In the wake of the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, in all its fanfare, it feels like an auspicious time to look back on the long, winding road that got us to this point. Final Fantasy is a series that evokes wildly complicated feelings. Deep nostalgia, and a love for the clever mechanics and grand, operatic stories draw generations of fans to the series, but the series has grown, to a certain extent, into a bloated parody of itself. Micro-management, linearity, atrocious character design, and incomprehensible motivation have become some of the series hallmarks. Final Fantasy XV seems to acknowledge and seek a departure from the sins of the past, breaking with the turn based gameplay of previous titles. However, it’s worth seeing what brought us to this point. Reader be warned, this retrospective will be spoiler heavy.
I chose to start with Final Fantasy X for three primary reasons. First and foremost, it seems to be the complex crossroads between new and old in the Final Fantasy series. It retains the charm and grandeur of earlier titles, and some of the best combat of the franchise, but in story, is a tangled, messy snarl, acted out (for the first time in the series) with high school quality voice acting. Character designs launch from the somewhat impractical to the truly absurd, and the strict plot progression laid the groundwork for FFXIII’s infamous hallway. Second, it was both subject to near universal praise upon release (Famitsu even naming it the greatest game of all time,) and is a common subject of scorn today. That says something in our modern sensibility, in the evolution of games or of this franchise specifically, has lead to a massive reevaluation
It also happens to be my entry point into the series. I first played the game at about 12, getting it, along with a PS2, as a holiday gift (I had won a DDR home edition kit in a raffle, and of course my parents had to get something for me to play it on.) An older girl in my neighborhood had had it earlier, and I remember peering over her shoulder at the glossy strategy guide, filled with monsters and complex charts. I coveted the game immensely, and was thrilled to have it. Upon play, I was torn. I was intrigued and fascinated, and thrilled to learn more, but deeply in over my head. The rules barely made sense to me, and the side quests were all far beyond my ability. But, with a little bit of luck, I was able to muddle through to get hopelessly stuck at the final boss.
I recently picked up the game again, this time in HD remaster, remembering being fascinated but utterly baffled. I had assumed I was too young, but today, still, though for altogether different reasons, I am baffled. The game is equal parts genius and madness, its strongest suits inextricably tied to it’s deepest lows. It’s the height of what the Final Fantasy series could do, and the first indicator of what it would become.
The game follows, in theory, Tidus, a star blitzball player (think water polo, but sillier) from the futuristic city of Zanarkand. After a Godzilla-esque monster named Sin attacks the city, he is whisked away to the the world of Spira, a fairly miserable fantasy land that has trouble developing more than rudimentary settlements due to constant risk of attacks from Sin. He quickly hooks on with Yuna, the games true protagonist, and her party of guardians, on a religious pilgrimage to defeat Sin. The plot is made more complex by Sin’s true identity as Tidus’s hated and estranged father, and the nature of the pilgrimage as a suicide mission of little effect, but the basic structure is a straight, twistless progression from temple to temple. Most irritatingly, Sin has a habit of showing up and teleporting the party wherever the plot demands they go without much in the way of explanation. Along the way they’re dogged by Seymour, a priest, who’s motives make little sense other than the melodramatic omnicidal madness typical of Final Fantasy villains.
Starting with the positive, the combat is spectacular. Battles are fast paced and easy to track, and require strategy and planning. Ease of use features, such as the turn order being displayed on screen at all times, and the ability to switch party members in and out within battles are a godsend, and would be well adopted by other JRPGs. It’s worth noting, though, the difficulty curve is a little odd, the game becoming stunningly easy at about the point all subquests are completed.
With that out of the way, it’s impossible to proceed in talking about FFX without discussing the famously maligned voice acting. Indeed, if one types “FFX Voice Acting” into a google search bar, the next suggested word is “terrible”. A first not only for the series, but one of the earliest voiced video games period, it’s abundantly obvious that direction for the medium was, charitably speaking, an undeveloped art. The voice acting though, to be fair, is mixed. Many of the actors came from and went on to notable careers in voice over work, such as James Arnold Taylor as Tidus, and Tara Strong as Rikku, who’s talent manages to shine through even here. Apocryphally, voice actors were told to focus, almost exclusively on the lip flaps, leading to lines being rushed or stretched, or translated awkwardly. I would be inclined to believe it, in that scenes where characters are providing voice over without being shown tend to be perfectly fine. In fact, Yuna’s goodbye sphere (an ostensible suicide note for when she completes her pilgrimage,) is poignantly acted and heart-achingly sad. Then again, constant flubbed lines, some repeated (“Shtay away from the shummoner!”,) lead to constant immersion breaks.
