Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Essentials #39: Final Fantasy IX / Final Fantasy X


Final Fantasy IX

Conceived and produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi, and directed by Hiroyuki Ito, 2000's Final Fantasy IX for the Sony PlayStation was to be the culmination of all that had come before, and more specifically the celebratory return to the ways of the classics. The game arrived about a year before Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within practically ruined Sakaguchi's career, along with the old Square that he built, and it's hard to say to what extent he planned FFIX's significance as the end of an era. Perhaps he seriously believed he would become a filmmaker after this. Regardless, as a fond farewell to the preeminent role-playing game series of three console generations, Final Fantasy IX could not have turned out any better.

A rare ninth installment in a numbered series, Final Fantasy IX evoked titles past in its story, aesthetics, and gameplay. It dug back especially to the pre-Yoshinori Kitase entries, trading the urban grit and bleak storylines for a more fanciful narrative and a massive, largely uncharted medieval world full of colorful characters and eccentric non-human cultures.

Combat, still operating on the old Active Time Battle system, would have been instantly familiar to players of VII and VIII, but longtime veterans would have recognized it as a return to the 16-bit titles, restoring the four-man party, slowing down the pace, and removing all the button-tapping that VIII had added. Character classes were also the most distinct they had been since V, and, as in IV, party members had fixed classes.

The main innovation of FFIX came in the form of the "Active Time Events." Clearly inspired by the "Private Actions" of Star Ocean, the ATE system had party members splitting up upon entering a new town. Then, as the player roamed the town as main character Zidane, button prompts would periodically appear, allowing you to cut to scenes of some of the other characters doing their own things, either alone or interacting in small groups. Similar also to the skits of Tales or the dining conversations of Grandia, the ATE system added much to character development by offering usually humorous glimpses of the party members just being themselves outside the serious matters of the main quest. It also solved the problem of how to keep supporting party members involved after their introductory subplots were resolved. Thus, while Freya and Amarant were woefully underutilized in the main thread, their clear and consistent personalities still showed occasionally in the ATE scenes. Indeed, due largely to the ATE system, Final Fantasy IX possessed probably the most lovable and well-defined cast of characters in a Final Fantasy game. I can vividly recall the existentially anguished Vivi, the single-mindedly gluttonous Quina, and the smooth yet genuine Zidane. They were perhaps not the most complex or realistic characters, but I would rank them among gaming's most endearing.

This was the first Final Fantasy where I did not bother even trying to get everything out of it. I stayed away from the poorly explained Tetra Master card game as much as I could, did not engage in the globetrotting chocobo side quest, and never faced the hidden boss, who was supposedly one of the most challenging in the series. I would blame my lack of enthusiasm mainly on my getting older and having less time, but it may also have been that I was getting tired of the formula. The game played very much like VII and VIII, but, in recalling the 16-bit titles, it felt actually even a step back in an exhausted engine. The new growth system, attaching spells and abilities to characters' equipment, did not offer the depth or flexibility of the materia or junction systems. Combat was slower, and the random encounter rate far too high, so it wasn't much fun to play. I was in it entirely for the story, which was thankfully one of the best.

I would again insist that FFIX's implementation of the ATE system was narratively groundbreaking, far more so than anything the series has done since. The plot, on the other hand, was, for better or worse, more straightforward and classical than the Kitase titles. I personally appreciated that the story could be epic in scale without being convoluted, and the lucidity of the writing helped to keep it engaging.

A throwback to the crystals plots of the pre-FFVI Hironobu games, FFIX included tons of crowd-pleasing references to past stories, and, for older fans, trying to spot them all became one of the most diverting parts of the experience. The "stage within the stage," which had become a minor tradition ever since the FFVI opera scene, was taken further than ever by having Zidane and his fellow Tantalus thieves posing as actors, even putting on full shows as a cover for their behind-the-scenes law-bending. In surely the weakest twist, however, FFIX even returned the series to its roots in tossing in an ultimate enemy who just showed up out of nowhere in the final moments and seriously started spouting Yoda lines. Well, okay, Ultimecia wasn't much different, but at least she had better dialogue.

