The Finale Continues.
One moment you are a star athlete, living in the limelight, adored by legions of fans. The next moment, you find yourself cast away from the comfort of stardom to a strange but eerily familiar land, forced to fend off fiends and guard the hope of the people. This is the story of Final Fantasy X.
Patricide, regicide, deicide, racial tensions, messianic trials, magic versus technology, faith... these are but some of the hodge-podge of thematic elements addressed in this highly anticipated game.
You play as Tidus, star Blitzball player of the Zanarkand Abes. He's a little whiny, but has his heart set in the right place. Transported to another world, he must protect Yuna, the Bjork-ish (my brand new word) summoner, as she sets off on a pilgrimage to destroy an ancient evil. From these auspicious beginnings emerge a story rife with drama.
Despite its grandiose plan, FFX's supposedly harrowing plot twists seem somewhat obvious, and other themes and elements feel too much like retreads from previous Final Fantasy games. Nonetheless, it is a solid (if unspectacular) story that evokes a consistent world, and when coupled with the majestic graphics and interesting combat, lead to yet another top notch entry in what has become console gaming's most beloved RPG series.
FFX is in many ways similar to past games, though this version is closer to a straight-up novel thanks to pretty linear game flow. Features that you normally take for granted, like overworld map exploration, are missing for most of your journey.
Fitting with the fairly linear progression is a level-up system akin to a giant board game. Rather than simply leveling up as they gain experience, characters wind their way across a board called the 'Sphere Grid.' You can spend 'spheres' to gain different attributes. At first it's rather overwhelming, but given enough of an effort, you can fully customize any of your characters.
In addition, each character can choose from one weapon and one shield. Instead of altering the character's stats, these tools act like the Materia system of Final Fantasy 7. Every weapon and shield carries unique qualities like "HP 10%" or "Zombie Ward." Equipping these tools grants you those powers.
Some of the tools have blank slots, which allow you to somewhat customize attributes. The interface for tool customization falters, though, by forcing you to scroll through pages of tools to find 'equipped' tools, denoted by a tiny pink dot in the corner.
The brand spanking new battle system, known as the Conditional Battle System (CBS), is essentially a reverse of the original Active Time Battles (ATB). The old ATB system revolved around the use of time, which dictated the attack order of characters. CBS takes the opposite approach where the order of your characters dictates the course of battle.
The characters are outlined on screen in a list indicating the order of the battle. Every move you make uses a different amount of time. For instance, choosing to use an item instead of just attacking might net you an extra turn before your opponent can strike. This affects the order and is shown to the player, allowing strategic pre-planning.
Three characters are active during the battle. On each character's turn, there is an option to swap characters before a move is made. Characters that take any part in the battle get credit, allowing you to easily level up all your characters. You can have the thief Rikku swapped in to nab a choice item off an enemy, and then switch back to one of your main fighters.
This lends a terrific sense of strategy to the battles. The minor enemies still attack at random and the game makes it a point to remind you that specific characters should be matched up against specific enemy types. Wokka and his Blitzballs are especially keen against the aerial enemies, while Auron's big ass sword cuts through armored enemies with ease.
FFX's version of the limit breaker is the Overdrive meter. At first, the bar fills when you get damaged. Later in the game, you can customize the meter to refill when certain actions are performed, such as when you win a battle or heal your comrades. The most useful part of these Overdrives is the chance to save them up for the big battles.
And the big fights, as usual, kick ass. Deliciously challenging, the longer fights can really wear you out. There's practically an unwritten rule that states every major boss has to come at you with a trinity of forms.
Another important combat tactic lies in the summoned beings, called Aeons. These are like gigantic Pokemon and have specific health and Overdrive meters, which help keep them in check from becoming too powerful. When you call them into battle, the other characters exit, stage left; even dead characters rise up and get out of the way. Aeons can even be subbed in to take damage for the team. It's a nice addition.
In staying with the mini-game diversions that are a hallmark of Final Fantasy gaming, FFX includes Blitzball, a game that best resembles water polo, except it's played in a gigantic water sphere. This sport is the primary mini-game of FFX. Blitzball is a decent diversion, but is heavily geared towards statistics over action.
FFX is a fine looking game. The three-dimensional environments are robust and beautiful. There are areas where the textures are lacking - this one giant field has some pretty abysmal looking grass and some other sections look like high-res PSX environments. But for the most part, though, the areas look great and are very immersive.
The enemies move with great fluidity, and you don't have to look farther than the character's eyelashes to sense the attention to detail. A few minor anti-aliasing issues aside, FFX takes advantage of the PS2 power and delivers a smooth visual treat.
Likewise, the music is rich and a step above earlier FF's. The most impressive addition, however, is the use of audible voices. It's about time. All in all, the voice acting is above average. The main characters capture the right voice type, but sometimes the intonations are a little screwy. The use of actual voices add a sense of drama that has been missing from the series. After all, how can you translate the melodic rhythms of an ancient hymnal using mere text?
A natural side effect of voice-acting is excessive watching over interacting. Instead of pages of text to scrollthrough, you end up sitting back simply watching the game unfold like a movie. This is fine, but there isn't a way to skip through any of these scenes. Anyone replaying the game or just wanting to fight a certain boss is forced to wait. It's an annoying oversight.
The other problem that naturally arises is lip synchronization. Sometimes they nail it, but for most of the game, it feels off. When the lip synch and the character "acting" works, it hits all the right places.
To add yet more flavor to this stew, is the ability to spend your Gil (money) on music and videos from the game. This is a nice touch for both extended play and anyone who ever wanted to show off that one killer CG scene.
Final Fantasy X is, without a doubt, the best RPG on the PS2. Hell, with competition like Ephemeral Fantasia and Okage, there isn't much of a battle. FFX stays true to the Final Fantasy formula, offering an excellent battle system and a level of visual artistry that sets a new mark for others to follow, and the long awaited addition of voices adds a dramatic element that's been missing forever.
But with the steps forward come a few backward, like the inability to scene skip and the overly linear flow. Ultimately, it's up to you to figure out if it's as fantastic as it should be. For my money, I say it's pretty darn close.