Apr 222014
 

If it were a new game today, rather than a re-release of one more than a decade old, Final Fantasy X might prove to be fairly controversial. JRPGs have lost some of their power with the expanded gaming audience, but Final Fantasy is still a widely-known name. There has also been a broader realization since BioShock that games can actually have something to say about social and political issues. TV news organizations have proven eager to exploit videogames for ratings-building, and at least one has a political interest in portraying traditional values as besieged by popular culture. In this context, cable news might have a field day with Final Fantasy X, because it depicts religious institutions — in this case the Yevonite religion — as evil and corrupt.

The Nature of Yevonism

The religion of Yevon does not appear to be a direct analogue of Christianity or other major Western religions, which makes sense in its setting. Western religions largely await the apocalypse, while in Spira, as in many fantasy worlds, it has already come and gone in the form of Sin’s rampage. The beast rose out of the sea and destroyed the world; Godzilla won. Western religions deal in the purported messages of an entity whose existence must be taken on faith, but in Spira, angels appear at the behest of holy warriors, the spirits of the dead can actually be seen, and Heaven can be reached through a doorway in the middle of a major city. In this context, erudite musings on theology must seem not only dull but entirely superfluous.

Sin in Zanarkand

The kaiju that ended the world

Rather than laying out a set of correct beliefs about God, therefore, Yevonism teaches a set of right actions. It has rituals that must be performed and taboos that must not. Machina (certain forms of technology) must not be used; certain places must not be entered. What defines goodness is conformity to these standards of behavior. If Yevon has anything to say about charity or goodness, it is subordinate to its codes of behavior. Consider the reaction of the Besaid villagers to Tidus’ impulsive decision to enter the Cloister of Trials there. After the incident, the villagers try to keep him away from Yuna and one says to him, “You’re a bad man!” Tidus, obviously ignorant of custom, only entered the Cloister from a desire to help others, but the purity of his intention is superseded by his violation of the taboo.

The moral barrenness of Yevonism also manifests in the race hatred the religion both tolerates and foments. In keeping with their orthopraxy, the Yevonites revile the machina-using Al Bhed without regard for their actual character or humanity. The leader of the church, Grand Maester Mika, calls the furry Ronso people “hard-headed, hardly useful”. Seymour, another high-ranking church official, actually leads near-genocidal attacks against these two races. The racism of the leaders clearly trickles down to the common believers, especially when it comes to the Al Bhed. Spirans generally, and devout Yevonite Wakka specifically, seem to be at best highly suspicious of these people.

This is not to say that Yevonism transforms its adherents into monsters. Wakka, despite being a racist dope, is one of the warmest characters in the game, and eventually rejects his discriminatory beliefs. The Aurochs, apparently all believers, act quickly to help repair Kilika village after Sin’s attack. The (low-level) Yevonite clergy staffing a nearby temple are quick to forgive the Crusaders who violated taboos in Operation Mi’ihen. The Ronso, adherents of the religion, sacrifice themselves to protect Yuna on her journey. There is clearly goodness in the believers, but it’s less clear that there’s any in the clergy.

The Depravity of the Maesters

Final Fantasy X reveals the evil at the core of the church in layers. The first appearance of the church leadership comes at Luca, where Grand Maester (Pope) Mika arrives with Maester (Cardinal) Seymour. Seymour later apparently protects the crowd from an attack of monsters, using an Aeon — a spirit creature of the same sort that Yuna has the ability to summon. Later it’s revealed that the whole thing was staged, but in the moment the Maesters appear to be defenders of the people. This is part of a general effort in the early segments of the game to establish the Yevonite line as the truth, which additionally uses the player’s knowledge of genre to help sell the plausibility of its apparent story.

FFX doesn’t take long to undermine this view. It transpires that an organization of young, church-affiliated warriors called the Crusaders have decided to ally with the Al Bhed and use machina to attack Sin in what they call Operation Mi’ihen. Strangely, two Maesters — Seymour and Kinoc — are present for this apparently blasphemous battle. As Yuna and her party approach the battlefield, Wakka, the truest believer in her entourage, accosts Seymour. The Maester initially gives a very nice speech to explain that he supports the operation as a citizen of Spira, if not as a Maester of Yevon. When pressed further about the machina, however, he says, “Pretend you didn’t see them.” Wakka has the gumption to criticize this attitude, but Seymour merely responds, “Then pretend I didn’t say it.” This is a precursor to larger hypocrisies.

