Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Why I Love Final Fantasy X

This article contains quite a few spoilers. If you are interested in playing the game but haven't yet, you probably shouldn't read it, read a proper review instead. The overall tone of the article can be replicated by drinking 4 cranberry-flavoued Bacardi Breezers, going to bed without taking your makeup off and listening to Tori Amos' tweely-titled greatest hits album, "Tales of a Librarian". Make sure you skip the remix of Professional Widow though, it totally sucks.

I finished school six years ago. Though I would like to say it doesn't feel like that long, in actual fact it feels as though the day I ran from the gates with a crumpled sheet of (disappointing) exam results in my hand was decades ago.

Yuna leaves the temple of Besaid after she acquires her first aeon.

It seemed to rain all the following summer. With no place at university, no job and no travelling plans, I did my best to be supportive of the friends whose bedrooms became colonised by IKEA boxes and cellophane-wrapped stationary. As the long holiday drew to a close, a rash of leaving drinks and farewell parties made the already gloomy horizon grow even cloudier.

It was the morning after one of these events that I finally began playing Final Fantasy X. Bought second-hand several months earlier for no reason other than I'd liked the art direction, my copy of the game had no instruction book to explain the numbers, grids and lists on which the gameplay hinged. Daunted, I had set the game aside. Yet when I awoke on that grey Sunday, sticky with a film of cheap make-up and alcopops, those columns of figures presented me with what seemed like the first surmountable challenge I had been offered in years.

The story - a young summoner chooses to sacrifice her life in exchange for a few short years of peace in her country, Spira - was appealing, perhaps because Yuna's maturity, dignity and single-minded dedication to her pilgrimage was so far from my own confused rejection of reality. And, for all its charts and tables, at the core of the game was a reassuringly simple message: Keep going.

Like all JRPGs, Final Fantasy X is a lengthy quest in which the characters must fight hundreds of battles, growing stronger every time. Sometimes they will encounter an enemy whose might overwhelms them, and they will fall. When that happens, their only hope of success is to return to the wilderness to fight lesser creatures, gathering supplies until they are strong enough to take on the formidable enemy ahead.

It's a simple lesson, but a good one. We aren't always strong enough to face the obstacles in our path, but they will only defeat us if we don't admit to our weaknesses and do what we can to make amends.

Yuna knows this right from the start. Of course she is afraid. Of course she doubts her ability to acquire all the aeons she needs to defeat Sin, the terrifying supernatural entity laying waste to Spira. She questions her own motivations, and wonders whether the prize is worth the price, since Sin has been defeated by hundreds of summoners, and always returns. Yet she knows that fear is her greatest enemy, and to think about the consequences of failure (or even, in her case, success) will cripple her.

Her strength lies not in what she can do, but in what she realises she can't, which is why she surrounds herself with people who will not let her back down. Luckily for Yuna, Spira's ancient lore decrees that a summoner must be protected by "Guardians", trusted individuals who must accompany the summoner on their pilgrimage, laying down their lives if necessary.

Of course, this is a handy plot device, because a JRPG's core appeal is in its "party", a mismatched group of individuals whose diversity on the battlefield is matched only by that of their hairstyles. Final Fantasy X's party are among the best in the genre, and the strength of their individual characterisation is matched only by the believability of the tensions that emerge between them.

Let's meet them.

The protagonist, Tidus, is a petulant everyteen and Blitzball star who finds the scab of his unresolved Daddy issues torn off when his city, Zanarkand, is attacked by Sin. Tidus is then hurled a thousand years into the future by Auron, an old friend of his absent father's.

When Tidus is washed up on a beach in Spira, he discovers that not only does almost no-one believe he is from the lost city of Zanarkand, but that the same Sin who destroyed it has been terrorising the known world ever since. Tidus is perturbed to discover that his abrasive father Jecht (whose Blitzball career overshadowed Tidus' own even ten years' after his mysterious disappearance) is also renowned in the future, for a heroic death as the guardian of the last victorious summoner, Braska.

