Some franchises stand the test of time. These giants of our youth stride effortlessly through the world of gaming, barely even acknowledging the changing tides of console generations or the development of industry-shifting technology that inevitably crumbles the moment its fifteen minutes is spent. You’d have to be a fool to claim that Final Fantasy wasn’t one of these franchises, having moved millions of games since 1987 and entertaining gamers from the NES through to iOS, with the PS4 and Xbox One soon to host Square Enix’s latest iteration. No one can forget their first Final Fantasy and everyone has a favourite – and even if you’re one of the legion that offers their soul to FFVII you should still hold a special place in your heart for X.
You see, Final Fantasy X was special. It was the first Final Fantasy to do away with an overworld map and have you run through 3D environments on your pilgrimage; it was the first Final Fantasy to be fully voiced (and I’m struggling to recall any RPG that may have beaten it to the more general accolade as well) and it was also the first Final Fantasy to spawn a direct sequel, allowing you to continue your journeys in the world of Spira – and X-2 was brave enough to throw nearly everything out of the window and give you an entirely new combat and progression system.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we’re only talking about Final Fantasy X and X-2 because Square Enix have gone and released a HD Remaster of the games on the Vita and PS3. As with every other HD re-release ever the games feature enhanced character models and upgraded textures, along with other additional effects that help bring them up to the quality level a discerning modern gamer would expect. Perhaps more importantly, the games featured here are the ‘International’ versions – while we were lucky enough in Europe to get this fuller version with the original release of X this is the first time that the International version of X-2 has been released outside of Japan. Throwing in two new dresspheres and some additional garment grids would have been fun enough (and more on both of those later), but Square outdid themselves with this version – a whole new creature capture/train/fighting ‘mini-game’ adds tremendous value, and the additional ‘Last Mission’ mode sees your party hooking up three months after the events of X-2 while they scale the Iutycyr Tower dungeon.
To get there though you really should work through the games in order, and up first would be Final Fantasy X. X presents a world beset by Sin – much like our own, you may think, but in this case Sin is a gigantic aquatic monstrosity that is said to represent the past transgressions of humanity. It swims around wreaking destruction on any community larger than a couple of huts, thus ruining an otherwise quite tranquil fantasy world. Our story follows Tidus as he escorts the Summoner Yuna on her pilgrimage to the temples of Yevon as she attempts to gain the knowledge required to defeat Sin, and bring a period of calm to the land.
While modern day Final Fantasies get hit with the linearity complaint, the truth is that for much of the franchise’s history the linearity has been there, and X is no different. If you were feeling particularly cruel you could describe much of the story-line element of the game as a series of linked corridors separated by CGI cutscenes, and the truth is you wouldn’t be far wrong. But boy, what linearity; such a set-up provides the perfect scene for the game’s story to be presented, the tale told by this motley set of characters made all the tighter by Square’s ability to pace the action and the exposition marvellously. It also helps that the world of Spira manages to truly seem like a living one; from the smallest village to the largest town NPCs stroll around, their own mini-stories progressing and reacting to events outside in the wider world, and your directed wanderings through this world never manage to feel forced. Oh, and you know what? The years have changed my opinion on Tidus’ voice actor too, and I now see the part played as a ‘man out of time and culture’ rather than ‘whiny American’, although I appreciate that I may well be in the minority on that.
So, even though it’s been nearly twelve years since the game’s original release on the PS2, Final Fantasy X still manages to feel fresh – only the odd dodgy humanoid NPC model will affect the reverence you’ll feel for the quality of the remastering. The pre-rendered CGI scenes are cropped from their original versions so as to fit the widescreen aspect of the Vita, but they look good enough to include in a modern release, a real testament to the quality of the work undertaken by Square in their Renaissance period – it’s easy to see looking back why the world expected their CGI movies to take over the cinema.
Away from the shininess there are still the developments that X brought with its conditional turn-based battle system. If you picture a traditional JRPG turn-based combat system then you wouldn’t be far off, but here instead of each participant having a fair share of ‘turns’ an act list governs the action, allowing those speedier combatants to get in more attacks over the course of a battle. It’s hard to make clear now what a welcome change this was after the combat animation times in FFXI’s Active Time Battle system had increased to the point where you were often waiting for a character to stop doing something rather than for their bar to fill up, but this system refresh in X once again allowed you to concentrate on the tactical nuances of combat. This is further bolstered by the introduction of quick in-battle character swaps that allow you to utilise your whole party in any combat situation (should you so wish), opening the way for you to exploit any physical or magical weakness a given enemy may have, or even just do sneaky things like grab the first turn in a battle with a very fast character and immediately swap them out for a slower one.
