What happened to Final Fantasy? Featured

 

I’ve always been a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series. Every game that came out I would have to buy on its release date, locking myself away for hours at a time to play ‘just five minutes more.’ I was completely hooked, in my eyes the series could do no wrong, and this was a love affair that spanned several years.

But something awful has happened to these games, they are no longer the incredible, immersive JRPGs they once were. I haven’t completed a Final Fantasy game since X-2 (even that took a lot of effort to get through), and I’m doubtful as to whether they will ever create another title that will capture my interest and imagination again. Like a great relationship which has run its course, I’ve realised that it’s just not going to work out, and it’s not me, it’s them.

So what happened, and why am I left feeling cold by each new title in the series that Square Enix throw my way? (This probably has everything to do with the fact that the ‘Enix’ have been added to the former ‘Square’ but we’ll save that for later). To share with you just how…hurt, I am by the later Final Fantasy games, we need to go back to the beginning. Not the beginning of the entire series, but back to my first encounter with the series (when the company was simply 'Square,' funnily enough)...

 


Final Fantasy VII was the first ‘proper’ game I played. I was about 10 years old, and I’d been to visit a friend who owned a copy, he very graciously let me have a play of it (big mistake, I didn’t speak to him for about 2 hours), and I was completely blown away. Having never really been much of a gamer, I was taken aback by the richness of the graphics (at the time), the music and the characters. I’d never, ever played anything like it. Before this it had been racing games, platforms or fighters for me, so the entire concept was something totally mind-blowing, I’d discovered the JRPG, and what a title to play as an introduction to the genre!

It went straight on my list of ‘mum I want this, please buy it for me’ and once I actually received a copy I was initially confused by the fact that there were four discs, FOUR! (Yes, one of these was just a demo for FFVIII). I’d never seen anything like it, but I soon found myself deeply absorbed in the beautiful universe that Square had created. The characters were all hugely charming, with deep back-stories that I was genuinely interested in. I’d never been so in tune with characters outside of books, but here I was able to play out their adventures with incredible visuals. The plot itself was something I’d never anticipated, it took that initial mission of simply blowing up reactors to ‘save to planet’ as AVALANCHE, and excelled it upwards to a real fight for everyone’s survival against the threat of Sephiroth, a man driven mad by the truth of his ‘creation,’ and Jenova, a malevolent alien being intent of sucking the very life out of the planet.

These were two ‘baddies’ on a scale I’d never seen before, I was completely hooked. The story featured so many twists and turns that it never failed to capture my attention. Every character had a deep past; I laughed, I gasped, and I cried my eyes out. I really can’t explain just how truly devoted I was to them, but all I can put it down to was some truly excellent writing on a scale very rarely seen in any game or film.

The combat system suited me to a tee. It was very simple, very easy to manage and accessible, and didn’t present any interruption to the main story as it took little time to completely master. Of course, now gamers tend to demand more from their battle systems, and Final Fantasy have always responded to this by adding more of a challenge, but for a first interaction with any kind of RPG it was perfect for me. The bosses presented enough of a challenge that you couldn’t just ‘breeze through,’ and to progress the storyline took some real work and hard level grafting, but unlike other games this never felt like a chore for me.

The vast array of mini games were enough to keep me busy for hours, I spent ages breeding Chocobos (large flightless birds) for the Chocobo races, with each colour representing a ‘better class’ of our feathered friends, until the ultimate achievement of the golden Chocobo. The races alone could have been an entirely separate game, which Square wised up to and released 'Chocobo Racing' on the Playstation in 1999. Golden Saucer also provided hours of amusement, a huge theme park in the middle of a barren desert, with an assortment of fun and challenging rides, including a snowboarding game that could again have been presented as a standalone.

Final Fantasy VII was a game that greatly encouraged exploration, if you didn’t decide to divert from your course and check out the local towns, you could end up missing out on chunks of the storyline, boss fights, and extra characters, including the tortured Vincent Valentine, a man I can only describe as ‘the ultimate emo,’ (if emos were also complete badasses of course).

