It’s no secret that the Final Fantasy brand isn’t what it used to be. Sure, the games still sell well enough and publisher Square-Enix is still probably raking in millions from all the related merchandise they pump out, but recent games have left fans dissatisfied, and the sustainability and future of Square’s cash cow is definitely questionable.
After the tepid response following the release of the original Final Fantasy XIII, most of the gaming press and fans of the series alike were generally united in the opinion that Square’s storied franchise would need a major overhaul if it was to remain relevant; while FFXIII was (and still is) on the cutting edge of visual presentation, the extremely linear and limited (frankly sort of half assed,) game play left most players unsatisfied: FFXIII’s shallow combat and character customization mechanics and muddled plot felt like a far cry from the deep battle systems and memorable stories that previous Final Fantasies were once famous for.
Despite the mixed reaction to Final Fantasy XIII, I still had some confidence that Square-Enix would be able to get things back on track. After all, this was the same company that created Final Fantasy 6 and 7, Chrono Trigger, Vagrant Story, etc. I grew up playing their games: I learned how to read while playing through Final Fantasy IV (then called Final Fantasy II) on the SNES. I ditched school on the day that Chrono Cross came out. When I went to E3 last year, I carried around my mint, in-box copy of Final Fantasy 6 with me in the hopes of getting it autographed by somebody who had worked on the game. Final Fantasy is probably the reason I like RPG’s in the first place, and regardless of how dumb I think FF7 fandom is or how bad some of the spin-off games have been, I never thought the day would come when a main, numbered Final Fantasy game would be released and I simply wouldn’t care.
Yet it’s already happened twice. Final Fantasy XIV, the online successor to Square’s sadistic but still strangely successful FF11, was released to universal derision, and rightly so: the game was obviously released unfinished (even by MMO standards,) and Square promptly apologized and promised that they’d fix the game eventually. Whether that “fix” will ever actually happen is anyone’s guess, but the damage was done, and despite still hanging on to a small, misguided group of dedicated subscribers, Final Fantasy XIV will probably ultimately be remembered as a joke by most of the gaming community.
But while FFXIV was a trainwreck, the real disaster is Final Fantasy XIII-2. Sure, it’s technically a playable game, and that alone makes it better than FFXIV, but FFXIII-2 is also the epitome of everything that’s wrong with Square-Enix at the moment. The game’s producers promised that FFXIII-2 would fix all of the criticisms levied against the original game. They declared that they had listened to the fans and the critics, and that the development team had turned a corner, and now they understood exactly what their audience wanted. Final Fantasy XIII was a misstep, and Square-Enix told us that everything would be fixed with XIII-2.
The problem is, XIII-2 is just as bad as XIII was. Sure, the areas are more open and less linear, but are they actually fun to explore? Not really. There are sidequests now, a feature that only showed up in the latter half of FFXIII, but again, while it’s nice that they’re there, they aren’t done in a particularly interesting or fun way. Like a Western RPG, you can select dialogue choices during conversations, but do these choices impact the story or the gameplay in any meaningful way? No, not really. All of XIII-2’s supposed improvements fall flat: it seems like the development team slapped all these elements onto their game without understanding what makes them good or interesting, or why players like them, and they executed them all in the most half-assed way possible. To make matters even worse, the story in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is somehow even more convoluted and contrived than the original’s, and considering how bad FFXIII’s story was, thats saying a lot. The game even has the gall to (SPOILER) end on a cliffhanger, suggesting that Square-Enix somehow thinks that people care enough about this world or its characters (Protip: they don’t) that we’d want to see a third installment in this insipid franchise. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was promoted as being the game that would get the series back on track; instead, all it does is make the development team’s ineptitude all the more apparent.
As much as it pains me to say this, I think it’s pretty clear at this point that Square-Enix has absolutely no idea how to craft a proper Final Fantasy anymore. Sure, we can all hold out hope that Final Fantasy Versus XIII will somehow right this ship, but I think it’s a safe prediction to say that it probably won’t — the game is after all being developed by the Kingdom Hearts team, and the series has similarly jumped the shark as well (wow, I’m going to get so many angry comments for that…) Final Fantasy needs some big changes, and maybe its time for a reboot.
Yes, I know, each Final Fantasy exists within its own continuity and with its own game play systems and gimmicks, but I’m not talking about just changing up the combat system or having Tetsuya Nomura (more on him later,) create some “new” characters. No, if Final Fantasy is to be properly “rebooted” it needs more than that — it needs a fundamental change in design philosophy, and perhaps, maybe some new blood to steer the direction of the series.
Now, obviously I’m no game designer, so maybe I’m just talking out of my ass here. But while I certainly hope I’m not turning into one of those internet poseurs who think a lifetime of playing games entitles them to tell Miyamoto or Wright how they should make their games, I think I’m at least entitled to call out bullshit when I see it, and modern Final Fantasy has been filled to the gills with bullshit. You don’t need to be a chef to know when food has gone stale, and likewise, you don’t don’t need to be a game designer to know that something is very, very wrong with Final Fantasy nowadays.
