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What happened, Final Fantasy? You used to be cool!

October 19, 2012

Play this game.

I’m playing Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions at the moment. For those unaware, it’s a PSP remake of the PS1 original. It’s fantastic. The basic gameplay is easy to grasp but peer under the hood and it’s incredibly deep and complex. The level to which you can customise members of your party is almost absurd, especially when you consider this is a game that originally came out in 1997. The story is mature and intelligent, touching on themes such as social class, the divisions they create, and how to determine morality in a world made up of shades of grey. There is no  black and white, good vs. evil divide in this game. Does being a born a commoner resign you to a particular life? Is fighting to destroy a corrupt system justified, or does it simply breed more hated and conflict? Fantastic writing ties it all together.

That a game can make you feel and think so much is a great achievement, especially when you consider it does it with 2D sprites and text boxes. Tactics is Final Fantasy at it best, a reminder of why I used to adore the franchise so much.

So what happened to us, Final Fantasy? We used to be tight. We used to hang out all the time. Now, it’s like I don’t even know you. You got really vain, always looking at yourself in the mirror. The conversations became boring – we used to discuss all manner of things. Now you just say the same stuff, over and over. What happened, man?

Excuse the extended metaphor, but yes, Final Fantasy isn’t what it once was. Then again, neither are we.

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times? You stupid monkey!

My first Final Fantasy game, like a great many others, was VII. I know the cool thing to do on the internet these days is bash FFVII mercilessly, but I love that game. It will forever rank as one of my all time favourites. Playing through that first time, at the age of 10/11-ish, is an experience that affected me greater than any other game previously. I already knew about Aeris (she dies, spoilers lol), so that bit wasn’t quite the moment it was for some. Rather, the entire game was that moment – the story, the gameplay, the graphics, the music – there was no weak spot to FFVII. Listening to the soundtrack today still takes me right back, and I continue to believe it to be one of the best collections of video game music ever composed. I’ve played through Final Fantasy VII two more times since, and will do so plenty more in years to come.

I played 8 and 9 shortly afterwards and again, loved both. Considering my age I was easier to please, but both are great games with their own unique merits. Then along came the PS2, and with it, Final Fantasy X. I was obsessed the same way as I was with VII. Looking back though, my views on FFX are less kind than VII. It is still a great game, the music in particular being wonderful. It is also, however, where some of the seeds were planted that would later lead to the stagnation of the series. The game is extremely linear, and, although I liked them at the time, some of the characters are plain awful. And that laughing scene. Christ.

 

After FFX I went back and played many of the older games. FFVI in particular is incredible. FFVII will always be my favourite thanks to a healthy dose of bias, but I understand completely why many say Final Fantasy VI to be the best of the series. It is.

The trouble began with Final Fantasy X-2. When I first learned of the game being announced, I could barely believe it – Final Fantasy games don’t get direct sequels! Except this time it did, and it was a dream come true. I had fallen in love with the world and characters of FFX, and a chance to revisit felt like a gift from above.

The first feelings of apprehension came when I saw concept art for Yuna. Previously a timid girl slowly brought out of her shell over the course of the first game, now she was a pop star? Really? Further news of a cast of only three characters who changed jobs via a “dress” system gave me a few doubts, but nothing could sway the excitement and anticipation I had for the release of FFX-2.

And then it came out. And I played it. And it was shiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

The opening cinematic has Yuna singing some shitty J-pop song at a fucking concert? What? I smiled and tried to look past it, but I didn’t get very far. The game was a bastardized mix of the characters I once knew and Charlie’s Angels. It was such a lurch in tone from the first game, and I couldn’t stand it. The Sailor-Moon esque outfit-changes were ridiculous. The story was uninspired, the gameplay just felt dull, and you were stuck with the initial three (awful) characters for the entire time. I tried to love it, but I just couldn’t. I like to finish every game I play, but to this day I haven’t beaten Final Fantasy X-2. I don’t plan to, either.

Play this game, too.

Disregarding XI, an MMO, Final Fantasy XII was the next step. It was different, but it was good. I was older and more cynical by this point, so I didn’t reach that same obsession I had once had for the series. But it was a sign that Squeenix were moving with the times – many old series tropes gave way to newer, more westernized gameplay ideals. It’s a game that splits opinion, but one that I enjoyed.

Fast-forward a few years and we come to Final Fantasy XIII. By this point I was a world-weary 19 year old. I couldn’t find it in myself to be excited, buying the game more out of obligation than anything else. I’d read the reviews, I’d heard the trepidation, but I figured I should try it myself.

