Well, after playing Shadow Hearts I've finally gotten around to playing Final Fantasy X. I don't regret passing this up for the former, but Final Fantasy X is definitely an excellent game in its own rights. For one thing, this is the first of the Final Fantasy series to really make use of its in-game polygons and as a result some its real-time generated cut scenes are the most beautiful I've seen. It would appear that each major character has three sets of models used in the game. The first is the typical less detailed one the player controls, the second is for real-time cut scenes, and the third is for the actual CG movies where the characters are hyper-realistic to the point where I would swear that Tidus and Rikku had to have been modeled after real people.
That does create a bit of a problem though. The cut scene Tidus looks more or less like a standard RPG character to me; in other words, Caucasian. However the face of the movie Tidus is quite obviously Asian. Rikku undergoes the same transformation, and it's jarring for me to see them as white in one scene and Asian in the next. Their looks just don't match. The rest of the cast doesn't change enough for this to disturb me though, possibly because except for Yuna they don't look as strikingly Asian to me when in CG, and Yuna's change in models isn't as extreme. One interesting thing that comes out in the movie Tidus that doesn't in the cut scene or player-controlled versions is that his hair is bleached blond. It's not natural (which really makes me think of him as trying to appeal to the trendy, fashion-conscious young Japanese male). Tidus's natural hair would appear to be a light brown from the flashback scenes, but the movie model makes it appear as though it was dark brown or black. It just sort of exacerbates the fact he looks like a "cool" Asian guy in the movies.
Going back to the real-time cut scenes though, it's amazing what Square has done with them. The character's movements have a wide range of articulation and for the most part was very good about not letting the seams between polygons show. There are some bad moments were you'll see a piece of clothing disappear inside someone's neck or shoulder, but those can be forgiven for effort put into how characters speak. Most real-time cut scenes will only have the characters gesturing at each other and if their mouths move at all it's because of a changing in the skin. It takes a lot of polygons to animate a realistic mouth, not counting the need for a tongue, teeth, and interior, so most games do without or only passably. Final Fantasy X actually goes the mile to deliver fully rendered mouths, complete with teeth, so you know they're not all hollow inside. I suspect Square didn't change the lipsync for the US version though because there are a few places where Yuna in particular seems a bit off. While I wouldn't have expected that of the CG movies, the real-time cut scenes would have been much more effective if there had been a way to adapt them for the localization.
Aside from graphics, I think Final Fantasy X's crowning achievement would have to be in creating a fully realized world. Most RPGs build off of some aspect of the standard medevial fantasy setting while adding their own twist to it. I don't know what to call Final Fantasy X's setting. It's definitely fantasy, but it's not medieval. If anything, it's Okinawan, since I've heard that's where the artistic design took its influence. It's possible to see that in the style of dress some of the characters wear, where it's somewhat Japanese but not entirely what we're used to. The world at large is not really anything I'm familiar with at all, but there are so many minor details that make this world real. For instance this is one of the first RPGs to actively put another language into play. Even in games where there are several races of beings, it's usually taken for granted that everyone can speak each other's language. Not so in Final Fantasy X. The Al Bhed people have their own language and Tidus spends a lot of time listening to them speak without understanding a thing they're saying. Fortunately he can learn the language by finding primers throughout Spira and it's actually kinda of fun collecting them. The only downside to that is that once you do you realize what the Al Bhed are speaking is English following a pattern of carefully swapped letters. It's lovely when you hear the actual VOs playing, the actors do a good job portraying it as a real language, but it's a shame the translation couldn't have been more complicated. I suppose if they had devised it as one, it would need a whole lot more than twenty-six books (one for each letter of the alphabet) to translate. One thing I liked about it though, is that as Tidus collects books the subtitles will translate the letters he knows in a different color, so after getting a few books it's possible to start puzzling out what the Al Bhed are saying. Best of all, there are memory spheres scattered throughout the game so it's possible to load the books from a previous saved game so when you play a second time through you can understand what everybody is saying from the get go!
