Final Fantasy X
Despite its limits, Square Enix's rich epic is one of those rare games with the power to truly fascinate the player.
It's not often that a game is so addicting and engrossing that it dominates your thinking and receives higher priority than eating and sleeping. The feeling of anxiousness to get back in front of the television and play more of a game is a commanding one, and a game that accomplishes that has served its purpose: to entertain. Such is the case with Final Fantasy X, an epic that, like Frank Sinatra, leaves you wanting more. By the end, you want more of the gameplay, you want more of the plot and characters, and you want more of the emotions you feel while you live in the fantastic world Square Enix has crafted. Of course, the game is not perfect: there are flaws riddled throughout. However, Final Fantasy X gets credit, for although it lacks in some areas, the player cannot help but overlook these mistakes and let the game carry him or her away into the rich story and entertaining gameplay.
The plot has always been an essential part of the Final Fantasy franchise, and X is no different. The player is treated to the usual elements of a Final Fantasy game: a minor conflict escalating into cataclysmic proportions, a myriad of minor characters with various quirks appearing multiple times, on-screen romance, explosions here and there, not to mention time-travel. The characters are generally sympathetic, and the player will feel certain emotions right away: a respect for certain characters and doubts about others. The main character, Tidus, is one of the latter. The whining and selfishness of Tidus brought with it more than its share of annoyances early on. However, the transformation of Tidus from a brat who thinks the world is against him into a leader and a man who deals with the circumstances he has been placed in is, to me, the most fascinating and rewarding part of the game. The writers also do a more than adequate job twisting the plot here and then to keep gamers on their toes.
The conflict in Spira (the world in which X takes place) arises from Sin, a monstrous...thing, for lack of a better word, that is a cross between a hurricane and a whale. Sin goes around Spira destroying civilizations and killing many people on a regular basis. Your party of 7 has embarked on a religious pilgrimage to stop Sin, and the path is long and hard. Square Enix has built in an intriguing sense of mystery and tragedy into the plot, but it has its moments of humor as well. The characters must confront their own fears and shortcomings along their journey, and there is a definite tension in the air as they approach their final destination.
The complaints arising from critics however, are not unfounded. The plot is indeed very linear and the traditional "overworld," which includes side-quests and exploration, is not offered until very late in the game. Cutscenes take up a large portion of playing time, and certain ones cannot be paused, sometimes forcing the player to ignore nature's call while another 20-minute FMV plays. To X's credit however, these cutscenes are worth the wait and usually essential to the fascinating plot.
RPGs have always been plagued with the accusation of being boring, especially turn-based games. And the critics are often right: few turn-based RPGs can grasp an audience opposed to the slow and indirect fighting styles usually associated with them. In Final Fantasy X, this is not the case. While certain parts of the plot may be boring or the occasional walk from Point A to Point B drags on too long, the battle system itself is usually fulfilling and anything but boring.
Instead of the customary bar (called the Active Time Bar) that fills up by the character's name and determines when you attack, a turn chart is incorporated. The characters go in the order determined on the chart based on speed, the intensity of previous attacks and other statistics. You select an action only when it is a character's turn, and nothing happens if you do not give a command. This makes gameplay especially convenient, and trips to the bathroom or fridge do not disrupt a battle. The advantages of this system are simple: it allows more planning, encourages strategy, and shifts the focus on correct usage of the characters rather than a frenzy of attacks based on the ATB. Additionally, party members can be switched in and out, a deviation from the usual "pick your group of 3" system. This makes battles a little easier and experience is more manageable. The downsides are acknowledged by the more traditional crowd who favor the attack bars as they simulated real battle decisions and gave attacks a sense of urgency. Overall, the battle system is fresh and different, true to the tradition of Final Fantasy.
While traveling through Spira each character has a specific role (black mage, white magician, piercing attacks), but thanks to the Sphere Grid, all can be customized to a certain degree as well. The Sphere Grid is an innovative way of leveling up. It might seem complicated, but in reality it merely takes a little effort to understand. When experience is awarded, the characters receive "Sphere Levels" instead of character levels. These spheres can then be used to travel around the grid and acquire better statistics or more advanced skills. While each character has his or her own abilities to master, they can venture into other character's areas as well. Naturally, a black mage won't be able to heal as well as the healer of the group, but this skill can be convenient to have in a pinch. Even more useful are the multiple opportunities to upgrade stat points (HP, MP, etc.) by exploring other character's grids. This gives the characters in the game balance: there is a distinct advantage to each character, but one that is lacking can be improved drastically with some strategic use of the Sphere Grid.
It is hard to judge the difficulty of an RPG precisely: to a hardcore player who dedicates time to leveling up early, bosses later can be swept aside. On the other hand, an average player who wishes to advance the plot tends to rush through the game, avoiding random encounters when possible and struggling against difficult foes. I strove for a happy medium between these two extremes and found the game to be challenging but not overwhelming. The most frustrating battles are ones where your characters are systematically disabled via status attacks (sleep, petrifaction, poison) or the enemy's HP is ridiculously high. Unlike FF8, overdrives/limit breaks are accessible rarely and do not do gigantic damage to an opponent. A boss with high HP usually takes quite some time, and this can be especially frustrating if you have to repeat the battle. Certain bosses will have weaknesses that are easily exploitable, but in general, battles with bosses take a goodly amount of time since character attacks will not do as much as in previous games when compared to bosses' HP. The difficulty seems to be just right after the player begins to understand how the battles are best fought: as the characters increase in level and skill, the bosses become more difficult accordingly.
Summons return in all of their powerful glory and visual splendor, known as aeons in X. Furthermore, they no longer function as a simple attack in battle; instead, they are treated like a party member, and the rest of the party fades away to allow your aeon to do battle. Each can learn new moves using items and has an overdrive that unleashes significant damage. Additionally, each is resistant to a certain type of magic and uses spells of that type as well as physically attacking. The summons have never looked so good or been as important as in X.
There is always a mini-game in Final Fantasy games, and X follows suit with "blitzball", a game played underwater resembling a cross of rugby and water polo. While this plays a small role in the plot, important prizes (and an overdrive) can be won through this game. It is a much larger mini-game than previous endeavors: your team must be scouted, organized, and can be set to copy moves off of other players. Matches last many minutes and are strategic in more ways than one. While this offers a refuge from the plot (which can drag a little at times) and a fun time, I generally found it lacking. FF8's card game was more suitable for RPGs as it was simple, strategic, and there were stakes involved. Blitzball was a difficult commitment to make time-wise and was very slow going at the start. On the plus side, chocobos are of course present in X as well, which are fun to ride on and train (especially since they rid you of those pesky random encounters).