Final Fantasy X
Ten Final Fantasy games.
This is a pretty big event. Gamers have grown used to a new FF coming out like clockwork on a nearly yearly basis nowadays, and that regularity, in addition to the fact that every game is a new creation, perhaps obscures the magnitude of the entire endeavor over its history. Sit back and think about the amount of effort that's gone into Final Fantasy over the years, however many it's been, and the amount of game that's come out of it. When you think about it, in terms of the amount of product involved, it's one of the biggest franchises in the history of entertainment.
This is perhaps the time to sit back and appreciate the series, because Final Fantasy X marks its biggest turning point. Final Fantasy VII meant the leap to 3D, and an unprecedented step forward in the games' cinematic presentation, but FFX is essentially the last Final Fantasy as we have known it. After this, we have the strange new world of online adventuring, and then Yasumi Matsuno's takeover of the executive-production reins. Not that these aren't interesting new worlds to explore, but change on that scale is always a little unsettling.
What is heartening, though, is that the last of Hironobu Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy games makes a very strong argument for being the best game the series has ever seen. It is, as the series has always been, a graphical showcase of the first order. The addition of spoken dialogue, despite plenty of second-guessing before the event, has succeeded to a far greater degree than a first effort of this sort has any right to. Most of all, though, this game is more fun to simply play than any Final Fantasy in memory. A huge reworking of the character development scheme has hit the jackpot as far as mixing customization and character individuality, and one simple tweak to the battle system has pulled almost every aspect of gameplay through a great leap forward.
Aside from being such a finely made game, it's also a remarkable stylistic departure in a great many areas. Tetsuya Nomura has put forth some of his best work in the area of character design for this cast. The world, like that of most FFs, is a motley collection of different regions, but there's a greater feeling of cohesion in comparison to VII or IX, and a revival of some of VIII's prettiest design elements. Most notably, two more composers aside from Nobuo Uematsu worked on the soundtrack, and it definitely shows, with some tracks that will leave you wondering how they wound up in a Final Fantasy game. But there's nothing wrong with doing something different, as long as it's done well, and Final Fantasy X is certainly done well, in almost every area.
It is, like all the rest of its fellows, a Heroic Quest. It is, however, probably the first Quest whose Hero is a time-lost 3D full-contact water-polo player. Again, it's something different. FFX manages to create a remarkably engaging cast, though, despite the fact that Nomura has well and truly topped himself in the outlandish accessorization department. Fashion in the world of Spira seems to consist of building up a strong base of weird stuff, followed by festooning it with as many little bits of weird stuff as you can manage on top of that -- favorite bits would be the long blue ribbons hanging from the back of Rikku's shirt, and naturally Lulu's amazing floor-length skirt.
Amidst the most colorful of the recent FFs is an unusually somber story, though, brought into sharp relief by the spoken dialogue. Square hasn't changed the way it tells a story with this, but it can't help but change the way we interpret the dialogue -- emotional and factual content is both conveyed and processed differently when we hear it, rather than simply read it. Reading a book, watching a subtitled movie, or playing a traditional text-driven RPG generally presents a softer impact, for good or ill, than hearing the same dialogue spoken and acted in front of you. Thus, it's a potentially dangerous step, since poor dialogue spoken hurts much worse than poor dialogue read.
This isn't a perfect piece of acting and direction, especially due to Square's comparative inexperience with realtime cinematics, but as mentioned above, the experiment works far better than you'd expect a first effort to. The English version of Final Fantasy X has the same top-notch text translation as Square's later PlayStation RPGs, and the only faults in the voice acting, oddly enough, come from the lead characters. Even those, too, are largely just fine -- it's just inevitable that roles with that many more lines and that many more moments of emotional intensity would have more moments that ring a bit harshly in the ear. Tidus, in particular, has a tendency to speak a little too high and a little too fast when he gets excited.
The supporting cast is rock-solid, though. Auron is engagingly grim behind the high collar and glasses, while Lulu plays his counterpart on the distaff side, with a cool demeanor and a very fun sense of irony. Rikku provides the chirpy comic relief without grating too badly (as her Japanese voice actor did at times), and Wakka, wader-clad goofball though he may be, is probably the best-cast and best-acted of the lot. He has an accent that's hard to place -- the best description we can manage would be half Jamaica, half East LA -- but it's perfectly consistent, and complements the character to a T.
