swordplay. Center the vacillating cursor before time runs out, and win a prize!

In the story: A star blitzball player from Zanarkand whose savantic talents as an athlete and fighter are outweighed only by his massive daddy issues. Tidus's story begins when Sin suddenly appears in Zanarkand, trashes the place, and pulls Tidus into a future world where the Zanarkand he knew is a thousand-year old pile of rubble in a distant wasteland. Through Auron and Jecht's machinations, he meets Yuna and joins her and her entourage of guardians on the Summoner's pilgrimage in hopes of finding a way back home.


In the game: In every Final Fantasy since VII, the game's protagonist is the most powerful character. Tidus is no exception, but not because he's physically the strongest (he's not) or ten levels higher than everyone else because he isn't allowed to leave the battle party. As the second-fastest, third-strongest, and the one who learns the crucial Haste and Hastega spells, Tidus is tailored to excel in a battle system emphasizing speed, teamwork, and buffing. He also learns the prized Flee skill, which instantly allows all party members to flee from battle. Such a convenient ability -- and it costs nothing, unless you count having to listen to Tidus flap his damn mouth every time you use it. Example below.

English dub: Game-breaking. Tidus's unpopularity in North America is a direct result of his English dub. "LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE! I'LL BE RIGHT BACK! LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE! I WON'T GO SO EASY ON YOU NEXT TIME! LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE! LIVE AND LET LIVE!" And people thought HEY LISTEN was a pain in the ass. Anyway: Tidus gets a lot of flak for being a whiner, but as far as the script by itself is concerned, Tidus really doesn't do all that much legitimate griping. It's all in the performance. Tidus's Japanese voice, from what I've heard, doesn't have that peculiar high-pitched inflection that makes the English dub so grating. I wonder if it was English VA himself or the dub director making that call?


YUNA
Comparable jobs: White Mage/Summoner
Weapon: Staff
Overdrive: Grand Summon. Yuna summons an Aeon with a full Overdrive gauge that reverts back to its previous level once it's used (so it's actually possible to have an Aeon perform two Overdrives in a row).

In the story: Yuna is the daughter of High Summoner Braska, who defeated Sin and brought the Calm to Spira five years ago. Following in her father's footsteps, Yuna sets off on the summoner's pilgrimage to acquire the Final Aeon in the holy ruins of Zanarkand. As you'll expect by now, Yuna and Tidus fall in love as the story runs its course, but I will (somewhat grudgingly) admit that Final Fantasy X handles the love story aspect of the plot better than most JRPGs. (It's definitely a marked improvement over the failed experiment in VIII.) Unlike most JRPGs, in which the protagonist and the female lead hook up because of their differences (the male is a gruff, impersonal badass with a tendency to push people away for fear of being hurt; the female is a refined and open-hearted princess/mysterious magical girl who is miffed by the hero's harshness but eventually comes to see the goodness beneath his rough exterior, etc.), Yuna and Tidus are basically male and female versions of the same basic character: young prodigies following in the footsteps of legendary fathers while living in their shadows and coping with their absences. We also see a slight reversal of the usual JRPG male/female roles in Tidus and Yuna. Most of the time, the male lead is on a mission, and the female is just tagging along. In Final Fantasy X, Yuna is the the driving force of the plot -- not Tidus. He's the one who's tagging along and helping out on her quest.

And now for the gutter talk. Tifa had her mammary assets. Rinoa worked from the asian fetish angle. Dagger had her lovingly-sculpted posterior. What kind of sexual gimmick does Yuna bring to the table? A visible bra and 1/8 of a side boob.

In the game: Just about the only thing Final Fantasy X borrows from the "gaiden" IX is combining the White Mage and Summoner jobs. (It makes a lot of sense: the Black Mage/Summoner thing Rydia had going in IV was redundant and more than a little broken.) But with X's revamped Summon mechanics, Yuna doesn't play quite like Dagger or Eiko. IX's mage girls were healers with access to multi-targeting damage (or buffer) spells, while Yuna is a healer with the option of dismissing the entire battle party and replacing it with a single Pokemon Aeon. More about this later.

English dub: Game-breaking. Worse than Tidus. If their was one character that the English localization folks couldn't afford to screw up, it was Yuna. The plot for something like 80% of the game revolves around her. On paper, she's a character whose youth and gentle nature belie an unbending, almost Neitzschean force of will. It would have only made sense to sign on an experienced VA who could get this across in her performance. Instead, they settled on a first-time voice actress who can't deliver a sincere-sounding line to save her life. Half of the time Yuna sounds like she's asleep, and the other half it's like she's thinking to herself, "this voice means that I'm angry! This is how angry people talk...right?" The slipshod direction doesn't help Yuna much either. There are numerous scenes in which Yuna nods her head and says "yes" or "okay." The localization geniuses recorded the VA saying each of these lines once and then recycled them all throughout the game. No matter what the occasion, circumstance or mood, the exact same recorded "YES" falls out of Yuna. It hits the ear like an off-key note and always disrupts the scene. What the hell was the localization staff doing? Did they think people wouldn't notice?


AURON
Comparable jobs: Knight/Samurai
Weapon: Katana
Overdrive: Bushido. A successor to Sabin's Blitz techniques and Zell's Duel attacks. Punch in the right button combination before time runs out and Auron unleashes a punishing physical attack (usually with some kind of status effect).


In the story: The best take on a modern-day samurai ever. Tidus knew him in Zanarkand as a strange, distant older man whose arrival in the city occurred not long after Jecht's disappearance. Spira knows him as the legendary guardian of High Summoner Braska. Auron spends most of the game strutting around like he owns Spira, dropping cryptic hints for Tidus to decipher, and pretty much being an unbelievable bad ass. On the rare occasion that Auron loses his composure or seems caught off guard, you know something heavy is about to go down. Nobody knows why Phoenix Down doesn't kill him.

In the Game: Auron is the party's physical powerhouse. He's got the highest HP, the highest attack power, and he inherits those delicious "Break" abilities from Steiner and the Knight job from Tactics. In terms of capacity for making things die, Auron is second to none (until the Break Damage Limit ability and/or Celestial Weapons enter the equation).

English Dub: Pretty good. At least they didn't screw him up. Auron's English VA lends the character an air of understated potency that perfectly suits him -- most of the time, anyway. On the rare occasions when Auron actually shows emotion -- such as the Jecht Sphere flashbacks and while executing Overdrives -- the voice performance flounders.


WAKKA
Comparable jobs: Archer/Oracle
Weapon: Ball
Overdrive: Slots. Match like images on the spinning reels and Wakka unleashes a special attack based on how well you do.