The only thing about language that I find a bit strange is that while for plot reasons its advantageous and partially sensible for the Al Bhed to not speak the same language as everybody else (since they're the only group of people who ignore the teachings of Yevon), it seems strange that despite being human they cannot communicate with other humans from Luca and Kilika, but the humans of Luca and Kilika can speak just fine with the Ronso and Guado who are definitely not human at all. The underused Hypello race though speaks with an accent so it's possible that the other races have their own languages, it's just that they learned the lingua franca when they joined the church of Yeven.
Which brings me to the next thing I liked about Final Fantasy X. The church of Yeven is perhaps unique in RPGs in that the religion permeates the game. There are lots of games with gods and temples and such, but in Final Fantasy X the characters actually live it. This is partially because Yuna's quest to defeat Sin is a holy quest undertaken with the blessings of the church, but there have been other holy quests. The thing that makes this game different is that the characters actually ponder their religion and it pervades their lives. Sin (in the form of a gigantic town-crushing monster) is very real and they say it's punishment for their crimes of long ago, but the characters wonder why they are being punished for something their ancestors did a thousand years ago. More games won't ponder the ramifications of their religion. It's either wholly good or wholly bad with little in the middle. There are also other details that are a nice touch beyond what we normally see. There is a prayer gesture that continually comes up throughout the game (though less and less as the game goes on) and the method of putting the dead to rest, which involves a dancing ritual called a "sending." One of the songs that plays in the background in many of the holy places has a specific name, "The Hymn of the Fayth," and this song not only has its own story on how it came to be, but becomes instrumental in the final confrontation.
However, I didn't like it when I found out that the church didn't always follow its own teachings, because that always happens in RPGs and after added this richness to the religion it seemed a shame to turn it into a sham. The strange part though, is how Square handled it. For one thing, it's not a front for raising an evil god from the dead, and for another, the church wants to destroy Sin at all costs, which is why they're willing to ignore the teachings. Basically, two of the four maesters (I suppose anywhere else they would be cardinals or bishops) that run the church are willing to do whatever it takes to be rid of Sin, even if it means bending the rules. The third is not happy about the rule bending but abides by it (and surprisingly for an RPG, is not executed for being weak), and the fourth is Seymour who has plans of his own.
Possibly the most interesting part about the church being a fake actually has nothing to do with the current maesters at all. A long time ago the city of Beville went to war with Zanarkand and Zanarkand was destroyed. Sin was the people of Spira's punishment for relying too heavily on machina; and Zanarkand is regarded as the holy city to which all summoners pilgrimage to in order to get the Final Aeon (a sort of summoned monster) in order to defeat Sin, which will bring about a period of Calm until Sin is reborn again. But the thing is, Yu Yevon, the man whose teachings the church supposedly follows, was the ruler of Zanarkand. He was from the city that lost and apparently Sin is his revenge. It seems ironic that the descendants of the people who destroyed his city now follow his teachings in hope of salvation. He, with the help of countless fayth (survivors of Zanarkand's destruction who became stone vessels through which aeons are summoned) are constantly summoning an image of the old Zanarkand that was destroyed. The though game does not say so, it would appear that the church was initially formed in fear to appease him, but most of the people don't know that and regard Yeven as a benevolent teacher. As an interesting side note, the Hymn of the Faith was initially a song sung by rebels of the church, but was eventually co-opted by the religion to bring in more people and remove a dissident tool.
It's a bit hard to define what the overall story of Final Fantasy X is, not because it's not good, but because there are essentially two plots that ultimately end up being intertwined. There's the epic plot, about defeating Sin, and then there's the story of Tidus, which is sometimes strange because he never tells anyone why this is his story, except for the player who he addresses at the very beginning of the game from a point very close to the end of the game. (The designers are actually very sneaky that way. Despite the fact that chronologically from Tidus's point of view the game starts in Zanarkand, the opening movie where he asks the player to listen to his story is also in Zanarkand, right at the edge of it, but you can't recognize it because it's in ruins.) The epic plot goes without saying, but the story of Tidus is what makes the plot more interesting.
