Content of the article: "Final Fantasy 10 – Both better, and worse, than I remember it (Spoilers ahoy)"
It's been a while since I've played FF10, at least a decade. I'd grabbed it on sale through Steam a few months back and finally got around to having enough time to give it the attention it deserves, and having beaten it for what is now my second time, I wanted to share some thoughts. There will be spoilers as it is difficult to talk about the story in any meaningful way without incidentally spoiling things, simply because there are so many levels of plot twists and new information revealed that, by the end, everything has been turned on its head.
I was originally intending to split this up by categorizing pieces between the Good, Bad, and Ugly, but the sad fact of the matter is almost every element of FF10 has something good, something bad, and something underused or something that otherwise belies a larger issue. So this is going to be a bit more freeform, and a lot longer, than I intended.
Reminder, there will be unmarked gameplay + story spoilers.
The bulk of FF10's gameplay is its combat, and I'll talk about that later in its own, dedicated section. Aside from combat, there's not a ton of ways to interact with the world.
FF10 is relatively unique in that it doesn't really have a point in which the entire world opens up. Now you do get full access to the airship with about 90% of the story completed, and you can choose places in the world to go to from a world map (or search for new locations at specific X, Y coordinates) but unlike most previous Final Fantasy's, you're never given the ability to traverse the world map in a freeform manner. This means nearly every location directly connects to another one, rather than bringing you back to a world map for you to then freely move around in. While this helps to build a sense of how each area fits into the world as a whole, it has a side effect of making the world feel rather small. If you turn off encounters, you can jog from the very beginning of the game to Besaid to Zanarkand in about half an hour. Granted, this skips the desert because that area is disconnected from the rest of the pilgrimage, but with relatively few opportunities for meaningful detours, this makes the world feel small. A world map you could freely explore would go a great distance in making the world feel larger.
Another "gameplay" mechanic is The Cloister of Trials. At each temple along the journey you are presented with a "puzzle". I put puzzle in quotes for a few reasons.
a) The rules to each temple vary, so lessons learned from one don't really build into a larger understanding. Instead, each temple quickly introduces its own rules to you that you're then expected to use to solve the greater puzzle. Fine on its own, but when the puzzles consist of inserting or removing spheres into/from slots to see how the room changes, it feels very arbitrary. Why does putting a sphere in one spot move a wall somewhere else? Aside from that being the puzzle, there's really no answer. It feels very disconnected.
b) The pacing for these cloisters is truly awful, both narratively and mechanically. From a narrative perspective, each one aside from the second takes place immediately after, or sometimes during, an important plot set piece. The last thing you want to do after a traumatic scenario, or while running away from people chasing you, is to come to an immediate stop and solve some puzzles. And then the pacing for the puzzles themselves goes like this.
You run up to a sphere in a wall. You want to interact with it. You press X to be informed there's a sphere yet. You press X to be asked if you want to pick it up. And then you're informed you now have a sphere in your hand, a message you'll need to dispel with one last button press of X. Does this really require three button presses to get through?
And lastly, there's blitzball, the game's version of water rugby. I appreciate what it was trying to do – a blending of a traditional sports games with some stat heavy interactions between players. It's almost successful, but there's a few issues. Firstly, your introduction to blitzball is terrible. You're given a truly awful team and you're going up against a, compared to your team anyway, far superior one. Granted the story doesn't expect you to beat it, but it's such a frustrating experience it would be hard to blame anyone for what's going on. Secondly, when you don't have the ball, you have essentially no control over your players and are at the mercy of watching the AI do whatever it pleases. And lastly, while playing, the camera angle is constantly changing, which makes it a very frustrating experience when your ball carrier does a 60 degree turn directly into some defenders because the game wanted to show you a different perspective.
Combat certainly deserves its own section. And I have to say, it's pretty good! I'm a fan of turn based combat as long as there's no awkward ATB system, and the preview window that shows who gets to move when is such a simple but smart addition that lets FF10 do some things that just wouldn't work with ATB.
