Square's Final Fantasy series is one of the longest running, most prolific, most critically acclaimed lines of games ever. That means each new installment in the series needs to be exceedingly good--since the company has outdone itself on so many occasions, millions of fans expect each new Final Fantasy to be even better than all its predecessors. Whether they truly end up better is the subject of never-ending debate among Final Fantasy fans, but one thing is certain: Each new Final Fantasy game is a momentous occasion.
Final Fantasy X features a brand-new cast of characters...
It's been crystal clear for months that Final Fantasy X would be no exception. Countless screenshots, movie files, and bits of information have propagated all over the Internet, revealing the game's stunning good looks and much of its back story. Of course, it isn't enough for Final Fantasy X to look good--since it's Square's first role-playing game for the PlayStation 2, it's reasonable to expect Final Fantasy X to improve upon every aspect of the series beyond just the graphics. The good news is that, by and large, that's exactly what it does. Overall, Final Fantasy X is a remarkably well done role-playing game that offers plenty of just about everything that's ever been good about the series. At the same time, it takes the series in interesting new directions and refines many of the series' most important elements, such as the turn-based combat and the character-advancement system. Perhaps even more importantly, Final Fantasy X weaves an engrossing, memorable story filled with a number of great characters. Beyond that, it's a very challenging game that's even longer than most any of its predecessors and is certainly longer than most other PlayStation 2 games. If you've been waiting for the definitive role-playing game for the PlayStation 2, here it is.
Recent games in the Final Fantasy series have followed a tried-and-true formula, and for the most part, Final Fantasy X follows it too. That is, like its predecessors, this isn't a game you can play for a few minutes at a time. Much of the game revolves around epic, drawn-out battles between your party of characters and Final Fantasy X's gigantic, villainous monsters. Much of the game consists of your having to watch lengthy noninteractive story sequences, in which the game's plot gradually unravels in the conversations between Final Fantasy X's protagonists. Much of Final Fantasy X is purely optional--though the game will take you no fewer than 40 hours to complete the first time through, you could easily spend twice as long exploring some of its late-game side quests and searching for suitably rewarding secrets. Not every player will be willing or even prepared to spend this much time with the game, and it's more than likely that not everyone will even be able to finish the game, either. So if you're a hard-core fan of the series and are wondering whether Square is loosening the reigns, dumbing Final Fantasy down to make it accessible to an even broader audience, then rest assured that's definitely not the case.
...and a refined version of the series' signature turn-based combat.
On the other hand, if you haven't played much Final Fantasy before, then don't feel too intimidated by Final Fantasy X. It's easy to get into and includes plenty of good tutorial information built right into the game. As long as you're ready to commit some time and energy to it, then Final Fantasy X is a perfectly good place for new players to get acquainted with the series. Like all Final Fantasy games, this one's plot is completely unrelated to any of its predecessors, although series fans will appreciate all the subtle references to the previous games.
The visual style of Final Fantasy X most closely resembles that of Final Fantasy VIII for the PlayStation, which was the first game in the series to give its characters a more lifelike appearance instead of a cartoonlike one. The hero of Final Fantasy X is Tidus, a teenager all decked out in decidedly garish clothes and sporting bleached, feathered hair. Unlike many Final Fantasy protagonists, Tidus apparently isn't a shy, stoic youth, but rather an outgoing, cheerful person. You might not take a liking to him right off the bat--he's a jock and can be a bit arrogant--but in time, you'll find him to be suitably endearing and to have the same kind of surprising depth that's characterized past Final Fantasy heroes.
Soon into the game, you'll meet Tidus' companions, who will generally remain by his side throughout the duration of Final Fantasy X. These include Auron, a veteran swordsman whose stolid demeanor doesn't quite disguise that he clearly knows much more than he lets on; Wakka, a big guy with a big heart, who quickly befriends Tidus; Lulu, a sultry yet emotionless magic user; Rikku, an upbeat girl with a mysterious heritage; Yuna, a beautiful and determined young summoner; and Kimahri, a silent creature that's like a cross between a man and a lion--only bluer. You'll learn much about all these characters over the course of Final Fantasy X, though some are developed better than others. Still, Final Fantasy X is a long game and takes plenty of time to flesh out its diverse cast of characters.
