Review by Kane

Reviewed: 01/23/02 | Updated: 02/02/03

A glimpse of the future

When I first popped Final Fantasy X on my starving PS2, I wasn’t really sure what to expect: not only because of the ever-dangerous platform jump and the much-anticipated appearance of voices in Square’s flagship role playing game series, but also because an increasingly dark wind of controversy seemed to blow on its route.

One thing is for sure, though: Final Fantasy X is different from what you’ve played before. It’s also miles away from your run-of-the-mill Final Fantasy opus. It’s a game that immerses open minds into a fantastic and engaging world in such a unique way that it marks the beginning of a new generation of gaming.

First, although there’s nothing final about this game, it’s really the fantasy that makes it so special and addictive. In theory, any title that deals which issues such as interracial relationships, marriage, Freudian complexes, and the question of faith could seem attractive, however Final Fantasy X ties them together so well that there’s no other choice but to bow before this delightful storyline that manages to blur the line between fiction and reality much better than anything that’s been done before. That’s a good thing, because the game is heavily story-driven.

When Tidus, our young and lighthearted blitzball player (some kind of strange hybrid sport between soccer and water-polo) who’s just woken up in a world he’s not familiar with, catches a glance from Yuna, high summoner and last hope for the continent of Spira to get rid of a mysterious evil, he doesn’t realize that this is the beginning of a journey that will lead him to discover of his own origins and to find a purpose to his life. As a guardian of one of the most important human beings living in this fantasy place, this hero will walk on his father’s footsteps and try to create a peaceful future for him and his loved one.

Then a gorgeous, dark-haired female black mage appeared on screen with her huge chest barely covered. From the moment I turned my gaze on this surreal cross between Jessica Alba and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Douglas?), I knew I was addicted to Final Fantasy X like Whitney to crack. Lulu: that was her name. Lulu

Please bear in mind that this is just a prime example of the incredibly sharp designs specifically made for this game by a particularly inspired Yoshitaka Amano. When you realize that one of the main characters –namely Wakka, a Blitzball coach who doesn’t question his environment- is depicted as a racist in spite his undeniably charismatic nature it’s time to acknowledge Square’s daring choices concerning the personalities of the characters. Auron the samurai-like warrior and mentor of the bunch, Kimahri the powerful lion-beast who has sworn allegiance to his charming master, Rikku the pretty and energetic nomad, they’re all extremely likeable and it’s particularly easy to identify with them. Only Yuna, the beautiful summoner at the center of the story, doesn’t seem to reach above the pits of mediocrity with her immature and annoying behavior until the second half of the game, when the discovery of the consequences of her pilgrimage eventually seems to give the plot a new dimension and erase the initial impression of cliché that emanates from the beginning. Together, this cosmopolitan party will have to face the successor of Kefka, Sephiroth and Kuja: a dreadful giant blob named Sin.

Contrary to the previous installment, which felt very much like a compilation of the series, Final Fantasy X was placed under the signs of change and renewal. The controversial nature of the field scenes is perhaps the most striking innovation: as a matter of fact, there’s almost no exploration, apart from searching for treasure chests here and there in the darkest corners of a few screens! Most of the time you’re just following an arrow to the next site on the tiny map displayed at the left top of the screen, and the game doesn’t open up at all until very late in the story. But strangely enough, what first appears as a sacrilegious decision turns out to be for the better, since it spruces up the rhythm of the game so much and is counter-balanced by the innovative and thought-provoking puzzles the player has to solve to unlock invocations.

Without a doubt, the Sphere Grid is the biggest evolution introduced by the game and marks the disappearance of experience points. All placed on this large grid -as if they were playing a simple parlour game- they can use the different spheres acquired in battles to develop their capacities. This feature, sole token of your characters’ evolution, works wonderfully as it gives you a certain amount of freedom to customize your party without ever being a chore. Furthermore, it allows you to focus on what’s really important here: the story and the battle system.

Yes indeed, the battle system is pure bliss, and almost makes you want to thank Square for keeping the (high) battle frequency rate unchanged. Final Fantasy X lets you switch characters at any point during a battle, which provides the game with a more than welcome strategic aspect: think of it as a poor man’s Final Fantasy Tactics. For instance, you can seek help from your beloved and charming witch during any turn if your three characters currently in battle are in trouble, and a skillful balance between the members is needed to complete the game since some skills –in this particular case, spells- are entirely exclusive to some characters. The ‘Limits’, now referred to as ‘Overdrives’, are quite original and involve some button combinations, which makes the fights more dynamic. The introduction of special commands is also worth noticing as they bring some variety to the battle system: in some particular instances, it’s possible to talk to your opponent, open a door or even use elements of the background. Further in the game, it’s even possible to customize weapons to give them new properties.

