Thursday, September 11, 2008

Final Fantasy X : Game Review

By 1UP Staff

People have been whispering it since Final Fantasy VI. They've been discussing it since FFVII. And with FFVIII, they shouted it from the hilltops.

"Final Fantasy is no longer a legitimate RPG."

See, there's that little problem of the "G" in "RPG." Which, if you don't already know, stands for game. Yes, the series offers a cinematic experience unrivaled by anything on any system, with astounding visuals, epic stories, memorable characters and stirring music—but as a game, Final Fantasy,'s not much of a game at all. It's, gasp, an interactive movie. Yech!

Or so they say. I, of course, wholeheartedly disagree. But here's the thing: These nattering naysayers are actually partly right. Final Fantasy has indeed become a Hollywood-level extravaganza, an event game, a big-time blockbuster that pushes far beyond the borders of its medium. And FFX is no exception. In fact, the latest in this series may represent the ultimate evolution of the role-playing game to what can only be called a role-playing experience.

And that's just fine with me, because when it comes down to it, FFX is among the most entertaining overall experiences that I've ever had with a video game. Which is all that really counts.

At the heart of this incredible experience is FFX's fantastic story. Now, Final Fantasy has always been known for its deep, twisty, thought-provoking plots—but FFX tops its predecessors by having the tightest story yet. Deftly steering clear of the problems of past Final Fantasies, FFX avoids the abrupt turns, the heavy-handed melodrama and the meandering nature of older titles. Don't get me wrong—FFX is still full of sentimentality, with plenty of heart-wrenching scenes that'll have you furtively reaching for a hanky. But this time the story is told with a laser precision. There's an economy to FFX that mirrors the best movie scripts: Things always happen for a reason—even if they're far from apparent at the moment. Every detail adds to the big picture, and the key moments are much more poignant for having been built up so well.

FFX also has a remarkable cast that rivals even the fine ensemble of FFIX. Foremost is Tidus. Yes, he's a jock—and therefore the bane of most gamers' high-school lives. But he's the "good kind of jock"—you know, the guy who sticks up for the hapless nerd who gets stuffed into too many gym lockers. He may be more athletically and charismatically endowed than you'll ever be—but don't hold that against him, because he really, really wants to do the right thing. Yet Tidus isn't just a stereotypical boy scout, as his youthful eagerness is tempered by a barely subdued anger bubbling just below the surface. Like all the major characters, Tidus is well-drawn and well-rounded, going far beyond the typical RPG archetypes. Tidus also continues to grow and change throughout the game—as do his friends—which further drew me in to his struggles, his world and the quest he's on.

All of this gets an extra breath of life thanks to the excellent voice-acting. Leading off the pack is James Arnold Taylor's spot-on portrayal of Tidus. Taylor finds that tricky balance between bright-eyed exuberance and existential fatigue, and he ably expresses this difficult mix throughout the game. His performance is matched by other top-quality portrayals that extend from the stars (my favorite being Tara Strong's utterly adorable Rikku) all the way down to the bit parts. It's just too bad that Yuna's voice doesn't live up to the others—especially since she's the game's co-star. Voiced by actress Hedy Burress, Yuna speaks with a forced breathiness that never rings true. Even worse, her obnoxious overusage of the pregnant pause had me thinking that she graduated from the William Shatner School of Voice Acting—and has since gone on to be a tenured professor there. The other problem? At times it's too obvious that the U.S. voice-actors had to match their performances to the already-rendered on-screen action, creating scenes where the dramatic timing can be a bit off.

But these flaws stand out only because the game is such a dramatic masterpiece. As I said before, the story is the tightest one yet, with a clear focus and a well-constructed narrative arc. Along the way, you're treated to numerous stirring scenes, some rich with celebration, others fraught with peril, still others imbued with breathtaking beauty. Many scenes stand out, but one in particular comes to mind. It starts off early in the game, right after the major blitzball tourney, with an embarrassingly melodramatic sequence. Much later, though, the story returns to that moment via a flashback, and in the context of all the startling revelations, this once-cheesy moment is suddenly suffused with poignancy, dripping with nostalgic wistfulness. Wow. Now, that's an achievement. I mean, how many games have the sheer audacity to reach back into their own depths, pull out a wince-inducing scene, and then pull off the amazing feat of changing the very tone and relevance of that moment? That takes courage.

