A Final Fantasy Retrospective – Final Fantasy X (Playstation 2)

SPOILERS ahead.

Y2K. The Millennium Dome. A crushing sense of existential dread. The war on terror. The sweeping, all-consuming tsunami of the internet. This, among others, was the advent of the year 2000, one of the most critical years in modern history, not least for its calendar significance. For our purposes today, its most pivotal event was the worldwide release of the PlayStation 2.

The highest selling console in history, the PS2 was a revelation. It immediately replaced its predecessor with its integration of backwards compatibility, coupled with its ability to double as a DVD player – one far cheaper than single-purpose devices on the market. The PS2 became, essentially, a permanent fixture in households all over the world. It only made sense for Square to release the latest entry in their flagship series on the premier console of the generation.

2000 represented the company at its absolute peak. Their crowning achievement, Final Fantasy IX, had been released; they were riding high on the success of both cult and mainstream hits, and the certain success of The Spirits Within, the company’s first cinematic foray, was just around the corner. Kingdom Hearts was on the horizon. Lucrative partnerships with Enix and Disney were enough to salivate over, but the film as well? They had everything to gain and nothing to lose. All was well.

In 2001, everything changed.

It can’t be overstated just how cataclysmic the poor box-office performance of The Spirits Within was. Beyond the closure of Square Pictures and the delay of the projected merger with Enix, it also resulted in shareholder clamouring that eventually lead to the stepping down of Square President Hisashi Suzuki and, perhaps even more critically, Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy. From a projected profit of $6 million, Square was staring down the barrel of a $115 million loss at the end of the fiscal year.

In the middle of this corporate melange came Final Fantasy X. Perhaps the most important game in the series next to FFVII, the tenth instalment represents the final seismic shift in how the series would be developed from here on out. In keeping with the technological leap, director Yoshinori Kitase and co. dramatically rejigged the formula, as well as providing a showcase for the console’s prodigious tech. (If that sounds familiar, Kitase also directed VII.)

Though not as enormous a jump as the one from 2D to 3D, FFX did away with many aspects that fans of the series had come to recognise. Pre-rendered backgrounds were replaced with entirely 3D environments. The traditional world map was erased and replaced by continuous locations approached in a linear fashion. Also, the ATB battle system was finally retired (for now).

The aesthetic became distinctly Asian; by abandoning the more familiar pseudo-Western hodge-podge, the team were able to draw from Japan’s Okinawan heritage and countries like Bali and Thailand. Nobuo Uematsu was no longer the sole composer, with parts of the soundtrack scored by Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu. Traditional experience points are conspicuous by their absence, absorbed into ‘Sphere Levels’ for the new Sphere Grid system. For a game developed so closely alongside FFIX, it’s a very different beast.

But, of course, the most significant (and often ballyhooed) change is the implementation of voice acting. The motivation is obvious: voice acting in console gaming, thanks in part to the likes of Metal Gear Solid and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, was becoming an integral part of the experience. In the PC market, where both FMVs and fully-voiced cutscenes had long been a staple, Planescape: Torment and the Ultima series had proved that voices were no obstacle, even in expansive, text-heavy RPGs. On console, only Valkyrie Profile and Grandia came close to providing that coverage for the genre, and well…

The PS1 games, with the use of 3D models for characters, were able to convey thoughts through physical actions, their clarity steadily improving with each new entry. With the power of the PS2, FFX’s characters are realistic, fully animated and fully gestural marvels, allowing for a much greater range of articulation. Since pre-rendered backdrops and a fixed camera were no longer in vogue, the film school-educated Kitase was able to experiment with dynamic, shifting camera angles. (Unfortunately, the direction in cut-scenes is bizarre, poorly edited and has a strange fixation on characters’ rears.)

The graphics in FFX are nothing short of spectacular, fully utilising the new technology even in its relative infancy. The recent HD Remasters polish the graphical fidelity to a mirror sheen, but the original version is impressive enough, especially considering its comparatively primitive peers on the Dreamcast. Considering this was their first real project on the console, it’s a credit to the development team that they were able to exploit the tech so successfully.

More still went into the environments. The artists, transitioning from pre-rendered backgrounds, gamely rose to the challenge with a bevy of gorgeous locations that perfectly match the sub-tropical climate of Spira. Entirely three-dimensional, these environments may not be as visually compelling or nuanced as the painterly PS1 backgrounds, but they nonetheless brim with history from familiar yet alien designs.

