Final Fantasy X – Treading Water

Tidus recovers his consciousness a few second later, but only into a dream world, which is made up of the floating ruins of the arena. He hears his father’s voice and “swims” towards him, only for Jecht to turn into a young version of Tidus. At this point, the dream goes deeper and Tidus talks about feeling suddenly alone, before waking up in a stormy, water-enveloped ruin in the middle of fog (pictured below), with only a bird nearby to show that this isn’t some sort of purgatory. It’s a great set, it really is.

FFX used the dream sequence from earlier to introduce the swimming controls, and now you can use them in a real environment. The controls are quite simple: hold a button to gradually descend, and release it to ascend, with no finer control available than that. Thankfully, fine control over depth is almost never a requirement. You move in the other directions using the stick. Tidus swims between platforms, and if you search, you can find an inscription in some other language, and also a fourth-wall-breaking Al Bhed Compilation Sphere, which I’ll explain later. Frankly, I don’t agree with its inclusion in this section (and by extension, any of the elements that justify its inclusion in this section), since I’ve only ever seen it confuse the crap out of new players, and with no payoff, since they literally can’t use it.

The excellent atmosphere of the misty ruins.

After some ill-advised walking around some damaged stone arches, the floor finally collapses and Tidus falls into a pool below. There, he runs into the first regular monsters in the game, some “Sahagin” [sic], which are just plain fish in this game instead of fish-people or turtle-people. In an unusual touch, The game even gives a dramatic transition to the regular battle theme, arguably because this isn’t a “regular” battle, but rather our first underwater battle! Underwater battles aren’t really any different from regular battles, but only certain party members have the skills to hold their breath to participate, so I guess that makes it a “feature.” And by “the skills to hold their breath,” I clearly mean “the supernatural ability to breathe underwater, probably have gills in their sides or something, because honestly huge chunks of this game don’t make sense if they’re just holding their breath. It requires a huge suspension of disbelief that it never frankly earns despite its early introduction to the plot.” You know. Those kinds of “skills.”

But despite all the drama, the fight ends up cut short. After killing two Sahagin, an even bigger fish arrives and eats the third. Tidus attempts to fight this one, the Geosgaeno. By the way, a lot of the boss names in FFX are apparently just plain made up, so don’t try to make any sense of them. Tidus soon discovers he can’t hurt the boss, and attempts to flee, making a last-minute escape through a narrow passage.

Unfortunately, Tidus now finds himself in a wet, freezing ruin in soaking clothes. After pushing aside some massive rubble with his… psychic powers, I guess, because his hand doesn’t touch them!.. and. he goes looking for materials to make a fire. This is a simple intro puzzle. It was here where Kyle gave me the controller for the first time, and I immediately went looking for audio settings, since I found the voices impossible to hear over the BGM. No such settings! Not even in the pre-game setup menu! Come on, remake devs!

The Geosgaeno

At this point, Tidus drifts into a flashback, and we see him and Auron meeting on Tidus’ houseboat somewhat recently, apparently after ten years apart. Tidus and the Zanarkand Abes had just lost a game before Auron arrived, and Auron, remarking on the passage of time since his last visit, says that he figured Tidus would be crying. Suddenly, the ghost boy appears and insists: “You cried,” a second time.

Tidus foolishly falls asleep in front of the fire, and naturally it goes out, but when he wakes up and panics, this arguably saves his life when he discovers another monster just about to jump him. By the way, you’re probably wondering why Tidus is so blasé about all the monsters after the initial attack on the arena. You won’t get an explanation for hours, near to the end of our first session, but it turns out that monsters aren’t actually alien to him, just “rare,” and I guess he’s gotten used to them being around after the opening mess? This one, a Klikk, fights you for a few round before, suddenly, the heavy doors to the place blow open in an explosion, and five figures are revealed, all of them masked. Four have guns, while the fifth stands dramatically in front of their shot, posing? Seriously, who choreographed this entrance? I wanna know both out- and in-universe!

The fifth approaches you and decides to join you in the fight against the Klikk, all without saying a word. She fights with Glove weapons, but the ongoing tutorial encourages you to use her “Special” menu (which is used for Skills that don’t have MP costs) to use the… urm… “Use” command to throw Grenades. After this, she also unlocks the Steal special to grab more Grenades off the Klikk. It turns out this character is basically an evolution of the Chemist from FFV, crossed with the Thief. Somewhat like the Chemist’s Drink command, she can Use special items that others can’t, and she has the Chemist’s Mix as her Overdrive, though her Overdrive can’t actually trigger in these first few segments. As for Steal, it works differently in this game: Steal is primarily used to grab items for Use and for this game’s two synthesis systems. There are no deeply hidden super-equipment drops in this game! To help you gather synth junk, the rules for Steal are different too. The first time you use Steal, it will always succeed, and you can keep trying to Steal the same item almost indefinitely, but on subsequent Steals, your odds of stealing again are halved each time!

