A Final Fantasy retrospective from a long term fan and his hopes that the series might return to glory.
Remember the good old days of 8-bit platformers, shooters, and adventure games? Someone stole your girl, you went there and you kicked their ass (usually after dying hundreds of times in the process) and that was that. A button was to jump or punch, B button was to shoot or kick or whatever, and the control pad moved you around. So you’d step up to the bad guys, you’d jump/shoot/punch until they’re gone and then you’d move on to greater glory. Simplicity at its finest.
Well, I remember going to a friend’s house in grade school and he was playing a game I’d never seen called Dragon Warrior. In this game, you did none of those things. You fought by telling your character what to do rather than controlling him directly, and your chances of success were not decided by your reflexes or skill, but by numbers. It did not compute, yet I was somewhat intrigued by this outlandish concept.
That fateful trip to a classmate’s house planted a seed that did not fully germinate until a few years later when the SNES came out. In a case of history repeating itself, I went over to a friend’s house to find him playing a game he had rented randomly, this time called Final Fantasy II (it was actually FFIV, but was only the second to make it to America).
The year was 1991 and that random game is still my favorite of all time to this day. It opened up new worlds to me. Final Fantasy is the series that changed gaming for me, I’ve loved it ceaselessly for twenty years, and there’s a new one coming up on the horizon. So why do I not feel like playing it? Let’s go back to the beginning and see where it all went wrong.
What was initially a curiosity that I’d dabbled in became a full-fledged obsession when I got my hands on that first Super Nintendo RPG. Role playing games were the thing my life had been missing and Squaresoft filled that void amazingly well. Final Fantasy IV had flawless strategic combat, great character development, an engrossing story, a massive world with limitless secrets, the best musical score I’ve ever heard (still true), and a level of emotion to it that was unheard of. It was and still is the most flawless game I’ve ever played. I could comfortably write a weekly column for the rest of my life embarrassingly singing its praises. But let’s move on instead.
About a year later, disappointment struck. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was released and my reaction may well be the first instance of a gamer throwing a bitch fit about the casualization of a beloved franchise. The game wasn’t terrible, but it was a shocking disappointment after the perfection of the previous game. Little did I know that not only was the real sequel only being released in Japan, but even my favorite game was a nerfed version because America wasn’t ready for full-bore RPG’s yet.
As disappointed as I was with Mystic Quest, Final Fantasy III (actually FFVI) thrilled me even more than that. While I had some small gripes, this was another real deal RPG with great characters and a truly epic story. Plus, the graphics were the best thing on the system at the time. And yeah, it was the first time I saw the world get destroyed in a video game before being washed up to explore the post-apocalyptic landscape of the planet my characters had failed to save. That was amazing experience unto itself that still resonates with me as a definitive gaming experience.
So with games like these under my belt, my gaming preferences were forever altered from simplistic action to complicated statistics and storytelling. Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, Secret of Mana; why did I ever like this Mario guy again? He doesn’t even level up. Those other games just seemed childish in comparison. I demanded deep narratives with great characters who learned as they went, massive world exploration, and tactical combat and companies like Square kept giving it to me. I had always been a fan of video games, but for the first time I was in love with them.
Enter the PlayStation in 1997 and with it Final Fantasy VII. I was now in college, Third Eye Blind and The Spice Girls were owning the charts, and or the first time America had a bonafide RPG smash hit on its hands. This is the game that everyone remembers because for most people, this was when they stood up and took notice of the genre. Naturally, when Square migrated from their home at Nintendo to Sony’s new hotness, I followed.
Aside from the mainstream success, what really made FFVII a game changer -3D graphics aside- was that it was arguably the first video game to make grown men cry from sadness instead of frustration.
With the ability to do full-on computer generated cutscenes, in-game storytelling now had the potential to be dramatic on the same scale as film and television. The fancy new technology and the series’ shift from the medieval fantasy setting to a more sci-fi based world turned out to be a winning combination.
But for me, the definitive PlayStation RPG was not FFVII. Even with the shiny new presentation, I felt like I’d been there and done that. My favorite post-Nintendo Final Fantasy was all about the tactics. Final Fantasy Tactics threw out the book on the series and rebuilt itself as a top-down military chess match. The amount of depth in this game is still unrivaled in its genre. It was teeming with secrets and special characters (including some guests from FFVII) and was a rare game I would qualify as completely flawless. That is, unless you consider having too much awesome to choose from a flaw.
You know the rest of the story. Triumphs, tribulations, repackagings, remakes, big budget sequels, MMO’s; general Final Fantasy overload was Square’s new policy. I was forced to make a decision between sticking by my favorite franchise, or taking a chance with Microsoft’s PC quality Western titles on the new Xbox. It was painful, but I opted for a clean break and missed out on a console generation of new Final Fantasy games. While I was gone, Squaresoft merged with fellow RPG masters Enix to form Square Enix.
Waiting for me on the other side of that console generation was an announcement that made my heart leap. The Xbox 360 was going to get Final Fantasy XIII! I was going to be reunited with the gaming franchise that owned a decade of my life. But in the end, it would end up causing more problems than it solved.
Post-midnight release, December 17, 2007 and I’m at home with my new baby. It’s BEAUTIFUL, and the combat is innovative and engaging. But several hours in I start wondering when the intro chapter is going to be over. Many hours after that, I realize the actual game consists of running down corridors fighting the enemies barring your path. Where’s the exploration? Where’re the non-player character interactions and towns? Why doesn’t the plot make sense?
