The quality of a game and the enjoyment that one may gain from playing it are not directly connected. A poorly made game, a janky game, even, can become a cult classic through a devout fandom. Shoddy controls, broken animations, unbelievable characters, poor mechanics…these things sometimes add character to the game to the point where the enjoyment is derived from our personal journeys as opposed to the gameplay itself. This is normal. Guilty pleasures exist in every medium. And then we have the opposite. Sometimes a game is perfectly competent with only minor faults that don’t detract from the experience as a whole, and there may even be some genuinely impressive moments and yet the game is not enjoyable. Final Fantasy X is the one of these competent games that isn’t fun to play.
There is nothing particularly bad about Final Fantasy X. In point of fact, there are many aspects of the game that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought to be great. The soundtrack, the combat, and the story (when viewed only in hindsight, mind you) are all quite memorable. I would even say that there are only a few very minor aspects of the game that are poorly made or not thoroughly explored, and of those, an even fewer amount to anything more than minor gripes. And yet, and yet, I cannot bring myself to say that I enjoyed this game.
Aesthetically, Final Fantasy X is a game that embraces color and vibrancy, wrapping everyone and everything in a hodgepodge of the color wheel. When juxtaposed against Final Fantasy XV and its dressing of characters in black on black, Final Fantasy X definitely feels like a game from an earlier era of video game history even when played today. The entire essence of the game can be distilled in the outfit of the protagonist Wakka. The menagerie consists of bright yellow waders, a blue headband, a single tan spaulder sewn to a sleeve of red and white vertical stripes, suspenders that go as far as the waist but split into an upside-down v-cut from the chest down, and all of this is topped off with Wakka’s seemingly signature flaming orange hair.
The vibrancy does not stop with the outfits of the characters, but in everything on the screen. The tapestry of the world fully immerses the player in a rainbow of cyan Oceanic seascapes, golden cliff side passes, green mystical forests, purple mechanical ruins, and perpetual blue lightning storms. Every color from the Pantone collection is represented in X’s landscape. Even the magical creatures summoned into fights, previously portrayed in Final Fantasy games as powerful monstrosities, are swathed in color. Yojimbo’s attire alone would make Joseph, dreamcoat and all, envious.
The music of Final Fantasy games has always been some of the best that the industry has had to offer, and Final Fantasy X’s delivers on the same scale. When juxtaposed with the character design and the landscapes, it is clear that the developers of this game wanted to really capture the importance of individuality on every front. From the swing and jazz of Chocobo Jam, the simple delta blues guitar of Jecht’s Theme, to the manic cacophony of synthesizers and percussion in Battle with Seymour, composer Nobuo Uematsu has proven yet again that he is a master of telling emotional stories through song alone.
Perhaps the worst parts of Final Fantasy X are the stories woven together throughout the game. The writing itself is simple, yet well done in its constant parallels between storylines, but while the game does a good job of weaving interconnected threads together across stories, the storylines themselves have all of the subtlety and nuance of a Michael Bay summer blockbuster.
The primary story told through the game, and the driving force behind the player, is a coming-of-age tale of the hero protagonist Tidus. Acting both as means of introducing the player to the mechanics and world of the game, Tidus is a stranger in a strange land, and all of the characters believe him to be an amnesiac, allowing for them to inform Tidus, and thus the player, how the world works through more exposition than Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster as Mr. Smith.
As the story progresses, the player learns that the reason this world is wrought with fear is that the people are plagued by a giant monstrosity named Sin. The purpose of Tidus’ quest through the game is to defeat Sin using the powers of the mystical Fayth. On top of that, there is a cold war of two cultures of people due to a difference in religious beliefs. There are the ‘normal’ people that you are with have no unifying name, and the ‘other’ people called the Al Bhed, who are clad in attire from head to toe so as to give no indication of their identity as individuals, but instead to fully instill in the play the ‘us versus them’ dynamic of the world. It is only as the player progresses through the story and learns the Al Bhed alphabet that they begin to remove their masks and become represented as individuals.
From there, the story goes deeper into the connections of the characters and the world, the blight of Sin upon the land, the power of the Fayth, the teachings of the religions of the ‘People’ and the Al Bhed, and the lives of Tidus and the other six members of your team. By the end of the game, everything ties together well enough, but the script remains just as unapologetically generic.The scope of the world and the stories that were told can be commended, but the failure of execution cannot.
While the majority of the game takes place linearly, around the thirty hour mark the game opens up allowing for the player to go back to any previous area and explore it again for new side quests, missed treasure, and hidden bosses. It is also at this point that the game’s difficulty takes such a steep incline that I found it nearly impossible to progress without a couple dozen hours of mindlessly fighting enemy after enemy to level up enough to defeat the oncoming difficulties.
It should also be noted that leveling up in Final Fantasy X is not a mere number increase in character statistics, but rather the slotting of collectible items called ‘spheres’ that increase their respective attribute. Ranging from health, attack power, speed, defense, magical power and new spell abilities, progressing through the labyrinthine sphere grid requires the player to collect enough spheres to permanently slot into the empty holes to make their way to the next spell or ability that a character can learn. While this allows for customization on the player’s part of which characters they want to learn which spells, it also allows for players like me, players who may not have had the foresight to plan on which direction they wanted to work towards, to get lost and stuck in a loop of poor progression and choices.
A game is typically viewed as a singular piece greater than the sum of its parts, which allows for the cohesion of its sound design, its cinematography, its graphical fidelity, its writing, its depth and breadth of characters, its gameplay loops, its animations and machinations to all be viewed as one. This leads back to the idea that a janky game with a few shoddy parts can still be an enjoyable experience. Games like Deadly Premonition and Fahrenheit perfectly encapsulate the idea of an experience that is better enjoyed because of the character it’s faults bring out. However, Final Fantasy X is not like those games.
The faults that I have with Final Fantasy X are comparatively minor in the scope of the game as a whole. Mechanically the game is sound, aurally the game is great, and the dated visuals never detract from the experience. All of that said, the game is still not an enjoyable experience. Each individual part of the game is better as that: an individual. I don’t need the lifeless characters themselves to enjoy their leitmotifs. I don’t need to slog through 20 hours of repetitive fights to enjoy the visual landscapes of the world. I don’t need to hear the shoddy voice acting to enjoy the wild character designs. Individually, the parts of the game that are great shine, but when put together into a unified piece they detract from the experience of playing the game. I don’t regret playing the game, but I cannot in good conscience recommend anybody else play it when they could spend much less time looking at the art and listening to the music a la carte as opposed to ordering an unsatisfying meal.