In the story: A plucky, headstrong blitzball player from Besaid who discovers Tidus when the latter washes up on the beach. Wakka takes a liking to Tidus because of the kid's resemblance to his deceased brother Chappu, and helps him get acclimated to life in Spira. Basically, Wakka is like your older cousin from Arkansas who coaches little league and keeps trying to bring Jesus into the conversation. His introduction into the game brings blitzball to the forefront of the plot for some time, which is like watching Planet of the Apes suddenly decide it would rather be The Mighty Ducks instead. It all but derails the plot's early momentum, and it's not until a few hours later that it starts getting back on track.

In the Game: Wakka is the second-strongest party member and the only one with a long-range melee attack. He's also the one who earns the status-effect attacks that used to belong to the Black Mage (and the Oracle in Tactics), which actually work in Final Fantasy X. His Overdrive requires you to play blitzball matches to acquire new reels, so Wakka's usefulness really depends on your tolerance for time-wasting bullshit blitzball.

English dub: Annoying. Apparently neither Square nor the VA could decide whether Wakka should have a fake Wisconsinian or Jamaican accent, so he ends up having a bit of both. (FFWiki claims that it's supposed to sound Polynesian, though.) But the voice suits the character fairly well, and the performance isn't quite as embarrassing as Yuna's. Nevertheless, I remember that the time I acquired Wakka during my first playthough coincided with when I first began scouring the Config menu to see if there was a way of disabling the voices. (There isn't.)


LULU
Comparable job: Black Mage
Weapon: Doll
Overdrive: Fury. Rotate the joystick as many times as you can before the timer runs out, and Lulu casts any spell in her grimoire that many consecutive times.

In the story: Another native of Besaid, the black mage Lulu serves as a professional Guardian for Zanarkand-bound Summoners (although she has yet to complete a journey). Her no-nonsense personality and emotional disconnection from practical matters make her come across as -- well, kind of a bitch. (Actually, she is a perfect clone of my boss when I worked at Hot Topic as a teenager.) She does have a sensitive side, though, as she seems to be in perpetual mourning for her deceased finance and a Summoner whom she failed to protect on a previous pilgrimage. That might explain why she's always dressed in black -- though it does seem strange that a fashionable (and totally functionless) goth ensemble is readily available in a place like Spira.

In the game: She's Vivi. Unlike the other characters, who are amalgamations of two or more common Final Fantasy jobs, Lulu is a straight-up Black Mage. Unfortunately for her, offensive spells have been getting less and less useful after their peak in Final Fantasy VI, and X's system is particularly unkind to them. Elementally-affiliated weapons can usually take out enemies with elemental weaknesses just as well (if not better) than black magic, and the only multi-targeting spells she learns are Demi and Ultima (and the latter takes a lot of doing to acquire).

English dub: Tolerable. She'd be hard to mess up, since she's not a character requiring a particularly demanding performance. But attention must be called to her in-battle speech. Whenever she casts a spell for the first time, she drops a one-liner, and it never fails to be the most blisteringly obvious thing the American writers could come up with. Casting Water: "Anyone thirsty?" Casting Thundara: "Don't look so shocked!" (Get it? Thunder? Shocked?) Casting Blizzaga: "Icing on the cake!" (At least it's better than "Chill out.") Eh -- it's probably not worth harping on these. They're really just a minor detail, and besides -- Yuna's pre-spell alliterative "poetry" is much, much worse.


KIMAHRI
Comparable jobs: Blue Mage/Red Mage/Dragoon
Weapon: Spear
Overdrive: Ronso Rage. ie, Blue Magic. By using his HP/MP-draining Lancet skill on certain enemies, Kimahri can learn a total of twelve enemy skills. The learning mechanic is an improvement over VIII and IX's acquisition systems, and Kimahri's grimoire cements his position as the most versatile party member.

In the story: An exile from the Ronso tribe of the northern mountains, Kimahri has watched over Yuna since Braska brought about the Calm a decade ago. Kimahri says little, but understands more than he lets on. His finest moment is when he interrupts Seymour in the middle of one of his "look at me I'm an insane JRPG villain" rants by just walking up and stabbing him in the chest. This needs to happen more often.

In the game: Kimahri has the shortest path on the Sphere Grid, which means he usually crosses over into other characters' sections and starts learning their abilities long before anybody else. Ideally, Kimahri develops into a versatile, "user of all, master of none" kind of character, but it's really easy for a first time player who's unaccustomed to the Sphere Grid to screw him up.

English dub: Tolerable. Standard fare for the English "beastman" dub: a throaty bass voice and a "dialect" that eliminates copulas and personal pronouns. Nothing exceptional, but not altogether awful -- and with a dub generally poor as Final Fantasy X's you can't ask for much else. Kimahri doesn't talk much, anyway.


RIKKU
Comparable jobs: Chemist/Thief
Weapon: Claw
Overdrive: Mix. Rikku combines two items and stuff happens.

In the story: It wasn't for lack of trying on Square's part, but Selphie from Final Fantasy VIII and the various teenage lasses from IX weren't nearly as popular with the hentai/lolicon crowd as VII's Yuffie. So Nomura stuck the ninja chick in a blonde wig, gave her a new outfit and some swanky goggles, and threw her into Final Fantasy X as Yuna's perky younger cousin. As the plot's concerned, she introduces Tidus to Spira and is the party's link to the Al Bhed tribe. Pragmatically, she exists as fanservice. I will have much more to say about this if/when I bring myself to run through X-2.

In the game: Another brilliant fusion of character classes. The Thief specializes in acquiring items, while the Chemist specializes in using them. Combine them, and you get one of the most useful auxiliary characters you've ever seen. Rikku has tremendous speed and a plethora of items that only she can make us of. A hasted Rikku waiting in the wings can often be a more efficient healer than Yuna. Also, she can instantly kill robots by using the Steal command on them. ("Without these eyedrops stabilizing its core, the hunterkiller droid falls to pieces!")

English dub: Good. Of the main cast, Rikku's English VA has the longest list of prior voiceover roles, a fact which her performance makes rather obvious. A fine choice, as her resume shows her regularly being typecast as young girls or teenagers. The wonky direction sometimes screws her up, though. "And then we can...............

.......salvage the big prize!"


JECHT



In the story: In Tidus's Zanarkand, Jecht was a legendary blitzball player beloved by the entire populace -- except his son Tidus. The Jecht that Tidus remembers is a washed-up, drunkard bully who antagonized and belittled him his whole life, until disappearing out at sea without a trace about ten years ago. For the most part, Jecht only appears in Tidus's flashbacks and in special recordings scattered throughout Spira by Auron during their pilgrimage with Braska. Viewing the Jecht Spheres in order shows Jecht transforming from a washed-up, self-important alcoholic to a decent human being. (Cultural aside: you see a lot of alcoholism in Japan -- probably much more than is actually documented -- and parents and children don't communicate with each other as liberally as they do in the United States. Tidus's relationship with his father is probably meant to strike a chord with frustrated teenagers.)