Operation Mi’ihen itself is a failure, in that Sin is not injured and the attacking force of Crusaders and Al Bhed is decimated. It is a success, however, in that it was intended by Kinoc as a cull, intended to kill off those who were turning away from the church’s teachings.  In the aftermath, Auron (himself a disgraced member of the institution) notes, “Those who turned from Yevon died while the faithful live on.” It becomes evident that the effect is even more powerful than this. The battle not only killed those who were challenging the teachings, it convinced the survivors, like Lucil, that their defeat was their just reward for straying from the path. It’s never entirely clear that the Crusaders had the idea for the operation on their own or if it was suggested by Kinoc, but regardless, the reason the full force of the church was not used to prevent it from happening was that the inevitable outcome was in fact desired.

The worse hypocrisy here is that the church itself uses machina weapons. As the members of the party later learn, its home city of Bevelle is thick with them. The leaders of Yevon continue to use the machina and weapons that their “teachings” deny to most of the people of Spira. To fight the church is to take on robots and men armed with guns and flamethrowers — a far cry from the spears and swords used everywhere else in the world. The “teachings”, it seems, are a vehicle of subjugation, concentrating temporal as well as spiritual power in the hands of the Maesters.

The penultimate insult of the church hierarchy is that they are literally monsters. In Spira, the dead can regain life through force of will unless someone like Yuna performs a Sending to ensure that they go to the Farplane. When the party learns that Seymour is a murderer and confronts him, his death proves to be temporary. Yuna’s efforts to Send him drive many of the events in the game’s second half. Only after she has risked everything in this effort does Yuna learn that not only are the church leaders aware of both the murder and Seymour’s unsent status, but also that Grand Maester Mika is himself undead. Kinoc says, “Enlightened rule by the dead is preferable to the misguided failures of the living.”

Then at last the game reveals that the whole religion is a fraud perpetrated on the people of Spira. Despite its promises that eliminating machina and atoning would result in the eventual banishment of Sin, a summoner’s journey will only ever bring a temporary respite. At the cost of her life, Yuna might buy Spira a period of calm, but she has no hope of defeating Sin forever. Her pilgrimage is just part of a spiral of death. As Auron explains:

Summoners challenge the bringer of death, Sin, and die doing so. Guardians give their lives to protect their summoner. The fayth are the souls of the dead. Even the Maesters of Yevon are Unsent. Spira is full of death. Only Sin is reborn, and then only to bring more death. It is a cycle of death, spiraling endlessly.

The hope that Yevonism offers is an empty one, and the Maesters have used it to buy themselves power and even immortality.

On a Mission Against God

From this point forward, the party has a dual purpose: to defeat Sin and to destroy Yevonism. The game emphasizes this additional mission by embodying it directly in boss fights. In this quest Seymour represents the hierarchy of the church. He is of course, literally part of the church leadership, and his dialogue reflects the church’s obsession with death. Mechanically, his fights also speak to the behavior of the Maesters. Seymour possesses an elemental affinity, but unlike almost every other boss in the game he changes it constantly. The moving target of Seymour’s ever-changing nature echoes the hypocrisy of the church hierarchy. Seymour never fights alone either; he is always accompanied either by living allies or an additional creature that casts spells to aid him, perhaps representing the power of the church that the Maesters wield for themselves. Finally, although it’s not clear that it’s directly representative, it’s interesting that the party fights Seymour four times, equivalent to the number of Maesters in the church.

When the party reaches the putative final stage of Yuna’s journey, the city of Zanarkand, they encounter the Unsent Yunalesca, the first person to temporarily banish Sin. She commands Yuna to choose which of her companions will die to become the “final aeon” Yuna will use to “defeat” Sin. That aeon will, in turn, become Sin, enslaved to Yu Yevon, the being that lives inside it. This is the last piece of the spiral of death — the guardian kills the summoner, then becomes the armor worn by the entity almost everyone on Spira worships. Yunalesca is the creator of the spiral of death and the representative of the institution of the church that oversees it.

In the game’s most pivotal moment, the party refuses Yunalesca’s offer and attacks her. This choice represents not only a rejection of the final aeon, but also a rejection of the church itself, whom Yunalesca symbolizes. It’s interesting that this is the only true multi-phase boss fight in the game. Initially, Yunalesca appears to be an ordinary woman, but if she is defeated in this form she lifts up on a strange stalk that resembles a cobra’s hood. If defeated in this form she falls backwards, only to reveal that the base of the stalk is a gorgon’s head, from which the snake-Yunalesca still extends. Just like the church she created, each face of Yunalesca serves only to mask another, more horrible form buried beneath. Only if she is defeated in the last shape, with her awful truths fully revealed, does Yunalesca finally die.

