Square's Final Fantasy series is one of the longest running, most prolific, most critically acclaimed lines of games ever. That means each new installment in the series needs to be exceedingly good--since the company has outdone itself on so many occasions, millions of fans expect each new Final Fantasy to be even better than all its predecessors. Whether they truly end up better is the subject of never-ending debate among Final Fantasy fans, but one thing is certain: Each new Final Fantasy game is a momentous occasion.
It's been crystal clear for months that Final Fantasy X would be no exception. Countless screenshots, movie files, and bits of information have propagated all over the Internet, revealing the game's stunning good looks and much of its back story. Of course, it isn't enough for Final Fantasy X to look good--since it's Square's first role-playing game for the PlayStation 2, it's reasonable to expect Final Fantasy X to improve upon every aspect of the series beyond just the graphics. The good news is that, by and large, that's exactly what it does. Overall, Final Fantasy X is a remarkably well done role-playing game that offers plenty of just about everything that's ever been good about the series. At the same time, it takes the series in interesting new directions and refines many of the series' most important elements, such as the turn-based combat and the character-advancement system. Perhaps even more importantly, Final Fantasy X weaves an engrossing, memorable story filled with a number of great characters. Beyond that, it's a very challenging game that's even longer than most any of its predecessors and is certainly longer than most other PlayStation 2 games. If you've been waiting for the definitive role-playing game for the PlayStation 2, here it is.
Recent games in the Final Fantasy series have followed a tried-and-true formula, and for the most part, Final Fantasy X follows it too. That is, like its predecessors, this isn't a game you can play for a few minutes at a time. Much of the game revolves around epic, drawn-out battles between your party of characters and Final Fantasy X's gigantic, villainous monsters. Much of the game consists of your having to watch lengthy noninteractive story sequences, in which the game's plot gradually unravels in the conversations between Final Fantasy X's protagonists. Much of Final Fantasy X is purely optional--though the game will take you no fewer than 40 hours to complete the first time through, you could easily spend twice as long exploring some of its late-game side quests and searching for suitably rewarding secrets. Not every player will be willing or even prepared to spend this much time with the game, and it's more than likely that not everyone will even be able to finish the game, either. So if you're a hard-core fan of the series and are wondering whether Square is loosening the reigns, dumbing Final Fantasy down to make it accessible to an even broader audience, then rest assured that's definitely not the case.
On the other hand, if you haven't played much Final Fantasy before, then don't feel too intimidated by Final Fantasy X. It's easy to get into and includes plenty of good tutorial information built right into the game. As long as you're ready to commit some time and energy to it, then Final Fantasy X is a perfectly good place for new players to get acquainted with the series. Like all Final Fantasy games, this one's plot is completely unrelated to any of its predecessors, although series fans will appreciate all the subtle references to the previous games.
The visual style of Final Fantasy X most closely resembles that of Final Fantasy VIII for the PlayStation, which was the first game in the series to give its characters a more lifelike appearance instead of a cartoonlike one. The hero of Final Fantasy X is Tidus, a teenager all decked out in decidedly garish clothes and sporting bleached, feathered hair. Unlike many Final Fantasy protagonists, Tidus apparently isn't a shy, stoic youth, but rather an outgoing, cheerful person. You might not take a liking to him right off the bat--he's a jock and can be a bit arrogant--but in time, you'll find him to be suitably endearing and to have the same kind of surprising depth that's characterized past Final Fantasy heroes.
Soon into the game, you'll meet Tidus' companions, who will generally remain by his side throughout the duration of Final Fantasy X. These include Auron, a veteran swordsman whose stolid demeanor doesn't quite disguise that he clearly knows much more than he lets on; Wakka, a big guy with a big heart, who quickly befriends Tidus; Lulu, a sultry yet emotionless magic user; Rikku, an upbeat girl with a mysterious heritage; Yuna, a beautiful and determined young summoner; and Kimahri, a silent creature that's like a cross between a man and a lion--only bluer. You'll learn much about all these characters over the course of Final Fantasy X, though some are developed better than others. Still, Final Fantasy X is a long game and takes plenty of time to flesh out its diverse cast of characters.
