Monday, March 16, 2015

"You Look Terrible, Snake" #1 - Final Fantasy X

“You look terrible, Snake. You haven’t aged well.” – Gray Fox (Metal Gear Solid)

You may have noticed how the vast majority of the games I review on this blog end up with scores of a ‘7 out of 10’ or higher. Being that this is a one-man show, I typically find that any game I feel is going to score considerably lower than that is something I’d prefer not to waste my time on. There are the occasional anomalies – within the last year I scored The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds a 6.75, while Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes fared even poorer, earning a 4.5, though to be fair, both of those titles were considerably shorter than many of the other games I completed in 2014.

This is the start of a new series of articles, one that will likely be delivered infrequently, as I don’t want to come across as a downer too often. That said, this series will explore games that left me thoroughly disappointed for a number of reasons. Some of these games were still solid products on the whole, but failed to deliver on key design points. Others are total stinkers in my book, and I have a hunch that some of you will not agree with my take on at least a few of the titles to come. But that’s one of the great things about reviewing video games – for as much time as I might spend picking a game apart and voicing a negative opinion of it, there is someone else out there who hails it as one of their personal favorites, and vice-versa. With all that out of the way, the first game in this series will be Final Fantasy X.

My familiarity with the core Final Fantasy series was, until about five years ago, practically nonexistent. I could have told you which box art went with which game, that I understood the seventh game in the series was heralded by many as one of the best video game releases of all time, and that the tenth entry was supposed to be a strong contender as well. During my college years, I decided to pick up some used copies of a handful of Final Fantasy titles, after having played FFXIII, the DS remake of FFIV, and the Wii Virtual Console re-release of the original Final Fantasy. FFVII and FFX were the two among these gently-used purchases that I was most eager to experience, and were the two titles that had most frequently been recommended to me.

I think it important to point out that I did not (nor do I have any intention to) finish Final Fantasy X. I am, however, very much aware of the fact that any meaty JRPG like those in the Final Fantasy series require patience to grow accustomed to and allow the story to take shape. And so I waited. And waited. And waited, all the while slowly growing to realize how much I did not enjoy the experience. The battle system was unnecessarily obtuse in design, making encounters with foes boring, even sometimes frustrating. The freedom to level characters up as you so desired was one of the best mechanics in the game, and I certainly appreciated its role as predecessor to FFXIII’s crystarium, but its value was brought down by the fact that the characters I had to choose from were an uninspired and cliché lot.

At least Auron is alright as the stand-in for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Lulu was a one-dimensional byproduct of the emo/goth subculture of the early 2000s, snapping at Wakka for his saying something that upset her, yet leaving Tidus and myself in the dark as to why such a response was necessary or justified, let alone how she was supposedly a deep character with a complicated past tying into Wakka's own. Meanwhile, Kimahri’s strong silent and mysterious nature coupled with his tall and furry body made him a dead ringer as a Chewbacca wannabe. Tidus proved obnoxious one moment, with his inhuman laugh and awkward bumbling through conversations with Yuna and Lulu, then super flat and unconvincing the next, as his dialogue served to imply genuine concern or curiosity regarding his comrades and the journey ahead, yet the way these lines were delivered showed just how uninterested the cast members were with this whole ordeal. Auron, the one character that I actually gravitated toward and wanted to learn more about, was denied time in the spotlight over and over. While I realize much of this was likely due for dramatic buildup for a later plot twist, the lack of information I was being fed eventually led me to give up on caring about him as well.

