Review by Kotetsu534

Reviewed: 07/16/07

All that is gold does not glitter; all that does glitter is not gold.

It is often said that one should not judge a book by its cover, but, as today's video games are often categorised by graphical quality, I pass a careful eye over their introductions; considering what the developers may have been trying to instill in the player's mind. Normally, these introductions consist of action-packed fight scenes, or fast-paced tableaux, but Final Fantasy X opened in a very simple and subdued fashion, which set the atmosphere with a beautiful guile. Seven sombre souls rest around a campfire to a slow piano solo, laid heavy with some terrible anxiety. A young man rises to his feet, places a warm hand on the face of a young women, clambers up a small hill and stares out across the ruins before him. No action, little movement, but Final Fantasy X had opened with a powerful boldness that grabbed my attention.

Square's Final Fantasy 'Role-Playing-Game' series is easily one of the most popular dynasties in the gaming world. As such, every game that is released bearing the tag is subject to much scrutiny and criticism. Final Fantasy X, being the first Final Fantasy to reach the Playstation 2, is no different. The game breaks with many old traditions, including the respected ATB System and, most interestingly, the old EXP based 'level-up' system.

The new Conditional Turn-Based System (CTB) is a move for the better. During battle time will pass only when a participant takes an action, allowing the player to think before making their moves. In the top-right of the screen resides the unassuming CTB window, which informs the player when the participants' turns are coming. Using this, it is possible to plan ahead with relative ease, not worrying about being caught off-guard by your opponent. Another controversial decision is that of allowing the player to switch in any party member who is available at any time. This means that if your current party of three physical attackers are ill matched against a rubbery Flan, you can swap Lulu in, with no penalty, and cast a spell at it instead. It cannot be denied that this feature does make the game much easier than it would've been otherwise, but the strategic options that it allows the player are well worth the small loss in difficulty.

Random encounters have returned, and can be just as irksome as ever, but at least the battle system allows for more involved battles than the repetitive attack-heal-attack fair of old. Each character is best suited against specific types of foe, which allows for a more involved experience. Also apparent is that the character's traits outside of battle do have some impact on how they perform in battle e.g. Auron being slow with HP and Strength. Finally, the party's Summoner, Yuna, can bring Aeons into battle. These powerful beasts take full control of the battlefield, taking over from the party whilst they are present (in previous incarnations they would simply appear, attack, and disappear). These are nice little touches that help keep the characters individual and unique.

Of course, the biggest changes in the Final Fantasy formula have not come from what lies inside the battle, but what lies outside. Indeed, I am referring to the famed Sphere Grid. On this gigantic board there are markers for each character in your party, and when they obtain a 'Sphere Level' they can move one step on it. Each of the footings are called nodes, and these nodes may contain a stat boost or an ability which the character can be given if activated it with the corresponding sphere (e.g. Mana, or Speed). It is an ingenious system, replacing the one-dimensional 'level-up' style of the past with the multi-faceted freshness of the future. Each character, except Kimahri, has a fairly defined path they can follow to keep their stats and abilities in keeping with their performance in battle, so the player will not be left helpless when levelling their characters. However, for the more confident amongst the gaming populace, there are locks between each character's section of the Sphere Grid, which can be opened after the first few hours of the game have sailed by. I credit Square on their attempt to offer players both the sustained individuality of the playable characters, and the ability to build a unique customised party; it is a hard task to accomplish, but they have done it with style.

Another notable change in Final Fantasy X is that weapons and armour (the only pieces of equipment characters now have) no longer carry a stat bonus. Instead, they contain up to four abilities (e.g. Counter-Attack, or Lightningproof) that differentiate them from each other. This layout allows the player more options in battle, as they have to think more about the potential strengths and weaknesses of each ability than simply which piece of equipment offers the highest stat bonus. The ability to customise equipment is granted long after others in an attempt to prevent the gamer feeling swamped by the many new features. It should be noted that the best equipments do take a lot of time to obtain, and many players will play through Final Fantasy X, enjoy it thoroughly, and never see them. Again, this gives the player more freedom and extended choice when building a party.

