Review by EOrizzonte

"The fall of a videogame god, and a severely weak point in the PS2 lineup"

You have to wonder. When Final Fantasy VIII came out for the PSX, people were practically challenging each other in bashing it, as much as they could and with unrivalled passion. They were living in the memory of the previous episode, and were just refusing to see the evident quality of the game. And no matter how hard Squaresoft tried ever since, Final Fantasy VII has always been regarded as the best RPG ever made. So, when you see the very same people kneeling before the latest installment in the series - a game that shares some of the defects that FFVIII had, and that so excellently succeeds in taking out from the usual formula everything that made every one of the previous episodes so compelling - and call it a masterpiece... you really have to wonder.

True, Final Fantasy X is a technical marvel. Never before had graphics so solid and detailed been seen, not even in Metal Gear Solid 2. Fully polygonal backgrounds have replaced the prerendered ones seen in PSX Final Fantasies, and the results are sometimes absolutely breathtaking. Although the camera is not dynamic, and thus the final effect is almost the same as using prerendered images, you can't fail to notice how beautiful the scenery is, with high-quality textures and bright colors everywhere. But luscious as the environments can be, they pale in comparison with character models, which are by far the most realistic ever seen before Game Cube Resident Evil (and perhaps still more). Faces, bodies, and clothes are so detailed that at times, it's hard to tell the difference between polygon cut-scenes and CG Full-Motion Video. Actually, the former are even better than many FMVs seen in the last few years. Speaking of FMV, it must be noticed that those seen in FFX by far surpass everything you've ever seen. It's clear from them that Square have learnt something from their (albeit disastrous, at least in the money department) first and last movie production. Truly, only Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within can top this game's full-motion scenes.

As usual, you can expect Final Fantasy to couple a visual threat with a great aural experience. The game's score is beautiful and atmospherical - especially the intro music, which is truly touching and sets up a feeling of epic that, sadly, the game fails to keep up. For the first time in a Final Fantasy game, the soundtrack is probably better listened to when not playing the game. However, even this great score can't reach the stellar levels of those heard in Final Fantasy VI to IX: many tracks have been heard before, and the work as a whole lacks that special feeling that its predecessors so magnificently conveyed. Maybe Nobuo Uematsu is running out of ideas after all. Also, while your ears are pleased by the game's music, the voice acting does its very best to hurt them. You should expect Squaresoft to pay close attention to the voices in such a high-profile production, but it's clear that this aspect of the game has been realized without any particular care. The main character, Tidus, is incredibly irritating, and the other characters aren't much better. Yuna, the heroine, sounds weak, retarded, and ultimately insignificant, while Wakka, the big guy, has the voice of a generic black man used to speak to an uneducated audience. Very stereotyped, and very unpleasant from the very first moments. Only one character has a ''cool'' voice, and that's Auron, the mystery guy who seems to know everything on what's going on around. He really sounds tough and caring at the same time, and he's arguably the best character in the game as far as characterization goes.

Indeed, characterization is the game's first lowdown. Since written dialogue between the main characters has been replaced by actual speech, everyone has a lot less to say in comparison to dialogues in a text-only RPG. This means that there's much less space for thoughts, jokes, feelings, memories, and revelations. In short, there's no room for character development. Only the essential is said out loud, and whatever may still be useful to know what each character is hiding deep within him or herself, has been left out so that you can have your ears offended by voices. Script has been sacrificed to make room for a cinematic experience - only, there's no ''experience'' at all. Final Fantasy X is a fair of stereotypes: you have the whiny, handsome, blonde guy who'll put himself in trouble at any time if nobody were there to stop him (Tidus); you have the young, frail, silent, and oh-so-stunningly beautiful woman with smooth, dark hair and no backbone at all, doing only what she's expected to and bowing in front of everyone (Yuna); the big, beefy, one-track-minded man who'd rather play sports than embark on a quest to save the world, were it not for something he can't forgive himself for (Wakka); the dark, sharp, never-smiling lady with the coldest voice you can think of, and obviously skilled at using black magic (Lulu); the manly beast who never says a word before halfway through the game, talks like a savage, and never ever considers making suggestions, or even comments, if not directly asked (Kimahri); the older, cool, red-dressing man with sunglasses, who knows everything but never says a thing unless he thinks it's safer than not telling (Auron); and last, the futile, young, silly girl who joins the team for no reason whatsoever but the fact that the plot writers wanted her there (Rikku). You'll meet each of them at a different time, but you'll never know more about them than you know after the first few lines of introduction. They'll remain the same throughout the whole story.

Final Fantasy X also manages to wipe out many of the series' main traits in a single swipe. Curiously enough, this was the main criticism moved against the brilliant eighth episode of the saga: it tried to innovate a game system as old as RPGs themselves. But, even if very different from the legendary FFVII, that game at least still felt like a Final Fantasy game. Episode ten, instead, doesn't. Gone is the Active Time Battle, which made fighting so exciting. It is replaced by a more archaic turn-based combat system that goes as far as showing you the next few turns in order to plan your next move, so that you can give each of the three characters the correct input without fear of giving the wrong command because you didn't know when the enemy was going to act. This system makes combat slightly more strategic than ATB, since you don't have to hastily switch between characters and - more often than not - to plan the whole battle before you actually enter it (Weapons, anyone?). FFX even goes as far as allowing you to change your weapon and defense during battle, and to switch characters without losing the turn. This important innovation, though, is ultimately useless, because combat is severely invalidated by the game's power-up system.

