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First Impressions
Final Fantasy X is, of course, unspeakably beautiful. You were expecting that, I'm sure, but it's worth mentioning again. Whatever you can say about the game design end of things, and I've said a little bit of it in my time, the series' creators include the absolute top of artistic talent in videogames today. It shows in every moment of the game, be it 3D, 2D, realtime, or pre-rendered. This game looks very, very good, and the effort it took to make it look that good is clearly in evidence.

The series' debut on PlayStation 2 almost completely sheds any trace of pre-rendered graphics, and on occasion it manages to look better than its predecessors regardless. It presents, as the recent FF games have, an original fantasy world, one visually and structurally alien, yet populates it with a cast that's recognizable and sympathetic -- there are sights to be confused and dwarfed by, and people to provide an anchor in the adventure through them. If it is not substantially different in concept or intent from what has preceded it, why should it be? In terms of sustained success, FF is arguably the most proven series in videogames.

That's not to say it hasn't shifted a few gears, of course. With Tetsuya Nomura back in the designer's seat, FFX is back to the anachronistic future/past melange of VIII, and seemingly analogous character arcs as well. The color palette is far brighter, though -- while VIII took two discs to thoroughly wash the grays and blacks out of the background, FFX is a riot of color from the very start. Right when Tidus firsts arrives on the screen, it's apparent: "he sure looks awful yellow, doesn't he?"

And away we go from there. VII and IX both got off to relatively quiet starts, and VIII had only the introductory duel to precede a fairly slow beginning. FFX, on the other hand, kicks off with a hell of a bang. After an amusing little interlude featuring Tidus' adoring public (he appears to be a legitimate star in the world of Blitzball, complete with groupies and autograph hounds), the first FMV sequence delivers a serious impact. A Blitzball game fades into Auron's introduction fades into unspeakable disaster, with the singularity that is Sin arriving to consume everything in its path. Its center absorbs chunks of the city, and monsters spawn out of it to destroy outlying areas. Auron and Tidus fight their way to the center of the destruction, where they are absorbed into it turn up...well, that's probably one of the central mysteries of the game.

Tidus' landing in the unfamiliar world is one of the game's first interesting uses of the realtime backgrounds. As you wander around the city during the introductory sequences, the camera moves to follow you and display the city around you, but the new graphics don't provide an original environment and perspective until Tidus winds up swimming through a ruined archipelago. The behind-the-back perspective and continuous camera movement provide an entirely different atmosphere from the static, single-screen backgrounds of the previous games -- it actually feels like you're stuck there in the middle of nowhere. The sense of distance and isolation couldn't be done in a situation where you knew that the rest of the story was just on the other side of the screen, especially since FFX gets rid of the traditional world map.

This world, like Tidus', is threatened by the encroaching power of Sin. Sin is, at this point, a somewhat nebulous concept. Sin is an invisible force. Yet Sin is also a gigantic hideous black-hole thing that launches black spawning horrors that our heroes have to battle. And to top it off, there's a small boy in a hood, barely as high as Tidus' waist, who appears to have something to do with Sin as well. The series has always had a bit of a trend towards gradually more threatening antagonists, but FFX is a substantial leap up that curve.

It's Sin that destroys Yuna's home, just as it obliterated the city in Tidus' world. That's the lead into the summoning dance that you've likely seen in several trailer movies -- despite the beautiful rendering, it's meant to be an occasion of mourning, to see off the spirits of all those who are killed in the disaster. That, I think, is meant to be the beginning of the story proper, the quest to defeat Sin and accomplish all the many tasks that will eventually lead up to that. The ending that is the beginning strikes a very somber note, but then there's never been a Final Fantasy that didn't have at least a hint of a happy conclusion.

The road to the ruined world that serves as the prologue before the main titles should be a long one, with plenty of battles throughout, and according to custom the battle system has again evolved a little to keep things interesting. Active Time Battle has grown a good deal more active, as well as more informative. The FFX battle GUI has been updated with a listing down the upper half of the right side that outlines the initiative progression for every combatant -- you can see what order the turns will progress at any given point, and it's updated in real time to reflect status effects and other changes. This also serves as a useful shorthand for selecting a spell or attack target.

