In case you choose not to go outside

I think this fantasy may be the final one for me.

Because I take pride in accomplishments of trivial value, I am dead set on beating the 10th Final Fantasy game. I beat all the other FFs that were released in the U.S. and have been feeling unaccomplished because I never got around to number X until last month.

There was good cause for my procrastination. Some Final Fantasy games are amazing, and others are just crap. The revolutionary and incredible FF VII, with my all-time favorite play control feature, material, was followed by the dismal and unrewarding FF VIII. Both came out on the original PlayStation and were almost a study in opposites with the stark contrast between good writing and juvenile attempts at it.

Squaresoft (the production company) made a great comeback with FF IX, eliminating problems from VIII and bringing back a good story. It had the requisite Final Fantasy spiritual connection between our souls and the existence of monsters, and added a world of political intrigue.

The graphics, by this point, had just become stupidly good, especially when one goes back and plays FF II or III just for giggles. (For even more humor, try playing IV-VI, released in the U.S. only as “Final Fantasy Archives.”)

After VII art becomes an intrinsic part of the gameplay, and the appreciation for the backdrops and the nearly breathtaking movie sequences added a new level to the gaming experience.

Final Fantasy X seems to have put all its effort into the movies, to the exclusion of all else. This is the first of the series on PlayStation 2, and also the first with actors providing the voices throughout the game. The quality of the acting ranges from good (with the hottie black mage) to horrid (with the girl you’re supposed to fall in love with), and you even have your own voice for the protagonist, a Blitzball star.

The movies are, unfortunately, some of the most irritating parts of the game. Often you move from one sequence, where you cannot control the characters, to a few steps where you have to pick up the controller, only to be plunged into another sequence immediately. This fosters a sense of obligation to follow the plot instead of controlling your character, which is supposed to be your contribution to the story.

The battle system is good, bringing in the new option of switching characters mid-battle. But the advancement system is stupid, with the slapdash Sphere Grid providing an arcane and irrelevant method of level advancement upon the acquisition of experience.

The big letdown for play control, however, is the equipment. No longer can you get a more powerful sword or stronger armor; in FF X the only differences between weapons are the abilities to be found on them, and finding a cool sword that is faster than your old one is something I really miss.

I hope to trudge through this game quickly so I can move on to another one, but faced with a sequel to this one (FF X-2) and an online, time-intensive investment (FF XI Online) as the only places to go until the release of FF XII later this year, I think I’ll keep putting off my goal of beating every Final Fantasy unless I hear good things about the writing of these later games. Because while the art may be getting better all the time, without play control and a good story it’s just an interactive canvas that is more about the artist than about the player.

Over the last 10 Final Fantasy games there have been great epic stories and long boring exercises of tedium. There is always a spiritual aspect to the plot, just like there is always a character named Cid (and redshirts named Biggs and Wedge, after Luke Skywalker’s wingmen), and chocobos are always a form of transportation before you get an airship. These constants make a comforting reappearance in every game, providing a through line for all 10 different worlds and systems of magic.

I only wish that writing quality was as constant, or that it increased every game like the art has. It is a shame to see such an amazing series take a backward step in one respect, even as it moves forward in others.