Our continuing examination of the best games of the post 16-bit, pre-current gen, we will be looking at two PS2 RPGs that I particularly enjoyed.
Our first game was a groundbreaking collaboration between two entirely unrelated, gigantic companies that were leaders in their industry. What resulted was a great game that wasn’t quite simple or clean, but was surprisingly interesting and fun despite its flaws. That’s right, the game is the multi-million-selling Squaresoft and Disney collaboration, Kingdom Hearts.
Runner-Up: Kingdom Hearts
Let’s get the cons out of the way right off the bat. Kingdom Hearts has a flawed camera system, the Disney planets and story sections are particularly uninteresting, and the Gummi Ship missions are pretty lame. Two of the three of these issues were addressed in the sequel (I’ll let you guess which ones), but the sequel just lacked the charm and appeal of the first release.
So what was good about Kingdom Hearts? Surprisingly enough, the formula works really well. Who could have EVER imagined that teaming up a Nomura-designed character with Donald Duck and Goofy would result in a game worth playing? The game is essentially constructed to make fanboys squeal with delight, with cameos from Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X, moogles, and a bevy of popular Disney characters. Again, for some odd reason, the fact that these characters interact with each other like nothing was strange about meeting each other just works.
Gameplay revolves around solving, more or less, the plots of several Disney movies as you visit each planet. In many cases, the planet you visit will have a Disney protagonist like Aladdin or Beast to join your party. These guys are usually pretty strong, but using them is kind of a waste since Goofy and Donald are part of your party for more of the game, so leveling them up should take precedence. Battle is handled in real-time, with Goofy and Donald being controlled by the game’s AI, while Sora’s attacks and magic are handled by you.
The story is actually somewhat basic. Great evil is consuming the worlds that each of the characters are from. The Heartless (beings who have no heart, makes sense, no?) are the planet destroyers and they manage to reach Sora’s world. Sora’s girlfriend of sorts, Kairi, is kidnapped by this evil and Riku seems to join the Heartless.
At the end of the day, Sora’s story is way more interesting than the Disney stories and it left one of those “Wow, that was cool” impressions on me back four years ago when I first played it.
If you’ve never gotten around to beating Kingdom Hearts, get to it!
Here are the intros to the first and second game in the languages I prefer them in:
The last game we will be examining today actually had characters in Kingdom Hearts. If you’ve been paying any attention to which Final Fantasy games I like and dislike, then you already know, by process of elimination, that we’re about to talk about Final Fantasy X.
Runner-Up: Final Fantasy X
A lot of firsts hit when Final Fantasy X landed on US shores. It was the first Final Fantasy on the PS2, first Final Fantasy without a world map to traverse, and, most importantly, the first voice-acted Final Fantasy game. I don’t think anyone’s gonna argue with me that the voice they chose for Tidus does kind of wear on you a little bit. Some of the acting is a little wooden too (See the “laughing” scene…that one hurts to this day. Also see “I hate you” at the end. There was supposed to be emotion there, but I just found myself laughing my ass off.), but, overall, the voice actors they chose were top notch and quite good. My favorite of the bunch was Wakka, but that might be because he’s essentially a water polo player…
A lot of what I particularly like about FFX comes from the small things they did to revitalize the series. Squaresoft eschewed the active time battle system in this iteration in favor of a pure, turn-based system that, awesomely, allowed you to swap in party members on the fly during any turn of battle with no turn penalty. Since every party member who completed at least one action in battle received experience points for the battle, this little system allowed me to swap in a whole party in each battle, prolonging the battle, to be sure, but also ensuring that my party remained balanced and usable in any situation where a swap was required.
Coupled in with the radical new way to earn XP was a radical new way to level, the Sphere Grid. Each party member started on a particular spot of an epic, sprawling array of stat bonuses, new moves, and locked paths. While each path initially shoehorned your character into a set “class” of the olden Final Fantasy days, you were able to use those locked paths to branch your characters out and increase the variety present in each of the characters. In fact, a devoted enough player could have a full cast of characters with all of the Sphere Grid slots unlocked with the only real differences between characters being Overdrive attacks (like Limit Breaks or Desperation Moves).
The Sphere Grid far trumps the License Board of Final Fantasy XII, IMHO, solely because it forced more differences among your party, at least at the start of the game, instead of the homogeneous party of adventurers that I ended up with in FF XII. Turn-based battles are also strategically more fun than ATB battles, but can sometimes be more boring since there is no pressing need to complete an action.
After a series of stories that I will only go so far as to call disappointing in the four preceding Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy X made major leaps in storyline maturity. Gone were the silent, emo protagonists of VII and VIII, back was someone who wasn’t super-damn depressing to control, even if his voice actor was obnoxious. The party was pretty varied and mostly fleshed out (I’m looking at you Lulu and Kimahri…who the hell are you guys and why don’t your stories really matter?) and rather interesting all at the same time, particularly Rikku, Auron, and Wakka. The drama of the summoner’s quest and the ultimate sacrifice they must make to stop Sin, coupled with the intrigue of just how Tidus ended up in Spira really carry this story and make it really interesting. So interesting that it garnered a rather…lackluster sequel, but still a first for a Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy X isn’t the best of the series nor is it second best (I like VI and IV more), but something about it just clicked for me when I played it. XII, while I do believe it has a more interesting cast and even more interesting story, just doesn’t execute either well and just falls short of PS2 greatness, in my opinion. Let’s hope that XIII brings back some of that VI spirit to revive a series that has been in somewhat of a same-y slump in its more recent outings. They’re already making some efforts to differentiate with what seems to be a female protagonist, so my hopes are already higher than usual for a Final Fantasy game.
Watching some of these FF X videos I also noticed that Final Fantasy characters, at least in X, look a lot more realistic and also a lot more Asian than they used to.
Anyway, tune in Thursday for the exciting conclusion to this category’s runner-ups!