The first time I saw Sin destroy the Zanarkand blitz ball arena to faux-Ramstein music in front of a blonde twink as a teenager, my mind was blown by how amazing the CGI cutscenes and in-game graphics were. Final Fantasy has always had a general knack for great opening scenes and moments that build tension and really immerse you in the moment, and X is no different. As the destruction of Zanarkand takes place, you meet Auron – who is made into the coolest video game character in history by the voice work of Matt McKenzie, and his amazing character design –and are consumed by Sin, transporting our main character Tidus 1000 years into the future where the once great technalised civilisation of Zanarkand is now mere ruins.
The world our protagonist finds himself in is called Spira. Spira is a highly religious world, with the majority of the population following the teachings of Yevon and identifying themselves as Yevonnites. In Spira, technology is frowned upon, and this is in large part due to the teachings of Yevon. Sin exists in Spira and goes around the world destroying cities, villages and killing their inhabitants, and is believed to exist by Yevonnites as punishment of humanity for overly relying on machina – this games term for technology – for avaricious or wicked deeds. Part of the world lore even tells of a raging war between Bevelle, a major city in Spira, and Zanarkand that used machina against each other, leading to Sin’s first appearance.
To combat Sin, the Yevonnites rely on people called Summoners who call upon the power of gods, or aeons, to destroy it. Tidus meets Yuna, a summoner on a pilgrimage to Zanarkand, who is on a mission to go to each of the major religious temples in the world and pray to the aeons for help before obtaining the final summoning in the ruins of Zanarkand. Yuna is accompanied by three bodyguards, a country bumkin called Wakka, Lulu, this game’s black mage, and a furry called Kimahri who is largely forgettable.
However, even if Sin is stopped by Yuna, this will only result in a Calm, a brief ten year period in which Sin will not exist. After ten years, Sin will reincarnate and start destroying the world of Spira again. To avoid spoilers I won’t discuss anymore of the plot. The story, if you’ve never experienced it, is something you should for yourself as it’s truly remarkable. The religious imagery and parallelisms to Christianity, Paganism and Buddhism in the story are actually incredibly well crafted and feel organic. But at the same time, the architecture, culture and appearance of Spira are very Eurasian/Oriental, with the aesthetic of the buildings and fashion looking like they’d belong in Thailand or Japan.
Something that amazes me about the story is how brilliant the fantastic soundtrack composed by Nobuo Uemastsu helps to solidify its tone and the overall sombre atmsophere of the game. Death is a colossal part of Spira’s world, and this can be felt most by Uematsu’s chilling hymn called Hymn of the Fayth. The song, and the many leit motifs of it, play as Yuna arrives at each temple or upon encountering Sin, and is a stark reminder of the bleak desperation and state of sorrow the world is in. It also acts as a song of hope, being sung by the Fayth who are the people responsible for the existence of the aeons, the only means of which Sin can be defeated.
So story out of the way, the most important point to consider is if the gameplay is any good. And for the most part, it is. The combat in Final Fantasy X is both enjoyable and infuriating. It’s one of the most enjoyable combat systems because for a majority of the game, it forces you to switch between party members. Thus you will find yourself less likely to gravitate toward one character or playstyle as each individual character has their unique set of advantages and disadvantages in fight. For instance, Auron has a piercing ability that enables you to attack armour heavy fiends (this game’s term for monster), while Rikku – a character you meet at the beginning of the game – has a steal ability that works well against machina enemies.
However, my biggest criticisms of X’s combat system is how characters level up as you progress. You see, to level each character in the game, they must be used in the fight in some way, be that attacking, defending, using an item, stat buff/debuff or magic. As a result, Final Fantasy X becomes a JRPG that overly relies on grinding toward the mid-end section of the game, and has no right in doing so when most of the previous titles enabled characters you used and didn’t use in a fight to level simultaneously.
Furthermore, to level up you have to rely on something called the Sphere Grid system. The Sphere Grid is a series of spheres with nodes on them, each node representing a particular character attribute like health, magic, strength, accuracy and so on. Every time you battle a fiend, you earn AP, and after so much AP is gained, you level up. This level is then used to traverse the sphere and activate the status nodes. While the Standard Sphere Grid in the original game is very linear, the Remastered edition introduces the Expert Sphere Grid, which existed in the European version of FFX originally, and is much more flexible to your play style. In the Standard Sphere Grid, Auron is a tank, but in the Expert Sphere Grid he could be a white mage for all you want.
There was a lot of potential to make this one of the best levelling up systems in the Final Fantasy universe, and while the Sphere Grid system sounds cool on paper it just exacerbates the issue of grinding even further. Instead some questionable game design choices made it feel more akin to the atrocious levelling system in Final Fantasy II.
These issues could have easily been fixed in the Remaster version by allowing all characters to gain AP regardless of their appearance in battle, by increasing the animation speeds like in the XII remaster and by getting rid of the summon sequences completely after seeing them a first time (not just shortening them). Sadly, this is not an option, and you can expect to spend between 8-20 hours grinding throughout the game. I’ve always believed grinding in games is a superficial way to pad out gameplay, often leading to ludonarrative dissonance and pacing issues, and at the time X existed, many RPGs were starting to steer away from grind heavy elements.
Of course, the lack of modifying the antiquated elements of the combat system in the Remaster leads to one of my biggest issues I have with it, and that is not being able to skip cutscenes. I’ve heard one theory that this is due to how the game renders cutscenes, with the cutscene length being scaled with ingame dialogue. However, the Kingdom Hearts games also got remasters which enabled skipped cutscenes, were made around the same time as X by the same company, and this was really a problem that could have been easily addressed. I can’t even begin to relay the frustration I felt at having to watch the third Seymour fight’s cutscene again and again, that lasted a solid five minutes, and almost gave up playing X alotgether. I don’t think it would have been impossible to include this feature, and for this annoying lack of feature alone I’d suggest buying the remastered edition for PC and modding it to enable cutscene skips.
Finally, my last complaint about the Remaster regards the minigames like Chocobo Racing, which could have been nerfed or removed entirely. The fact Tidus’ ultimate weapon is hidden behind such a poorly designed minigame, which has been complained about by the Final Fantasy community since X’s original release, and no one took notice at Square Enix is quite frankly distasteful.
However, despite these gripes I’m glad the Remastered version exists. It enables new generations to play X for the first time. I dropped Final Fantasy X when I was 16, and only this month decided to play it over ten years later. I finished it for the first time yesterday, and I felt a wonderful bittersweetness as the ending credits flashed before my eyes. Final Fantasy X Remaster, despite its glaring flaws, is a masterpiece that I believe any RPG fan should experience once in their life.