I loves me a good FF game, and I can dig my claws into a messy, grandiose, cliche ridden JRPG any day of the week. I may of course get sick of random battles and never actually finish a veritable horde of them by virtue of you know... having a job... but I thirst for them in a way that no other gaming genre manages. I buy them up like rare pearls, diving into game stores and snatching them at the first sign of a descending price-point. I've a collection of JRPGs that I've never started simply because I felt the compulsion to buy the damn things while they were still there. As the Gamecube games I'd been eyeing for a while have completely disappeared except for ridiculous auctions on Ebay, I feel justified to an extent for my desperate hording urges. Certainly I'll be justified if I ever actually get around to playing them.
Anyway, this post is about Final Fantasy X. Apparently.
The storytelling in FFX is what sets it apart from its franchise mates - it gives you a sense of place, a sense of character, and it delivers moments in spades that make you care about the central cast. By the end of the game you've been very thoroughly taken on a journey, and the lump in your throat is not affected in the least.
FFX begins with a a cocky young sports star, somewhere between a J-Pop idol and an American High School Quarterback with Daddy issues (Hollywood cinema has taught me that all American Quarterback type people have either Daddy issues or Coach-Daddy-issues. Dire is the fate of the athletic white boy...). Tidus, our whiny hero, bears witness to a gigantic creature crushing half of his home city, and sucking the other half (including him) into its belly. It should be noted that right before being sucked in by the beast, a cranky mysterious bastard named Auron who's apparently been looking after Tidus since his no-good Dad ran off on him shows up, gives him a sword, tells him the monster is called Sin and then tells him this is his story. Thanks cranky man, for that useful insight into wtf is going on. Sin's belly is an altered other-universe with detritus from lost civilisations and spider-legged ping-pong balls that have gotta catch 'em all and possess 'em all - but that comes later. End game later. I'd have warned you about spoilers, but well... by the time you meet the root of all the problems, you've ironically lost the ability to give a shit about it. It just gets in the way of the character moments. More on that later.
Tidus goes through some ordeals involving mysterious old temples, angry giant fish monsters, and a group of mysterious scavengers who are plumbing the depths of the ocean for artifacts. These all breeze by with about five minutes of exposition, and fifty minutes of random encounters. But hey, that's FF for ya!
When the big monster suddenly attacks again things actually kick off though. Tidus wakes up in the ocean (again) and is rescued by a team of Jamaican Okinawans who are impressed with his sporting skills. The captain is quick to recruit the talented Blitzball player to his humble backwater team, and on the road to glory at the world Blitzball cup, the cocky city player discovers something about himself, the power of teamwork, and the way the game is played. "Mighty Ducks"! Whoops, I meant "Besaid Aurochs!" Eh, whatever. Naturally this big city player teaches the Aurochs to believe they can win, and to switch their mantra from a defeatist "Do Our Best" to "Victory!"
The captain of the team, Wakka, has another important job - he is a Guardian for a Summoner who must commence her pilgrimage. Fans of earlier Final Fantasy games are instantly excited at the prospect of minute long animated cutscenes for an attack that will only defeat all the enemies in the first third of the game before becoming obsolete. Ah, Summons. Wakka also drops a major bomb (no, not the red ones with the angry face), revealing that the home of our hero has been destroyed for the past thousand years! What? But this bizarre aquatic Jamaican society is so primitive and without technology! How can this be the future and not the past?
Tidus agrees to join the Aurochs and travel with them to Luca, the home of the World Cup in hope of finding someone who can take him back to the future. Or the past. Eh, whatever. Basically, Wakka is trained in human resources and manages to score talent far out of his company's league with a shonky boat ride and an old sword that has bubbles in it. That sword just happens to have belonged to Wakka's dead brother who looked a lot like Tidus.