In the game: Well, Jecht never joins the heroes in battle, and you never actually fight Jecht himself, but...

English dub: Not bad. Jecht sounds appropriately gruff and macho, and is awkward at showing affection to people. I'm going to give the English dub the benefit of the doubt on this one and call it the result of a decent performance and not well-timed VA incompetence.


BRASKA



In the story: Yuna's father, who traveled to Zanarkand with Jecht and Auron ten years ago and defeated Sin. Much like Jecht, Braska is only ever seen in Auron's recordings. His posthumous consecration by the Yevon clergy would never lead you to believe that he set out on his pilgrimage as an outcast from the temples. Also, he dresses himself like a pine cone.

English dub: Forgettable.


CID



In the story: Final Fantasy X has a middle-aged man named Cid who flies around in an airship and dresses like a fat German electronic musician. Cid is the leader of the Al Bhed, a race that has been exiled to obscurity for its defiance of the Yevon taboo on technology. He's also Rikku's father and Yuna's somewhat overprotective uncle. Compared to other Cids in terms of behavior and personality, he's kind of like what VII's Cid would be if he lived in the desert and subsided entirely on beer.

In the game: There are two boss fights (Evrae and Sin) in which Cid is an active participant, though he remains on the sidelines. Tidus and Rikku gain the ability to yell at Cid to move the airship closer or farther away from the airborne boss, though the command isn't carried out until Cid's turn comes up on the CTB window. It's a shame that there are only two fights like this in the whole game.

English dub: Meh. The performance in itself is decent, but it's really out of place. The North American localization crew gave the made-up Al Bhed language a Middle Eastern inflection that creeps into certain Al Bhed characters' English speech (the Al Bhed merchant Rin, for example). How is it then that the head honcho of the Al Bhed sounds like he's from Texas? And why is he the only one in the game to pronounce Sin as "shin?" The "sh" is really emphasized, so I don't think it's part of the faux accent. English FAQs of the just-released Japanese version of Final Fantasy X refer to Sin as Shin, too. Could Cid's English VA have been working with an earlier version of the translated script than everyone else? Is there no end to the localization's sloppiness?


THE FAYTH & AEONS



In the story: Another Final Fantasy, another tangle of artificial metaphysics you have to learn if you expect to have any idea what's going on in the story. In a nutshell: the Fayth are human souls imprisoned in stone by ancient Yevon rites. The Fayth sure aren't alive, but they're not quite dead either: they exist in a liminal dreaming state. Each Aeon (Final Fantasy X's equivalent of Espers, Guardian Forces, Eidolons, etc) is the living dream of a specific Fayth, conjured by the Summoner and given form by Pyreflies, which is a sort of disembodied life essence (pretty much the same as VII's Lifestream).

In the game: While they aren't integral to every aspect of battle as they were in Final Fantasy VIII, summons are still important in X. Instead of appearing as splash-damage spells, Aeons have effectively become party members in themselves. They can learn new abilities and can be powered up by feeding them enough of the right items, and they each get their own Overdrive gauges. Aeons can be extremely powerful, but they're often most useful as meatshields. When you see a boss telegraphing its KILL EVERYBODY special move, it's usually best to call out an Aeon and have it take one for the team.

English dub: Meh. The Fayth don't really say much, except for the recurring one who lends Yuna Bahamut and speaks to Tidus in his Zanarkand. Like most child characters in English anime dubs, he doesn't quite sound right. I can't put my finger on it.


MAECHEN



In the story: An elderly historian roaming Spira in search of its secrets and time-clouded truths. He's not an important character as far as the plot itself is concerned, but he serves to provide some background information on Spira that never really gets mentioned in the cutscenes but is important for contextualizing the story. What Maechen has to say about pre-Sin Zanarkand and post-Sin Bevelle are an interesting fictional illustration of how history becomes myth and myth becomes history.

English dub: Excellent. Though the VA occasionally lays it on a little thick, Maechen's English voice is dignified, rich, and melodious. Go figure -- the guys in charge of the English dub shortstraw the main cast and pour the talent into side characters.


SEYMOUR GUADO



In the story: The son of Jyscal (the leader of the elflike Guado race) and a human woman. When he was a small child, Seymour's mother died to give her son the unique and powerful Dark Aeon, Anima. It might be safe to say that living as a half-breed, losing his mother, and gaining a pet demon that could kill virtually anything at his command somewhat warped the young Seymour's psyche. After his father's recent death, Seymour has assumed his father's dual mantle as leader of the Guado and a Maester of Yevon. If you already guessed that Seymour murdered his father to inherit his positions in power, then I probably won't need to explain that Seymour is one of those power-hungry jerks with deluded messianic ambitions that you've seen a hundred times already in a hundred other JRPGs. As befitting of the overused villain archetype he is represents, Seymour shows up again and again throughout Final Fantasy X -- even after he's already been killed (more than once!) -- to bother everybody and insist they pay attention to him.

In the game: The heroes tangle with Seymour four times over the course of the game -- the same number of times Seifer is battled in VIII. But unlike Seifer (who was imposing but ultimately just full of hot air), Seymour is a consistently nasty opponent who presents a completely different challenge every time. He and his goddamn pets.

English dub: Not bad. Pretty good, even. Seymour is the newest in a rapidly-extending line of mincing, power-hungry prettyboy JRPG villains, and the English VA gives an appropriately dainty performance. He might also be the most flexible actor of the English cast, since he's just as adept at sounding forceful and frightening whenever Seymour morphs himself into an ectoplasmic death machine.


YUNALESCA



In the story: One thousand years ago, she was daughter of Summoner Yevon, wife of Zaon, and the first to defeat Sin with the Final Summoning. Today, she is an unsent spirit who rules over the dead city of Zanarkand and waits at the very end of the Summoner's pilgrimage to bestow the Final Aeon upon the few who are able able to make it to her. She's not quite sure what to do when Yuna turns it down, so Yunalesca decides to just kill everyone instead.