The third form of Yunalesca

Yunalesca’s third form. The remnants of the first and second are obscured by snakes.

This is no small task. In her second and third forms, the boss inflicts a status called “zombie” that causes healing items to cause damage. The player has to understand how the game’s systems work in order to wisely choose when, and when not, to heal this status, because the third form also performs an attack called “megadeath” that instantly kills everyone who’s not a zombie. This too has a certain symbolism. The strategy evokes the church’s obsession with death, of course, but I think it can be read more closely than this. Yunalesca demands that he player embrace death to avoid death. The strategy she imposes on those who would defeat her evokes her own philosophy about Spira: a little death in exchange for avoiding ultimate destruction. And ultimately, this is the philosophy Tidus himself must embrace, albeit in a different form.

The party must go further than this, however. In order to complete their mission, the party must attack and destroy Yu Yevon himself. That is, they must destroy God. But Yu Yevon is not any traditional kind of god. He was originally a man, who at some point began to perform a summoning from within a suit of living armor. That armor is Sin, the force of destruction, but its actions are not fully directed by any will of Yu Yevon, the entity the teachings of the church are meant to appease. Sin acts on its own, because Yu Yevon “exists only to summon”.

But it is the act of summoning that substantiates Yu Yevon’s status. Through his power he has created a world: the world of the Zanarkand that Tidus originally came from. Tidus was brought into being by this creature, so while the other characters are arguably just killing a madman, Tidus is quite literally killing his God. That godhead, however, is not entirely his own. The world Yu Yevon is summoning is created by the people of ancient Zanarkand, who sealed themselves into a statue (a fayth) so that their city could be immortalized by the summoning of Yu Yevon. In apparent reference to this parasitic divinity, or perhaps to the nature of his namesake religion as a whole, Yu Yevon closely resembles a tick.

Yu Yevon compared to a tick photographed by André Karwath

More than a passing similarity (photo by André Karwath)

In this fight, Yuna must summon every aeon she has earned throughout the course of the game, and each in turn is corrupted by Yu Yevon’s influence. The party must fight and destroy each of these spirit creatures in order to finally push Yu Yevon into the open and destroy him. The aeons by this point are extremely powerful, but the game makes the fight possible because all of the characters have the “auto-life” status and will be automatically resurrected if killed. By this point, Sin has been destroyed, and without this armor Yu Yevon is powerless to resist destruction.

In his piece on the atheism of FFX, Chris Stark points out, Yu Yevon mechanically reflects “the self-perpetuating nature of a dogma” by being “both self-destructive and self-restoring”. He casts spells that damage both himself and the party, and constantly works to heal himself. But this underestimates his self-destructiveness. This is one of the most trivial battles in the game, and would be even without the benefit of the auto-life spell, because Yu Yevon is vulnerable to zombie status and will, if given it, “heal” himself to death. Shorn of his institutions, God has no defenses.

The Corrupting Hand

Is Final Fantasy X, as Stark contends, a fundamentally atheistic game? That’s difficult to say. Yu Yevon is a god, but he is an empty one, and the institution built up around him, by his will or not, is irretrievably corrupt. At the same time, the main character is a Jesus figure. FFX makes that case most strongly in Kilika, when Yuna performs a Sending for Sin’s recent victims.

Of course cross-cultural artifacts can sometimes be ambiguous, but it’s difficult to see Yuna as anything other than a Christ figure. Walking on water is just a visual signifier on top of other parallels — Yuna is a person of great spiritual power who intends to give her life to save the world from Sin. For almost the entire game she holds to this messianic mission. Even as she enters Zanarkand, Yuna is willing to die to save Spira. She is not, however, willing to sacrifice her loved ones. She does not get all that she wants — her choice unwittingly dooms the aeons and Tidus — but she exercises a morality that the church ignores.

At Mi’ihen, the institution of the church proves itself willing to kill others in order to preserve its own power. Though evil, this is not some fluke. The spiral of death shows that sacrificing others is in fact a core value of the church, well known to its believers. The only way for Yuna to break free of that spiral, to practice a morality that we would recognize as good and just, is to reject and destroy the church.

What Final Fantasy X makes clear, then, is that Yuna’s power does not flow from the church, or from Yevon. Her spiritual abilities are her own power. The might of the aeons are their own power. The church, and Yu Yevon, merely subjugate these, turning them towards their own ends. In this respect Anima is the most honest of the aeons. She appears as a hideous creature, chained to the ground as if she might escape. The aeons are not manifestations of the power of Yevon: they are imprisoned by the church, enslaved to its service.