Firstly, let's discuss the good. Maybe I was super overleveled when I played this my first time around all those years ago, but combat felt like a consistent threat. When enemies weren't targeting someone with an an attack that my party members were strong against (elemental weakness, Yuna against magic in general, etc.), party were generally in danger of being KO'ed in 2-3 hits. This might sound punishing, but it's important to see this in the context of how combat tends to work.
Regular enemies and your own party members follow a general sort of rocks-paper-scissors dynamic. Fast but weak enemies are dealt with by the agile and reasonably powerful Tidus. Slower armored enemies are often dealt with in a single slow by the sluggish but powerful Auron. Flying enemies are similarly weak to the types that Tidus deals with, but often far more evasive, which Blitball-throwing Wakka can smack down. Magical creatures have their elemental weakness targeted by the black magic-wielding Lulu. And robots are surgically taken apart by Rikku's technical skills. (There's a bit of overlap, particularly between Wakka and Tidus – Wakka's strength explodes later in the game and can often deal with the same types of enemies Tidus can, and giving anyone a weapon with the piercing quality can often mean they deal with enemies reserved for Auron just as easily, but I digress).
Two party members fall out of the neatly arranged balancing listed above. Yuna, the white mage and summoner, steps in as needed to heal, remove status effects or negate elemental spells, or summon a creature to deal with another large creature. Her role as a healer or just someone to tackle/distract a larger monster flows naturally with how summons work in this game compared to previous Final Fantasies, so she's easy enough to find some action for.
Combat of FF10 is at its best when an enemy has clear rules that require you to play around it. My favorite fights were the dude at the end of the Zanarkand cloister of trials (with the 6 floating glyphs and he counters everything in front of him, but you can position your team behind him), the berserk yeti who gets buffed by shell/protect and then counters all attacks, and the tank with the anti-magic thing that then charges up a powerful attack once you destroy it. When a fight has an enemy interact in very specific ways to types of moves, it's fun to see how the different status effects, attack types, etc., all interact with each other. Boss fights in particular could have used way more of this type of interaction, but most bosses rely on being immune to all status effects and there's not a ton of opportunity to explore the more esoteric elements of combat.
This is where we start to reach the bad pieces of combat. Kimahri has no defined purpose. Early game, he's very strong because of how his stats are distributed, but his place on the sphere grid is so small that you're definitely expected to quickly move into another party member's area. The problem, of course, is…what's the point? You don't really need a back-up of anyone, so Kimarhi ultimately becomes pretty useless.
Especially later in the game, agility – the stat that determines how quickly characters get new turns – becomes pretty important. Bosses especially have powerful abilities that need to be prepared for during your turns. And this is where poor Lulu starts to fall behind – she's extremely squishy, and while her offense is good, it's not that good…and she's friggin' slow. It got to a point where it was difficult to justify throwing her in, even for a turn, because once she got KO'd it took forever to get her back up again long enough to switch her out.
Overdrives, the game's limit break, can be charged ahead of time. If you know a particularly tough battle is coming there is nothing stopping you from grinding out overdrives for all your characters and summons and then just unleash a deadly salvo. I made a very conscious effort not to do that while playing, and the game feels better for it. I feel like overdrives should start at 0 for each fight, but then charge more quickly to make up for it (tweak the rate at which it charges until it feels fair).
Easily FF10's strong suit, I really like how the game interweaves story elements with the mechanics. Summons are an important part of combat, and they're an equally important part of the story. I'm just going to list the things I like and dislike, in chronological order while I remember it. Spoilers ahead!
-I like Tidus's fish out of water dynamic. It offers a very easy way for why characters explain things to him and the player, by proxy.
-The introduction to the Al Bhed is truly awful. For what is supposed to be a sympathetic group later in the game, the extremely harsh way they interact with the freezing, starving, and completley lost Tidus completely undermines their attemps to make the Al Bhed seem reasonable later.
-The introduction to Kilika and the sending cutscene in particular are phenomenal.
-There are some scenes that I can't help but wonder that they wrote with the intention of putting them in another scene, and then that scene was removed. Or maybe they realized they needed to introduce something earlier but didn't think about why? The Luca Goers (what a stupid name, btw) being at the temple in Kilika makes no sense at all.