His inital attraction to the beautiful and dignified Yuna is given an added poignance when it emerges that Braska is Yuna's father, and that she too, has lived her life in the shadow of a famous parent. Further to this, Yuna appears to be the only Spiran who believes his far-fetched story of Zanarkand.

As the other of Braska's guardians, Auron's notoriety precedes him. There's a lot I could say about Auron's character, his past, and his difficult relationship with the Spiran authorities, but the most important thing about Auron is actually his left arm.

You see, when you play a lot of games, you get used to the slow-motion reveals of the bodies of female characters. Whether it's Bayonetta's nun outfit or Lara Croft's Peruvian rug, a surprising number of gaming's womenfolk make an entrance wearing some form of shroud before ripping it off to reveal the tight clothes and comely thighs within.

Like Bayonetta in her hooded cloak, for the first few hours of the game, Auron's left arm hangs in the breast of his jacket whilst the sleeve hangs empty at his side. Given his age and his troubled past, the player assumes that the arm is injured or limp. So when the Luca Blizball stadium is attacked by a horde of fiends and Sinspawn, you don't expect him to shrug off the jacket, revealing a slightly distracting lack of armpit hair possibly the most... functional arm in all of Spira.

Gosh yes.

Next up is Wakka, who I keep praising on Well-Rendered because despite his two-foot quiff and the fact that he fights magical fiends armed with nothing but a football, he's one of the most believable characters in gaming. At heart a brave man with a strong moral core, Wakka is nonetheless infuriatingly literal, stubborn, and even xenophobic.

Growing up on the idyllic island of Besaid with the cynical Lulu and the much younger Yuna, Wakka strongly adheres to the teachings of Yevon, the religion that governs Spira and guides summoners on their quest. Consequently, he is sworn against the use of "machina", and strongly prejudiced against the technologically proficient Al Bhed, unaware that Yuna is herself a member of the race. As the story progresses and Yevon is revealed to be less a benevolent set of teachings and more a bureaucratic means of control, Wakka is the last to accept the truth.

Like all good characters, his faults make us love him more because they are the amplification of his endearing qualities. His dogmatic acknowledgement of Yevon is reflect by his unwavering loyalty to Yuna, and his unforgivable racism is mirrored in his willingness to sacrifice his life to protect the world he loves. As the game progresses and his beliefs are challenged, he occasionally acts with petulance and irrationality. But his ability to admit his mistakes and put the lives of his friends, his summoner and his world before his own make Wakka the first guy you'd choose to go on a quest with.

His counterpart is Lulu, a cynical mage and Besaid native whose humourless demeanour belies a compassionate soul. Lulu and Wakka have strong feelings for one another, but their dedication to their perilous quest and the fact that Lulu was once engaged to Wakka's late brother Chappu prevents them from admitting it. That, and the fact that Wakka's a heart-on-sleeve meathead with a silly accent and Lulu's an introspective dark witch who never says anything without thinking.

They're actually a bit like the goth girl Stokely (Clea DuVall) and the jock dude Stan (Shawn Hatosy) in the classic 90s Robert Rodriguez-directed teen horror film The Faculty, in which a group of six students have to escape from their teachers, who have all been possessed by aliens. From opposing ends of the school social scene, Stokely and Stan are openly contemptuous about the other's hobbies, friends and priorities, until the moment where Stan volunteers to make a self-sacrificing journey across the school football field. As he steels himself to leave the classroom in which the six have barricaded themselves, Stokely kisses him, much to everyone else's surprise.

I'm not sure where I was going with that. Lulu, everyone!

Kimahri is a hornless Ronso, a sort of cross between a cat and a rhino. He's been Yuna's guardian since she was a little girl, and he doesn't take kindly to strangers.

