Sunday, 30 September 2012

Final Fantasy: Rise, Fall & Rebirth (Part 1: Learn from History)

This is going to be the start of a multiple post blog on the Final Fantasy series, where it has been and where it's headed now.

I am what some might call a very big fan of Final Fantasy. If you don't know this about me, you don't know much about me. I've been playing the games since the release of the ground breaking and incredible PlayStation masterpiece; Final Fantasy VII. I am an admitted Final Fantasy fanboy, but I believe I am with good reason. Since it's inception Final Fantasy has always strived to give us the best in graphics, gameplay, story, the works. They've put themselves to the the limits trying to see what kind of awesomeness they can bring us with each release. That's just as much true as it was back in 1987, twenty-five years ago when the Fighter, Black Mage, White Mage and Thief (don't lie that was your team too first time around) first set out for Corneria to find the four elemental crystals and save the world from the time-warping demon known as Chaos. Even with the very divisive or sometimes even maligned Final Fantasy XIII it was clear that what they were trying to do was grand and epic and that their hearts were in the right place, no-one can deny that. The series reached the point where many people were calling, and still do to this day (except those who try to be fashionable by hating the game, strangely often fans of it's immediate predecessor), the seventh instalment in the landmark series the greatest game of all time; something that I'd probably have a hard time denying with few games reaching the same kind of acclaim. Nowdays however it seems to have fallen from grace... big time!

So what has Final Fantasy really done wrong in it's last ten years of so that's made it fall so far from grace? In part one today let me sum up the seriesto tell the un-inducted what exactly happened in this illustrious serious. I'll try to keep it short... and fail.

FINAL FANTASY was released in 1987 on the NES and grew from there to have multiple entries in the franchise. The game was lauded for it's interesting combat mechanics and battle animations that allowed for a party of four heroes chosen by the player at the start of the game from various "jobs" like Fighter, Black Mage, White Mage, Thief, Red Mage and Black Belt. You progressed around an open "world map" from town to town, dungeon to dungeon exploring a world of wonder. It's following two sequels wouldn't be released in Europe or North America until much, much later but equally followed a similar pattern with Final Fantasy II having a stronger focus on story and Final Fantasy III having a stronger focus on gameplay and customisation of character. The real next step in the series evolution came with...

FINAL FANTASY IV for the SNES in 1990. It was a landmark game with a very compelling story about redemption, betrayal, love and people from the moon who secretly want to eradicate us using our own ancestral magic... okay... The Fourth entry was an excellent game, it really brought to the table new things, not least of which was the Active Time Battle system, a system that would go on to appear for the next five games in the series and even make a modified appearance in later games such as XII and XIII. If the original set up the basics of gameplay and storytelling for what a Final Fantasy game would be; this game enhanced them all and really set the stage for what Final Fantasy as series would be. In many ways Final Fantasy IV is the first "true" Final Fantasy game. The following game in the series Final Fantasy V would take a step back in the storytelling department and use an upgraded version of Final Fantasy III's job system. It wasn't that successful really in the eyes of many fans and didn't see release in North America once again until over ten years later. However the next game we got would really push the series to new heights...

FINAL FANTASY VI for the SNES was released in 1994 and is to this day one of the best RPG's of all time, perhaps even one of the best games of all time. It's gameplay is to this day brilliant, it's musical score is excellent, it's the perfect blend of linear and non-linear storytelling in every way and it's characters are incredibly memorable. It's philosophical at times asking questions about the nature of human existence and overall the game is frankly a masterpiece of gaming. The villain Kefka is brilliant; imagine Heath Legder's Joker only turned into an even more batshit insane version with superpowers... he's pure evil and he loves it. If Final Fantasy IV established what a Final Fantasy game should be, VI really took the RPG formula and the Final Fantasy formula and gave it a much needed elevation to new heights of storytelling and gameplay, especially the story, I mean the game has like a 30 minute ending... on the SNES, think about that. It really pushed the Super Nintendo to it's limits and told a game worthy of being called one of the greatest and really laid the groundwork for it's immediate successor.  It's just a shame a portition of the fanbase of this game are such whiney cry babies and hate it's successor just because well, it got more mainstream critical acclaim. Which leads us to...