Which, of course, all adds up to one fine role-playing experience. But what of the gameplay? Well, despite being an "RPE," FFX still packs in more quality gameplay than most RPGs could ever hope for, with the finest battle system yet for the series. The all-new Conditional Turn-based Battle system injects a much-needed dose of strategy into the combat, forcing you to really think your way through some of the tough boss fights later in the game. Even better, you can now switch in any of your seven allies whenever you want—which you'll need to do in order to get through the game. These upgrades fix two of my biggest gripes with the series. First, you no longer have a cast of unused characters; you really do need to use everyone at all times. Second, the pacing of the battles is much better. The artificially induced panic of the constantly ticking clock from the old Active-Time Battle system is gone, replaced with the more relaxed but also more challenging CTB system. Routine fights go by quicker if you choose the right characters to square off against the right monsters. The boss battles are more complex. And combat is much more dramatic.

This CTB setup is perfectly complemented by FFX's innovative new Sphere Grid. Turning the notion of experience points on its ear, FFX offers a purely visual interface that you navigate using items gained primarily through battle. What's so brilliant about the Grid is that it offers an enticing illusion of free will. Each character starts off at a different point on the Grid, and as such is limited in his or her choices early on. Wakka, for example, is a heavyweight brawler, while Lulu is your black mage. But as you go on, you start to open up the Grid, unlocking all kinds of possibilities. Yet even during those early stages, the visual setup and the appeal of simply fiddling around on the Grid made it feel like I was building up my characters from scratch in the manner of my choosing—even though that's far from what was going on. As a longtime FF fan, I found the Grid to be the perfect balance between the free-form job system of FFV and the more regimented class systems of games like FFVI and FFIX.

As you'd expect, all of this can get quite complicated later in the game, but FFX eases you into the action with a gentle but extended learning curve. In fact, it wasn't until 18 hours in that I finally was able to customize my weapons—and that still wasn't the last new thing I learned. By the end of the game, hardcore players will be happily plumbing the depths of FFX, while more casual gamers will be ready and able to handle whatever's thrown at them.

The best Final Fantasy yet? Undoubtedly. I might have liked the cast of FFIX better. Other "more hardcore" types may still prefer FFV's battle system or FFVI's story. But as a whole, this one can't be beat. From the plot to the graphics to the unparalleled gameplay, FFX is light-years beyond anything else. Whether you see it as a role-playing game or a role-playing experience, FFX is one of the best overall experiences out there.

Final Fantasy X

Each installment of the Final Fantasy series has featured strong storytelling, characterization, and strategic combat, fun minigames, and hours upon hours of captivating gameplay. The 10th title in the series is no exception. This is the first time a Final Fantasy game has appeared on the PlayStation2, and it takes full advantage of the increased technical capabilities.

The story this time concerns Tidus, a blond-haired star of a sport called Blitzball. While he is playing in a match, Tidus's city is attacked by an evil force called Sin, and everything is destroyed save Tidus and his guardian Auran. The adventure begins as the pair are somehow transported to another world. From here on, it's standard Final Fantasy gameplay: fight battles, manage experience points, learn new powers, and recruit a motley crew of nonplayer characters to join your quest.

The graphics, however, take things to a new level. They are amazing not only for their realism, but also for their imaginative art design. The world these heroes inhabit is breathtakingly beautiful, flowing, and full of inventive surprises. You haven't lived until you've surfed cables high in the air, or ridden a graceful airship through the clouds. The stunning effects are on display when you use magic in combat, summon gigantic monsters, and use fire columns to devastate your foes.

