Final Fantasy – A Brief Overview
Final Fantasy is a franchise of role playing games and associated spin-off games. Generally most games in the franchise are totally unrelated to each other but share common themes and mythologies. Reoccurring themes include characters with names such as “Biggs”, “Wedge” and “Cid”, mythological creatures such as the “Chocobo” and “Moogle” and god-like summons such as “Shiva” and “Ifrit”. Each game generally centres around a group of playable characters who are assembled through the course of the game in order to rid the world of an evil antagonist. The name Final Fantasy was originally used as the title of the first game as it was a final attempt by series’ creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a successful game. The name does not imply that each game is supposedly the last!
I’ll start with a quick game, I shall describe a Final Fantasy game and you say which one you think it is.
I run down a corridor; I am interrupted with the occasional cut scene, I then continue to run down a corridor. Finally I enter a battle, I press a button and the game selects the most appropriate spell to cast against the enemy. The battle finishes and I continue on my epic quest down a long corridor, occasionally I wonder if I will come to a cross roads I can explore or reach a village where I can wonder around for an hour; talking to locals and upgrading my gear – no such luck.
Final Fantasy fans reading this will have no problem pointing out that I have been describing Final Fantasy XIII. Really, this article can end here and conclude with the statement “The problem with…Final Fantasy is FFXIII”. My love affair with JRPGs officially came to abrupt end with XIII but in all fairness this was just the tipping point. The truth is Final Fantasy had been going downhill for years, beginning with Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. For the record my favourite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, which in my opinion got just about everything right. A good story, set in a beautiful world, filled with interesting characters and literally stacks of nods to previous games in the series. So what went wrong when transitioning between the PS1 and PS2?
Game Play Over Graphics
The PS1 was released in the very early days of 3D gaming, along with the N64. Looking back most games from that generation haven’t aged well, specifically 3D games. Just take a look at some classic sprite based games on the SNES such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana; although they look old they still have a certain charm. Now look back at N64 games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 or PS1 classics such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. None of the N64 or PS1 games look particularly charming or cute these days; that’s because we were transitioning into 3D. The technology was in its infancy whereas 2D platformers and other SNES games had been using technology that had already been in development for several years.
Games like the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII didn’t get caught up in trying to look mind blowing. Just consider for a minute the above images; on the left you can see Cloud as he appears when rendered in game. On the right you can see Cloud pre-rendered in an FMV, they look vastly different. VII still looked good at the time but that isn’t what it has been remembered for. The game play and narrative alone was enough to keep the player hooked, any technical achievements were a bonus but not the main selling point. XIII on the other hand has put its focus on polished graphics and as a result both the story and gameplay have suffered greatly. I am not alone with this opinion; it’s quite common knowledge among the gaming community that VII is one the most highly requested Square Enix remakes. Yoichi Wada, the Square Enix president, has stated “To get FFVII to something like FFXII, it would take ten times as long”.  A statement that in my opinion effectively confirms that XIII doesn’t even come close to the scope and exploration found in older FF games.
The 3 eras of Final Fantasy
The Final Fantasy franchise can be split into 3 eras, the first being the golden age of Final Fantasy to FFVI. These games progressively evolved over several years but remained largely recognisable in terms of looks and gameplay. The first big change then came during FFVII to FFIX era, here the franchise switched to a fully fledged 3D game, came on CD-ROM instead of cartridges and featured FMVs. During this era the Final Fantasy brand reached a whole new level and introduced many new fans to the RPG genre. The next evolution can be seen in FFX to FFXIII (excluding FFXI as this is an MMORPG); here the games dropped the world map mechanic (more on this in a moment) and really tried to push the graphical capabilities of each system the games were released on. During this era the games somewhat “sold out”, trying to pull in a very mainstream audience and dumbing down the traditional micro-management and number crunching game play and mechanics.
Both the first era (I-VII) and the second era (VII-IX) seemed to build on the success of the franchise and both have flagship games with a large fan base (VI and VII). In my opinion, although the third era (X-XIII) has seen strong sales there isn’t a core fan base behind these games.
Final Fantasy X – The Franchise Reinvents Itself
So why do I believe the third era, starting with X brought about the demise of the franchise? Notably there was a shift in key members of the team; Nobuo Uematsu had scored all previous games in the series but he was now joined by other composers. His work on VII-IX in particular is remarkable, yet from X onwards we see a rise in generic electric guitar and J-Pop music, even featuring lyrics! Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had previously produced all of the previous games in the series, became an executive producer. From what I can gather the role of “executive producer” on a video game can be a very fuzzy area but generally this appears to be a step back from some of the more creative aspects of the game itself.
Voice acting was utilised for the first time which, although a step forward (especially in story heavy games) can also negatively impact the game. Cloud (the main protagonist in VII); for example was always considered a bit of an “emo” filled with teenage angst but the player was able to create their own version of Cloud by imagining his accent and how he talks. Arguably the X protagonist, Tidus, was a very similar character only this time players were able to hear his shrill voice and he perhaps came across as more of a young whiny teen than he would of if this game were text only.
