2001 represented an exciting time in video games, as the industry began a shift to newer hardware and started to move past the growing pains of figuring out 3D game development in the previous generation. As the tenth mainline entry in the series, Final Fantasy X had a lot riding on it, as all waited with anticipation to see how Square would reinvent the franchise on PlayStation 2 and take advantage of the opportunities it offered. Luckily, it stuck the landing – so well, in fact, that it spawned the series’ first direct sequel in Final Fantasy X-2, which itself was a stellar (and weird) release. Now, both the games have been given the HD treatment in Final Fantasy X / X-2 HD Remaster, and the up-rezzed graphics and audio serve to highlight that these games still remain fantastic examples of how to properly execute an RPG.
Though Final Fantasy X features what is easily the most confusing and downright weird introduction in the series, it slowly coalesces into a more cohesive and gripping narrative about a group of people embarking on a journey to save the world (at least temporarily) from the pall of a titanic, eldritch abomination called Sin. In a rather interesting twist on conventional storytelling, one could argue that the story isn’t even really about Tidus—the plucky blond protagonist who finds himself bizarrely transported 1000 years into the future—and is more centred on his love interest, Yuna, whose weighty responsibilities as Summoner serve as the reason the party goes on its journey in the first place. As the party continues their often grim journey and you learn more about each character, the nature of Sin, and the decidedly religious world of Spira, it’s rather striking how effectively Square implements worldbuilding in Final Fantasy X. Clear attention has been paid not just to fleshing out the specific cultures and clashing ideologies of Spira, but also to ensuring that this world remains richly detailed and consistent in all the small, seemingly insignificant ways; we’d argue that this is the most fully-realised world Square has dreamed up yet.
Though the pacing of the story can tend to become grating in some places—Final Fantasy X is all about slamming those five to ten minute unskippable cutscenes into every conceivable place in the plot—it’s fortunately held together by the well-written characters and generally unpredictable direction; Final Fantasy X likes to take a sharp left turn just about every time you think you know what’s going to happen next. The underlying themes prove to be extremely intriguing as well, with topics such as generational legacy and the artificiality of religion often taking the centre stage as the narrative asks questions that can easily be related to real-world problems and relationships. Bearing all this in mind, Final Fantasy X proves itself to possess a story that’s certainly worth seeing through to its conclusion, but it’s also a ‘slow burn’ akin to a long and richly rewarding novel; if you’re not the kind of person who has the time or energy to devote to immersing yourself into the struggles and cultures of a distant fantasy world, Final Fantasy X may prove to be too slow or impenetrable an experience to be worth your time.
Final Fantasy X represented a bold new step for the series to a new generation of hardware, and though much of the core experience remained the same, much of it, too, was altered or tweaked for variety, such as the new Conditional Time-Based (CTB) Battle System. Eschewing the tried and true ATB system of the previous few games, Final Fantasy X implements a more strategic and slower-paced system that favours thinking through each action and using the one that can best exploit the underlying system. CTB works much akin to a standard turn-based battle setup, but the order of the next several turns is shown to you in a small window in the corner. Depending on the action you pick, a character’s or enemy’s turn may be moved forward or back on the schedule; if you’re smart with how you plan things out, you can have multiple characters act before an enemy gets to. For example, if an enemy’s turn is coming after a character’s turn, eliminating that enemy before its turn can grant one or more of your party members an extra turn or two before the other enemy gets to act.
Things are then further mixed up by the way that party management is handled; even though you can only have three characters on the field at a time, you can cycle in any benched party member during any character’s turn and have that incoming party member act on the same turn. This party flexibility acts as a welcome and simple way of sidestepping a common problem in RPG’s in which extra party members are easily left by the wayside and become underleveled (and thus, underused) as the hours roll by. Here, the ease of tagging in party members at any time makes it hard not to use the full team, and often the enemy variety will demand that you do. For example, you may find yourself faced with an enemy whose tough outer shell must be penetrated by a certain weapon type that nobody on your on-field team has access to, or you may be accosted by an enemy which requires magic attacks to take down. There’s enough nuance to exploiting enemy weaknesses and defending against their strengths throughout your adventure to keep you constantly on your toes regarding team composition, and we appreciated this more dynamic approach to the often stagnant nature of a turn-based battle system.
