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Final Fantasy X: Distinctly Japanese, Universally Relatable

“This is it. This… is your story. It all begins here.”

It’s been some years since I originally played Final Fantasy X, and truth be told, there was little I could recall about it. Replaying it now, I’m shocked at how thought-provoking and impactful its story actually is. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate its themes of destruction, dogma, and duty at the time. Perhaps I was too distracted by the game’s gorgeous artstyle. Or maybe I spent most of my time playing blitzball. In any case, I can’t help but now feel like Final Fantasy X is the most painfully relatable game in the series.

Tidus relaxes before a Blitzball game.

Final Fantasy X is set in the fictional world of Spira. Our main protagonist is a young, cocky blitzball player named Tidus (Blitzball being an underwater sport similar to handball.) Tidus is a celebrity in his home city of Zanarkand. The game begins with him making his way through crowds of adoring fans en route to a stadium.

Zanarkand itself is a futuristic, coastal metropolis that shows a sprawling skyline of south-east Asian inspired architecture. The blitzball stadium is like a Colosseum, packed with cheering fans who watch the game play out in a giant sphere of water in the centre. The match has barely begun when disaster strikes. A great swell of water emerges from the sea and relentlessly glides towards the city. When it arrives, buildings are torn apart and the city is plunged into chaos. People flee for their lives. It’s here that Tidus meets a mysterious mentor figure named Auron. Auron reveals the name of the destructor as ‘Sin’—a colossal whale-like beast. He allows Tidus to be sucked into its vortex-like wake.

“Listen to my story. This…may be our last chance.” – Tidus, FFX

It’s a powerful and visually stunning opening. The Final Fantasy series had earned a reputation for being a technical showcase for the Playstation. With the power of the Playstation 2, developer Squaresoft were able to create a game that felt truly cutting edge. CG cutscenes had incredible levels of detail, with realistic skin textures, hair and clothing physics, and gorgeous glistening water effects. The latter is particularly important because, as the intro suggests, there’s a lot of it in this game. The pre-rendered backgrounds of the previous entries were almost entirely absent. In their place were fully 3D environments—albeit still with mostly fixed camera perspectives. Also gone were the not-to-scale world map sections. Instead, all of the main locations in the game are connected by linear pathways, giving the world a more tangible feel. Final Fantasy X was the pioneering step that ushered in the modern era of the series.

In a series first, the game was also fully voice-acted (aside from general NPC interactions). Lip syncing was used in cutscenes to match the Japanese performers. However, this left the English-speaking cast with the difficult task of trying to match the Japanese voice actor’s speech patterns. It ultimately led to several awkward and unnatural interactions. It’s something that has garnered the game much ridicule over the years. Perhaps unfairly.

Most people will remember the infamous scene of Tidus’ bizarre fake laughter. It doesn’t help that his character is intentionally goofy, arrogant and slightly tedious. As a result he quickly became grating to many. Contrarily however, Tidus also serves as narrator throughout the game where he speaks with a more naturalistic, reflective tone. The difference is noticeable, as voice actor James Arnold Taylor performs without restriction and does so excellently.

“Memories are nice, but that’s all they are.” – Rikku, FFX

After the event in Zanarkand, Tidus awakes in waterlogged, ancient ruins, where he is discovered by the crew of a salvage ship. The ship’s crew speak a foreign language unknown to Tidus and he is quickly press-ganged into working for them. Here he meets, Rikku, the only member of the crew who can speak in Tidus’ language. She explains that she and her crewmates are ‘Al Bhed’—an ostracised tribal race in Spira. After another brief encounter with Sin, Tidus is thrown overboard. He awakes on the shore of Besaid.

The main party of characters in Final Fantasy X

Here Tidus meets the rest of the main party of characters he’ll be with for the rest of the game. First Wakka, a fellow blitzball player who captains the worst team in Spira. Wakka immediately takes to Tidus after proclaiming that he reminds him of his little brother, Chappu (Chappu, we soon learn, was killed by Sin some years earlier). He also meets Yuna, the story’s central character. Yuna is a summoner. A summoner’s role is to perform a ritual which allows the souls of Sin’s victims to ascend to the afterlife. She is escorted by her loyal Guardians, Lulu and Kimahri. Lulu is a humourless mage who was once romantically connected to Chappu. Kimahri is a stoic, and mostly mute, Rhonso (a lion-esque, humanoid race). Along with Auron, who mysteriously joins the party after seemingly escaping Zanakard unscathed, the group set off on a mission to confront Sin.

