I am about to eat my words in a big way, because I have frequently said publicly that I feel Final Fantasy 10 is the worst game in the series (see the end of my Dragon Quest 8 review
, for example). After giving the game a second chance, I have definitely changed my mind on that, though some of the issues I hated before still bug me now. Yes, the voice acting sounds quite amateurish and the game world is hyper-linear, but nonetheless, the story is engaging (if predictable), the characters are touching, and the battle mechanics have been streamlined in some very important ways.
And then, of course, the graphics are amazing. Even today, a good seven years later, they still impress. Though a couple wide-open areas are cursed with flat and dull textures, most of the game is wonderful eye candy. This includes the characters, even the 30 or so body templates used for the background characters. The level of detail is astonishing, and lends itself to amazingly subtle story telling at times.
Speaking of which, the story, as stated above, is pretty predictable. It is a by-the-numbers plot about a holy quest to save the world from destruction, while in the midst of political and religious turmoil. But, though predictable and cliché, it is still an enjoyable adventure. The main character, Tidus, while conforming almost perfectly to the callow-youth stereotype, somewhat turns that on its head by being a fish out of water.
At the start of the game, Tidus is forced to watch his home be destroyed, and ends up warped to a completely different world where everybody tells him the destruction he witnessed happened 1000 years ago. Instead of being the small-town boy or big-city street rat who gets pulled into the adventure of his life, Tidus is a stranger in a strange land trying to make sense of the chaos around him. It's a new twist on the old plot, and also makes a perfect storytelling tool. As the game proceeds, Tidus' new friends explain everything about this new world to him, and by extension, to the player as well.
The other characters, both Tidus' friends and also the villains, are also cliché but still interesting and engaging. They really drive the story and are easy to care about. The main reason for this, I believe, is the voice acting. FF10 was the first in the series to break the voice-barrier, all previous FF games having been text-only. Listening to a voice is much more engaging than reading the dialogue.
Of course, this was the first attempt at voice acting in the series, and it really shows. While there are very few parts which are truly cringe-worthy, there are still a lot of awkward moments. Characters frequently use a tone of voice that sounds forced and artificial. And then there are all the times where the characters' voices pause when they shouldn't, leaving their lips moving soundlessly while the characters stare at each other in silence. There are a few moments, particularly early in the game, where these awkward pauses and improper inflections come close to ruining what was otherwise a really dramatic scene.
The music, however, is a much different matter. It carries amazing emotional depth, particularly during the cut scenes, and really captures the essence of each scene. As with previous FF games, the composer, Uematsu, really pulled out the stops in the score, writing powerful themes that create a strong connection between the player and the story. There is nothing to complain about here.
FF10 also set a new standard in linearity, and that definitely wasn't a good thing. The game is so brutally linear. It is, quite literally, a long corridor in which the characters just keep moving along from one area to the next, literally following the big red arrow on the mini-map. Add to that the frequent cut-scenes that occur at regular intervals, and you end up with a linear corridor adventure that feels more like watching a movie than playing a game.
To be fair, the story actually makes use of this linearity as part of the plot, in a fairly subtle way. The entire game is about following the path of this sacred quest to its inevitable conclusion. But it is still rather blatant, and the game would be much better if this had been less obvious. Having more choices, more side-quests, and the like would have been much more engaging than constantly having no choice of where to go or what to do next.
Putting the linearity aside (as big an issue as it may be to put aside), the game play is still good fun. While hampered by the traditional and tedious random monster battles that weigh down so many console RPGs, the fight mechanics are still interesting and engaging. FF10 returns to the old turn-based system but with a twist. The game shows you the turn order, so you know which characters and monsters will go when. But the actions you assign to your characters will change the order. If you order up a powerful but slow move, it will be a while before that character can move again. On the other hand, a faster move might have a weaker effect, but that character will get another turn sooner. You still have decisions to make which will have a great effect on the course of the fight.
And, in a move that I'd long been wishing for, you are not forced to always have the main character (Tidus) in the battle lineup. You can swap him out of the lineup at any time for another character. Also, you are allowed to change the battle lineup on the fly during fights. Whenever a character's turn comes up, you have the option of swapping that character out for another. Both of these are new and welcome developments that give the player more control over how the fights go.
Which brings me to the sphere grid. Rather than the traditional leveling-up system you see in most console RPGs, FF10 uses the sphere grid, which is basically a huge board game. Each character starts at a different location on the grid, and you use the experience points...excuse me, *ability*
points...they earn in battle to move them around the grid, gaining more power and learning new skills as they go. Because the entire grid is ultimately open to each character, it is possible to make all the characters into clones of each other. This, to me, is a huge negative. I prefer RPGs in which each character has a specific class and limited skill-set. Games that basically turn into 'attack of the clones' bore me.
However, FF10 does have one advantage here. While it can become 'attack of the clones' with enough time and effort, getting there does take *a lot*
of time and effort. The player has to work really hard to make the characters identical to each other. It is possible (easy, in fact) to beat the game long before reaching that point.
FF10 still isn't my favorite in the Final Fantasy series, but it has jumped up considerably on my list. Sure, it is much too linear, the voices can grate on the nerves a bit, and the random monster battles are as tedious as ever. Even so, the story and characters really are excellent, the graphics and music are beautiful, and the battle system has been tweaked in some long-overdue ways.
As with most FF games, I would only recommend this to fans of the series or the console RPG genre in general. But if you are a member of one of those two groups, I do definitely recommend it.
To sum up:
+ Engrossing story
+ Touching characters
+ Beautiful graphics
+ Excellent music
+ Fun tweaks to the battle system
- Waaaaaaaaaaaaay too linear
- Tedious random monster fights
- Rather amateurish voice acting
* "Sphere Grid" advancement system that can produce identical characters with enough effort