FINAL FANTASY VII for the Sony PlayStation. Released in 1997, Final Fantasy VII took what made Final Fantasy VI great and perfected it. There's an expression in screenwriting; "Kill your darlings". One of the interpretations of this is to kill off the characters you love, because odds are the audience will too and it will evoke an emotional response from them. Those who have played the game know what I'm talking about, those who haven't probably still do. Throw into that a really well crafted protagonist who suffers with a bizzare identity crisis, a beautiful love triangle, interesting side-characters, hours and hours of sidequests and a villain who despite looking like he came straight out of an 80s rock band, is excellent. Sephiroth, the hero turned villain, Final Fantasy's first true tragic villain a man driven by madness and hatred and some serious mother issues. Final Fantasy VII really brought audiences to a group of psychologically complex characters and a fascinating world, replacing castles with skyscrapers to create a modern society as opposed to the fantasy one we'd seen before. It was a gamble but it paid off. In addition the Materia system was brilliant for it's day giving real complexity to the character customisation and a reason to grind beyond "levelling". Final Fantasy VII was the peak of the series and is to this day the best selling game in the series, in fact excluding the ludicrously successful Pokémon series, it's the best selling video game RPG of all time. 

It's successor, Final Fantasy VIII would not be so great, but would not be terrible either. VIII was sort of the beginning of where a few things went wrong here and there but despite the best of intentions and some really decent and interesting story moments it failed to hit home the same way VII had. It's general plot was pretty convoluted, albeit contains some fairly interesting characters, and the game's system's were sadly very unbalanced and made it either too easy to too hard at times. The following game Final Fantasy IX was the swansong of the series creator and as such was a fitting tribute with probably the most developed cast in the series and a really interesting story and a cool throwback.

FINAL FANTASY X was the first entry on the PS2 in 2001. Let me first list the good, the battle system was excellent, the visuals breathtaking, the music amazing. Now whilst Final Fantasy VIII was the first time the cracks had really started to show, primarily due to the fact that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series creator, only served as Executive Producer whilst focusing his attention on Final Fantasy IX which began development over a year before VIII was even released and Yoshinori Kitase the great director of VII, VIII and the legendary Chrono Trigger was left kind of free-reign as director on VIII. At least in my opinion, Kitase was a great director which is why VIII still holds together better than this game did. With Final Fantasy X, Sakaguchi was Executive Producer in name only, from what I understand he had nothing to do with the game really and Kitase was producing it. Some really moronic characters, bad voice acting, and possibly the worst designs on characters I've ever seen... I mean look at this picture here... Seymour's hair... what the fuck!? The game still had the essence of Final Fantasy though, but it's actual sequel Final Fantasy X-2 just went balls to the wall insane, the less said the better. Final Fantasy XI was an MMORPG and a fairly good one if not really a very "Final Fantasy"-ish game.

FINAL FANTASY XII was released after a long wait between main games in 2006 for the PS2. Now whilst I'll be honest, I'm not a fan of the game really; it did try something new. It took the battle-screen and tossed it away in favour of a semi-real-time battle system by using automated combat manoeuvres called "Gambits" to program your party. Problem with this is the game practically played itself by that. It was a very open if slightly empty game and clearly was geared more towards a western audience. It's story, very much inspired by Star Wars, also fell a little flat. XII was a good game overall but it really felt like something was lacking from it at times. It got a lot of critical praise for it's day but in retrospect people are realising it's not the best entry in the series, not by a long shot. Which brings us to...

