Lately there's been a bit of a renaissance when it comes to HD remakes of older games, giving fans who may have missed out on the PS2 originals a chance to visit them for the first time. Nowhere has this been more true than in the land of Japanese role-playing games, where over the space of the past few months alone, we've had remastered collections of the Disney-centric Kingdom Hearts and the cute and colourful Tales of Symphonia, with a second Kingdom Hearts remake bundle set to release at some point this year. As if we hadn't already been spending enough time indoors, glued to our TVs as we power through hundreds of hours of role playing goodness, Square Enix have now added a remake of two huge Final Fantasy games to our list - PS2 titan Final Fantasy X, and it's sequel Final Fantasy X-2, in the newest compilation to grace our Playstation 3 - the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster. With redone graphics, re-orchestrated music and a handful of extras thrown in, the last of the good Final Fantasy games is looking better than ever:
Final Fantasy X
As part of a series famed for it's storytelling, it comes as no surprise that we kick off the collection with another engrossing tale, in which the protagonist, Tidus, gets catapulted a thousand years into the future, following an altercation with the world-destroying sea monster, Sin. Originally a famous Blitzball player (a kind of underwater netball/football hybrid), the now-stranded Tidus soon finds himself under the wing of summoner Yuna and her friends, as they travel the world of Spira on a pilgrimage to destroy Sin and bring peace to the land once more. With his life inexplicably linked to that of Sin, from his father's mysterious disappearance to his own trip to the future, stopping it's cycle of death and rebirth may be the only way for Tidus to return home...
Without giving too much away, its safe to say that for the series as a whole it's the story that keeps the game moving, and most of your time will be spent talking to other characters or sitting through the many cinematic, visually impressive cutscenes. Perhaps coming at the expense of exploration, it can seem like a bit of a linear trot between movie sequences at times, although that's not necessarily a bad thing - it helps keep the story fore and centre, and for someone who frequently gets distracted by shiny things off the beaten track, it means there's much less aimless wondering and getting lost.
But outside of it's story and characters, all role-playing games need some form of compelling battle system - after all, fighting hundreds of thousands of monsters over 50+ hours can get a bit tedious if not. For this, Final Fantasy X shuns the Final Fantasy standard real-time/turn-based hybrid battles, in which each character has to wait for their action bar to fill before they can fight, in favour of a more straightforward turn-based approach. Kind of like Pokemon, you take it in turns to give your enemy a bashing, and take their beating, giving you plenty of time to select your commands from the list for each character, choosing whether to attack, use magic or special skills, or heal yourself with an item, before your enemies get their turn to make a move. The slower pace gives you more time to think about your strategy for each battle - and when the different enemies all have their own strengths and weaknesses, it can mean the difference between winning and a game over. For example, certain enemies are very resistant to physical attacks (swords, axes and the like), but are much weaker to a certain type of magic, such as your Black Mage Lulu's fire spells, while Blitzball captain Wakka's ball-throwing attacks really do a number on those flying beasts.
But perhaps the character with the most unique special ability is your white mage and potential love interest, Yuna. Alongside her ability to cure all manner of ailments and heal her companions, she can also summon humongous mythological beings known as Aeons, many of which are the living embodiment of the physical elements of fire, ice and lightning. As you'd expect, they're rather powerful when used in battle, although come at a cost - once summoned into battle, the rest of your party heads to the sidelines, and you're left controlling the single Aeon instead. Each Aeon has their own strengths, weaknesses and unique fighting style, and knowing when and where to use them can factor into your overall battle strategies. For example, the first Aeon you receive, the flying Valefor, has a special attack which delays an enemies turn, whilst the thunderous unicorn Ixion's Aerospark does medium damage whilst removing any and all spell effects from your opponent - rather useful when you come across bosses that like to spam protects and other such spells to reduce incoming damage.
Unlike the majority of role-playing games, your party doesn't 'level up' to get stronger, as such. Instead, you collect various spheres throughout your adventures, and by placing these into a web-like grid, you can boost your stats however you like. For example, if you feel like you're dying too much, you can choose to invest more in your health, while others may prefer to spend their points elsewhere, perhaps learning new special moves and attacks instead. It may sound like a fairly straightforward system of letting you tailor your party and characters to how you prefer to play - except it's made more complicated by the fact that you can only take a 'step' around the grid when you level up, so it's kind of a roundabout way of going about levelling up your characters.
But what really takes the confusing biscuit is Final Fantasy X's side game, Blitzball. With a tutorial that spans twelve different topics and takes almost an hour to get through, it's simply way more complicated than it ever needed to be. At it's core, the underwater sport of Blitzball simply requires you to throw more balls into the goal than your opponents, passing between the players on your team whilst avoiding your rival's tackles - the problem is it's made too numerical and mechanical to be manageable to anyone but strategy fans. Every move you make while holding the ball drains a reserve of points, while other separate points determine your current characters' skills at passing, shooting and deflecting tackles. As the ball is thrown between players, different numbers drain as it travels, and if it happens to run out of steam before it reaches it's destination, then it'll likely be fumbled by it's recipient - or in the case of a goal attempt, caught by the goalie instead. If it sounds confusing, it's because it is. Fortunately, the majority of the matches are optional, meaning that once you fumble your way through those required in the story, you never have to go there again (unless you're hunting for PSN Trophies).