The removal of the traditional world map changes how the player interacts with these locations as a whole. Instead of navigating an over-world screen, the game revolves around a pilgrimage, the route of which encompasses the entirety of Spira from south to north, resulting in an extremely linear experience. From Besaid to Djose to Zanarkand, the party’s progress is marked with a straight, unerring line. No diversions, no side quests, no tangible exploration – only the pilgrimage. This can only succeed if the world and its populace are engaging and informative; thankfully, Spira delivers in spades, with each location providing its own distinctive atmosphere that’s handily contextualised by the NPCs.

It also helps to have a proxy for the audience. FFX obliges us, following the classic fish-out-of-water trope to help the player appreciate and understand the culture and climate of its strange, alien world. Enter Tidus. A perfect foil for the player, Tidus – “star player of the Zanarkand Abes” – is thrust into Spira from his world of futurist comfort by the arrival of Sin, a sub-aquatic leviathan with the power to level cities at a glance. Through Tidus’ eyes, and his encounters with this brave new world, the player learns about Spira, its dogmatic religion, Yevon, and the culture of paralyzed fear that engulfs it in the form of Sin.

The game’s linearity, in this sense, not only forces the player to confront the stark reality of Spira’s plight, but also helps to drive home the fatalistic tunnel vision of the pilgrimage. The clear objective – get to Zanarkand, obtain the Final Aeon – reinforces its inevitability, especially when we learn that Yuna, the vestal young Summoner that Tidus grows attached to, will die if they achieve their goal.

Death, in fact, is the core of Final Fantasy X. Themes of life and death have always been at the forefront of Final Fantasy storytelling, but never has it felt so grim and all-consuming. In the words of Auron, Tidus’ protector-cum-samurai badass, Spira’s doom is summarised thusly: “It is a cycle of death, spiralling endlessly.” The sun-kissed beaches and smiling blonde teenagers are deceptive: This is one of the most morbid games a player could possibly encounter.

Though its most obvious symbol is Sin, the eternal monkey on Spira’s back, death is also embodied in Yevon. Yevon is ministered by an undead clergy that, in turn, preach the false ‘solution’ of total repentance in order to lull the masses into a state of mass cultural stasis. People die en masse, constantly. Fiends, or the game’s designated random encounter monsters, are the restless, vengeful spirits of the dead that must be ‘Sent’ in order to rest. The Farplane – the game’s equivalent to the afterlife – is a physical location where the living can literally visit the dead.

The focal point of the plot – the pilgrimage itself – is a ritual designed to obtain the Final Aeon, which will kill the Summoner and, more likely than not, result in the death of their guardians. The defeat of Sin only temporarily breaks the cycle – a period known as the Calm – before Yu Yevon crafts his “unholy armour” once again. By drawing on the oppressiveness and deathly beliefs of the Western medieval Church – including racial prejudice against the Saracen stand-ins, the Al Bhed – Square created one of the grimmest settings in RPG history.

And this is where we return to the voice acting.

Localisation had always been a sticking point for Square, ever since the over-worked and under-appreciated efforts of Ted Woolsey. Translating a script from another language and making it legible for an English-speaking audience is difficult enough, especially when taking into account the necessary contextualising for culturally distinctive terms, but rendering that into a format that will sound natural when spoken out loud is another story entirely. Square couldn’t afford to mess it up. Guess what happened.

Was it lack of experience? No – with one, crucial exception, the cast is a veritable who’s who of VA talents, among them John DiMaggio, Tara Strong and Gregg Berger. The voice director, Jack Fletcher, was the man behind the stellar English dub of Princess Mononoke and, indeed, The Spirits Within. Was it the script itself? No – Alexander O. Smith, localisation legend, oversaw the translation of a coherent, typo-less text that didn’t compromise the original’s themes or tone.

There’s no clear-cut answer. Smith cites the FFX project as the toughest he’s ever worked on, one involving re-writes galore and all-day stints in the office for weeks at a time. Since the cadences of the Japanese cast were actually tied to triggers within cut-scenes, Fletcher was forced to match the English audio with the Japanese lip syncs. If the English voices overshot their mark, it could literally break the game engine. This necessitated the insertion of vocal tics, awkward pauses and unnatural extensions or contractions of lines, which only hurt the poor performances further. The dub is, quite simply, not very good.

Exhibit A: Yuna. Her character is that of a young woman, barely 17, with an indomitable strength of will, shouldered with the desperate hopes of an entire planet and fully aware that death and martyrdom are all she can hope for if successful. Hedy Burress’ performance paints her as a flapping, panting milksop with all the presence and aura of a wet paper bag. She either sounds like she’s just woken up from a nap or like she’s whispering to avoid waking her parents up in the room next door. The performance is as limp-wristed and insipid as the character is resolute and unyielding.

