by Terry Randolph
It is the year 1987, and the company you’ve founded and poured your heart into is about to go bankrupt. In your hands is the product that will be the last chance at creating your magnum opus. If the game sells, you’ve saved your company and can continue living the dream. If it doesn’t, then you’ve given it your all, and you’ve made certain that you leave the industry without a whimper. It is only fitting that the name of your title carries this finality, and maybe a tinge of irony. You hand it over to production, calmly assuring that it is ready for the world’s gamers to get their grubby hands on it. Now all you can do is wait.
Since that fateful day, Final Fantasy has delved into various genres, spin-offs and other forms of media, and its many titles have turned it into a culturally iconic juggernaut. Each new entry into the series is the potential for a new, challenging, fun and innovative battle system gussied up with pretty graphics. Because each new iteration is usually a standalone entry, the games provide a new cast, story and environment to explore. Most importantly, this famous series has been able to accomplish something few are able to do for such a span of time: remain relevant and consistent in production.
However, since the departure of Squaresoft founder Hironobu Sakaguchi and composer Nobuo Uematsu, the series is starting to see both a decline in sales and a divide in reputation among fans. Some cite that the quality and strength of the storytelling has left rapidly, resulting in recent installments being weaker than their predecessors. Others assert that the characters feel flat and one-dimensional, full of clichéd one-liners (Someday, I’m going to be a hero!). Also, while most games in the series are standalone stories, Square Enix has tried to do sequels and spin-offs of their fan favorite titles like Dirge of Cerberus or Final Fantasy X-2. Most, if not all of these games have been lambasted for their overabundance of fan service, shoddy writing and lackluster gameplay (barring Crisis Core, because that game was pretty awesome). The most recent installment, Lightning Trilogy(aka Final Fantasy XIII and part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis series) has created a divide among fans wondering if what we’re seeing is the decline of the franchise.
So…is Final Fantasy on the decline? Can Final Fantasy remain relevant in a heavily saturated genre? Well, it’s a little complicated.
It’s easy to fall into the bandwagon stating that the series is old (which it is) and done for, but other trends seem to disagree. Recently, Famitsu took a poll in Japan to see which games are the most anticipated and found that Final Fantasy XV ranked #3. With Tetsuya Nomura, who also leads the Kingdom Hearts development being the director, it’s hard not to be excited. Another possibility is that Final Fantasy XIII was a series many felt didn’t need more than one entry. Yet when it did, we can see the results in the declining sales. The latest entry also showed the franchise’s mid-life crisis; unsure of its modern identity while trying to recapture today’s youth.
However, while some may disagree with me (or want to cut off my head), I feel it’s necessary to say: with every misstep Square Enix has taken with the Final Fantasy series, there have been positive developments. Sure, there are some unanswered questions that will linger with dread in the back of every fan’s mind, but I hesitate to say the franchise in in the decline. Here’s why:
Final Fantasy XIII’s development process shows a willingness to listen to feedback and grow from that:
Final Fantasy XIII was a perfect example of how a good concept can be bad in execution. Level design was very linear and forced you through nearly 40 hours of gameplay until you could explore areas. Even when you’re “free” to explore, you‘re still limited in where you can go. What further drove the knife into fans’ hearts were reports after the launch of the game that discussed extra explorable dungeons originally in the game but were taken out due to development issues.
Like previous entries, the active turn-based battle system provided plenty of fun but could also be very boring; the goal of the battle system was to force you to chain different actions together to try new ways to attack an enemy. However, most of the time the player can use the same move together four or five times in a row. Then, out of nowhere a STEEP learning curve comes in to destroy the beginner’s play style, leaving them frustrated with little desire to continue playing. Lastly, while most games provide you with a simple level as a “tutorial” to learn the ropes, Final Fantasy XIII forced you through five hours of boredom. Justifiably, many fans went to various media and forum sites, complaining about all the things Final Fantasy XIII got wrong.
Two years later, Final Fantasy XIII-2 was released and did something surprising: it addressed every issue fans had with the last iteration. The game attempted to tweak its battle system to make it more challenging and fun, and the storyline/gameplay was non-linear. For the most part, the game was welcomed by many with open arms for its attempt to address the lingering issues of the previous game… but created more problems as well. Particularly, the storyline was still weak and the characters still fell flat. Lightning Returns, the third and final installment, decided to go back to the basics and focus its attention squarely on Lightning. From the recent reviews, many praise the game’s fast paced fighting and its attempt at a stronger storytelling element.
The trilogy is going to end up being remembered as one of the weakest entries into the series, but the steps Square Enix has taken with it speaks volumes. The developer has shown that it’s not afraid to take risks and make mistakes. Even more importantly, they’re willing to take in negative feedback and use it to improve the next title. One of the biggest steps a company can take to keep themselves relevant is to take in feedback and use it to improve their games. It shows maturity and humility. It also keeps a franchise fresh when its age is starting to show.
