It's hard to compete against yourself but the Final Fantasy franchise has been able to come up with one showstopper after another. If fact, this is the tenth in the series of one of the most popular games ever and it's arguably the best of the bunch. I say arguable because some or you just have to argue no matter what anyone says. It doesn't matter if this game doesn't top your list, it won't be far down I can assure you.

Hironobu Sakaguchi and his gang of creative visionaries have always been able to turn out great FF games. One would have to believe that the developers have a clear concept of how the game should evolve far into the future. Not only do the stories become more sophisticated but the graphics, special effects and gameplay elements always take advantage of the latest technologies. The tenth adventure is in 3D and offers an interesting assortment of characters that will help suspend reality for you while you take on this king of the RPGs.

One of the new changes to the gameplay is the redesigned combat system. The Active Time system has been forsaken for a more efficient turn-based system. You don't have to wait for ATB meter to fill before you launch an assault. The teams are comprised of a three-member party and with one push of the button you can swap the active character for one that's more capable. It's not that it makes the battle system easier, it actually makes it more engaging and gives the game a shot in the arm by increasing the speed and overall action.

The characters reveal the story through voice acting but don't expect miracles. While most of it is of good quality some of it is a little over acted and some is hardy acted at all. The in-engine cut scenes aren't quite Hollywood quality but they do manage to get the point across much more effectively than reading scrolls of text. Who needs the eye strain? You have about 40 hours of this game to play, I can live with some poor voice acting. It's not like I haven't heard I before. The animation of the characters while they speak is worse than a short-circuited Disney animatron. They are reduced to shaky and repetitive movements that are sometimes at odds with what they are saying. They may be speaking English but their body is speaking its own language.

The characters look great with lots of fine detail such as ribbons and baubles and other weird fashion statements. Each character is fully developed and has his or her own character traits as well as powers and weaknesses that may be exploited as part of your team. There are seven characters in total including Squall, Tidus, Yuna, Auron, Lulu, Rikku and Wakka, but you can only choose three of them for your party. The secret is: it's not which characters you select, it's what you do with them. The characters that you don't choose will not be left behind in the levels and won't drag you down if you need them later. You don't have to go through the process of building up your character's skills in the same way as before. Remember that the combat system has been overhauled so your characters will be put to better use in other aspects of the game.

Each character follows his quest on the strait and narrow path of the Sphere Grid, an imposing looking monstrosity that tracks, charts and guides one's progress. The grid is composed of what appears to be various concentric circles but what are indeed numerous nodes attached by path lines. As each character follows their individual path from node to node, they make connections with this matrix and increase their skill levels while still maintaining their distinct personalities. The gameplay does not follow a rigid path, there are plenty of side quests, puzzles to solve and areas to conduct Easter egg hunts in for items which will increase your powers, weapons, spells and health.

Summoning had always been presented in a display of spectacular graphics as powerful spirits and Gods are made to appear to prepare for battle. Such is the case here, at the expense of slowing the game down. Yuna summons the Aeons which will now fight in place of a character until the battle is won or the Aeon is defeated. Much of the game is immersed in colorfully rendered splendor. The textures are realistic and vibrant without being tacky and cartoonish. Some of the backgrounds are static but virtually all of the dungeons and exploration areas are rendered in real-time 3D and no attention to detail is lacking. Fog, mist, fire, snow and colorful balls of light add ambience to the surroundings.

Fans of FF will know that the different towns and areas along the adventure are an amalgam of different inhabitants, cultures and architecture. This adds to the overall variety but takes away from the consistency of the game's design. In FFX, everything has a certain cohesive look to it, though while different, you will at least feel you are playing the same game. To that affect, the themes of the different locations are as diverse as the characters that inhabit them. The soundtrack maintains its original symphonic score but it now includes pop and rock tunes. These selections were not added to appease the pre teen crowd, but to convey different emotions. Since it's all woven into the main theme by professional composers Nobuo Uematsu, Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauza, everything sounds like it belongs and I wouldn't have even questioned it if Von hadn't made a point of asking me about it.

Purists may find some of the changes too drastic but remember that people freaked when Bob Dylan added an electric guitar to his combo. There is no doubt that this will be one of the most talked about games of the New Year. I can't imagine anyone hating it. And don't bother renting it, you'll put so much pressure on yourself to finish it by Monday morning that you won't have time to savor its delicious nuances.

System: PS2
Dev: Squaresoft
Pub: Square Electronic Arts
Released: Dec 2001
Players: 1
Review by Al