There is no level-up in FFX. Yes, you heard that right. You fight, you defeat monsters, but no EXP pops up to make you stronger when the correct amount has been obtained. Instead, you gain Ability Points, which in time can turn into Sphere Levels. Each one of them is worth a one-space movement on the immense Sphere Grid, a spiderweb-like structure where each sphere represents a stat improvement, or a new ability. Every time you use a Sphere Level, you can move from one sphere to another connected to your current position, and if you have the proper item, you can gain whatever the sphere offers you, be it 200 HP, 1 Str point, a Fire magic, or a battle skill. Interesting as it may sound, the Sphere Grid is actually disastrous. The amount of time and battles required to gain enough Sphere Levels to get a significant stats boost is tremendous, and since combat is slow and repetitive, it soon becomes boring. The fact that weapons and armors are very limited in giving you stat boosts makes things even worse. It won't be long before you find yourself struggling to get a few AP from enemies that take forever to defeat, and that will always be stronger than you unless you spend hours and hours fighting the weaker ones. Only, there's no fun at all in fighting, not to mention the ludicrously high random encounter rate, which is bound to drive you crazy very quickly given that to explore the vast polygonal environments of the game - so detailed that items and treasure chests are practically invisible until you're just beside them - you'll be attacked dozens of times. In comparison, the Junction system and enemies gaining levels as you do make up for a much more versatile - and enjoyable - game system. Oh, and we're not even mentioning bosses. They take forever to beat - mainly because your feeble attacks do very little to deplete their absurd HP reserve.

Which brings us to another big flaw in the game. Usually, in Square RPGs (and Final Fantasy above all), subquests require you to do creative things, or at least something that distracts you from the main game. Playing cards, for example, or collecting clues leading to hidden treasures, or just playing mini-games for the pleasure of it. However, Final Fantasy X's secrets all revolve around battles. Boss battles, to be precise. With the sole exceptions of the quest for ultimate weapons (which is made frustrating by the nature of the weapon themselves, which carry a power that you don't want and that must be obliterated) and Blitzball (without a doubt the most boring, complicated, unfair and time-consuming mini-game ever seen), all subquests will see you fighting omnipotent creatures that can have as many as twelve MILLION HP. MILLION. Yes, there IS a skill that can make you deal more than 9999 HP damage, but getting it is an adventure in itself, and anyway, who wants to take on such quests when the effort far exceeds the reward? The aim of subquests is to entertain and challenge you, and in the end, to reward you with something that's actually useful. But when the game's longest subquests is all about fighting stronger and stronger creatures, just to create EVEN STRONGER creatures to defeat (and that are supposed to give you items that you'd need to have a chance to beat them in the first place), where's the fun? Where's the reward? But most of all, what's the point? The time required to completely beat Final Fantasy X is comparable to that needed to finish Dragon Warrior VII with a satisfactory amount of goods and powers - only, in Square's game there's no real reason to spend that time. It's a total waste, and a shame when you realize that the actual story, which is unbearably boring and repetitive, will barely require 45-50 hours to be seen to the end.

Finally, you can't fail to notice that the game's structure and controls are pretty rigid. Final Fantasy X is the most linear RPG seen in the last years, with no chance to choose a destination on the world map until the very last part of the story - that, because the world map isn't even available before that time. As for bonus scenes, branching points, and secret characters, there isn't any. It's like Final Fantasy IX's ATE and Chrono Cross' s branching points have never existed. And how can Square justify the controls, which are incredibly sluggish and completely unintuitive? The analogue stick is practically useless, because even if the scenery is in 3D, your character can only move along the main direction axis, therefore nullifying the versatility of the analogue control - which was created to allow for total freedom of movement.

The technical realization also deserves examination. The Western version suffers from a terrible lip-synch, and nothing has been done to hide it. But the real shame is the PAL conversion. The black borders at the edges of the screen are by far the biggest ever seen, distorting the image proportions to an unbearable extent, and flickering is heavy and persistent. Speed is also terrible, and crossing the screen is a pain as it takes ages, with characters moving at a totally unnatural speed. Yes, the PAL version has an extra DVD video as a bonus, but how good is it when it shows you the trailers to the US version, with full-screen image and the actual speed at which the game should run? And the worst thing is that this lazy, shameful, unjustifiable conversion took a full year to arrive in stores.

Quite simply, Final Fantasy X is not a Final Fantasy game. It doesn't even look like a Squaresoft game, as it's clearly a lazy production that aims at captivating gamers with its extraordinary looks, which were evidently more important to programmers than the actual game. FFX is dull and boring, and totally unsatisfactory. It has absolutely nothing in it to drive you to play it, when the most amazing thing about the previous episodes was that even the less interesting parts (such as random battles) were fun. FFX starts out at the slowest possible pace and never recovers from it, so that after half an hour (and after the stunning FMV intro) the eyelids will be unexpectedly drooping. Too much of the classic Final Fantasy formula has been changed, but there's nothing wrong with innovation if it makes up for a good gaming experience. However, what's been changed here was also the best out of the standard RPG system. And it's very sad to see that the most renown and beloved publisher in the field so shamelessly tried to sell a (barely) interactive movie as a fully priced, ''next-gen'' videogame. Final Fantasy X was expected to set the new standards for RPGs; as it is, it's a dangerous trend-maker that can drive the whole genre into a descending spiral of unoriginality and boredom. It's easy to squander high budgets on productions that excel technically, but have few gameplay in them. And seeing that even Squaresoft can do it, and with their most important in-house brand, is alarming for the industry as a whole. Final Fantasy X is undisputedly the best RPG for PS2 available at the moment, but to say ''best'' is to say something the game is not. It's just better than the few, unmeritful attempts at RPGs out there for a console that was expected to deliver by the dozens, and of great quality. ''Next-gen'' is something that has yet to be seen for role-playing games, and surely, Final Fantasy X doesn't even come close to it.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 10/13/02, Updated 10/13/02


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