Square Alienates Fans with Unsatisfactory Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD Remaster Music Arrangements

“…but I do feel a little sad that these so-called idols of my past whom I thought were perfect, actually faltered. As if I was God high up in the sky, calmly and rationally judging these artistes’ failures. Of course, these people left behind a legacy and inspired better artistes following along their paths. But whoever emerges with true worth, is like a race where everyone starts off together at the start-line and struggles towards the goal.

As I worked on the music for Final Fantasy X, maybe I can find out for myself the direction where my music is heading for in the future. A pity isn’t it?  Me not knowing where my music stands until now….”

–Nobuo Uematsu, as written in the ‘linear notes’ found the original Final Fantasy X soundtrack.

Even after 11 years since their initial releases, the experience of revisiting the PlayStation 2 versions of Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 feels as if time hadn’t passed, and sharing that blissful, timeless essence is a memory of Nobuo Uematsu’s ‘final’ batch of music creations under Square-Enix’s roof.

From the unforgettable melody resonating within “Suteki Da Ne” to the brooding piano patterns that mirror the demeanor of the evil Guado sub-antagonist known as Seymour, most of the music for FFX came from Uematsu himself, even while working under a contributing role alongside music director Masashi Hamauzu.

Back then, both titles ushered in a lot of firsts for the company. Alongside it being Square-Enix’s first PS2 title with three-dimensional environments and better graphical capabilities, it was also their first time aligning voice actors to in-game characters and the first in the series to offer a sequel with FFX-2.

The switch around in the musical production team, however, was nothing new.  The only thing that made it any different was that Uematsu already decided on his next business venture with his self-owned Smile Please company, making FFX his last piece of work.

While under the direction of Hamauzu, his contribution of 51 tracks—the most in comparison to Hamauzu and Junya Nakano—redefined video game music composition, setting the bar for the rest of the forthcoming Final Fantasy titles and music directors.

However, 2014 is upon us and soon will come the repackaged and fairly anticipated Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD Remaster for the PlayStation 3 and Vita.  The game aims to recapture the timeless experience while keeping close to the nostalgia of avid Final Fantasy fans. Under the guise of Game Director Yoshinori Kitase, Hamauzu and Junya Nakano as assistant producer returned and went to work on creating renditions to the original soundtrack for Final Fantasy X.

Similar to a lot of notable changes to the game, many of the songs for the HD Remaster have been entirely reworked from scratch. Computerized and orchestral tracks have been heavily updated to Hamauzu’s standards, which include giant influences of acoustic sounds, electronic instrumentation and embellishing, yet vibrant approach to the previous MIDI formatted arrangements displayed in the PlayStation 2 version.

Even Uematsu’s masterful productions were taken in under a new scope, but does this change in musical direction necessarily mean better quality or did the aim for stellar instrumental revision end up butchering FFX’s most charming aspect?

Hamauzu’s execution and accuracy for some of these tracks feels similar to playing blitzball while under the influence of alcohol. Successfully hit goals are perfectly dead center while missed attempts don’t even deserve an ‘A’ for effort, and Hamauzu misses a lot.

The re-compositions by themselves are great, given some interesting instrument allocations to the melodies and various changes in song structuring. However, given the memories often recalled with some of these tracks, these compositions come with an unwanted, over-saturated presence and can sometimes abandon emotion or push for familiarity.

FFX’s “Zanarkand” theme, for example, comes to us with its seemingly acoustic and subtle nature that parts from the original.  To an untrained ear, it has the same piano sound and regurgitates the same, melancholic melody. However, it lacks the loudness of the original and it the rendition also loses some of the small rush near the later half of the piece. Other small gestures such as the slight decrease in pacing put this one under the original.

Although rightfully equipped with the acoustic, harmonizing guitars that eloquently emit a beach-like atmosphere, the approach to “Spira Unplugged” is also amiss. The original had a lot more going on than just the melody alone; one guitar focused on some pretty complex note intervals while the other kept time with the ‘Suteki Da Ne’ chorus that occur in the second half. The HD Remaster version features both guitars harmonizing over the main melody and does less by taking out the complex sounds. Open dictionary. See “lazy.”

“Spira Unplugged”

Some themes in the HD Remaster also sound incongruent and unrecognizable in comparison to the original. “Challenge” is the main offender, a boss battle theme that plays during your party’s second squabble with Seymour at Mt. Gagazet. The pre-HD remix features some tender angelic chords at the first half and strangely works with some ghastly piano that rides along side it. A nice beat breakdown starts to ensue for a while before it goes back to slow, doom-like feel of the piano.