There's a sub-plot about how Kimahri has to win back the respect of his tribe, but most of the character's appeal lies in how he can learn the attacks of the enemies he encounters. This means that he can spit deadly plant seeds the size of cannon balls, turn people to stone and acquire "Bad Breath", an attack which bathes adversaries in noxious fumes which confuse them, poison them, and make them fall asleep.

Final Fantasy X's token squeaky girl is the irrepressibly perky Al Bhed Rikku. The perky girl is usually the bane of the JRPG player's life, but I've never met one I disliked. Yes, the dialogue composed almost entirely of hiccups and gasps can be tiresome, and the flouncy run is undeniably silly. But behind their irritating facades lurk a selection of steely young women whose apparent lack of depth is merely a consequence of the kind of common sense that never wastes its time trying to look smart.

Rikku's sensible, diplomatic and forgiving, even when Wakka starts blaming the Al Bhed for all Spira's problems, rants that will sound familiar to anyone who's ever flicked through a copy of the Daily Mail.

Of course, it wouldn't be a quest is there wasn't some serious personal growth along the way, and I'm happy to say that Final Fantasy X is packed with redemptive characrer arcs. As the seven make their way through Spira, their various beliefs are challenged, some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends etc etc etc.

Why am I writing about Final Fantasy X so many years after I played it? It's hardly a ground-breaking game (the "X" in the title is a dead giveaway). Honestly, part of the reason this post has taken so long (full explanation below) is because even though I started it absolutely certain that I was going to write the definitive account of one of the most wonderful games ever made, I honestly can't remember what was so wonderful about it, only the feeling it gave me.

And I'll be darned if I can put my finger on where that feeling comes from. I recently played through the game again, and adored every minute. Then ending had me in floods of tears (even though it doesn't make total sense) and I was tingling with pleasure at the fantastic dialogue and voice acting. The visuals are gorgeous, and the design peerless. But telling you those things won't enlighten you or make you want to play the game too.

It's clear from the introduction to this post that I love this game because I played it when I was sad, and it made me forget my sadness. You can't plan to feel that way about something, and you can never tell in advance what things will have that effect on you, or how you will come across them.

The very wise Leigh Alexander wrote a piece in EDGE (how happy am I that she's writing for EDGE now?) recently about how fearsome gamers' nostalgia is because we all grew up playing games as toys. It's true that the emotive power of the medium can certainly take you hostage. Though many of us would like to deny it, most of us began playing casual games, found ourselves bewitched by their addictive power, played more, then got caught unawares by one that made us care.

And then even if that one wasn't brilliant, the formative memories give it a disproportionate power in our minds, like they way you remember your first kiss, regardless of whether it took place on the kitchen floor during a game of spin the Coke bottle how good that kiss actually was. Because of this, the first game you play in a series is almost always the one you end up loving most, even if you play superiour installments later.

Last night, I bought the hallowed Final Fantasy VII off the PlayStation Network. Everyone says it's the best in the series, and no-one who's played both thinks that Final Fantasy X is better. But I'm willing to bet that I won't love VII as much as X. Not because everyone on the internet has spoiled the ending a million times over, but because there's no way it can sneak up on me in the way its shinier younger cousin did. Of course, it might surprise me, but I'm really playing it because it's a classic. You've got to play it, like you've got to read War and Peace.

Shit, I need to read War and Peace.

I originally wrote this post two (yes two, geez) months ago. Unfortunately, I made the n00b mistake of writing it directly into blogger's dasturdly editor and no-where else. This platform's autosave means that if you delete everything by mistake (easily done if you use a lot of keyboard shortcuts), the deletion will be permanent in a matter of seconds, leaving you unable to get your post back.

When it happens, it's really demoralizing, but far more so in this case as I was planning its publication to co-incide with the departure of my little sister Catherine to France for a year. Catherine was with me throughout much of my original playthrough of Final Fantasy X, and I wanted to dedicate this post to her as a kind of parting gift.

I know, how cheap am I.

