We now live in a world where Final Fantasy X has been re-released with an HD makeover before Final Fantasy VII, and there’s something wrong with that on a very fundamental level. And why FFX and Final Fantasy X-2 instead of the more highly regarded Final Fantasy IX or Final Fantasy VI (and no, we’re not counting that war crime of an Android port)? Close as anyone has been able to guess, it’s that FFX and FFX-2 represent the last time Final Fantasy wasn’t idea vomit in digital form, even though the worst tendencies of the series’s later years can be directly traced back to them.
Somebody obviously still loves them, however, and it shows in the amount of TLC lavished on the games for this compilation. The graphics have received the expected uptick in resolution, but Square Enix has also given both games a decent once-over, adding additional environmental detail, effects, even facial animations for the main characters. Additionally, parts of the Final Fantasy X soundtrack have been rearranged, with sweetened or completely altered instrumentation. Some of the new mixes work better than others (the Calm Lands melody is now up there with “Aeris’ Theme” from FFVII among the prettiest tunes in the series), but no irreparable damage has been done either way. The same love hasn’t been shown to FFX-2, but Nobuo Uematsu’s touch was always missing there, and aside from “1,000 Words,” nothing from that game’s score really stuck out to begin with.
The gameplay, while still steadfast in its turn-based ways, is a wonderful example of continuing to keep things fun and simple. The Sphere Grid in FFX is still the last leveling system in these games that wasn’t a total train wreck (to answer your next question, Gambit System devotees: no, you’re crazy), and this remaster allows stateside gamers to experience the international version’s Expert version of the grid, which is even more freeing. Yes, among other things, this means Yuna can learn Black Magic, easily and early. So, for what it’s worth, FFX is still satisfyingly addictive as gameplay. FFX-2 also has its strengths: One of the few positives levied at the recent Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was its costume system, which was borrowed straight from FFX-2, and the game was better for it, as it’s a fun, unique take on the Job system from Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V, and Final Fantasy Tactics that encourages much more experimentation than most RPGs do.
And then there’s the story. Back in 2001, FFX’s narrative, based around the world of Spira being savaged every generation by a massive, unholy eldritch terror called Sin, felt like an overly convoluted mess compared to the classic simplicity of previous Final Fantasy games, especially since Final Fantasy IX had already perfected the old formula. In the current gaming landscape, however, where you need a Wiki just to keep track of half of what’s happened in the three (!) Final Fantasy XIII games, FFX comes off as restrained, low key, even relevant. The Final Fantasy franchise has played with religious allegory before, and FFX presents a critique of blind devotion in its young kids running around following the teachings of Spira’s global religion, Yevon, without question, and to a frightening degree. Much of the game’s best moments stem from characters having that belief shaken to the core, and these crises of faith at least come off as believable and human, even despite some stilted voice acting and direction throughout.
The major problem with FFX is getting to the substance while dealing with main character Tidus’s dudebro whining, and his trifling daddy issues gumming up the works. Tidus is simply a nightmare of character building on so many levels: He starts out as a boring jock, moves onto boorish man-child once he arrives in Spira, wavers between pedantic man-child and willfully ignorant dumbass for most of the time, eventually settling on pretentious douche, and that’s in the part of the game where you start to feel sorry for the guy. And this is your hero, the ever-ubiquitous narrator and avatar of FFX, our window into the more fascinating material that occurs, and it cuts much of the game’s allegorical ambitions off at the knees.
FFX-2 has much the same problem. It does its best work when it’s envisioning the world John Lennon sang about in “Imagine”: no heaven, no hell, no religion. There’s just the people of Spira, trying to find something else to latch onto that isn’t the opiate of the masses, and most of that exploration is in the hands of its youth. It’s a far more interesting plot for an RPG than just trying to save the world, yet again, from the wrath of angry demigods. In order to get to the meat of that, you have to wade through an embarrassing chapter or two of Yuna, Rikku, and replacement goth chick Paine playing Charlie’s Angels all the way across Spira, hunting for leftover spheres, while being chased down by cringingly bad supplier of comic relief, LeBlanc and her bumbling cronies. The most egregious and dangerous plot thread is Yuna finding a sphere of a man who looks like Tidus, and quietly leading a hunt to find out if he’s still out there after the events that end FFX.
Neither plot should work, and yet by the end, via a series of revelations, twists, and character beats, the games succeed despite the handicap of Tidus’s presence and Yuna turning into a gun-toting J-pop star. The game even manages to stick a heartbreak of a landing for Tidus and summoner Yuna’s story. Being able to make the player care about the fate of an unlikable character is one of those small miracles you never expect, but FFX manages to perform stronger than imagined, and FFX-2 does better than expected not betraying the impressive down beat of FFX’s ending. If only it didn’t take 40-to-60 hours to get there.
On paper, FFX and its sequel read exactly as you’d expect a modern-day Final Fantasy to read, and it’s indeed the blueprint that its descendants are built upon, but FFX at least feels like a lived-in, vibrant, and unique fantasy world with characters worth knowing (Tidus aside), and status quo worthy of destroying. The gameplay wasn’t broke to begin with, and didn’t get fixed, but this world has never looked or sounded or played better than it does now. These are not things we’ll be saying about Final Fantasy XIII a decade from now.