It’s not some startling revelation to say that jRPGs are a hotly debated topic among many gamers, as they struggle to figure out the present and future of the genre. I have absolutely no clue what the developers behind FFX were trying to do, but I know the result of their work is a game that fully embraces what these games have become. It has been streamlined and simplified so as to provide players with something easy, relaxing, and colorful. It’s like an anime Disney attraction where you get to play a part.
Take the combat. It is a system where mages have enough MP to cast plenty of spells, and tank characters can one-hit-kill. Enemies are designed so that you can tell just by looking at them what characters you will need in order to end the battle in three steps. It even goes so far as to give you visual cues when delivering a killing blow. Status effects work, summons can be used for quick damage (or to absorb damage), and you can instantly swap party members. This is paint by numbers combat that allows even a player in unfamiliar territory to show them who’s boss.
Speaking of bosses, they’re the only time when things get a bit trickier, but as it turns out, 90% of them have some sort of secret weakness or strategy that utterly cripples their ability to fight. Outside of maybe the last three hours of boss fights, FFX is a cakewalk for anyone who can do more than mash the X button.
This is a bad thing for the hardcore tactician gamer, but for the jRPG fan it is perfect. These games are so worried about the story and scenery that it makes no sense to bog things down with slow combat. Make the battles quick and snappy, allow the player to establish their dominance. Every so often give them a brain teaser that requires attention to the spells being cast or where characters are on the battle timeline. Eventually the player solves it and feels even better about their skills. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The Sphere Grid system for level-ups is similar. It is somewhat tricky to grasp at first, but once you get it, it’s like crack. Why make level ups these things that we get every hour for a couple of stat boosts? Why not break them up so that we can slowly increase stats one by one after two or three (or even one!) battles. It gives the feeling of constant progression with just the right amount of customization. It encourages the player to never run away from a fight, and if they stand their ground through their entire journey, the Sphere Grid will reward them with most if not all of the highest level spells for the endgame.
They even made it so that you don’t have to worry about equipment management. You can go through the game with the default weapons (I did with Tidus) and not have a problem. Or, if you’re a completionist, you can customize your gear so that your casters have the “one MP cost” ability for the endgame, allowing you to cast Holy every turn. Breaking the gameplay is entirely optional in FFX, but wholly possible for a player of moderate diligence.
The march of change continues. Ugly ass overworld maps have been eliminated in favor of small, self contained areas rendered in 3d (with just a few being pre-rendered). They’re almost completely linear, the map always tells you where you are going, and it even points out what direction you should head towards. There’s no way to get lost here, no way to derail the narrative. You are always moving forward, always making progress, always enjoying the blue skies and rainbow colors that Square has used to paint the world of Spira (it also helps that save points restore your party along the way). It works quite perfectly, especially when you consider that it forces the sidequests to be placed in easily reachable areas along the way. The confusion and wandering have been lost in favor of quick, brisk, hand holding rapidity, just the way it should be.
And quite frankly, that is what the modern jRPG needs. It has to have momentum throughout; it shouldn’t tie up the player with roadblocks or complexities. FFX knows it is supposed to be a big, dumb, happy adventure for everyone to enjoy. So that’s what it is, and that’s why it works.
Yes folks, it can work. For years now, I’ve expressed my frustration with Japanese RPG’s and their bullshit, how they needed to change, how they didn’t even deserve the genre name given to them. But after all that fighting and yelling and screaming, just where are we now? In the same damn place. All because of videogame snobbery. Because some games acted bigger than they really were, and some gamers wanted them to be even bigger than that. We thought that an 80 hour game should have a truly epic story to go with its epic length, and stay fresh and enjoyable the whole time through. We want it to go beyond the dregs of anime, because damn it, games are art.
But the fact of the matter is that anime makes a lot of money. jRPGs make a lot of money (if you’re Dragon Quest, you make more than anyone). Not every game has to aspire to be art, few games will ever be art, and we spend as much time worrying about genre names as we do the merits of a game.
In all those previous paragraphs, when I referred to “the player,” I’m not describing some hopeless shut in fan who doesn’t know gaming. I’m talking about myself. FFX sucked me into its world, no matter how much it tried to piss me off. I could sit down, stop thinking a lot, and kick loads of ass in a tropical paradise. I got instant gratification and satisfaction for my efforts. After long bouts of playing Trauma Center or Devil May on increasingly higher difficulties, a man needs a break.
Final Fantasy X was like a treasure hunt or a gaming vacation for me. Instead of worrying about my technique, I could go treasure hunt without fighting anyone, or go bust up a tough boss, and the game doesn’t really give a shit. This is a pretty important niche in the world of gaming, and when done correctly it can be quite worthwhile.
And so the biggest thing to debate is the most important piece; the story. The one thing that’s not arguable is that it is not very good thanks to a horrible English rendition. A poor translation makes it so that characters act inappropriately, unemotionally or awkwardly for the given situation, causing you to scratch your head and wonder what the hell you just saw (for an example, think back to any time someone said “yes”). This is coupled with some mixed voice acting, the worst of which steals the thunder from any decent scene (I’m looking at you Yuna). I hear FF12 does a much better job with this, so maybe we can consider this the anomaly rather than the norm.
As for its actual content, it’s a tough choice. Final Fantasy X is your typical tale of religion, technology, and hating dad. Only it isn’t typical at all. It’s hardly preachy, instead content to toss a couple questions in the air and not bother to answer them. It doesn’t flesh out its love story enough for us to really care. The final cutscene is straight out of Tolkien. It doesn’t feel like FFX feels proud and important, it just feels like it’s there. It, once again, doesn’t give a shit. On one hand this is good, because it goes along with the gameplay in that it doesn’t try to twist your brain with questions of philosophy and faith that make no sense. You can watch the story and just soak it in, or laugh your ass off half the time (I sure did). Whatever you want.
But is this the way things should be? If jRPGs want to focus so much on stories, then shouldn’t the stories actually be good? It’s tough to say. Deep down inside I’d like them to be, but I’ve seen what gaming is willing to do with storytelling and most of it isn’t inspiring. And does it make sense for a simplistic game to be fitted with an involving story? You would think most people wouldn’t mind, but considering how many young people were blown away by the Intro to Philosophy in Xenosaga, I wonder how they’d react to a novel quality story. Maybe these games should be for the fun of it all; people watch sitcoms as much as they watch crime drama.
As this genre continues to become an Internet battleground, I think I’m finally going to sit out for a while, sit down with FFX and have myself a smoothie. I could use a break from all this cynicism.