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Has the Fantasy finally run out of gas?

Final Fantasy

When I think of Final Fantasy, I say to myself, “What the @#$% happened!?”

Okay, let’s rewind a bit. A while ago I had stumbled upon an article on CVG where the key developers of Final Fantasy XIII addressed the game’s disgruntled Japanese reviews. Director Motomu Toriyama had this to say:

“We think many reviewers are looking at Final Fantasy XIII from a western point of view. When you look at most Western RPGs, they just dump you in a big open world, and let you do whatever you like… [It] becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story when you’re given that much freedom.”

I understand that Toriyama’s words were directed toward Japanese gamers, but as a long time follower of the franchise I couldn’t help but feel rather insulted by this statement. The words imply that legions of dedicated fans don’t matter anymore because games like Fallout and Mass Effect have apparently stolen us away from Square Enix. If they were just addressing new and current gamers then we, the fans, may very well not exist to the development team anymore.

These words also imply that the FF crew had forgotten that their work has always been proof that video games are a relevant storytelling device, and as in the annals of gaming, FF may very well be its own genre.

Let’s take a look at the performance of the series to see if Toriyama’s conclusion holds any water. In fact, as a Westerner, let us go over the progress through the chronological Western exposure of the main titles. (Warning: spoilers)

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Who’s that girl?

Everything has a beginning and in this case the origins were 8-bit. Final Fantasy I isn’t exactly the title that would make the list of favorite games amongst a wide range of gamers, or FF fans for that matter. By modern standards, the graphics are dated and despite the remakes the gamplay is rather simplistic and difficult. Before MP, spells were purchased as consumables. Nevertheless, it’s an achievement to have such a complex game for the NES.

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I love the way you make me feel.

Confusion in numbers

Localization of the original FF II was cancelled due to the amount of time it would take to translate the script and the fact that the SNES was being released by the time the North American team was assigned the project. On account of Square’s North American subsidiary already advertising the release of FF II in the west, localization was instead done in favor of FF IV and changing the numbering to maintain what was already promised to the public.

The dawn of the SNES was also the cause of the original FF III never seeing North American shores. With Square already placing manpower in developing games for the SNES, none could be spared in localizing FF III. Designer Hiromichi Tanaka states another cause was the fact that the release of the SNES was a first in console successions thus it was difficult to predict and prepare accordingly.

The original FF V for SNES was never released due to repeated cancellations in translation.

For a number of fans, the love began during the 16-bit era. Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI (a.k.a. FF II and FF III by Western numbering), introduced Westerners to Summons, Mogs, Chocobos, airships, and a solid combat engine that would become tradition for years to come. More importantly, they provided authentication that RPGs can be a powerful instrument for narrative.

FF IV brought up the first emotional scene in the series, with Palom and Porom sacrificing themselves to save their friends by turning into stone to halt an enclosing wall trap. Then came the ritual suicides…

Square certainly knew how to make things better. Advancing with FF VI, the series expanded with side quests, multiple choice situations and further touched upon the aspects of Summons. Also, the world ended in the middle of the game, and we were introduced to Kefka, one of gaming’s most memorable supervillains (before Sephiroth stole the spotlight). Along with other heavy hitting RPGs, Square certainly dominated the RPG genre for the SNES.

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We were meant to be.

Final Fantasy VII is arguably the best title of the series and the greatest game ever made. Alright, sue me, I’m biased. It’s not just the fantastic story, the memorable characters, the legendary soundtrack, the powerful graphics, the clever application of Materia, the introduction of Limit Breaks, or the well-written dialogue that helped me prepare for the SATs. FF VII was a monument in demonstrating how a videogame can exhibit mastery in a multitude of art forms. It was a game that gave everyone a reason to purchase a PlayStation 1, and if Chrono Trigger failed to encourage participation in some for the RPG hype campaign, FF VII brought them on board in spades, and then some.

It was evident that Square had been, for quite some time, trying to take measures in creating a world where sci-fi and fantasy could come together in harmony. The vision was achieved through VII and since then, the bar has been raised for many developers, even Square itself, for years to come.

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We need to talk…

Like no one else

Despite Squall and Edward advertising themselves as loners, both men are always in the company of a humorous strong man, a stern blonde, a man who is well versed in cowboy antics and his happy-go-lucky girlfriend who sports a distinct hair do. Hmmmmm…

When Final Fantasy VIII began peeking around the corner, many of us fans just couldn’t contain ourselves in waiting for its release. After being graced with VII and seeing previews, investments were made in the hopes and expectations market. The payout however…

FF VIII is what I now refer to as the Twilight of the series. Both stories placed a huge emphasis on romance, both featuring a tall, dark and mysterious male falling in love with the female who challenged his perspectives on life. The problem was it’s an overused cliché that doesn’t provide enough to relate with. The overall story became weak, disconnecting me with the characters and their world. There was also an excessive amount of needless fluff, i.e. the majority of the main characters being raised in the same orphanage, but having lost this memory due to prolonged exposure to Summons. It didn’t help at all that the combat system was mediocre. Drawing and Junctioning proved to be more complicating than innovating, but if mastered, the game became too easy.