In the interest of balance, let’s go over what is good about FFXIII. The graphics are lovely. Really pretty. Good job Squeenix. Also, the battle system is okay, I guess? I mean, it essentially plays itself, but you get to choose HOW it plays itself, and you can switch during battle, so….. I suppose that means you are playing the game? It looks alright, at least.

Okay, what’s crap about FFXIII. EVERYTHING ELSE. Insipid, whiny characters that I want to throttle, an utterly unoriginal plot completely lacking emotional hooks, and lots and lots (and lots, and lots) of running in a straight line through corridors. Reading about this linearity prior to release, I remember thinking “it can’t be that bad.” It is that bad. It’s worse. It’s fucking balls.

The linearity extends past the environments. Characters can’t be customised until you are 15 or so hours in. Even then, each character has a couple of the six classes that they are more “in tune” with, and speccing them to be anything else is a waste of time. It’s a combination of hand-holding and the developers being so unrelenting in their vision of the game that they won’t let you experience it any other way.

You either hate this little scrote or you haven’t played FFXIII.

I played Final Fantasy XIII up to the point where the world opens up, and you finally get to explore a bit. This is the point where everyone said the game became interesting. Sure, I’d laboured through thirty hours of bilge, but now I could enjoy it! Except I didn’t. It was the same. Wondering around an open world instead of corridors was not enough of a change that I could overlook everything else wrong with the game. I don’t know how that game ended, and I don’t much care.

What went wrong with Final Fantasy XIII? The developers have been quoted as saying they were inspired by western games such as Call of Duty, epic campaigns with grand, cinematic spectacle. I call it Uncharted Syndrome – holding forward to run down a corridor whilst cool shit happens all around you – but never TO you. It’s something I feel is overused in games today, but that’s a story for another time.

This big, blockbuster approach is one thing in a short FPS like Call of Duty. In a long, story-driven RPG, it’s something else entirely. People don’t play Final Fantasy XIII to marvel at the cool cinematic stuff happening in the background as they run forwards. Well, I don’t. I play it for the characters, for the engaging stories, for the enjoyable battle systems and deep party customisation. These are not things that exist in FFXIII.

Square Enix can’t take all the blame. We, as gamers, can be extremely fickle. Some hated the vast open-world approach that FFXII took, and, not by coincidence, FFXIII was extremely linear. It was creative backtracking to cater to the whims of a portion of the fanbase, which conversely put off many others. It’s a no-win situation, sure, but it was the wrong decision. Looking back will only ever get you so far. For a franchise to survive indefinitely, it has to evolve with the times. The expectations gamers have as to what makes a good game are ever-changing.

NO YUNA. BAD. THIS DRASTICALLY CONTRADICTS YOUR CHARACTER.

At the same time, much of what is wrong with the game is Squeenix taking inspiration from newer games. Taking aspects of new games and mixing them with some old is a commendable approach – it’s just a shame they managed to get it so wrong. The battle system was developed to be faster and more action-packed, to cater to the modern gamer’s caffiene-riddled ADD mind, and it was naff. Character customization was simplified to appeal to a broader audience, and it was naff. The game also took the “dark and troubled characters” trope and ran a fucking mile with it. Believe it or not, Final Fantasy hasn’t always been about a bunch of emo teenagers getting over their daddy issues. Cloud may have been a gothy douche in Advent Children, but back in FFVII he actually had some humour and playfulness to his character to balance the DARK PAST. I know XIII isn’t the first Final Fantasy to feature characters like this (hello, Squall), but man, these guys were unbearable.

Still, I might as well be that dude in Tiananmen Square yelling at those tanks, cause the game sold like gangbusters anyway. Heck, I bought a copy. I am a part of the problem. FFXIII-2 came out, and apparently fixed a lot of the issues I had with the first game. It still has much of the same cast though, so I’m not in any hurry to give it a try. The franchise continues to make money, with a third installment of the XIII series on the way, disastrous MMO FFXIV being remade so it’s less awful, and a whole bunch of spinoffs being released all the time. Theatrhythm was pretty awesome.

Final Fantasy has never been the same since the PS1 glory days, but there is plenty of room for a comeback. The logic behind FFXIII – combine old and new ideals into something great – was spot on, but it got skewed along the way, and the priorities were all wrong. The name brings such a history with it that the developers must be under an immense pressure to deliver something special. Don’t worry about that. Just make a great, traditional JRPG, sprinkle in some newer stuff, and hey – you might have another classic on your hands.

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