It also shows a series trying to find a new, modern identity to stay in line with current trends:
As Percy Blysshe Shelley said, “The only constant is change”. The landscape of RPG popularity has shifted from JRPGs to western RPGs like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls, and FallOut, to name a few. Most of these games are praised for their narration and innovative gameplay mechanics (like morality dialogue choices). Morality isn’t necessarily a new mechanic in games, but it’s becoming a feature in many new titles. Pacing in gameplay is also a very different between the two markets. Western RPGs tend to be faster-paced, oftentimes having combat going in real time. Button mapping skills to shortcuts allow for a smoother, fluid fighting style that feels natural and organic.
Also, story writing and characterization have been nothing short of stellar for Western RPGs. The Mass Effect trilogy (barring the last entry for some fans) created a sweeping epic space saga with complex, memorable characters that felt individually fleshed out. Their side stories/missions felt naturally implemented into the overarching story and provided in-depth looks at the characters. The combat, clunky in the first game, grew to be smoother and more action-packed. It caters more towards the recent taste of what western audiences are enjoying: fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled gameplay.
Final Fantasy, for better or worse, has to find its own identity with the release of each new console. The JRPG market is heavily saturated with many other titles building their own small niche followings. No JRPG has really made a big splash on the last two recent console systems with several exceptions like Ni no Kuni and Okami. Final Fantasy in particular is trying to find a way to maintain the core traits that make a game true to the Final Fantasy brand while catering to modern gaming desires.
In order for Final Fantasy to really stay relevant and improve, there have to be moments of failure:
No series is going to be able to avoid having a few rough edges in its legacy., especially Final Fantasy. The series has always been consistent in production value and quality but have several horrible spin-off games that the developers were able to improve on for future entries. This can especially be seen in the dress-spheres/job class battle system tweaks from Final Fantasy X-2 to Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy X-2 was a mess of a game overall that had one really good quality going for it; the dress-sphere system. The outfit any of the three girls donned (Yuna, Riku and Paine) would affect how they handled, as well as the outcome of the battle. What made it refreshing was how many possibilities a fight could have based on the amount of costumes available for use. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each outfit, of the enemy type, and how to exploit that made it rewarding in the challenge at hand.
Lightning Returns takes the best aspect of this while tweaking it to meld with the active battle system used in the first two Final Fantasy XIII games. Lightning has several costumes that affect her attributes and battle style. The extra challenge? The costumes have a limited amount of time per battle, and have to recharge in order to be used again. This creates an adrenaline-laden think-on-your-toes concept that rewards alacrity.
The last and most important point, though:
The Final Fantasy series consistently creates fun, addictive turn based battle systems that really brought the JRPG to mainstream in the West:
While new Final Fantasy games may not be as huge of trendsetters as they used to, the battle systems are always the one aspect consistently praised with each new game. Each title retains most of the elements of their successful formula of turn-based combat, but Square tweaks it just enough to take a chance at something new. For example, both Final Fantasy VII and X play with most of the same elements but have tweaks to make them each stand out. FFVII relied on an Active Time Battle system that kept players on their toes. During the course of a fight, each character had a bar that would fill up and lead to a “Limit Break” which was a special, unique attack they could use for one turn. Players could also summon Aeons; powerful beasts that could deal out a ton of damage in a single attack.
FFX was a conditional turn-based system that allowed players to take a moment to think on what move they wanted to use. “Overdrives” (aka Limit Bursts) and Aeons were also part of the game as well; the main difference being that Aeons could replace the party and stay in the fight until victory, it was defeated, or the player called it back. What made FFX unique in gameplay was the stellar sphere-based leveling system. No character’s path was set in how they were upgraded; there were several pathways that could be taken depending on where the player wanted the characters to grow. While the characters had somewhat of a predetermined role (ie Auron specializing in Melee and Yuna as a White Mage) they could be switched into other roles.
That’s just one example of how much effort Square Enix puts into their attempts to make fun, rewarding and challenging gameplay. It’s also why the Final Fantasy franchise is still one of the bigger names out in the JRPG market.
So are we seeing the series’ decline?
Possibly, but it’s a slow death. It is true that the numbers of units sold has decreased with each new iteration of the Lightning Trilogy, the hype around Final Fantasy XV shows people are still interested in the series. Truthfully, if Final Fantasy XIII is an indication of anything it is that of continuing growth and maturity. The development team behind the games is willing to take risks and explore new ideas while taking in feedback and adapting the next title. Especially after nearing 20 years as a franchise, it speaks volumes that such a giant developer can be willing to adapt.
We’re also seeing a franchise trying to establish a modern identity while keeping up with other heavy hitting JRPGs. Most of the time, talk of the series always harkens back to the “ol’ glory days of Final Fantasy <insert whichever roman numeral you want>” Recent iterations haven’t gained as much traction with fans of the series and are discussed by a small minority. This doesn’t have so much to do with the quality of its individual games as it does with the ongoing struggle to make itself relevant in the modern era of console gaming.
Even if Final Fantasy XV doesn’t pan out (which I hope it does) and it becomes an indicator that the series is nearing its end, the franchise will forever have the legacy of being the flagship title that brought JRPGs to mainstream western audiences. No one can deny the fervor each Final Fantasy title created when it was released. The series will surely live on as a legacy and a cornerstone in gaming history.