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'Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster' review: Living the dream

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Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster (PS3)

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Whatever your personal opinion on the recently-released trilogy of Final Fantasy XIII games, there is no denying the fact that Square Enix’s flagship Japanese RPG series no longer commands the widespread excitement or pre-release fervor it once did. The FF XIII trilogy has proven very divisive among series fans and gaming critics for many reasons, and these days, it’s all too easy to forget that the Final Fantasy franchise once commanded the sheer attention, respect, and anticipation usually reserved for new Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Call of Duty titles these days.

Yet it did, and nearly 13 years after its original release, Final Fantasy X is still regarded by many fans and critics as one of the series’ very finest games to date, routinely cited as one of the best RPGs of its generation. While its direct sequel Final Fantasy X-2 was not quite as widely loved and drew harsh criticism for its freewheeling girl-power presentation, it remains notable for its universally praised, fast-paced battle system and for being the first-ever direct sequel to an individual Final Fantasy game. So when Square Enix first announced that both games would be getting a high-definition re-release on the PS3 and PlayStation Vita, the news was generally met with excitement and anticipation long since lost on the franchise.

The ensuing wait for Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster has been extraordinarily long – about two and a half years now since the initial announcement – and it’s time to answer an important question: do these games hold up to modern scrutiny or should they remain lovingly-remembered relics of a bygone era?

The short answer: you bet your blitzball they hold up today, and amid a sea of half-baked, barely enhanced “me too” HD re-releases of aging classics, Square Enix and external assistant studio Virtuos have crafted in FF X | X-2 HD Remaster one of the most lovingly enhanced high-definition re-releases yet seen.

The lush, earthy, vaguely Okinawan land of Spira depicted in FF X and X-2 has always been one of gaming’s most well-realized, painstakingly detailed worlds, and it has never looked better. Spira’s various natural environments are gorgeous to behold, and the colors in both titles absolutely pop out of the screen, offering a feeling of joy and discovery whether you’re joining Yuna and her guardians on their pilgrimage for the first time or are a return traveler. From the verdant island jungles of Besaid to the gleaming azure hues of Macalania Woods and the frosty peaks of Mt. Gagazet, Spira’s various environments impress more than ever in high definition. Another manner in which the original games excelled was in their uniquely detailed depiction of a very “lived-in” world with a huge amount of history and culture behind it, and this too is communicated exceptionally well to the player in these HD remasters as the various villages, cities, and customs of Spira are presented in far greater detail than before.

The original games still look surprisingly good by today’s standards, especially when it comes to the in-battle visuals, and fights remain a highlight of the games’ HD versions. Both the main cast of characters and the myriad flora, fauna, and monsters they fight look great and animate convincingly, especially the monsters with their various attack and death animations. Magic spells also impress with their various dazzling light displays and special effects, and particular mention must be given to the aeons (FF X and X-2’s version of summon monsters), which truly look grand in high definition.

The games’ various full-motion video cutscenes, too, have been touched up and enhanced to look right at home on today’s high-definition, widescreen displays. Quite honestly, there are many, many instances throughout both of these HD remasters where you’d be forgiven for thinking these really are PS3 games and not high-definition PS2 ones.

That said, as beautifully as these games have made the transition to high definition, the visuals unfortunately and very clearly show their age in two key areas: NPC character models and cutscene animation. While the main cast’s character models have clearly been given a lot of attention and generally look quite good (aside from some strange annoyances, like Tidus appearing to have bags under his eyes a lot of the time), the various NPCs (villagers, townsfolk, soldiers, etc.) with whom they interact garishly stand out with their blurry textures, mannequin-like animations, and flat, board-like faces. Additionally, even the main characters often exhibit odd, stilted, and exaggerated talking and walking animations when speaking to one another in cutscenes, and these moments of extreme weirdness really do stand out in these HD remasters and, at times, even threaten to pull the player out of the moment. Back on the PS2 these things didn’t stand out as much because we didn’t have today’s visual standards to compare them to, but they’re impossible to ignore here and now. That said, both games look just superb outside of the above age spots.

