I’ve mentioned Final Fantasy X before on this blog. Back in my very first review, I queried whether the then-latest title in the series, XV, could live up to its bittersweet journey. That journey is one I’ve held in very high regard; my first Final Fantasy, X has stuck with me over the years and as I sat down to replay it for review, I did so with no small amount of glee at the emotions I knew I’d feel and at a game I’ve played countless times before. But, it’s been a good few years since the last time I joined these characters on their pilgrimage, and as with every time before I wondered if this time would see me take something different away from the experience as time and my tastes move inexorably on.
Final Fantasy X (PC, PS2, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, Switch, Xbox One)
Released Dec 2001 | Developed / Published: Squaresoft
Final Fantasy X seems to be all about shaking up franchise conventions. Plenty of games have unlikely protagonists but I feel like this is one of the most unexpected; we play as Tidus, a jock. No, really; Tidus is the star player of the Zanarkand Abes, a blitzball team located in the hyper-technologically-advanced future city of Zanarkand. Tragedy strikes when the city is destroyed by a being known only as Sin (yes it’s a bit on the nose, but it’s appropriate given the game’s religious themes). When Tidus wakes, he finds himself in the land of Spira; he is informed that the destruction of Zanarkand occurred a millennia ago and now the continent lives in a constant cycle of attacks from Sin.
He washes up in the tropical island town of Besaid and there Tidus meets Yuna. As a summoner, her role is to travel across Spira, praying at the temples of Yevon and gathering Aeons to summon in order to combat Sin and bring about a break in the attacks. Seemingly in lieu of anything better to do (and also because she believes him about Zanarkand, I guess) he joins the ranks of her Guardians and becomes one of her sworn protectors.
Given I’ve just bombarded you, dear reader, with a veritable bevy of Final Fantasy nonsense-words (what is blitzball, or Yevon, or any of this?!) you might be unsurprised to know that both the narrative and the characters have had their share of criticism over the years. Still, for all their faults I can’t help but find Final Fantasy X interesting and even challenging at times as the writers attempt to tackle deeper ideas than other franchises and even other Final Fantasy titles.
Trying to effectively summarise and review Final Fantasy X’s narrative is a little daunting. Other games in the series often utilise very typical elements of fantasy stories, sometimes to the point of cliche though it’s easy to forget that tropes like hyper-advanced dead civilisations and elemental crystals have been a part of the franchise since the very first entry. Even when the series veered into science-fantasy with VII and VIII it still remained unmistakably Final Fantasy. X, however, manages to feel so incredibly different; it was and remains still a brilliantly unique game within the series and though I love it for that, it could also be a source of discontent for those who can’t settle in the weird world of Spira.
And believe me when I say it’s a weird world. Whereas prior Final Fantasy games typically took place in fantasy medieval European-themed settings, it’s harder to say where X draws inspiration from. Early cities like Besaid and Kilika feel like Pacific islands, small but vibrant tropical idylls, but progressing further along the continent takes us past places that seem without Earthly inspiration, genuinely alien landscapes that invoke a rare sense of discovery and awe. That feeling extends to much of Spira; the architecture is at times otherworldly, the written language is presented in looping unfathomable glyphs, and even the fashion is wild and wacky.
There’s always something intriguing buried in Final Fantasy narratives and for X it’s an obsession with cycles and spheres. Life in Spira is defined by a cycle of death and rebirth as Sin attacks, is rebuffed long enough for life to rebuild, and then returns again to extract a deadly toll. Spheres are another constantly recurring image; blitzball stadiums are huge suspended spheres of water, crystalline spheres are used to record videos and even the local prayer to Yevon sees the faithful make a sign of a sphere as they pray. It all represents unending cycles and the stability that comes with it. Many Final Fantasy games have these deeper sub-narratives that are worth delving into and although I do think there are stronger ones in other games, I appreciate X’s a lot. The way the characters interact with these themes are among the best moments in the game, and although perhaps some elements become easily predicted as you play, it doesn’t ever threaten to lessen the impact.
Final Fantasy X is a very linear game though and I’ve seen plenty of criticism leveled at it for that. Fans of previous entries in the franchise will be familiar with and expect to be able to explore an overworld but X eschews the convention. Instead Yuna’s pilgrimage takes her on a straight road through Spira and there’s little opportunity for deviation or dallying. This does allow for an unprecedented level of control and direction over the pacing of the narrative and in a story-heavy game like Final Fantasy this is a positive in my opinion. Still, it’s a bit of a shock to series veterans and the linearity, coupled with the lengthy cutscenes, runs the risk of alienating fans of what we can now see are the “older” or “classic” style Final Fantasy games. It’s not an exaggeration to point out X as the moment where Square’s vision for the series and how it is presented changed.
In my opinion Final Fantasy X’s battle system is the best in the series bar none. A number of prior titles used ATB, where characters wait for a bar to fill up before they take an action but X uses an alternative system called CTB. CTB is a much more traditional system in which turn order is clearly displayed and turns are taken without any of the time constraints of the more action-oriented ATB. Through the use of skills players can manipulate the turn order; for example, casting Haste gives your characters more turns, while attacks which cause Slow or delaying effects knock enemies back down the turn list. Some battles let you use contextual commands to give yourself an advantage, such as an early boss fight in which you can split your party up to ambush an enemy trying to take advantage of the 3D field of battle.