 

Cut to Final Fantasy VIII. Prior to its release I bought every magazine that I could get my hands on which covered the title. The photos from the gameplay and FMV sequences were incredible, and for a game to be released on the humble Playstation it was hugely advanced for its time. Playing the game was a real experience; you could be walking through Balamb Garden, controlling your character, only to have it flow effortlessly into a cut scene, panning through the Garden to a beautiful visual of the outside, a stunning introduction to the environment. One could be forgiven for thinking that with all this effort put into the visuals, the story might suffer, but this was not the case. FF8 offered a truly immersive storyline, with twists and turns, creative backstories and an assortment of baddies to come up against. I have played this game more times than I can count, and each time never fails to impress, it is still the wonderful experience it first was, even when I know what is about to happen.

All this is again backed up by a great cast of characters who I quickly came to know and love. Rinoa was the real standout for me, I adored how her love story with lead man Squall played out so beautifully against the history provided through flashbacks between Laguna (Squall’s father) and Julia (who we later discover to be Rinoa’s mother) - potential incest is thankfully averted though, phew! Squall himself was hugely loveable. Despite his moody disposition, I genuinely thought he was swoon worthy, which is hilarious now, but hey, I was all of 11/12 at the time so what do you expect? He was like Cloud all over again, minus the blonde spiky hairdo; aloof and moody, but the kind of character that actually worked perfectly for these games.

The links between the characters were beautifully played out, and once again we were presented with a tangled love triangle (remember Cloud, Tifa and Aeries from VII?), a wonderful accompaniment to the main story, which was pretty heavy stuff really. This game made me want to be a sorceress (alas, an impossibility), they were literally the coolest thing I’d ever seen, even if it was just a result of possession by another sorceress (I'll spare the details in case there are some people yet to play it).

The combat system built upon the foundations laid by FFVII and elevated it to more challenging heights, ensuring players had to think carefully about which eidolons were equipped to which player at what times, with the added fun of weapons capable of causing extra damage as long as you pressed ‘R1’ at the right moment. The game also allowed for weapon upgrades, with each new modification unlocked by finding weapon magazines strewn across the world, a nice little extra treasure hunt, if you fancied killing some time. 

So, moving on, Final Fantasy IX was then released. What a title! Beautiful to look at, it achieved a visual landscape truly unexpected from a Playstation, this was potentially the last game I bought for my PSone, but it clearly showed just how much the console was capable of.

Story wise, I loved it, but in all honesty it wasn’t FFVII or FFVIII. If the game had been released without the ‘Final Fantasy’ title, it would have been a favourite of mine, but playing it and knowing about the existence of its preceding titles, I can only say that it was extremely good, but not mind blowing. You play as Zidane, a strange young man with a tail who is part of a gang of thieves, posing as a theatre troupe. Tasked with kidnapping a princess, the player is treated to a really charming opening scene where they are required to act out a play, something that instantly made me like the title. Surprisingly, you soon discovers that the Princess wants to be kidnapped, opening up an array of questions that you answer during the course of the story itself.

The characters were again wonderful, and there was still an abundance of optional side missions with places to explore, the tried and tested methods that I adored so much about the series. The mini games were back once again in force, and the game had a lovely, light-hearted cutesy feel that is to be expected from a JRPG, one of the reasons I loved this title so much. 

Final Fantasy IX returned to the 'roots' of the series, offering a setting that was less 'futuristic' than the previous two titles. This divided some opinion, those who had played the series previous to VII welcomed the change, whereas newer fans, such as myself, were left a little undecided as to whether the switch was a good thing or not.


Next up we had X, the first release for the Playstation 2. Opinions on X tend to be a mixed bag, but I'll try to stay as impartial as I possibly can. I thought it was once again gorgeous, the battle system was fine, enjoyable enough and mixed up the tried and tested formula a little to make it more challenging. For the first time the game introduced voice actors instead of requiring the player to read text boxes of dialogue, and this change was essential really, with more and more games offering some fantastic voice acting it was about time Final Fantasy did the same, and although some of the acting in parts was a little tiresome, it was mostly quite well done.

