Twenty Years Later: What Makes Final Fantasy X So Great

Two decades ago, the PlayStation 2 game library got one of its best additions. Final Fantasy X was the first game in the series on Sony’s second console, and promised cutting-edge graphics, a fantastic soundtrack, fully-voiced dialogue, and an unforgettable story. Looking back on it, it hit all of those marks by 2001 standards. Now, I know I’m not posting this on the actual anniversary of Final Fantasy X’s (initial) release, but I do this blog for fun and I have other shit to worry about (like a job). Lay off me. I write when I can.

Anyway, I wanted to give some thoughts on one of my favorite games of all time in honor of its twentieth anniversary. Up until I played this game, I had no experience with turn-based RPGs, except for that time I tried to play FFVII at age 8 and didn’t understand anything that was going on. I don’t count that. I was a little moron. So as far as anyone is concerned, FFX opened my eyes to this (mostly) wonderful series. But what makes it such a gem? Why do I consider it to be one of the best in the series? I feel like simply listing a few words in response to those questions doesn’t do the game justice, so here we go. Hold onto your Chocobos.

That Intro

Whether you love or hate the “Otherworld” song that plays during the first few minutes, it’s hard to deny this adventure starts with a bang. After the somber opening and a brief introduction to Tidus and his home city of Zanarkand, all hell breaks loose. A visually impressive cutscene that begins with an intense game of the fictional sport Blitzball turns into the destruction of the city itself.

It doesn’t let up when the cinematic ends, either. You gain control of Tidus and are met by Auron, a mysterious old friend of your father’s. He leads as you attempt to escape the destruction. This segment acts as the game’s combat tutorial, but it is so seamlessly woven into the narrative that I never found myself wanting to get to the action. This was the action. It all culminates when you run from an endless swarm of winged creatures, only to find yourself directly under the huge monster’s… uh… sphincter? Probably not a butthole, but it’s a hole, and it has the power to send you back in time. Tidus screams as he’s sucked in, and his adventure begins.

A Fantastic Spin on Turn-Based Combat

I admit I was completely new to turn-based combat as a whole when I picked this game up, so I couldn’t see the it as an “evolution” at the time. Now that I’ve had plenty of further experience with turn-based RPGs, I have no shame in stating that FFX still has one of my favorite battle systems. ATB (Active Time Battle) bars that give a character a turn when theirs fills up are nowhere to be seen. Instead, you can take as long as you’d like to select an action for each character. The order of turns is shown as a sidebar containing thumbnails for each combatant’s face, and you plan your tactics according to that. This order, of course, can be switched up if, say, I cast haste on someone, giving them a higher turn frequency.

Most of the Final Fantasy games have some kind of ultimate attack for each character. In this, it’s called “Overdrive” and is enabled its bar is full. The great thing here is that you can set the conditions under which each character’s Overdrive bar fills. Want it to fill when they take damage? Howbout when an ally is knocked out? That’s an option too.

These abilities, when activated, aren’t just on autopilot once you select them, either. There’s a mini-game of sorts attached to each one. For one character, you have to press a sequence of buttons as fast as possible (the faster you do this, the more damage Overdrive deals). For another you need to press the action button when a marker passes a certain point on a bar. I can’t mention all this without pointing out the one that drives me nuts. The black mage, Lulu, has an overdrive that requires you to rotate both thumbsticks as fast as possible to increase your Overdrive potency. You have two options here. The first is to rotate them at a brisk pace, dealing mediocre damage. The second is to use one palm to rotate both sticks, dealing a massive amount of damage to your enemies, your hand, and your controller. Thanks, Square.

But overall, great combat system.

The Cutscenes

My goodness, they are gorgeous. Even today, the FMV sequences are a sight to behold. While there’s still an obvious fantasy art style applied to them, this may be the closest the series has ever gotten to realism with its character models in proportion, texture, and mannerisms.

The graphics alone aren’t what makes these cutscenes great, either. Many of them are just a blast to watch. From all-out battles to cool-as-hell set pieces, each one is a damn treat. One of my personal favorites sees the characters (minus Lulu because that would be impossible to animate) literally grinding down steel anchor cables to crash a villain’s wedding.

The icing on the cake is that there is a movie theater in one of the game’s main cities that allows you to purchase and view any FMV cutscene you’ve already seen organically. I may have spent an embarrassing amount of time there.

The Emotion

From the start, the game lets you know that this isn’t just some fantasy story about slaying cool monsters. We open with a quiet campfire scene set to a somber piano track, followed by the narrator (Tidus) saying, “Listen to my story. This may be our last chance.” Clearly some shit has happened, and more is about to happen. This has taken a toll on him.