Tidus arrives in Spira from the dream Zanarkand sustained by the fayth and Yu Yevon, though he's unaware of his quasi-real origin (he certainly thinks he's real and has no reason not to), and because he knows nothing about Spira it provides an excellent opportunity for the designers to teach everything about it to the player, with Tidus feigning amnesia for the earlier part of the game until his companions come to accept the fact he really does come from a Zanarkand, if not from the one that they're familiar with (the ruined holy city). It also provides a great opportunity for the player to be blindsided by something everyone else knows but hasn't told Tidus. Eventually Tidus learns of his origin and that the fayth are tired and want to stop dreaming. By destroying Yu Yevon Tidus will free the fayth, but without their dreaming, he may no longer exist. However, the particular fayth that speaks to him points out that, who knows, he might live after all since he has been touched by Sin when he came to Spira. (A loophole that may have been left intentionally to prepare for FFX-2.)
What I didn't understand though is why Tidus never told anybody where he really came from. I suppose it was glossed over by the need to defeat Sin. He might have felt that bringing up personal troubles would have distracted Yuna, but that made it really odd when at the final battle he sudden tells everyone that this is it, their last battle together, because he won't be around anymore. No one understands what he's talking about and he doesn't have the time to tell them. Once Yu Yevon is defeated, Tidus begins to fade and that leads to one of the sadder endings in an RPG, with Yuna running to embrace him before he fades away, but passing right through him because he's no longer solid. What I didn't understand was the need for Tidus to jump off the deck of their ship before fading away. Assuming FFX-2's story was already greenlit when animating this story, I can understand why he needed to get away, otherwise Yuna won't have to bother searching for him in the second game, but logically I just can't see why he would do it. Maybe he didn't want to fade away in front of everybody? It would be too much like a funeral?
Something else that was a bit strange is that even though Tidus talks about his Zanarkand a lot, how he wants to show it to Yuna, and presumably would like to go back there (up until he finds out it's a dream), he never talks about anything he misses there. Even though he was the star player of Zanarkand's blitzball team, he never talks about his old teammates, never says he misses them. I can't believe that Tidus existed within a void in his own reality, but the only people he talks about are either his father Jecht (who's central to the story and stumbled into Spira long before Tidus did), Auron (who's from Spira and went to the dream Zanarkand to look after Tidus as a promise to Jecht), or his mother, who died several years ago after Jecht disappeared from the dream Zanarkand. Didn't he have any peers? Tidus seems far too sociable to have spent his entire life with no people except for his parents and Auron.
I do have to quibble around one facet of the story though. Tidus apologizes to Yuna at the end for having never taken her to his Zanarkand, but in a sense, he did. Tidus is transported to Spira when Sin attacks his Zanarkand during a blitzball match. The final battle against Sin within Sin takes place on a battlefield that opens up to reveal that it's the top of the Zanarkand blitzball stadium (complete with the Zanarkand blitzball music, for better or for worse). Since the aeons are solid physical creatures, it stands to reason that the Zanarkand Tidus came from can physically be found, somehow, in some form, and I think that battlefield within Sin might very well have been it. Auron also says that because he was dead he was able to ride Sin to Tidus's Zanarkand. He doesn't elaborate how he did that, but normal living people can't get close to Sin without being infected by its toxin so if Zanarkand is inside it might explain how only Auron could get to it.
That does bring up some other questions though. For one thing, how did Jecht get out of the dream and into Spira in the first place, and why was Sin attacking Tidus's Zanarkand in the beginning of the game (since it's not real and not part of Spira)? What teams did Tidus's Zanarkand Abes play against if Zanarkand was the only city sustained in the dream world? If his Zanarkand exists within Sin through Yu Yevon's summoning, why would Yevon want to wreck his own dream world? And those questions are never answered.
