Design Thoughts: Final Fantasy X

Note: I played the HD remastered version for PC on Steam.

Intro

Final Fantasy has always been a franchise that’s looked really interesting to me, but also one that I didn’t think I could really get into. Visually, the game is very impressive, and I adore the fantasy genre in any medium. It was just one of those games that I really wanted to like, but couldn’t. And now I realize that’s because I never really gave it the time it deserved.

My previous experience of a few hours into 12 and 13 received the same reactions from pretty much everyone I’ve talked to who enjoys the franchise: “Unlucky.” I plan on revisiting those games as well, but my perception of Final Fantasy was the thing that was holding me back from actually playing any of the games and enjoying them. Here’s what’s been keeping me away from Final Fantasy games up until now:

Turn-based: these games typically aren’t my style. They’re a little too slow for me, and don’t really meet my needs as a player (this is just a personal preference).

Party-style: Ugh. I know I’m going to just want to level up my favorite character and not care about any of the others at all.

The Grind: This is probably the thing that’s kept me out of the MMORPG genre for so long (though I’m determined to give that another go sometime, too). What really drives me in these games is not the system or the leveling (apparently some people actually play games specifically for the grind. Huh.), but the narrative.

These three things in combination have a way of making the game feel less like an immersive experience and more like…a game. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing games that feel like games. But again, the experience I look for in this genre is typically at odds with the experience these style games actually offer. I can happily say that this game really proved me wrong.

Positives

The Narrative:

The Characters: Square manages to create a large cast of deep characters, each with their own backstory and motivations. I never felt like any of the characters felt flat or were direct stereotypes. I cared about each of their histories enough to be interested in learning more, and that’s what really drove me to continue playing the game in the difficult areas.

The World: The world building in this game is amazing. None of these places are your typical “middle-earth” setting that we’ve all seen before, and the beauty of the landscape is quite inspiring. The world’s history, religion, politics, etc. all feel believable and interesting.

The System:

Party-based: Each character offers something unique to the gameplay, and feels powerful in their own way*. You can’t just use the same 3 character formation the entire game, and the enemies that you face will constantly present you with obstacles that make use of everyone’s unique abilities.

Leveling (Sphere Grid): The sphere grid is a really interesting alternate system to leveling up your characters. It looks very complicated at first, but it’s actually really fast and easy to learn. Even after having played through the entire game, I never really felt like I took full advantage of what this system had to offer me. And I think that’s brilliant! There’s a ton of potential in this system for character customization, and it drives a desire to re-play the game and really see what you can do with it. But for players like me, you can easily get by without hours of time just thinking about the best possible use of your spheres.

Enemies: Every enemy you face has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each Boss fight adds a new and challenging mechanic to play with. They also stick to a theme, usually location-based, which helps them feel a little more like they belong in the world to begin with and aren’t just there because the game needs a Boss now.

The Soundtrack:

This one’s pretty obvious. Seriously, who doesn’t love the soundtrack of these games? To Zanarkand is now one of my favorite tracks from any game.

Possible Improvements

    • Random encounters generally feel really bad as the player. A lot of times they’re just interruptions from the current task and cause frustration. Turning down the frequency of encounters could help, but it’s also probable that this would set you back in levels if you don’t go out of your way to find more fights and level up. This could possibly be fixed by tuning overall experience gained from battles.
    • Levels are very simple and bare and leave a lot to be desired. The world building is fantastic and the specific locations are beautiful, but the overall design of each level boils down to just holding down the joystick. I would love there to be more involved with traversal, more interaction: Blocked paths that need to be cleared, ledges to climb, etc.
    • Puzzles: some of these were really frustrating, not because the puzzle was particularly difficult, but because the game constantly wanted to get in my way of trying to solve them. There are so many slow animations to watch for simple and repetitive actions like picking up or placing a sphere. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear if the action you’ve just performed was a piece of the puzzle or just plain wrong. And then you have to watch the animation again. It actually discourages trying new things.
    • The pacing I thought was good overall, but it felt like things were starting to drag on at the end. It was Boss fight after Boss fight with no end in sight. I felt like the payoff for beating one was cheapened by the fact that there was another immediately after. Some of them don’t even further the narrative, which even further cheapens the victory. I’m a little torn here because I thought the gameplay scenarios they offered were interesting and unique, so I’d rather not see them just cut from the game entirely.
  • Overall Gameplay Clarity:
    • Sensor: I hated this mechanic in Kingdom Hearts, too. Knowing an enemies HP and stats, resistances, etc. allow the player to make informed, strategic decisions that would otherwise be impossible. If an enemy has a resistance to Fire and Ice magic, but you don’t know that, your fight begins to rely less on player choice and more on luck.
    • There are a lot of mechanics in the game that are never explained, but knowledge of them is important to strategic gameplay decisions. I played the entire game without really understanding how the turn system works. I know that speed/agility allow you to get your turn before slower characters, however there are strange anomalies like your character will get two turns before another even gets one. I once had a single Boss take FIVE turns in a row before I even had a chance to respond. Why? He hadn’t done that before, why did he do it just then?
  • There’s a bit of narrative repetition in the game that made me roll my eyes a few times. “Really? This happened again?” This one’s honestly not a huge deal, but changing it would be an improvement nonetheless.
  • Kimahri is a really interesting character, but his gameplay doesn’t seem to fit in any specific situation where another character’s doesn’t. He has a cool mechanic where he can learn a whole bunch of different moves through Lancet, but they all require fully charged overdrive meter, and the pay-off isn’t good enough to justify using him for long periods of time when you have someone strong like Auron sitting on the bench. He would probably work better if all of his learned techniques weren’t reliant on overdrive.

Conclusion

I know that visually this post makes it seem like I thought there were more problems than positives with this game, but it’s a little hard to quantify the effects of compelling characters or a good soundtrack. Yuna has become one of my favorite characters, and Final Fantasy X one of my favorite games. If you’re like me and haven’t played it yet due to preconceptions of what you think the game is like, put those aside and try it out for yourself. Even if you do decide it’s not your type of game, there’s still so much you can learn from playing it.

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