Final Fantasy X


   "Another Final Fantasy game getting a five?" you may already be groaning, and you might be right to do so if the latest in a consistently excellent series wasn't such a high point in that series' history. The product of the jump to PS2 hardware, Final Fantasy X is one of the finest games to bear the name, and may represent an even greater evolution than the switch from the SNES to the PSone.

   This evolution is apparent in many aspects of the game, but by far the most striking is the graphical prowess on display, which once and for all gives lie to the oft-cited credo that graphics don't matter in RPGs. The lush, arresting backgrounds are striking for the way they start out beautiful and only get better as the game goes on; impressively, the new fully-polygonal environments are even better-looking than the already gorgeous prerendered backdrops of the past three games. The polygon count and texture detail is so high that at times it's possible to mistake the in-game engine for the FMV scenes, even when the two are interwoven. And the FMV, naturally, looks better than ever thanks to the DVD storage medium.

You've been sad for a while
Why not smile

   But what really makes the graphics shine is the character animation. Square's vaunted Facial Animation System produces, for the first time in the series, characters who act--and act well. Every raised eyebrow, narrowing of eyes, and pursing of lips is easily seen, giving the characters an expressiveness never before seen in the series. Past the facial expressions, the body movements are also top-notch. The fluid motions of each enemy make them seem that much more menacing, and more importantly, each character has a freer range of motion than in past games--as seen when Tidus tackles a hapless sentry on a ferryboat or in Rikku's exuberant antics.

   Of course, the animation is only part of the picture when it comes to what makes Final Fantasy X's characters so realistic. Equally important when it comes to fleshing the characters out is the voice acting, giving them a depth and a presence they've rarely had before. The decision to go with full voice acting for every major character in the game, and a slew of the minor ones, was risky--doubly so for not including the option to turn character voices off. Fortunately, Square has made every effort to not only match the quality of the Japanese voice acting, but in some cases improve on it: Matt McKenzie approaches the role of Auron as a supremely confident sort of elder statesman, rather than the generic badass voice his Japanese VA gave him; and John DiMaggio, doing double duty as both Kimahri and Wakka, gives the island Blitzballer Hawaiian overtones which perfectly suit the character's origins.

   Even the minor roles, such as Tom Kenny's oily salesman Rin and Candi Milo's haughty summoner Dona, are well-acted; but where the game really rises or falls lies with James Taylor and Hedy Burress in the leading roles of Tidus and Yuna. Though both take a little bit of getting used to--Taylor for his tendency to get mildly shrill in heated moments, and Burress for her dogged attempts to synch correctly with the onscreen lip movements no matter what the cost to the character's vocal rhythms--when it counts, the two deliver and make you believe in the characters.

 Rest assured this will not last
The pilgrimmage has gained momentum

   It helps that they have so much excellent material to work with. The translation is the same stellar job Square gave to the last two games; rare is the forced or unnatural-sounding line, made even more important by the fact that they're virtually all vocalized. This is especially a relief due to the fact that Final Fantasy X boasts one of the most interesting, coherent, heart-wrenching, and understated stories the series has yet seen. Those who enjoyed Final Fantasy VIII's characters but felt the story was a bit lacking or contrived will find their every prayer answered here, as will those tired of overwrought and under-edited speechifying in games--Final Fantasy X makes its points and punches its emotional buttons with restraint and tact, never telling when it can show. The story, centering on the effort to stop Sin and end the spiral of death that plagues the world, is made all the richer and emotionally resonant for it.

   Also welcome is the sample upgrade found in the music, whose composition is for the first time not a solo effort by Nobuo Uematsu--joining him are Junya Nakano, who formerly worked on Dewprism, and Masashi Hamauzu, who composed the music for SaGa Frontier II. This increase in sound quality comes just in time to support a score once again worthy of the Final Fantasy name, featuring several stirring motifs and themes, as well as a few unorthodox-sounding tunes: listening to the unaccompanied soundtrack, it's hard to guess how a hard rock piece like "Another World" would fit into a Final Fantasy game, but the musicians know what they're doing at every turn.

   Naturally, all of the above can be found in cinema; without gameplay to back it up, Final Fantasy X would face charges of being little more than an "interactive" movie with nothing to do but move the character to the next cut-scene. Happily, this is not the case. While the first several hours are more weighted toward exposition than interactivity, the balance rights itself soon enough with an increased focus on the radical changes made to the Final Fantasy series' core conceits.

