In my last piece about Final Fantasy X, I wrote about its biggest draw: its world, its story, and the way the two interact. What makes FFX a good game, not just a good worldbuilding exercise, is the second thing it does well: combat.
The principles behind the combat system are straightforward, but implemented well:
1. It’s turn-based, with turn order depending on speed – zippy characters move more often than slower ones.
2. The active party comprises three characters (out of a total of seven playable), and in one of FFX’s most distinctive features, you can freely switch characters during battle.
3. Each character begins with a distinct role and a unique progression upon level-up (they can eventually mix and match, while an alternate game mode allows customisation from the outset).
The net effect is the best battle system I can remember in a numbered Final Fantasy. Battles are fast to play (which is important, given how frequent they are) and not very difficult – I think the only game over screen I’ve seen was the result of a boss fight. At the same time, they require the player to do more than simply mash “attack”, an area where all too many JRPGs fall down. At its simplest, this is due to the need to target the right enemy with the right character (compare Persona). For instance, veteran swordsman Auron hits hard but has difficulty connecting against flying enemies, so I use him against armoured, ground-bound enemies instead. If the only enemies left are fliers, or resist physical attacks, then out goes Auron and in comes the black mage. In a more complex fight, I might open by using a support character to buff the party, swap him out in favour of a debuff specialist (1), and finally swap in the damage dealers.
Imagine being flung into an alien world, a thousand years hence. Imagine navigating a new society, with nothing left of your home but a few hauntingly familiar notes.
That is the premise of Final Fantasy X, whose Vita re-release (Final Fantasy X HD) is probably my favourite game this year. Imaginative and believable, the world of FFX stands head and shoulders over many other RPGs – its Final Fantasy siblings included. In fact, after 20 hours, I’d argue it outdoes the majority of games! Our window onto the story is Tidus: athlete, likeable if not especially bright goofball (1), and fish out of water. One day, he’s a champion blitzball player – think fantasy underwater soccer. The next, a monstrous fiend has levelled his city, and when he wakes, his home is no more than a myth.
A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.
– Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
One part game, one part tech demo for the PS Vita, and one part toy; that’s Tearaway, the latest platformer from Media Molecule, the studio behind LittleBigPlanet. It’s short and easy as far as games go, but what makes it special is how those ingredients come together.
Above is my new PlayStation Vita, running Persona 4: Golden! After a bit over a week, I think the hardware and the software were made for each other: the Vita is a fine machine, sleek and sharp-screened, while P4:G is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. P4:G is also long and deep (I clocked in at >90 hours on its predecessor, Persona 3: Portable), the kind of game I’d normally find difficult to finish — I frequently stall out on RPGs at the ~30 hour mark, such as Fallout: New Vegas, Xenoblade Chronicles, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and even the PS2 version of Persona 4. But the Vita’s portability is a blessing: I can carry it around the house, play when I have a few minutes to spare, put it to sleep at the push of a button, and awaken it in seconds. That makes it perhaps the most convenient way to play long, intricate games such as P4:G — definitely more convenient than being chained to a PC/console. Vita, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…
As an aside, so far, the Vita’s library isn’t huge, but I have several more games to chew through once I (eventually) finish P4:G: action RPG Soul Sacrifice came bundled with the Vita, and over several PSN sales, I built up a decent backlog of PSP RPGs (Gungnir, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time). As for future releases, Final Fantasy X and X-2 are due out for Vita eventually, and who knows what other RPGs might come after that? After all, the PSP eventually bloomed into an RPG powerhouse, with the likes of FFT, Tactics Ogre, and Persona 3.