Review by Smirnoff

"Turns out most people's final fantasy is getting frisky with college girls, but here's the alternative anyway"

Yes, after a wait so long that even the new Star Wars films seem like a common occurrence, Final Fantasy X had finally reached the European continent. All that feverish pawing at stunning Japanese screenshots for months on end while shaking your fists at the Yanks and their cheap petrol and early release policy is over - FFX arrived.

The latest installment in Squaresoft's long running and hugely successful series of role-playing games, FFX is an epic tale of a young man named Tidus who finds himself ripped from his comfortable life and thrust into a perilous future; a future in which religion is favored over technology and the population cower in fear from the destructive power of a creature known only as Sin. The question is, has Squaresoft come up with yet another corker of a game, or has the journey over to PS2 been a bit of a bumpy ride. If you already checked out the score, then you know answer #1 is correct.

As with all previous Final Fantasy titles, the watchword here is consistency. Like each game before it, FFX follows the trusted pattern of every RPG: go on a quest, fight monsters, gain experience, build up your party and so on. Of course, it's the meat of the game around these basic mechanics that makes the playing experience, and Square has managed yet again to craft a fantastic world to explore and adventure in. What makes FFX so special however is the level of detail this time around. From the environments to the characters - everything has been ramped up a notch in terms of detail and it all adds up to potentially the greatest console RPG of all time. And while critics of the genre may wonder what all the fuss is about, those who are fans of the series are in for a treat.

For a start, there's a plot that's much more mature in style than previous offerings. Gone are the characteristically moody and teenage angst-ridden storylines of earlier ones. Instead we have a new tale based around the themes of travel and self-discovery. As the game progresses, Tidus finds himself accompanying the young summoner Yuna and her guardians as they travel in search of aid in the fight against Sin. It's along this journey that the game manages to cover areas such as self-sacrifice, religion and cultural divide in such a refreshingly non self-conscious way that you have to wonder how Metal Gear Solid 2 ever managed to get away with its painfully forced anti-nuclear war message.

Without doubt it's the quality of the main characters that helps to drive the story along, and each of the seven main protagonists has been fleshed out superbly. From the unfortunate hero Tidud to his father's mysteriously and wickedly cool ally Auron, everybody has a story to tell. Wisely, all the game's characters become available to you from early in the story and FFX's innovative new battle system, which lets you transfer characters in and out of combat, means that you're never forced to split your party up at any time during proceedings. Throughout the bulk of the game your entire party travels together as a team and as such there's much more ensemble feel to the cast.

Of course, the major drawback to such a tightly scripted story is that the game becomes incredibly linear, like MGS2, there's little chance to deviate from the predetermined events. There are opportunities later in the game to revisit earlier areas but for the most part FFX is, slightly disappointing, a strictly 'on the rails' experience.
To make up for this the developer has gone to extreme lengths to create some of the most eye-poppingly gorgeous environments I've seen. The world of Spira is an eclectic mixture of environments, ranging from county meadows to crystal forests, all of which are decked out in an explosion of color so vibrant that at times it resembles a celebrity deathmatch between the bible-bashing dream interpreter and one-time musical star Joseph and a particularly well stocked branch of Benetton.

The main characters themselves are equally well realized and again sport a range of costumes and colors that continually dazzle the eye. But while a considerable amount of effort has been put into making Tidus and co look impressive, the same cannot be said for the incidental villagers that pass by, all of which are plain and blocky in comparison. Not that the secondary characters look bad, it's just that in comparison to the main cast and the environments they seem somewhat bland and out of place. It's not a major flaw however and, together with some truly impressive video sequences, FFX's sweeping tale and breath-taking visuals more than compensate for the game's linearity.

One of the most anticipated new features is the inclusion of voiceovers and for the most part it's a welcome addition indeed. Nearly every character you come across, with the exception of the faceless villagers who offer only a line or two for advice, has a full voiceover, which adds up to the staggering amount of spoken dialogue during the game. It's not all good news however - whereas the Japanese voiceovers seemed to fit the game perfectly, the English versions are, at times, poorly lip-synched and jarringly Americanized. It's understandable that the English version of the game uses the same voices as the American version, but it still grates to hear Tidus blurt out ''cool!'' and ''awesome!'' every so often. There's even a sinister hint of Jar Jar Binks-style stereotyping in Wakka's subtle West-Indian lilt. But again these are fairly trivial matters and, along with a soundtrack that offers some smooth grooves, FFX delivers sonically with as much success as it does visually. But then again, Square never lets anyone down on the audio aspect, now does it?

But it's not just the graphics and sound that have been vastly overhauled for Final Fantasy's PS2 debut - several aspects of the game system have been reworked from the ground up to produce an experience that, while similar to previous releases in many ways, offers several new challenges for the experienced player.
There's the unique new experience, or 'sphere' system. Here you can upgrade your characters by spending experience points (earned in battles of course) moving around a board unlocking the special abilities contained within. Before the game begins, you're asked to choose a beginner's sphere grid - where your path around the board is fairly controlled - or an advanced grid where you're allowed free reign to develop your characters as you see fit. And although you have complete control of where you head around the board, careful planning is required as several of the more powerful abilities are hidden down long dead-end routes. Even after 20 hours of play, I'd barely managed to cover a quarter of the grid.

The weapon and armor system has been improved as well, with weapons now offering a range of special abilities depending on which items you use to upgrade them. You can even carry a range of different weapons into battle, allowing you to swap weapons mid-combat in case you need to change your style of attack in an instant.
The summoned monsters also make a welcome return to FFX, although now they're known as Aeons and can only be summoned by Yuna. Instead of appearing and disappearing in a puff of smoke as before, Aeons now take a much bigger role in combat and can be used to fight on behalf of your party. Equip your Aeons with special items and eventually they'll learn new skills and powers, making them even more effective in battle.

Even the customary sub-game is a departure from the recent card-based efforts. Blitzball, as the game is called, is a sort of underwater football that's popular throughout the gameworld, and FFX allows you to run your very own Blitzball team through any number of league and cup competitions. The game itself is actually a complex, tactical strategy offering, more akin to football management titles than fast-paced sports games, but he ability to continually improve your squad and scout out opponents for new recruits ensures that many an extra hour can be spent within the game. However, some might find that it's tricky to get into, too tricky and tedious actually. But rest assured, practice makes perfect.
In fact, such is the depth and complexity of some of FFX's more traditional RPG elements that you'll find the linear storyline becomes nothing more than a minor distraction.

But despite the sheer quality running throughout the game there are still a few aspects that hold FFX back from being perfect. Firstly there are a number of annoying puzzle sequences within the game that involve placing magical spheres into various slots in temple walls in order to open new paths. These are often frustratingly illogical and seem bizarrely out of place within the game as a whole. It's irritating and you have to wonder what the developer was thinking at the time.

Perhaps the biggest flaw is the random battles. Yes, I know they're part of the Japanese RPG ethos, but the random battles in FFX seem unbearably frequent at times, even for a seasoned veteran. If it wasn't for the stunning scenery and busy environments to keep you going, FFX's numerous battles could easily wear you down, even with the added novelty of changing your party mid-battle.

Even so, despite the smattering of slight annoyances blotching FFX's impeccable report card, this is still one of the finest moments in console RPG history. A massive quest, a thought provoking story, breathtaking visuals, full voiceovers and a deep and complex game system - it might not be perfect and it might not be everybody's bottle of magic ointment, but for me it's pure gaming grandeur.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/10/03, Updated 01/10/03

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