Final Fantasy X has also received another welcome enhancement in the form of an almost fully-remastered soundtrack, with nearly all of the game’s songs re-recorded with live (or at least convincingly live-sounding) instruments for a much fuller, richer musical experience than the original FF X had. The game’s soundtrack - composed by a three-man team of Masashi Hamauzu, Junya Nakano, and series veteran Nobuo Uematsu – was always excellent, but it was hampered by the limited sound capabilities of early PS2 games, which had their music streamed directly from the PS2’s sound chip, resulting in a tinny, distinctly MIDI-like sound. This is no longer the case in FF X HD Remaster, and the music is allowed to truly shine with a fully orchestrated sound like it was always meant to. While the remastered soundtrack has proven controversial among fans due to the different instrumentation used in some songs and not every song is actually an improvement, most of them are and the overall effect is an extremely positive one. (While FF X-2’s memorable soundtrack has been left as-is, there was no need to remaster it in the first place; being a late-era PS2 game, its music was not subject to the MIDI-like limitations of its predecessor.)

Final Fantasy X and X-2 always had pretty good voice acting, and that remains true even by today’s standards. While there tend to be a lot of awkward pauses in dialogue thanks to the stilted cutscene animation and timing endemic to the PS2, pretty much all the actors turn in inspired performances here. Lead characters Tidus (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) and Yuna (played by Hedy Burress) steal the show, but the supporting characters also impress with memorable lines and characterization, particularly Wakka (voiced by John DiMaggio) and Rikku (played by Tara Strong).

Both games are fondly remembered for their battle and character development systems, and they remain some of the best in the genre all these years later. FF X’s Conditional Turn-Based (CTB) battle system eschews the Active Time Battle system of Final Fantasies past for a slower-paced, more strategic approach, where you’re able to view the order of character and enemy battle turns several moves in advance and plan your approach accordingly. You can also switch out the three characters in your battle party with the four others on standby whenever you want with no penalty, which is key because certain characters simply are not capable of dealing with specific enemies. Whereas Tidus’s sword slashes excel in slaying land-based enemies, flying enemies remain out of reach for him, so you’ll need to call in long-range fighter Wakka to deal with them. Other enemies like slimes laugh off physical attacks entirely, so you’ll need to have Lulu (your black mage) or Yuna (your summoner/white mage) deal with those.

Characters’ stats and ability sets are determined by their position on the Sphere Grid, a giant board of spherical nodes along which characters advance by spending “spheres” earned by winning battles. At first each character’s advancement is strictly linear, but later in the game you’ll be able to break characters out of their intended path and customize them to your liking. It’s a nice compromise between having characters with intended roles á la FF IV and IX and the fully customizable approach seen in installments like FF XII. Overall, think of the Sphere Grid (and maybe FF X at large) as a more hands-on, malleable, “gamey” version of FF XIII’s Crystarium, and you’ll be on the right track.

Square Enix went with a more direct, traditional approach for FF X-2’s gameplay, with a looser, super-fast version of the series’ time-honored Active Time Battle system and character advancement mechanics based on the beloved job system first introduced in Final Fantasy V. In FF X-2 jobs take the form of stylish “Dresspheres,” relics that allow your characters to change costumes at any time during battle, changing their stats and ability sets along with them. The longer characters use a Dressphere, the more abilities they will learn with it, thus becoming stronger in that role over time. With 17 obtainable Dresspheres (plus three special ones) and a party of three characters to customize to your liking, there are far more ability combinations and strategies present than one player will ever likely explore, ultimately making FF X-2 a very open-ended game that encourages players to experiment with various battle strategies and even “break” the game if they want (and FF X-2 makes it totally possible, with several job/ability combinations that can make your party nearly unstoppable). As a nice bonus, all three characters have completely different costumes even when using the same Dressphere, adding a lot of extra visual pizzazz to battles.