The flaws are what makes FF VIII an important title due to the following:

1. The game is amongst the first that bore the initial signs of the industry’s coming struggles with graphics vs. story and gameplay.

2. Gamers realized that after creating a masterpiece like FF VII, Square may have raised the bar too high to overcome.

3. From this point forward, Square would begin using a common pattern where every other title was placed in a sci-fi setting and everything else were attempts to return to the series’ original medieval fantasy roots.

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We’ll take it one day at a time.

In the following years, Square made efforts in re-solidifying its fanbase in its next titles. Final Fantasy IX was definitely a step up in terms of gameplay but once again, I was apathetic. Like its predecessor, IX was trying too hard to impress me. Being able to synthesize equipment and view multiple events at the same time was interesting but the story was a drawback. The game supposedly was a return to the original fantasy roots but having the plot suddenly jump into interplanetary assimilation was out of context. That and having the last boss appear out of nowhere and not fit into the overall story was a real let down. Also, using childish character designs to convey mature subject matter like existence, purpose, and depression was…weird.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy X was a long awaited blip on the life readings. With the landscape changing from PS1 to PS2, the series’ graphics were not only juiced up but it ushered in a new set of standards including voice acting, traversing real-time 3D environment, and facial expressions. The combat system was, dare I say, better than VII’s allowing players to switch teammates and equipment during battle. With the inclusion of the Sphere Grid, the once mundane task of dealing with random battles and level building became the most entertaining to date. Aside from pulling an M. Night Shyamalan with Tidus being a living dream, the story was the best in years.

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How could you do this to me?

What can be said about Final Fantasy XII that hasn’t already been said about Pee Wee Herman’s career? Of all the FF titles I’ve played I never finished this one and like a number of people I would set the game aside, have it collect dust, try again and repeat. The story was sluggish and dry, the gambit and license systems stale, the dungeon navigation was confusing, and as a friend told me “If I wanted to run around and hack stuff I’d play Devil May Cry, but that’s not why I play Final Fantasy.”

Honestly, I don’t know anyone personally who has beaten the game. One friend sold the game for cigarette money. A former coworker beat the game…with GameShark. My copy was eventually traded in after three years of serving as paper weight.

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I don’t even know you anymore.

We come now to Final Fantasy XIII. It’s certainly better than XII but that’s not saying much. This is the first title in the series to follow a strict linear path, and though it’s longer than IV, its beeline narrative presents an illusion of the contrary. Graphics were certainly held in carats, but gone were many identifiers of the series. No more traditional leveling system, no more dependability in consumables, no more Limit Breaks, no more control of three characters, no more financing in slaying, no more Ultima, not even a Flare. Oh! And no more NPCs and towns! I didn’t know what I was playing anymore. When all this was taken into account, the story’s importance was lost on me. I found it discerning that the game included an almanac of terms and transpired events, but not as much as how CP were mere units of measurement in traversing the Crystarium. I’d rather have simple numbers as a visual for progress instead.

The paradigm system had me falling out of touch with the action. Auto-assigning party actions and only having control of one character resulted in only keeping X and L1 warm during fights. Directionals didn’t seem to have a place in the ring anymore. In trying to stay in tune with its set course, the game took on a noticeable spike in difficulty with enemy fights feeling like boss battles and boss battles being as tedious as tackling Weapons. Due to lack of accessible free travel, level building was asinine as you had to work with a bombardment of high level creatures spewed from the game’s nonstop course. I found myself wondering what I was doing the whole time, and that was probably what Square wanted, making me feel as they do these days.

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I wish things could go back to the way they were, but I think it’s time we…

In an interview with Gamasutra, Square CEO and President Yoichi Wada had this to say about future endeavors:

“There are all kinds of games around in the market today. Should Final Fantasy become a new type of the game or should Final Fantasy not become a new type of game? The customers have different opinions. It’s very difficult to determine which way it should go.”

Yet in CVG, regarding FF XIII, producer Yoshinori Kitase stated:

“We try not to listen to the critics too much. Most of the criticisms have come because the first half of the game is very linear. But we’ve got a story to tell, and it’s important the player can engage with the characters and the world they inhabit before letting them loose…”

So Toriyama blames Western views, Wada is lost in the woods, and Kitase doesn’t want to take our views into account. And look at where that’s gotten them, look at where that’s gotten us. It’s truly disheartening to see that the offices of Square are circulating the behavioral pattern of acting and speaking before thinking. As far as us “westerners” go the exposure to IV, VI, and VII have been more than enough to enchant us with the depths and potentials of imagination. If we are to experience that rush again it would be ideal if the team actually makes a conscious effort in reviewing the track record of the golden era and opening up the way back. Please, we’ve grown tired of false advertising. If Square continues down their road of impulses and grim mentalities I fear a bleak future will be met; a dark place where magic doesn’t exist without a single Phoenix Down in sight.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in August 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @S_Chyou.

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