Review by Tachibana Ukyo

"Praise be to Yevon."

Spira . . . a faraway land where beauty and love sparkle like the seas, salty with tears of sadness and loss . . .

Sin . . . a curse that dwells beneath the watery depths, emerging to punish Spira with endless destruction, emerging until it can be banished for a time through the sacrifices of heroes . . .

Tidus . . . a young man torn away from the life he has always known and thrust into this other world . . . this is his story. This is Final Fantasy X.

Star player of the Zanarkand Abes – there’s a phrase you’re going to be hearing quite a bit. A champion in Blitzball, a sort of underwater football (soccer,) Tidus is a cheerful teenager whose world has been turned upside-down after an encounter with the monstrous Sin; waking in Spira, he quickly learns that home is far, far away, and falls in with a cast of colorful characters: Wakka, a brash fellow Blitzball player; Lulu, buxom black mage with a frosty personality; Kimahri, silent and bestial giant; Rikku, energetic girl of the nomadic Al Bhed tribe; and Auron, the disheveled veteran warrior who aided in Sin’s defeat ten years ago. These men and women are the dubious protectors of Yuna, the young summoner who hopes to defeat Sin just as her father did. As a priestess of Yevon, the revered faith of all Spira save the aforementioned Al Bhed, Yuna’s abilities to invoke summoned monsters (called Aeons) make her the focus of the game, yet the story is seen through Tidus’ eyes, an interesting deviation from the norm.

All of Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs are quite striking: Lulu wears a tight black dress skirted entirely of leather belts, while Auron resembles an aging ronin, an angry scar running across his right eye and left arm slung in the folds of his clothes rather than his empty sleeve. And of course, Yuna – elegantly attired in long skirts of blue, short hair framed on one side with a long chain of beads, and multi-colored eyes that shine bright with determination. Her task - commune with five powerful Aeons scattered across the world, defeat Sin, and bring peace to Spira . . . initially simple and straightforward, the plot gradually twists and turns into an unforgettable tale of life, death, deceit, and sacrifice. I dare not reveal more, but the feel of this story is startlingly mature, heartfelt, and occasionally depressing compared to the earlier titles.

The first thing newcomers are likely to notice are the graphics. Previous entries in the series employed increasingly detailed pre-rendered backgrounds onto which the polygonal characters were laid; pretty to look at, they were nonetheless static and covered only a small area. This format has been cast aside in favor of completely polygonal landscapes, and the result is jaw dropping. Epic in scope, each screen is a huge, winding playground whether strolling across the peaceful, expansive grasslands or desperately trekking a perilous stretch of snowbound cliffs. The character graphics are similarly a evolution in the series’ increasingly complex body language; when you can see the anger, sadness, or joy in a character’s face and realize it’s not an FMV, it quickly becomes clear that this is a new beginning for Final Fantasy. When you do witness an FMV, try not to gaze directly into it and risk sensory overload.

This also marks a new beginning for series’ musical direction, the ever-present Nobuo Uematsu teaming with his fellow composers Masashi Hamazu and Junya Nakano for a wonderfully diverse experience. Much of the score takes a mellow, ambient approach, although there are yet many memorable selections in the traditional vein: Tidus’ theme is relaxed and peaceful, Yuna’s similarly calm with a hint of sadness. These melodies are often reprised as the journey unfolds, along with the hauntingly beautiful choir of Yevon that seems to accompany both hope and sorrow. Neither do scenes of action and danger disappoint, with songs both stirring and menacing, and even the introduction of heavy metal. It wasn’t so long ago that such music would be the province of an arranged album, not the original score.

Indeed, only a few years ago the concept of a speech-filled Final Fantasy would have been laughable, yet Square pulls it off with grace and tact. The English voice cast are able to do the characters justice and make them come alive; Auron speaks in a gritty, terminally calm lilt, while the horrifyingly cheerful Rikku really sounds as if she is suffering from a prolonged sugar high. Yuna’s words speak volumes toward her personality, carefully measured, even shy, but with an air of determination about them; for his part; Tidus seems optimistic, confident, and often over-emotional, befitting his character. The lip synchronization is excellent . . . for the original dialogue; the English dub does not correspond very well at all, and some will nit-pick regarding the translation of voice roles from Japanese to English. Others will merely sit back and wonder how they ever did without Final Fantasies in which the party members exchange boasts and warnings as they scurry about the battlefield.