Plot wise I found the game entertaining enough, I was able to get pretty sucked into it and loved playing through to see what happened, but it wasn't really anything truly new or diverse in terms of the story arc. I really enjoyed the ‘stranger in a foreign land’ representation of Tidus, although I found his super chirpy nature to be a little annoying at times. I did detect hints in his personality that mirrored that of  Zidane from IX, a little more upbeat than I perhaps favoured but I can acknowledge that the brooding and moody attitudes of Cloud and Squall from VII and VIII would get a little old if relentlessly repeated, plus I can also accept that dark and brooding would have been a lot more appealing to me then as a teenager, than it would now (there HAS to be some reason all these girls lust over that grumpy, sparkly vampire from Twilight...right?)

This game saw an end of the open world exploration we so knew and loved, and this was a huge shame. Final Fantasy X presented an extremely linear format, players advanced from one location to another (basically where you were told) and that was pretty much that. There wasn't really much room for exploration, which meant no hidden characters off the beaten track, and little in the way of mini games or optional content. Fortunately, there were an abundance of locations in the game that provided the much welcomed ‘down time’ of being able to roam around a town when you felt like taking a pause before advancing the story.

Little did I know this was the beginning of the end…


Final Fantasy X-2 was the game that couldn’t actually decide what point it was trying to make, what the storyline was or why it mattered, and what kind of audience it really wanted to appeal to. Vaguely enjoyable, it was nice to revisit characters from the previous game, especially Yuna who’d finally removed the stick from her arse, but hardly the game of the century. It was consistently ‘meh’ for me, but it killed a few hours enjoyably enough. It wasn’t a real Final Fantasy game in respect of gameplay, but at the time I thought that might just be because it was the first ever direct sequel, so maybe they’d tried to make it as separate as possible from the rest of the series?

There were some enjoyable elements that made the game definitely seem to be more a lighthearted than X, aspects such as the dress spheres, which allowed for you to change the way your characters looked based upon their fighting styles in battles. This was good fun, and I can't say I didn't enjoy this part of the experience, but with regard to the plot, or the point of the game, it just seemed to be falling short. In my opinion the story should have been left well alone with the ending of X, it didn't need to be revisited, especially in such a confused fashion.

I can’t say that X-2 was a favourite Final Fantasy game, but it was enjoyable nonetheless, unlike every Final Fantasy game that has followed.


So this is where this article takes a dark and sour grapes turn for the worse.

Final Fantasy XI decided to delve into the world of online gaming. It didn’t really catch on with so much competition from more established games, and there were several flaws in the basic set up that put many players off, such as having to hunt tirelessly for players to join your group, only to have them pinched by others later on. Although, it was first released for PC and later Xbox 360 which suggests there was some area for profit in there on the part of the developers, so perhaps, to my shame, it was more successful than I gave it credit for.

The reviews at the time weren't exactly glowing nonetheless, and in all honesty I didn’t even bother playing it, so this is an area I can’t really comment on. My opinions at the time were very anti online gaming, having always been a bit of an antisocial gamer myself, I couldn't really understand how the concept of Final Fantasy could be transferred into an MMO, and perhaps, overall it wasn't, with Final Fantasy XIV, Square Enix's later foray into MMO's also failing to win over players or critics.

Let’s move on.


It’s hard to say much good about Final Fantasy XII. It looked pretty, and that’s about as much as I can muster.

Lead character Vaan was the most painful creature I’ve ever had the misfortune to control, from the awful outfit to the horrifically cheerful and nauseating personality, there really wasn’t anything at all that I actually liked about him, so much so that it took me a good five minutes there to actually remember what his name even was. Vaan is a young man who wants to become a sky pirate, and here I roll my eyes and scoff. Is this an attempt to make us think fondly of Zidane, and project those feelings onto this, equally blonde, version? It's not working, give me Zidane back or go home. The heartbreaking thing about this game is the fact that (if internet speculation is to be believed) Basch was originally intended to be the main character for the game. Now, I'm not saying that is is 100% the truth, we all know the credibility issues that arise from forums and Wikipedia, but if this had been the case... what a game it could have been!