FINAL FANTASY XIII for the PS3 and XBox 360, released in 2009 the game was well... "Final Fantasy Streamlined". Gone was the towns, the NPCs, this living breathing world to explore, gone were the optional side-quests (for the most part) and gone were all the familiar musical motifs. Even the stats were streamlined down to Strength, Magic and HP only. In Square Enix's desperate attempts to make Final Fantasy relevant and sell the kind of units they did with VII they tried to modernise it. Twice they tried, with XII they tried the gambits with XIII they switched to a faster paced version of the Active Time Battle system whereby they called it an "evolution of the system". Which to a certain extent it was, the idea of segmenting the bars to be able to pull off certain attacks was fascinating and interesting. However you could only control one character. The game's story was confusing at best and really at times a totally convoluted mess. The idea of people being cursed to destroy the world or become zombies was pretty awesome in theory but the execution was a failure with only Sahz standing out as the great character, maybe even one of the series finest. The speedy battle system seemed welcome at first but then it was kind of realised to be dumbed down and mostly button mashing. But I'll save all my complaints about XIII for another day. The game was for all intents and purposes a financial success becoming the 4th best selling in the series but by Final Fantasy standards it was a critical flop.

Now, why is it that the Final Fantasy series has fallen from grace. In one of my previous articles, I stated just what my problem with Twilight Princess was. It was that ironically in a game that was fanboy inspired, they weren't catering to their fanbase enough. The same could be said really for what Final Fantasy has become. In many ways they're simply not catering to their fans enough. In many ways it reminds me of the whole DC Comics reboot and their quest to find those elusive "new readers" in doing so they're forgetting about their current fan base. Final Fantasy XIII tried to be different from Final Fantasy, it tried to be modern and new, perhaps even taking some indicators from First Person Shooters in a way, anyone else think the dungeon designs of a long tunnel were similar to Call of Duty level designs? It was trying to be fast-paced and action packed and visually impressed. Well it got all that, but in doing so forgot what Final Fantasy truly was.

I said earlier that Final Fantasy IV established what a Final Fantasy game really is. It is a think-on your feet, turn-based party combat game involving an interesting story with engaging pre-made characters. It has certain musical queues and certain themes. All of these were present from I-X really. Now despite what I say about VIII and X not being up to scratch they're both excellent games. With Final Fantasy X especially being a very good game in terms of gameplay and really breathing new life into Final Fantasy taking a very tactical approach to the combat. Final Fantasy XIII was fast-paced and the tactics were controlled from a distance whilst you controlled only one character; who if they died it was game-over. They were trying to make Final Fantasy into an Action RPG, something they've even rumoured to be doing in Final Fantasy XV. Now whilst I'm all for change and development, Final Fantasy took it way too far.

Let's look at the battle system in XII and XIII a little deeper. XII was real time so controlling your whole party would be very awkward. It was an interesting and innovative idea, for it's day but it was trying to be an Action RPG and felt slower than one, rather like Dragon Age: Origins did in comparison with it's successor's battle system. Until now they've kept actual "Action Battle Systems" in the spin-off games like Crystal Chronicles, Kingdom Hearts and the upcoming Versus XIII (a game that really shouldn't have the XIII moniker). However the battle systems seem to be trying to mimic those, in a turn based party system. That is not smart. The whole point of a turn based system is to use multiple characters at once in a party. That is what Final Fantasy IS. It's battle system shouldn't be action oriented but tactically oriented. Take Final Fantasy IV once more, fast-paced tactical system. Final Fantasy X took the tactics to a whole new level and IV really set the standard for thinking on your feet whilst keeping it tactical. What's happened since then is more and more attempts to conform to the demands of consumers relying on the Final Fantasy name.

Overall, the Final Fantasy series has a lot of deal with in it's upcoming years and realistically it's not in the best hands if you ask me. They're trying to take the series in a direction that isn't what Final Fantasy should be, it isn't what the fan-base wants and it certainly isn't want new audiences want. Perhaps most importantly Square Enix really should take a look at the series' past, not just at it's peak with VII but look at what Final Fantasy was, specifically from IV-X. New stories are one thing, that can be arranged and they're working their way to new ideas. But you can never forget where you came from, if you're going to take the Final Fantasy series in such a direction, it shouldn't be called Final Fantasy, you're relying on brand-recognition to spur sales and that's not right or fair on the fans. I'm not saying XIII or it's sequel are the downfall of Final Fantasy but they're trying too hard to not be Final Fantasy that they're really forgetting what made the series so great in the first place.