Down the way the road's divided
Maps and legends

   The first major change is the elimination of traditional levels. In their place are Sphere Levels, which may seem at first to be a mere cosmetic change, but when used carefully achieve a balance between the extreme customization in VII/VIII and the more traditional character-specific abilities of IX. Every Sphere Level allows the character to move once space on the Grid and use spheres earned in battle to activate nodes on the grid. When activated, these nodes grant the character attribute enhancements, skills, or magic, depending on the type of node. The grid is intricately laid out so that each character (save Kimahri) has his or her own "personal" path to follow from the start. While each character can theoretically conquer the entire grid, it is so large as to make this impractical.

   Instead, it's best to chart a course for the character to follow, which is made reasonably customizable by the presence of Sphere Locks. At certain points along each character's path, they'll encounter shunts to other character paths blocked by Sphere Locks--all paths, in fact, end in one. The question for the player, then, is at what point they wish to use a Key Sphere and enter a new path to learn different abilities. If they stray from their "personal" paths sooner rather than later, they can acquire attributes they may have been lacking or useful skills that would work well in conjunction with their own "personal" abilities--but because backtracking has its cost in Sphere Levels, detours of this sort can impede their progress toward learning the most powerful skills of any path. In other words, those who want Lulu to be able to cast black magic as well as steal from enemies might venture onto Rikku's path, but they will find it harder to make it all the way to Flare or Ultima.

 Make way for monster jealousy
Welcome the ugly animal

   Something to consider when planning a route through the grid is that it's not required to favor some characters over others in order to succeed. Though Final Fantasy X's battles are limited to three members at a time, in practice you have access to the whole party at once. This is because, in the other drastic break with Final Fantasy games past, the Active Time Battle system in place since IV is no more. Replacing it is a surprisingly fluid and quick turn-based system, with the crucial feature being the ability to switch characters in and out at any time without the loss of a turn. If a character is low on HP, either heal him or--if you see that the enemy's turn on the chart showing the move order is coming up, and you have no time to heal him before the enemy will strike again--press L1 and switch him out for another character. Not only is it painless, it allows the use of the full party for the first time since the games had selectable party members. Only characters who participate (i.e. use a turn for something other than swapping out) in battle will earn AP toward Sphere Levels, so not only is swapping possible and enjoyable, it's encouraged if you don't want characters lagging behind.

   Other aspects of battle include Overdrives, Final Fantasy X's version of Limit Breaks and Trances. Like VII, Overdrives can be stored for later use, and like VIII, most require some sort of controller manipulation for the full effect. Auron's Overdrives use button sequences similar to Zell's Duels or Sabin's Blitzes, and Lulu's Overdrive allows you to cast the spell of your choosing as many successive times as you can move the right analog stick in a circle. The summoned monsters, called Aeons, have their own Overdrives, which is not the only thing distinguishing them from past versions of summon spells: when called, they'll take the place of your party as a single combatant rather than casting a powerful spell. Each Aeon has its own innate abilities, but each can also be taught new spells or skills by "feeding" it the right items. Items can also be used to customize weapons and armor if they have open "slots." Instead of increasing character statistics by a certain set amount, most equipment will instead come pre-loaded with abilities such as elemental affinities or other special characteristics--SOS abilities, for instance, will cast a protective spell on the wearer when their HP drops below half.

Fly up off the water

   The game is more overtly linear than past Final Fantasies, but Square has compensated by making the sidequests that were included both extensive and engaging. Each sidequest will be "unlocked" after a certain plot event; for example, after the game's first Blitzball match occurs in the storyline, players may thereafter start a game from any save sphere. Other sidequests include hunting down Al Bhed dictionaries in order to decipher the clues and hints often dropped in the tribe's language, using special weapons to "capture" monsters and earn special items as well as hidden bosses, finding records of the past to discover the history of Spira, and more.

   In truth, though, even without such extra diversions the game would already go down as a masterpiece within the series and within the genre. Final Fantasy X succeeds both as a treat for the senses and a fantastic game, and with luck will mark the beginning of a new era of quality next-generation RPGs as did its predecessors IV and VII before it.

Review by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Final Fantasy X
Developer Square
Publisher Square EA
Genre RPG
Medium DVD (1)
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  07.19.01
Details on Final Fantasy X's Rikku
717 screenshots / 117 ending screenshots / 17 Heretic Aeon screenshots
6 tribe designs / 3 Amano sketches / 7 weapon designs / 4 Aeon designs / World map / 4 rendered scenes / 2 creature designs / 8 Blitzball logos
Japanese Final Fantasy X International box art
Director Yoshinori Kitase
Character Designer Tetsuya Nomura
Music Nobuo Uematsu
Junya Nakano
Masashi Hamauzu
Full game credits