The other big change is the ability to swap characters in and out, which you can perform during any character's turn. A menu comes up with the entire available party at the time, and the selected character subs in for the active character, maintaining a maximum party size of three. This obviously changes the game in several ways -- it should be easier to evenly develop your available characters, as well as defeat monsters suited to a particular character's skills. Of course, there should still be some situations when the option isn't available, like the gimmick battle against the final form of Jenova in FFVII.

Latest in a string of variations on the Limit Break system is Over Drive, which mixes the gauge development system and character-specific attacks of FFIX with the activation gimmicks from FFVIII. Each character becomes capable of an Over Drive attack when they take enough damage to fill their gauge -- subsequently, they have to complete a minor twitch challenge to activate the attack. Tidus just has to tap one button at the right time, while Auron is faced with Bust-a-Move-style button press sequences. In almost all cases, though, the result is the same: massive damage to your opponents. Some things never change, nor should they.

The summoning of monsters is as significant a game element as it was in FFIX, and handled in similar fashion -- one character is able to perform summon attacks. However, as noted earlier, summoned monsters usually become a fighting member of the party, rather than simply performing an attack and disappearing. Each creature has its own set of special attacks, as well as an Over Drive maneuver that brings to mind the one-shot summon attacks from the earlier games, and they take damage like an ordinary member of the party (a la FFVIII). However, their health is not linked to the summoning character, so if they die (rather unlikely, considering their strength), they merely depart to be revived later on.

Yuna, as you probably know, is the party's chief summoner, but her sister Lulu (the tall young lady in brown) possesses similar abilities, something between traditional summoning and the Blue Magic used in FFIX. Lulu's Over Drive attacks derive from a collection of dolls, most of which represent familiar Final Fantasy characters -- in the screens that go up over the next three days, you'll see both the Moogle and the Cactaur -- which attack to cause damage or status ailments. Lulu's attacks usually alter the target's status, but regardless of the usefulness of their effects, they're definitely worth seeing. The 128-bit Cactaur is, like his elder brethren, a treat to watch.

Each character has abilities that are unique to themselves, but FFX's development system is also designed with an eye towards sharing character abilities. Characters don't appear to level up and grow automatically as they have in most previous games -- instead, you develop them yourself on the Sphere Board, where each character's capabilities are outlined and linked together. This is a system that will require far more effort to understand completely, but it looks like its ultimate potential would be to allow characters to share abilities with the expenditure of enough development points. Each group of skills is represented by a Sphere on the board, which in turn is composed of a set of interconnected abilities. The larger spheres that represent the skill groups are connected by various small spheres, which seem to represent related skills that the interconnected groups have in common. A character can develop skills that are connected to the ones that it already has, and so it looks as if a character who spends the necessary points can make a connection to another sphere of abilities and learn the skills contained therein. The whole works is best represented visually, so look out for screens of the Sphere Board down in the media section below.

The game's nuts and bolts pale in terms of impact before its artistic qualities, of course, even those which seemed somewhat questionably going in. For example, I tried, as politely as I could, to note that Uematsu's compositions in Final Fantasy IX didn't quite have the edge of innovation that marked some of his earlier works. FFX I can hardly pass judgment on at this point, but if nothing else, it's something new -- the classical themes that set the standard farther back in the series are being gradually pushed out by more and more modern sounds. To counter the minor-key Crystal theme from FFIX, we now have the light pop version, which throws a moderate-tempo beat in with the classic harp melody (the same sound appears in the conclusion of the battle theme), and the presence of heavily distorted guitars should immediately wake you up during the Blitzball movies. The game and ensuing disaster are backed by what sounds like Japan's answer to Dope or Static-X, guttural nonsense lyrics included. It suits the FMV perfectly, but it's still a bit of a shock when the chords kick in.

The Blitzball mini-game, where you actually get to play what you see in that intro movie, is not quite an action-oriented affair. You swim about the 3D playfield in real time, but when you perform actions like passes and shots, you have to pull up an action menu, and success or failure is determined by the comparison of ability rankings. For example, if you want to pass the ball, the passing player's Pass Strength statistic is measured in comparison of the distance to the target player. If he lacks the necessary strength, the ball falls dead in transit to be picked up by whomever can snag it. Shooting works the same way, comparing the shooter's ability to the goalie's and factoring in the range of the shot. Rules for interception and the odd dirty play throw more complex elements into the mix, but unfortunately, Blitzball as you play it yourself isn't quite as exciting as the game presented in the early cinema sequences (but isn't that always the way?).