Tidus is introduced to another Guardian Lulu, whom he spends the rest of the game with in a desperate internal monologue bellowing "Don't stare at her tits, don't stare at her tits, don't stare at her tits..." Being that the player can't accomplish this feat, it seems unlikely that Tidus can either. Lulu seems like she can deal with the stares however - she's the only Goth in the village (did I say village? I meant planet), and her dress is made of belts. Yes, really. Her bosom is also... how shall we say... perilously arranged, and at any moment her ponderously large breasts look set to make a random encounter. Naturally after battle, her victory pose involves her bending over FHM style to show her entire cleavage. I tend to think this is because defying gravity for an entire battle is a struggle and she just succumbs to nature. One last thing about Lulu - she's a black mage, and her weapons are teddy bears. Believe me, I couldn't make this up if I tried.
So anyway, Lulu just so happened to have been getting it on with Wakka's-brother-that-looked-like-Tidus, and seeing Tidus is not exactly pleasant. So she has a bit of attitude in her approach to him. Tidus starts to learn a little about the monster that attacked him and used its belly as a time machine - it's called Sin, and it constantly attacks places populated by people - and particularly, places with lots of technology. Hence the backwards development of the world in the future. It has been defeated before - always by a summoner - but it always comes back. It can't be killed, only "calmed". It also gives off a toxin that can disorient people, and thus does Tidus discover his all purpose excuse for not knowing anything about the world around him - "Oh yeah... Sin's toxin".
So anyway, everyone is waiting around the campfire and talking about Blitzball and trying not to look at Lulu's chest when the Summoner emerges. Her name is Yuna, her eyes are different colours, and Tidus is smitten with her. She calls forth the Summon that she has just earned in the temple by furious praying to the applause of the audience. And you thought Summons were just for combat - welcome to the new Final Fantasy, where Summons will dance a jig and keep the people entertained.
Tidus and Yuna meet a little later in the night and Yuna mysteriously buys into Tidus's true background - that he's from the city of Zanarkand a thousand years ago. She seems like a melancholy dreamer which persuades Tidus that he's in with a shot if he can cheer her up and adopt a bit of a saviour syndrome. Too bad for him she has all these Guardians around that keep dissuading him from sneaking her out back and Summoning some prophylactics.
Thus does a man from a thousand years ago come to join a pilgrimage to the temples of the world, begging for power to be used in the battle against Sin. On their way out of town they all stop at a shrine, and everyone repeats the benediction to their God, Yevon, the worship of whom has superseded the use of technology. Tidus is astounded to note that the benediction is identical to the salute that Blitzball players made to one another before matches in his time. Hey, I reckon Australia is sports obsessed enough to adopt scrums as a marriage ceremony in a post-apocalyptic society inadvertently. This isn't so hard to buy here.
The opening of the game is as filled with pretty cinematics as you'd expect from a FF game - detailed cutscenes introduce each of the characters. The sport of Blitzball is introduced right at the beginning, and looks stunning. The gameplay is recognisable - the usual array of "Attack", "Skill", "ITem", etc.
It's nice that the system levels the characters* in a way that is consistent with their styles - it matches story to gameplay, at least for a while. Eventually every character can become super-powered in any area, but that comes after the pilgrimage, when all the characters would theoretically have had a chance to learn from each other - so this consistency is very welcome.
The reason I breezed over a lot of the introduction scenes is that they're sometimes needlessly surrealistic. It's a technique I've noticed in a lot of Japanese media - bury the story in complete mystery, then get to the main narrative and leave people to make the connections later. I like surrealism, but two minutes of "don't cry" followed by mute graphics of a boy hunched over presumably crying gets a little old in little time. Once the main quest starts though, you're privy to well-constructed storytelling. I can't wait to share some more thoughts on why it's so good in future posts.
Till time the next!
* Levelling up is unique in that the player needs to negotiate a "Sphere Grid", an enormous page full of nodes that need to be activated. Players receive Action Points for battles which allow them to move the cursor on the Sphere Grid and activate the nodes in order to receive the benefit it confers (e.g. Strength +2). Each character has a sort of path mapped out for them across the board via a series of locks that require special items to open. Their path dictates the style of combat that the character is known for - for example, Wakka receives lots of early bonuses to his Agility and Accuracy, while Lulu and Yuna both receive bonuses to their magic and MP. The system is frustrating at the beginning, but after forty or so hours of play there are endless ways to exploit it, and everyone's stats can be pushed to improbable heights.