Much like the new battle system, character progression has similarly been overhauled for Final Fantasy X, eschewing the traditional concept of ‘levelling up’ entirely in favour of a much more fluid progression system that clearly features traces of what Square experimented with in the previous few games in the series. Rather than your characters gaining levels and growing their stats in a linear fashion after acquiring experience in battle, every character that participates in a fight is awarded experience that grants them ‘Sphere Levels’. These can then be spent on the Sphere Grid, which is a sprawling, board game-like grid featuring a dizzying array of interconnected nodes that represent stat gains, abilities, and power ups. Each character starts at a different place on the grid, and you spend Sphere Levels to move them the equivalent number of nodes along their path. You must then spend other, consumable spheres dropped by enemies to activate these stat and ability nodes as you pass over them, but you can choose to forgo activating them if you’d rather save for something further down the line.
At first, the Sphere Grid is a linear experience in which you can only move your character down a rigid, basically straight path, but it soon becomes more interesting when you start nearing where other characters are on the grid and junction points become more common. At this stage, character paths can begin dovetailing together, and you can teach abilities or acquire stat builds that would ordinarily be the domain of another character on your team. Perhaps you feel like teaching your white mage some black magic spells. Perhaps you’d like to shore up the physical defence and health pool of your black mage. Every character can eventually traverse the entire Sphere Grid, so character progression is really an extended game of prioritising how you want your characters to participate in the broader team and specifically guiding them down that path. Some may be intimidated by the open-endedness of this system, but we found that it finds that rewarding balance between being too rigid and too open, calling to mind the Jobs system of past Final Fantasy games.
Though Final Fantasy X proves to be a distinctly linear experience in terms of its overworld progression—there’s not even an overworld map in this one—Square made sure to account for this by including a plethora of mini-games, chief among them being Blitzball. Blitzball could be most closely described as a completely underwater variant of water polo, in which two teams of six battle to score as many goals as possible over the course of two five-minute halves. It’s rather impressive how much Square invested into this, as recruiting new team members and leveling up their various stats by playing matches is almost a separate game in and of itself, though the length and repetition of Blitzball matches tends to become tiresome with time. Still, Blitzball proves to be a worthwhile distraction that has some strong ties to the main questline, and we appreciate how the developers made it something that can both be almost completely ignored and something that can actively support your main party’s effectiveness if you choose to pursue it fully.
Final Fantasy X easily stands as a classic then, and justifies picking up this remaster on its own, but what of Final Fantasy X-2? The first direct sequel in Final Fantasy history set an interesting precedent in how it’s truly the other side of the coin, offering a quality, but wildly different experience to that of Final Fantasy X. It’s easy to see why Final Fantasy X-2 was so polarising upon its release and why fans even today still hotly debate its merit, but we find that when one focuses on what it is—rather than what it isn’t—this is in many ways an experience that surpasses its predecessor.
To get one thing out of the way immediately, the jarring emotional whiplash one gets going from Final Fantasy X to Final Fantasy X-2 rivals the experience of listening to the Beatles’ White Album and going from ‘Blackbird’ to ‘Piggies’; it isn’t just simply moving the needle, it completely shatters the gauge. Final Fantasy X-2 picks up two years after the end of Final Fantasy X—in which the heroes (spoiler!) overcome Sin, but at great cost—and follows the adventures of Yuna in the new golden age that Sin’s destruction has brought. However, instead of being a rather grounded, sombre, and emotional tale of friendship and sacrifice, Final Fantasy X-2 is an irreverent, ridiculous, and flamboyant experience that’s often played for laughs and fanservice.
