Starting with this tenth entry, the Final Fantasy series started pushing itself in increasingly different directions. Gone was the ATB system that defined the six previous entries. Even something as universal as levelling characters had a massive overhaul. For me, the systems which acted as replacements were outright improvements. No future game implemented these ideas at the same capacity, neither within the series nor outside. Yet Final Fantasy X can easily be lumped in with IV through IX as the ‘classic’ era of Final Fantasy, largely thanks to its strong design and colorful cast of characters. There may be some hiccups with the voice acting, but if Final Fantasy VII fans can look past the in-game visuals, it’s kind of absurd that Final Fantasy X is endlessly criticized for a small handful of sound mixing issues.
The Conditional Turn-Based Battle system might be my favorite JRPG battle system. The ATB system the previous entries used has always hit me as odd. Having a bar slowly fill up does not change much compared to a traditional turn-based system, and having time continue as you choose adds an unnecessary source of stress. There were weird moments of downtime between actions. The CTB system in X captured the spirit (that some characters might have their bar fill up faster than others) while implementing a more traditional turn-based feeling. The trick here is that the turn order was displayed in the top right corner.
This could have been purely informational, but Final Fantasy X goes to great lengths to give the player control over turn order. Tidus operates somewhat as a time mage, and his abilities focus on getting more hits between enemy turns. The game also includes the option to switch out party members on a character’s turn, which opens up a few possibilities. It can be good to keep white mage Yuna in the back until she’s needed. But there’s a balance here, in that the game relies a bit more on buffs than previous entries and someone switching into the party will be lacking. The common encounter doesn’t take the greatest advantage of this system, but the bosses are some of the best in the series due to some extra strategic layers. Add in the late-game monster arena and the International Version’s bonus bosses, and there are a lot of fights which show off the best aspects of this system. The worst part is, it’s so easy to see how this system could be refined further, but no future game has made a real attempt.
Adding to this being my favorite Final Fantasy purely on a gameplay level is the sphere grid. Instead of levelling up, the characters gain points which let them move around a grid. In the beginning, each character has a clearly defined path with a few off-shooting branches. The central draw is that each of these characters share the same grid but start at different points. There is a promise here that you will eventually be able to mix and match classes, ultimately reaching the point where everyone is maxed out. Kimahri’s role is intriguing, as he starts in the center and essentially exists as an early excuse to jump between sections while others stick to their path. Several of the small branches have locks blocking the stronger abilities, and it can become a question of waiting for the necessary sphere to break the lock or passing it by to keep levelling. Usually, levelling simply means watching a few numbers go up, but there’s an extra feeling of control here.
Final Fantasy X showcased how big of a leap there was between the first two PlayStation consoles. Other than the aforementioned voice acting issue (which really isn’t that bad outside of a few scenes – the focus always being on a scene which is intentionally awkward should be telling), this was a great step forward in video game presentation. X felt cinematic in places where the PS1 games could only suggest.
Instead of an overworld map, this game is instead set inside large areas. Linear vs. open design will always be an endlessly tiring debate, but it really depends on the game. This linearity works because this is the story of a pilgrimage – the goal is to get from point A to point B. Despite the lack of room to explore, everything still feels larger than life and magical. Additionally, despite one of the obvious complaints about linearity being an assumed lack of content, FFX might just be the longest game in the series for a completionist run. The secrets are simply mixed into these large areas.
I’m also one of those weirdos who actually likes Tidus. This isn’t to say he isn’t annoying – you will absolutely want to slap him across the face several times. But he grows into something greater. Despite so many games insisting on having teenage characters, Final Fantasy X feels like one of the few to actually tackle maturing into an adult. I’m also fond of Yuna, the quiet, self-sacrificing summoner at the heart of this pilgrimage. The revelation of the pilgrimage being a suicide run for potentially negligible benefits hit me hard, especially with Tidus being kept in the dark just so he could be obliviously happy during the journey. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but this game’s themes of sacrifice have been a major influence on my own writing (in fact, the novel I’ve been working on for the last year essentially started as a deconstruction of the fantasy stories I grew up with, with Final Fantasy X serving as the backbone). So, sure, some of these scenes might have been cheesy. But, as far as I can remember, this is the only game to make me cry. I was admittedly only twelve or thirteen when I first played this game, but still. Simply hearing “To Zanarkand” is enough to make me sadly nostalgic.
Final Fantasy has enough variants on a classic formula that several could easily be argued as the best. For me, that title has always belonged to Final Fantasy X. From the addicting and simple combat system to the wonderful presentation and setting, this game has stuck with me like few others. Everything works so well that I can almost overlook the fact that none of these characters know how to dress. Lulu, what are you doing with those belts? For Yevon’s sake, this freaking game made me cry over a dude who wears zip-off pants with only one leg removed.