Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Saturday 8 January 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Final Fantasy X

I am not a JRPG boy. I like my role playing games in a Western flavour which means exploration, customisation, story branching and a unique player experience are all par for the course. My trip through Baldur’s Gate might be very different from that of my neighbour, and my journey through Morrowind certainly would be, but that’s what’s so great about Western RPGs. Even the most rigid titles adapt to your own personal gameplay style. Want to play Mass Effect through as a psychic peacenik space hippy and not a gun-toting soldier out for blood? Knock yourself out, kid.

This is not the way of the JRPG, where character customisation is often limited to renaming the lead character from ‘Crono’ to ‘Boobies’. Which isn’t to say that this individualism is replaced with a deeper story or more sympathetic characters, resulting in a richer and more absorbing experience. In fact I’ve never played a JRPG that has a more engrossing narrative or more memorable characters than those in than any of Bioware’s games. Which leaves me wondering just what people find so appealing about JRPGs.

And they do. The ongoing success of the Mass Effect series has gone some way to redress the balance between the two hemispheres but it’s the Final Fantasies and the Dragon Quests that dominate RPG culture. Convention-goers are much more likely to dress up in towering spiky wigs and wield gunblades than they are to cosplay as a Krogan warrior or an Asari consort. You hear strange tales coming from Japan about the economy suffering as a result of so many people taking a particular day off work just to play the latest Dragon Quest title. As a Westerner it’s bizarre to think of these games in terms of the popularity associated with the Call of Duty franchise. One’s a dumb-as-a-rock first person shooter and the other, well, the other’s an RPG. It’s weird.

So when the opportunity to revisit the old PS2 back catalogue presented itself I thought I’d pick up a copy of the highly-acclaimed Final Fantasy X to see what all the bother was about. It’s not like I’ve never touched a JRPG before you understand, but this game constantly appears on lists of the systems best titles. If anything could sell me on the JRPG it would be Final Fantasy X, right?

One hundred minutes is, of course, nowhere near long enough to explore such a title. JRPGs are made for longevity; the fans demand it, and seem to harbour a certain sneery attitude toward shorter games. After a hundred minutes I still hadn’t played my first game of Blitzball, a sport that’s introduced at the very start of the game, and I’ve heard some FFX fans mention they’d spent hours upon that particular minigame alone. But one hundred minutes of any game should be enough to show the player a sparkling core of gameplay and give them an inkling as to whether or not they’ll like the rest game.

After one hundred minutes my first impressions weren’t negative, but I’m afraid they’re not entirely positive either.

I’ve always hated that JRPGs speak in stilted riddles. When reading or listening to dialogue I’m always aware that this is a game made for a faraway audience, that’s been translated from a faraway language. Final Fantasy X does not buck this trend. Nothing in it feels natural, and in a title that’s otherwise highly polished this awkwardness stands out as a terrible flaw. The characters undergo titanic mood shifts far too often, leaving them seem brittle at best, unhinged at worst. They voice their thoughts often and when they do it it’s out loud, in a comic book style, but their thoughts are usually half-formed. “But that means-!” is a phrase that typifies this kind of dialogue. It’s there to indicate the character has come to a certain conclusion, but the dialogue surrounding it doesn’t expand upon that conclusion, leaving the gamer to hazard guesses as to the conclusion - or even the mood - of the character itself. Maybe if the voice acting was a little better we’d be able to fathom the emotions of the characters; sadly it’s merely competent, and errs toward that of a cheap import cartoon voiceover. If the Pokémon voice track has you reaching for a shotgun in order to end the pain, you might want to turn FFX’s sound down.

In spite of the acting and dialogue there is something deeper to these characters, something to latch upon. Take Tidus, the main player character. He has the spiky hair and the massive sword, and he’s cocky almost to the point of obnoxiousness, but he’s also a sports megastar whose father abandoned him as a child and left him angry, bitter and confused. Further subtleties of his character are screwed by the broad mood changes and poor translation, but there’s enough emotional content there to grab onto.

It’s the same with Yuna, the squeaky-voiced summoner who’s trying to follow in her father’s priestly footsteps, or Wakka, the burly, big-hearted idiot who pines for his dead father and hides his grief between Blitzball and improbable hairstyles. This disparate band of misfits might be irritating and something of a cliché, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t endearing. It seemed terribly unlikely that I’d ever come to care for them when I first met them but one hundred minutes into the game I was starting to smile at magician Lulu’s callous put-downs, and Wakka’s oxen stupidity.

But the real pull for me - the factor that keeps me playing in spite of my better judgement - is the story. Which is strange because I’m not sure I actually like it, and I definitely don’t like how it ties into the gameplay itself. You begin the game as the aforementioned Tidus, sweeping into town in a limousine, signing autographs for swooning fangirls and pegging it towards a gargantuan Blitzball stadium across silvered walkways, beneath neon lights and vid screens showing endlessly repeated footage of your missing father. And there’s something there, something different to all those other spiky-haired heroes with daddy issues who have something to prove to themselves. Tidus has already proved himself worthy to take up his father’s mantle - he’s a star, he’s beloved. When you reach the stadium (and in a master stroke the fans cheers and well-wishes you encounter along the way intermingle with your own, internal narrative, blending the here and now with future reminisces) the crowd goes mental, and every tuck, toss and turn of the Bltizball game is met with fresh applause and adulation. All the while, mysterious figures watch as the nearby ocean erupts to engulf the city, destroying skyscrapers and walkways, sending flurries of demonic ‘Sin-spawn’ down to terrorize the citizens and finally sweeping you into the heart of the aquatic attacking demon, a water-monster called Sin.

When you wake up a thousand years have passed and with it, the grandeur of your home city. In its place are a series of fishing villages, temples containing tedious puzzles revolving around juggling spheres, and the rest of the game.

It’s a big letdown. It feels like you’ve been promised Blade Runner only to be given Doc Hollywood. But again, there’s enough to grab onto and hope for the best.

That’s the feeling I emerged from the first one hundred minutes of Final Fantasy X with - a sort of hopeful disappointment. While the game is often beautiful in a primitive sort of way, it revels in its own narrowness. There is only the one path through the game, and every battle, puzzle and plot-point you encounter is just another obstacle to surmount. Battles - still simplistic this early into the game - are defeated with a set sequence of button presses. In fact if you deviate from the battle plan the game actively scolds you, telling you to leave certain enemies to the group member who deals with them the best. There’s no room for improvisation - there is only the plan. There is no room for exploration - there is only the path.

While I can’t say I dislike FFX, I can’t say I find much joy in it either. JRPGs have often come under fire for being more akin to interactive novels and movies than anything else, and I think it’s fair to say that thus far, that’s exactly what FFX is. It’s something to sit and watch rather than something to experience, and for a game that’s something of a sin. When a cut scene ends it’s simply a case of moving from point A to point B and climbing the obstacles you encounter until you reach the next cut scene and progress the story. It’s almost like the game is happening to someone else and you, the player, are just a voyeur.

I feel sad that I went into this game hoping it would change my mind on JRPGs; if anything it’s reinforced my opinion of them. Pretty cut scenes, obtuse battle systems, dodgy translations and plenty of pointless, non-interactive scenery - all these are evident in FFX, as they are in pretty much any JRPG you could mention. And again, I wonder why this genre has such fervent and dedicated fans when compared to the open worlds of WRPGs they are little more than narrow, well-decorated corridors.

Still, I’ve only played one hundred minutes of a fifty hour game. Maybe it’ll change my mind after all.

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