Since I’m all about constructive criticism (that’s a joke,) I’ve outlined a few suggestions of what Square-Enix could and should do to get Final Fantasy back on track:
1. Write a story that doesn’t suck
I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that Final Fantasy XIII’s story line was a complete mess; I learned more about what was going on from the load-screening synopses than I did from any of the actual cut-scenes. Modern Final Fantasy games have become the video game equivalent of the Star Wars prequels: important story details are dumped into long bouts of exposition, and more focus is paid on setting up flashy action scenes rather than on delivering a coherent narrative. Then there’s the dialogue: somewhere around Advent Children FF characters stopped talking in complete sentences and just began delivering vague, awkward (seemingly literally translated) non-sequiturs that somebody at Square must think sounds cool, but most of the time it just comes off as awkward and bizarre.
Some have argued that the writing in Japanese RPG’s has always been like this, and that people are only noticing now because there’s plenty of more coherently written Western alternatives available now. I disagree: sure, J-RPG’s may recycle old tropes and anime cliches with the same frequency that you and I draw breath, but there used to be some nuance or charm to how they did things. Take Final Fantasy 9 for example: as a purposeful throwback to old 8 or 16 bit RPG’s, you’ve likely seen every character archetype that the game throws at you: the seemingly naive princess, the smart-assed thief, the bumbling reoccuring bad guys, etc. But despite the recycled concepts, the characters had charm, and the game’s surprisingly melancholy themes of mortality and death (Vivi’s character arc in particular,) elevated the game to a level beyond a simple rehash of the same old RPG cliches. Ditto for games like Final Fantasy 6 and Atlus’s more recent Persona games. While it’s trendy to hate on them now, I still wholeheartedly believe that J-RPGs were and continue to be capable platforms for quality story telling.
There are plenty of capable writers in Japan. Just look at any of Atlus’s previously mentioned Persona games (or it’s spin-off Catherine, which provided one of the most mature [genuinely mature, not the teenage bullshit concept of maturity that most gamers associate with the word] looks at sexuality and relationships seen in a game,) or even the Square-Enix published Nier as examples of how to do a J-RPG story properly. There’s a wealth of talent within the Japanese gaming industry who are definitely capable of writing a story worth hearing, yet Square-Enix keeps using the same group of writers every game in a vain attempt to recapture the success of Final Fantasy 7. Don’t get me wrong, writers like Square veterans Kazushige Nojima and Daisuke Watanabe definitely have talent (and a body of work to match,) but they’ve obviously been on the series too long and are burnt out. Long running comic books or tv shows frequently cycle creative teams in order to keep things fresh, and that’s definitely what Final Fantasy needs. The same writers have been creating these story lines for too long, and it’s really starting to show.
Square’s been reiterating the same concepts and character arcs since FF7, and what was fresh and new in that game now seem tired and forced. I understand why Square feels the need to basically turn every new FF game into “the next FF7,” since that’s what their fanbase is asking for, but Square will never create the “next big thing” by recycling old ideas. They need to take a break from the existential angst and the awkward romantic subplots. They need to cut it out with the teenage/twenty-something mercenaries with trust issues. Square: Stop trying to make another Final Fantasy 7, and give us something that’s different but just as appealing.
2. Get a new character designer
The first 6 Final Fantasies all featured character designs from acclaimed artist Yoshitaka Amano. From 7 onwards, Tetsuya Nomura’s more anime influenced designs have defined the look of the series. I think it’s past due for the series to once again completely revamp its visual style.
I understand that Nomura’s style has become synonymous with the series, but it’s time to move on. Like the stories for these games, what once was new and interesting now seems tired and predictable; “belts and zippers” may have started as a snide generalization of Nomura’s design, but its true. All of his character designs post-Parasite Eve have all pretty much all looked the same. There’s nothing wrong with having a style and sticking to it, but Nomura’s contributions to the series have become increasingly boring and plain. The entire design impetus for FFXIII’s Lightning was “Cloud as a girl,” and if that doesn’t convince you that Square’s creative staff has run out of ideas, I don’t know what will.
After the departure of series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Square seems to have put Nomura forward as the face of their company, and he’s pretty much been associated with most of their major projects since. He seems to be involved, at least tangentially, with every internally developed project at Square, and maybe the guy just got burnt out. I mean, even Nintendo doesn’t rely on Miyamoto for as many projects as Square-Enix puts Nomura on. As with the writing staff, Square has obviously kept Nomura on in the hopes that he’ll create another set of characters as iconic as FF7’s, but if the series is ever going to get an audience beyond its ever shrinking crowd of series die-hards, they’re going to need a new look for the series.