In the game: Something like a reprise of the fight with Goddess in Final Fantasy VI. Round one: Yunalesca counters attacks with a buff-neutralizing telekinetic bitchslap. Round two: Yunalesca inflicts zombie status on everybody and casts Regan and Cura on them, while countering attacks with a telekinetic bitchslap. In the third and final round, Yunalesca inflicts zombie status on everybody, casts Regan and Cura, uses a Mega Death attack that instantly kills anyone who isn't zombied, and counters with a telekinetic bitchslap. It's easily one of the best battles in the whole series, even if losing means having to listen to Yuna's WAHH I WILL BE STRONG WAHH WAAHH WITHOUT FALSE HOPES spiel over and over again.

English dub: Good. The English VA pins down Yunalesca's defining characteristics: otherworldly, wise, and enticing, but at the same time cold and demonic.


ULTIMA & OMEGA WEAPON



In the story: Centuries ago, a heretic of Yevon named Omega renounced the world and took refuge in a deep sunless cavern. Over the years, his hatred has destroyed his humanity and turned him into an immortal Fiend. Ultima Weapon, meanwhile, is merely described as a shadow of Omega's hate.

In the game: How the mighty have fallen. The once-fearsome Ultima Weapon is a wimp, and Omega Weapon isn't even as hard as the boss of the game. They don't even make the pretense of being Final Fantasy X's superbosses.


MONSTER ARENA CRITTERS



Now this is more like it. The owner of the Monster Arena has accidentally released all his pets, and commissions the heroes to go out and recapture them. Capture enough monsters from the same place or of the same type, and the owner breeds a brand new creature with HP in the millions and attacks that do tens of thousands of damage a pop. These are Final Fantasy X's superbosses. Some of them are nods to previously-seen beasts like Shinryu, Catastrophe, and Ultima Buster. The most powerful of the lot is Nemesis (also known as Omega Gold), whom you can't even face until you've beaten the rest of the Monster Arena's new breeds. Defeating Nemesis requires an extended grind session akin to the Disagea postgame. Maybe even more intensive, considering what goes into acquiring everyone's Celestial Weapons.


DARK AEONS & PENANCE



Square's been pulling quite the hustle with some of its bigger titles over the last decade. About a year after the release of its latest forty-hour megabudget masterpiece, Square releases it again, at full price, with some extra whistles and bells in the form of a couple additional cutscenes and new superbosses. "Hey!" Square announces. "Remember Final Fantasy X and how great it was? Yeah? Well, we're gonna be honest with you folks. It was actually a fluke. We weren't able to release it in the complete form we originally envisioned. Quite frankly, it's shit. But now we're putting out Final Fantasy X International, the brand new definitive version! And you can experience it at the low, low price of exactly what you paid for the first edition! No, there's no need to thank us! Just doin' what we can for you, our loyal brand whores fans!"

At any rate, the Dark Aeons and Penance are additional superbosses from Final Fantasy X International, which didn't come out in America. Never seen 'em myself. Sorry.


SIN



In the story: Now this is an inspired primary antagonist. By the time X came out, Final Fantasy players had already seen evil knights. They'd dealt with enough corrupt emperors. They've had their share of witches and dark wizards. They'd already fought malignant deities from shadowy alternate dimensions, tangled with misguided uebermensches with Oedipus complexes, and put down a Machiavellian death angel or two. But you know what sort of villain we haven't seen in yet in Final Fantasy? THE BLASPHEMOUS NIGHTMARE LOVECHILD OF LAVOS AND MOBY DICK.

Sin is introduced as the ultimate foe: a relentless primordial brute whose very existence is beyond explanation. It is a relentless primordial brute; a blind bringer of impartial destruction that cannot be reasoned with. Its destructive power can be seen from outer space. Wherever it goes, it drops giant alien monsters that grow from its massive body. It cannot be stopped; only fought off or temporarily put down by the Final Summoning. Because of Sin, civilization in Spira is frozen. It cannot advance itself; all it can do is try to keep standing.

But as the game advances and Sin's true nature becomes clear, we find out that it's a man-made creation. At the heart of Sin are two human (or formerly human) souls -- and it's certainly within man's power to kill man. Cutting through Sin's exterior to get to its human nuclei, however, presents something of a problem. Nothing that a few convenient plot contrivances can't help, though!

In the game: Sin and its critters are battled a number of times. They're challenging, but Final Fantasy X has several harder and more interesting fights. Sin's much scarier in the cutscenes than in battle. Still, the final battle against it can be nerveracking because of its length; and because of the second phase, which is a reprise of the Demon Wall battle from IV. All you have to do is hit it for 140,000 HP before it fills up its Overdrive gauge and hits you with its automatic Game Over attack. Hope at least one of your guys can use Quick Hit by now.


BRASKA'S FINAL AEON



In the story: Ten years ago, High Summoner Braska was given this unique Aeon by Yunalesca at the completion of his pilgrimage. Like all Final Aeons, Braska's was only summoned once, but it managed to put Sin out of commission for a few years. Now, the same Aeon that defeated the last Sin has become the engine and nucleus of its reincarnation. Say, haven't I seen that headband before...?

In the game: For all intents and purposes, this is Final Fantasy X's last boss, and he's tough. He may not have the raw power of Zeromus or the deadly one-two punches of Necron, but he's got something even worse: those double-damned Yu Pagodas on either side of him. As long as both of them are active, they charge up the boss's Overdrive gauge, remove his negative status effects, and heal him for about 1,800 HP whenever one of their turns come up. It is possible to deactivate one or both of them by depleting their HP, but this opens up a whole new can of worms. If only one is taken out, the other barrages your party with negative status effects. After a few turns, a disabled Pagoda will reactivate with full HP, and a higher HP total based on the difference between its previous HP max and the amount of damage dealt by the attack that finished it off. In spite of how frustrating this battle can be (provided you're not a Celestial Weapon god-moder), Braska's Final Aeon is an excellent finale to some of the most challenging and inspired boss battles the JRPG genre has to offer.


YU YEVON



In the story: Before he was deified by the Bevelle clergy, the summoner Yevon was the last living ruler of Zanarkand. With his city facing annihilation at the hands of Bevelle and its advanced military hardware, Yevon had Zanarkand kill itself to save itself. Everyone that had survived the war up to that point was turned into Fayths and placed atop Mount Gagazet. (Cultural aside: I recall reading an article about the Pacific front during WW2 mentioning that as an Allied ground invasion appeared more and more likely, Japan adopted a mindset that the article paraphrased as "national redemption through suicide.") With such a vast amount of spiritual power to tap into, Yevon was able to conjure a dream version of his city at its apex; a Zanarkand that would never die. To ensure he would uninterrupted in his summoning, he crafted an immense carapace of living armor from the souls of the dead: Sin. After a thousand years of continuous summoning, Yu Yevon is no longer human, or even sentient. He can't really be called alive, but he isn't dead. He is awake, but he dreams. He is a key player in Final Fantasy X's plot, but not really.

