Games I’ve Been Playing: Final Fantasy X (PS3/Vita)

ffxSince the fateful day it occurred, I call it the Tragic Memory Card Incident of 2003.

When I was in the service, one of the first games I bought for my PlayStation 2 was Final Fantasy X. Nowadays, we regard it as an above average entry in a legendary series, but it’s not the kind of game that makes someone’s head spin the way IV, VI and VII would. For those who either don’t have good memories or who were too young to remember, the hype for Final Fantasy X was huge. It was considered one of the PlayStation 2’s first killer aps, something that would definitively show off the quality of the hardware by providing something as close to realism as anyone had ever seen, finally making hardcore gamers forget about the recently discontinued Dreamcast as their system of choice. For its time, the game lived up to the hype, providing an epic story to go with the visual splendor. Being that this was the time where SquareSoft was still making amazing video games, I devoured it, even bringing it with me on my deployment to the Middle East in 20021. To save money, I had a few third party memory cards that I would use in addition to Sony’s, which were about as overpriced as their Vita memory is now.

Gamers my age can see already that this will not end well.

I was close to the end. Very close. I forget just how close, but I wasn’t far from the end, close enough to see the finish line, where I could finally see how the story fit together. Then one day, I loaded my game, tried to load data, and… nothing. Curious, I loaded up the data management screen, and got a fearsome message: “You must format this memory card to use it”. I tried taking it out and putting it back in, but no dice: my data was wiped, and I had to reformat the card. My data was corrupted. I had other games on that card, but I can’t remember for the life of me what they were. It wasn’t the first time third party memory had failed me, but never so painfully. From that point forward, I swore off third party memory forever.

Interestingly enough, both SquareSoft the company, and my relationship with it, turned right around that time. The company who released Final Fantasy X in 2001 was a ballsy one, releasing a launch title for the system – The Bouncer – that was both out of their normal milieu (a beat ’em up for the JRPG kings) and that utilized a brand new feature of the system: pressure-sensitive buttons, a function that not many games would use throughout the life of the system. The Bouncer didn’t perform well, but they took a chance, as they had been known to do. However, the tides were shifting. In 2003, less than two years after the release of Final Fantasy X, the newly formed Square Enix – a Frankenstein monster created from parts of two of the biggest companies in Japan, and half as graceful as the character referenced – released Final Fantasy X-2, a then-unheard of sequel to a Final Fantasy game. It seems normal now, but back then, calling it sacrilege wasn’t far off the mark. To make matters worse, the somber, serious story and mechanics of the first game were replaced by pop concerts and glorified Barbie dress-up games. I still to this minute have not seen past first 43 seconds of the first cutscene; yes, I counted. Since then, Squeenix – as they’ve been known unofficially for years – has acted alternatively like a ruthless business that measures everything by focus groups and raw numbers, and like a dinosaur, too slow and old to see evolution coming behind it. The Final Fantasy name never recovered from these business decisions; FFXII, while solid, isn’t nearly as fondly remembered as its predecessors and wasn’t close to the system seller that X was, and Final Fantasy XIII was considered a disappointment, notwithstanding all of the spin-offs and alternative media they both produced. Meanwhile, Squeenix has put on their feathered fedoras and sent out the first six games, used up and a little creaky but still popular, to work new corners, and the games – sometimes costing as much as $18 for cell phone downloads – are suffering from the overexposure.

As for Final Fantasy X itself, I never had the heart to go back until now, with the game receiving a high definition makeover and a release to the modern Sony systems. I figured that twelve plus years was enough time; it was time to go back to Spira.

One of the first things I noticed about the game was– wait, hold on, we’re still loading. OK, the first thing I– damnit, another menu. OK, sure. Now, where was I– for Jecht’s sake, how much does this game load!? I almost feel like I have to pre-load the game to get it playing before I have to go to bed, and I don’t recall that being a problem on the PS2. Since it often loads when going in and out of buildings – making town navigation arduous – the option to install the game would have been nice. After finally being allowed to play the game, I was able to see, first and foremost, that the graphics were still great. Whether in action or in a cutscene, Final Fantasy X is a beautiful game, which makes it all the more impressive that that it’s a thirteen year old, first generation game that came out on a system that didn’t have the horsepower of the XBox behind it. Everything works at first; the cutscenes, the battles, the wandering of the town, it’s all there and it’s all great. It’s only when a savvy gamer who is used to how games play in 2014 takes a look to see the cracks in the facade that the passing of time has caused. There is a noticeable change in quality between the cutscenes – which will remain beautiful even 13 years from now – and the actual gameplay, where characters seem to resemble emotionless realdolls more than organic people. It’s most noticeable when looking at NPCs next to main characters, who all show a clear lack of detail in comparison. In 2001, this was still extremely impressive – only Shenmue even attempted something on this scale – but in 2014, it’s easy to notice issues like this.

