So a while back I read an interesting article about religion in video games that convinced me to replay Final Fantasy X. It’s been quite a few years since I played it last, but I remembered it rather fondly. I think it still holds up pretty well.
Generally, I think the story is masterfully done up until the Bevelle sequence. The religious stuff subtly pervades everything and Sin is a near-constant presence, creating a chilling atmosphere of hopelessness and desolation. We see Sin a lot and the various methods people use for coping with it or trying to stop it, all while people chatter about the teachings and how they’re used to rationalize this horrible situation. And, interestingly, the main characters aren’t directly involved. They just see a lot of stuff happen around them while they’re trying to focus on the pilgrimage – and I think that makes it stronger. The issues don’t have to be directly confronted but can remain a creepy background element that informs everything else, and most importantly, the attempts on Sin are allowed to fail. Operation Mi’hen – undoubtedly one of the most powerful scenes in the game – couldn’t have happened (at least not the way it did, and not so early) if the protagonists were directly involved. Having them play minor roles in those situations makes the world really feel bigger than them while also making the player realize the importance of the main quest. Everything builds wonderfully as we see things fall apart more and more until the explosive heroic sacrifice reveal, and it’s always clear just how dire and desperate the world is. The foreshadowing for later events is pretty well-done, too.
Then Bevelle happens and all that goes out the window in favor of whacking the audience over the head with a sledgehammer. The priests don’t even pay lip service to following their own teachings, they’re all card-carryingly evil, have no real motivation for doing anything other than evululz, and they freaking throw the protagonists into a Bond villain deathtrap. I mean, come on, really? Any possibility of accurate social commentary is tossed in favor of “Do you get that religion is evil yet? Do you? Do you???” I suppose the religious stuff had to come to a head sooner or later, but this was just such an awful way to do it. I was also disappointed by how blasé everyone was about the evululz reveal. I actually found myself liking Wakka simply because he was the only one who had a realistic reaction, in my mind. Everyone else… what, did they already suspect or know Yevon was evil even though there wasn’t anything to suggest that before this? Even Yuna only has like five seconds of crisis of faith before going “Welp, whatever.” After all that wonderful build-up, it’s incredibly disappointing that the writers decided to go this route.
And Seymour…urgghhh. I really liked how how he actually died in his boss battle, because honestly how often do battles have lethal (or any) consequences in modern jRPGs, really? Then Bevelle not only totally invalidates that but has him snuff the only halfway interesting villain while becoming even more boring and shallow. Seriously, Garland has more depth than this guy. I guess having an inhuman, atmospheric antagonist was too radical for the writers so they decided to slap together a human villain too, even though the result is terrible. The whole thing does feel pretty rushed, honestly – he’s so, so obviously evil from the moment he walks onscreen, but the justification for why he’s evil and it’s okay to brutally murder him is so incredibly hamhanded and insubstantial. How do they know the sphere wasn’t faked? Maybe the father was the evil one and this is some elaborate plot to screw over his son? But I guess it’s okay, he expressed interest in the love interest so he must die for the sake of tru wuv. Then he doesn’t even make a token effort to deny his crimes or explain himself or anything, it’s just evululz. Seriously, why did he kill his father? What did he possibly have to gain? The lordship? His father was already old enough that the murder wasn’t suspicious, and he had already embedded himself into other avenues of power climbing at that point. It just comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, then when he finally explains himself it’s just a cartoonishly evil “because death!”
What’s particularly weird about the death thing is that I don’t see anything that contradicts him. He says that death is great and wonderful and frees you from suffering, and by all accounts he seems to be right. He certainly seems really happy about being a ghost and apparently anyone can become a ghost and ghosts seem perfectly corporeal, so why is killing all of Spira a bad thing, really? There doesn’t seem to be any meaningful difference between life and death, and when a story does that it invalidates all the stakes. It doesn’t matter if the heroes fail to stop Sin because apparently everyone can just come back as a ghost and everything will be peachy keen. We’re given no reason to think Seymour’s crazy rants are wrong in the slightest, yet the characters say they have to stop him anyway, because.
We also have the recurring recurring villain problem of how he just will not die. Every time he was onscreen I kept screaming “Just send him!” I mean, it does seem like the ceremony takes some time, but what’s stopping Yuna from doing it in all the battles against him if she’s in the back and the frontline fighters are distracting him? Why couldn’t she have done it during the trial in Bevelle, or while he was ranting at them after Via Purifico? Why does he conveniently run away after every battle except the last one, where he arbitrarily decides welp, time to die I guess? Why does Yunalesca permadie just by getting beat up while he has to be sent? None of this makes any sense!