Tidus relaxes, only for the men with guns to pull them on him. One also pulls a knife, and they all begin speaking in a foreign language. Actually, it doesn’t take much familiarity to identify this “foreign language” as a substitution cypher: a code where one letter is substituted for another until the entire alphabet is shuffled. And wow, the voice actors do a great job of making this cypher text sound either like natural speech or something close to it, which is amazing, because cyphers produce nothing of the sort! Whatever the guy with the knife is complaining about, the woman seems to object, and steps close to Tidus to speak into his ear… only to nutsack him and so knock him out.

By the way, things have been extremely linear up to this point, almost all cinematics with short breaks in between, but I’ve found I’ve never minded. FFX’s opening is extremely well-told, which is something you can’t always say about a video game. Everything is interesting and draws me in, and I sort of just enjoy watching it happen? The voice actors could be a little more experienced here and there, but they have their great moments, too. But even with all of that said, my patience for watching a movie instead of playing a game can only last so much longer…

Tidus being held at knifepoint in the previous scene.

Tidus awakes on a ship, where he discovers he’s still being held prisoner by the people from before. They get him standing up, and one of them, voiced by David Rasner, attempts to mime some instructions to him to get across the language barrier. Rasner was a regular on Initial D and the Mega Man StarForce animes, and we actually heard him briefly in TSW as one (some?) of the Zeus Cannon operators. We’ll be hearing him again in FFXII.

When the grunts get angry that Tidus doesn’t understand the miming, the woman speaks up and reveals she actually speaks Tidus’ language. Why she held off so long, I can’t imagine. It really does just seem forced and artificial, but whatever. This character is voiced by Tara Strong, who is such a prolific voice actor that I’m surprised has never appeared in this series before, though we did hear her as this very character in KH2. During the KH2 Retrospective, I credited Strong for “everything. Every single thing. Ever,” and I don’t really think I can improve on that. Her motion actor is Miyuki Shimizu, Selphie’s standard mocap actor in FFVIII.

Basically, the group want Tidus to “make himself useful” to them by using his ability to – and I can’t stress this enough – fucking breathe underwater. This sequence doesn’t make sense if he can do anything less. Between gunpoint and the promise of food, Tidus agrees. But before you can get going, the woman decides to explain this game’s character progression system, the previously mentioned Sphere Grid. In a cruel trick, if you talk to the men after the fact, one of them will offer to repeat this information, but since his question is in cypher, you can’t tell what you’re agreeing to before it’s too late and the extended tutorial is back in motion! Did I mention that even the HD remake doesn’t allow you to skip cutscenes?

Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid is incredibly complicated. It also seems to have given a bunch of other developers the idea that they can just throw a whole pile of crap on the screen and call it legible. I hate games with level up and skill systems that look like this, with hundreds of little dots spanning a skill tree the size of a roadside billboard. It is way too much information all at once. Even FFX I only find tolerable because the original Sphere Grid was linear for an incredibly long time, allowing the player to get used to it, a lesson the rest of the industry seems to have ignored! Long story short: this system is not going to be easy to explain, but I’ll do my best.

The Sphere Grid is a massive web of interconnected circles that operates sort of like a board game. All the player’s party members start at different positions on the board. Characters in FFX don’t “level up,” per se, but they do accumulate EXP towards “Moves” on the Sphere Grid. When you move forward, your character marks the path between circles with their colour. These coloured lines are important, because you can move upwards of four spaces “backwards” so long as you stick to marked paths, though you should avoid this whenever possible since it’s still a waste of resources. Most of the circles on the grid represent various power-ups, and you’re allowed to “buy” the upgrade associated with the circle when you’re within one step. You don’t buy them for free, mind. You have to use “Orb” items dropped en masse by random encounters: an Accuracy upgrade, for example, might cost you one “Speed Orb.” The idea is to encourage you to fight a variety of monsters, but I have a feeling this idea was conceived before the devs know just how restrictive the game’s area-to-area navigation was going to be (just wait and see). In the final game, it’s not really the player’s fault if they’re not fighting “the right” variety of monsters! As a result, the remake arguably over-corrects this, giving you abilities to force an enemy to drop certain orbs, including the originally-rare Ability Orbs. A little diligence in using the new “Extract Ability” skill and the entire orb system becomes superfluous. I’m happy to say that, while I don’t like these skill systems, most later games that use similar skill trees did learn from this mistake: they only charge you once for each upgrade instead of this odd system of charging you once for movement and once again for the circle!