I tried as best I could to play FFXII, but I found it nothing other than a snore fest. Roughly halfway through, I was struggling to find a save point, horribly bored and wanting to stop playing for an evening, so, in an absolute first for me, I just switched off the console. I lost maybe an hour or so worth of unsaved playtime, but couldn’t find any reason to actually care. To return to my previous relationship analogy, this is akin to the moment your partner, who you are perhaps starting to have less squishy love feelings for, calls to say they've got to go away for the weekend with work, and therefore have to cancel that romantic meal you had planned. Instead of being sad all you can think is 'oh good, that means I can watch re-runs of Friends all weekend, whilst burping and farting'. Needless to say, I never actually returned to complete the game, and as yet haven’t felt any further inclination to do so.

Plot wise, I’m at a total loss, if anyone would like to send me a brief summary of what happened, that doesn't require hours of study into the arduous background story that would be fab. there were moments of the game where I literally sat there asking 'who? what? why?' with a constant expression on my face that probably personified the phrase 'I don't bloody know what's happening, do you?' Looking back now, I should have gone with my gut reaction to the trailer, which had been a real ‘oh no’ moment. I wasn’t excited about this game before it even came out, so more fool me for buying a game based purely on its predecessors in the series.

Didn’t learn my lesson though, did I?


A while after this, trailers came out for Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Both were set for release at the same time, and much as I liked the look of FFXIII, it was Versus that was primed to steal the show for me. The landscape reminded me of the good old days of FFVII’s Midgar city, and I was excited to play it. I watched the trailer for Versus over and over again, and I’m still watching that trailer and all the subsequent trailers over and over again... as Versus now takes the record for the longest development of a Final Fantasy game ever, now standing at over 7 years. I’m still hopeful that one day it will actually happen, but considering there was no sign of it at the PS4 announcement event, I won’t be holding my breath.

When XIII was released I have to say, I was a mixture of excited and disappointed. Versus hadn’t made any appearance, so that was a bit of a blow, but regardless I bought XIII in eager anticipation, ready to forgive the bitter taste left in my mouth from X-2 and XII. I needn’t have bothered. Final Fantasy XIII took everything I loved about the series and cast it aside. Gone was the open world, gone was any kind of exploration whatsoever. As I played the game I was initially impressed, yes it was horrifically linear, but I’d started to expect this following on from X and XI. After roughly 4 hours of play I looked at the clock and thought ‘when the hell is there going to be a town for me to have some down time in?’ Confident that they would, at the very least, keep in the fun part of the game which involved exploring and interacting with NPCs. Silly me. If only I’d known that XIII didn’t feature any kind of down time. The game would relentlessly tease, taking the player to a town or city before cruelly revealing that this too would double up as part of the dungeon hunter that was portraying itself as a Final Fantasy game, it left me fuming, and personally, I don't play a game with the intention of being made angry.

Whilst I wasn’t in the slightest bit happy, I kept playing, because the battle system was good fun, although having your characters fulled healed for you after each fight took away the challenge somewhat. I kept on hoping that the next rest point would be just around the corner, but every hint of downtime was quickly pulled from under my feet. This wasn’t the fun game I has expected, this was a relentless onslaught of battle after battle after battle. If I wanted full on combat, I honestly would have just bought a game along the lines of Call of Duty, I care very little for constant fighting. 

I managed to play through a fair portion of the game, until eventually it just pushed me too far. I found myself again struggling to save, wandering around another dungeon (this time posing as open world) and just thought, sod it, why am I bothering? I’m not even enjoying this game. Off went the console, and with it any desire to play a Final Fantasy game again (unless Versus actually becomes a reality). Apparently there is some downtime offered, or at least some places that can be explored, but I can only assume that I just didn't make it that far into the game. Perhaps this serves to make me an unqualified reviewer for XIII, but generally I'd argue that if you don't even want to finish it, it's probably not going to warrant a glowing review.