What brings down the acting at times is the half of it you don't hear. Though it's been making cinematic games for years, this is actually just Square's second game to feature the heavy use of completely in-engine cutscenes (the first being Vagrant Story), and the animators haven't quite caught up to the standard as far as body language. The problem is dead obvious after playing Metal Gear Solid 2, which is as near to perfection as possible when it comes to animating physical acting in 3D. In comparison, Final Fantasy X's cast still moves like the last generation of game characters, with a lot of exaggerated gestures, repetitive movements, stiff transitions, and extremely questionable lip-synching. The 3D engine is also overtaxed on a few occasions, so you get some jittery motions that break the mood. The lip-synching issue is easily forgivable after enough time, but the contrast between the dialogue and the accompanying body English is often very jarring, since the former has upped the ante so much higher in comparison.
That's more the fault of inexperience rather than lack of talent on the part of the artists, though, and it's a small down note struck by what is otherwise a beautiful thing to look at. One feels rather silly trotting out the same exclamations every time a new Final Fantasy raises the visual bar, but there's no two ways around it -- Square knows how to make a pretty game. MGS2 showed a greater degree of visual refinement, but its setting seemed to confine it to shades of gray and brown most of the time. Not so Final Fantasy, whose artists have carte blanche to throw every color imaginable at the screen, and a wonderful 3D engine with which to do it.
Where civilization intrudes, the look is reminiscent of FFIX's riot of activity married to FFVIII's elegant detail. Designs like the new airship and the city of Zanarkand especially echo FFVIII, with lots of interlocking circles and flowing script-like details. Outside the cities, there's much of Chrono Cross' tropical feel, in the smaller islands and villages of Spira (perhaps a consequence of the Okinawan influence said to find its way into the world design). Work forward, and things go all cold and mountainous a la FFVII, but in every case, color stands out more than anything else. The game's lines are closer to FFVIII than anything else, particularly since the characters are back to ordinary proportion, but the palette couldn't be more different. Just compare the male leads -- you've got Squall, with his black leather and permanent mope, standing opposite Tidus, who's got a yellow jacket, a shimmering blue sword, and an indelible grin.
Mind you, the game isn't garish -- just colorful. Which is a perfectly sensible decision, now that there's that much more texture-moving power to go around. Make that just plain power, actually, since FFX's graphics engine improves on its predecessors in every area possible. It doesn't completely kick the pre-rendered backgrounds of the PlayStation games, but then there's no reason to discard them where it wouldn't be necessary. Where it couldn't hurt to throw in a little more opulent detail, as in towns and other calm areas, static backgrounds are used. Dungeons and field exploration areas are almost all drawn in 3D, though, and in a way that definitely takes advantage of the realtime environment. Tunnels and mountain paths now criscross around and across each other, stretching up and out in all dimensions. All that extra space is filled with atmospheric effects, like mist, flame, or multicolored will-o'-the-wisps, floating around off in the distance.
When it comes to the friends and fiends that fill the world, it's a little harder to judge the quality of the modeling, since there isn't much in the way of competition to hold them up against. Metal Gear certainly looks better in this area, but that's hardly a fair comparison. Judging from some of what we've seen of the 2002 RPG crop, though, FFX may remain the standard -- become the standard, actually. The character animation fails sometimes when it has to match up with the new demands of the spoken dialogue, but in the wordless combat sequences, the fireworks are as impressive as ever.
Is it really worth bothering to mention that the summon animations are amazing? You've seen them before, you already know how good they'll look. You know the bestiary is filled with dozens of gorgeous realtime monsters, from towering bosses down to tiny bouncing Sabotenders. You know the spell effects are beautiful, you know the character animations are excellent (wait for the underwater battles -- even ordinary attacks are impressive). Imagine the PlayStation games, and add exponents, multiplying speed, resolution, and modeling detail. The form has not changed substantially, but what fills it is much different.
Fans of the series most certainly won't be disappointed by what they have to see. What they hear, however, is a potentially different situation. The invariable furore over the English dialogue is a different matter entirely -- we await with snickers in readiness for plenty of high-pitched whinging on that score. What should be a much more interesting debate is the reaction to FFX's soundtrack, which is definitely something different in comparison to the past games.