Though this game takes as long or longer (depending on how many mini-games you go after) than most RPGs, it's actually substantially shorter in other respects. Final Fantasy X takes out the standard overworld travel, but instead of making the player go instantly from place to place in the world map ala The Legend of Dragoon, or more recently Shadow Hearts, the game makes you walk it. Instead of an overworld map Tidus and company travel across long winding paths, through forests, praries, and more that are presented in the same format as a dungeons. While in some respects this is much more realistic, it becomes a bit of a pain for a number of reasons. Most games let you save anywhere you want on a world map, but you can't in FFX since intercity travel is still essentially a dungeon. I was not a happy camper spending two hours to get from one city to a rest stop in the same area. Sometimes I can't spend more than an hour playing a game in a single sitting, but with Final Fantasy X I generally wanted at least an hour, preferably more. Prior to getting the airship near the end of the game, backtracking was theoretically possible, but because you'd have to walk the entire distance you wouldn't do it lightly.
The reason this makes the game shorter is that there are often back to back "dungeons" between towns. At the end of the Mi'ihen Highway is Mushroom Rock Road, and between Guardsalam and Macalania (arguably not even a town but merely a temple!) there are the Thunder Plains and two parts to the Macalania wilderness. As a result there are very few towns in the game, possibly the entire world. When I first learned that a summoner's piglimage would take her to every temple in Spira I had hoped that Yuna had visited the majority of them already, because if temples in Spira are anything like churches in the real world, that's a lot of places to visit. I thought praying at all the temples would have taken a lot longer than it did, but in all there are only five temples a summoner is required to visit. Since temples are where a summoner acquires aeons I was also surprised that there were so few of them. Final Fantasy VII and VIII sported quite a few summoned monsters each, and it was a shock being whittled down to five, though three more can be obtained through optional quests.
While all this walking makes Spira feel pretty big, it's actually rather small when I look back over where I've traveled. It feels like I really haven't gone very far in terms of milestones. There aren't as many towns and formal dungeons to put behind me as in other games. Not that it's necessarily bad, this does mean there was less extraneous filler towns to clog up the story, but I'm not sure all that filling up the time with inter-city highways was the solution. The long walks also made for huge gaps between story points, even if mini-cut scenes would occasionally play between the party and NPCs. Thankfully the designers were good enough to put save points at the end of any long walks and before cut scenes, so Final Fantasy X never suffered from the Xenogears problem of dumping the player in a boss battle without having the chance to save for the past hour and a half (except being for the Omega Dungeon optional boss).
However the final battle is probably the longest boss fight I've ever sat through (since like most modern games it's a series of bosses) and it made me wish I had a save point during it. Fortunately, the last boss in the sequence of many actually can't kill the party and it's fairly easy to immobilize his two helpers who can. The thing with this boss fight is that the player has to beat not only Jecht and Yu Yeven, but also each and every single one of Yuna's aeons. If you're the sort of player who likes to get everything, this actually can make the final battle take even longer to complete as you punch your way through each of them. Presumably you have to beat the aeons so Yu Yevon can't use them to form a new Sin, but Yuna is far from the only summoner on Spira so it doesn't quite make sense why you have to defeat hers but it's perfectly okay to leave everyone else's alone. Losing the aeons at the end was a bit of a pity since that meant Yuna could not call on them in the last battle of all battles, but because of the nature of the Yu Yevon fight I suppose it's a bit inconsequential. It's just that after powering up of my aeons I kinda hoped to actually use them against him.
Final Fantasy X sports a fairly likeable cast with Tidus and Yuna naturally coming out ahead of everybody else (as opposed to Squall and Rinoa of Final Fantasy VIII who seemed to come out ahead at the expense of everybody else). Tidus is a loveable goofball who matures over the course of the story. For one thing, the version of him telling the story from near the end of the game has had a lot more time to reflect and he interjects his comments about what's going on during the earlier parts of the game, often pointing out things that no one else thought to ask or things he could have only known with retrospect. He's also a bit unusual in that main heroes are often the best or second best (if there's a tank in the party) character in terms of raw attack power. Tidus is not even second, possibly not even third, putting him squarely between the three main characters and the three weaker female characters (I admit it's a bit of an annoyance to me than none of the females are fighter types, and that may be part of the reason Payne is introduced in FFX-2, to make up for that lack), but what he does have an plenty of is speed. He's faster than the other guys, and near the end of the game will go twice as fast as Auron, the strongest member of the party. So he does almost as much damage in half the time. True, it's typically a little less, especially agaisnt high defense enemies, but sometimes you can beat speed, especially if certain enemies are likely to go ahead of Auron.
