Last year, Square Enix dipped its feet into the remastering pool with Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX, an excellent technical package of mostly great content that exuded a sense of its creators' love and care. But in my review, I noted that HD 1.5 ReMIX's version of the original Kingdom Hearts didn't feel like the definitive one; any additional content, of which there was very little, was overshadowed by the significance of gameplay changes. On the flip side, Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster is absolutely the definitive way to experience a legendary role-playing game and its earnest sequel. The new content is abundant, adding dozens of gameplay hours to already massive journeys, and a host of visual and audio upgrades inject astounding vibrancy. Square's legacy as artisans of the remastering craft is cemented; for graphical misers, RPG addicts, and nostalgic fans alike, Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster is gaming nirvana.
It starts with the infusion of both titles' International content, previously unavailable to most non-Japanese gamers. Final Fantasy X, in particular, gets the lionheart's share of goodies. New superbosses in the form of Dark Aeons and Penance threaten all but stat-maxed parties; the Expert Sphere Grid can be tackled for a different, highly customizable take on character advancement; and more subtle changes to enemy HP and strategies abound. In Final Fantasy X-2, there are two new dresspheres (Jobs), bringing the total to 16, along with new mini-games like Creature Creator, which lets you train and recruit a surprising number of fiends and friendly faces to fight alongside the main party. Finally, there's "Last Mission," a 3D roguelike that ties an extra narrative bow onto X-2's ending(s).
For a sense of scope: Final Fantasy X's main story runs about 45 to 60 hours, depending on your experience. Final Fantasy X-2's open-ended nature is difficult to pin a number on, but my playthroughs generally fall between 30 and 45 hours. So at the top end, we've already passed 100 hours of gameplay without an ounce of energy toward the endgame--monster-capturing, dungeon-crawling, treasure-collecting action with the potential for adding dozens of hours more, per game. And that's still only considering content from the original PS2 releases; generally, the International stuff comes even later, once your party is at superhuman levels of preparation and advancement.
Actually, this marks one of my only complaints with the collection: you can witness superbosses like the Dark Aeons any time once they're unlocked, but for any hope of actually facing them and making an experience out of it, you're looking at a long, complicated post-game grind that simply won't appeal to the vast majority of players. This isn't a slight against the remaster's quality; this design holds true to the International versions, after all. Unfortunately, from a gameplay perspective, these interesting experiences are locked behind progression that's not paced, explained, or presented well.
Besides the difficulty of access to International content, a few technical issues plague the collection on both PS3 and PS Vita. The problems, which didn't negatively impact my experience, vary between platform. On PS3, the framerate drops very briefly during strange moments, like some summoning animations. On PS Vita, that particular framerate drop is absent, but others pop up (very rarely) when lots of things are on-screen. Loading times are ever so slightly longer on PS Vita, but lip-syncing seemed less accurate on PS3 than on PS Vita. Or maybe I didn't notice on PS Vita's smaller screen. Or maybe I imagined it.
Regardless, these fleeting frustrations vanish at the gorgeous sight of both games' updated textures, environments, and characters. Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster feels like a new PS3/PS Vita game--beautifully drawn foliage and backgrounds explode with vibrant color on both platforms, and character faces and animations (while awkward in their age) are still more expressive than a lot of modern JRPGs (looking at you, Tales of Xillia). Again, I come back to scope: everything from the largest of fields to the most miniscule of interior carpets has not only been up-ressed substantially, but also repainted in greater detail to match the demands of a higher resolution. There will likely be some dissonance with nostalgic veterans--it took me quite a while to adjust to Tidus' new face, for example--but with time, the visual splendor of this package makes both games feel native to these platforms.
With Final Fantasy X's remastered soundtrack (X-2's tunes are untouched), there's likely to be more contention. Re-arranged instrumentation, altered volume levels, and changes to cadence affect a great deal of the game's soundtrack. With the exception of untouchable classics like "To Zanarkand" and "Hymn of the Fayth," which haven't been altered here, the sonic experience moves between 'very familiar' and 'noticeably different.' The orchestration often favors the subtleties of individual instruments--the airship's new violins, for example, or Besaid Island's more pronounced piano keying. In general, the music isn't better or worse, only different, but a few exceptions exist on both ends. Having played Final Fantasy X nearly a dozen times in my day, I found enough improved music to cement the new soundtrack as a good, well-executed idea, but mileage will vary.
So too with the gameplay and narrative, which are always contentious topics among Final Fantasy veterans. For my money, Final Fantasy X's system, which ditches time gauges in favor of a set turn order which you can alter and plan around, is still the fastest and most fun this long-running franchise has ever been. X-2 brings back active-time battles to great effect, pairing familiar, PS1-era mechanics with near-endless Job advancement and on-the-fly strategic depth. For different reasons, I have a blast with both. And I appreciate X-2's story, which, past the tonally jarring goofiness, develops X's characters in logical, compelling ways. X's story, meanwhile, needs no validation. It's a timeless tale of romance, religion, and metaphor, backdropped by one of Square's most well-realized worlds and blanketed in character subtlety that doesn't weigh down the story's perfect pacing.
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster doesn't merely make two classic games palatable for today's audience. The grand design of its visual, sound, and content upgrades are two re-imagined games that compete with the very best RPGs of this generation, let alone the last. If you haven't played either game, and you enjoy turn-based RPGs, this collection comes with the absolute highest recommendation. But even those who played the living crap out of both in their heyday may experience, like I did, a multitude of jaw-dropping moments at new artistry and polish. My perception of what these games are and can be has forever changed.
-The Final Word-
Square Enix's labor of love re-imagines two classic RPGs with stunning visual fidelity and enough content to yield hundreds of hours with some of the best role-playing in two generations.