Final Fantasy X is one of the longest games in the series.
Character advancement is one of the defining aspects of any role-playing game, and Final Fantasy X uses an interesting system for it that's rather different from that of most such games. Instead of gaining experience levels as you win battles, you gain points that you then use on what's called the sphere grid. The sphere grid is like a large board-game map, though it looks more like a maze. At almost every step of the grid, you'll find points that raise attributes such as strength, hit points, magic power, agility, and more and other points that teach new spells and new special abilities. Characters start out at different points on the grid, and the surrounding area on the grid will roughly correspond to their inherent talents. For instance, Auron will often reach points that increase his strength and defense ratings, accentuating his skills as a swordsman. Lulu will start closest to where all the powerful, damaging black-magic spells reside. Yuna will be your primary healer. There are points where the sphere grid branches off, and you can look for these and plan ahead to develop your characters in a particular fashion. Also, some points of the sphere grid are initially locked, and you won't be able to access them until you gain certain items later in the game. This keeps your party balanced commensurately with the game's challenges. Throughout most of the game, the sphere grid will ensure that each character's role within the group is well defined. Also, since you gain sphere grid points after almost every battle, you'll find that Final Fantasy X's character-advancement system is constantly rewarding--you'll just keep getting stronger.
The sphere grid is where you'll improve your characters' stats.
The sphere grid isn't the only way to build up your characters. You'll eventually gain the ability to add special properties to your weapons and armor, though most equipment you'll find will have particular properties already ascribed. For instance, one weapon might let you automatically counterattack the foe each time you're hit. Another stands a chance of inflicting a deadly poison on the enemy or causing it to fall asleep. Certain types of armor can make you immune to debilitating effects such as blindness, petrifaction, or confusion. Others can make you resistant to elemental effects such as fire and ice. There's an immense amount of variety here, though most of these properties will be familiar to those who have played previous Final Fantasy games. Beyond their special properties, weapons and armor unfortunately have little purpose in Final Fantasy X, as your characters' equipment doesn't really affect their attack and defense ratings as you might expect. Still, there's a lot of strategy to be found in using different equipment--you can even switch weapons or armor in the middle of battle if you have to.
Combat in Final Fantasy X looks similar to that of other games in the series but features a few key innovations that make it more involved. You can have up to three characters active at a time--down from Final Fantasy IX's four-character teams. However, any time it's your turn, you can swap your active party member for one of his or her friends who's not currently fighting--so essentially, you have seven characters in battle and not just three. The game is still balanced for three-character teams, since you can only swap in a new party member during one of your character's turns, and you can't replace someone who's been knocked out or incapacitated unless you revive him or her first. Likewise, if all three of your active characters should be defeated, it's game over.
This system may not make logical sense--why don't the characters on the sidelines just do something as their friends are getting beaten down?--but it helps make the combat very tactical. Two factors contribute to this: The first is that many weapons have an innate ability to detect how many hit points your enemies have remaining, thus preventing you from having to fight blindly, with no indication of how close you are to victory. The second is that Final Fantasy X gives you the prescience to see the order in which all the combatants are going to act in subsequent turns. This ability, together with the ability to switch characters on the fly--this doesn't even cost you your character's turn--means you can try to anticipate your enemy's move and swap each of your uniquely different characters into and out of battle as necessary.
Extremely detailed 3D character models bring the game to life.
You'll probably notice that some of your characters seem more powerful than others. The game suitably justifies this in context--Auron is supposed to be the best fighter in the group, and he is. Every character does have his or her own useful abilities, though it's still too bad that you'll probably have to rely on certain characters much more than others. In any event, a character won't gain experience from battle unless he or she actually does something during the fight, so it's in your best interest to make sure everyone sees some action. Besides, you won't have access to all seven characters in every single situation.