The game itself, however, would be getting closer and closer to equalling the quality of the pre-rendered sequences, if only those didn't keep surpassing their predecessors as well. While moments of cinematic animation are occasionally stiff, by and large the realtime characters express a remarkable degree of emotion through their body language. It's comparable to Chrono Cross, but with next-generation character models. Surprisingly, of all the changes to the game, it's the inclusion of voice acting that affects me the least -- strange, but true. Perhaps it's because Japanese tends to flow in one ear and out the other of a non-comprehending listener, but I don't think that's it. Rather, the addition of voice acting is the series' final step towards a completely cinematic presentation, concluding the progression that began when the games first chose the characters' names for you. Thus, it doesn't feel odd to play a Final Fantasy game with voices in it, because while the experience now differs from the previous games in the series, it's become almost exactly like watching a film, which is an experience that's thoroughly familiar. You now observe the game and absorb the information it presents exactly as you would anything else on your TV screen, at least in the cinematic sequences.

Of course, the series has been criticized in the 32-bit era for exactly this, becoming more of a movie and less of a game. I'd argue that such a complaint slightly misses the point, though. Cinematic elements are not the problem in and of themselves, it's their integration with gameplay that determines their worth -- witness Metal Gear, which manages to be all game and all movie all the time to brilliant effect. In the case of Final Fantasy, the line of demarcation is a little clearer, but so far the quality of both halves is such that I feel no reason to complain. The speedier battle system in FFX looks as if it may tidy up some complaints about the persistence of random battles, and the game throughout is so terribly beautiful I feel compelled to push through it just to look at it, absorbing the opulence. Just look at the movies and screens below, and think about the impact of this game firsthand. It is certainly breathtaking, and for my money, that is certainly the point.

Check back for the rest of the week to see continuous updates to the media section below (we're dividing the media we took during Square's visit into three roughly equal installments), and those of you with broadband connections should keep your eyes on IGNinsider, where we'll be posting high-resolution movies of selected moments.

-- David Smith

Previous Information
The Final Fantasy series is among the most popular franchises in Japan, videogame or otherwise, with only Dragon Quest and Pokļæ½mon having any arguments over it. The influence that the Final Fantasy name has in the Japanese videogame market can be best seen by looking at the market share of the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation before and after the announcement of Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation.

Up until Square's announcement that it would release Final Fantasy VII exclusively on PlayStation, the Sega Saturn and PlayStation were neck and neck in the console wars in Japan. As soon as Japanese gamers found out that Final Fantasy VII would be released on the PlayStation and not the Saturn, sales of the PlayStation began to increase steadily and it began to build a lead over the Saturn that would never let up.

Final Fantasy VII went on to sell over 3.26 million units in Japan, Final Fantasy VIII, went on to sell even more -- with 3.6 million units sold to date -- and while it hasn't reached the 3 million mark, Final Fantasy IX still sold a more than respectable 2.8 million units. And the entire series has sold more than 31 million copies worldwide.

What this means is that the Final Fantasy franchise is huge in Japan and Square's announcement way back at Square Millennium on January 29, 2000, which revealed that Final Fantasy X and XI were PlayStation 2 bound, will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the next generation system battles.

And after playing the demo of the game that was on playable at the recent TGS 2001 Spring, I strongly believe more than ever before FFX will have a significant impact on the upcoming console battles between PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube. It obviously doesn't mean PlayStation 2 will definitely win the war, but after seeing just how beautiful this game is, gamers around the world will understand that the Sony's black box is a very powerful gaming console.

Just like in Final Fantasy IX, which is the last completely original game Final Fantasy that will appear on the original PlayStation, Final Fantasy X marks a change in Square's direction with the series. The character designs in FFX, which have been created by Tetsuya Nomura, are less cyber-looking and more aimed towards a fantasy-style that was more common in earlier games in the Final Fantasy series, yet not in the super-deformed style that was used in FFIX.