It’s a tradition that any Final Fantasy throws up a new levelling system, and X is no different. Character progression is governed here by the sphere system, an interconnected series of node clusters that reward various statistic or ability rewards depending on how you progress through it. Your characters can earn sphere levels and spheres from battles, using them to then move around the grid and unlock the upgrade nodes. The beauty of the system lies in the fact that (on the expert setting at least – there is a more basic progression option should you feel daunted!) you are able to move your characters around the grid as you wish, sometimes taking them in quite different development paths than the designers would initially have intended – for instance, it doesn’t take much to crash Yuna into Lulu’s path mid-game, and then suddenly your ‘healer’ character also has access to elemental damage spells, doubling your magical potential.
You’ll find everything is a little different when you move onto FFX-2. Released in 2004, nearly two years after FFX, this direct sequel received slightly less favourable critical reviews at the time, and you have to wonder whether this was at least partially due to the changes in direction from X. Gone is the large party of guardians, gone is the battle system, gone is the sphere grid. Gone too is the unspoken angst, replaced now by an almost cheerfully saccharine quality. The opening J-Pop concert CGI sets the scene for the rest of the game – think girl power mixed with Charlie’s Angels with strong female leads and you won’t be far off. Most of the character models have been upgraded further than in X (Rikku especially stands out), and there seems to be fewer of the distractingly duff NPC models that could pop up unexpectedly in X – you could say that Spira has never looked so shiny.
FFX-2 also, somewhat surprisingly given our views on linearity within the franchise, manages to do away with a lot of the forced corridor running and replaces it with a mission based system. Starting off with access to the airship and the ability to sail anywhere you like allows you to continue the feeling of freedom you earned by powering to the end of X, and there’s a feeling of mischievous glee in being able to ignore a storyline mission hotspot and instead just going to hang out in your favourite in-game haunt. Fine, you’ll still end up running through corridors, but at least now you’ve chosen in which order to run them, and you may even find a surprise or three on the way too.
We really can’t go any further without laying out the differences found within the battle system, of which the most innovative has to be the use of the garment grid and dresspheres. Instead of your three characters each fulfilling a role with an associated group of relevant skills you can instead equip a number of different dresspheres to a garment grid and allow them to hot-switch in battle between their various roles. For instance, for old time’s sake you could equip Yuna with the ‘Healing Wind’ garment grid which lets her use the ‘Cure’ skill regardless. You could then equip the ‘Healing Wind’ garment grid with the ‘Gunner’, ‘Songstress’ and ‘Black Mage’ dresspheres. This means that within battle Yuna would always be able to cast a healing spell, but she could choose to be dressed as a ranged damage character, a debuffer or an offensive magic user in addition to this, and would have the ability to move between those different roles at will. Throw in some additional buffs you can get when you move between points of the garment grid in a certain order and you’ll quickly find yourself dashing off to the wardrobe for a Superman-style change in most battles.
After being brave enough to move on from the Active Time Battle system in X, X-2 refines and reintroduces it; here on default settings enemies can (and will!) attack you as and when they are ready to do so, paying you no regard as you mull over menus trying to figure out what to do. Each character comes with an ATB gauge, and can take an action as the gauge fills and becomes entirely green. While some actions are performed immediately, most will require a short wait, and here you’re treated to a purple bar that measures the amount of time until the character in question can undertake the last command you gave them. It adds a feeling of immediacy to your actions, and you’ll find yourself planning your next turns in advance as you attempt to fire off your attacks as quickly as possible to attempt to squeeze yet another in before retaliation comes.
Regarding specific features of the Vita ports, you’ll find a couple of touchscreen assists associated with combat (a quick heal and an option to shorten aeon summon animations in X or wardrobe changes in X-2) and that’s about it. Apart from, of course, the greatest addition to any JRPG – the ability to hit the home button and suspend your gameplay at any point you want. No more the pain of having a loved one walk in just as you get to the start of an epically long CGI, instead the smug satisfaction of knowing that reward video is sat there waiting for you as you nod inanely to their spurious conversation.
Really, for anyone that managed to be around as a gamer when these two games first came round, and, like me, are starting to feel like they’ve been round the houses a few times already themselves, the greatest element of this HD Remaster is that you can play it outside your home – it’s magic of the purest kind that gets JRPGs of this calibre running on a handheld. We’ve mentioned this before, back in our Metal Gear Solid HD Collection review on Vita and once again Sony have managed to bottle lightning. Not Lightning, because that would be silly, and is probably a mini-game reserved for FFXIII-4, but close enough in terms of the enjoyment you’ll get out of it. Spira is a wonderful and lively place to visit, and quite honestly you could probably get enough content out of this collection to last you the rest of the year.