Through its consistent badness, it distracts the audience from how well Yuna is developed over the course of the game. In her most pivotal scene, where she angrily rejects the thousand-year deceit of the Final Summoning, she is seizing her agency for the first time and wrestling control from a corrupt theocracy in the process. It’s an empowering moment designed for triumphant solidarity – redeeming Spira from its millennium of frozen fear – but Burress makes her sound like a whingeing toddler stamping her feet.

Exhibit B: The laughing scene. Just… the laughing scene:

 

Besides Burress, Tidus’ VA, James Arnold Taylor, receives a lot of flak for his own performance. I disagree. He chimes well with the character; as Tidus matures, slowly coming to realise he’ll never go home, Taylor reflects the development with nuance and empathy, progressing from whiny self-interest to pragmatic altruism. A prime example of Taylor’s ability comes in the interactions between Tidus and Jecht, his errant father. Taylor and Gregg Berger, Jecht’s VA, approach the material perfectly, allowing their strained and surprisingly mature relationship to simmer throughout the game until its devastating conclusion.

Though the dub is largely mediocre there are some real bright spots. Matt McKenzie gives Auron a suitable level of worldly, cynical gruffness; Alex Fernandez imbues the sociopathic Seymour with a convincing amount of authority – belying his ridiculous, Nomura-tastic character design – and Dwight Schultz lends travelling historian Maechen a quivering, somnolent gravitas. Nonetheless, the quality is few and far between and, given the talent involved, it’s baffling as to just how lacklustre the final product is.

Fortunately, that shoddiness isn’t replicated in the game proper. The Active Time Battle system that has stood for six straight games has finally been replaced with the Conditional Turn-based Battle system, or CTB. Designed by Masaki Kobayashi and Toshiro Tsuchida, it’s the best combat system in an RPG. Oh, you heard me. Eschewing the real-time element that defined ATB, CTB reverts to a turn-based style that prioritises considered decisions over knee-jerk reactions. A turn timeline of sorts is located in the upper-right corner of the screen, displaying the order of characters and enemies, and selecting certain actions will alter that order.

This depth of thinking is compounded by the ability to swap characters in and out of your three-member active party at any time for zero cost, giving the player access to a surplus of potential options in combat. The emphasis on choice is mirrored in the Sphere Grid progression system which, while functionally serving as the traditional level up, returns to the customisability that FFIX shunned.

Through gaining ‘Sphere Levels’ in random battles, characters move along the grid to inter-connected ‘nodes’ which contain stat boosts or new abilities. Unlike the level-ups and pre-determined stat increases of its predecessors, the player dictates whether Tidus learns Slow or whether his Strength increases by 1, etc. Beyond opening the door for some insane challenge runs, this means that players can curate, down to the finest detail, how they play the game.

The Sphere Grid gives players the freedom to turn, say, ostensible White Mage Yuna into an unstoppable physical powerhouse. Conversely, as my housemate and SCM contributor Sierra managed, you could turn Blue Mage Kimahri into a Dualcasting, Ultima-slinging abomination. You can even customise your weapons and armour, as well as augmenting Aeon stats, with items won along the way. It’s more tinker-riffic than FFVII or VIII, just with significantly less menu faffing. It’s, honestly, genius, especially now that the game is back on par with FFV in terms of difficulty and demands legitimate strategic thinking in difficult fights.

 

Less intelligent is FFX‘s handling of mini-games and side content. If the player desires ultimate power and the best swag they must earn it, but the last thing they want to be doing is screaming at a drunk chocobo ploughing into suicidal seagulls at Mach 5, or throwing a controller through the wall after miss timing the dodge on the 195th consecutive lightning bolt. Given the exhaustive post-game grind, it’s a shame that the best equipment is walled off behind a litany of dreadful, poorly-designed, RNG-dictated sideshows.

Blitzball – a physics-defying mish-mash of water polo, rugby and football – is the only example to escape intact, but even that’s hampered by a languid pace that doesn’t match the concept at all. It’s a missed opportunity, and not just within the game itself; it still stuns me that Square-Enix never released a stand-alone, fully featured Blitzball title, with all the bells and whistles. Perhaps the corporate instability surrounding FFX put paid to it – we’ll never know.

All things considered, it’s amazing that Square’s internal struggles had no palpable effect on the game. Despite its diminishing resemblance to the entries that came before it, FFX is one of the best examples of the series adapting to change along with the times. To maintain that consistency moving into the next generation, in that kind of  uncertain environment, is simply astonishing. To be among its most compelling entries, both mechanically and narratively, is nothing short of miraculous.

Next time – the whiplash sign of things to come: Final Fantasy X-2.

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