Yuna now travels the world with her friends Rikku and Paine as part of a girl gang called the Gullwings, flying all over Spira in their motorcycle-like airship on a constant search for treasure spheres. There is underlying meaning to this, of course—Yuna is ultimately pursuing this quest in search of a mysterious figure that might or might not be Tidus—but much of the narrative is following the misadventures of this ragtag band as they hunt for spheres, frequently encounter larger than life characters on their travels, and get caught up in the political battles between factions that vie for control of Spira. Viewing it as a follow up to Final Fantasy X, it’s a bit difficult to not be off-put by the over the top weirdness and high-energy ‘girl power’ stylistic changes to Final Fantasy X-2; Yuna herself is barely the same character from before, and all the new characters only further serve to take things into wacky and strange territory. However, when viewed on its own merits, Final Fantasy X-2’s story proves to be a raucously enjoyable experience, cashing out the heavy themes and plodding pace of Final Fantasy X in exchange for a fun-filled sugar rush of a story that rarely fails to intrigue, even if it comes off as being a bit shallow. True, Final Fantasy X-2 is a direct sequel, but this isn’t so much an extension of its predecessor as it is a standalone experience that’s nonetheless informed by what came before.
One of the biggest shifts made here is the change from linear storytelling to a more non-linear, mission-based structure. Within minutes of booting up Final Fantasy X-2 for the first time, you’re shown a map screen that functionally allows you to visit every locale the game has to offer, with each offering up its own secrets, questlines, and treasures. Areas that will further the main storyline are conveniently pointed out to the player, but you can pick and choose where you’d like to go at your leisure, and you’re wise to diverge from the main path regularly in search of better gear and some excellent side-content. Echoing the golden age that now defines a post-Sin Spira, Final Fantasy X-2 is all about freedom and this mission-based structure helps to contribute to that theme.
Continuing the trend of taking Final Fantasy X and just making it faster and more fun, Final Fantasy X-2 replaces the CTB system in favour of a revamped version of a (debatably) new system that really puts the capital ‘A’ in Active Time Battle. Each character and enemy now has a gauge that fills up, allowing them to move for their ‘turn’ once full, but Final Fantasy X-2 takes this system a step further than past games by allowing different characters’ actions to be executed simultaneously, resulting in much more chaotic combat encounters that are much closer to live-action battles than they are turn-based. For example, if you use a quickly activated attack as an enemy is in the wind-up animation for an attack of their own, you can stunlock the enemy and delay their attack by a few precious seconds, perhaps buying enough time for another party member or two to pull off their attack. That door swings both ways however, and given that every action has a casting time between you selecting it and the character actually doing it, it’s easy to be caught with your pants down and have several actions of your own delayed. This heavier focus on timing is then further exacerbated by the new combo system, in which any attacks that land within a second or two of each other will feed into a combo multiplier; each new attack in the multiplier will do notably more damage, so it’s important to keep in mind how certain attacks and strategies can be synergised to get the most out of every action.
As if this system wasn’t wild enough, Final Fantasy X-2 also features the return of the classic Jobs system of character classing, but here it’s used in a much more flexible manner. Jobs—called Dresspheres here—can be swapped on the fly with a few selections in the battle menu, functionally allowing each member of your team to be a full party in themselves. Naturally, each character has their own strengths and weakness, and it’s good to focus them on a related handful of classes that they can really excel at, but having each character be so ‘fluid’ in this manner injects a lot more energy into each battle. It’s essentially impossible for there to be any holes in your team lineup, and having the ability to do things like shifting your black mage to white mage to drop some heals before going back on offence, all at the drop of a hat, is revolutionary in certain ways. Each character’s mastery of a given Dressphere levels independently as you use it more with them, gaining access to new abilities and spells over time, and we thought it was a nice touch how you’re able to pick exactly which new skills or abilities each character can learn next for their class by just selecting it from the pause menu, giving you full control over how the character can grow into that role.
