With Final Fantasy X, the Playstation 2 firmly established itself as THE RPG console of its generation. Leaps and bounds beyond its predecessors in terms of graphics, voice work, production value, and gameplay depth, FFX was both a classic JRPG and a renewal for a series that some felt had taken a step backward with FFIX.
The international edition, like other such re-releases before it, changes little of the fundamental gameplay. Its main purpose is to offer Japanese players a chance to enjoy supplements added to the game for the North American and European releases, namely the English vocal track. Fortunately there are other additions for those willing to pick up the game again.
For the most part, the game plays exactly like the original FFX. I will restrict this section to a discussion of the changes made. Check out RPGFan's review here if you are completely green.
The first obvious change is the language. Unlike more recent international editions, FFX is bilingual; menu and speech text can be freely switched from English to Japanese at any time, though voices are stuck in English, which stinks if you were looking to hear the Japanese voices (they were pretty good but not that much better than the English, I think).
Secondly, and more importantly, there is a new sphere grid. When players start the game now, they will have to choose between the original sphere grid and a new international sphere grid that has rearranged nodes. Users of the international grid will find that all of their characters start from a central point that allows for customization along completely different routes. You can easily make characters enter sections not specifically designed for them, meaning Kimari can go through Lulu's section, and Yuna can go through Auron's, and so on and so forth.
This was already possible in the original game with some creative advancement along the grid or the use of teleport spheres. The international grid's challenge lies in the relative ease of getting lost or having to backtrack after getting stuck in a section with skills you don't want. The grid is also slightly smaller, so extra caution and planning are a must. You will not feel it early in the game, but poor foresight can make later dungeons and bosses tricky since the new grid will not hold your hand and lead you to a perfectly balanced party like last time around.
This is just the sort of gameplay addition that makes international versions so much fun to play again. Everything good about the original gameplay is back with far more freedom in character customization and advancement. The new grid is particularly good if you did not like a specific character's pathway and would like to double-up on skill sets. For yucks, I had Kimari and Wakka fill in much of Lulu's grid, while making her and Rikku into powerhouses with all sorts of break and status attacks.
The new grid is a gas, but it is arguable as to whether it alone makes the game worth going through again. For players who were a bit disappointed with the last boss, fortunately, Square Enix has offered several new reasons to return: Penance and the Dark Aeons.
The dark aeons are a series of optional super-bosses designed solely for players who take the time to max out their characters' stats. They are almost impossible to beat otherwise. We are talking HP totals in the millions, rock solid defense, and ridiculously powerful attacks. Each one looks like the original aeon Yuna learns to summon only with black features and increasingly daunting abilities from Valefor on to the Magus Sisters, who make Jecht look like a joke.
The original FFX offered several irritatingly strict, time consuming challenges for hardcore players (I did not even bother getting all of the ultimate weapons perfectly upgraded) but with the addition of the dark aeons and Penance, there is just so much more satisfaction in taking the time to really beef up your squad.
FFX is a very attractive game. Released a few years into the PS2's lifespan, the game outshone most other RPGs at the time, and even the latest games on the console do not look much better. The standard in-game graphics are detailed and colorful, if occasionally blurry and choppy. Towns have a variety of scales and some fascinating architecture. The character designs deserve praise as well; I dig Lulu's goth vibe, Auron's samurai vibe, and Wakka's fanciful hair. Most of the dungeons are not terribly intricate, but they still look okay.
What made Final Fantasy X stand out when it was first released (and contributed to its massive development cost) was the quality of cinematic scenes that used the standard game engine. The faces of the main characters emote realistically with decently synced dialogue and mouth movement. Of course the fully rendered cutscenes are also fabulous. What is particularly good is how well they are integrated into the action. The game flows from player controlled combat, to story and dialogue, to FMV's seamlessly. There is also a theater mode that allows you to enjoy cutscenes over and over.
FFX has a good soundtrack. While not my favorite in the series, the music never disappoints, and there are a few standout tracks. The breezy acoustic guitars of Spira's towns help to set the atmosphere of the early game. The hymn of the faith is perhaps one of the most evocative themes ever written for a video game. There really are not any annoying songs, just not enough memorable ones.
Voice work and effects are also mostly good. Some of the voices take some getting used to in my experience. I found Tidus' "aww shucks" adolescent manner of speech grating at first, but after I came to understand the character more, it stopped bothering me. Lulu and Auron's deep, patient speech are excellent, while Seymour's voice is quite rich and a little creepy. There isn't much to report about sound effects, which is a good thing since effect noises usually stand out when they are bad, and make other aspects of the game seem better when they are good.
FFX's plot is above average if not perfect. Centered around a brash young sports hero's cosmic trip 1000 years into the future, the writing offers a straight forward 'road narrative' with some decent twists. There are some fantastic 'moments', such as when Tidus and the gang crash Seymour's wedding, or when Kimari returns to the Ronzo village. The characters are overall stronger than the preceding two games and none of them seem purely gimmicky or cutesy (Rikku comes close). Sin is a compelling villain as well due to his seemingly inscrutable nature. Even the love story between Tidus and Yuna is done with subtlety and excellent pacing.
I really like the way the story is narrated by Tidus. While every Final Fantasy offers a spiky-haired protagonist, this one lets you get into his head a bit. Hearing his thoughts and anxieties makes his story more moving. Much more so than the more distant third person feel of most other JRPGs, FFX is a personal narrative, a coming of age story. It was a bit of a gamble on the writers' part since it would not have worked at all were Tidus a crappy character. But he isn't crappy. He is both believable and exceptional in his way, and the bittersweet end to his story is a trademark of confident writing.
Final Fantasy X is a staple for JRPG fans for good reason. While not necessarily superlative in any respect, it gives fans of the genre everything they crave: solid combat, an interesting story, a nice cast of characters, mini-games, ultimate weapons, side quests, super-bosses, and a memorable soundtrack. If you have never played it and have the means to enjoy Japanese games, I definitely recommend this version. You will have zero language difficulties and the additional content is fun and purely optional if it does not interest you. Fans of the game will definitely dig this version too, thanks to the new sphere grid and the dark aeons. All in all, FFX International is easy to recommend for just about anyone.