Final Fantasy X-2
Set two years after the events of Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2 presents a radically different Spira, one which is no longer under the destructive rule of deadly deity Sin, giving the worlds' inhabitants a new found sense of optimism and freedom. At the forefront of this new tale is high summoner Yuna, who's shrugged off her formal robes in favour of a pair of blue hotpants and joined up with a band of 'sphere hunters' known as the Gullwings, helping them hunt down these new, powerful commodities. However, Yuna's life after Sin is forever changed when her cousin Rikku shows her one such sphere, on which she sees the image of Tidus, the protagonist and (potential love interest) from Final Fantasy X, struggling to escape from the clutches of an unseen captor. With his mysterious disappearance fresh in their minds, Yuna sets off on a globe-trotting journey with Rikku and their new-found friend Paine, to uncover the truth and hopefully save Tidus from his fate...
What makes Final Fantasy X-2 feel different though, is it's decidedly different scope - there's much less of a dire 'save the world' feeling going on, at least for the first half of the game. Much more light-hearted with smattering of crazy 'girls on tour' theatrics and humour, it's the perfect antidote to the more sobering original. Right out of the gate you're treated to an upbeat pop concert, full of flashy special effects and fireworks, starring none other than everyone's favourite summoner-turned-popstar, Yuna, before leaping into a high-octane chase, a run in with a rival faction of sphere hunters and a quick costume change too - all in the first fifteen minutes.
You see, in the rather girl-centric world of Final Fantasy X-2, outfits are a force to be reckoned with. A necessity for battles, each set of garbs gives each character a different set of skills, attacks and strengths - perhaps a huge damage-dealing sword to swing around, the ability to pinch all manner of items from your enemies as a Thief, or commanding fire with a Black Mage robe. Just as you may rethink your tactics mid-scuffle, you can also rethink your current fashion choices with a tap of a button too, depending on what the situation calls for. During your adventures, you'll amass quite a wardrobe too, including the rather out-there Festivalist set, with it's moogle-embellished kimonos, chocobo masks and attacks that involve explosive fire sandals and giant goldfish.
Compared to Final Fantasy X's slow-paced, turn-based and almost leisurely approach to battles, X-2's fighting system can feel like a bit of a slap in the face. Still effectively take-it-in-turns, it's a return to the now-standard Final Fantasy Active Time Battle system - each character, enemies and allies alike, all have a bar, which fills up as time passes, and once full, it becomes your 'turn' to make a move by picking an option from the menu. Be wary though, as time doesn't freeze once your turn comes around, so you'll need to be quick to choose your move from the menus. Unfortunately, it's entirely possible to be attacked and wiped out while you're trying to find the right item to use, or deciding on a spell - an iota of indecisiveness can spell death and disaster for you and your teamates.
In keeping with the Gullwings sphere-seeking quests, the game is split up into fourteen or so missions scattered all across Spira, although you're free to explore any of the game's destinations in whatever order you want. Levels that help further the story are highlighted as 'hotspots', in which you have specific goals to complete, which usually culminate in a boss fight and a new sphere, which will show you a new glimpse of the past, hopefully bringing you closer to eventually finding Tidus - and depending on the stage you've chosen, you may find yourself racing a rival group of sphere hunters to the summit, scouring the seaside town of Besaid for a secret code or fighting your way through some winding ruins. But while main story missions are highlighted pretty well, it's not especially obvious that there's actually a wealth of side content and missions waiting in the other areas of the map, many of which turn out to be almost as essential in terms of story as many of the 'hotspots' - generally speaking, you'll be better off compulsively visiting every area other than the hotspots before you proceed, just in case you miss something important.
But there's more to the Final Fantasy X-2 remake than just prettier graphics - the previously Japan-only Creature Creator has found it's way in, a Pokemon-esque mini-game in which you can capture, train and battle with any of the fiends you find around Spira. Accessible via a computer on the Gullwings ship, you can place 'trap pods' on maps to randomly capture one of the creatures that lives in the area - there's no exploring, long drawn out battles to wittle down their HP or anything of that sort here. Once recruited, you can battle with your new-found fiends, teach them new abilities with items and enter a number of tournaments, all of which help them grow and become more powerful. As they grow, you get to learn more about them through their gradually unfolding 'fiend tale' (fiends are the trapped souls of dead humans), filling up the bestiary book as you go.
Of course, while role-playing game behemoths Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 are the main attraction of the compilation, it's not all you get. Alongside the two main games are a couple of nice extras - first is Final Fantasy X: Eternal Calm, a cinematic cutscene that helps bridge the gap between the two games, focussing on Yuna and her life after Sin. The second bonus, Final Fantasy X-2: Last Mission, is a final, playable chapter that follows on the story of X-2, and catches up with the three women several months after the end of the game, as they work their way through the 80 floors of a tall tower, battling monsters and reminiscing as they climb.
In all, it's hard to find much to fault in the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster - it's a high-quality remake of two much beloved Japanese role-playing games, that'll strike a chord with anyone who likes their games to have epic stories, whether they're playing through for the first or hundredth time. A few little niggles (*cough* Blitzball *cough*) keep it from being perfect, but they do very little to mar the collection's overall awesomeness. And with two games in one, lasting upwards of 100 hours in total, it's a bargain too.