In the game: Yu Yevon is the game's final boss, but only by the technical definition. You can lose to Braska's Final Aeon, but I don't think it's even possible to get a Game Over screen during the battle with Yu Yevon (unless you start casting Break on your own party members, maybe). It may be possible for him to fight the player to a stalemate -- but the player in question would have to be pretty dull to not acquire at least one of all the abilities that Yu Yevon is susceptible to.




Places

ZANARKAND



It's hard to outdo a fictional city like Midgar, but Final Fantasy X's Zanarkand does the best it can.

Actually, there are two Zanarkands. The first is the dazzling, futuristic metropolis that Tidus calls home, and it boasts some of the most impressive architectural eyecandy you'll ever see. As Tidus, you'll only spend about a total of fifteen minutes here. The interesting thing about this Zanarkand is how distant it always is. A lot of Midgar's charm in Final Fantasy VII comes from how thoroughly the player explores it. It's not nearly as big as, say, Vice City, but you get to taste its slums, commercial areas, industrial sectors, upper echelons, and even its public transportation system. You really get a strong feel for the place. Tidus's Zanarkand, however, is the opposite. Watching from over Tidus's shoulder, the player only ever gets to view Zanarkand from a skyscraper-lined elevated highway, or as an illuminated skyline over a dark bay. Its streets, buildings, people, and those mysterious gravity-defying water columns in the sky are visible, but always out of reach -- which is appropriate, since Tidus's story is about his trying to find his way back home and gradually accepting that he never will.



Then there's the other Zanarkand: the haunted, millennium-old ruins lying in the uninhabited wastelands at the northern edge of Spira. This Zanarkand is an eerie place, for a number of in-game reasons; but what's most arresting about the place is the subtext. It's the thousand-year old remains of a recognizably modern city. There are no ruins like this on Earth today, but someday there will be. The ruins of Zanarkand may very well be what the New Yorks, Tokyos, and Londons of the world look like a thousand years from now -- if they're built well enough to last that long.


BESAID



The first real hospitable place Tidus find himself after getting dropped into Spira. The island paradise Besaid is one of the most beautiful locales ever depicted in a video game -- both visually and aurally, thanks to Uematsu's uncharacteristically reserved track. It's also Argument One of my "Square pours the most resources and effort into designing the early sections of their games and then cuts corners and rushes through the end" thesis.


LUCA



The seaside town of Luca is Spira's second-largest city. Its ports make it a wealthy hub of commerce, and it boasts Spira's only theatre and blitzball stadium. Luca rather undermines the initial impression of Spira as an oppressed realm stuck in the Dark Ages. Any civilization boasting swanky sports bars can't be that bad off.

BEVELLE



The largest city in Spira and the axis of the Yevon theocracy that rules over just about everyone but the Al Bhed. Many JRPGs are full of thinly-veiled criticism of the old-school self-righteous and hypocritical brand of Catholic Christianity that kept Europe a backwards hellhole for centuries, tried imposing itself on Japan as far back as the 1500s and served as an excuse for 19th Century European imperialism; and Final Fantasy X makes an allegorical condemnation strong as any other. It is during the heroes' first brief visit to Bevelle that the inner circle of the Yevon clergy shows itself for what it really is. Otherwise, the place is a bit of a cop-out. Bevelle is the biggest, most powerful city in all of Spira, and the game never lets you explore any of it beyond a few temple maps. What a gyp.

CALM LANDS



The minigame and sidequest capital of Spira. The Calm Lands hosts the chocobo races, the Monster Arena, the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth, and the Remiem Temple, where Yuna can acquire Final Fantasy IV's Magus Sisters as Aeons (!!!!!).


THE TEMPLES



The Summoner's pilgrimage consists of visiting six temples scattered throughout Spira and communicating with the Fayth within. Each temple contains a Cloister of Trials, which amounts to solving a series of puzzles based on picking up spheres and plugging them into little outlets throughout the area. It's kind of fun, but not even a rung above the block puzzles from the PSX days. And yes, you have to do the temples in order.


OMEGA RUINS



The Omega Ruins are Final Fantasy X's single optional dungeon. The first half is a dark maze with a map that fills itself out as you advance through it; the second half consists of an endurance run against a slew of the game's nastiest normal enemies (which you're actually allowed to run away from). It can be challenging, but it's no Bahamut's Cave or Fanatics' Tower.


THE FARPLANE



In Spira, the afterlife isn't just an abstract theological concept: it's literally a physical location, nestled inside Guadosalam. This is where the souls of the dead are whisked off to during a Sending -- which makes the Farplane an immense, paradimensional sphere of Pyreflies. People throughout Spira visit the Farplane to see and speak with their departed loved one, though the more scientifically-inclined Rikku insists that it's all just an illusion created from peoples' memories. Either way, it's an unsettling concept. Imagine being a kid and having to pile into the station wagon with your folks once a year to drive to Salt Lake City and visit Grandpa in Heaven.


SIN



Huh. I'm having a Chrono Trigger flashback here. Dismembering Sin and blowing its head off aren't enough to kill it. You gotta go inside is body and destroy its core. Sin's interior is the last dungeon in Final Fantasy X, and Argument Two in my "Square pours the most resources and effort into designing the early sections of their games and then cuts corners and rushes through the end" thesis. As far as final stages in these games go, Sin's interior is no Memoria or Ultimecia's Castle. Hell, it's not even a Temple of Fiends. The backgrounds are unimpressive and conspicuously simple, the music is recycled, and the whole thing is way too short to be a proper final dungeon. It doesn't even have the usual endgame boss gauntlet I love so much. Feh.


Game Highlights

1.) THE SPHERE GRID

Ever since its unfortunate attempt at replacing the standard RPG character stat progression system with a self mutilation-based system in Final Fantasy II, Square has played it safe and adhered to the traditional experience points/level scheme. Final Fantasy X finally presents another alternative: the Sphere Grid. Powering up your characters is now done through what's essentially a board game. Winning battles earns you Ability Points and special Sphere items. When a character acquires enough AP, he or she can move on space forward (or four spaces backward) on the sphere grid. Using the aforementioned Sphere items allows them to activate spaces and get stat boosts and new abilities. For a while, each character moves along a straight course, but you eventually get to a point where they hit forks in the path and cross over into other characters' sections. Every character can potentially learn every other character's abilities (with the exceptions of Overdrives and Summons). But realistically, unless you're doing a serious postgame grind, you'll probably settle for, say, teaching Rikku some of Yuna's spells or sending Auron down a section of Tidus's path to boost his low agility stat. What this all amounts to is a mechanic that blends exclusivity with customization freedom even better than Final Fantasy VI's Job/Esper/Relic mix.