“Yuna chose her own path. She knew from the beginning what it meant. All we can do is protect her along the way. Until the end.” – Lulu, FFX

Each character is designed to serve a specific role in battle, albeit with some overlap. Tidus, Khimari and Auron are physical damage dealers, though each have distinctions. For instance, Auron’s sword  cuts through enemies with tough defence, while Tidus has access to support abilities. Lulu’s spells are effective against elemental enemies, while Wakka’s blitzball can take out flying enemies. Yuna is the party healer and the only character that can use summons—known in Final Fantasy X as Aeons. Unlike in previous games, where a summon would deal a single devastating attack, Aeons now replace the entire party and fight in their stead until they are KO’d or recalled.

Characters can be instantaneously switched in and out of battle too. Trying to hit flying or elemental enemies with Auron will likely miss or prove ineffective. Using Wakka’s blitzball on an armoured enemy will prove equally so. In this way, the game strongly encourages you to use the correct tool for the job. At times it can feel a bit like playing rock-paper-scissors but overall it’s an enjoyable aspect of the game.

Lulu, Tidus, and Khimari fight enemies.

Despite their prescribed speciality, each character can technically be altered into any role the player chooses. This is thanks to the game’s Sphere Grid system which replaces the traditional XP levelling system. The Sphere Grid is an interconnected series of pathways, filled with nodes. By using spheres earned in battle, the nodes can be activated to improve attributes, or gain access to a new spell or skill. Early on, the characters are on a set pathway to build up their assumed role, but fairly quickly they are able to change course. It’s a streamlined system that allows for a wide range of customisability. The only downside being that it is entirely manual, and quite time intensive for the player.

“Long time ago, there were a whole lot of cities in Spira. Big cities with machina-machines-to run ’em. People played all day and let the machina do the work. And then, well, take a look. Sin came, and destroyed the machina cities…” – Wakka, FFX

Japanese media has a long history depicting the struggle between man and nature. More specifically, the invasive progress of mankind and the inevitable backlash it invites. It’s easy to understand why. The country is constantly under threat from extreme forces of nature—tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes—and it is well accustomed to rebuilding its villages, towns and cities in their wake. Notable Japanese films such as Godzilla (1954) and Princess Mononoke (1997) deal with the devastating consequences of human technology disrupting the natural balance. Final Fantasy X continues this tradition in the video-game medium. By no means the first to do so, with other games in the series also having overt themes of environmentalism, but Final Fantasy X feels perhaps the most prescient.

Shortly after washing up in Besaid, Tidus learns that the catastrophic event he escaped in Zanarkand occurred a thousand years ago. Spira has since returned to a simpler society that aspires to live in harmony with nature. It also strongly embraces the teachings of ‘Yevon’—Spira’s main religion. Yevon decrees that Sin is mankind’s punishment for using ‘machina’ technology. Only through abstaining from the use of such technology can atonement be achieved. Even then attacks from Sin are inevitable.

“If you asked me, Sin’s our punishment for letting things get out of hand.” – Wakka, FFX

Spira’s summoners are tasked with a pilgrimage to the many temples across the land to gather Aeons. Once all the Aeons are gathered, the summoner can perform the ‘Final Summoning’ to temporarily defeat Sin and bring about a period of peace known as the ‘Calm.’ Yuna, with her guardians in tow, sets out from Besaid on her pilgrimage. Barely have the group reached a neighbouring island before witnessing another devastating attack. A huge wave crashes through the coastal port of Kilika before revealing Sin itself. The wooden buildings and jetties are smashed and splintered before being thrown into the air and scattered by hurricane winds. Some residents are swept away as others cling on for dear life.

The port of Kilika is destroyed by a tidal wave caused by Sin.