One new element is voice acting. The innovation yields predictably mixed results: it's wonderful to hear spoken dialogue rather than read subtitles, but as with most games translated from Japanese, the acting is mediocre and sometimes unintentionally hilarious.

Still, the game's new graphics engine and solid gameplay are sure to please fans of the series waiting to see what Square has in store for them. While Final Fantasy X doesn't offer much innovation, it also doesn't disappoint. And fortunately, with Final Fantasy XI already in development, the title is still a misnomer.

Final Fantasy IX

As with the other games in the series, Final Fantasy IX has the ability to grab your attention from the time you fire it up until the last boss is put down. Previous entries into the game's lineage took a more dramatic, cinematic route to do what a role-playing game does best--tell a story. That style led to some complaints from headstrong fans and role-playing gamers alike. In response to this, while not sacrificing what new technology they've built into the series, SquareSoft has backtracked a bit. To put it simply, they've gone back to their roots while forging ahead.

When we last left the Final Fantasy characters, Princess Garnet was starting to break out of her shell and put to rest the notion that she was a snob. The kidnapping attempt by Zidane, oddly enough, started a few new friendships. Story elements continuously roll on, never leaving you to wonder for too long. Vivi, you may remember, started out as a Black Mage, and the Queen of Alexandria's story was left far from finished as well.

But even players with no experience in this series can pick this up as a new game. Final Fantasy IX's story follows a group trying to stop Brahne, the evil Queen of Alexandria, in her quest to rule the world. Zidane, a skilled thief, teams with a young mage, a royal knight, and a princess, who all soon discover that the queen's threats are fronting an even more sinister plot involving a powerful sorcerer named Kuja. It's your job to control the eight playable characters--each of whom begin the game with one weapon, one piece of armor, and one special power--and to uncover Kuja's motives before he carries out his deadly plan.

The game's opening sequence sets the stage for what's to follow and, as we've come to expect from the CG wizards at SquareSoft, what is an utterly amazing visual scene. Long-time fans should go ga-ga over SquareSoft's decision to return to the disproportional-character look of the past. While the change in the last game was interesting, realistic characters didn't quite work well within the established Final Fantasy universe. With the beloved wizards returned, the entire look is now much more medieval. Did anyone say "Chocobo"?

Like VII and VIII, Final Fantasy IX uses the ATB (Active Time Battle) system. Each character learns the abilities and commands appropriate to his or her job class. There are two major ability types: support and action. Action abilities use Magic Points (MP) and include commands such as Black Magic, Steal, White Magic, and Summon. Characters can go into trances after repeated physical attacks from enemies. When the trance gauge, located below the ATB gauge, reaches maximum capacity, the character goes into a trance, the commands change, and the character's attacks become more powerful. Up to four characters can be in the active party, but players can summon Guardian Forces, called Eidolons, into battle in Final Fantasy IX. Many of the Eidolons from Final Fantasy VIII return in this game, including Carbuncle, Bahamut, Odin, Ifrit, Shiva, and (naturally) Leviathan.

An Active Time Event (ATE) lets you see events that are happening elsewhere. For example, while you are controlling the main character in a town, you can view what the other characters are doing in another part of the same town. This function provides additional information and behind-the-scenes details about the story and the characters. You can only view ATEs when the ATE option appears onscreen, however.

The game's visual splendor touches even the most ordinary scenes, such as shadows in the street alleys and the mazes of cobblestones. Final Fantasy IX's color palette does a remarkable job in creating interest on every single object, location, and person.

SquareSoft claims their intention in Final Fantasy IX, as the last single-digit game in the series, was to assert the idea of progress. Not satisfied with looking back at previous accomplishments, they simply explain that this is just the beginning. But to that end, this will truly be the final Fantasy on the PlayStation as the series heads to greener pastures of the next-generation consoles.

With its awesome graphics, a good story, and random battles that reveal curious bits about each character, Final Fantasy IX is an epic adventure that'll have long-time fans of the acclaimed series beaming with pride and joy. As for everyone else who has yet to experience the Fantasy, now is the time!