Character advancement is one of the defining aspects of any role-playing game, and Final Fantasy X uses an interesting system for it that's rather different from that of most such games. Instead of gaining experience levels as you win battles, you gain points that you then use on what's called the sphere grid. The sphere grid is like a large board-game map, though it looks more like a maze. At almost every step of the grid, you'll find points that raise attributes such as strength, hit points, magic power, agility, and more and other points that teach new spells and new special abilities. Characters start out at different points on the grid, and the surrounding area on the grid will roughly correspond to their inherent talents. For instance, Auron will often reach points that increase his strength and defense ratings, accentuating his skills as a swordsman. Lulu will start closest to where all the powerful, damaging black-magic spells reside. Yuna will be your primary healer. There are points where the sphere grid branches off, and you can look for these and plan ahead to develop your characters in a particular fashion. Also, some points of the sphere grid are initially locked, and you won't be able to access them until you gain certain items later in the game. This keeps your party balanced commensurately with the game's challenges. Throughout most of the game, the sphere grid will ensure that each character's role within the group is well defined. Also, since you gain sphere grid points after almost every battle, you'll find that Final Fantasy X's character-advancement system is constantly rewarding--you'll just keep getting stronger.
The sphere grid isn't the only way to build up your characters. You'll eventually gain the ability to add special properties to your weapons and armor, though most equipment you'll find will have particular properties already ascribed. For instance, one weapon might let you automatically counterattack the foe each time you're hit. Another stands a chance of inflicting a deadly poison on the enemy or causing it to fall asleep. Certain types of armor can make you immune to debilitating effects such as blindness, petrifaction, or confusion. Others can make you resistant to elemental effects such as fire and ice. There's an immense amount of variety here, though most of these properties will be familiar to those who have played previous Final Fantasy games. Beyond their special properties, weapons and armor unfortunately have little purpose in Final Fantasy X, as your characters' equipment doesn't really affect their attack and defense ratings as you might expect. Still, there's a lot of strategy to be found in using different equipment--you can even switch weapons or armor in the middle of battle if you have to.
Combat in Final Fantasy X looks similar to that of other games in the series but features a few key innovations that make it more involved. You can have up to three characters active at a time--down from Final Fantasy IX's four-character teams. However, any time it's your turn, you can swap your active party member for one of his or her friends who's not currently fighting--so essentially, you have seven characters in battle and not just three. The game is still balanced for three-character teams, since you can only swap in a new party member during one of your character's turns, and you can't replace someone who's been knocked out or incapacitated unless you revive him or her first. Likewise, if all three of your active characters should be defeated, it's game over.
This system may not make logical sense--why don't the characters on the sidelines just do something as their friends are getting beaten down?--but it helps make the combat very tactical. Two factors contribute to this: The first is that many weapons have an innate ability to detect how many hit points your enemies have remaining, thus preventing you from having to fight blindly, with no indication of how close you are to victory. The second is that Final Fantasy X gives you the prescience to see the order in which all the combatants are going to act in subsequent turns. This ability, together with the ability to switch characters on the fly--this doesn't even cost you your character's turn--means you can try to anticipate your enemy's move and swap each of your uniquely different characters into and out of battle as necessary.
You'll probably notice that some of your characters seem more powerful than others. The game suitably justifies this in context--Auron is supposed to be the best fighter in the group, and he is. Every character does have his or her own useful abilities, though it's still too bad that you'll probably have to rely on certain characters much more than others. In any event, a character won't gain experience from battle unless he or she actually does something during the fight, so it's in your best interest to make sure everyone sees some action. Besides, you won't have access to all seven characters in every single situation.
