We’re expected to value high-definition treatments of pop video games, so the question of how Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster looks seems redundant. The real question involves whether Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 deserve attention more than a decade after their release. For FFX, the answer isn’t straightforward due to uneven attempts to address religion and love within the context of a role-playing game that waters itself down with an overreliance on cutscenes, mini-games, and hamstrung exploration. For FFX-2, the answer seems obvious as the moral consideration of FFX disappears in favor of nostalgia and solipsism disguised as empowerment.
FFX’s goal to make the epic more down to earth is admirable and explains why the game was a hit in 2001. The protagonist, Tidus, has a voiceover, a la Kevin Arnold’s in The Wonder Years, that frames the adolescent confusion of his journey from a standpoint of maturity; it also keeps the audience at a personal, up-close distance. This approachable foundation doesn’t initially factor in, as the story struggles in its first hour or so with random introductions of mysterious characters with no explanation from Tidus. FFX doesn’t quite make sense until Tidus meets Yuna, a young woman on a religious expedition to save humankind from a monster named Sin (the game is never subtle). Early on, this duo drives the most powerful non-playable scene, in which Yuna walks on water like Christ and dances to calm the spirits of the dead, a beautiful display of sympathy that gives Tidus goo-goo eyes.
If only great storytelling could occur every time FFX takes control away from you. Director/producer/writer Yoshinori Kitase too often allows his cinematic aspirations to create a choppy playing experience. At times you can barely move without being interrupted by camerawork and dialogue exchanges that you didn’t initiate and that you mostly can’t skip. This flaw becomes egregious when such scenes precede a difficult boss fight. Dying in a tough battle shouldn’t result in the absurd punishment of watching the same hackneyed build-up to a maniacal villain. And that’s not the only tedium FFX forces on you. During the first part of the game, you must learn the rules to a fictional underwater sport called Blitzball, which is, in practice, a mindless mini-game with awkward transitions from real-time or automated movement to turn-based decisions. In addition, every time you visit a temple as part of Yuna’s pilgrimage you must engage in a puzzle mini-game where you pick up orbs (one at a time) and place them in the correct holes. This busywork requires you to stand in precise positions and sometimes push objects into the proper place, but solving these areas is relieving rather than satisfying due to the very obvious trial-and-error solutions.
There’s not much of an opportunity to explore the world of FFX to escape from such uninspired requisites. For hours and hours, you’re on a narrow, predictable path that’s digestible because of Nobuo Uematsu’s outstanding soundtrack, a flexible combat system (which entertains more when you initiate its character switching as often as possible, rather than taking the easier route of building a few juggernaut party members), and the story’s emphasis on friendship and tested faith. Despite the voice acting being second-rate at best, a broad audience would have little trouble seeing itself in the struggles of the cast, from Tidus’s longing for acceptance from his father, to Yuna’s political niceties, to Wakka’s prejudice against a vagabond people. The populist approach crumbles when the plot gets twisted with revelations of characters who are actually dead or unreal. And while some of the journeyers appear to undergo an evolution of their personal beliefs, FFX makes its critique of institutional religion overly black and white with the demented caricature of Seymour. The fatigue of fighting authority (Seymour can never die enough, apparently) overshadows the parallel between Yuna and Jesus Christ and renders the idea of atoning for transgressions irrelevant. In the end, FFX leaves one with a lack of spiritual reflection despite the fact that its resolution to Sin is miraculous.
But at least FFX tries to be humanist. Its direct sequel, FFX-2, is hollow in its calculated pandering to fandom, where Yuna’s calling to sacrifice herself for the betterment of all loses out to self-important thievery. To criticize the game for being different from its predecessor is too simple. After all, the more active combat system would be a blessing if not for overblown transformations that allow Yuna and her friends to assume different roles, from healers to warriors to controllers of the elements. Perhaps the Charlie’s Angels vibe could have been the grounds for kinetic art, but as in FFX, pacing suffers from unwelcome dialogue, this time from an angle of raging stupidity. “Oh, poopie,” characters utter as if to capture the infantilization of video-game culture in a dumbfounded soundbite. Here, there’s no feeling of a journey, linear or open. The game announces the beginnings and endings of missions in the style of a desperate television show that doesn’t want to be canceled. Not even Yuna’s search for Tidus should be interpreted positively. In FFX, their relationship doesn’t trump their respective individualism (Yuna rejects Tidus’s narrow-minded “This is my story”). In FFX-2, the absence of Tidus has turned Yuna into a symbol of try-hard adventurism, which seems particularly foul as you run through recycled levels and enemies from FFX. FFX-2 has been described as woman- or female-centric, but it’s more about developer/publisher Square cashing in on a fanbase’s sentimentality for a known property.