I similarly found myself in a position of not giving two hoots about impossible-hair-sporting Seymour Guado. I loved the ‘bring it on’ attitude Golbez and his four most trusted generals displayed in FFIV, the laser-faced monstrosity that was Barthendelus in FFXIII; heck, even Caius Ballad was an entertaining (if not a tad shallow) extremist in his attempts to defy time and fate. While FFVII’s Sephiroth is arguably more important as a plot device than multifaceted foe, the compounding of his and Jenova’s involvement in the plot made for an ever-mysterious, yet consistently compelling major plot thread. In FFX, Seymour is just sort of a cocky and generally unlikeable individual. He only gets what he wants on account of his social status and charms, and has seemingly never been told ‘no’ by anyone. The idea that so many people held him in high regard was a mystery to me, as I was given no basis as to why he was supposed to be so well-received, and thus similarly the idea that there was a complex ‘love-to-hate-this-guy’ dynamic at play was entirely lost. As far as I was concerned, Seymour was even more boring and uncharismatic as most of the core cast members.

Seymour's hairdo is one of the dumbest video game character design points I have ever seen.

Which in turn, added to my not caring about the world, its people, or the story at large. With a game that requires so much time to complete, and that places its conflict on such a large scale, one would hope it would utilize its heroes, villains, culture, and major plot points to craft something larger than the sum of its parts. But with so many paper-thin aspects to this creative vision, it resulted in the overall product lacking any real entertaining direction, which in turn, killed my desire to continue forward with it. Giant fish that signals the end of an era? Bring it up here and there, but fail to elaborate on it when the opportunity presents itself. Blitzball? An abysmal mess that is as messy in concept as it is in execution. Each time the game was presented ample opportunity to flesh out its narrative and elaborate on what was happening and attempt to convince me as to why I should be the slightest bit invested, it casually cruised right past them.

But perhaps Final Fantasy X’s greatest sin comes from the lack of freedom in picking a play style that suits you. I understand that many older RPGs tend to focus on a core cast, emphasizing them as the game progresses. FFIV did this, but it did it well, as the game chugs along at such a pace that you are allotted plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the abilities of the White Mages, the Knights, the Summoners, and so forth, that when you reach the later legs of the journey, you are well-versed in strategizing with Kain, Cecil, Rosa, Rydia, and Edge. Each has their own specific skill set, yes, but they also offer sufficient flexibility that you are not simply going through the motions as picking the one end-all be-all path to success.

FFXIII, while host to a smaller playable cast, emphasizes two to three skill trees per character, allowing Snow to offer up his Ravager and Sentinel skills to the part, Fang to juggle Commando and Saboteur, and Hope to try his hand at both Medic and Synergist. Of course late in the game, the other three trees per character that were deemed ‘less than ideal’ are expanded upon, but by the time that portion of the adventure is reached, each character has effectively already come into his/her primary roles. FFX, on the other hand, is designed with the mentality of the player adhering to how the game believes it should be played, with a very odd and unbalanced set of roles to select from. Both Kimahri and Auron fit the heavy-hitter physical attackers, while Tidus is meant to be the sort of middle ground 'knight', albeit with significantly less impressive results that Cloud, Lightning, Cecil, or even that which the vanilla Knights from FFI offered up.

The OG Black Mage/Summoner, Rydia of Mist.

 Wakka’s enchanted weaponry gets the job done early on, but also caps out too soon for any long-term use to be a worthwhile consideration. Meanwhile, Lulu is the most pathetic excuse for a Black Mage I’ve encountered in any JRPG I’ve played to date. For a while, I thought perhaps I was simply being too harsh toward her skill set, considering I had only recently completed FFIV before I started FFX, and that it would be one heck of a tall order for anyone to stack up to Rydia. Yet, Yuna does just fine with her White Mage/Summoner combo, as unorthodox as it might be. And yeah, of course Yuna is going to have weaker defense than most of her comrades, but while Lulu is intended to be a glass cannon, her shots are practically nonexistent. Hell, the blue-robed and yellow-eyed sprites from FFI put up a bombastic display in comparison, and their attacks – while still specialized – are nowhere near as expansive as any of the Final Fantasy titles that followed.

The soundtrack is great – in my opinion, one of the best in the series. And both the graphical and art direction stood out to me as early hooks that made me want to get lost and immersed in this game’s story and style. Final Fantasy X was a game that I wanted so desperately to enjoy, and it failed me in spades.

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