There are heavy themes of loss and love in this game, and there are naturally emotions tied to both. Nearly every key character has dealt with loss. Wakka’s brother (and Lulu’s boyfriend) died fighting sin, just as Yuna’s father did (albeit under different circumstances). Tidus lost his father, though that’s a complicated relationship that I’ll detail later. The list goes on. The thing here is that these aren’t things that are simply mentioned as a lazy excuse to motivate the characters. They’re fleshed out and made believable through the characters’ words and actions. They explain the anger Wakka feels, the hatred Tidus holds, and the guilt Auron can’t overcome.

Not all of the emotion on display is negative, though. There are heartwarming scenes that genuinely make the player feel good. Wakka and Rikku’s dynamic being resolved in an otherwise gut-wrenching exchange is incredibly powerful. However, it’s the budding relationship of Tidus and Yuna that steals the show. There are hints (and even some outright proclamations) here and there that these two like each other, and it comes to a head when Yuna is having a heartbreaking revelation about her circumstances. She’s realizing just how many people are depending on her, and it’s causing her to have a breakdown. She feels alone, but she isn’t. What starts as Tidus comforting her turns into them finally accepting their feelings for each other and making out underwater for some reason. But this isn’t just some “let’s have fun to get your mind off of everything” scenario. It’s, quite frankly, a beautiful moment between two characters you’ve been rooting for since the start.

I did mention loss being a heavy theme in this game, and that’s something felt by the player in droves when it’s time for the credits to roll. Upon Sin’s final defeat, Tidus knows that he will essentially “fade away” from Spira and be returned to his timeline. As the characters are all standing on the deck of their airship after the battle, this process begins. Just as these two characters fall in love, they’re torn from each other, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. It’s a gut-punch in the midst of their victory, and there’s a huge hole in the center of their happiness. Kinda sucks, but damn, it’s effective. My eyes are sweating a bit.

I can’t talk about all the emotion without mentioning the incredible soundtrack. Almost every track is memorable, but the ones like Zanarkand and Suteki Da Ne that play during the heavy-hitting scenes are spot-on. Seriously, give that sucker a listen.

The Character Development

Plenty of Final Fantasy titles have decent character progression, but rarely have I come across a game that features dramatic, believable arcs for every main party member (and even some side characters). In addition to the obvious growth in power, you see strong bonds form between these guardians and their summoner. I’ve saved this section for last, because there’s a lot to it. I feel like it wouldn’t do it justice if I gave a general reason the development was good without delving into each individual arc.

Wakka

Wakka is an athlete who is content in his mediocrity. “Doing your best” seems noble, and it is to a degree. But it has let him fall into a trap of mediocrity. Over the course of the game, there is a growing drive within him not just to do his best, but to win. This drive isn’t limited to Blitzball, either. It’s woven into his desire to defeat Sin once and for all, rather than temporarily silencing it.

More importantly, Wakka begins his journey with a deep-seeded hatred for machina (machinery). His little brother was killed by Sin years ago after choosing to fight with a mechanical weapon rather than the sword his big brudda gave him. That, mixed with the fact that Yevon (the main religion in their world of Spira) states Sin exists because of humanity’s reliance on machines. As the game progresses, the lies and hypocrisy of Yevon are recognized by Wakka, and he realizes how misplaced his hatred has been.

Lulu

Then we have Lulu, the high-strung black mage whose outfit is fifty percent belts, forty percent cleavage, and ten percent actual fabric. Upon her introduction, she has no trust for Tidus. A devout follower of Yevon, she sees him as an outsider who will steer Yuna (the summoner on the pilgrimage) away from her path. As the story unfolds, she warms up to Tidus and eventually approves of their relationship.

A more interesting aspect that isn’t quite as emphasized is the fact that she was a guardian to a different summoner two years before Yuna’s pilgrimage. This summoner lost her life trying to obtain a powerful Aeon (entities the summoners call for aid in the fight against Sin). Lulu never overcame the grief that this event caused, and shows rare emotion when confronting this part of her past during a (very worthwhile) side quest.

Kimahri

One of my favorite non-human races from the Final Fantasy series have only made an appearance in FFX. The Ronsos are horned lion-like humanoids driven by pride and honor. Yuna’s protector since childhood, Kimahri Ronso begins the journey as a silent enigma. Tidus’s first real encounter with him comes in the form of a one-on-one battle. Like Lulu, he doesn’t trust the “outsider” either. Several hours into the game, he is a bit less hostile and utters his first words of the game, much to Tidus’s surprise.

The above summary isn’t a truly impressive character arc in itself, but that’s because this Ronso’s real story lies in other matters. There are a few key moments on your journey in which Kimahri is bullied by two members of his tribe, Yenke and Bihran, who are responsible for removing most of his horn years ago. This event has cast a shadow of shame on the poor dude ever since. You see him fight back against this duo here and there, but it all culminates when the party arrives at Mount Gagazet, the home on the Ronso. Kimahri finally has a showdown with the bullies, and kicks their feline asses. This ultimately earns him the respect he has been missing for years, and he is accepted as a mighty warrior among his people.

