Friday, April 18, 2014

Impressions #3: Final Fantasy X HD

As a Final Fantasy fan, it would be against the law for me not to buy the HD remake of Final Fantasy X and X-2. Final Fantasy X in particular holds great significance to me. It was the game the introduced me to the RPG genre way back when it was released in 2001. Sure, I had played demos of other RPGs before on those old PS1 demo discs, but this was the game that cemented what would grow into a great love for the genre. With that in mind, I was eager to see both what additions the International release brought on, since that content was added to the HD version. Also, I was curious as to how the game holds up in the context of modern game design.

One of the most striking changes the International version of the game added was the new Expert Sphere Grid. As most people know, in all versions of Final Fantasy X, character development is handled by the Sphere Grid. Characters gain “Sphere Levels” by participating in battles and acquiring AP. With Sphere Levels, they can advance along the grid, spending Spheres in order to increase stats and acquire new abilities. The Sphere Grid that most Final Fantasy X players are familiar with in the “Standard” Sphere Grid that came with the North American release. While that grid is still in the International (and, by extension, the HD) release, the option exists to switch to a new “Expert” Sphere Grid at the start of the game. This grid allows for significantly more customization of the cast.
A problem with the Standard Sphere Grid everyone is familiar with is that it basically partitions the grid evenly between all the character, dividing them into very distinct character archetypes. It was less of a grid and more like a series of corridors, where each character had their own to traverse. Though it was technically possible for characters to go into other characters' sections of the grid, that would be rare and mostly occur towards the end of the game when players had high level Key Spheres to break the locks separating them. Each character would mostly stick to their defined roles.
While the cast still have their own classes in the Expert Sphere Grid, there are gray areas where some paths along the grid intersect. As an example, Lulu's and Yuna's paths in the Expert Sphere Grid frequently have points where the ladies can encroach on each others sections. This means that Yuna can gain a bit of Black Magic and Lulu can gain a bit of White Magic while they both still generally stay on their main paths. (In my current playthrough, Yuna currently has all first and second level elemental spells.) The physical fighters also have similar intersections along their grid paths, which leads to them all being able to visit and borrow from each other as much as the player wants/needs.
I personally like this a lot better as this seems to really utilize the full potential of the concept of the Sphere Grid. While the Standard Sphere Grid might as well have been a standard leveling system for all of the customization it allowed players, the Expert version delivers on the promise of using a grid to let players more strongly control how characters develop. However, it exacerbates the problem in vanilla Final Fantasy X where Kimahri was the most useless character by far. In the Standard Sphere Grid, Kimarhi's section is the center of the grid. His gimmick is that the starting points for all other characters Sphere Grids are right next to his and blocked by low-level locks. Therefore, he can gain the skills and assume the role of another character. However, in a game where every character is a specialist against a specific enemy type, this is not all the useful. With the extra customizability found in the Expert Sphere Grid, Kimahri's gimmick is even more useless.

Another minor addition was the addition of new “Distill” abilities. Like the “Distiller” items in vanilla Final Fantasy X, these skills force an enemy hit with them to drop a specific type of sphere. (For example, “Distill Power” forces an enemy to drop Power Spheres.) These skill cost 1MP, so they are inexpensive to use. New weapons found in the game are also imbued the the property to inflict Distill statuses on the enemy. This helps players better control the spheres that are dropped by enemies. This does not help much in the late game, since spheres of all types are very common. However, this is a great help in the early game, where specific sphere drops can be more/less scarce depending on how far the player is in the game.

Surprisingly enough, Final Fantasy X holds up surprisingly well, despite some clearly dated game design principals. I think part of the reason for this may be that while modern Final Fantasy games seem to be aiming for a more action-oriented, cinematic style of combat, this one is purely a turn-based game. I do not mean to imply that real-time combat systems are intrinsically bad. (I will defend the battle systems for Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns.) Rather, that a purely turn-based game in the context of modern RPGs is a refreshing change of pace.
One of the things that was best about Final Fantasy X was that players can switch between members of the party at any time, even during battle. This means that if the player finds that another party member would be better suited to a particular enemy, they can swap them in to better fight them. Thanks to the way combat works, this is necessary. With the exception of Kimarhi, every character has a set of foes that they are uniquely suited to fighting: Tidus can handle agile enemies. Wakka can take down flying enemies with his magic soccer ball. Lulu can dispatch elementals and flans. Yuna's summons can take on large, tough foes. Auron excels against armored monsters. And lastly, Rikku can easily disable machines. The fact that every character has specializes in taking down specific enemies helps to sell that every party member is necessary in order to complete the journey to Zanarkand. It is a nice, small touch that adds to the game.