2.) CONDITIONAL TURN-BASED BATTLE SYSTEM

Let's just call it CTB from now on. But yes -- after ten years and six games, the ATB system introduced in Final Fantasy IV has finally been retired. There's no more waiting for gauges to refill; no mashing the Y or Triangle buttons to switch from character to character; no more being attacked while selecting spells. The new battle system has been virtually copied out of Final Fantasy Tactics. All participants take their turns in an order determined by their agility stats, and the order is displayed on the right-hand side of the screen. Certain actions have more or less recovery time than others. For example, having Lulu use a potion on herself will allow her to take her next turn sooner than if she casts a spell instead. Also new is the option to switch out party members in the middle of battle. There's no such thing as an active party anymore, since you can instantly replace on party member with another whenever you want. Battles in Final Fantasy have never required as much strategy (well, excluding Tactics, but that's probably why X borrows from it so liberally) as they do here -- especially since the general difficulty has been cranked up back to its pre-VI level. If you don't fight smart, you'll get crushed. In fact, I'm willing to say that the only only JRPG battle system I've seen that can hold a candle to Final Fantasy X's is Grandia 2's.


3.) EXTREME LINEARITY

Not that it hasn't been said and complained about a thousand times before, but Final Fantasy X is one of the most linear RPGs you'll ever play. Since there is no longer an overworld map, traveling through Spira consists of hopping on the road at Luca and then following it to Zanarkand. The adventure is about as open-ended as traveling from one end of the Jersey Turnpike to the other. There is no way of deviating from it in the slightest, and very few side areas to explore. Sometimes the experience is something like playing a tabletop RPG with a control freak GM.

GM: "You enter a hallway. There is one door both on the east and west walls. The north wall is a large window out to the courtyard.
Player: "Okay, so I open the door on the left, and --"
GM: "NO! YOU CAN'T GO IN THERE YET! GO IN THE OTHER DOOR FIRST!"
Player: "Why not?"
GM: "BECAUSE YOU'LL RUIN THE FANTASTIC STORY I HAD ALL WRITTEN OUT IN ADVANCE FOR YOU!"
Player: "Oh, okay. So I break the window with my mace and go out to the --
GM: "NO! YOU CAN'T DO THAT!"

Other times it's like playing a tabletop RPG with the world's least imaginative GM.

GM: "You go into a hallway. There's a door on the other side."
Player: "Uh, okay. I go through the door."
GM: "You enter a hallway. It's painted a different color. There's a door on the other side."
Player: "I walk across and go through the door."
GM: "You enter a hallway. It has potted plants along the walls and a door on the other side."
Player: "Right. I head across and go through the door."
GM: "You enter a hallway. There's a goblin in the middle of it, waving a spear."
Player: "Okay. I walk over, kill the goblin, and go through the door."
GM: "Now you're in another hallway with a door on the other end and a second door on the east wall."
Player: "I open the door on the east wall."
GM: "Sorry. It's painted on. Try the other one."

But this isn't really anything new, and it's not fair complain about it. Square has always favored a "rollercoaster" approach to game design over the "sandbox" philosophy -- it's only never been quite as salient before now. Whether or not it detracts from the Final Fantasy X experience is a matter of the player's taste. I will say this, though: there's not much immediate replay value in an RPG where it's so hard to actually miss anything the first time through.


3.) SIDEQUESTS & MINIGAMES

A "highlight" doesn't necessarily have to be a positive thing. Final Fantasy X, like its PSX predecessors, is loaded with optional minigames. The purpose of these has thus far been to allow the player a little bit of extra fun apart from the main game and let him earn some neat prizes while he's at it. Final Fantasy X has a different philosophy. "You want exclusive items? You earn them." Just about all of the best swag in game is earned through these minigames, but earning them isn't fun. It's work. It's the opposite of what most people play video games to do.

First: blitzball. It's Final Fantasy X's main "collect and compete" minigame, succeeding chocobo racing, Triple Triad, and Tetra Master. VIII had Triple Triad, which wasn't time consuming or tedious, and had great rewards. Hit! IX had Tetra Master, which wasn't time consuming or tedious, but had virtually no payoff. Miss. Blitzball requires you recruit teammates throughout Spira, and then pit them against other teams in ten-minute matches. Basically, what you have now is a minigame that lets you earn some great stuff, but is an absolute chore to slog through. Also, I haven't done the market research, but I'm guessing that your average JRPG fan doesn't have a stack of Madden and FIFA games sitting on the shelf next to his Final Fantasy and NIS collections. Big miss.

Then there are the Celestial Weapons missions, which were devised by a couple of ex-Nazi scientists in Square's employ to see exactly how much crap players are willing to put up with and how many hours they're prepared to spend in order to prove how hardcore they are. If you want Wakka's ultimate weapon, get ready to play 50-100 games of blitzball (if each game is ten minutes each, you're looking at 8-16 hours). To acquire Tidus's best weapon, you have to get a time of zero seconds (or lower) in the Calm Lands chocobo race. Getting Lulu's means dodging 200 lightning bolts (in a row) on the Thunder Plains.

My feelings on Final Fantasy X's sidequests in two syllables: fuck that.


5.) POSTGAME NONSENSE BOSSES

Disgaea and its sister SPRGs in the NIS library are notorious for their tremendous post-game superbosses, but Final Fantasy X was doing the same thing almost two years before Disgaea made its splash in the gaming world. The critters at the Monster Arena make Ruby and Emerald Weapon look like saps. Let's just open up a FAQ and look at some numbers:

- Fafnir: 1,100,000 HP
- Catastrophe: 2,200,000 HP
- Neslug: 4,000,000 HP
- Nemesis: 10,000,000 HP

To put these numbers in perspective: Braska's Final Aeon has a total of 180,000 HP.

The difference between how Disgaea and Final Fantasy X approach their postgames is this: to beat Prier and Baal in Disgaea, you're required to fight your way through a ton of dungeons, build up your weapons with specialists, and find creative ways of borking the game's system to your advantage. In other words, you're spending a lot of time doing what you probably bought Disgaea to do. Beating Nemesis and Shinryu in Final Fantasy X requires spending hours pretending that you enjoy blitzball and guiding an idiot chocobo that can't run in a straight line through an obstacle course of balloons and killer bluejays -- which you probably didn't spend $50 on a Final Fantasy game to do.