-I really like how Auron just straight up tells Tidus Sin is his Dad. In a game with a ton of plot twists, understanding the relationship between Sin to the cast is something that needs to be explained quickly and efficiently. Tidus's reaction is still believable, but at this point in the story this isn't a huge twist – it doesn't really change what we know about how Sin behaves, just the nature of its existence.
-Operation Mi'ihen is so good. It better shows how the Al Bhed are viewed by most of the world, how the Crusaders are so desperate to try anything, and how corrupt Yevon's top officials are. It also showcases not only Sin's power, but also its ambivalence; it just sort of exists and brings ruin to the things around it, like a person accidentally stepping on an anthill. Imagine what it could do if it were actually trying…?
-Rikku's re-introduction is…weird. She admits to trying to kidnap Yuna to Tidus, but then she talks to Lulu and Yuna privately (we later learn that Rikku and Yuna are cousins so I get it, but it's very odd at the time), and then they proclaim Rikku is joining the group. But Tidus doesn't say anything about Rikku having JUST tried to kidnap Yuna? Like I said…weird.
-Auron's refusal to enter the Farplane would have very obviously spoiled his nature of Rikku also didn't want to enter the Farplane. I like how Rikku offers an explanation while Auron doesn't; it's a good way to hint at what comes later.
-The scene beneath Macalania temple is critical to understanding how the group is going to defeat Sin later, but it's shot so weird it can be difficult to understand what's going on. So the group is on the water, under the temple, near some weird structures, while the hymn of the faith plays. Then the hymn stops. Then there's a CGI shot of Sin from below, also looking up at the temple. I think it's really easy to overlook it because it's not really drawn attention to in this scene (or any others, frankly, it's just a detail you may or may not notice), but the weird structures the group was standing near is also near Sin's head. Which means the group was STANDING ON SIN. This is such a cool idea that the fact they shot it in such an awkward way confounds me.
-The lazy teleport to the desert was just…ugh. I honestly hate "we're in the desert now!" And in the time it takes for Tidus to wake up, Yuna has been captured by the Al Bhed, and also the Guado are here attacking Home? The passage of time is very unclear here.
-The scene where it's revealed the final summon kills the summoner is a great twist! Unfortunately, the people who wrote the scene forgot that during the entire time, the Al Bhed alarm of "I'm annoying, huh?" is going off and it completely kills the drama of the scene. My wife, who's never played or watched the game played before, was sitting near me at this part, and she was laughing the entire time, and I don't blame her. Great dramatic scene, guys.
-The next couple hours are awful. Yuna has been kidnapped, but don't worry, the Al Bhed airship has a globe that magically finds where she is. Don't worry, Cid has an explanation of "We don't know how it works either!" /slow clap
-Tidus and crew storm the wedding, mowing down dude after dude. But then those same dudes hold the same guns at them, and they decide attacking further would be a bad idea. Then Yuna, in clear view of everyone, tries to send Seymour. Like…why now, in front of everyone? She didn't know at this point Seymour was going to tell the monks to kill the rest of the team. At least the shot of her jumping off the building while summoning Valefor to catch her was cool. Then Rikku throws a flashbang and Seymour opens his eyes as wide as possible to stare at it. The group escapes the wedding into the Bevelle cloister and they awkwardly come to a stop and are like, "What should we do?" "Let's keep going, I guess!" I get the impression there's some cut content around this point, but the pacing is truly terrible.
-The group escapes and nothing meaningful happens for a while. There's some cool stuff hinted at with Lulu and Wakka's previous pilgrimage.
-I really like the reveal about Tidus essentially being a summon is made to him only. This changes the dynamic between him and Yuna – before she had a secret that would result in her death. Now, he has the same. They both omit the truth to protect the ones they care about. Very good parallel.