As I was saying before, the default Sphere Grid is very linear (true of both the original game’s grid and the “Standard” variant in the remake, which are very similar). Basically, each character ends up locked in their designated role, and you can only mess around with the power of the Sphere Grid by removing “Lock” spheres (which I’ll discuss later), most of which hide nothing more than a few bonus stat upgrades before you have to turn around and go back to the linear path! The customizability only really opens up if you remove the Lock Spheres blocking the way into other characters’ sections of the board, but those can be huge investments! So the game had customizability, but by and large your characters are going to be exactly the same as every other player’s, each filling set roles, and that only changes if and when you’re going for the game’s top challenges. I’ve already talked a little about Mystery Girl’s role, so let’s look at our lead. Tidus’ “Standard” build is something of an odd mix in and of itself. His stats angle towards combat, and he’s in the middle when it comes to speed and accuracy compared to the other combat characters. He’s “The Mario,” the middle-of-the-road… but for some reason he also gets Slow and Haste? Just mixing it up, I guess!

By the way, Tidus’ traditional first ability is Cheer, which can be used to buff the party. This may seem like a new ability, but I can’t be certain: the fan translation for FFIII Famicom gives the Bard the Cheer ability, and I don’t have access to the Japanese version of the name to compare. It would go on to appear in Kingdom Hearts 1 as a Summon buff of all things. Anyways, Cheer is terrible, so we ignored it.

But before we go too far, I’ll remind you that Kyle and I aren’t using the Standard Sphere Grid, but the surprised-filled Expert Sphere Grid! The Expert Sphere grid is kind of a disorganized mess at first glance, and good luck finding any specific abilities. The chief difference about the Expert Sphere Grid is that instead of everyone being “locked off” in their own sections, everyone but the last two party members starts in the common centre of the board , only vaguely positioned towards “their” section (which is a very different version of “their section” from the Standard Grid!). As a result, It’s much easier to criss-cross between builds, a pattern that continues later down the road as well, since the “disorganized” grid is actually arranged in a sort of spiral pattern, allowing a lot more freedom to each build. As a result of this unusual character progression system, I’ll have to keep you all regularly informed on how Kyle and I ignorantly try to build our characters, or we might all end up confused!

Kyle and I gaped at the Expert Grid for a while, before deciding the best course of action would be to send Tidus back towards the middle to grab Extract Ability. Unfortunately, it turns out a later party member actually starts right next to the thing, and we just didn’t know because their token wasn’t on the board yet. We were were basically wasting our time as we send Tidus through a bunch of redundant upgrades. Gooooood luck to us!

While we were on the deck, we also managed to find a book lying around… probably because we had a guide open to make sure we didn’t miss any of the things. Just assume we find them all from this point on. I’ll only discuss them if they happened to be particularly well-hidden – though they often are, since they’re not found in chests! They’re just books! Tiny little books, lying on the ground! These are Al Bhed Primers, and they allow you to gradually decode the substitution cypher that our captors are speaking, the Al Bhed language. naturally we didn’t want to miss them given the Marathon’s narrative focus. The books appear in a strict order, letting you read the letters A-Z in order from the start of the game to the end. Several of the books are unfortunately missable. On top of other obvious bonuses, translating Al Bhed helps you unlock some of the game’s prizes, including some of the ultimate weapons, but since all they the cypher can do is conceal information rather than outright locking off sections of the game, those items could also be found just by browsing to the Cheats section on GameFAQs. Oh well! As a bonus, you can also use that “fourth-wall breaking sphere” from the start of the game to carry over primers from a previous save, although, just like in Wind Waker a few years later, this frankly doesn’t do much. All Al Bhed writing can be read again later in the game, and even though this early dialogue is one-time only, the characters are emotive enough for you to get the gist from context!

Mystery Woman explains that there are some “ancient ruins” below, and they want to restore power to the place to salvage a “big prize.” Why this sunken and broken place is all-but perfectly aligned for salvage is a whole load of authorial bull honk, but whatever, I guess.

Tidus and Mystery Lady go swimming. Despite this place being an “ancient ruin,” it has hologram displays and the like, but since we know nothing about this world yet, maybe that’s not so surprising? The dungeon itself is extremely linear and self-explanatory. You basically just go turn on a generator and then get into a boss fight against an octopoid called Tros. Do yourself a favour and have Mystery Lady Steal from every random encounter en route and you’ll be more than prepped for the boss, but you’ll still survive if you don’t. Tros’ only real power is the ability to swim to the other side of the arena. For whatever reason, our heroes don’t react to this at first, and all you can do is select a new command to “Stand By.” The second time Tros tries this stunt, you can activate a “Trigger Command,” which are commands that only show up in special circumstances, to swim after the monster on both sides, pincering it and preventing future charge attacks. Just a simple tutorial in the end! Tidus and Mystery Lady set up some spotlights and then swim outside to see the “big prize,” discovering an airship buried in a nearby, underwater trench.