3. Stop worrying about merchandise
Its seems like Square can’t just simply make a new Final Fantasy game nowadays without also announcing a new line of merchandise within the same breath; the company releases so much merch with the Final Fantasy name slapped on it nowadays that they make Star Wars licensed goods seem restrained by comparison. Before Final Fantasy XIII even came out Square-Enix managed to fill anime and game shops across the world with FFXIII keychains, cell phone charms, energy drinks, posters, art books, lore bibles, action figures, trading cards and gashapon trading figures. I don’t know if anybody actually bought any of it — my local anime shop still has a shelf full of Sazh action figures that they’ll probably never sell — but Square-Enix keeps making more, so I guess they’re making money off of all of this, somehow.
Now imagine if all of that effort, money, and manpower that went into the creation of all of Final Fantasy XIII’s ancillary products were put into the actual game itself. If Square-Enix had focused as much attention on making sure FFXIII was a game worthy of all this merch than maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to write this article right now. Maybe FFXIII wouldn’t have taken half a decade to develop. Maybe, with a larger staff and a little more direction, the game could have turned into something that was worth playing.
Square-Enix nowadays is eager to turn every single game into the launching point for a brand new multimedia franchise. Sure, this isn’t a flaw possessed by Square alone, as every major publisher out there is keen on turning every game they publish into the next Call of Duty, but Square-Enix especially needs to learn to stop putting the cart before the horse. They need to stop spending so much of their time on making marketable characters and merchandise-able mascots and focus on the business of making good games. If the games are good, people will want posters and action figures and all of that stuff. Nobody (well, nobody sane) wants to buy statues or posters of characters from games they don’t like (or possibly haven’t even played yet.) I don’t need a Final Fantasy soda. Get the games right first, worry about selling-out later.
4. Play other RPG’s besides your own
To most game designers this should sound like common sense, but it’s pretty obvious that the people who designed Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 haven’t been paying attention to how games have evolved over the past five years. Like I stated earlier, XIII-2 has all the things players asked for — non-linear exploration, sidequests, dialogue trees — but they’re all implemented in a way that makes it seem like the developers have no clue how to make these ideas fun, or even a basic understanding of why people like these elements in their games in the first place. It seems like the developers begrudgingly added these elements to XIII-2 because they thought it would get people to stop complaining, not because they themselves thought they were good ideas.
I’m not necessarily just talking about the lack of influence from Western sources either; despite what some people may tell you, there’s been plenty of great J-RPGs this generation (well, on handhelds at least,) and while most of them had budgets and development teams that were much smaller than Final Fantasy’s, they manage to succeed thanks to their willingness to adapt to the modern gaming environment and take chances. This is why smaller RPG developers like Atlus (Persona, Radiant Historia) and Mistwalker (Lost Odyssey, The Last Story) have managed to find a sustainable niche while Square-Enix continues to blindly soldier on, ignorantly wondering why the formula that worked so well in 1997 is suddenly being panned by gamers worldwide in 2012.
The following statement is probably going to piss off a lot of J-RPG fanboys, but maybe Square-Enix should look back to Final Fantasy 12 for some ideas. Say what you will about that game, but it wasn’t afraid to try something different. The people who designed that game (including Yasumi Matsuno, who left Square-Enix in the middle of FF12’s development over creative disputes with SE management,) seemed to realize that Western style RPGs were going to be the next big thing and tried to mix and match elements from both Western and Japanese RPG design philosophies into their game. Whether or not they were successful is a matter of opinion, but they at least showed a willingness to accept outside influences and they made a genuine effort to try and understand why players find concepts like non-linearity and fully customizable characters (hallmarks of Western RPG design that you don’t normally see in J-RPGs,) worthwhile and fun. FF12 gets a lot of (unfair) hate, but it at least showed a willingness to adapt and a bit of forward-thinking design philosophy that FFXIII and XIII-2 are sorely lacking. The soon to be released Wii RPG Xenoblade draws obvious influence from FF12’s attempt at merging the best elements from Western and Japanese game design, and it’s one of the best reviewed J-RPG’s of this generation.
I’m not saying Square needs to abandon the traditional linear (yes, Skyrim fanboys, there’s nothing wrong with linearity if you do it right,) J-RPG formula, but they need to at least come to terms with the fact that there are now more innovative RPGs on the market than their own, and maybe they need to look to those games for inspiration on how they can update their own tired method of designing and making games. During the 16-bit and 32-bit eras, Square wasn’t afraid of change, and they weren’t afraid to experiment, but somewhere in the past ten years they forgot how to do those things, and now they all know how to do is play it safe and how to merchandise the hell out of every mediocre game they put out. Final Fantasy is in a nosedive that it’s never going to pull out of if Square simply keeps throwing the same ideas around. I’m not sure what the future holds for Final Fantasy, but unless the next game brings about some huge changes, I’m not sure I’ll still care when the next installment of what was once my favorite franchise rolls around.
Then again, maybe Square-Enix just doesn’t care if I still like Final Fantasy. For every ten fans like me they lose, there’s still probably one guy out there who’s bought enough mint-in-box Play Arts action figures to compensate for the shrinking audience. But with each new Final Fantasy causing more and more fans to swear off the series completely, Square-Enix really needs to ask themselves “How long can we keep this up?”