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Final Fantasy: The Next Generation
More than 10 years have passed since Final Fantasy was released in North America, and in that time the series has become synonymous with the name "Square". While Square releases many other quality games, none of them grab the attention of RPGamers like the Final Fantasy titles. Final Fantasy X only intensifies the attention, as many people purchased the PlayStation 2 in anticipation of the next Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy X's story centers on Tidus, the star blitzball player for the Zanarkand Abes. During the blitzball game, Zanarkand is attacked and Tidus is knocked out. When he comes to, Tidus finds himself in a strange land known as Spira. There, he meets a summoner known as Yuna, and her guardians, Wakka and Lulu. Yuna is on a pilgrimage to defeat Sin, the terror of Spira. Sin is a massively powerful beast that attacks at will, leaving mass destruction in its wake. The only hope for Spira is for a summoner, like Yuna, to gain enough power to defeat Sin and bring peace back to the world. Tidus decides to join Yuna on her quest to defeat Sin.
Final Fantasy X introduces several deviations from previous Final Fantasy titles. As Square continues to improve and innovate the game mechanics, the player must adapt to new methods of play. Final Fantasy X follows this pattern by replacing experience points with Ability Points (AP). Characters who actively participate in the battle earn AP. The accumulation of AP earns the character Sphere Levels, which are spent to move on the Sphere Grid.
Instead of levels, characters gain stats and abilities via the Sphere Grid. The Sphere Grid is hard to explain, but think of it as a large game board. Instead of spaces, there are spheres. Some contain stat bonuses (Hit Points, Magic Points, Strength Magic Defense, etc), and some contain abilities (Magic, Skills, Special, etc). Each character starts at a specific point on the Sphere Grid. Lock Spheres keep characters on a specific path until midway through the game. Once Key Spheres become accessible, the application of new characteristics is completely up to the player. Any used sphere is marked so the character may not use it again, but every character can use every sphere in the grid. While it's not easy to explain, the Sphere Grid is easy to learn, and the system works very well.
Another major change is the battle system. Final Fantasy has had Active Time Battle since the fourth game. This was removed for Final Fantasy X, changing the emphasis from speed to a slower-paced battle. Anyone who dislikes being rushed in their game would welcome this change. Square also removed the superfluous panning around the battle area, making the transition from world to battle quick and efficient. Once in the battle, three characters stand ready. In Final Fantasy X, all characters are instantly available for use. This helps spread AP to all members, as well as allowing for all abilities to be used whenever they are needed. For example, Tidus, Yuna, and Wakka could start the battle. Since there is no need for healing at the start of the battle, Lulu could be chosen to replace Yuna without a loss of a turn. However, unless Yuna returns to assist the fight, she will not gain any AP for the battle.
The newest ultra-powerful attacks for Final Fantasy are called Overdrives. These initially occur when a player takes enough damage to fill the Overdrive gauge. During the game, each character will learn different ways to earn overdrives, based on how they act in battle. For example, those who heal will learn Healer mode, those who kill many monsters will learn Slayer mode. Once a new mode is given to the character, the player has to choose which to use in the main menu. This allows characters to use spells that protect against damage without making a trade-off for the powerful, sometimes necessary, special attacks. Most Overdrives will bring up a specific command to activate the power of the attack. If the player fails to execute the command required, the attack will be far less powerful, but still deal out more damage than a normal attack.
Finally, we have the largest change to Final Fantasy to date: voiceovers. Many RPG's have used voices in battle sequences, but Final Fantasy X takes it one step further with complete vocal replies no matter when the character has something to say, whether in a movie, in battle, or in casual conversation. While the effort the voice actors expended to create the correct feel should be congratulated, the game itself suffers from many problems caused by localization. With Square's Real-Time Facial System, the mouths are supposed to move with the words. This is clearly not the case. The analogy that comes to mind comes from Star Fox, where the mouths continue to move, even though the character stopped talking a few motions ago. In addition to the desynchronization of motion, there are many awkward pauses between characters' lines that distract from their dialogue. While these problems do not hurt the story specifically, they are quite noticeable.
One thing that has not changed from recent Final Fantasy titles is the inclusion of mini-games to entertain the player. While there are many small pleasant distractions like the Monster Arena and Chocobo Training, the most prominent mini-game is blitzball. Spira's main distraction from the hardships of life is blitzball, so there is an elaborate league and tournament system established. The player takes control of the Besaid Aurochs, the worst team in Spira, and tries and turn them into a team capable of winning it all. Players in the game of blitzball earn experience and gain levels and stats. Tidus must search Spira for the most talented players, wait for them to become free agents, and sign them onto his team. Earn rare items, new blitzball techniques, and Overdrives for Wakka by winning blitzball games and tournaments. Blitzball is a solid mini-game that is implemented well and is very addictive.
In Final Fantasy X, for the first time, Square did not leave the score completely up to Nobuo Uematsu. Instead, Junya Nakano, Masashi Hamauzu, and Uematsu all combined their talents to bring a new musical sensation to Final Fantasy. While Uemastu's signature was rather prominent on his pieces, very few of the pieces made a lasting impression on me. One exception was Otherworld, played during the blitzball match in Zanarkand. Uematsu's attempt at metal music is worth mentioning in any review, and the fact that his attempt was successful exemplifies his musical talent.
To top off all that Final Fantasy X has to offer, it also continues the graphical dominance Square is famous for. Using polygonal environments throughout most of the game, the view can follow the players far more closely than previously possible. Transition from game play to movie is nearly flawless. Load times are minuscule, if they exist at all. The movies themselves are filled with vibrant, powerful scenes, with stunning visuals. They are simply something to behold.
Final Fantasy X has been hyped, much like its predecessors were in their day, as the game to own for the PlayStation 2. With the console just over a year old, the RPG genre is now flushed with titles just in time for the holiday season. The release of Final Fantasy X was moved up, making it a title for others to contend with, even in its limited release. Those who purchase Final Fantasy X, either this year or next, will hold possibly the best Square has ever offered to RPGamers.
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