As much as I’d like to take a screenshot of the 3D blobs, I should PROBABLY screenshot the boss, instead.

Tidus returns to the boat, but remains a prisoner kept on the deck, and is only given food and company later on when Mystery Lady comes out with a tray. Oh sweet, speckled 3D blobs, my favourite! They exchange names and we learn the mystery lady is named Rikku. For some reason, Tidus is just shocked and thrilled she can understand him, even though she’s spoken long sentences to him already? She tells him that she and the others are Al Bhed, and we also learn there are bigots out there who hate her race, but Tidus has never heard of the Al Bhed or anyone who hates them. Rikku asks where he’s from, and he tells us that the big city from the intro is named Zanarkand. Rikku is surprised by this, and after we get a time skip during which he explains his story, Rikku reveals that Zanarkand was destroyed a thousand years ago! And would you look at that, the game actually makes me believe her right away, because it had that futuristic tech in the “ancient ruins!”  Good on them! Naturally, Tidus is a great deal more skeptical, but in Rikku’s mind, Tidus’ story also furnishes an explanation: he was near Sin, and she knows all about Sin. Seems the giant monster is an active menace in her world instead of a mystery like it was to Tidus. She tells him that Sin lets out a toxin that can mess with your head, and she thinks that’s responsible for his weirdo time travel story. She promises Tidus that he’ll be fine in no time!

So yeah, so Tidus seems to have travelled to the future… or something… but it’s okay, because the writers have prepared a fucking tailor-made excuse for him not fitting in with the world around him! How polite! I’ll give the devs credit for having a few minor NPCs mention that they’ve suffered from Sin’s toxin, but they really are minor (Kyle didn’t remember them at all!), so  it’s hard not to see the whole thing as a massive writing hack, and one being used to sidestep what feels like a major element of the plot: Tidus being a fish out of water in Rikku’s world! While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it doesn’t stop it from being a highly artificial thing, because the dev’s excuse is just so in-your-face for the first ten or so hours!

Minor aside here, but one part of this scene involves Rikku saying the Al Bhed word “oui,” which means “you” but is pronounced like the French word of the same spelling and so sounds like “we,” leading to Tidus’ confusion. I enjoy this, not because it’s funny (frankly, it’s not) but because it makes me realize that those three letters of the cypher were probably chosen specifically to fit the joke, and I appreciate the goofy effort!

Tidus takes to the news about his being in another time and place very slowly, at which point there’s an entirely unjustified break in the cutscene to allow the player to save! After you interact with Rikku again, the two get to talking about Tidus’ sport, blitzball, which apparently still exists in this world. Rikku suggests he go to the city of Luca, but she doesn’t specify why, and when he doesn’t reply, she decides to take charge and say that she’ll take him there, though she cautions him not to mention Zanarkand again, since “Yevon” says it’s a “holy place” and “someone might misunderstand.”

Unfortunately, Rikku walks off-screen for a few seconds when none other than Sin appears again and knocks Tidus off the boat. Just like that! Tidus conks out again. God, it’s like I’m controlling Sumo from FFA again. This guy only ever progresses the plot while he’s unconscious. Medic!

Prev: Final Fantasy X – Original Sin
Next: Final Fantasy X – Cloister of Trial and Error

3 comments

  1. The Al Bhed are, at the start, discussing whether or not Tidus is an Unsent. As it turns out, Sin destroyed Baaj Temple about a week or two before the plot started, so presumably the Al Bhed assume the only reason a person would be out there would be if they were undead.

    I think Final Fantasy X is really great at world-building. That said, the modern day events of the pilgrimage are rather sloppy at points, such as Rikku refusing to talk to Tidus for the opening part for… basically no reason.

  2. I never found the sphere grid to be complicated, it may be related to the fact that I grow up with this system and that I always have access to the special abilities that drops spheres.

    Then the beginning of the game can be rather frustrating when you don’t have these abilities and you have to stop progressing in the sphere grid because you don’t have one particular sphere.

    1. That’s good to hear, especially that you were able to come to grips with it when you were younger. Maybe it’s just me!

      Yeah, when I first played I didn’t realize the value of Extract Ability and that slowed me down quite a bit in the early game!

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