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Final Fantasy X
Publisher: SquareSoft (2001, PlayStation 2)
Ever since the early days of interactive fiction, game developers have been wondering -- how does one tell a story using video games as a medium? The advent of the laserdisc -- and later, the CD-ROM -- gave developers the wrong idea, by churning out full motion video titles that, while cinematic, had limited user inputs.
For a long time, Western developers favored the graphic adventure as a means of storytelling, while the Japanese preferred role playing games, which replaced the mind-bending puzzles with battles and character building. At the forefront of this movement has been Final Fantasy, which has been consistently impressive, partially because of the huge budget and manpower put behind them.
At the pinnacle of JRPG storytelling is Final Fantasy X. It was voted in 2006 as the best video game of all time by the readers of Famitsu, the premiere Japanese video game magazine. At the core of the story is Tidus, a young athlete whisked away to another world. This land, dubbed Spira, is a gorgeous tropical paradise, yet is under the constant threat of a giant monster named Sin.
Tidus eventually join a pilgrimage to stop it, joining along with a young summoner named Yuna. Final Fantasy VIII told its love story two years before FFX, but hiccups in execution -- including a divisive main character -- allowed room for improvement. Tidus is much brighter and friendlier, even if he is a bit whiny. He joins the pilgrimage mostly because Yuna has something of a crush on him.
It actually tells a compelling story this time around, and the romantic climax -- featured on the cover of the American manual -- is far more involving than the similar scene in FFVIII.
Spira is one of the most gorgeously realized worlds yet rendered into a video game. While Square's mediocre beat-em-up The Bouncer was meant to show off what kind of graphical tricks the PS2 could pull off, Final Fantasy X was Square's first real RPG on the system, and they didn't spare any expense.
The world is loosely inspired by the Okinawa region, which is why this game feels more Japanese than any of its culturally neutral predecessors. One of the reasons Final Fantasy stands out from its peers is the way its game worlds refuse to be pigeonholed into genre classifications -- none can be defined strictly as "medieval" or "sci-fi". Although some inhabit the nebulous zone in between those descriptions, Spira defies pretty much everything and is by far the most unique of all.
It's a strange world, filled with its own culture, religion, and even metaphysics, and the whole game is about how these clash with not only Tidus' feelings, but the player's as well. At the very least, Final Fantasy X's world gives some context to Tetsuya Nomura's occasionally outlandish character designs, even if some, like the goth girl Lulu, still seem to exist more as a fetish object than a true inhabitant of the land.
Most of this involvement comes from the narrative, which is far more involving than any game before -- or, arguably -- after it. Before Final Fantasy X, major plot points were handled by squat little sprites or awkwardly constructed polygonal models, both with very limited ranges of emotion.
Almost everything here is represented with a fully animated, fully voiced cutscene. Even the dialogue boxes of the non-voiced sections are gone, replaced with subtitles. Whereas many of the previous Final Fantasy games were games with story elements, this is a story with gaming elements
However, sometimes the narrative pushes just a little too hard. It's hard to say there are any real dungeons in Final Fantasy X -- most of the adventuring requires walking in a straight line, with an occasional branch that leads to treasure. It takes a few hours before the game loosens its reins and stops giving tutorials. This ensures a well-paced story, but it also drastically limits the sense of freedom, an element which is already pretty rare in most JRPGs.
There are also tons upon tons of cutscenes, all of which are unskippable. It also highlights another problem -- if the player doesn't like the story, there's very little of worth here. The battle system, which ditches the Active Time Battle system of the previous Final Fantasy games, is fast and fun, but the character development system -- the Sphere Grid -- is pretty lacking. Even if you didn't care of Squall or Rinoa's antics in FFVIII, at least you had the Junction system to play around with.
In Final Fantasy X, the most interesting parts of the Sphere Grid don't open up until the later portions of the game, far too late for those who aren't immediately drawn in by the tensions between Tidus and Yuna. It doesn't help that, like many of the Final Fantasy games, it tends to devolve into ludicrousness -- the monster that terrorizes Spira is actually Tidus' drunken father, the kind of wholly absurd metaphor for filial tension that would potentially get one laughed out of their high school creative writing class.
But again, like most JRPGs, once you accept it on its own terms -- silly melodrama and all -- it remains a completely original, fascinating, even emotional tale. As a piece of video game storytelling, Final Fantasy X doesn't quite reaches the heights of, say, Metal Gear Solid 2 or BioShock, both of which use the medium in ways that other kinds of fiction can't.
But as a cinematic experience, featuring interesting characters and a beautifully realized alternate world, it walks an agreeable line between narrative and gameplay, even if it tends to err too far from the gameplay side.