Let me preface this review with an admission that Final Fantasy X took me nearly 10 years to finish. I first started playing it shortly after it was released, only to give up and quit halfway through - a combination of a boss I was not able to defeat and a plot/presentation that did nothing to hold my attention. Make no mistake, the visuals were and to a large degree still are impressive, but I distinctly remember thinking at about 10 hours in "So it's got graphics, great. When do I actually get to stop watching and start playing?!" I felt like I had been either watching cutscenes, advancing dialogue through in-engine cutscenes, or been led by the hand through snippets of shallow gameplay for the whole experience. If the plot or characters were utterly enthralling, I might have been willing to put up with the interactive movie aspects of it. However, FFX felt too generic, like I had seen these people, these places, these problems all before in other games. Eventually, when I ran into a roadblock, I just put the controller down and stopped caring.
Fast forward to 2010 when I come into a used PS2 and copy of FFX. Knowing its legacy and how positively regarded this game has been for the past decade, I decide I'm willing to give it another shot. Even if only to say that I had finished it and had not given up.
Well, the simple truth is that the game still suffers all the flaws I remembered from my first attempt. Playing all the way through, I was to discover new ones as well, not least of which being that the battle system - which appears slick and innovative at first - is ultimately very shallow. In many turn-based RPGs, you put together a party (possibly choosing a few active members out of a larger pool) and off you go. In FFX, you ultimately have a stable of 7 leads but only 3 at a time active in battle. The twist is that you can swap them all in and out mid fight as desired in order to take advantage of certain enemy types. While the characters ultimately have access to any of the same abilities (more on that later), each character still has a unique weapon type and/or particular special ability that make them the right hammer for a specific nail. The problem, and major weakness of the battle system, is that the game just doesn't have that many distinct enemy types. So you use Wakka for fliers, Rikku for machina, Auron/Kimahri for armored, oh, and Yuna's Aeons when you're just too bored and want to plow through yet another (far too frequent) random battle. Supposedly smart and strategic, but in actual execution it's painfully simplistic.
Each character's unique qualities notwithstanding, there is a lot of customization possible through the altogether excellent sphere grid system. Instead of gaining the usual experience points in battle, you will be gaining AP and spheres, both of which are necessary to unlock stat upgrades and new abilities on a giant game board. The way this board is laid out, any character can reach any point, but they begin in different areas making certain unlocks more readily accessible. This is a great way to give everyone their own set of strengths (since you would spend a LOT of time gathering the required AP and spheres to unlock it all), but it really is up to the player where they want to focus. If the obvious upgrade path for one of your characters doesn't appeal, take the next fork on the path and start heading in a whole different direction. It's a better system than even FFXII's similar license board because you can see the whole thing from the start and plan accordingly - rather than unlock one space at a time and hope the next square that opens up will be something you want. All in all, the uniqueness and flexibility of the sphere grid make for one of the FFX's best features. A shame it wasn't all this well executed.
As I already mentioned, the battle system in FFX is not as exciting as it first appears. The real innovation in the leveling system partially makes up for it. But the other main pillar of RPG gameplay, the exploration, is just as narrow as the combat strategy. This is a game with an airship and no overworld map, which should tell you all you need to know. Technically, there is a map but it's a static location map. All you do is scroll around to any of the predetermined nodes and select, then you get dropped there instantly. While there are a few secrets to discover on this map, this is done (assuming you don't use a guide) by trial-and-error pixel by pixel testing. Nothing fun about that. And in the game locations, you will quickly notice - especially if you're familiar with the free roaming of earlier Final Fantasies - that this world has an overabundance of cliffside paths, narrow corridors, and otherwise constricted conduits. It only opens up in one or two zones, and even then it seems like it's just to give you a lot of empty space to cross. You never get a sense of freedom, like you can go off the beaten path and see what secrets are there. You're either going forward or back, and since there's no reason to go back. . .
(Disclaimer: I'm aware there is actually a decent amount of optional content in the game, but because of the overly linear presentation, it tends to fall into one of two camps. It's either so obvious that you won't consider it optional/secret, or so obfuscated that you'd never find it without a guide. The best hidden content should leave you a subtle note so you'll be intrigued to go looking for it - no such luck in this RPG.)
In terms of sound, I probably could have given a better score for the quality of the music. The soundtrack includes several memorable themes, usually all very fitting. The sore thumb for me was the metal arrangement for the final boss - but I dislike the genre to begin with so you may not find it as offensive. Where the game seriously lost points was in spoken dialogue that eventually made me resort to subtitles and the mute button. Many of the characters were perfectly acceptable, which is really all I ask for in video games. If I don't give you a second thought, you've done your job. If I notice you, you're either stellar or atrocious, and 9 times out of 10 it's unfortunately the latter. This game definitely had the latter. Tidus, Rikku, and even Yuna had her moments. Rikku's incessant simpering was painful. The laughter scene between Tidus and Yuna made me ashamed just to watch it. Occasionally, character motivations seemed to shift or to come out of absolutely nowhere. In fairness, it's hard to tell in some cases how much blame goes to the voice actors and how much to the script. Bottom line, though, this is the kind of presentation shortfall that really undercuts what was already a lackluster plot.
If FFX told a story that was at all engaging, again, I would have happily accepted the passive role I had in watching it unfold. Since it did not, I longed for meatier chunks of gameplay that would help me ignore the other flaws. Being denied these as well, I have to conclude that it was just not a very good game. It had a sparkling paint job, a few good ideas, and could have gone much further with others. An overall disappointment - not because it failed to live up to the hype but because it failed to entertain. When I picked it up the second time, I was determined to complete FFX, and I eventually did. But I found myself longing for the end well before it was over.