Review by DConnoy
"Square surprises with an early Christmas present... and it's the furthest thing from fruitcake."
If history is any indication, a transition to a new platform for the Final Fantasy series can be fraught with controversy. The last platform change for Square's ridiculously popular RPG franchise gave us many cries of a supposed (but nonexistent) subordinating of gameplay and story to graphics and full-motion video. With a complete redesign of the battle and gameplay systems, a new real-time graphics engine, and full voice acting being introduced to match the higher capabilities of the PlayStation 2, there was plenty of room for error in Final Fantasy X, the latest entry in the series. Thankfully, while the handling of the voice acting isn't ideal, the other newly-introduced concepts are some of the best the RPG genre has ever seen.
Final Fantasy games have always been at the top of the heap in graphical prowess. The series consistently pushes the boundaries of whatever system it's on, and Final Fantasy X continues this tradition. The huge polygon power of the PS2 allows battles against truly gigantic opponents, and Yuna's summoned monster allies (''Aeons'' in this installment) are more fierce and muscular than anything the genre has yet seen. Glamorous spell effects create surreal hazes and trails, and the entrances and attacks of the aeons are more elaborate than ever (though they can be shortened as an option in the main menu).
Also revamped are the environments; they're displayed in real-time by the PS2, as opposed to the flat pre-rendered locales of the PlayStation games. A roving camera follows the main character, Tidus, as he moves about; while it's out of the player's control, a small radar in the upper left corner of the screen maps out the surroundings. The radar also highlights features such as exits and save points, and even points you to your next destination when appropriate. Thumbs-up for this ingenious addition--it prevents disorientation from the moving camera, as well as letting you know where to go and what's available to be explored.
Most importantly of all, Tetsuya Nomura's outlandishly and ornately costumed characters are rendered in such realism that you feel you could reach out and touch them. Indeed, it's pretty clear that Square knows what they've accomplished, as a shameless amount of close-ups on the characters' faces show off details as meticulous as eyelashes, lips, scars, and even tears. As if this weren't enough, characters' facial expressions change in real-time, reflecting their fear, sadness, anger, or happiness. However, this part of the technology seems to be in its infancy: there just doesn't seem to be true range in the facial animation, with such actions as a smile ending up too subtle and barely noticeable. Indeed, Tidus (the main character) seems to display a stoned, glassy-eyed stare a bit too often. There's some room for improvement here, but this is an already great achievement to build off of.
Not nearly an hour into Final Fantasy X, you'll be treated to a grunting, snarling death-metal mosh tune. It's not that it's bad, it's just that... well, has Nobuo Uematsu been hitting the meth, or has he gotten some help? Turns out it's the latter. Aside from this rather incongruous piece, Junya Nakano and Masashi Sugawara's added tracks bring the quantity of the soundtrack up, if nothing else--pieces are very rarely re-used (unless they go with a character, of course). And while this score seems to be lacking in the catchiness and memorability one usually expects from Uematsu, the emotional content of quiet pieces like the instrumental version of the vocal song ''Suteki da ne'' is undeniable.
However, in what is perhaps the largest cosmetic improvement that Final Fantasy X brings to the series, voice-over is used for all the playable characters and many of the supporting personalities as well. This is not a ''just key scenes'' addition: every line of dialogue of the appropriate characters is voice acted. 40-hour game times 9 main characters and 30-plus supporting characters--after you do the math, it's clear that Square's US localization people had their work cut out for them, and the result is not bad considering how much had to be dubbed. At the very least, none of the parts fall completely flat, or degenerate into Resident Evil-style cheeze; some, like John DiMaggio's island-boy accent as Wakka, are even spot-on. James Arnold Taylor's performance as Tidus is a real weak link, however--the pitch of his voice is simply too high and his inflection too energetic, turning Tidus into somewhat of a wiener. Fortunately, he's offset at most points by Matt McKenzie's Auron, who is as stone-cold bad-ass as they come. Also deserving of some credit is Alex Fernandez as the villian--he delivers a pithy sort of malice that, while a little effeminate, is perfectly suited to the visual appearance of his character. Sure, the voice acting isn't perfect, but this is the company that brought us Xenogears and Brave Fencer Musashi's slop-dubs, so be thankful.
The initial moments of Final Fantasy X are confusing, to say the least. A mess of cryptic happenings, flashbacks, dreams, and illusions surround Tidus, the energetic but naive main character, as he is thrown by Sin from his home to the faraway continent of Spira. Sin is a waterbound leviathan that exists only to kill and destroy, and the nemesis of the people of Spira--the citizens live in constant fear of Sin's brutal assaults on their defenseless coastal villages. Disoriented and unknowing of when he'll ever see his home again, Tidus decides to join the beautiful summoner Yuna and her guardians in their pilgrimage across Spira.
A summoner gains the ability to defeat Sin by completing the pilgrimage, and during their vast trek across the lands of Spira, Tidus learns more about summoners that have gone before Yuna, his own frightening connection to Sin, and the sacrifices that must be made to ultimately rid the people of its scourge. Sacrifice--the necessity of it to truly help others, and the knowledge of what is and is not worth sacrificing of oneself for--is a predominant theme in Final Fantasy X. The story strives to teach the lesson that you can't truly help others without giving some of yourself, and uses superb devices to accomplish its ends. Much like in Blade Runner, some of the world's darkest truths are amplified, thrown into such sharp relief that they can't be ignored by the characters--or the player.