It’s possible that the writers were trying to make him a foil to Yuna – he’s a summoner who wants to save everyone and lives under the shadow of an influential father, there are parallels there – but it just didn’t pan out. He’s simply too shallow and underdeveloped. A better alternative, I think (other than giving him an actual character to justify his screentime) would be to fight the other maesters in his place. They’re even perfectly placed already – Kinoc at Bevelle, Kelk at Gagazet, Mika at the endgame. That way the other maesters (and by extension, the religion itself) would get more development, and the game would continue the feeling I outlined above of villains actually dying after you fight them. That, too, would fit well with the theme of overturning the old world order, breaking out of the cycle, and causing real, permanent change while also adding some moral ambiguity to the characters’ actions. (As-is, it’s pretty convenient how everyone but Kelk is kind enough to dispose of themselves, and he’s dealt with nonviolently.) It’d also make the blatant Sephiroth expy a fakeout villain, and you have to admit that’s pretty hilarious.
After that the story is just kind of eh. Everything Yuna does is great and Zanarkand is super atmospheric, but the actual plot reveals feel incredibly rushed and needlessly convoluted. Yunalesca is another cartoonishly shallow villain who has no reason to actually fight you, the Yu Yevon thing comes out of nowhere and is never adequately explained, and we’re never given an explanation for where Sin came from even though it seemed like all the talk about the city of summoners facing destruction from machina was building to them creating Sin out of desperation, but no, Sin is just…there? And also blasting Sin with guns magically works now even though that option was explicitly shot down (ha) in Operation Mi’hen. What, are we supposed to believe that people hacking at Sin with swords is somehow able to bypass the super death shield but lightning guns don’t? And why does Jecht have to go one-winged angel, why does he have a moment of clarity afterward when he said he was totally fusing with Sin, why do you need to summon all the aeons when Yu Yevon is right there the whole time and… I don’t know.
The most likely explanation is that the writers just ran out of time (or maybe changed their minds midway through but couldn’t fix the earlier stuff because game?) and that the plot would have been more coherent otherwise. There is a definite cosmic deadline feel.
So, here’s the rewrite: After Zanarkand was destroyed, Yu Yevon thought he discovered a way to summon the city itself. Perhaps until then their summoning was powered by magitech (it’s really the only explanation for why Zanarkand is a city of both machina and summoners), but Yevon discovered the bloodpact-type summoning that we see used in the game. He convinced all the survivors of Zanarkand to participate in the summoning, and everyone is convinced they’re going to bring back the city and everyone who died and everything will be wonderful. They die because that’s insane, but the spell does create the dream Zanarkand. Yevon himself is wracked by guilt, and is either transformed into the tick thing by the spell backfiring, or does another summoning, using himself as the fayth. This creates Sin. However, you can’t be both the fayth and the summoner, which is why Sin is a weird freaky thing that keeps coming back and why Yevon goes insane. Sin targets machina first because it remembers that was what destroyed Zanarkand, and this is where the Yevonite ban on machina comes from. They’re convinced that since Sin hates machina above all else, abolishing machina might appease it. This would also explain the Sin episode in the very beginning – it occasionally wanders into the Zanarkand dream because it remembers it was supposed to protect the city, but it’s lost higher thought processes so it just starts destroying stuff.
There’s then a period of Sin destruction. Perhaps the fayth lend their aid because they realize Sin needs to be stopped, but they’re not strong enough. Yunalesca figures out a way to create her own fayth and her husband volunteers. She believes this will end the Sin menace once and for all, but of course it just starts the cycle, and this shatters her. She falls into the sunk cost fallacy: she’s convinced that the Final Summoning is the only way to defeat Sin because she had to sacrifice so much for it. This explains why she attacks the heroes: here are these people trashing her sacrifice, saying it’s not worth it, and acting like they have some miracle solution that’ll work better, and so she just snaps.
(Alternatively, cut the Yu Yevon thing entirely and just have Yunalesca be Sin’s summoner. She created her own fayth to create a mega-summon to stop Bevelle, and over a thousand years of Telephone that turned into her being the first summoner to defeat Sin, with Sin just always existing in the canon.)
This is also an opportunity to fix the ghost weirdness: it’s a revenant thing where you can only come back out of a strong sense of obligation, and the people are absolutely miserable. This way not everyone can come back as a ghost and being a ghost is not an ideal existence, so death has meaning. It’d also make the maesters more nuanced: instead of supporting the Sin cycle because evululz, they do it because they honestly believe it’s the only way. They stick around forever and ever because knowing the awful truth and trying to control this mess is horrible and they want to protect other people from it. This would fit the traditionalism commentary much better – they’re ruled by these ancient people who literally will not die, and though they have good intentions they’re so set in their ways that they can’t see any other course of action than perpetuating the horrible status quo. This could develop Seymour, too – like Yuna, he feels driven to help the people, but unlike Yuna, he does it out of a sense of obligation rather than his own desires. The pressure (and perhaps a bad upbringing, that could be played up more) makes him so self-loathing he jumps at the chance to suicide, and after death he goes even more batty. He feels so peaceful as a ghost and assumes everyone must be as miserable as he was, and so his belief that he can help people by killing them makes sense without making too much sense.
