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VIDEO GAME REVIEW

FFX: the Final Say in Fantasy

Latest Adventure Marks Series Debut on PlayStation 2 Console

By Sandra Chung
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR

Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy series is an institution in the world of role-playing video games. Engrossing storylines, vivid characters, and addictive gameplay established the popularity and reputation of the series on the first two Nintendo consoles, the Nintendo Game Boy, the Sony PlayStation, and the PC. Final Fantasy X is the latest installment in the series and the first created exclusively for the PlayStation 2. FFX embroiders classic father versus son, spirituality versus technology, and good versus evil conflicts into a story of love, friendship, and hope in a richly detailed world.

Spira, the world of FFX, is an odd mixture of medieval weaponry, magic, mythology, and modern Japanese style. Spira is overshadowed by Sin, an enormous monster that brings death and destruction. The religion of the land considers the aptly named beast divine punishment for the overuse of machina, or technology. Summoners, a group of gifted beings who have the ability to control powerful creatures called aeons, undergo an arduous pilgrimage in hopes of obtaining the Final Aeon, the only force that can defeat Sin and bring temporary peace to Spira. Caught in a depressing cycle of death and fear, the people of Spira turn to blitzball, a wildly popular game akin to underwater soccer, as their chief entertainment.

The story centers around Tidus, a star blitzball player who survives a massive catastrophe only to be swept into an unfamiliar world. He is rescued from the sea by the Al Bhed, a seafaring desert people who speak a strange language (which the player can decode by finding Al Bhed ‘primers’ throughout the game). After another disaster he washes up on the Isle of Besaid, where Wakka, the goofy, loyalty-inspiring leader of the local blitzball team, recruits him for a tournament. Wakka is also one of the guardians of Yuna, a young summoner at the beginning of her pilgrimage, and events at the blitzball tournament make it clear that Wakka’s place -- and Tidus’ -- is with Yuna on her journey across Spira for the Final Aeon.

With FFX, Squaresoft leaves no doubts about its ability to exploit the processing power of the 128-bit PlayStation 2. Ample cut scene and motion capture footage accompany breathtakingly beautiful backdrops and expressive, detailed characters. Characters move and fight in a wholly three-dimensional world, with smooth changes in perspective (completely out of the player’s control and sometimes rapid and confusing, unfortunately). The score, too, lives up to high Final Fantasy standards, with longtime FF composer Nobuo Uematsu returning to channel Spira’s morbid beauty with elegant, morose piano themes and a love song, “Suteki Dane” (“Isn’t It Beautiful”).

Final Fantasy X is the first game in the series to include voice acting for all the main characters and several minor figures. Voices are the final step in bringing the series’ fantastic characters to life. Wakka’s hilarious antics and Lulu’s dry comments color cut scenes, world map conversations, and battles in a way that text alone never has. However, the voice talent is not remarkable; Wakka is the standout.

With soundtrack, voices, and lengthy cut scenes, Final Fantasy X often has the feel of a motion picture. None of the boss battles are particularly difficult, and players may be annoyed to find themselves watching more than doing. The first 90% of the game is largely story-driven and doesn’t allow for side quests or backtracking. However, the game opens up considerably just before the final battle, once the ubiquitous Final Fantasy airship is under the player’s control.

Squaresoft’s game design delegates ample control to the player and emphasizes customization and efficiency. Armor and weapons can be customized with different attributes such as poison resistance or elemental attacks. Aeons can be controlled like normal characters during battles, unlike their earlier counterparts, guardian forces and vespers. Aeon animations can also be set to short form when the player becomes tired of viewing the full summoning sequence.

FFX’s battle system offers even more variety. Overdrives, like the limit breaks of earlier FF games, temporarily increase characters’ attack power. Overdrive meters can be set to charge with inflicted damage, received damage, party victories, or a number of other events. Of the seven chief characters, three may be in battle at any one time, though and of the seven party members can be swapped in and out of the lineup during the battle. Character swapping proves handy in awarding experience to specific characters or charging their overdrive meters.

The most significant change in FFX from earlier FF games is in the character improvement system. Characters still gain levels by earning experience from fighting monsters. Instead of automatically gaining strength, hit points, defense, and magic as they level up, additional levels enable them to move about the Sphere Grid. The Grid consists of nodes set in concentric circles and connected by complicated, meandering pathways. Nodes contain power-ups such as additional hit points, spells, special skills, and magic defense. Characters can activated nearby nodes by using the appropriate spheres -- e.g. ability spheres, power spheres. Thus a sword-wielding character can be taught black magic or a mage can be honed into a formidable fighter.

Blitzball, FFX’s mini-game, plays a minor part in the plot but stands alone as an enjoyable game in itself. Each city in Spira hosts a blitzball team, and players can be recruited from other teams to play for the Besaid Aurochs (Tidus’s and Wakka’s team). Blitzball controls allow for varying degrees of difficulty and player control. Playing large amounts of blitzball is not essential to finishing FFX, but it can lead to valuable items that are difficult to obtain otherwise.

The game is not for impatient souls. The sphere grid appeals to control freaks but is tedious to use; enemy encounters are frequent and often inescapable; and the attractive cut scenes are long and unavoidable. A typical treatment of FFX requires around 60 hours of gameplay. All that effort, however, makes one appreciate the incredible ending even more.