Yuna took a bit more getting used to because of her wedding debacle with Seymour. I really don't like it when female characters try to go it alone only to wind up with disasterous results you can see coming a mile away. It seems to imply that they don't know what they're doing and just once I'd like to see such a plan actually work. But by the end of the game I find I like her a lot more. She's strong without being overbearing or militant. While she might not be able to kill a fly with her staff, if she says she's going to do something, she'll do it.
Of the rest of the party Auron is probably the most interesting because he's connected to the earlier story that runs through the game. Prior to Yuna, the last summoner to defeat Sin was her father, Braska, and it's possible to find all sorts of memory spheres (home movies!) chronicling the story of Auron, Jecht, and Braska on their journey to defeat the previous Sin. Auron knows a lot more than he tells anybody until near the end, and finding out the pieces to his past that you can't guess is pretty fun. (The parts you can guess on the other hand are unfortunately so obvious I could roll my eyes.) Kimahri, the Ronso character, is less detailed than Auron, but it's interesting how something never brought up in dialogue can still be part of the story. Kimahri has a broken horn and initially I figured it was something that happened a long time ago that would never be answered. Surprisingly, it is. And while I don't normally like cat people, I find I'm fond of the Ronso, perhaps because they veer away from the dexterous and swift cat person sterotype, being huge, well over head and shoulders above humans, and with speed that befits their size. It's actually quite scary playing blitzball against the Ronso team because even if they're slow, they'll mow over my defense!
Of the rest of the party, Rikku is a token cutesy girl character with a little sister complex and Lulu is okay; perhaps a bit too tradition-minded, though she means the best. She's a fairly common personality type, except it rarely comes in a black dress. Wakka rounds out the group, but of everyone he's probably the most one-dimensional with his "chin-up" and "as long as we trust in Yevon" attitude. The fact he talks with the hick Besaid accent no one else in the party except for him uses doesn't help any. Even with some of his most serious lines he tends to interject a "ya," which at its worst undermines the feelings he's trying to express. It's hard to listen with a straight face when he's talking about how he's in it to the end, "even in death, ya?"
The last character I want to touch on is Seymour. Because Yu Yevon's mad existence is only revealed near the end of the game, and Sin appears to be an unthinking monster, Seymour functions as the only villain with a face, which is probably why he appears at all. Without Seymour the party wouldn't face half the challenge that they do because Seymour constantly makes things harder than they have to be with his grandiose dreams of... something. Power, I suppose. Seymour, for being a very chatty enemy, doesn't explain himself very well and talks about things that he seems to think the party understands but really don't (until later the game).
Seymour enters the game as a maester who has taken a fancy to Yuna, to the point where he proposes marriage to her and asks her to lean on him as the summoner of old, Yunalesca, once did with her husband before she defeated Sin for the first time. Seymour is so enamored with his dream that even after Yuna and party kills him he keeps on going. Since the unsent can function almost as well as the living in Spira, Seymour continues about his business, including forcing Yuna to marry him (yuck!). After killing him a second time, he returns for a third helping, babbling about how Yuna will help him merge with Sin. Unfortunately the player has no idea what he's talking about until the party reaches Zanarkand and realizes that someone who the summoner trusts has to become the fayth for the Final Aeon who in turn will eventually reawaken as the next Sin. Seymour presumably wanted Yuna to choose him to become that fayth, but being RPG heroes, the party instead trashed the unsent spirit of Yunalesca so that there would be no more Final Aeons and no one would have to sacrifice themselves like that anymore. And then Seymour inexplicably shows up inside Sin for a fourth and final battle. There is no longer a way for him to become Sin now that Yunalesca is gone and I don't even know how he got inside in the first place. The game says he was absorbed by Sin, but how that happened is never revealed. Thankfully, Yuna gets to send him after this fourth battle, otherwise I'm sure he would've shown up a fifth time after Yu Yevon's defeat proclaiming that he's going to revive Sin. Seymour has got to be one of the strangest villains I've ever run across with motives as transparent as glass and as comprehensible as mud. Why would he want to be Sin anyway? A side quest and some optional end-game legwork will reveal that he had a terrible childhood (being a human-Guado half-breed and sent away from his home by his Guado father) and that his mother became a fayth because she thought he needed to learn to stop depending on her, but the thing is these are optional bits of information the player might not find until after the game is long beaten, and even if Seymour was obsessed with power, if he was knowledgable enough to know that Sin is the Final Aeon, might he not have known that Sin is merely the armor that protects Yu Yevon? Becoming Sin would still make him subordinate to someone else.