Rikku

Though I did say every party member has a great arc, Rikku’s is probably the weakest. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but her transformation isn’t quite as dramatic as the others. This is partly because, aside from a brief appearance in the opening hours of the game, she doesn’t properly join the party until much later than the other members. She’s a member of the Al Bhed, shunners of Yevon who speak their own language and heavily use machina.

Much of Rikku’s arc is tied to the summoner Yuna, who is also her cousin. This, mixed with Wakka’s disdain for the Al Bhed, makes for a murky dynamic within the party. Eventually, Rikku fully commits to the role of Yuna’s guardian, vowing to find a way to prevent the summoner from dying in the final confrontation with Sin. The cool thing here is that at the time she states her intentions, the game has convinced the player that there is no way to truly defeat Sin aside from the cycle of its death and rebirth. Her plan seems like nothing more than wishful thinking, but she really does end up finding a way. Through it all, she never loses her happy-go-lucky attitude, but she definitely gains the maturity required to have a hand in saving the world.

Auron

Auron essentially the designated dad of Yuna’s entourage. He’s the old, gruff, stoic guy who has definitely seen some shit. He also seems to know a little bit too much about things, but these things are addressed through a drip feed throughout the narrative.

Tidus has known Auron for roughly ten years, when his dad Jecht disappeared. Auron told him that he knew his father, but the circumstances surrounding that relationship were always murky. As it turns out, Jecht was transported to this timeline, and along with Auron, became a guardian to Yuna’s father, Braska, when he went on his pilgrimage. They journeyed together, and it was Jecht who sacrificed himself to become Braska’s final aeon in the battle against Sin. I’ll forgive you if the last few sentences were hard to follow, but basically, Jecht and Auron were buds.

Auron is the only surviving member of his first pilgrimage, and has been dealing with survivor’s guilt ever since. It became his mission to protect Jecht’s son Tidus and find a way to break Sin’s spiral of death (hence the world’s name, Spira). The funny thing about this is that Auronhas been dead for the duration of the game. However, in Spira, the dead don’t just automatically go to the Farplane (their version of the afterlife) unless they’re sent by a summoner. Auron was never sent, and he still had a job to do. The aid that he provides to Yuna and Tidus is him fulfilling his promise to an old friend. In the end, he gains the peace he needs to prepare to move on from the world.

Yuna

Like Wakka and Lulu, Yuna begins her journey with a solid faith in the teachings of Yevon. She’s willing to sacrifice herself to defeat sin and provide Spira with a few years of peace. As she continues her pilgrimage, she makes discoveries that are more and more troubling regarding her religion. These revelations trouble her for sure, but they also serve to reinforce her resolve and give her more confidence.

I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that there is a heavy commentary on the concept of religion within this game. It can be a good thing, and is often started with good intentions. However, there are those who would seek to corrupt it. Honestly, it’s very well done in that regard. Yuna is they key character that this concept is conveyed through. She is a firm believer at the start, and the blindfold is slowly taken off of her as she accepts that Yevon isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Once she disavows it, she comes into her own and finds a way to truly defeat sin.

Tidus

I can confidently say that this guy makes an incredible transformation throughout the course of the story. Never before have I seen such a whiny little bitch as early-game Tidus. There’s a scene in which he’s cold, and when he finally makes a fire, he literally says “I need foooood” like a six-year-old who hasn’t gotten a nap. There are even several references to his father calling him a crybaby. As the story goes on, Tidus definitely toughs up a bit, but he does so without losing his compassion. He truly cares about all of his newfound friends, especially Yuna, who turns out to be the love of his life. He realizes that in order for them to all come out of this alive, he has stop stop crying and face his fears head-on.

I mentioned his father Jecht calling him a crybaby, which is just part of Tidus’s main arc. He definitely has daddy issues. Jecht was an alcoholic who treated his son like shit. He was also a much more decorated Blitzball player, meaning our hero has spent his life living in his father’s shadow. When he went missing, Tidus had something more to blame him for: abandonment. His entire life, our protagonist has hated his father. But then he finds out that Jecht was transported to Zanarkand and became Sin. He learns from Auron that Jecht really did care for him, even if he was far from a perfect father. At the end of the game, the father and son come face to face and they have to battle in order to truly defeat sin (trust me, it makes sense). Just before Jecht dies, Tidus tells him he hates him, but it’s apparent that he means the exact opposite.

I Could Go On Forever

Off the top of my head, there are at least ten small things I could dive into to explain why this game is so near and dear to me. There are the great boss fights, the secret Aeons, the hidden late-game dungeons… You get the idea. The truth is that if you like JRPGs and somehow haven’t played this gem, you just need to experience it for yourself.

I’ll end with a shoutout to perhaps the most infamous scene to come out of this game. That laughing scene. If you know, you know.

If you’re looking for more gaming nostalgia to fill your brain, you can always check out Kevin’s Top OG Xbox Games. Now go save Spira!

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