What Final Fantasy X seems to really be opposing is not religion generally, but institutions of religion. And perhaps this is the only point that can be made in the setting. Yuna’s power is real. The aeons are real. Spiritual power is a real thing in Spira, and spiritual experiences, such as the singing of the Hymn of the Fayth, have the capacity to unite people who would otherwise be divided. Organizations imposed on that spirituality, however, are false and corrupt. Fear of Sin binds people to worship the entity that Sin guards, ultimately concentrating power in the hands of the Yevonites. In this the church is very like Yu Yevon: both are parasites that feed upon spiritual energy. As Yu Yevon is to the aeons, the church is to the people of Spira. To have freedom in her own power, and to behave with a morality they have long abandoned, Yuna must destroy them both.

Apr 212014
 

Status: Finished with 91% completion

Most Intriguing Idea: Save the world with cute outfits!

Best Design Decision: Flattened world structure

Worst Design Decision: Sidequestitis

Summary:

Final Fantasy X-2 is a decent game, but it feels like a huge misfire nonetheless. I can understand why many fans of Final Fantasy X hated the sequel — although it keeps many of the characters and most of the levels from the first game, it’s so radically different in its tone, mechanics, and overall philosophy that it almost seems designed to give lovers of the first game the finger. If I picked up X-2 hoping for more of what I liked about FFX, I would be seriously disappointed. The opening concert scene might have been enough for anyone invested in the idea of Yuna as she appeared in X to toss a controller in rage.

X-2 has some problems in its own right. This version of ATBS has a strange concept of queuing and doesn’t deal with simultaneity well, making it difficult to follow exactly what’s going on, and leading to strange, unsatisfying cases where all three girls just stand still for up to a minute when the action gauges unambiguously indicate that they should be doing something. There are way too many different status effects, some poorly differentiated both visually and in their mechanical import, and the pace of battle is sometimes too fast (and the various symbols too unclear) to read the situation. Although the game allows the player to instantly switch jobs in mid-fight (one of the few ways that X-2 is mechanically reminiscent of X) this rarely felt necessary or even helpful except in a few very limited spots. Consequently I never saw the “overdrive” outfits, and I rarely even found myself in a battle that was long enough to give me a chance of setting up their use.

The larger structural problem is that X-2 feels like it’s dominated by its sidequests and minigames, of which there are so very, very many. Worse, very few of them are any good at all. The few new dungeons are repetitive and visually boring, the vast majority of minigames are simply irritating or dull, and the whole blistering array of them makes the game feel unfocused and sloppy in its structure. This is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that almost the whole world is accessible from the beginning of the game, although I feel that Yuna’s ability to go anywhere at any time is great both for setting the story up as a caper and for emphasizing the freedom afforded by the new world Yuna & co. created at the end of the previous game.

I’m not a huge fan of the story, either. Although it has an interesting core, a lot of the peripheral stuff is a mess, from the Roketto-dan silliness of the LeBlanc syndicate to Kimahri’s general uselessness to Brother’s incestuous obsession with Yuna (dude, she’s your cousin). There’s a male-gaze aspect to the game that also makes it seem more than a bit creepy at times. Even the core story suffers because to a large extent it isn’t even really about Yuna, but rather about other characters who are remote from the player’s experience, making it difficult to grasp the emotional angles. Getting the good ending, let alone the best ending, involves a lot of FAQ-baiting nonsense, for reasons that don’t feel clear — Yuna establishes her desire to reunite with Tidus just by setting out on this journey, so it escapes me why she needs some whistles on the Farplane to prove it.

All that said, and whew, there’s quite a bit negative up there, I don’t actually hate X-2. It extends Yuna’s story in a satisfying way, and despite its dumber moments it has real respect for both the characters and the world that the first game created. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s worth playing.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended.

About the Port: The work is noticeably poorer here than for FFX, with jarringly jagged textures and several weird glitches. X-2 also has many fewer FMV cutscenes to benefit from the HD upgrade. On the other hand, I am a lot less certain about the prospects of this game coming to streaming services in the future.

Apr 142014
 

Status: Finished except for one puzzle hiding somewhere.

Most Intriguing Idea: Trying to integrate puzzles into the playing field.

Best Design Decision: The map revamp, though it’s a mixed bag.

Worst Design Decision: The horse, I mean seriously.

Summary:

The Professor Layton series has generally felt like it’s on a long, slow decline since Mysterious Village, and Miracle Mask does nothing to alter that impression. The series has never been particularly interested in refining its core mechanics, and even the execution has started to feel a little off. Miracle Mask had more errors in recognizing my written numbers than previous Layton games, and I found the puzzles that required moving and rotating pieces to be frustratingly inconsistent about what gestures would produce which result. The mechanics for moving between screens have changed in a positive way thanks to a navigable map on the lower screen of the 3DS, but I was less pleased with having to use the lower screen to move a magnifying glass on the upper screen.