Final Fantasy X’s notorious laughing scene
The costume design, on the other hand, will not get such an easy pass from me. Good costumes should inform something about the character and world they adorn and support. Tidus’ costume of bright yellow lederhosen and hoodie, for a blitzball player from a futuristic civilization, does neither of these things. Incredibly noticeably, the island of Besaid, our starting point, has no unifying sense of style. All hailing from the island, Wakka wears a slightly more practical version of the blitzball uniform, Lulu an insane monstrosity of belts and feathers that looks like she tripped head first through a Hot Topic (less than ideal for tropical heat,) and while lovely, Yuna’s outfit somehow makes the most and least sense. While her floral kimono is very reminiscent of a Japanese miko, or shrine maiden, it fits nowhere in the universe. Yuna, hailing from Bevelle, growing in Besaid, and being raised by the temple, wears the fashion of none, her Japanese garments looking completely out of place. Only the Al Bhed escape critique, mostly wearing light clothes suited to desert life, or grease-monkey jumpsuits that highlight their mechanical skill.
However, no design critique could be complete without Maester Seymour Guado, one of, if not the, worst character designs I’ve ever seen. A supposed man of god, he nonetheless is the only character sporting tattoos, in this case inexplicable twin chest emblems resembling some sort of large jungle cat (noting the game was made in Japan, where tattoos are an immediate indicator of bad character, or at the very least criminality.) He wears an open kimono, found among none of the games peoples, least of all the strange, insect like Guado whom he leads, who wear, as a whole, western inspired armors and court clothes. His hairstyle, giant immobile electric blue antlers, is so violently improbable as to be laughable. The overall effect, when paired with his effete whisper and dramatic gestures, comes across less as menacingly villainous, steeped in religious authority and power, and more like community theater kabuki.
Maester Seymour, in his Bowie best
While the design, acting, and story structure are the most commonly derided elements, it’s the strange details and symbolism that strike me as the most confusing. A scene mid-game stands out, where Tidus psychoanalyzes himself and in an epiphany pinpoints that his anger at his father stems from bitter, Oedipal rage at him for monopolizing his mothers attention. The scene is equal parts shockingly clear, deeply uncomfortable, and hilarious in it’s sudden deadpan sincerity. What pushes this from a curiosity, though, is that Oedipal rage becomes a full fledged motif. Tidus mirrors Seymour, who’s motive for his near incomprehensible villainy is revealed, in a late game sidequest, to be anger at his parents for separating him from his mother in turning her into a Fayth, complementing the near erotic intensity with which he summons his mothers Aeon, Anima (the Jungian name for the feminine self, and, in FFX, a giant yonic clam demon in bondage garb.) Subtle, this game is not.
The lack of subtlety reaches its peak though with the religious symbolism. The game could fairly aptly be called “zombie Catholics versus steampunk Jews”. The games central theocratic religious/governmental authority, the Church of Yevon, is a clear critique on the Catholic church, and it’s corruption is so complete as to be cartoonish. Run by the lingering spirits of the dead, complicit in the preservation of public ignorance on Sin’s origin and true cyclic nature, and enacting a wide-scale genocide against the vaguely Semitic Al-Bhed, they come across as a deeply hammy parody of religious corruption. But the vague Christian elements (the obsession with sin and repentance, played out on a global scale, the strict dogma against behaviors and practices, the heavy focus on martyrdom, and the Fayth as eternal saints, preserved in relic in the temples) colors the entire game, and when paired with Yuna’s Japanese character design and pseudo-Buddhist desires to “free Spira from the cycle of death”, lend the game a somewhat grotesque nationalism.
Yuna, a Japanese priestess in a Western religious world
However, the most puzzling element that leaves me scratching my head long after beating the game is Tidus’ true nature. Late in the game, he’s revealed to basically be an Aeon, a summoned memory of the ruins of the ancient city of Zanarkand, brought forth by the dreams of it’s entombed dead. This opens up a thousand questions about him and his father, such as how an Aeon could be made into an Aeon (as was the case with his father,) and the ability of Sin to travel into the dream Zanarkand. The physics become a twisted mess, and plot holes are quickly glazed over. Even further complicating things is the hand wave of his return in the games sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, which deserves its own post. Even Yuna’s affections for Tidus become creepy in this light, much like the classic noir film “Laura”, romancing the memory of a dead man.
Despite all the flaws, though, the game remains incredibly playable. Combat is fun, level progression on the games sphere grid satisfying and customizable (especially in the advanced grid of the international release and HD remake,) and the game has another stellar soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu, reusing the musical centerpiece, “Suteki da Ne” as a spectacular leitmotif. As an aside, the song continues the lovably schlocky tradition of Final Fantasy games having a “My Heart Will Go On”-style sentimental ballad to spectacular results. The historical significance can’t also be understated, hype and praise for the game catapulting the PS2’s success, and cementing it as the console of choice for RPG production in that console era.
But in the end, the game feels hollow, and strangely uncomfortable. Moments of sentiment are contrasted with moments of incomprehensible action. The universe feels slipshod and incohesive, and motivations are left unexplored for important characters. The excess and lack of focus that would become series hallmarks start to shine through here, and only now are we starting to see an attempt to address the problems that arose here. In the end, the game stands much like one of it’s own Fayth: a pillar of preserved historical permanence, summoning forth a strange dream, but in the end, a stage in a tragic cycle needing to be broken.