After spending a few hours playing the latest from Square, I can say I feel it is a great improvement over the last few Final Fantasy titles. This is only my collection of first impressions, not a final review. With that said, here is Final Fantasy X after playing approximately three hours into the game.
Graphically speaking, Final Fantasy X is the best the PlayStation 2 currently has to offer. Continuing Square's tradition of sensuous games, Final Fantasy X brings together polygonal game play with smooth-flowing Full Motion Video (FMV). The transition is sometimes so smooth that you don't notice you're watching FMV until well into the movie.
The major concern to me was the introduction of voices into Final Fantasy. Unless the characters are believable and full of emotion, voices have the potential to ruin even the most powerful story. However, while Square's translations have not been error-free in the past, it's more difficult to speak incoherently than to type that way, so the localization itself should be improved.
So, do they ruin the flow of the story, or make it all the more complete? At first, I found Tidus' voice to be fairly flat. As the story continued, I felt the voice actor became more comfortable with the character, and that quickly made him more realistic with reactions to the story. I laughed when Tidus moaned "Uhh...hungry" early in the game. I don't know why, but that cracked me up. I actually believed that Tidus was really starving to death. The other characters didn't seem as flat as Tidus was, and I feel they have done a worthy job of making the voices and characters mesh into a complete person.
Mini-games have become a big part of Final Fantasy of late. Final Fantasy VI and VII have special areas where players could spend hours wasting time and money with special games for great items and other prizes. Final Fantasy VIII and IX brought players the highly distracting card games of Triple Triad and Tetra Master, respectively. For Final Fantasy X, Blitzball will be the mini-game that will add many more hours to the player's game clock. So far, all Blitzball games have been played without player intervention, but I eagerly anticipate my first interactive game of Blitzball.
With each new Final Fantasy game, Square recreates the way the characters grow into the ultimate heroes. In Final Fantasy X, experience points are no more. Instead, characters that take part in a battle will gain AP points. After a number of points have been earned, the character earns a Sphere Point. Other than items and Gil, this is the only payback for removing monsters from the world.
A player will spend Sphere Points on the Sphere Grid, accessible from the main menu. The Sphere Grid is hard to explain, but easy to use. Think of a really large game board from the old days. Each of the characters start at a certain point on the board and move around the board by spending Sphere Points. At each point, the character can gain new abilities or stats from the node they are on, or any adjacent node from the current position. All characters can reach and use all nodes on the board, but I assume this takes a very long time to accomplish.
Battles have been sped up dramatically from the previous Final Fantasy games. No longer do you sit and wait for the camera to pan the battlefield, zoom in on the characters, and then wait for your menu to appear. Instead, battle transitions are usually a flash of light, water ripples, or other quick effect, and then the battle starts. With the removal of the Active Time Battle (in place since Final Fantasy IV), battles are turn based. A turn queue is in the top right corner, showing who will play next. Actions other than attack may move a character up or down the queue, so keep your eye on the box in a close battle.
Final Fantasy X is the first RPG from Square for Sony's PlayStation 2. Square uses the knowledge and experience garnered from previous games, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, to bring another highly visual story to RPGamers. They also avoid many of the mistakes RPGamers singled out in previous Final Fantasy titles. If the story stays solid, Final Fantasy X could be the best game for the young PlayStation 2 so far. With the limited release only a week away, the hype for the "next Final Fantasy" is already well underway. This time, it may be justified.