However, there are negatives aspects of the game as well. One of the biggest complaints that I have regarding Final Fantasy X are the Cloisters of Trials. In the world of Spira, summoners acquire new summons, or Aeons as they are called in game, by praying to the fayth, souls trapped in stone. There is a temple for every fayth. In order to reach the fayth of a temple, the summoner must attempt the Cloister of Trials to get to their chamber. (These are mostly mandatory and required by the story.) Each Cloister takes the form of an annoying puzzle that both halts the flow of the game and wastes a large portion of the players time. Usually, the puzzles are pretty easy to solve. Unfortunately, they are usually so slow to solve because of the number of steps involved in the solution. Virtually every one of these puzzles feel unnecessary and halts the flow of the game.

As for the HD graphical upgrade, it is interesting to behold. Although it is certainly pretty, it seems incomplete in a way. Though the major characters have very nice models, the secondary case and the town NPCs all still use fairly low-resolution models. Since the environments have also received a nice upgrade, this makes all the minor characters stand out for the wrong reason. There are also some interesting results obtained from the HD upgrade. As an example, Yuna's model in particular makes her look surprised at everything, thanks to the wideness of her eyes. Also despite the new visuals, the game makes it clear that it is a PS2 game at its core because of the way the characters move on screen. This is not surprising, given that it is just a visual update. Overall, the game looks really good.

As of the time of writing, I have not yet finished the pilgrimage to Zanarkand. Because of this, I have not yet fought many of the new bosses like Penance or the Dark Aeons. Perhaps when I have finished a more through playthrough of Final Fantasy X HD, I will write an addendum piece to this describing any further thoughts I might have on new content. However, I do not hold me to that as I might change my mind. Based on what I have seen though, there is enough here for both old fans of Final Fantasy X and JRPG fans who never played the original game to give it a shot.


Sougo said...

Glad to hear that you're enjoying X/X-2 HD, Cloud. I agree with the overall improvement of the international version and X's story manage to pace itself surprising well from start to finish (this is even more noticeable when you're just coming from XII and the XIII trilogy) which is rather pleasant. I often hear the linearity comparison with XIII and while X is very linear, it is never felt suffocating as XIII. However, there are some decisions the are quite... questionable when regarding to the endgame. One is that the Dark Aeons can block access to some essentials item such as the Sun Sigil for Tidus' Ulrimate Weapon and Auron's Final Overdrive. I think Square was aware of this flaw as well considering they made it so that you can cheese the DarkAeons really easily with Yojimbo so it's kinda baffling when they choose to to place them that way. They could have put the extra fights on a brand new area without affecting your current progress.

Sadly, X's biggest flaw is still present in the HD version: It's endgame reallly, REALLY sucks. Whether it's to reach 0 secs on that broken Chocobo catcher race or the tedium of dodging 200 Lightning bolt, X's endgame have kill my enthusiasm for the game. I can't imagine myself going through 60 hours of grinding to get prepare for the Dark Aeons 'legitimately' again.

newdarkcloud said...

I'm gonna be honest, I'm not even going to bother with the legendary weapons. As you've correctly surmised, they are a waste of time. I've never gotten them all and I likely never will.

Sougo said...

You're much smarter than I am. I only went all in because I forgot how tedious it was (I last played X like 7 years ago). 'How bad can it be...? Right?'

Overall though, I enjoy X/X-2 on my vita and hopefully Square will do a HD remake for 12's Zodiac Job System too :)

newdarkcloud said...

Since all the remakes they've done so far are so well received, they likely will.