Story Highlights

1.) ENTER THE CINEMATIC RPG

Final Fantasy X marks the official appearance of the cinematic RPG onto the gaming scene. JRPGs were already on their way there, but X was the first to fully cross over. Before 2001, JRPGs tended to play out a lot like a moving, interactive graphic novel. Since then, it feels like every console RPG out of Japan tries to be a cinematic coup d'etat in addition to being a video game. Final Fantasy X completely changed the paradigm. If anyone's played Shadow Hearts (released in 2001, a few months before Final Fantasy X) and its sequel Shadow Hearts: Covenant (released in 2004), they'll know what I mean. The increased emphasis on epic plot and scripted cutscenes has also often led to the actual gameplay getting dumbed down, but so far Final Fantasy has (thankfully) avoided this.

One way of looking at this development is that you now have games that make you put down the controller and then watch as they play themselves. PSX RPGs may have been especially text-heavy, but at least they required you to tap a button to keep the dialogue moving -- and reading dialogue is a more active process (and in a certain sense more interactive) than sitting back and listening as the game reads it for you.

It also means that the games become less open-ended. Not that the JRPG ever really was to begin with, but at least the SNES and PSX-era games offered the player some degree of responsibility (in addition to all those YES/NO prompts that really only have one right answer). Do you save Shadow? Do you settle the score with Magus? Do you recruit Yuffie? It's a lot easier to implement features like this in a non-cinematic game. If programming an RPG works anything like it does in RPG Maker, all it requires is a bunch of conditional switches and alternate dialogue boxes. But in a cinematic RPG, leaving decisions up to the player means having to script, assemble, dub, and implement potentially hundreds of alternate cutscenes. It's just not practical.

I have my own opinions on this development, but...well, let's wait until we're finished here.


2.) DANSE MACABRE

There are a whole lot of things for which I can criticize Final Fantasy X's writers, but not knowing their history isn't one of them. Spira's ecology might resemble Okinawa, but the politics and culture are all Middle Age Europe. The church controls everything and actively suppresses learning and progress to hold onto its power. The people are miserable and dogmatic. Everyone's dropping dead from forces nobody can explain (in real-life Europe it was the plague, in imaginary Spira it's Sin), and the church has everybody convinced that it's divine punishment. Then there's the Al Bhed, who've got to be analogous to the "Saracens" that Christian Europe feared and hated (despite the Islamic world's being far more advanced in just about every way possible).

If the art from the Dark Ages -- particularly the Black Death years -- tells us anything, it's that the culture of the time was preoccupied with death. Final Fantasy X's story illustrates this on a more literal level. Everything in Spira revolves around death. Sin kills everyone. The dead literally rule over the living through the Yevon theocracy. The fiends (for some reason, the word "monster" just isn't good enough anymore) are composed of dead souls who resent the living. The Fayth are limbo-trapped souls who desperately want to die. Summoners ritualistically travel to a dead city to meet a dead queen so they can sacrifice their friends, and then themselves, to hold the big death at bay for a little while.

Don't let the smiling blonde kid and sunny beach on the cover art fool you. Final Fantasy X is one of the most morbid games you'll play.


3.) THE MAKEOUT SCENE

Initial reaction: "Oh, okay. So the hero and the heroine are alone together at last. See, this is gonna be where one awkwardly declares his or her feelings for the other -- and then they'll hug, suddenly get all shy, and then something will happen to interrupt things and then --

"Wow. They're...they're really going at it. Hey, did he just cop a feel?!"

If anything about the story caught me off guard, it was this. Final Fantasy's amorous subplots are usually so understated. Not even Squall and Rinoa ever actually locked lips onscreen. But here we have Tidus and Yuna flying around the woods (somehow?!) and eating each other's faces to romantic J-pop for a good two minutes. (And thankfully, "Suteki Da Ne" is a lot easier on the ears and nerves than "Eyes on Me".)

Again, Final Fantasy X's love story subplot is handled better than VIII's, and Tidus and Yuna's evening of romance in Macalania is much easier to sit through than Squall and Rinoa's "moment" in outer space (partially because Tidus and Yuna have the courtesy to keep it short). But the FMV makeout sequence leaves a curious taste in my mouth. It just seems so...Hollywood. Sure, it's extremely well-animated, but that's what a multimillion dollar budget will buy you. Individual tastes may very, but the flavor I'm getting is audiovisual high fructose.


4.) HA HA HA



I'm not going to say anything. I just want to point it out.

There aren't many video games that I've actually been embarrassed to have people watching me play.


5.) THE END

It was supposed to be bittersweet. I know.

But I was grinning from ear to fuckin' ear.

LIVE AND LET LIVE NOW, YOU SCREECHY PIECE OF

Seriously, though. I'm glad that Square chose not toss players (viewers?) yet another AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER conclusion.

Oh, wait. Look what happens after the credits finish rolling. Looks like Square pussed out after all. What's the bloody point, then?






Unnecessary Dichotomies & Armchair Media Criticism

Perhaps our dividing everything in our little overview into separate commentaries on gameplay and story didn't quite get the point across, so let's address it directly.

There is a lack of cohesion in Final Fantasy X, and in the cinematic RPG itself. The story and gameplay have become two entirely separate mechanisms, operating independently of each other. In Final Fantasy X, half the time you're playing a game, and half the time you're watching a CGI movie. They never overlap. When you reach a certain point in one, Final Fantasy X switches over to the other. What the player does when he's at the wheel has no impact whatsoever on what happens when the game goes back on autopilot.

This isn't a role-playing game. This is Dragon's Lair with additional buttons and more complicated rules.

And it wasn't always like this. Many of the games Square was putting out around 1994-95 left important decisions in the player's hands. Final Fantasy VI (1994) leaves the fate of a fairly important character totally up to the player and lets him choose who gets to participate in the final battle; what the player decides has an impact (though small) on the game's ending. Seiken Densetsu 3 (1995) makes the player pick which three of six characters become the focus of the story, and which one of those three becomes the protagonist. The player's choices determine where the game begins, where it ends, and which parts of the story become more prominent than others. Chrono Trigger's (1995) alternate endings and story paths are too numerous to even begin to list here. Even into the PSX era, Square was letting players call the shots to some degree. Final Fantasy VII (1997) offers two optional characters (who are conspicuously absent from the ending cinematic, even if the player does recruit them) and leaves it up to the player to determine who partners up with Cloud during the Gold Saucer sequence (and how far Tifa is willing to go with Cloud when they share a night alone). Parasite Eve (1998) has two entirely different last bosses and two entirely different endings, and the player needs to see both to understand the whole story.

