(First published on Gamepad Magazine On New Years Eve, 2010)
FINAL FANTASY 10 (2002) – SQUARESOFT
When the PS2 was launched in the early dawn of the millennium, it gave game developers a chance to expand existing series that was already on the Playstation. Squaresoft had released Final Fantasy 9 to great acclaim in 2001, and is was expected that it would take some time for the great series to move to its new home on the PS2. In fact, Squaresoft surprised everyone by releasing the new instalment, Final Fantasy 10, only one year later. So did it meet everyone’s high expectations?
After a trip back for a more medieval setting in FF9, 10 brings us back to the modern day. After an opening cutscene showing a group of people camped outside of a destroyed city, we are introduced to Tidus, a teenager from the city of Zanarkand who happens to be the best young player of Blitzball, essentially five-a-side basketball…except its in a massive dome filled with water. The game opens with Tidus participating in a match, just as a giant entity known as Sin comes and destroys Zanarkand. A mysterious man named Auron guides Tidus to safety, before they are both swallowed by the giant creature. Tidus eventually finds himself washed up on the shore of Besaid Island, where he meets Wakka, a fellow Blitzball player and a guardian of Yuna, a local summoner. The story then accelerates as Tidus becomes a fellow guardian of Yuna, as he travels through the world of Spira to help Yuna rid the world of Sin. This is a very basic overview of the start of the plot, to reveal much more would give away some huge spoilers. Needless to say there are curveballs thrown in left, right and centre to keep you interested in what I must say is a very engaging storyline. The extra capacity of the PS2 disks allowed Squaresoft to put more cut scenes in, and as a result it feels like more of a cinematic experience than any previous instalment of the series.
The cinematic feel is also aided by a great cast of characters: admittedly, some of the cast either frustrate (Wakka) or have little to no development (Lulu), but some individuals stand out as some of my favourite Final Fantasy characters. Tidus starts off as a whiny annoying idiot, but over the course of the story you see him start to mature and accept his future, however bleak it may be; Yuna is actually given backbone and a sense of determination (something noticeably absent in many female characters in the series- I’m looking at you Garnet), and as a result you actually give a damn about her quest which makes up the majority of the story; and Auron is quite simply an absolute bad-ass. The villains of the piece also have depth; we learn through flashbacks that Jecht (Tidus’ father) is not the bad man his son believes him to be. Seymour Guado on the other hand, is an absolute bastard and you will come to absolutely hate him for his actions. Overall, the plot of FF10 stands up to the rest of the series. It can get quite confusing towards the end if you haven’t been paying attention, but the shocks and secrets are very well kept, and the development of Tidus over the course of the game is a joy to observe.
Ever since the introduction of the Job System in FF5, Squaresoft seemed to be unable to carry one levelling process from one game to another. So in FF7 we got the Materia system, in FF8 we had Junctioning, and in FF10 we have the Sphere Grid. The basic premise is that when you battle, you receive AP towards a Sphere level; once you have reached a Sphere level, you can place a Sphere on an individual characters grid that will improve certain stats, such as Attack, Speed and Evasion. People who are new to the series would be dumbfounded by it, hell even veterans had trouble with it at first! Eventually though, it becomes second nature to move around the different grids, levelling your characters as you see fit. It’s a clever system by where you have the sense of customisation (for example, Auron with his sword can become a white mage, and Rikku can becoming a tank delivering overkills everywhere), but at the same time your party is growing at a sensible rate, instead of FF8 where you could make your party into death-dealing uber gods far too easily.
10 also brings in some subtle changes to the battle system: the active roster in any one battle had dropped back to three, but the ATB system was scrapped, bringing back a more traditional sense of turn based combat, which would be dictated by characters speed. Also introduced was the ability to change the party in battle, meaning that you swap and change skills as a fight goes on. This makes for some much better tactical combat, and encourages the full use of a party as only those who enter a battle receive EXP towards Sphere Levels. Thankfully, the Limit Break system from FF7 and FF9 (by where you receive a special powerful attack after taking so much damage) is retained in the shape of Overdrives. And my personal favourite alteration to the battle system was the removal of the maximum 9999 damage limit. By learning a particular skill, characters can now deal up to 99,999 in a single attack if they are powerful enough. Delivering massive blows time after time can’t help but make you smile. Skills are once again character specific, like they had been in FF9. For example, Yuna as a summoner, has the ability to bring great beasts such as the electric unicorn Ixion and the King of Dragons, Bahumut, into the action, whereas Rikku with her engineering background can mix and match items for different effects. Tidus using his unmatched speed can get in several Quick Hits before the enemy can react, and Auron using sheer strength has different Breaks he can perform to lower defence.
However, changes were evident in all areas of Final Fantasy 10, not just the battle system. The biggest change is the complete removal of a World Map, which had been a staple of the series. Instead you follow a linear path, often filled with puzzles and branching routes, to the next location. You still get random battles with monsters outside of towns though, so be prepared for many battles on your path through Spira. Otherwise, you have the standard set of towns in which to rest and receive information, and caves where most of the best weapons and armour are. Specific to Final Fantasy 10 is the introduction of various temples along the way that Yuna must visit in order to gain new summons. Once inside, you will have a series of puzzles, mostly logic, to complete in order to progress, until you receive the summon at the end. Think Tomb Raider, but without the guns. Or the tombs.