Ironically, for a game that takes such a traditional approach to its battles and character advancement, FF X-2 stands out for defying tradition in every other way, with its non-linear mission-based gameplay, Charlie’s Angels-style “girl power” aesthetic, and a mostly synth-pop soundtrack. FF X, on the other hand, is a mostly traditional linear adventure outside of its radical approach to battles and character advancement. While FF X ends up being the stronger experience in the end, both games excel on their own terms and are deserving of high praise, despite the fact that they could not be more different.

The story told in FF X is just as captivating and poignant as ever, standing proudly as one of the best in the JRPG genre. The game follows blitzball star Tidus as he is whisked away from his home city of Zanarkand and into the world of Spira, where he is told that Zanarkand was destroyed a thousand years prior. He gets caught up in the holy pilgrimage of a young summoner named Yuna, who – along with her ragtag band of guardians – seeks to free Spira from a giant creature of unclear origin named Sin, whose violent attacks destroy cities and take lives at an alarmingly regular pace. There is more to Tidus and Sin than meets the eye, of course, and what follows is a well-paced, dream-like tale of genuine love and loss that makes you truly care about the characters and their ultimate fates. FF X’s story is a heavy one, with themes of life and death, faith, and father-son abuse/resentment taking center stage, but it’s always in service of the narrative and never feels heavy-handed.

FF X-2’s story, on the other hand, focuses on Yuna’s life after the events of FF X and is initially presented as far sillier and more lighthearted than its predecessor, for which it has received much flack over the years. That’s just the exterior, though; what a lot of people don’t realize is that underneath that whimsical presentation lies an astonishingly sad central narrative that remains one of the series’ darkest to date. It’s not as well-paced or lovingly presented as FF X’s story, but X-2’s tale is an engaging one that deserves more credit than it usually gets. Experienced as a pair, the whole saga is exceptionally captivating and memorable.

One small sticking point that should be mentioned is that it would have been nice if both games allowed you to skip cutscenes upon repeat viewing; as it stands, only FF X-2 allows you to do this. If you lose a particularly hard boss battle following a cutscene in FF X, you're watching it again whether you like it or not.

Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster is based on the International versions of both games, which pack new content never before seen outside of Japan (and in FF X’s case, Europe), making this a particularly compelling release for North American players. For FF X, this new content includes a more open-ended “Expert Sphere Grid” which lets players customize characters however they want from the very beginning, as well as optional new mega-bosses in the form of Penance and the dark aeons. The new content in FF X-2 is more substantial: two new Dresspheres, new Garment Grids, the ability to capture monsters and NPCs and use them in your battle party, and Last Mission, a somewhat lacking roguelike adventure set three months after the end of FF X-2 that helps add closure to the story’s various plot threads. As if all that wasn’t enough, this release also includes “Eternal Calm,” an extended (and truthfully rather dull) cutscene that helps bridge the two games together, and an entirely new 30-minute audio drama that provides a compelling, if controversial setup for a possible new sequel. Actual content of the audio drama aside, Square Enix should be commended for having the entire English voice cast reprise their roles all these years later.

With wonderfully remastered visuals and music and lots of never-before-seen content for North American players across two huge games, Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster is a re-release of the highest caliber and an amazing value for both new players and returning fans. FF X is a well-loved game that represents the series and JRPGs at their very best, and while FF X-2 never quite reaches such lofty heights, it’s still an excellent game in its own right. Both titles have never looked, sounded, or played better, so if you’re going to play them, this is the way to do it.

(This review is based on a retail copy of the PlayStation 3 Limited Edition provided by Square Enix. Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster was released on March 18th, 2014 and the PS3 and Vita versions both sell for $39.99.)

Game On, powered by Examiner, is a select group of reliable and credible writers, giving you the latest gaming news, reviews, interviews and previews. Follow the team on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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