Consequently, Final Fantasy X is substantially harder than its predecessors, and more importantly requires more thought. Moreover, the invocations are now dealt with in a different way: when Yuna summons an aeon, the party must withdraw to a safe distance and the player takes control of the beast. This means that they act like real party members and can’t be abused as much as in Final Fantasy VIII.

A few hours into the game, I suddenly had a revelation: it was much more immersing than its predecessors. The intelligent use of the third dimension gave the series a new look, a new appeal.

To be entirely honest, after titles such as Metal Gear Solid 2 or Devil May Cry, the real-time 3d graphics don’t really look all that impressive and Final Fantasy X seems to barely meet the player’s obviously high expectations. There’s even a severe case of jaggies and slowdown that won’t go unnoticed by the sharp-eyed player. But those cut-scenes… They look better than real life. From the jaw-dropping introduction to the wondrous ending, FFX creates a believable and refreshing world full of magic where the shift from full-motion-video scenes to the actual in-game graphics doesn’t imply any loss of personality. Yet, if the environments look so good, colorful and varied, it’s because the developers allowed their imagination to wander when designing them, and although Zanarkand seems to have been taken straight out of Blade Runner and the likes, other places such as the Calm Lands that look a lot like Ireland, or the majestic temple of Bevelle floating in the sky, are simply radiant with beauty and originality.

The intensity of the motion capture work appears as obvious during the numerous dialogue scenes, but the result is rather inconsistent since the characters occasionally shift between natural moves and clumsy ones in a confusing frenzy. At the other end of the spectrum, for the first time in the series the in-battle graphics are extremely sharp, even stunning. Although the character’s facial expressions are far from being satisfying at times, they don’t detract one bit from the game and are made up for by the fantastic quality of the sounds.

It took me a long time to figure out whether I liked the voices or not. But after a while, the question stopped popping into my mind, which is an answer by itself.

Something that really sets Final Fantasy X apart from its predecessors is the recurrent use of a voice-off reflecting the thoughts of an older Tidus telling the player his story. When I try to imitate him, it’s annoying and gimmicky, but when the protagonist is doing it, it just gives the game an epic and cinematographic feel never heard before.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of the voices are fine, and there’s a whole lot in there. It’s easy to get used to Tidus’ somewhat childish intonations and even to Yuna’s high-pitched whining. Seeing the characters interact when you switch them during battles is truly awe-inspiring, especially since the dialogs are always relevant toward the development of the storyline. The dubbing was very poorly made however, and extremely rare are the instances when a character’s voice actually matches the movement of his lips.

On the other hand, the music is fabulous, as embodied by the main theme of the game. Final Fantasy X’s soundtrack almost rivals the quality of the famous epic tunes of the sixth episode, although it has a more calm and relaxing feel to it. It plays a major role in the ambience since the large majority of the tunes is flawless and always perfectly fits the action. The dream team composed of renowned musicians Uematsu, Nakano and Hamauzu did an astounding job and gave birth to a fantastic soundtrack -minus the remixed prelude, awful- with a nice mix of prayer songs, hypnotizing electronic works and dynamic themes (including a particularly catchy rock song, an unprecedented move in the series).

When this mystic journey finally came to a conclusion, I sat and reminisced a number of fascinating scenes that already are, or at least should become, classics. In fact, I soon discovered that the only thing I wanted then was play through it once again.

If Final Fantasy X isn’t a very long game, it’s mainly because of its strictly linear nature: you never waste your time while playing it. The main quest takes approximately forty hours but there are a great number of side quests and extras, such as a fun Blitzball game (with its complex set of rules and constantly updated rosters), monster hunting or Chocobo riding. Still, as if these weren’t enough, mastering all the capacities with all the characters can take at least 150 hours. But there’s more: the storyline is so captivating that playing a second time through is highly recommended.

While I was watching the exceptional resolution of the plot, I couldn’t help feeling moved. The strength of Final Fantasy X is that it makes the evolution of such a landmark series appear as an absolute necessity. Naturally, it won’t please everyone since some of the changes were made at the expense of traditional features characteristic of the genre. But when all is said and done, the real sin would be not to give the game a try and see if you’re ready to jump into a new generation of role playing games.

Before fumbling with an apparently uncertain online experience, Square decided to give the fans an episode that captures the essence of the series and transcends it. But in a way, Final Fantasy X is like the anti-Dragon Quest: a game that’s impressive from both technical and storyline standpoints, and characterized by a certain accessibility, not at the expense of its depth. It’s a fun game that offers the player an evocative voyage, where everything has been done to give the player as much comfort as possible: in the end, the result is a solid title that’s perhaps the best episode in the series. It’s like some kind of dream that works surprisingly well: so well that this is surely the way most rpgs will take in the future. Except that they won't have Lulu...

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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