The game's world will have a strong Asian influence, versus the European style seen in previous titles, which will be seen most in the juxtaposition of Western culture Asian architecture. One of the game's main themes will be travel, as players will be encouraged to explore the world, while other themes like interaction between different classes will be brought forth as the game's two main characters come from strikingly different backgrounds. Tidus is the lead male character in the game and Squaresoft has described him as an optimistic, unfaltering sportsman with a will to win. He's also a competitor in the underwater sport of Blitzball, which is said to be a combination of basketball and soccer.

Yuna is Final Fantasy X's lead female protagonist and she is said to convey a sense of honesty and innocence, while having the ability to summon Shin (spirits, Gods). She controls the summoned beasts in battle and the actual summons in the game were some of the amazing things that we've ever seen in our gaming lifetime.

Other confirmed characters in the game a sword fighter named Auron, a mage named Seymour, a thief named Rikku, and other characters named Wakka, Lulu and Kimari (the beast-like character in the screenshots with the horn coming out of his head). All are original designs by Tetsuya Nomura.

Unlike all previous Final Fantasy titles before it, FFX will feature a fully rendered 3D World map with fully polygonal objects on it. Previously, icons were used to represent towns and places, while this time around, they'll be rendered exactly as they appear when you go into them with a very subtle transition when moving between the world map and each area.

Furthermore, all of the game's backgrounds will be rendered in realtime and while the camera will not be adjustable by the player, it will automatically change its perspective to correspond with the movements of the player.

Whilst the game's creators didn't have the foresight to do away with the random encounters and go with the same route as Chrono Cross (apparently it was once again planned, but not able to be implemented -- in FFIX, the reason was that they would lose background detail), the battle system has been tweaked some. The general pace is much more akin to the SNES Final Fantasy games, which were generally quicker than what was offered in the PlayStation games.

The active time battle system that has become a staple in the series of late has been ditched in favor of a more strategic option. Most of the same options will be available, though, as characters will be able to perform a variety of moves including normal attacks, spells, Limit Breaks and character specific special abilities like Steal or Summon.

Unlike summons in previous Final Fantasy titles, they're no longer a one time special attack here in FFX. When Yuna summons a Shin, the beast will appear in a beautiful realtime sequence, just as in the PlayStation FFs, but won't just attack and disappear. The Shin will instead become a completely controllable character that has attacks similar to the other party members, including a normal attack, special attack and the ability to cast spells.

What's more, once powered up, the Shin is able to perform an Over Drive attack that's done by pressing left on the directional pad at the normal attack screen and then selecting the attack. The result is a tremendously powerful special attack that fills the screen with beautiful polygonal goodness and lets down the wrath of God on the opponent.

During battle, players will also be able to have characters change armor and weapons and if one isn't happy with the current character line-up, it's possible to switch between characters during the heat of battle, which is yet another first in the illustrious series. The character switching helps make up for the fact that the party size of the game is limited to only three active members.

Players will also be treated to several new mini-games that will include one based on Blitz-ball as well as another where the player must hunt for clues that will allow the player to master the language of Al Bhed. Blitz-ball is an underwater sport based on the sports of soccer and basketball and features six players per team, with the objective being to score points by getting the ball into the opponent's goal.

Another first for the series is the inclusion of character voices that are heard in game, during battle sequences and during the CG cut scenes. We haven't yet heard the English voiceovers, but Squaresoft isn't taking the dubbing of the game lightly and are putting a substantial amount of time and effort behind the U.S. localization.

From what we've seen, or rather heard, of the Japanese voices, they all seem to fit the characters quite well and are synched perfectly with the lip movements of the polygonal characters, making for realistic-looking conversations between CG characters. In order to do this, Square is implementing an all-new facial animation system, being dubbed "Facial Motion System", that is said to harness the power of PlayStation 2 to create realistic facial impressions in realtime.

And for those of you worried about the quality of the English voiceovers, there will definitely be an option to turn off the use of them completely in the options menu and most of the voiceovers can be skipped during in game segments, even with the option still on. We've been begging Square to put in an option for both English and Japanese voiceovers in the North American release of the title, but it seems unlikely since the game appears likely fill up an entire DVD as is.

Final Fantasy X is headed for a July 19, 2001 release in Japan and will undoubtedly be one of the main reasons numerous Japanese gamers pick up a PlayStation 2 this year. Most likely due to the extra time needed to ensure a quality English localization of the text and voiceovers, Final Fantasy X won't see a North American release until early 2002.

-- Dave Zdyrko

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