There's also a weird flashback in Zanarkand involving Seymour and his mother that is never really explained. Zanarkand, being a dead city, often plays ghost images of the events that happened before. In this way we get to see some of what happened to Jecht, Auron, and Braska, but we also see a young Seymour being told by his mother to use her as his fayth. Seymour is never referred to as being a former summoner, though he does use his mother's aeon (though we don't know it's her) in earlier scenes. The strange thing is that this flashback occurs in Zanarkand, implying they were both there and that she was turned into a Final Aeon, but she wasn't. No one ever talks about Seymour journeying to defeat Sin and later becoming a maester. And somehow this oversight is never explained, or if it is, it's buried somewhere in optional material.
Possibly the oddest part of the FFX game system is the sphere grid, which the closest equivalent I can think of would have to be a skill tree. Except with a skill tree characters generally have to learn each skill on the branch to get to the end. In FFX the characters follow a path that occasionally has long or short branches that may or may not be blocked off with locks, which can only be opened with the appropriate key. Because of the way the locks are organized, most characters will follow a more or less default path with only short branches that will take them through the key magicks and abilities specifically designed for them in mind. So Tidus who is already a fast character to begin with, has the speed spell Hastega on his path, whereas Lulu who is the "resident black mage" learns a wide variety of black magic on her path. However if you really don't want to buy a stat or ability, you can skip it and keep moving down the path, it's just time-consuming to go back later.
Most players will probably max out their paths when there are only two dungeons left, so the last segment of the game forces the player to think about where they want to take their characters next, and this generally means some creativity on the player's part. My main trio of Tidus, Auron, and Kimarhi all wound up taking Tidus's path because speed rules when you wind up going three times before an enemy goes even once. Kimarhi took a shortcut through Yuna's path to get to Tidus's so he actually reached the end of Tidus's path before Tidus did, and Tidus continued on to Yuna's path to serve as the party's fighter/healer. It really gets rather heady trying to plan out what everyone is going to be, since continuing past their own paths causes everyone to become more generalized. While this can be great to help pump up characters you know are going to be in your final party, it also has a function of making other characters less special. Lulu's magic and agility is not as good as Yuna's, so if both of them know the same spells, Lulu becomes useless as anything other than a secondary mage (which is really more than you need in a three-party combat party).
While I don't normally go for mini-games (beyond the initial trying them out), I'd have to say that Blitzball is the most infectuous mini-game I've ever played. I don't even like sports games, but it really grows on you. I suppose it doesn't hurt that I actually beat the Luca Goers in the one mandatory match of the game. ;) I really like how all the teams had their own flavor and uniform, and to a degree it's a pity that if you continue playing Blitzball they'll hire and fire players at the end of their contracts, because the replacements can be recruited from anywhere on Spira, by player and opposing team alike, and the replacements swim around in whatever normal clothing you would see them in on the street. While it is rather funny seeing the news reporter playing blitzball in her dress, she looks out of place with the rest of her team which is still in uniform. After a while, some of the teams have replaced all but two of their original members and it's hard to remember what team I'm playing against anymore.
Lastly, Final Fantasy X has one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard (I'd highly recommend it) and Spira really is a world of its own. Even a few of the non-plot-related NPCs have dialogue and their own stories to them. That extra length to create people beyond the main characters really goes over and above the call of game design. I'd like to go back to Spira sometime. Perhaps a few years from now, I'll go back and play it again now that I know the story.