A change was inevitable, since Nobuo Uematsu is now just one of three composers receiving credit. The others, Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu (of Threads of Fate and SaGa Frontier, respectively) throw in plenty of their own chops, and the result is...something new. The orchestral and choral sounds we're familiar with are still around, and just as in FFIX, the love theme "Suteki Da Ne" provides the base for a few nice variations, but there's a surprising amount of more modern influence to the music. Right at the beginning, you're hit with a one-two punch: a light pop remix of the Crystal theme, combining a classic melody with a catchy beat, and then Another World, which is...geez, who ever thought we'd hear hard distorted rock in a Final Fantasy game? That's not even the only rockish track in the game, although the style certainly settles down later on. The world of Spira has a certain religious cast to its tunes, particularly the chorus-based temple themes, but there's also a lot more of that slow, catchy pop feel in more peaceful areas.
For the humble narrator's money, change is again a good thing. FFIX was definitely a sign of stagnation in the composition department, with an awful lot of melody recycling noticeable as you progressed from area to area. Bringing new staff in certainly gave things a shot in the arm, and an intelligently directed one, since the shift in musical styles provides an undeniably appropriate counterpoint to the new and recombined visual elements. A few long-time fans may complain, but they haven't truly been happy since 1993.
And that leads us to the doorstep of the other half of things -- how does it play? On the surface, the combat system in FFX doesn't look much different from VII or VIII. The abandonment of Active Time (FFX uses straight turn-based initiative) won't be noticed by any save the total gearheads, although it does speed up things a fair bit now that you don't have to wait for ATB meters to fill. We're back to a three-character party, the spell system consumes plain old MP as usual, and the Over Drive system is a near-dead-ringer for the old Limit Breaks. It's been tweaked with some good ideas -- there are now alternate schemes for meter development, and little twitch challenges for better results from OD attacks -- but it's nothing that wouldn't be immediately accessible to series veterans. One very big thing has changed, though. By tapping the L1 button, it's possible to swap the active character out of the party, replacing them with a character from reserve who can act immediately.
It's a revolutionary change, and one which improves the game immensely. Purists may claim that it makes battles "too easy" or some blithering waterhead nonsense like that. Such an attitude is dangerously wrong, and would require surgical repair without delay. In fact, this is the best thing that's happened to Final Fantasy in ages, gameplay-wise, a huge improvement to the ease of combat and character development.
Remember how annoying it's been to build up the abilities of your entire cast in earlier Final Fantasies? There are six or seven characters in the cast, all with plenty of strengths and personality, but invariably you rely on only three or four because that's all you can fit into the active party. The rest get short shrift, fall behind in levels, and leave you with nasty holes in your strategy if they happen to become vital late in the game. Now, that problem is completely gone. The active party is back down to the three-character maximum, but if you want to build someone waiting in the wings, just tap L1. That's all you need to do. If a character performs at least one action, they get a full share in the AP gained at the end of the battle, and then you can keep them in for more or rotate them out to make room for someone else.
Inventory development is far easier, too. Rikku is the thief character this time out, a specialized type with the Steal and Use abilities. Normally, it would be a bother to keep her in the mix and gather the items she needs to become an effective force in combat, but now you can send her in, nick some items, and rotate her out easily to bring back a bread-and-butter fighter. After a little while of this, she'll have a huge inventory of special items that will come in handy throughout the rest of the game (not to mention handy stuff for healing and building up weapons), and she'll have grown strong enough to hang with the other characters in a straight fight. A similar principle applies to other characters who might have specialized abilities. Lulu's your mage -- if you need an elemental spell, bring her in. Wakka has some handy status-effect attacks -- if someone's vulnerable to Darkness or Silence, bring him in. Need healing? Save your items and call up Yuna.
You can compensate for weaknesses easily, too. If an enemy is strong against a character's attack type or elemental orientation, just send them out and make room for someone who can better take on that particular opponent. Fights are now much faster, and managing your strategy is a piece of cake in comparison to the laborious, haphazard party maneuverings of the earlier games. In short, huge swathes of the game are much easier and much more fun. Combat, character-building, gathering items, developing weapons, they're all improved greatly by the addition of this single, simple feature. Amazing that Square didn't think of it earlier.