If I had to summarise the plot for you, I couldn't really do it justice, if any praise is to be deserved for this title. I have no idea what on earth Square Enix were thinking, or what they were on about. There was a fake world above a real world and everyone was scared of the real world, and the terms Fal’Cie, L’Cie, Pulse and Cocoon cropped up a fair bit. This plot was so overly complex and convoluted that I just didn’t have the energy to try and dissect it. Where was the beautiful simplicity of the earlier games? Sure, the plots became more advance and interwoven as you played, but the basic premise of VII was, you’re an ex-soldier who now works as a mercenary, but gets pulled into a fight for the planet’s survival. There, easy, yet captivating. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a bit of background, you should see how many hours I can kill on Skyrim simply reading the books, but I prefer that information to be optional to the main content of the game, the kind of background that is actually interesting to know, but doesn't make your head hurt (for example, the Mass Effect games accomplish this beautifully). Final Fantasy XIII isn't just presenting too much backstory, it's pinning the entire story on the players somehow managing to come to terms with a vast swamp of information all at once, whilst also losing patience as the long, arduous battle rolls repetitively on. I guess the one thing we can be thankful for, is that while your brain is working in overdrive trying to figure out this story, it at least means that you are unable to fall asleep through the sheer boredom that this game would otherwise be capable of inducing. Good one.

Following from this, SquareEnix released XIII-2. I didn’t even bother to look at the trailers. There’s also been a sequel to the sequel, which is so little worth my time contemplating that I’ve chosen to ignore it entirely.

THE CLUE’S IN THE NAME

To understand what exactly went wrong with the series, it’s important to look firstly at the company behind it. Square Enix was formerly Square (or Squaresoft for the purposes of marketing their games). Under this particular company name Final Fantasies I to XI were created. Whilst X-2 and XI aren't in my personal top rated list, the majority of these games were everything fans could want from JRPG’s. Square had a tried and tested method that was consistent with excellent games that revolved around gorgeous environments and captivating plot-lines  Whilst other games of note were released outside of the series and all loved for their own individual appeal, fans always managed to return to the Final Fantasy series without fail. ‘If it ‘aint broken, don’t fix it,’ but fix they did anyway… in 2003 the company merged with publishers Enix, and Square became ‘Square Enix’. Now, I’m in no way bashing Square Enix, there’s no denying they have been behind some incredible games, but for some reason or another, the merging of these two companies completely destroyed Final Fantasy.

The games changed from being geared towards epic storylines, to stepping up the action a few notches, and for this both story and longevity of each subsequent game vastly diminished. There’s no denying that the evolution of the battle system was possibly the one decent thing about Final Fantasy XIII. It kept an otherwise awful game quite enjoyable (to a point) but it seems the developers threw so much into making the battles more interesting or challenging, that they lost sight of what actually makes a Final Fantasy game. The previous turn based system had always worked for me, but I can understand the need to develop and adapt with changing tastes and styles of gameplay. Having said this, the most important factor in a JRPG is the storyline, something Square Enix seem to have completely lost sight of. I realise there will be some people crying in rage at my comments, as the storylines for XII and XIII (and XIII’s several ugly sisters) weren’t terrible, but gone was any ounce of charm from the series, arguably what pulled so many repeat fans in the first place.

The charm is what I’ve pinned it down to, my love of Final Fantasy before it all turned sour. It’s always been hard for me to define why I’ve always loved these games, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say it was the charm. The games had a really unique feel for me, they weren’t designed to be chucked in the console, played for an hour and then left alone for another few days, these games were absolutely prized. I treated each one like a collectible, because they were something that could provide me with days to weeks on end of entertainment, with months and years of repeated playability. If I had to define my early teen years now, I would absolutely say that I spent a hell of a lot of time playing Final Fantasy, and not very much time building social skills (trust me, I’m horrendously socially awkward).

In sharp contrast, my copies of Final Fantasy X-2, XII and XIII are completely missing in action. I have no real idea where they are, whether they’ve been sold on, lost, broken, or eaten by my dog. I have no reverence for them. Where a scratched Final Fantasy disc in the past would cause real tears, I don’t think it would promote any response for me to see one of those 3 cracked or ruined, other than possibly lamenting at the fact that I might have been able to flog them for a fiver. It’s like I’ve reacted to the corruption of my wonderful series in the same way an angsty teenager would: everything is shit and I don’t bloody care.