The biggest shock I received when playing X for the first time wasn’t the voice acting, cast or new battle system. After several hours into the game I realised there was no world map! Now it’s fair to say that previous games in the series have also had a degree of linearity; the basic story has to be completed in a set order. The player is funnelled towards new areas with paths that the developers do not want you to explore blocked until a later time. This concept used to be masked quite well with the use of a world map. The player could clearly understand that they couldn’t transverse a mountain or swim an ocean until a later point in the game when they had unlocked an airship or boat. The world map in these older games never really had a massive amount of locations to explore but the few it did have that strayed from the main quest helped give the impression of a non-linear experience.
Final Fantasy XII
Aside from the fact that I couldn’t follow the story in XII and didn’t have a clue what was going on half the time; the gameplay itself was pretty good. As with X, there was an absence of the classic world map. Instead a compromise was made in which the player was able to explore the world via interconnected regions, this felt much closer to the old world map system. XII still had its fair share of problems, in particular the forgettable characters and the Gambit system, a catalyst of sorts to the “autobattle” system featured in XIII.
The gambit system did present a few interesting ideas; the basic concept of which was to set up a list of rules which your AI party members would follow when in battle. For example, a character on your team could be set up to always attack using magic. If however, anybody in the party has less than 5% health left, the character will use a health potion on their next turn instead of a magic spell. Although a deep system, the problem here was that your party was now essentially fighting for themselves while you took control of the main character. This, in part, has lead to Final Fantasy games becoming the linear, corridor crawler, dumbed down game we see in XIII.
Final Fantasy XIII – The Franchise Sells Out
Right from the moment you pick up a copy of XIII you can clearly see Square Enix have tried to reach out to a wider audience. The European box art features the game’s main protagonist, Lighting in all its Americanised glory. This might not sound like a big deal but previous Final Fantasy games in both Europe and Japan featured a simple logo while the movie poster Esq. Box art was typically reserved for North America. See the images below of the Final Fantasy VII box art for the Japanese, European and North American covers. Why did the Europeans now have to suffer with the American box art? Probably because the simplistic box art of previous Final Fantasy games doesn’t appeal to your typical FPS gamer.
As I mentioned in the introduction, XIII was a very linear experience. The game has strayed far from its classic JRPG roots and has turned into a beautiful but dull experience. XIII seems like a tech demo that somehow managed to get green lit into a fully fledged game because it looks pretty and will draw in the mass market. There is a compromise a development team must make with games, more polished and beautiful games will be more linear. Create a more open, flexible game and you have to compromise somewhat on graphics and polished, scripted experiences. Games such as Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 look so polished because the experience is very structured and you are clearly being led along a path the development team have carefully crafted. Compare this to something like Fallout 3, which doesn’t look very pretty but you are placed in a massively open world environment that you can explore as you wish. Final Fantasy has clearly opted to be based in the Uncharted camp rather than remaining in the less attractive, massively open RPG camp and here lies a massive problem. Final Fantasy is an RPG choosing to attempt to have its cake and eat it and it has failed massively.
Undoubtedly XIII was the game that killed the franchise for me. Obviously, being the most recent game this could be a one off mistake. After all Square had developed a new engine, which they were getting to grips with on a new console generation (but wasn’t this also the case with VII? And that was brilliant). I doubt this is the case though, as going back to analyse the changes made during this “third era” it is quite clear that some bad decisions had been fermenting since the development of X, mainly the development team trying to push the tech rather than looking at what made the older games in the series so good.
Other than linearity, XIII also implemented a new battle system, which has a similar feel to the Gambit system used in XII. The worst thing about the new battle system is the “autobattle” feature, which essentially presents the player with a “one button to rule them all option” as it selects the appropriate command to use. Now many people who have experienced a Final Fantasy game in the past know that many attacks, summons, potions and defence commands can be gained and utilised in battles throughout the game. JRPGs normal consist of many of these commands and part of the fun of the genre is the micromanagement and decision-making involved. Having a command to bypass this is killing the whole fun of the battles. Of course this feature doesn’t have to be used but it is very tempting in some situations, not to mention new comers to the genre will probably rely on this button constantly than complain that the game has no depth and you can win by just pressing one button.
XIII has also followed a recent trend of releasing sequels. Sadly, this is something that began with VII. VII started the trend for releasing sequels, spin-offs and other media in the form of Crisis Core, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus to name a few. The VII collection however was justified as the game had such a strong following and releases came years apart (Crisis Core for example was released over 10 years after VII). However, it wasn’t really until X that the flood gates truly opened for these types of Final Fantasy collections. Here is a list of the X, XII and XIII collections to date:
Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X-2
Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings
Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Versus XIII (TBC)
It seems very fitting that my first real JRPG experience was VII while XIII put me off JRPGs. Saying that both Dark Souls and Demon Souls are absolutely fantastic RPGs from an eastern developer and they shine a ray of hope that JRPGs haven’t all turned into a mess. I believe that a much more interesting RPG experience can be had with western RPGs. Games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are absolutely huge while quests and game play style can be approached in a variety of ways. Other games, that aren’t strictly RPGs but include RPG elements such as Bioshock have also provided a refreshing way to revitalise both the RPG and FPS genres. Compare this to The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. Although I am a massive fan of both Zelda and Final Fantasy I can’t help but think about how disappointing they have been in recent years. Zelda has gone stagnant and struggled to move with the times, offering a very hollow experience while Final Fantasy has tried to evolve and failed miserably.