Ah, battle! While the series has utilized an active-time battle system ever since the dawn of the Super Nintendo, here we return to the turn-based days of yore, returning the focus of combat from quick responses to careful strategy. You may now swap a current character for another at any time during combat and you will, for enemies specifically tailored to each character abound. Armored monsters call for Auron’s heavy blade, while aerial attackers are the favored target of Wakka. Facing a monster of fire? Lulu’s your woman; her personality alone could do the trick. Each character has a specific role, be it healer, versatile scrapper, or heavy hitter, and bosses will often require the entire party’s help to bring down, as you constantly switch back and forth to heal and maim. This new system makes senseless violence a joy, for no longer must you choose which characters to neglect and leave underdeveloped. Experience for everyone!

Wait a minute, where are the experience points?! Forget them. Characters are now powered solely by the new spoils of war - AP points and spheres, the former of which they may use to progress on the Sphere Grid, an immense board of convoluted paths taking them on an epic journey of power-ups, the latter used to unlock these powers. Ranging from simple HP to new spells or abilities, the Grid is an innovative feature indeed, allowing players to watch their characters increase in strength almost constantly rather than plod from level to level. Each character starts in a specific location and will progress in a mostly linear fashion if you’re one of those indecisive types, while the less timid may explore sidepaths that made lead to powerful goodies. The hardy adventurer, however, will unearth special items to change the character's position on the grid and allow them to develop in completely different ways. Fear not, Final Fantasy X is customizable as long as you want it to be.

Likewise, remember when new weapons and armor increased in power as the game progressed? No longer. All such armaments have the same base strength or defense, but some carry special bonuses ranging from extra offensive power or increasing HP to always striking first or imparting protection from lightning-based spells. Further, Rikku can customize your equipment by cannibalizing the abilities of one item and placing it into another providing said item has an ability slot remaining.

And what of the lady summoner? Yuna’s Aeon animations are both long and impressive, as you would well expect; fortunately Square gives us the option of skipping these animations in favor of dramatically shortened sequence after watching them once, a handy feature during yet another random encounter. Rather than the traditional hit-and-run tactics of yesteryear, Aeons take the place of the entire party and fight as a character with their own attacks and abilities. As you progress in the game, you can further develop your Aeons by giving them items and spheres to teach them character abilities and raise their stats.

Unfortunately, the freedom of this system works a bit too well, for the challenge is lacking even compared to Final Fantasy’s last few installments. Bosses are never particularly challenging save for a few special exceptions, mostly at the end. Some of the most frustrating sidequests are those that enable you to use your characters’ ultimate weapons, yet they are completely unnecessary due to the main story’s lack of difficulty in both combat and travel. Yes, exploring a world map is but a memory. Confined to a straightforward push ever onward until late in the game, the journey is quite linear compared to many of its predecessors. This will certainly come as a disappointment to those who prefer to roam freely and ignore the main game at their leisure to undertake frequent sidequests, but it is not without its benefits; the plot is so captivating, so tightly woven, that you’ll be ever compelled to play just a little more and see what happens next.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a large number of sidequests, but most of them can’t be accessed until acquiring an airship far later in the game than you may like. Blitzball, the new answer to Triple Triad, is a radical departure from the card games to which we’ve grown accustomed, yet no less cerebral. Played out as a strategy game, Tidus can recruit players all over the world to strengthen his team, who in turn grow in ability as they play. You can earn a number of worthwhile rewards for your troubles, mainly items for Wakka, but naturally it’s entirely optional; you’re only required to play it once, win or lose.

Beautiful, innovative, epic; these are the words that personify this tale. Not without faults, it nevertheless manages to captivate its audience with hours of magic and intrigue from beginning to end. With RPGs skirting ever closer to cinematics, this Fantasy is still able to provide a solid game underneath its gold and glitter. Only one question remains: will Final Fantasy X be your story?


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/12/03, Updated 01/12/03


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