Of course, Square didn’t want to make this class-shifting system too broken, so you can only have as many classes as your Garment Grid allows. Garment Grids are picked up throughout the game as quest rewards and treasures, and each one presents you with a differently interconnected matrix of nodes in which you can place several of your Dresspheres. Seeing as how you can only move one node at a time per dress change, it’s important to focus on how you group the abilities, and most of the grids offer up certain minor stat bonuses for crossing between specific nodes in a battle. This Garment Grid system is a welcome aspect of the character progression not just because it puts some limits on how flexible each character can be in battle, but also because it allows you to further differentiate and specialise your party members by outfitting them each with a grid that fits the role you want them to take.
Given that this is the HD Remaster of the Final Fantasy X games, Square opted to throw in all the extra content from the ‘International’ version of the game, as if the 120+ hours on offer between the vanilla versions wasn’t staggering enough. In Final Fantasy X, this extra content takes the shape of an expanded Sphere Grid, along with a slew of endgame super-bosses that assuredly bring the pain to anyone that doesn’t essentially max out their team’s stats. In Final Fantasy X-2, this extra content takes the shape of the ‘Creature Creator’ system, which allows you to catch and train over 150 enemy types and use them in battle as party members, a few extra dresspheres and Garment Grids, and a couple super-bosses. Also, separate from, but narratively connected to Final Fantasy X-2 is the ‘Last Mission’ mode, which essentially acts as a Mystery Dungeon clone that sees you taking control of one of the three main girls at a time and battling through floor after floor of a mysterious tower. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon: Every Buddy! proves to be the stronger interpretation—Last Mission really feels like an afterthought—but it’s nonetheless more value added to this already full-to-bursting package. Though the speed and battle boosters from the PC version of this remaster notably haven’t been included here—no instant max stat characters or 8x speed for you—we found that their absence wasn’t too glaring; unlike the PS1 releases, both these games have held up well enough that you don’t much feel the need to actively ‘cheat’ to circumvent the more antiquated or frustrating parts.
From a presentation perspective, both Final Fantasy X and X-2 prove to hold up reasonably well from their humble PlayStation 2 origins, aided in no small way by the redone character models and high-res textures that Square added. Whether playing on the go or on the TV, both of these games look great in motion with the endlessly creative and colourful art direction that really solidifies the ‘tech and magic’ style that the Final Fantasy series is now known for, while also fusing the world design with an interesting South East Asian look that isn’t often explored in games. We found ourselves snapping plenty of pictures across both adventures, whether of rickety village boardwalks by the ocean at sunset or blue-tinged forests pulsing with crystals and magical energy. Both of these games are a high-fantasy visual treat, and we really appreciated how the developers pulled out all the stops and let their imaginations run wild in dreaming up these locales. Now, with all that being said, it’s obvious in many places that these games originated on the PS2, as occasionally derpy faces and jagged geometry give away the nearly twenty years its been since these games first launched. We found the new texture work and character models masks the age well, but there’s also no mistaking these games for a current-gen releases.
We’d be remiss not to mention the incredible remastered music featuring here, too, with the two games together offering up a diverse auditory journey that’s in some ways as jarring as the stylistic shift from X to X-2. While Final Fantasy X—primarily arranged by longtime series composer Nobu Uematsu—features all the dramatic piano tracks, horn-focused battle themes, and sweeping, cinematic anthems for the wide shots, Final Fantasy X-2—arranged this time by Noriko Matsueda—takes things in a jazzier, Bayonetta-esque direction that mixes in elements of J-pop to boot. The tonal shift is certainly weird if you happen to jump between the two games frequently (not recommended, play them in order as the Lord intended), but it’s hard to argue that each soundtrack isn’t well-suited to the overall themes and direction of their respective games. Either way, it’s difficult to be disappointed by what’s on offer here, and we’d say that at least Final Fantasy X’s soundtrack deserves to be in the running for best in the series.