Over the past few days, my gaming time has been evenly split between three Final Fantasy games: The upcoming Lightning Returns, the soon-to-be-reissued Final Fantasy X HD Remaster, and the call-a-spade-a-spade Bravely Default. While all three are technically new releases, taken together they feel more like a trip along the series' timeline.
If Lightning Returns represents Square Enix's earnest if inelegant attempt to push the franchise forward and Bravely Default sees the company dabbling in nostalgia, Final Fantasy X merits reconsideration as the tipping point between the two. Bravely Default is an echo of the way Final Fantasy once was, while Lightning Returns in many ways feels like an attempt to get back to the halcyon territory staked out by the 3DS game. And FFX? That's what Lightning Returns is stumbling over itself to get away from.
Don't get me wrong -- Final Fantasy X is a peach. It's a fairly dated peach despite the high-definition facelift, mind you, but it really was quite a game back when it first arrived. At the same time, it's kind of startling to be reminded just how much of a beautiful yet limited march through a linear story it was -- exactly the kind of experience Final Fantasy XIII was excoriated for offering. The two games aren't identical, but FFXIII was essentially FFX taken to its ultimate extreme. That's hardly news, but replaying the older game has surprised me with just how slim the differences really were.
Final Fantasy X is more or less a straight line from start to finish, minus a few spots where you can wander around and perform frustrating, repetitive tasks to score super-weapons. Tidus starts out as a possibly deranged jock and follows his crush Yuna along the same linear pilgrimage they walked 13 years ago. This time around, though, you do have a few more options for wandering: HD Remaster is based on the International Versions of Final Fantasy X (and of its sequel, Final Fantasy X-2), which means it includes all the little bonuses like the monster battling arena and the super-battles with pumped-up versions of Yuna's Aeons.
It also includes the alternate, advanced version of the Sphere Grid character-building system. As with the basic grid, you define your characters' skills by moving along a board game-like setup, unlocking new abilities and statistical upgrades alike by collecting expendable spheres and placing them into slots. It sounds fairly stupid, but in practice it works well, walking a line between flexibility and restriction. The advanced version offers even more freedom in building characters, allowing players to easily take their party members into classes God never intended. The advanced grid gives this rendition of FFX far more replayability than the original release; the flow of the game never changes, but the makeup of your team can vary radically from one session to another... so maybe you have a reason to dredge through the game a couple of times in order to dig up all those Al Bhed primers.
That's for the best, as I'm not entirely the high-definition visual overhaul alone is enough to do it. The up-rezzed graphics look crisp -- a far sight better than other HD compilations of PS2 games -- but despite the considerable detail that's been added to the character and environmental models, it's all still running with 2001-vintage animation (which is to say, robotic). The increased detail and resolution makes the disparity between the different levels of character hierarchy stand out: The main character models have wonderfully detailed faces and occasional flashes of high-quality animation, while minor characters look and move much more simplistically. Even alternate versions of the leads (including Rikku in the dive suit-slash-bondage gear she makes her debut in) look cheap.
The collection sports an improved soundtrack to match the revamped visuals, though in this area the upgrade is much cleaner. The music has been completely overhauled, perfectly recreating the original compositions with more robust instrumentation. The original sound effects still mesh perfectly with the new soundscape -- there's nothing quite like the audio design of the Final Fantasy games -- and the original voices don't sound particularly out of place either. Although now that I know John DiMaggio's voice, I can only hear Wakka as a weird Hawaiian version of Jake the Dog.
In concert, these elements make for an odd remake. FFX pushed the series forward into new territory, adopting a totally new turn-based combat system while stripping out most of the distractions of the RPG genre in favor of a lean, story-focused experience. It sent the franchise down a path that proved to be a dead end, and in some ways its stilted acting and animation make it feel more aged than the older and more primitive-looking SNES Final Fantasy games. On the other hand, it inspired Final Fantasy X-2, the most wonderfully weird game in the franchise... which, incidentally, is also included on this disc as well. Handy, that.