Stepping away from the battle system and what lies around it, there is Spira, the world where the game's events play out. It is plagued by Sin, a monstrosity that terrorises its population - and the people are desperate for the end of Sin's tyranny. Yevon, the religion of Spira, gives the people hope that if they atone for their sins it will be gone. We discover this world through the sight and mind of the young man I spoke of long ago - Tidus. In fact, over two thirds of the game are played out as he remembers them, with his narrative showing clear his opinions and troubles; and he has many of both. He is a skilled Blitzball player from Zanarkand, but is soon removed from his pseudo-utopian existence and thrust into the harsh reality of Spira. His pubescent disposition can alienate some players, but as he comes to understand existence in Spira, he matures. This type of character was unexpected - his personality is as far as can be from Final Fantasy stalwarts present in previous productions - but effective.

The female lead, Yuna, is naive and driven, being a Summoner who could bring the peace to Spira with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Like Tidus, she faces hard decisions throughout the game, which develop her character. Other characters include the cool calm collected man-of-few-words, Auron; the ill tempered Lulu; Wakka, the hard-headed, Blitzball-crazy, Yevonite. The final two members are opposed in stature, race and personality: the bubbly Al Bhed girl Rikku, and the strong silent Kimahri Ronso. You would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that most of these characters are cliched. But the beauty of this story comes not from the uniqueness of the characters, but from how they interact with one another. Make no mistake, they do a lot together, they see every nook of Spira together, they go through events that will shape their lives and destinies together. Extra effort was made by Square in attaching gamers with the characters during Final Fantasy X, and, once more, they have succeeded.

So far, you have heard me tell you how terrific and strategic the battle system is, how the characters unite in Spira's plight, but not what the largest flaw of the game is. It does not lie with the plot, or the characters, or even the gameplay. It hides itself in how they join and mesh together.
The early stretches of the game are spent acquainting players with the cast of characters and the world of Spira. This was not poor in execution, but there is almost no active input required from the player, and one walks from cutscene to cutscene without doing a much of anything for the first five hours or so. After that, a nice balance is struck for a long time, before the game reaches the final third. At this point random encounters are at their highest frequency, and the tension in the plot is at its utmost, but the volume of discussion and consideration on the character's behalf begins to slide, to the point where you almost slip into the formula of area-cutscene-area-cutscene. By no means does this annoyance destroy the splendour of Final Fantasy X, but it does detract from it. Alas, perfection is a moving target.

The environments in Final Fantasy X are incredible in diversity and detail. Whether it be the lush swaying grass on the Mi'ihen Highroad, the expansive Blitzball stadium in Luca, the lightning in the Thunder Plains, or the chaotic snow on the Gagazet Trail, they are all graphically superb. More than this, however, is the music that accompanies these works of art. The themes expertly enhance the atmosphere of every area, be it the gentle tranquillity of Besaid Island, the tribal loneliness of Gagazet, or the enchanting silence of Macalania. The only tangible downside to the areas passed through during the adventure is that they are often excruciatingly linear - another small imperfection. A special mention should be made here of the music played during key plot developments, as these pieces often tell their own story of a character's emotions during these times. It is something that is very difficulty to describe - but sweetly simple to experience. On the downside, there are some horror voice acting moments, and the battle graphics sometimes take a few seconds to come into proper focus.

Replay value is contained within many sidequests. They mostly open up to the player near the end of the game's main storyline, and arch out for some hundred hours onwards. They include the sport of Spira (though this is available from near the beginning of the game), Blitzball, which although poorly introduced through a difficult match, provides a nice reprieve from the intense plot; the Monster Arena where you can max your characters stats and pit them against ferocious beasts; and the Celestial Weapon hunt that will have you performing trying tasks in order to receive the most powerful weapons in the game. If you still lust for Spira after these many hours you may wish to attempt self-imposed challenges.

In conclusion, failure to experience Final Fantasy X is to miss out on one of the greatest stories ever told through console format, an inventive gameplay system, and some of the best music produced by Nobuo Uematsu.

It is a little rough around the edges, but at its heart Final Fantasy X is twenty-four carat gold.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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