The mixing of this particular rendition is flat out horrible. The chords and piano are replaced by an annoying loop of an electric guitar riff and the triumphant drums in the beat breakdown have also been taken over by smudgy, cluttered and almost indecipherable bass and guitar runs. Despite it being Hamauzu’s work all the way through, this retake isn’t his best out of the entire original soundtrack.

Instruments that were once dominant throughout the track are now gone missing in the HD Remaster. “Yuna’s Theme,” “Mi’ihen Highroad” and “Servants of the Mountain” suffer from setback. The violin that’s presented in the latter aforementioned track starts off with the octave lower from of melody, which is at first off-putting until a second harmonizing violin chimes in with the correct tone. “Yuna’s Theme” sounds like a harsh rough draft of the original considering the atrocious ‘twang’ sound of the guitar and extreme lack of presence in some of the backing instrumentation.

“Besaid Island”

The majority of the themes either come without an ounce of emotion felt in the original or are badly executed during the production of the rendition, but let’s not jump too far ahead. Hamauzu’s reassessments on some other compositions sound outstandingly superb.

Originally composed by Uematsu, the “Battle Theme” was once a bit too soft and a tad aggravating given the repetitive occurrence in the game. The HD Remaster version lessens that aggravation with the implementation of powerfully orchestrated horns and trumpets.

“Calm Before the Storm” also offers some golden moments within its orchestration. At first glance, it’s hard to tell whether or not there were any chances, but the new bells in this track immediately take away the confusion and bring forth a tranquil reprise coursing throughout. There’s finally some bass in this one as well, which nicely eases within the track after about a minute. The tiny bells sound like raindrops, which rings true to its track title much more than before. This isn’t to say that the original didn’t have the same effect, but is rather is comparatively much louder and less subdued.

“Auron’s Theme” is possibly the best rendition on the OST. Hamauzu introduces a jazzy and rock infused characteristic that makes Lord Braska’s and Lady Yuna’s Masamune-wielding guardian feel more bad ass than ever. The hard hitting drums and the electrifying guitar solo occurring in the bridge intensely sell the theme.

“Seymour’s Ambition” shares the same type of gritty, high-octane rock vibe and is cleverly laced together with the revolving piano pattern that sits in the background.

Taking into consideration that the only untouched tracks that appear on this particular soundtrack are  Uematsu’s “Suteki Da Ne,” Otherworld,” “The Trials,” “Braska’s Daughter” and all of the “Hymn of Fayth” Aeon interludes, it could be argued that the rest of the songs should have either been left alone or that Hamauzu should have at least tried to present some of these drastic changes to Uematsu before going ahead with the release of the game (which probably happened, but there’s no record of that at the moment). It should also be noted that Final Fantasy X-2’s entire soundtrack remains the same, which further begs the question of what went down between Kitase and Main Composer Noriko Matsueda.

“Seymour’s Ambition”

Hamauzu’s overall end result of this OST is lower than sub par, but with a few surprises here and there. The lacking arrangements largely points to the absence of Uematsu’s influence. This isn’t to say that Uematsu is the god of Final Fantasy music, but if most of these arrangements belonged to him, then it would have made much more sense to at least get his suggestions on the retakes rather than having Hamauzu take the task all by himself.

Change isn’t always best. Some of the tracks fare well and are brilliantly orchestrated, but most sound like they were converted into a techno music producing program or less appealing audio engineering platform, which subsequently forces the arrangement to lose its original sentimental value. They sound more plastic than organic, subdued than boisterous.

The transition for the most part is unsettling for a gamer who wishes to preserve their nostalgia and at this rate, fans should lay low on the Final Fantasy VII remake requests. Square-Enix has demonstrated time and time again that their re-release of previous games are disappointing and that even some of the slightest changes have the ability to make a die-hard fans really uncomfortable. Considering that the music of Final Fantasy X has undergone hugely questionable changes with this upcoming HD Remaster title, imagining the outcome of any possible remake poses a terrifying future that result from Square-Enix’s creative decisions.

How the musical change will affect the complete performance of the re-release remains to be seen. In the meantime, Square-Enix should greatly consider dropping a “retro” DLC for Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD Remaster, one that will retains all the original arrangements that long-time FFX fans remember. Until then, fans who anticipate that the revamped arrangements will be the highest selling point in the game will be sorely mistaken.