As mentioned, the battles in Final Fantasy X are quite drawn out, in part because--much like in the last few games in the series--you'll often depend on powerful summoned creatures to assist you in battle. They are known in Final Fantasy X as aeons. Only Yuna is capable of calling forth these creatures, and she will learn to summon more of them (including old Final Fantasy standbys such as Ifrit, Shiva, and Bahamut) over the course of the game. Each time she summons an aeon, it makes an extremely dramatic entrance--after you've seen these animations several times, you may wish to toggle the option to cut them short. Unlike summoned creatures in previous Final Fantasy games, aeons aren't just overblown magic spells, but instead act just like characters in your party--you have complete control over them, and they have their own skills, special abilities, and statistics. Later on, you'll even gain the power to boost your aeons' statistics and teach them new abilities, though doing so is costly and not really necessary.
Aeons are extremely important in battle, not just because they're powerful, but because they take the place of (and thus take damage in place of) your characters whenever you summon them. Late in the game, when you're dealing with incredibly powerful foes, you'll often have to summon one of your aeons just so it can "take one for the team." After all, if your characters get wiped out, it's game over, but if your aeon is defeated, your characters jump back in. As for the aeon, you just can't use it again until you automatically restore it to health at one of Final Fantasy X's countless save points, conveniently located throughout the game. Overall, there aren't quite as many aeons in Final Fantasy X as there have been summoned creatures in the last few Final Fantasy games. But since aeons are much more fully developed here, it's a good trade-off.
Clearly, there's a lot to be said for the combat of Final Fantasy X. And though combat is a major part of the game, it's by no means the focus. In fact, long stretches of Final Fantasy X involve little or no combat at all. The context of Final Fantasy X revolves around Tidus and the others traveling with Yuna on a fateful pilgrimage to various temples. It's at these temples where Yuna gains new aeons, but before she does, you'll need to complete a series of puzzles. You'll use different colored gemstones to open different portions of the temple in an effort to get to the antechamber within. The puzzles aren't particularly difficult--there's no time pressure and no possibility of failure--and they're a decent enough diversion from the rest of the game.
The temples aren't optional, and at first, neither is blitzball, which is the world's most popular sport in the world of Final Fantasy X. Blitzball is essentially like soccer but played entirely underwater (the entire game is surreal enough that blitzball players' ability to hold their breath indefinitely doesn't seem like a stretch). There's a built-in 12-step tutorial that tries to teach you to play, though some trial and error will likely be necessary beyond that. Blitzball is a hybrid turn-based/real-time game whose fundamental mechanics are rather similar to a collectible card game--basically, the statistics of a player on the attack are compared with those of up to three defending players in the vicinity. If the attacker is stronger, he can shoot the ball past the defenders, past the goalie, and score a point for his team. If you get into blitzball--there's only one point where you have to play, but later you can keep at it--you'll be able to recruit new players, compete in tournaments, gain levels for your teammates and acquire new special abilities, and so on. It's easily the most robust minigame to date in a Final Fantasy installment, and though it's not amazing, it can be fun--and it provides a few good rewards for your continued efforts.
Besides blitzball, Final Fantasy X features optional chocobo racing sequences, where you'll guide your giant chickenlike steed to greater glory; and a monster scavenger hunt, where you'll earn great prizes for capturing various beasts out in the field. There are also several hidden aeons to be discovered as well as ancient weapons, which may later be imbued with extremely powerful properties. There are even a few extremely tough monsters you can go out of your way to fight and a mysterious language you can eventually decipher letter by letter--you'll speak with a number of characters throughout the game that you won't understand otherwise.
Knowing that it has so much peripheral content, you might be surprised to learn that Final Fantasy X is almost entirely linear. In virtually every scene, you'll have an onscreen minimap that literally shows a big red arrow pointing in exactly the direction you need to move in. If you're a hard-core fan of role-playing games, this fact may alarm you, and the knowledge that you never get to guide your characters across an overworld map, but only from one relatively small area to the next, may alarm you even more. After all, the word "linear" is almost like an expletive to some role-playing game fans, who love the genre--and the Final Fantasy series--for its open-ended nature. At any rate, though there may have been some trade-off in choosing to make the game linear, the designers made a sound choice in making Final Fantasy X this way. In Final Fantasy X, you never get lost--you always know where you're supposed to go next. In the context of the game, this makes perfect sense, because your characters have a map of the world and are on a specific mission. As a gameplay element, it's a relief, because Final Fantasy X is a great big game, and the last thing you need to be doing in it is wandering around, wondering where you're supposed to go. Besides, as mentioned, there are plenty of hidden secrets waiting to be found by the more pioneering players. As for everyone else, they won't get frustrated trying to figure out how to proceed.
