Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
As always with games that are old, my review is (hopefully) based on my impressions from when I first played the game
Also, this review covers FFX: International Version. It won't make much of a difference except near the end fo the review.
This is a game I was cautiously optimistic about. I had already been infected with the Final Fantasy virus, but I'd also discovered the bitter disappointment in overhypedness that a certain number in that series suffered from. But apparently all the big guns had been pulled out (in more than one way), as had the stops. This was the next generation. This was when voice-acting was finally to be included, after longing for it all through the PS1 days. It was time to show muscles on the PS2.
And showing muscles it did. Not to mention showing eyes, facial features and expressions, emotions, mostly slick movements. You just couldn't help but notice it, even if you're not relying on graphics to get a good gaming experience. This was a game you really wanted to start playing.
Of course, it took a little more time than necessary to get to the playing, but it was mostly an enjoyable ride. And then when the combats finally started...
Now, this game is -really- turn-based in combat. Instead of each character having their own meter filling up. Instead, you have a look at a list which tells you who is going to act next. Certain actions take less "action time" to perform, which means you might get in an extra turn before the monsters attack you. Others, most notably the really powerful stuff, will move you far down.
It removes the urgency of pressing the Attack command done with as soon as possible, the way most ATB-battles are set up, but once you're in the important battles, you'll defintely feel excited about it nonetheless. Unless, of course, you've chosen to overpower your characters, but you still can't just press Attack even then. It just makes it easier to succeed with the strategy for that boss that you'd use anyway.
Speaking of attacking, only one of the game characters can use summon monsters (called Aeons) this time. Now, instead of just unleashing one long-animation attack, you will actually command the Aeon, which is usually superior to most characters. On the other hand, it'll have to fight alone, and it won't learn new abilities like characters can. Good thing here is that you can cut the summon animation short if you want to.
Once you've won the battles, you get Ability Points, which are eventually converted into ability levels. When you gain such a level, it's time to move on the Sphere Board, which is a very compelling way of levelling up. When you move around on the board, you will gain access to a bunch of different nodes, which are then activated by a corresponding sphere. A Power Sphere for Strength, Speed Sphere for Agility and Evade, and so on. These basic spheres are plentiful (almost every enemy drops one variation of them), and you'll need a plentiful to build your characters up. At first your movements are limited by certain lock nodes, but eventually you'll get the kind of sphere that can lock up these too. It's really much more fun than simply look at the new stats from leveling up.
The plot is quite descent, and told well through the mostly cheerful and optimistic Tidus. Sure, he gets down every now and then, but hey, if you just lost -your entire world-, then you wouldn't be happy about that either. To mention but one thing (and that happens almost at once, by the way, so it's not much of a spoiler). I've seen people call Tidus an emo guy, and I just have to wonder if they paid any attention whatsoeve during the game. When something crappy isn't happening to him, Tidus is an optimist by heart. He plays (Blitzball) to win, he helps out people, he goes after monster without a second thought because it's the thing to do, and he wants to live well, to flirt with girls, and to have a good time, when all's said and done. That's just about the opposite of emo.
Not giving away anything else about the plot, I'll instead mention that the voice acting is mostly good stuff. There are a few certain scenes that'll make you cringe in your chair, but overall, I like it. (And to step out of the "first impressions" line a little, later games in the same genre, such as Grandia 2, Tales of Symphonia, and Dragon Quest VIII only proves how much worse it could be...)
Music is as expected. And that means it's got a ton of scores, some of them forgettable, most of them nice, and of course a few really good ones. And I mean really good ones. The understated piano score at the beginning is instant goosebump moment. If there is one complaint, it's that one certain score gets played in a bit too many areas. Thankfully, it's only that one, most other areas have exclusive scores. And not unexpectedly, the best ones are usually used during important plot elements, so that you won't get tired of them. Of course, if you want to listen to them again, you can buy all the songs - and also the FMVs - at a certain point in the game. Always a nice touch, that.
Now, between the plot and the combat, your game progression is about as linear as you're used to. That is, since there isn't an overworld map, but only areas that mostly get from A to B,it'll definitely feel more linear. But once you realise that the overworld maps of most previous FF games (especially IV, VII and VIII) only give you an illusion of non-linearity and a little more exploration, it should be fine. And at least near the end, you will be able to explore a lot more.
No modern FF game would be complete without sidequests and minigames, and you got it in spades (though most sidequests aren't available until near the end). Blitzball is the main minigame, and it's... really hard to explain. Like some sort of underwater rubgy with RPG-ish commands... It's enjoyably in small doses, but unfortunately, you need to play it a lot to get access to a hot, hot sidequest item. The other minigames are often annoying, but mostly doable if you put your mind to it. As for the sidequests, they involve plenty and plenty of bosses (especially in the Monster Arena), some really good über-weapons, some secret Aeons, some puzzles, and sometimes just a bit of a side-plot going on. It's solid, but unspectacular...
...That is, if you have the International Version, it gets spectacular. Remember the Aeons I told you about, those huge summoning beasts you can control? Well, in the International Version you will meet Dark Aeons, which are all bosses with stats so far up, you can't even hope to defeat them with a party that's just about good enough to beat, say, Omega Weapon. They are tough as hell, and once you've defeated all of them... Let's just say that what you get then would leave Nemesis (the hardest boss for the North American version) running for his mommy in ten seconds.
Another good thing about the International Version is that you can, at the beginning of the game, get access to a better Sphere Board. This one is much more open, allowing you to let characters explore different paths than they were originally slated for. Of course, whichever you choose, you can, by some heavy power-leveling, eventually teach everything to everyone, but you'll have to work for it. Until that point, each character will mostly have his or her special set of abilities, with perhaps a little cross-over. And that's just the way I like it.
All things considered, it's pretty clear that FF X put a standard for the PS2's RPGs. Eventually, the Sphere Board loses the powers of facination, and there are other console RPGs that do certain specific parts better... But unlike those other games, this one is pretty much delivering on just about -every- point, which is why it stands out so much.