Thursday, January 24, 2008

Play: Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy is a long-running video game series created by Hironobu Sakaguchi of Japan. The game started at I in 1987 and is currently at XII, released in 2006. Final Fantasy (FF) XIII will be released sometime in 2008 or 2009. There are several spin-offs and re-makes for newer consoles. I will talk about one of the popular titles in the series, Final Fantasy X.

The gameplay itself is like that of a very long interactive movie. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1990s, game makers began adding cinematic animations at key points in the storyline, and this trend has evolved ever since. Whether or not you like that depends on your view of gaming.

Very few of the FF titles relate to one another, so each story is different. You can pick up any random title in the series, and not miss a thing, with few exceptions. I will focus on the story, the mechanics of play, and discussion of likes and dislikes.

The story here is that of a young man, Tidus, who is a star at a sport that looks like underwater soccer or volleyball. During a game, a thing that looks a big floating ball of water, named Sin, causes havoc over his city, resulting in much destruction. Tidus finds an old friend of his, and together they fight their way to the first of many bosses. Eventually, the two are sent off to a different place where nobody has heard of the town that Tidus is from. This new place has a unique history, several cultures, a religion, and traditions that Tidus has no knowledge of.

Very soon, he joins a band of guardians whose goal is to protect a Summoner named Yuna, who is about Tidus's age. If video game characters could be said to have chemistry, however awkward and forced, these two have it. After the group sets off, the story really takes it time as you wander from temple to temple, fight bosses, play the underwater soccer sport, and watch several parts of the FF movie.

The story surprised me because I've never played a game before where theological discussions took place. One character is from a culture who are firm atheists, who are collectively persona non grata pretty much everywhere else in this culture. The established religion is revealed to be full of corrupt, power-hungry individuals who seek to destroy Sin for their own motives. When this is revealed, the true believers among the guardians have a kind of psychological breakdown.

At one point in the story, one of the guardians, Kimhari, seeks to restore his honor with his tribe. After doing so, the guardians encounter one of the priests from the religion. This priest, Seymour, has been harassing the group since mid-game, and tried to kill most of them off more than once, and even tried to forcibly marry Yuna. This game villain is surprisingly well developed, with means, motive, and several opportunities to do his bidding. At this stage, Seymour says, in no uncertain terms, that he just killed every single member of Kimhari's tribe, and Kimhari is the only one left.

I am currently in a face-off against this guy, which is where I will discuss the game play mechanics. All fighting is done turn-based. Essentially, your team lines up on one side, the enemies on the other, and you take shots at each other. Last one standing wins. The game automatically sorts out who shoots when, and the player can control the nature of each attack, and against which enemy. For the first half of the game, I was just pressing the X button on my keypad, because most of the enemies were simple to defeat. After 20 saved hours of game play, though, the enemies become more difficult, requiring the switching of fighting guardians. Only 3 can fight at a time, but if all 3 die, the game is over.

If you win, you are payed Gil, which is the local currency, and pick up any number of equipment, power spheres, and AP points. There is a complicated method through which you gain more health, more techniques, more defense capabilities, involving the spheres, the AP points, and a maze-like "sphere grid". Without going into detail, suffice to say, it is to your advantage to wander the sphere grid, picking up more health, etc.

This where the game suffers. Everything is very complicated. Eventually, you have to assess each battle as if it were unique, get your 3 fighters together, and battle your enemies as if you were playing chess. All the techniques that a character can possess has a different effect on each enemy, and is under the influence of the character's spells (cast against them or the enemy). You usually fight enough of the same bad guy that you start to know who you should pit them against, and the game does give advice, saying that this or that particular enemy does not respond well to magic spells, to stabbing weapons, etc. Given sufficient time, you can figure out how to defeat an enemy, but that may take several hours of counter-intuitive backtracking.

Add to this the fact that you if advance through a field of bad guys faster than you're supposed to, and are not advanced enough to fight the boss, you will lose almost every time. After five losses in a row, go back and "level up". Fight the same underling enemies over and over again until you get enough AP points to advance on the sphere grid. By the 30th saved hour, I had to level up increasingly often. I'm up to the 36th hour right now.

And further more, when you lose, you resume wherever you last saved. This itself is not so bad. Having to sit through the same mostly non-skippable dialogs the characters go through is. I found myself leaving the room for a few minutes, while the same movie I've seen ten times before plays.

To hasten my adventure, I had to resort to a walkthrough. Walkthroughs can advance a player quickly, at the expense of removing whatever is left of the game play. I use them minimally, as in one sentence at a time. I like to be challenged, to keep my brain functioning, but not at the cost of spending several hours going nowhere.

On the bright side, the complexity of the game story is deeper than that of most movies or TV shows. Characters grow, mature, get lost, and die (several dozen times). The music is also great, and changes from level to level. I put video gaming, at this caliber, above watching movies or TV. Seen in this light, the mind-numbing variety of attacks that the characters can perform is a challenge to the player to figure out how to win. Ideally, one spends an hour or two everyday on this, enthusiastically, and can defeat the game in about a month or two. I spend an hour or two every week, so I've been playing this game for almost a year-and-a-half. With that kind of timescale, use a walkthrough, and move on with your life.

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