The characters are a fun lot for the most part, with a decent amount of depth to their characters that gets brought out by some good voice acting, and some not-so-good – Tidus’s issues are well known, and Yuna is a wood boat – but looking back from 2014 at 2001 storytelling tropes, the numbers start to appear from underneath the paint, being standard in a way I didn’t quite understand before I discovered decent anime. It was nice to get away from the Angsty, Emo Antihero™ archetype that Cloud and Squall practically invented and perfected, but Tidus The Naive Young Sparkster gets old. Yuna is half Mary Sue, half Perfect Waifu; she’s perfect in every single god damned way, almost like someone asked a bunch of otaku what their ideal of the perfect Japanese woman was and this is what they came up with. Lulu is such a prototypical tsundere that she’s mentioned in articles describing what “tsundere” is. Wakka is the Jesus Freak. Here comes Rikku with the Spunky Little Girl act! And here’s Silent Hero Kihmari! Oh, did you miss your angsty antihero with a Tragic Past? We have Auron here! Everyone fits a comfortable stereotype that was well in play in 2001, and if this game were to be made nowadays, the tropes would look different. Frankly, I prefer the older, more subdued ones. Not that there aren’t moments of levity, with Yuna kicking the shit out of the Al Bhed being a personal favourite. “Did you hurt them?” “A little.”

The one thing I found the hardest to adjust to was the lack of a camera option. Though the camera will change perspectives depending on where Tidus goes, it’s become a stock option for years to be able to use the right analogue stick to move the camera. Not being able to – and being susceptible to environmental concerns that can block treasure, access points, and other helpful places – would be inexcusable if this game came out in 2014.

One other note, and this is for those who complained about Final Fantasy XIII’s linearity: every step of my progress through FFX so far, about ten hours worth, has been coordinated on a straight line. There has been no variance; the farthest off track I’ve been able to go was to get treasure chests. We loved Final Fantasy X when it was new, but criticized the hell out of XIII. Gamers are a bit of a fickle bunch.

Of course, the main thing that can drive people away from JRPGs is if the actual gameplay – combat, stat management, and the like – is boring, and FF X made some outstanding contributions in those areas. The combat is effective, eschewing the Active Time Battle system in favour of a more tactical approach where one can see moves ahead of time, and in some case, the effects of other moves on that order; recent Steam release Trails in the Sky pretty much lifted it wholesale, which is good, because it works. It forces a more tactical approach to fighting than APB did, which required some serious reflexes and advanced planning at higher levels of the game. Of most note to me, almost shamefully, is the sphere grid. Instead of leveling up at one time, based on where everyone is on the grid, characters level up bit by bit by bit, using sphere level points to move around. This has multiple side effects, all of them positive. For one, there’s no set “level” to grind to now; it doesn’t keep track of how many sphere levels someone has gained, just how many they have to spend, so there’s no point saying “I need to get to X level”. It also adds a strategic layer to battling, as most characters have “extract” attacks that they can use to get certain kind of spheres to level up; I’ve had to use the Extract Ability attack plenty of times in the early going as those tend to come from large enemies. Lastly, leveling up a character is cathartic in itself; it’s tickles the “accomplishment” part of a gamer’s brain. So constantly having to level up is a steady stream of positive reenforcement that would be best compared nowadays to that of the first few stages of a freemium title like Candy Crush Saga.

I’m personally surprised how much of this game I’ve been playing on the Vita; in fact, it’s been awhile since I popped in the PS3 version I bought at full price for the art book. With that said, I’m actually upset I bought the physical Vita version, which is only half a product; there’s a cart for Final Fantasy X, and a code for X-2; if I’d have known that, I’d have held out for a digital sale instead of running $30 for half the package. Buying Vita games in boxes is itself becoming a mug’s game, as they don’t even come with books anymore; it’s just a chip, basically, with nothing else. It looks nicer on my shelf, but that’s about it.

Final Fantasy X is still a good game, and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny to say that as this is a standard Final Fantasy game in most ways; the rhythms of the series are strong with this game when compared to predecessors. Thankfully, 2014 does bring with it some fantastic technological advances that will prevent me from having another “incident” like I had in ’03. Once set up, cloud saving is fairly seamless, with the ability to easily download the latest save onto whatever system is being used at the time. Since it’s on the cloud, the chances of it disappearing are virtually nil – no more having to rely on disposable memory cards – so my gamesave will be around as long as online options on the Sony systems are. It’s a good thing, because the only thing keeping me from beating Final Fantasy X is the knowledge that I will have to tolerate X-2 to finish the story arc.

1 – People will scoff that I was able to bring – and play – a PlayStation while in the Persian Gulf post-9/11. All I will say is, one, we worked hard and played hard. Two? It’s good to be one of the top guys in your group sometimes.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.