I’m actually on the record as a FFXIII supporter because by the end, you got some freedom to explore and eventually all things were explained, but the vast majority of gamers didn’t seem to get that far. It was a different kind of Final Fantasy, but one that was pretty rewarding if you stuck it out.
Plus, it had the best summons ever. It wasn’t the high point of the series by any means but it wasn’t Mystic Quest either. But gamers are not a patient or forgiving lot and some time after the smoke had cleared, I noticed something. Namely, that Square Enix is clearly trying to commit financial seppuku with a dull and rusty blade.
So FFXIII was mega-hyped, multi-platform, and the first game of a beloved and storied gaming franchise for its generation and it sold well as a result of that, but was largely reviled by the American gaming community. Square’s response was to tell us that it was hard to tell a compelling story when the player has too much freedom. Right, because the last decade of storytelling in gaming never happened and FFXIII had the most compelling narrative ever.
So rather than move onward to new and different things, at some point they decided that the best way to change everybody’s mind about a game they weren’t crazy about was to ram it down their throats for years and make it a trilogy spanning the entire gen. After all, in spite of the complaints, it did sell a ton of copies.
Is Chocolina running this company or what?
Okay, Square; I’ll show you the money. After all, we’ve got history and you did say you were doing a sequel to try and correct the mistakes of the original. I enjoyed the first game in spite of its flaws anyways, so why not? But while the time-travelling narrative of FFXIII-2 was certainly a refreshing change of pace from a storytelling standpoint that offered plenty of the freedom the last game often denied-plus it had an honest to God death metal song about chocobos in the soundtrack and made it work- they got so much else wrong.
For instance, only having two playable characters who are both competing for the title of most boring in the series yet wasn’t a good start.
The combat of FFXIII was entirely based on a well-balanced three member party system with characters changing roles to suit each situation as the battle unfolds, but with only two characters in FFXIII-2, the third role had to be filled by random monsters you collected who could only fill one role each. It took most of the game to build up a decent roster of monsters to fill your combat needs.
So they created an awesome combat system with the first game and deliberately broke it in the sequel. The result was a game that sold like the good old days when RPG’s were for nerds and nerds were for bullying. Not a sound platform for setting up a third game. Has Square lost their edge or are we just jaded?
So here we are at present day. Early next year, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII shall descend from on high, representing over half a decade of diminishing returns from my former favorite developer ever. And I may have been a bit hasty when I referred to Serah and Noel of FFXIII-2 as being the most boring characters in the entire series. Lightning may have them beat. Sure, she’s badass and looks cool, but she is also the exact definition of a personality vacuum. She’s going to be the only playable character. [facepalm]
Admittedly, this does look pretty sweet.
Either Square Enix has somehow discovered that what people really want from the Final Fantasy series is not the party-based RPG gameplay that they’ve loved since forever but button-mashing combat, they actually want to fail and go out of business in spectacular fashion, or they’re extremely confident that they’ve come up with something really amazing and innovative that will knock gamers’ socks off and make them forget that this is the third game in a trilogy they’ve hated so far.
I really hope it’s the last one, but my confidence in this company is pretty shaken at this point.
What we know so far is that this will be an open world action-adventure game with platforming and stealth elements and a persistent world where time constantly flows towards the apocalypse. The combat is going to be all action with elements of previous games’ “paradigm” and “dressphere” systems, essentially meaning Lightning obtains different powers in battle through the power of cosplay.
So point blank: am I done with this series? Weeeeeelllllll…..I don’t know. One would like to think that even if FFXIII-3 turns out badly at least that trilogy is done and we could look forward to the future. But here’s the thing about that: it’s already mapped out. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is going to be Square’s latest attempt to horn in on the MMORPG market and it’s launching this month, so I’d expect a lot of diverted funding going to support it in the near future.
While Final Fantasy appears to be the absolute perfect franchise to adapt to the MMO format, it has already been tried. Twice. FFXI was reportedly a financial win due to long-term subscription fees, but went largely ignored over here. FFIV already launched once for PC a while back as an epic fail that “greatly damaged” the brand according to Square Enix’s CEO Yoichi Wada, who resigned a few months ago after pulling the game entirely. His replacement has straightforwardly stated that another such failure will be “at the level of destroying the company”.
So naturally, rather than moving on they are relaunching it as we speak.
So Square is reeling from the big budget single-player series tanking, and almost died from a failed half-assed MMO, so their plan is to stay the course and try more of the same. God help us. We as RPG fans can only pray that this company can get back to what made it great in the first place before it’s too late.
While waiting to see whether Square wins or fails horribly in their coming endeavors, I’ve stolen my son’s 3DS and obtained a copy of Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy so I can relive the glory days of a beloved series using chibi versions of its classic characters in a rhythm game. It’s a great nostalgic reminder that this series has always and consistently had the best music in gaming, bar none.
Thanks for the memories, Final Fantasy. I’ll be watching, waiting, and hoping to spend some more time together with you on new adventures in the future. And I hope that time comes sooner rather than later because lately you’ve been someone I just don’t feel like I know anymore…
There are a lot of people who care about you, but we want you to get the help that you need and I don’t think that we can enable you anymore while you are destroying yourself. So I’ll see you after you get your life straightened out. Just remember that there’s a fanboy here who will always have a special place in his heart for you. In the meantime, please don’t kill yourself, ‘kay?