There is plenty outside the main quest to get involved in as well. Later on in the game, you get access to a battle arena on the Great Plains, by where you can fight a selection of some of the toughest bosses in the game (ALL HAIL THE MASTER TONBERRY). It also utilises a reward system, by where you can receive AP and Orbs by going back across the world and defeating certain enemies in certain locations. It certainly provides an incentive to go back on what would otherwise be a very straightforward journey. Also later on when you get the obligatory Final Fantasy airship, you can access secret parts of the world in order to go chasing after the Ultimate Weapons, and you can even pursue after some secret summons…and believe me they are worth it for the insane power they can grant you.
And finally, just when you thought there wasn’t anything more to do, Squaresoft decided to implement a fully functioning sports game into a RPG. Yep, you can recruit a team and engage in games of Blitzball, fighting in a league table against other teams. Now this is a hotly contended aspect of the game amongst fans; many claim that Blitzball sucks while others see it as a welcome distraction. I am part of the latter group. I find games of Blitzball to be great fun, and the recruiting of a stronger and better team is a quite enjoyable sidequest; in short, credit to Squaresoft for doing something different in an RPG.
When 10 was released on the PS2, it looked absolutely sublime, and the fact that it still looks good now is a great credit to Squaresoft. The models for each character were much more detailed, and the places where they would wander are infused with all sorts of colour (all in 3D compared to previous pre-rendered backgrounds), from the clear blue of the sea at Besaid Island, to the sparkles of the crystals in Macalania Forest, to the eventual desolation of the ruins of Zanarkand, it really is a brilliant game to look at. The summons that Yuna could pull of also looked spectacular, with Bahumut stealing the show as usual. Also of particular note is the quality of the FMV’s that permeate the storyline; it established Squaresoft as one of the leading lights in CGI in the sixth console generation. You can rewatch every single one of the FMV’s you have already seen in the Opera House at Luca, an excellent addition and something that I wish more game series would adopt (Grand Theft Auto for one).
Final Fantasy 10 was again revolutionary for the series in the sound stakes, because it was the first game to introduce voice acting for the characters (something which again added to the cinematic feel, and something that was long since overdue). Generally the voice acting is solid if unspectacular, my personal favourites being James Arnold Taylor as Tidus (for greatly aiding the maturity of the character as the story progresses, starting as annoying and shifting to being quite moving by the end) and Matt McKenzie for providing Auron with such a bad-ass voice. Added to this was a great soundtrack that really showed what the PS2 was capable of. The variety of songs is very impressive, moving from rock with Otherworld, to melodic with Silence Before The Storm, before some downright crazy organ playing with the Battle Against Seymour Omnis. The background music for some of the locations was also inspiring, with the hustle and bustle of Luca being contrasted by work such as People Of The North Pole. My personal favourite from the entire soundtrack is a track called Wandering Flame, a wonderful piece of ambient music in my opinion. In addition to this, every song in the game could be replayed alongside the movies at the Luca Opera House. So you get a great story, a set of films and a soundtrack all on one disc. Very few games outside of the Metal Gear Solid and Ratchet And Clanks series offer this level of extras within the game.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy 10 is not perfect. Despite its many strengths, it annoyed me greatly in some areas. Although the abandonment of the world map in this game paid off, Squaresoft set a precedent for nearly every RPG in the future (with the notable exception of Dragon Quest) to have a linear path through it, in some cases skipping this completely and allowing you to just zoom across the world with no effort. Call me a traditionalist, but I love exploring world maps, and its consequent removal angers me. Another issue is training a chocobo on the Great Plains and the consequent balloon race, which is one of the worst minigames Squaresoft has ever made. And then there is the issue of Seymour. As I have already explained, he is a right bastard. What makes him such an overwhelmingly powerful figure of hate for me is one battle: when you encounter him on Mt. Gagazet, he is so overpowering it’s unreal. And if you die it takes an age to fight him again because you can’t skip the lengthy cutscene beforehand. It’s one of those moments in a game by where you eventually become sick of it, and refuse to play anymore. I eventually beat him by abusing Yuna’s overdrive Summon ability, but really there was no excuse for such a sudden difficulty spike in the middle of the game.
Final Fantasy 10 is a fine continuation of the franchise onto a new console, and for some it marks a point as being the last great Final Fantasy before Square seemed to run out of ideas for fresh gameplay and story (admittedly I need to play instalments 12 and 13 before I decide personally). Certainly it set the benchmark by which all PS2 RPG’s would be marked, and the fact that it was only matched by the likes of Kingdom Hearts some four years after its initial release demonstrates its staying power. I also credit Final Fantasy 10 for providing me with my absolute favourite moment in a videogame, and so it retains a place amongst the best games I have ever played. To answer what I asked at the start, FF10 really did meet expectations, and played its small part in defining the PS2 as the outstanding console of its time.