Final Fantasy IX did not sell quite as well as VII and VIII. For whatever reason, the characters never attracted the manic fan following of Nomura's designs, and, even among the longtime players it was intended as a celebration for, the game is not often remembered in those great debates over which is the finest numbered Final Fantasy. There are those who do cherish it, however, and Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu have themselves each identified FFIX as their favorite entry, the one nearest to Sakaguchi's ideal for what Final Fantasy should be. Personally, I find it hard to argue with them. On the strengths of its characters and story--ever the best aspects of the series--FFIX may very well be the greatest Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy X

After Final Fantasy IX closed out one era by looking fondly back at the past, 2001's Final Fantasy X for the PlayStation 2 was to signify a move forward for the series on new hardware. With Final Fantasy XI also having already been announced at this point as an MMORPG, the franchise was entering its next phase, as multiple teams were being given the go-ahead to take the series in new and different directions.

To start with, FFX finally did away with the old Active Time Battle system. Toshiro Tsuchida of the Front Mission series was brought on to devise a more strategic engine. The resulting "Conditional Turn-Based Battle" system was actually rather similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, the previous turn-based strategy take on the series. Characters still received turns based on their speed, but all real-time elements were removed, and the time gauge was replaced by a graphical display that showed the order for the next several moves, adjusting dynamically to indicate how the order might be altered depending on the player's next action.

Although only three characters could be on the field, players could switch active party members on the fly during combat. Players would need to do so constantly as well, because these were the most distinctly specialized characters the series had seen since at least FFIV. Even in V and IX, you could often make do with whatever party you liked, but in FFX there was clearly a right character for every job. Tidus's quickness made him the go-to against nimble monsters, Wakka's range and accuracy were invaluable versus winged targets, and Auron's powerful slashes cut through armored enemies. This, combined with the CTB system, made for the most strategic battles in the series.

Characters developed via the "Sphere Grid," which was set up a bit like a board game, where the party members progressed along winding roads of connected spheres, earning stat upgrades and skills along the way. Although all characters shared the same grid, they started at remote ends of it, surrounded most closely by the spheres bestowing the skills appropriate to their default "classes." By the end of my playthrough, I still hadn't gotten any of the characters to their own highest-level techniques, so it would have taken an impractical investment to subvert their innate designs. The exception was Kimahri, who started in the middle of the grid with no clear identity, leaving the player to choose which of the other characters' paths to steer him toward. Because I sensed that Lulu's poor speed would eventually make her too great a liability even when her black magic was called for, I opted to train Kimahri as a mixed mage to take her place, with disastrous results.

As was the case with FFIX, I no longer had the energy by this point to fully explore it all, but hardcore players had plenty more to occupy them in FFX. The major subgame was "blitzball," the most popular (and only) sport in the game's world of Spira. Playing like underwater water polo crossed with a menu-based JRPG, it was badly designed and unintuitive. It didn't help that, right off the bat, the game expected you to lead the worst players in the league to victory against the number one team. I'll admit, though, after forcing myself to play a few more matches, I managed to grasp the exploits, and it afterward became almost addictive. The other minigame challenges--catching butterflies, dodging lightning strikes, steering uncooperative chocobos--were far more horrendous.

The most significant addition in Final Fantasy X was the introduction of voice acting into the series. Pretty decent overall, it had its rough moments, with Tidus's annoying voice and Yuna's insane stop-and-go inflections being particularly unfortunate. The absolute worst thing about FFX, however, was that, for whatever misguided reason, Square decided to allow the player to rename main character Tidus. I had always felt that renaming the strictly defined characters of JRPGs was stupid anyway, but in FFX, there was the additional problem that the voice acting obviously could not adjust to suit whatever bizarre name the player might possibly input. To get around this, the game just never had his name spoken aloud. This led to all manner of transparently awkward dialogues where characters would avoid referring to him by name. As a result, characters would often unintentionally sound as though they were trying to disguise the fact that they were talking about Tidus. Worst of all was when Yuna would refer to him as simply "the newest member of the blitzball team," which was apparently the best they could come up with. (I think even calling him just "guv" would have been preferable.) After committing to this mistake, Square even had to carry it over into the sequel. At least they spoke his name in the Kingdom Hearts series, albeit they pronounced it differently with each game. *sigh*