The puzzles themselves were not particularly memorable for the most part, but with the exception of the tile-layering puzzles there weren’t any that I really hated. Miracle Mask featured a number of ball-and-hole puzzles in an extensive “archaeological expedition” which was at least an interesting way to shake up the formula, though the lack of variety in these puzzles and the fact that they were all crammed into one chapter made them less enjoyable than they could have been. As always, the main game includes three minigame suites. It is traditional for at least one of them to be terrible; this time it is the bunny theater, which was dull from a puzzle perspective and had lousy gesture recognition. There is also a completely superfluous horse-riding bit that has nothing at all to do with the series’ core values and represents the nadir of its design.

Much the same can be said for the game’s aesthetics. The 2D drawings that popped up for conversations in previous games have been replaced by cel-shaded 3D models in order to take advantage of the 3DS’ display capabilities, but these animated figures generally have less character and expressiveness than the pictures they replaced. The game follows the pattern of Unwound Future by trying to draw its dramatic core from the Professor’s past, but with much less success. The underlying tragedy is not movingly presented — it does not help that the game fails to establish Randall’s better qualities until very late — and showing that his interest in puzzles and archaeology are inherited from a friend rather than arising in himself diminishes Layton as a character. As for the ongoing plot concerning the Azran, Descole, and Targent, I suppose it would be possible for me to care less about it, but I’m not sure how I would accomplish that.

Verdict: Not recommended.

Apr 022014
 

I’m not going to write a review of Final Fantasy X because I suspect most of the things I would say about it are going to be contained in the two posts I recently put up and the two other ones I’m working on. I understand why many JRPG purists don’t like the game, and whether it is actually any fun to play is as always a matter of taste (I happen to really enjoy it). However, in terms of a game design that helps tell a story and a story that’s worth designing a game around, I don’t think there are many persuasive arguments against FFX. I think there is more of an argument to be had against the HD reissue.

Again, this is a matter of taste, and the remaster does most things right. The world of Spira looks absolutely fantastic on the PS3, and the cutscenes look even more fantastic than I remember, although the HD makes Wakka dopier than ever. That’s valuable because FFX contains a lot of the cutscenes that make cutscenes seem like a good idea. A few character models looked a little fuzzy (Cid’s sadface in particular) or low-poly, but there was nowhere near as much of the jarring SD stuff that made parts of the Kingdom Hearts remaster such eyesores. The music too has been remastered and in some cases exchanged outright for different versions. I appreciated that as well not only because score is great, but also because it compares favorably against the Tales of Symphonia remaster I’ve been playing recently, which often sounds tinny and sad.

What I don’t care for is the relatively straight port of the International version. The Dark Aeon bosses are okay, if you’re into the mega-grinding necessary to take them on, but the in the international version, it’s difficult to say they’re truly “optional”. Besaid can only be revisited by defeating Dark Valefor, for instance, which was a major pain because I had forgotten to do the Destruction Sphere quest there and hadn’t yet retrieved that Jecht Sphere. Blocking the town off with that Dark Aeon is kind of a dick move, and I ran into others of the Dark Aeons by accident as well (and thank Yevon I’d remembered to do the destruction sphere in Macalania Temple the first time or I still wouldn’t have Anima). Adjusting this to make them truly optional bosses wouldn’t have been that hard or cost the game any sort of artistic integrity. Poorly designed stuff from the original game was also ported straight–things like the awful “Catcher Chocobo” and legendarily stupid “lightning dodge” quest. Minor annoyances that are even less justified, like the absurdly low encounter rates for Simurgh, are still there too. I think there’s something to be said for a slavish port of an original, but there’s also something to be said for admitting that certain choices were mistakes.

That’s a matter of taste, of course, and for anyone who has a PS3 I still would say that Final Fantasy X HD is worth getting (not to mention the bonus of getting X-2 as well). For anyone who has a PS3 and a PS4… well, that’s tougher. If the Gaikai thing materializes FFX is undoubtedly going to be one of the games available on it, and while it benefits handsomely from the HD upgrade the original doesn’t look bad. And your PS3 is not exactly hurting for new JRPGs to play right now (or at least mine isn’t). Final Fantasy X HD is great, but that’s almost entirely because the original is great, and it seems very likely to me that it will end up on a streaming service sooner rather than later. For that reason, although I wholeheartedly recommend playing this game, I can’t say I feel the same about this remaster.