-The buildup to finally seeing Zanarkand is great, but it's undercut by what I think is this unintentional framing device that suggests that the story, up until now, was the group at the campfire listening to Tidus tell them all the story of what THEY JUST ALL WENT THROUGH. Then Yuna tells him to shut up, and the group wordlessly moves past him. Like, I get what they're going for – Yuna's at the end of her journey and her death is imminent – but with the timing of him having just told him to shut up, it seems like they're just trying to get past him awkwardly. Really weird scene.
-The reveal that the final summoning requires a guardian to power is a huge revelation. It's also logically consistent that this is the point at which Yuna is finally pushed too far. Her faith has been tested and she's morally crushed, but she was driven by a desire to protect the ones she cares about. This is a bridge too far, particularly when Yunalesca confirms that it will ultimately change nothing. There's also a payoff for what has been commented on a few times: Yuna's overly large group of guardians. From a story perspective, this is what gives them the ability to challenge Yunalesca, and it even has a bit of mechanical relevance – being able to swap party members who are zombied or not zombied in this fight is crucial.
-There's honestly not a ton more story left after the Yunalesca fight. Sin gets defeated, the party crawls inside the…Sin dimension or whatever it's supposed to be. There's cool zones and architecture but it feels completely random. I get the impression this is stuff that was going to be used elsewhere, those parts got cut, and they had these zones built and were just like…hey, let's use them here.
-The fight against Braska's Final Aeon is pretty awesome, and I actually dig the dynamic between father and son here. Tidus's journey has, among other things, brought him closer to understanding his father, and he just can't bring himself to hate him anymore. Perhaps he realizes that, in a way, they were both used by the fayth. It's never implied to be anything overly malicious, and yet, their lives have been dictated by the journeys to the "real world."
-And after the last fight, as Tidus disappears into the ether; that high five between father and son is weirdly liberating.
I just wanted to touch upon graphics and music. The version available on PC is the remaster. Textures seem slightly updated, but they've kept all of the off-model, low texture models and awful lip flapping. Ths remaster should have at least always used the higher res versions of Tidus and gang, but you see the flat-faced models fairly often. This is somewhat offputting because I think the remastered high res ones changed the facial structures a bit, so they look a bit different depending on which model is currently being used.
I appreciate the re-arranged music, but I also appreciate that they kept the ability to play the original music. I was constantly switching back and forth to compare the two, and I have to say that I'm largely disappointed in the re-arranged music. Music is more than just melodies – instrumentation and volume is important and can change the tone of a piece. There were two pieces in particularly in particular I was disappointed by – the theme that plays when Wakka and Tidus travel to Besaid for the first time (appropriately named Besaid) and the Mt. Gagazet theme (Servants of the Mountain). The Gagazet theme in particular just completely missed the point – the strings overpowered the piano, turning this sad, contemplative piece into something that sounded like it was going for mysterious instead. On the whole, the only re-arranged piece I preferred over the original was Pursuit, the piece that plays inside Sin and as the group runs from Macalania temple for the first time.
I just have to put this complaint out. I was considering delving into some end game stuff, but I'd unwittingly passed two points of no return far earlier in the game. Dark Valefor blocked me from going back to the Besaid Temple (missed the Destruction Sphere…or to be more precise, I triggered the end of the Besaid cloister without realizing it was the end), only to realize many hours later into the playthrough that this blocked me from getting Anima. And then Dark Bahamut prevented me from getting a thing for Tidus's ultimate weapon. If you're going to lock end game stuff behind bosses that are best fought with end game parties…what's the point? These parts where if you're not already reading a guide frustrate the hell out of me, and if you want to do FF10 end game, that guide is essential so you don't accidentally screw yourself.
In the end, it was simultaneously better and worse than I remember. I appreciate the themes for what they are in a way that I don't think I truly understood when I was younger. The music is still great and the combat is good if you have the self control to keep from abusing the obvious overpowered stuff. But the pacing is way worse, particularly in the middle of the story, and there's just a few too many instances of the writers clearly wanting to put the characters in a specific position, but without wanting to put the work in building the situation in a way that feels natural. This is an easy game to recommend, even without nostalgia – just maybe look up a guide or two if you plan on tackling end game stuff.
edits made for formatting
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