I was (an still am) convinced that the post I lost was utterly brilliant, and have spent two months trying to reclaim that brilliance. Sadly, I haven't managed it. This post is fine, but it's nothing special and you'll have to take my word that the original was probably the best thing anyone has written, ever. Think of this post as the blogging equivalent of Tenacious D's Tribute, except I'm obviously not as sexy as Jack Black.

Late as it is, however, this post is still for Catherine, who has just begun her own intrepid quest. Although I hope she won't have to battle any fiends, I know she could take on a hundred and look good doing it, just like Yuna.

All the pictures on this post were taken from the The Final Fantasy Shrine, a wonderful resource for any fan.


  1. Great post Mary: nice trip down memory lane for FFX! I too really enjoyed it, and for many of the reasons you mentioned, and had the same impressions of the characters.

    If you haven't played it, I highly (!) recommend FFVIII after you've slogged through VII. I find it superior in gameplay, and the fact that it was the first major game with romance at its heart really changed the way I thought about gaming-it's more like playing a movie or book to me).

  2. Thanks Gary.

    I was thrilled to see VII, VIII and IX on the PSN store, so I'm sure I'll get round to playing VIII. It's nice to hear a different opinion, so many people say VII is the best that you begin to wonder.

    It'll take me a while to finish VII (not designed for people with jobs), but will be sure to take your advice when I do.

  3. I haven't played RPG's much, and never any of the JRPG's but this post was so good that I immediately had to go over to to buy VII and X. I figured that seeing as I have a bit of free time coming up (leaving the UK and moving to HK) it would be the perfect time to give it a shot. After all any post that references War and Peace (one of the most boring books I have ever read but a classic I suppose) and then somehow segues into Tenacious D deserves some sort of physical recognition.

    Alas they don't seem to be available on Xbox. Fail.

  4. Thanks Sean. The lack of JRPG availabilty across platforms is troublesome, PlayStatation seems to be far the best place to get them. Maybe because Sony is Japanese?

    The fact that you can get the old games on the PSN is fantastic, something I'm really happy about, but it's a shame they aren't more widely available elsewhere. I think VII is available on PC if you're willing to pay £25 (pft), bu as far as I know, PS2 is the only way to play X until it comes out on PS3.

    Of all the JRPGs I've played, the Final Fantasy series still stand up as having the best fighting systems. The Persona series have great storylines, but the combat isn't as deep. Considering how long you have to spend fighting, having an interesting, flexible, deep system is extremely important. I can't recommend current-gen games Enchanted Arms or Eternal Sonata for this reason.

    If you've never really played JRPGs, I don't suggest starting with FF XIII (on XBOX) because it's not a great example of the genre and doesn't give you a lot of flexibility.

    Sorry not to be more helpful :(

  5. I guess I will just have to hope that they come out on Xbox at some stage, it's kind of surprising that they aren't already. I did end up buying Enslaved: Journey to the West a couple of days later instead after your rave review on this site and on

  6. ...and did you enjoy it? I wuold *hope* so if you're planning to follow another recommendation.

  7. I haven't had a chance to play it yet actually! I'm anticipating that I will have a bit of free time once I get out to HK but I've been so busy catching up with people and organising stuff that I haven't had time to play anything other than Halo: Reach recently. Hopefully will have a chance next week.

  8. That was a really good read; I agree with you, and it even expanded my vocabulary somewhat. However, I would have been thoroughly disappointed if I read this without having already played the game, as I noted several spoilers within the article. Although most people who would enjoy it have probably already played it by now, you should warn about spoilers for those who have not.

  9. Oh, and a note for those who have not played it yet - the sphere grid and gameplay may look complicated, but it is actually one of the most simple of the series. Part of why it appealed to me was because it was so simple to learn, yet also allowed for so much strategy in the process. So don't hesitate in playing it just for that reason. And if all you've played is FFXIII, you must realise it has the 2nd most complicated battle system (of the FF's I've played) and FFX is MUCH simpler and significantly easier than most other Final Fantasy's. But if you want to start with a short and simple, but still decent Final Fantasy game FFIX is the easiest and shortest by far (of the 3D games at least).