And to make the final Sin battle make sense, Operation Mi’hen is sabotaged instead of simply not working. Perhaps the Al Bhed have tried this in the past but the Yevonites keep sabotaging the machina because Sin hates machina, so of course their guns aren’t powerful enough to do any real damage. This provides more excuses for them to hate each other and fosters another neverending cycle. The reason it works in the ending is because the two groups are finally working together and can fight at full capacity.
I also feel like there should be more Sin. In the early bits he’s a constant, terrifying presence, but after Djose he just disappears until the endgame, which really ruins the impact. The society-destroying monster is far less impressive when apparently people can just move inland and be fine. If he showed up more (in place of Seymour’s stupid time-wasting antics, maybe), the atmosphere would be more consistent and the story would be stronger. I was also rather disappointed that the toxin thing never went anywhere – the story could easily do a crazy mindscrew thing where Sin teleports you much more often while everyone constantly tells you about the toxin and you’re left doubting how much of what you see is real. It’d be something different, at least.
And nuke Tidus from orbit. The more I played, the more convinced I became that he was totally extraneous to both the gameplay and story. Really, what role does he play that couldn’t be filled by someone else? He’s an outsider, so he can look at things with a fresh perspective and poke holes in their society’s entrenched problems… except we already have the Al Bhed, who do exactly that already. Heck, Tidus’ plan of subduing Sin doesn’t even work, it’s the Al Bhed’s guns and everyone else’s swords that actually do it. He’s also the Watson, which a good writer doesn’t actually need, but if we do need it we could just make the Al Bhed more out of the loop and have Rikku be the Watson. He also has a personal connection to Jecht… and so do Yuna and Auron. He makes the ending bittersweet by sacrificing himself… just like Auron does. Gameplay-wise, he’s supposed to be a fragile speedster… except so is Rikku, and she does it better. He also makes the party member count uneven. You could cut him entirely and make Rikku or Yuna the protagonist and not much would have to change.
I kind of wonder if this is an FFXII situation where they wrote the story sans Tidus or with him in a more minor role and someone told them they had to have teenage boy protagonist – or maybe one of the writers was just a huge Tidus fanboy. He just feels so shoehorned. He’s actually a textbook example of a weird trend I see somewhat often: you’ll have an adventure story about strong/smart/competent people, but the actual protagonist will be this wussy everyman who will randomly yank the spotlight from the other characters to desperately remind everyone he exists, and then at the end he’ll turn out to have the secret power or knowledge that saves the day or whatever. It’s always baffling to me – I mean, it’s obviously a self-insert power fantasy, but aren’t adventure stories already those? Are some people just so miserable they can’t project themselves onto actual heroes and need an everyman hanger-on to feel validated? It’s bizarre, and it comes off as pretty sexist when the actual protagonist he keeps distracting us from is a woman who is otherwise doing pretty awesome stuff.
I do like Yuna, and all the other characters really. She’s introduced as this cute, naïve little girl (reinforced by her being the healer), but it slowly becomes clear that that’s not the case at all and she’s actually an incredibly strong and determined individual. She has a nice arc, too, even if her crisis of faith was disappointingly minor. The way she keeps acting and fighting on her own even as everyone tries to coddle her was great – her “I will fight you too” to Seymour is a particularly powerful moment. It was kind of annoying how she kept being a damsel in distress, but she’s usually rescued quickly and the Al Bhed actually have a good reason for it. The scene where everyone except her became the damsels in distress was also a neat reversal – and she still managed to do something awesome! Definitely the only good part of the Bevelle chapter. It’s just a pity Square couldn’t go all the way and make a woman the actual protagonist, even though they did that just fine 7 years earlier, and twice over at that. What was that about breaking away from traditional values, game?