The party can be switched in and out freely during battle, giving you significant tactical flexibility; this is especially true later on in the game once you have a full party. It becomes a relevant option to players because certain characters are more or less useful in specific situations and you need not find yourself at a disadvantage due to your party setup. For example, flying enemies are agile and melee-focused characters like Tidus will struggle to land hits; however you can switch him out in favour of magic users or even Wakka, whose strong-armed Blitzball throws can smack enemies out of the sky.
Flexibility of the party is augmented by the use of the Sphere Grid. Final Fantasy X throws aside the traditional level system of most JRPGs; you do not earn experience points from battles and you do not increase in level as you progress through the game. Instead characters gain Sphere Levels, which can be spent to move across the Sphere Grid. The grid is a vast board filled with modules which can be activated in order to unlock stat boosts and new abilities. Each character starts at a different place on the grid, and the path they can immediately take is roughly analogous to the class they represent; Rikku gets Thief abilities, and Yuna gets White Mage stuff, for example. However, as you progress through the board eventually it opens up and characters can move into new areas as you see fit, allowing you to customise their growth and essentially cross-class them. As with any system like this, it has its share of criticisms. Chief among them is probably that it can feel like innovation for innovation’s sake; I’m personally quite happy with it, but it is easy to see why someone would become exasperated with it as you need to micromanage each character’s progression whereas perhaps the game might have been better served by a standard levelling mechanic.
A slightly more traditional levelling mechanic is included in the game’s main minigame, blitzball. A kind of hybrid of soccer, rugby, and water polo, blitzball seems to be the only sport on Spira. Conceptually it’s as wacky as the rest of X’s world; teams of players dive into a huge sphere of water and try to pass, shoot, tackle, and score goals on their way to victory. Players are forced to play only 1 game of it during the story, but thereafter it becomes a much larger minigame that has a decent level of depth (har har) as Tidus can build his new team, the Besaid Aurochs, by recruiting from a huge amount of characters that are met during his travels through Spira. A lot of players start off naff but earn exp as you play games and before long you can compete in leagues and tournaments in a kind of Final Fantasy-does-underwater FIFA experience. It’s not for everyone – I personally found it wildly frustrating – but it does reap some serious rewards.
One area where Final Fantasy X seems to get unambiguous praise is the soundtrack. Considered some of longtime series composer Nobuo Uematsu’s finest work, here he was joined by Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano; the three combined to create a masterful score. Some of the pieces have entered into what is essentially Final Fantasy music godhood; none exemplify this more than the stunningly sombre To Zanarkand. I’m not sure what inspired Uematsu to include the extremely 2001-metal song Otherworld on the same soundtrack as To Zanarkand but I’m so glad he did because this is my jam! Any discussion of the soundtrack that doesn’t mention the Hymn of the Fayth is frankly incomplete; the melody reappears time and time again as a leitmotif that ties together the central narrative around Yevon, and every time it gives me brilliant goosebumps.
There are of course some other standouts that I will happily draw your attention towards. I love how peppy and upbeat the brass makes the Battle Theme feel; it maybe lacks the gravitas of some other entries but makes up for it by being hugely fun. The dual guitars of The Sight of Spira feel warming and comforting, and Attack is another favourite; I love the ringing snare that punctuates the tense hectic feel.
The HD remaster of Final Fantasy X also comes with the option to switch to a new, arranged soundtrack. Some of the differences are blessedly subtle – it would be hard to screw up To Zanarkand, after all. Sometimes it feels like very little has been done, but when you have songs on the level of that or Farplane Sending, it hardly matters. You also can’t go wrong with Suteki da ne, one of Final Fantasy‘s most well-known and beloved songs.
The addition of real violins and the rapidly panning synths are of superb benefit to Hurry!, and the use of guitars and a more powerful low end give a bit more weight to the Battle Theme but at the expense of a bit of the joy. Some songs do suffer a little from the remaster, such as The Sight of Spira, which features production that is too crisp to the point where it eliminates the humanity in the track – it saddens me that you can no longer hear the scrape of fingers on the fret. On the other end of the spectrum, the remastering and re-arranging of Jecht’s Theme is significantly better than the original as it’s actually listenable.
I love so much about Final Fantasy X. I love the themes, I love the characters, and I love the battle system, and that’s the brunt of the game right there in those three things. That said, the move to PS2 brought with it even more self-indulgence on Square’s part as lengthy and unskippable cutscenes and animations pervade even more of the game, and even the gameplay itself, such as the summons and any special attacks. X represents such a huge shift in Final Fantasy; prior games were similar in many respects, and there was a comforting familiarity between them, but X throws a lot of that out of the window. It achieves what VIII failed to do in drastically shaking up the franchise. Whether that was for the better or worse depends on your experience with the subsequent games but regardless of the impact it had, on its own I still love Final Fantasy X. Its madcap world, its battle system, and the interesting themes that make up Spira and which our characters challenge and interact with are the reasons I can come back time and time again.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.