The influence of the characters' mothers, fathers, and ancestors is omnipresent as their quest forces them to come to terms with this reality. Tidus, Yuna, and the other characters are constantly challenged to accomplish what their parents couldn't; in some cases, it's as if they're eerily reprising the roles their elders played ages ago. This symmetry creates some beautiful and touching moments as the characters reconcile their responsibilities to and relationships with their forebears, but the answers aren't always in the past--sadly, the traditions of countless generations before sometimes must be thrown out to make real change. And unlike some games of recent memory that compartmentalized their various themes and never make them feel related, Final Fantasy X succeeds by making all these themes feel like they're part of one great tapestry. This is not the most ambitious narrative undertaking in videogame history, but it deftly accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Nobuo Uematsu, Tetsuya Nomura, Yoshitaka Amano, Hironobu Sakaguchi: names that are unavoidably associated with the Final Fantasy games, as the creative powers that give the series its aural, visual, and narrative energy. Toshiro Tsuchida, pulled from his duties as director of the Front Mission game series, deserves to be the next name to join that list. Tsuchida's complete reconstruction of Final Fantasy's antiquated battle system is the best thing to happen to the series in years. Gone is the pseudo-real-time Active Time Battle system that's been the standby since Final Fantasy IV, replaced with a purely turn-based system known as Charge Time Battle. The CTB system is reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics in the way it orders characters' and enemies' actions based on their agility, and in the way that different types of actions (attacking, spellcasting, guarding) have different amounts of recovery time. In battle, a small scrollable window shows the order of the next 20 or so actors in the battle; in addition to the usual status ailments of the FF games, various delaying and quick-recovery techniques can affect a character or enemy's spot in the initiative order.
The CTB system, along with the new heads-up display that provides an absolutely staggering amount of strategic information on the ongoing battle, would be nice enough innovations, but the real feature of Final Fantasy X's new battle engine is the ability to tag in characters that aren't in the battle. The ability to bring any inactive character into the fray puts every character at your disposal and assures you're never without Yuna's healing magic, Lulu's damage spells, or Auron's ability to crush enemies' defenses. Of course, having all these options at your disposal gives the developers the freedom to throw enemies at you that would be cheap in any other RPG--even random encounters against regular enemies require the use of particular characters. Trying to beat on an armored enemy instead of using magic might not kill you, but it'll certainly make the battle take longer than it needs to. Be bull-headed and use unsuited characters against a boss, and you will probably get killed, especially later in the game. This is a big improvement over some of the previous games, in which simply sending in two tanks and a healer would beat just about anything. The summoned aeons, as mentioned before, also don't unbalance combat in your favor: instead of throwing out one attack when summoned, aeons fight in the battle in your characters' stead. As a result, aeons aren't good for much except getting killed if you don't carefully gauge how, where, and when it will be useful to summon one.
In addition to all the new options the battle system gives you, the new Sphere Grid character growth system allows plenty of room for customization and optimization as well. Traditional experience levels typical of RPGs are gone in Final Fantasy X; instead, experience awarded from defeating enemies goes toward earning Sphere Levels. Gained Sphere Levels can be used to move the character around the enormous Sphere Grid, which contains not only all the abilities that can be learned, but attribute increases as well. Characters earn abilities and attribute upgrades as they move about the Grid and activate its nodes with Spheres (also earned from defeating enemies). This leads to more gradual and constant character growth than the typical experience level system, and furthermore, the layout of the Sphere Grid itself is ingenious. Each character has a sort of ''track'' that they can follow that will give them default abilities and statistics; locks on the Grid prevent a character from learning another character's abilities until they're unlocked by very rare Key Spheres. The most unbalancing and powerful abilities such as Mimic and Ultima are protected behind several of the highest-level locks. The whole layout is a perfect balance of differentiation between and customizability of characters in battle--in Final Fantasy IV style, you'll be earning characteristic and unique abilities for each character for most of the game, while spending Key Spheres and other rare special spheres to give characters whatever few ''out-of-character'' abilities that you want them to have.
As if all this weren't enough, it's possible to customize aeons and your equipment by using items, much like the weapon upgrade system in Final Fantasy VIII. Stealing the items necessary to make a killer set of gear, or upgrade your aeons to godhood status, could be time-consuming projects at least. The people of Spira engage in a waterborne sport known as Blitzball as their sole diversion; a disturbingly well-developed Blitzball sub-game lets you assemble a team and ascend through the tournament ranks in exchange for prizes. In further addition, a chocobo raising mini-game, a side-quest that involves capturing the planet's various monsters, and other assorted side-quests accessible very late in the game create the titanic play value one usually expects from a Final Fantasy title, over and above the main storyline's 40 or so hours.
At the very least, Final Fantasy X deftly sidesteps the pitfalls it could have fallen into--the new graphical engine and voice acting are handled competently. The game goes further, though, delivering a tightly crafted, touching story, and as if that weren't enough, the Sphere Grid character development system and redesigned battle engine are ideal in both design and execution. It's clear that Square wasn't just interested in updating the graphics of their flagship series in its transition to the PS2, and Final Fantasy X is not just a solid achievement--it's among the best yet in the series.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/01/02, Updated 01/07/02
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