If this had been a relationship, there would be a ritualistic burning of all the photos we ever took, I'd be annoyed at being let down, but secretly relieved that it was over, there was nothing left to tie me down, but sadly my only ‘revenge’ is to vent through the power of the written word, take that keyboard! Bish, bosh, bash!

THE BACK CATALOGUE

Now I have started to return to the older, classic Final Fantasy games to get my fix, many of which are now available to purchase and play using your mobile device. This is opening up a world of fantastical games, which, to my shame, took me a fair while to experience. The mobile versions feature improved graphics and gameplay, which is proving to be an absolute delight for me, and many other avid fans of the series. Several of the games in the back catalogue offer storylines to rival my favourites, and I'm enjoying discovering them even now, so long after their initial release.

Square Enix have announced they are working on yet another Final Fantasy game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was ‘Lightning’s back, and this time she’s decided to go on holiday…or something.’ This game will be released on the PS4, although I'm not sure if it will be an exclusive title, little information appears to be available as of yet. The one thing I can tell you, is that Shinji Hashimoto, Brand Director of Square Enix, announced at Playstation's PS4 event that they were working on a Final Fantasy game, and that gamers should "please be excited for E3 this year." So it was an announcement that there will be an announcement? Huh. I guess I'm starting to see how the games managed to get so infuriatingly confusing... I'm not even remotely excited, someone please try and find my teenage self, she's totally hiding because she'd be jumping up and down about this one.

I’ve decided that it’s absolutely time for me to let this series go. Versus looks geared to forever be a Wikipedia page (unless this is the E3 thing?? Oh hello teenage self!) and YouTube selection of let downs, which is a shame, as it could have saved Final Fantasy. Fortunately, Square managed to make a fair few games in their time that are truly amazing, and if you haven’t experienced them then I strongly suggest you get yourself a copy of FFVII or VIII, either for your PC, or by digging out your trusty Playstation or Playstation 2 console. I also strongly suggest you start playing the older FF games on your phone, you take it everywhere, why not start saving the world with it too?

If you loved old Final Fantasy, why not try:

-The Star Ocean series (Star Ocean – The last Hope was the most recent edition in the series and was everything an RPG should be)
-Lost Odyssey (should have been a Final Fantasy game)
-Legend of Legaia (an oldie this one)
-Guardian’s Crusade (one of my favourites of all time)
-Tales of Vesperia
-Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger
- Granadia
- Skies of Arcadia

There are many more great JRPG’s like the above out there, just remember that several will require an emulator to play now, unless you’re lucky enough to have an array of old school consoles that are still functioning correctly! (if you are, get in touch, we would love to hear about them).

If Square Enix make a return to heartwarming story lines for the Final Fantasy series give me a call. Whilst I've decided that the relationship is over, and it's all their fault, part of me still thinks they can change back to the series I fell in love with.

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Shannon

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2 comments

  • Shannon

    I know exactly what you mean! That scene with Aeris has me balling my eyes out, it was so perfectly done, it made me appreciate her so much more with every play through, especially since by having her in your party you could get extra snippets of the story. The newer games just don't offer that, I'd even be happy if they started releasing games with outdated graphics, just to have the old 'feel' of the previous games.

    Have you played Tales of Vesperia before? If not I'd HIGHLY recommend it, it has all the extras you'd expect from a FF game, great plot, lovable characters etc. They're bringing out a new Tales game soon as well, really looking forward to it

    Shannon Comment Link
  • Anthony Craddock

    Despite being an avid fan of Skyrim, Battlefield, GTA, Mass Effect and a few others, Final Fantasy VII is still my all-time #1 favourite game and it's very mention gets me shivering. Aeris' death was one of the most painful teenage memories I had. I've lost some girlfriends that didn't hurt as much as that. I think that's also how I learnt that I was a real geek.

    Like you, I've tried to stick with the series and like you, it's missing something year after year after year. I don't know how they managed to much up the formula so much but they have and it's really hurt their brand.

    Anthony Craddock Comment Link
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