Review by c_rake

"Making a case for linearity, Final Fantasy X tells a gripping tale set in a compelling world despite its limitations"

Though linearity in role-playing games is considered a crime (and a very heinous one, at that; just look at the outcry against Final Fantasy XII), Final Fantasy X is one of those few examples that makes good case for its (occasional) usage. Even though exploration of the world the game's world is extremely limited, it manages to create a sense of wonder about it through it being strongly established. The gameplay also excels, lending a perfect dose of freedom in character progression and one of the best battle systems the series has seen. It's undoubtedly aged in some spots, but it's still able to deliver the same gripping experience it was ten years ago.

Released at the very end of 2001, Final Fantasy X marked the series' debut on the then-brand-new PlayStation 2. And visually, it shows. Though it mostly hold up well, stiff and sometimes awkward animations, and the fact that game relies on the now archaic technique of pre-rendered backgrounds in some areas make its age apparent. This is especially so with the occasional flat environmental element. Visual prowess is not something you'll find here. This was back during a time when developers were still exploring the capabilities of the PlayStation 2, after all. Visual inconsistencies, for example, are therefore common.

For instance, the facial movements of characters. You'll see the game switch from detailed renderings that are still quite emotive, to flat, blurry, low-quality renders often over the game's 60 or so worth of gameplay. It's certainly nothing harmful -- back in the day, the fact that they could even achieve even half-way decent facial expressions was huge -- but it is jarring to see a character's facial expression be flat and emotionless. It's especially jarring when they're expressions are blank when they should be filled with, say, shock or dismay at some horrible development. You get used to it, but it still hinders the game a tad.

Final Fantasy X's story tells the tale of Tidus (pronounced TEE-dus); A star blitzball player (a sport played in a floating sphere of water) in his futuristic hometown Zanarkand who leads a rather carefree life... at least until his home is attacked suddenly by an enormous monster. The attack, by some extraordinary occurrence, takes him to another world known as Spira. A place noticeably sort-of-but-kinda-not under-developed in the technology ring -- which is referred to here as "machina," use of which is forbidden -- with ruins from past civilizations littered all over. In fact, some of those ruins may include Tidus' own home, because according to this world, his home Zanarkand was destroyed over a thousand years ago. Intrigue!

From there he meets up with and subsequently accompanies a summoner and her entourage (or "guardians" as they're referred to) on a journey to vanquish a massive monstrosity named Sin (i.e., the thing that attacked Tidus' home). The story starts picking up there, and only continues to build momentum, progressing at a brisk pace, ensuring that you never go for too long without a cut scene and development to keep the story moving. It almost verges on being verbose in spots, particularly where you go almost ten minutes only watching the game rather than playing. Scenes end just before they overstay their welcome, thankfully, however. The cast is a likable, endearing bunch. Their backgrounds are filled in enough to be a touch of development, but never does the game dwell on those backgrounds for long. Instead it focuses on pushing the story constantly forward, leaving any exposition on the characters or world off to the side for you to indulge should you choose.

And you should. Final Fantasy X's world is a very interesting place, it's locals having many compelling stories to tell about it that reveal its extensive background. Many traces of an advanced civilization exist throughout. That juxtaposed against what appears to a currently under-developed land makes for a strong, unusual contrast. Learning about how world came to be in this state only strengthens the mystique of it all. The only downside to all this world-building is that it is essentially wasted on the fact that the world itself so limited.

Final Fantasy X is literally a straight line forward; the world map reveals as much. The game's locales, therefore, follow suit by making each area a linear path forward with the occasional but brief detour along the way. The only ways you can move in this world are forward and backward. You can press onward toward the next story event, or head back through previously trotted terrain for some leveling sessions. There's no left or right turns that lead you to undiscovered lands or grand side-quests. All there is your starting point and end point. The end point marking when the game steps away from its linear nature somewhat in the latter-most part of the game, allowing to head out to hidden locations complete with their own small story contributions.

However, the linear path allows the game to better service its story. Final Fantasy X's journey is an urgent one. Constantly you are reminded that the quest these individuals are on is one of great importance and must be handled post-haste. While one can easily make a case for abolishing the linear path in favor of complete freedom, it's sensible in the context of the narrative. And by the final act, the time in which freedom is finally offered, there isn't any longer a clear destination in mind. Offering it then, again, is in all in service to the story to ensure there's consistency between gameplay and narrative.

One interesting fact about this linear journey, though, is that the need to grind is mostly non-existent. Never run from a fight and enemies stay on par with your party throughout. Basic tactics are all that's needed to survive encounters, as all enemies have clearly outlined weaknesses that are easily exploited. For instance: armored foes are best dealt with by those carrying weapons with piercing abilities, and elemental foes by using the element opposite to theirs. By the time more advanced tactics need be employed, it's only because you happened to venture into an area with enemies far stronger than you currently are. Even then, you're likely leveled high enough to attenuate most of the challenge that would usually surface from encounters with stronger foes.

That the battle mechanics are simple helps. Combat is played out through a turn-based system with a touch of real-time elements. Those elements manifest themselves as being able to manipulate turn cycle at will. Every action -- using items, attacking, defending, using overdrives (a much stronger attack specific to each character) -- affects when a character's next time comes. So, using items will make the character's next turn come quickly, while using overdrives will push their next turn back by a very significant margin. The dynamics of this hybrid system make otherwise rote, uneventful battles much more captivating.

The flow of battle is smooth. Everything happens with relative haste, seldom resorting to long, overdrawn show offy sequences showcasing the devastating effects of an attack. You can also swap anyone from your active team out for other party members instantly. Need a healer desperately? Swap her in, then, and get everyone back in tip-top shape. This lessens the challenge of battle somewhat, since you can almost always recover from anything -- though that's just as welcome, even so. Having full access to your party at all times is a great boon, indeed, and opens a greater number of tactical approaches as a result.

As far as character progression goes, Final Fantasy X uses a combination of open-ended and linear progression through a board known as the Sphere Grid. Each character has their own path to follow that assigns them an archetype, such as a black mage of thief. The paths manifest themselves as a simple line passing passing through nodes that denote various stat upgrades and abilities to be learned. Activating those nodes grants the stat-boosts. Activation is handled by using spheres that correspond to particular types of nodes. HP and strength nodes can only be activated by power spheres, for example, while evasion and agility are activated by speed spheres. While moving through the predetermined paths, you can open up ways into other grids to learn the skills of another character and to spec them similarly. This lets one's party be developed however they choose while still providing a basic growth line to follow for those not up for extensive customization.

That balance between freedom and linearity permeates almost every aspect of Final Fantasy X. Though linearity is almost universally hated in the RPG space at this point, Final Fantasy X's implementation is still as masterful as ever, and not one part of it suffers for it. An engrossing tale and solid gameplay round out this excellence. Final Fantasy was an especially standout title back in the PS2's early days. That still remains true even now, ten years later, making it one of the PS2's finest role-playing games.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/31/11

Game Release: Final Fantasy X (US, 12/17/01)

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