Final Fantasy VIII had a lot to prove, coming off the back of arguably the best game of all time - Final Fantasy VII - and many people were disappointed with the result. The team hopes to prove that it can produce a classic with X, and with this in mind they have taken several gigantic steps forward, including the move to a polygon-based world. The last three Final Fantasies have relied upon pre-rendered backdrops and polygonal characters, but X will rely on a fully three-dimensional environment, retaining only the classic fixed camera perspective of the last three games. Another big change is the move to a Chrono Trigger-style battle arrangement, where battles take place on the same screen as the general adventuring. That is to say, practically every battle, because random encounters will still send gamers to a fight screen. Needless to say, this was a design restriction rather than a conscious decision on the part of the team. After a period of confusion, Square now seems keen to move towards a unified battle system. If you're a fan of the Final Fantasy series, the chances are by now you're fairly excited at the game's prospects, but make sure you take a seat for the next bombshell: Final Fantasy X is voice-acted. That's right, defying its traditional subtitle-driven roots, the team behind X is breaking new ground by using voice acting, with matching facial expressions. The voice acting and sub-titles can be toggled as you like, but we are expecting relatively big things from Squaresoft in this department. Anybody who watched the underrated Final Fantasy movie earlier this year will know that Square can handle lip-synch, and then some.
The thing that always attracts a crowd though is the story behind the game, and in the past the outcome has almost always justified the number of hours spent cursing over random battles and scouring the land for whatever-the-hell. The team undoubtedly recognizes that, especially with the prestigious honour of being the tenth title in the series, and the story appears to be something of a cracker. The game concerns the land of Spira, once a technologically advanced utopian society, which was suddenly demolished by a force of nature known as Sin. A millennia has past since the destruction of Spira, and its surviving inhabitants have adopted the religion of Ebon, living in fear of technology and the malevolent Sin. As usual, through coincidence and happenstance, the fate of a people falls on the shoulders of several young adventurers, led by the standard issue 'young boy who wields a sword', this time going by the name of Tidus. Similarly, the love interest Yuna is as usual the daughter of a famous so-and-so, in this case a summoner called Braska. Yuna has been experiencing haunting dreams and believes Sin is somehow involved, so together with Tidus (who will no doubt trip on her every word) she intends to put a stop to whatever nefarious plan involving the inside of her head the spiteful force has in store. Yuna plans to journey to each Ebon temple and acquire its resident Aeon (summoned monster), and then use them to defeat Sin. Tidus will serve as her bodyguard and travelling companion as far as she is concerned, and we reckon there will be plenty of swordplay along the way to make him just as indispensable. Other party members will of course join up in good time as the game establishes itself. If you don't want to have the experience spoilt for yourself, we suggest you skip the next paragraph and just go straight to the next section… Tidus and Yuna's companions include Wakka, a blitzball-throwing redhead (blitzball is Tidus' favourite sport, so you can see how they get into that one already); Lulu, a mage with a Moogle doll (nostalgics can get in line); Kimahri Lonzo, Yuna's guardian beastman, who uses a spear to protect her; Rikku, another standard issue character - female - with the usual clothes deficiency and (bonus point for RPG spotters) skills mainly in the area of thievery. Completing the set is Auron, another sword-carrier with a mite more experience than Tidus, who we fancy may have been inspired by (amongst other things) the Frog knight from Chrono Trigger.
As usual, characters have all sorts of attacks that improve with time and experience, and they also boast a Limit Break, now known as an Overdrive. The Overdrive attacks vary from character to character, and we're confident these will be as spell-bindingly awesome as those seen in past games. We're also interested in Yuna's summoning capabilities. The problem with the FFVIII, which this game seems to draw a lot from, was that Guardian Forces were basically available to every character and much, much more powerful than anything else in battle. As such, there was no need to use any other attacks when you had one, and we hope Yuna's summoning will be slightly more balanced. Word is that once summoned, an Aeon takes the place of the party and fights until it runs out of hit points, at which point it's back to the three party members waiting in the wings. An Aeon has both physical attacks and standard spells according to Squaresoft, and of course Overdrive spells. Three summons have been revealed so far; Shiva and Ifrit you will remember from previous games, and a new creature called Valfor. Of course, we want a chocobo summon. Wark! The experience system has been given a lick of paint in Final Fantasy X as well, with characters no longer accruing XP, but something called AP. Getting enough AP allows you to move up another Sphere Level. It sounds like a badly concealed substitution ruse, doesn't it? Actually, with each Sphere Level characters can move one space along the Sphere Board, which is a network of tiles accessed from the main menu. With each move, the character can use Sphere items to improve vital statistics and abilities. Depending on the tile a character is on, certain attacks may be more devastating than others, and so on. This will be explained properly in the game, methinks. It does sound refreshingly different though, albeit a little forced.
One of the mainstays of the Final Fantasy series is mini-games. In the past we've had things like chocobo racing and breeding, and our personal favourite - snowboarding in Final Fantasy VII. This time around it looks as though we'll get to play blitzball, Tidus' favourite sport, which comprises elements of basketball, football (that's soccer for our American readers) and rugby, played underwater. The idea is to pass the ball through the water and score points by getting it in a triangular goal. Apart from blitzball, players will also be challenged to master the fictional language of Al Bhed, which sounds .. spooky. Project leaders at Square haven't been all that forthcoming about Al Bhed, but it sounds intriguing. Other interesting features of the Final Fantasy X package include a special second DVD containing movie-style specials, with storyboards, interviews and a look at upcoming Squaresoft titles. Squaresoft's much-anticipated Final Fantasy X ships on Boxing Day in the United States, and with any luck we should have it sometime in the spring. Of course, in reality we will have it whenever our US pre-order arrives. Bless you, importers.