Besaid, and its surrounding areas are clearly inspired by the islands and peninsulas of the South Pacific. It gives Final Fantasy X a unique and beautiful art design, distinct from the primarily European influence of its predecessors. As we see the destructive force of Sin, it’s hard not to make comparisons to real world events in these areas. Since the release of the game in 2001 we have seen two devastating Tsunamis. One in 2004, caused by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean. The other in 2011, by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the Pacific coast of Japan. Both caused huge devastation to the surrounding countries and claimed thousands of lives. It makes some of the game’s fantastical scenes feel hauntingly grounded.

“Yevon’s Teachings and the final summoning give the people of Spira hope. Without hope, they would drown in their own sorrow.” – Yunalesca, FFX

As Spira is terrorised, a surprising alliance is formed between the Yevon-worshiping Crusaders, and the machina-wielding Al Bhed. A plan is hatched to lure Sin into a deadly firing line of machina weaponry. The operation is helmed by the newly appointed head of the church, Maester Seymour Guado. Wakka, concerned about the use of forbidden technology, confronts the Maester. Seymour simply retorts “pretend you didn’t see them.” Wakka replies that the response is not appropriate for a maester of Yevon and Seymour adds “then pretend I didn’t say it.” The operation is a failure and results in the deaths of almost all the Al Bhed and Crusader forces involved.

Final Fantasy X initially depicts spirituality in a positive light. One of the game’s most memorable cutscenes shows Yuna performing her ritual to send souls to the afterlife. It’s a stunningly beautiful scene that shows her walking out onto a calm shore—stepping gracefully on the water’s surface over the lovingly wrapped bodies of the deceased. She performs her melancholic dance on a plinth on water as the rainbow-coloured souls arise and depart.

Yuna sends lost souls to the farplane in Final Fantasy X.

It’s hard to not feel envious of the comfort the people of Spira receive from their spirituality, and the simplicity it provides. As the story progresses however, we see the corruption of the church of Yevon. We also learn of its man-made origin, and we understand its less-than-pure motivations. The pious characters in the party are forced to learn the truth and reject their former teachings in order to break free from the endless cycle of penance. In the end, the spirituality remains—only the religion is exposed.

“Men die. Beasts die. Trees die. Even continents perish. Only the power of death truly commands in Spira. Resisting its power is futile.” – Maester Yo Mika, FFX

On an individual level, a recurring theme in Final Fantasy X is one of sacrifice. Yuna devotes herself to her pilgrimage and to the people of Spira. In turn, her guardians devote their lives to her. Chappu, we learn, lost his life after joining the Crusaders—choosing to defend Lulu from afar at the expense of his own happiness. Towards the end of the game we learn the truth behind the Final Summoning and the cost it incurs. Yuna must sacrifice herself and one of her guardians. Only Tidus was unaware of the former—Yuna and her guardians were stoically performing their duty. When she learns the truth of the latter however, Yuna rejects the tradition and vows to find another way to defeat Sin.

Yuna’s rejection of a futile sacrifice, while easily relatable, feels distinctly aimed at a Japanese audience. Japan is a country that has a history of revering obedience, subservience and self-sacrifice. It has a dwindling population thanks to a culture that encourages young-adults to put work before happiness and relationships. The term ‘Karoshi’ translates to ‘death from overwork’—a tragic phenomenon that plagues the country along with high suicide rates. While I freely admit that I’m talking from a perspective of ignorance, I can’t help but feel like Final Fantasy X‘s story is designed to inspire a generation to embrace a change in attitude—to reject the norm and find another way.

“It would be so easy…to let my fate just carry me away…following this same path my whole life through. But I know…I can’t. What I do, I do…with no regrets.” Yuna, FFX

I wasn’t expecting to find so many uncomfortable truths in Final Fantasy X. When I first played it, I found nothing of the sort. I saw a fantastical world, filled with mythical creatures and colourful characters. If someone were to take the game at face value, they likely would too. It’s easy enough to dismiss its philosophical themes as typical JRPG silliness. If you let yourself be swept up by it however, there’s certainly a lot to reflect on.

I didn’t get around to talking about blitzball. I still love blitzball.

Sean Coughlan

Written by Sean Coughlan

Sean is a writer for 25YL's gaming department. He is most passionate when talking about the games and consoles of the 1990s and has a penchant for hyperbole. He lives with his wife and daughter in Hertfordshire, England.

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