Elsewhere on the audio side, Nobuo Uematsu had perhaps finally reached his limit after composing about five CDs worth of music for FFIX. For FFX, Square gave him some help by adding in-house composers Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano to the team. I was familiar with each man's past work, so it struck me as a rather odd combination to put them on the same game together along with Nobuo. Hamauzu's SaGa Frontier 2 work had a very distinct sound. He was one of the only Square composers to make heavy use of piano, and while half of the time it was beautiful, I found the other half to be self-indulgent discordant chaos. FFX sadly showed off the uglier side of Hamauzu. Nakano's work on Threads of Fate was more atmospheric, and his FFX contributions were competent but forgettable. Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling these guys hacks, and Nobuo himself still managed to sneak in some of his best work, but if you were a longtime fan, you would definitely have felt that something was off with this game. Not only did FFX sound jarringly inconsistent at times due to the different styles, but it really drove home just how integral Nobuo's music had been to past Final Fantasy experiences. No matter how accomplished his replacement, you could never expect to fool a player who had grown up listening to his melodies.

After the sharp storytelling of FFIX, FFX was a return to the style of VII and VIII--a mix, in other words, of melodrama, metaphysics, and obfuscations. Set in a world ravaged for the last thousand years by "Sin"--more a force of nature than a traditional villain--it was the most epic tale yet, and, infuriatingly, much of the in-game mythology was barely "in-game" at all. Seemingly vital details on the story behind Sin and Spira could only by gleaned by optionally listening to the long-winded tales of the NPC Maechen.

That said, the story, still head and shoulders above nearly every contemporary JRPG, was the best reason to play the game. Yielding one of the most famous pre-rendered cut scenes in gaming, the bittersweet romance of Tidus and Yuna may have been a better realization of the "love" theme that was supposed to exist in FFVIII. But I was more intrigued by Tidus's daddy issues. Certainly, this was a new theme to video games. FFX's primary conflict was really one that had the protagonist struggling internally to reconcile his own memories of a negligent father with everyone else's image of a man celebrated as a star and hero. The transformative journey was one where Tidus and Yuna arrived to step out of their parents' shadows to become themselves, while also coming to terms with their mythic fathers who seemingly chose the world over them. Saving the world is always gratifying, but seeing Tidus and Yuna resolve their more personal arcs together was here the more vital experience.

Although Final Fantasy X may have been perceived originally as the start of a new era, after FFIX had given the older model a fitting sendoff, in hindsight it played out more like the end of one era followed by the end of another. It's hard to believe that it's been eight years since this game came out, because, truthfully, I don't think there's been a bigger JRPG release since.

Additional Information

Final Fantasy X was the first Final Fantasy to receive a true sequel, and, more than a cheap spinoff, there are even those who consider Final Fantasy X-2 to be equal in scale and standing to a proper numbered installment. Conceived partially to recoup Square's investment on the first game by recycling the assets, FFX-2 nevertheless brought back much of the key staff, minus Nobuo Uematsu. The story was apparently more lighthearted than usual, but I've heard good things about its take on the Active Time Battle system. Even so, I haven't been able to bring myself to play it, because, to me, FFX's was the perfect ending to that story.


Czardoz said...

Final Fantasy IX is the game I always think of when I think of how hard it is to pick a "favorite" FF. There are too many criteria, and to me, there isn't one criterion that's good enough to make that decision.

In a way, the first is the best, because it was the seed and contains the heart of everything the series later became. I played it during the peak of my enthusiasm for gaming, and I certainly never beat any of the other FFs more times than the first.

In a way, it's FFVI, which even more than FFIV, showed me that games could be about more than just whaling on sprites.

FFVII had the biggest impact, not just on the gaming world, but on me personally. And even though I enjoyed FFIX more thoroughly as an experience, I remember more about FFVII.

Yes, FFIX, the most satisfying of the Final Fantasies, probably because it felt the most complete. And by "complete," I mean that every part of the game was in harmony with every other part. The only misstep was that last boss fight, and that's a big deal, but I think the awkwardness is mitigated by the fact that the ending is so good, and because you never felt like the game was just one big road trip leading up to a boss fight.

Will you need me to write a guest post when you do The Essentials for FFXII?

Henry said...

"Will you need me to write a guest post when you do The Essentials for FFXII?"

Haha, if you're up for it.

Czardoz said...

I don't even know if I'm up for beating the game. Good thing this is not a prerequisite for writing an Essentials column (refer to Perfect Dark).

Henry said...

No need to refer me back to my own writing. I know exactly how each game ended up on my list (see also Syphon Filter, Stunt Race FX, Pilotwings).