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, well...it'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.