Amidst all this high-speed combat and character maneuvering, the new summoning system is a bit of an anomaly. The Aeons (as they're now called) summoned by Yuna aren't the one-shot attacks we've come to know. Rather, they're characters like any other, with their own HP, MP, skills, spells, and Over Drive attacks. When called, they fight in place of the regular party until killed or dismissed, albeit with a few different conditions than ordinary fighters.
On the one hand, this makes the development and deployment of summons a more involving affair. There's more ways you can use them, especially as you master the means of developing their abilities -- they can learn new spells and gain stronger attributes by cannibalizing items, the same way you add new abilities to equipment. On the other hand, summoning an Aeon is a distinct break in the flow of a combat system that ordinarily moves very quickly. The animations aren't that much of a bother, since you again have an option to toggle short versions of the Aeons' dramatic entrances, but having to make that big an adjustment in your strategy certainly is. Even in boss battles, Aeons aren't usually a very practical alternative or complement to regular combat.
That is, perhaps, a testament to how powerful and useful your regular party can become, now that you can actually use all of it. The characters and the methods for building them are designed very well, to the point that they're all of them useful at some point or another -- only Wakka comes close to being a bit of a runt, thanks to his weak physical attacks and rather specialized secondary skills. As they move along the Sphere Grid, each retains their own particular personality, as it were, but gradually develops a breadth of skills to make them useful in more and more situations.
The Sphere Grid is an imposing sight, and an equally imposing task to try and describe in an accessible fashion. Perhaps it's easiest to state right from the beginning that this isn't a completely new system -- when you sit back and think about it, it's actually a close cousin to the development system in the Romancing SaGa games, albeit heavily revised. Final Fantasy X takes SaGa's preference for developing character a statistic and a skill at a time, and improves upon it by taking out the random element, instead giving the player more opportunities to guide development. The path characters follow is still more straight and narrow than it might seem, especially during the earlier stretches of the game, but once you get going, there's plenty of opportunities to tweak a character to your liking.
While the Sphere Grid may look like it's composed of a few large groups of spheres, appearances are deceiving. In fact, those spheres are composed of dozens of tiny nodes, each connected together by snaky, linear paths. Each node, save for the occasional empty one placed to space out progress, represents an improvement in a character's abilities or attributes -- a new spell, a new skill, 200 more HP, four more Strength points, and so on. As they earn AP and Sphere Levels in battle, characters must progress across the Grid a node at a time, slowly working towards new and different abilities and gradually building their attributes.
Each character starts at a different point on the Grid, and its structure tends to direct them along a path suited to their areas of expertise. Thus, everyone has a little bit of individuality -- it's not like FFVII, where any character could master any skill. Tidus, Auron, and Kimahri follow paths comprised mainly of combat skills, while Yuna and Lulu are sent towards concentrations of magical skills, and Rikku follows a quirky route suited to her oddball personality. There are forks in the trail, though, some blocked at first, and once you find some rare items it's possible to backtrack or hop from one path of development to another.
Perhaps the only problem with the way the game progresses has to do with the pacing of certain gameplay challenges. The basic form of FFX's quest is as per the other 3D Final Fantasies, with stretches that follow a straight and narrow path alternating between opportunities to break out and explore, and for the most part it works as well as it has before. Every so often, though, there are departures into heavy brain-teasing that stick out like a sore thumb. Each Temple (you'll understand if you play) is built around a lengthy puzzle involving switching spheres and moving blocks and doing all that other arbitrary puzzle stuff. They're designed well enough -- gaps in the logic are annoying, but easily overcome -- but they're not integrated into the rest of the game very well. After hours of fighting, cinemas, and wandering, the puzzles suddenly pop up like a brick wall. A better design would integrate them more evenly into the rest of the quest.
Issues like that stand out, though, because they're surrounded by so many significant new improvements. For something that's meant to finish up a long tradition, Final Fantasy X is an awfully radical departure -- it's as if we came to the major turning point two games early. But a high note is a high note, and the old guard of Final Fantasies is most certainly departing on a high note. What we have is the best-looking game of the series, arguably the best-playing as well, and some experiments in presentation that provide a strong foundation for more work along those lines in the future. Square may be going through some rough times financially at this point, but its creative stock has never been higher.
Ten is a big number. Whether you reckon it in Arabic or Roman numerals, it's both a milestone met and a new stage begun. Very appropriate, don't you think?
source PS2 IGN
Square Electronic Arts
Number of Players