On a different note, the gameplay was really good. I’ve never been a fan of the ATB system – if I’m playing a turn-based RPG I prefer it to be actually turn-based, thanks – and this turn system has all its advantages with none of the real-time weirdness. I’m honestly surprised Square didn’t keep using it after this. It would have been nice for delay effects to be a bigger deal – maybe have recovery time for actions explicitly displayed instead of a thing you only notice by scrutinizing the turn meter – but overall it was good. I also liked how status effects were actually useful! Playing with status effects is always fun and infinitely more interesting than just using the strongest attack over and over, so I’m glad they didn’t just make every boss immune to everything and call it a day. (Unfortunately, many of the later bosses and especially the superbosses do get that treatment, which was very disappointing, especially since by the time you get Wakka’s ultimate skill it’s useless.) Giving every party member a specific type of enemy only they can meaningfully damage (and often oneshot) was a little weird and made things more puzzle-y than RPG, but you can mess with that through customization or atypical sphere grid movement and it tapers off towards the end anyway. Magic was disappointingly lackluster (Lulu needed Magic Booster and Doublecast and high-end spells in order to just barely outdamage the fighters whose weapons I never updated since the beginning of the game), but I did enjoy how varied and interesting the skills were. Whereas magic was just the typical “deal damage, deal more damage, deal morer damage” deal with the done-to-death elemental system tacked on, skills actually had a lot of variety based on situational and tactical use rather than just “deal damage”. I’d love to see an RPG that was truly built around a design philosophy like that.
Speaking of magic, though, summon magic has always been my favorite type of magic in FF games so it was nice to see it get so much focus, even if it was kind of overpowered since there’s nothing stopping you from annihilating regular encounters with aeons. I did like how a lot of bosses had high agility or multiple parts or other aspects that made aeons fragile, but you can still use them to block a powerful attack with no real drawbacks. It might have worked better if they drained Yuna’s MP or something. Also, what was up with the magus sisters, seriously? It looks like the ultimate aeon is this really cool-looking thing with storyline relevance, then nevermind actually it’s these weird bug people you’re given with no context? Was one of the developers just a huge FF4 fanboy or what?
The sphere grid… I like it in theory, but I’m not sure about the execution. A lot of people seem to love how you can make anyone do anything, but personally I’m not a fan of that style of design. I like my RPG characters to have some uniqueness, especially because in a decently-written RPG characters’ battle styles will inform their personalities and vice versa. I read one review that criticized the gameplay for having no relation to the story, but I disagree. I felt that everyone’s battling styles made at least some sense – except for Tidus and Wakka, they should have been switched. Seriously how does he learn magic he’s from the machine city remember??? I suppose it works overall – characters aren’t going to break out of their own path for most of the main story unless you grind like a fiend, then in the postgame if you want everyone to be interchangeable Quick Hit machines you can do that. And I guess you could rationalize characters learning stuff from other sections as other characters teaching them, even if it still doesn’t make perfect sense.
Although I must say that it was really, really easy to overlevel. I have no idea how I found the game hard my first time through, I demolished everything except the final boss on my first try. I guess the developers didn’t want to discourage the character-swapping mechanic by splitting experience, but I think they overcompensated. If you make sure to always have everyone participate in every battle you’ll be rolling in experience points, especially since the random encounter rate is so high.
The postgame, though… what were the developers thinking? It looks like torture to me. Days upon days of luck-based grinding, all for the privilege of watching hours and hours of nothing but Quick Hit and Attack Reels on palette swaps? Normally superbosses have some kind of fun gimmick that makes you look at the battle system in a new way, but the only gimmick I see here is big numbers. It’s especially weird because there are just so many of them. Maybe if monster catching started earlier and some of the bosses were conceivably beatable as you progressed through the story, but as-is I’m just baffled. They’re either unbeatable or trivial depending on how much grinding you’ve done, no middle ground. And there really should have been something done to disincentivize Quick Hit spam, maybe if it was weaker than a regular attack? The developers realized it was a problem enough to nerf it in the rerelease, but they didn’t nerf it nearly enough given that it’s still all I see in the videos. Magic is made useless by giving the superbosses insane magic defense and immunity to all status ailments, but what, high physical defense was just a step too far? Auto-Life and Auto-Phoenix are also gamebreaking – the developers had the right idea with the dark aeons dispelling Auto-Life, but they didn’t take it nearly far enough it seems. And Auto-Phoenix simply should not be in the game, it’s nearly impossible to lose with it active.
But overall, this was a really solid game and I enjoyed it. Many of the systems and ideas here are ones that had a lot of potential and should have been built upon in later installments, which just makes me disappointed by how badly things have regressed and gone off the rails since. Even the infamous voice acting wasn’t that bad – okay, Yuna’s was, which was a shame, but with everyone else I think I disliked it mainly because I tend to dislike English voice acting in general. (The constant chatter in battle was pretty annoying, though.) I definitely recommend it if you haven’t already given it a try, though if you’re looking for the promised insightful religious commentary you’ll probably be disappointed.