  10. Anonymous, you're correct. The article is now prefaced by a massive spoiler warning. Or just a verbose spoiler warning. Take your pick. I don't know why I didn't do it before, especially since I complained about everyone spoiling FFVII for me. Like the twist at the end of Empire Strikes Back, everyone assumes everyone knows, and just shouts about it willy nilly. Yeah, so it makes for a good pop-culture reference, but you're tarnishing the experience of countless people who haven't seen it. That's not cool and I feel bad I did the same thing.

    Hi Alexander. I agree, the sphere grid and gameplay are extremely accessible. Interestingly, one thing the FF series has never managed is a decent tutorial. EVERY battle/levelling/equipment system in every game is explained by walls of text. I don't have any suggestions for improving this system, but I found the easiest thing to do was just play. That said, the numbers canlook intimidating for those not versed in JRPG lore, so I think your reassurance is well-placed.

  11. This is a beautiful article. I can definitely say that Final Fantasy X is not only my favorite game in the Final Fantasy series, but it is also my absolute favorite game of all time. I feel completely nostalgic just thinking about it and the feelings it gave me when I played the game and beat it. Thinking about it transports me back to when I was a fourteen year old and I can feel how much I loved the game then and love it just as much now. I personally think it's an absolute masterpiece.

  12. Thanks Anonymous. I think it is a masterpiece, it has such a wonderful story.

    And the music is wonderful, I didn't really touch on that. I bought the soundtrack, and listening to it sends me right back to the time when I played it.

    Glad to give you fuel to your nostalgic fire.

  13. "It's a simple lesson, but a good one. We aren't always strong enough to face the obstacles in our path, but they will only defeat us if we don't admit to our weaknesses and do what we can to make amends."

    Wow, you have a much more positive attitude to having to grind for a boss fight than I do. I'll remember that next time I'm poking needles into my voodoo doll of Yoshinori Kitase when I reach Seymour at Gagazet.

    I appreciate that you weren't hard on Rikku, I don't know why so many people are. She isn't really silly at all, she's certainly very youthful and bouncy but she's also extremely productive and acts for what she believes in, she isn't backwards about going forwards, she will lead a troop on a carefully considered plan, combine that with her generally fun presence and her sincerity in the way that she feels and there isn't really much about her that isn't admirable.

    This is my absolute favorite game of all time, and I see that you can't exactly put your finger on why the ending made you cry and I've spent many years thinking about that too, and I finally realized it. Yuna was willing to give up absolutely everything to save those around her, she was selfless to a fault and this determination bred an absolutely unbreakable strength within her, she didn't need to act tough or aggressive, she didn't need to become a negative person to do what she believed, she marched with her friends to her death because she was the bravest damn character there has ever been in the Final Fantasy series.

    In her mind, it was simple, lose her own life and it will save the life of everybody that she loved. Where would this kind of logic even come from? I'll tell you, it comes from the fear of loss. The death of her father so young in her life tore her to pieces when she was so fragile, she grew up and decided that no matter what she would protect herself from experiencing that kind of pain, if there was just some way she could make sure she'd never have to see her loved ones die, she could die happy at any time, and so it made perfect sense. She'd give her life for the world, gaining both the security of mind that she'd never experience true loss again (which allowed her to be so calm on her journey) and the luxury of knowing she was living up the compassionate man that was her father.

    But in the end, her tragically selfless plan failed, in the end it turned out she didn't have the option to preserve her heart in death, and she would have to experience loss again, the loss of the man she loved. She was so wrapped up in the security of dying to protect her own broken heart and in the end her heart was broken even further. She see's Tidus disappear forever, she loses, and she is given no security, no release. And that is why the ending of Final Fantasy X is so sad on such a personal level, she would have given everything to protect those around her.