People often criticize linear games, not because they're linear, but because they're either too short or they require you to do a lot of backtracking through areas you've visited before. Final Fantasy X does not fall into either of these categories. Though the game opens up near the end, giving you the option to return to areas you've already visited, you never have to double back to finish the game.
Besides eliminating the possibility of pointless wandering or tedious backtracking, another advantage of the linear nature of Final Fantasy X is that it's able to weave a cohesive narrative. Though the story can branch slightly at a few points, by and large, it's one long ride. The story isn't perfectly coherent, especially at first, but by the end, you'll probably be stunned by just how complex it turns out to be. At first, all you know is that Tidus seems to be stranded in a strange, new world and that this world is prey to an enormous, nefarious being known only as Sin. Yuna, being a summoner, is apparently capable of stopping this thing. How, you'll eventually find out. What Sin really is, you'll eventually find out. The plot sets itself up to use typical role-playing game clichés but in most cases cleverly avoids whatever expectations you may have for it. The ending of the game--which you'll reach after a long, difficult journey--is emotionally charged and satisfying.
Along with its linear design, the other controversial aspect of Final Fantasy X is that it's the first game in the series to use speech. Though all the dialogue in the game is subtitled, almost all of it is spoken aloud (the only exceptions are for some of the bit characters). Previously, the Final Fantasy series left characters' voices to your imagination. In Final Fantasy X, most every character speaks in just the sort of voice you'd probably imagine for him or for her. That is to say, the speech is surprisingly well done. It's not perfect--some of the dialogue, especially when it tries to be funny, sounds forced and falls flat. But for the most part, the characters sound just right. Likewise, Final Fantasy X's musical score fits the game well. Esteemed composer Nobuo Uematsu arguably hasn't yet surpassed his compositions from the days of Final Fantasy for the Super Nintendo system, but the music in Final Fantasy X is diverse and well suited to the various scenes in the game. The only piece that grows old, and fast, is the one that's used for combat--not because it's bad, but because you'll hear it, from the beginning, each time you face another random encounter in the game.
Final Fantasy X looks as incredible as the screenshots make it out to be, or even better since some of the animations look really good too. It's worth pointing out, though, that you can tell a huge team of artists worked on the game because not all of the graphics look consistent. For instance, the game occasionally uses prerendered, gorgeous-looking cinematic cutscenes during key moments of the game. Though the quality of these rivals that of the imagery in this summer's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, you'll notice that your characters look completely different here--much more Japanese--than they do in the actual game. Furthermore, you'll notice that sometimes the game uses extremely detailed 3D character models during dialogue, but in other instances (such as in battle), the characters don't look quite as remarkable. Finally, the lip-synching of the characters' mouths with the speech is pretty spotty. Nevertheless, these are decidedly minor points in the grand scheme of things, because Final Fantasy X is certainly one of the best-looking games of this year or any other. Its diverse, colorful 3D scenery is consistently beautiful to look at and often evokes a real sense of wonder.
All told, Final Fantasy X is an outstanding new installment in the series and is an excellent role-playing game in its own right. Like other Final Fantasy games, it isn't beyond reproach--not everyone will take to its deliberate pacing, its drawn-out and sometimes punishing combat, or its metaphysical story. Similarly, the actual gameplay of Final Fantasy X isn't much of a departure from its predecessors or countless other role-playing games. Instead, the difference between Final Fantasy X and other games is in the sheer scope and undeniably impressive production values. The ambitious design of Final Fantasy X ultimately pervades in every aspect of the game. And so, like many of its predecessors, Final Fantasy X stands as a testament to just how affecting a game can be.