In all of these games, the choices the player makes as a participant directly affect the experience. Not to belabor the point, but this is the only thing video games can do that the motion picture cannot, and it's the difference between a CGI movie and a video game. The viewer takes a passive role in one and an active role in the other. If a video game developer was serious about turning its games into a legitimate storytelling device instead of using story as ancillary ornament to the gameplay, they would put more of an effort into finding ways to synthesize gameplay and plot. There's a lot of potential here, and we've only just begun to see it.

But this potential is being squandered by the cinematic RPG, which outwardly exists for the purpose of getting a story across. The JRPG was once on the cutting edge of an evolving medium. While other games focused on hitting buttons, killing enemies, and scoring points, Final Fantasy and its ilk instead encouraged the player to sit down and assume an active role in an unraveling story. Now, ironically, the American FPS -- a type of game built on plotless carnage, often loathed by the JRPG fan for plopping Halo and Call of Duty onto the world -- is ahead of the game (so to speak) in using the video game as a format for storytelling. Take, for example, 2007's Portal. It definitely tells a story -- a really interesting, scary, and hilarious story -- but it does so without a single cutscene. Aside from the ending, there is not one moment where the player relinquishes control over to the game. Meanwhile, cinematic RPGs like Xenosaga yank the controller out of the player's hands every, what -- five minutes? Ten?

These cinematic RPGs also leave a lot to be desired in terms of immersion -- something else that video games can sometimes do better than films, thanks to this aspect of interactivity. Remember how little video game heroes used to speak? That was never such a bad thing. Again, Chrono Trigger: since the protagonist never speaks, his personality is supplied completely by the player. Crono is the player, acting as an in-game proxy for the person outside the game. In Final Fantasy X's case, the player isn't involved. It's all Tidus. All the player does is prod him along his way until another cutscene gets triggered and Tidus picks up and reads off his copy of the script. The player is reduced from participant to voyeur.

If a game wants to tell a story, it should do it in a way that's exclusive to the medium instead of trying to emulate another. I've already once mentioned my friend who watched all Final Fantasy X's cutscenes on YouTube to save herself the time of playing through the game itself. Ideally, this should not be possible. If video games are to be taken seriously as a storytelling medium, they need to devise ways of getting their stories across so that the only way to understand it is to play the game. If the meat of a video game can be experienced by watching the cutscenes on their own, as it unfortunately can in Final Fantasy X's case, then it probably shouldn't have been a video game to begin with. Interactivity is the key here -- and by their very structure, cinematic RPGs are incapable of being interactive. Right now, they are essentially CG films that make you work to see the next scene. We can do much better than this.





Conclusion

The farther I go into the series, the more divided I feel about each game. I can say that I enjoyed Final Fantasy X much more this time around -- probably because my expectations were much, much lower than they were seven years ago. But I don't know. Sure, it's beautiful to look at -- but I can't help but feel the gritty tilesets of VI and the explorable artwork of VII, VIII, and IX were much more charming. (X does have a few pre-rendered backgrounds, actually -- you can tell which ones they are because the camera doesn't move and they tend to look better than the 3D environments.) The story, characters and setting are interesting at first, but become less and less so as the game goes on. By hour thirty, you can guess how the story's going to end, you have all the characters figured out, and you hit the point in the game where Square started skimping on environment design during development. The battle system and character development systems are brilliant, but -- well, as we've said before, that's just not enough anymore. The times have changed too much -- and ironically, Final Fantasy itself was one of the major catalysts of this shift.

Do I expect too much from Square?

I don't revile Final Fantasy X the same way I used to, but it remains for me what VII and then VIII were to many of my friends who had jumped into the series on the NES and SNES. It's when Final Fantasy stopped being Final Fantasy. (Incidentally, it also happens to be the last offline game in the series that Sakaguchi -- Final Fantasy's creator, for those of you just tuning in -- had anything do with.)

My interests as a teenager can pretty much be boiled down to three obsessions: Final Fantasy, Marilyn Manson, and Jhonen Vasquez. It's almost funny how all three hit the same wall at once in the first couple of years into the Zeroes. (That is what this rotten decade will be known as. History will prove me right.) Marilyn Manson, floundering in the mainstream, coked out beyond all sense, and having alienated the people responsible for his rise to stardom, puts out Holy Wood, in which he demonstrates he no longer has it in him to do another Antichrist Superstar by trying so desperately to prove to everyone that he does. Jhonen Vasquez explodes into mainstream pop culture with Invader Zim, ensuring that he'll never go back into indie comics and can spend the rest of his life growing fatter and fatter off the sales of all the Gir T-shirts they're still peddling at Hot Topic. And Final Fantasy at last bloats into something that can no longer support its own weight. All three spend the rest of the decade sliding farther and farther away from relevancy.

Maybe I don't have a right to complain. After all, I'm just a consumer. All I ever did was throw my money at these people and demand MORE! Hell -- everything I mentioned in the last paragraph happened as a direct result of my and the rest of the masses' buying into Antichrist Superstar, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and Final Fantasy VII.

Are the fans partially to blame, then?

Well, at least Vasquez had the sense to take his winnings and duck out of the game when he did. From what I understand now, all he's doing is living off his royalties and painting. He's not trying to maintain a reputation or continue selling a brand -- he probably learned his lesson after his involvement with Nickelodeon -- all he's doing now is for his own pleasure. Meanwhile, Brian Warner is still out there pretending he's Marilyn Manson, and Square Enix is still pumping out Final Fantasy sequels, spinoffs, remakes, and stupid merchandise. Neither can claim to have much integrity left at this point.

No doubt about it. Vasquez definitely had the right idea.

Maybe it first began with Final Fantasy VII's pushing Square into the position of tremendous commercial force -- but I think X is where the last line was crossed. No, Final Fantasy didn't jump the shark. Instead, it plateaued. Sure, newer Final Fantasy games haven generally been popular, pretty, and even fun -- but it can't go anywhere else. It's a brand now. Its evolution has stopped. At this point, Square Enix is probably incapable of turning it around or taking it anywhere else.

We'll see, though. Maybe I'm wrong. I still have yet to seriously play through XII, and XII is coming up on the horizon -- but from here on out, all I can expect is more of the same.

VERDICT
3 OUT OF 5 SEVERED TIDUS HEADS!



So. I've decided to bite the bullet and tackle XI next. I'm not sure how it's going to work. I have no intention of completing everything or buying the expansions, because it would require paying more money than I'm willing to shell out and spending more time than I probably have. My current plan is to play for about a month or so, get a feel for the experience, then cut the cord and cancel my subscription. Also, I plan on waiting about a month before starting so I can focus on a couple of other writing projects for a while. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line if you're interesting in kickin' it live with me on XI. I get the feeling I'm going to need all the help I can get with it.






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