Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
Originally, this wasn’t going to be my next article, or even my next Final Fantasy article. However, in light of the recent Square Enix trademark of an unknown project called “Final Fantasy: Type 0”, there’s been a lot of discussions regarding the possibility of this title referring to the often rumored, Western-influenced/developed “reboot” of the Final Fantasy franchise. Such a concept has piqued interest in many people, including those who have sworn off the series several Roman numerals ago. But is one of the greatest and most celebrated RPGs of all time really in need of such a drastic makeover?
Sadly, yes. While I will not contend that the series has gone downhill (something lots of people insist about, even though none of them can come to an agreement exactly when the slippery slope began to form), it has remained stagnant with its last few titles. Final Fantasy XIII, which was supposed to usher in a new era for the series while also spouting a top-of-the-line HD presentation, instead ended up as another divisive entry that obviously cut some technical corners just to finally get released (a linear path, the lack of towns or extra objectives). Square Enix isn’t alone in their struggles to adjust to the new age of high-resolution graphics, as almost every Japanese developer has failed to catch up, or even grasp, the current era of gaming that Western developers have been steadily pumping out. This includes RPGs, which used to be a genre that the Land of the Rising Sun dominated for several decades. Now, nothing comes even close to the presentation and innovation found in Western-developed epics like Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Even World of Warcraft, a six-year-old MMO, has learned to evolve with the times and offer a faster and more streamlined role-playing experience, whereas Square released Final Fantasy XIV in order to directly compete against the world-dominating MMO only to utterly embarrass themselves both on their bravado as well as their failure to follow in its gameplay refinements. Heck, I used to abstain from Western RPGs entirely, and even I’ve jumped into the WoW bandwagon.
So yes, Final Fantasy is definitely in need of a fresh new perspective so it can dazzle us once again. So to prepare for what could be such an announcement come January’s Production Report, I’ve compiled a personal list of ten things I would like to see changed or removed in the theoretical “Final Fantasy Reboot”. These are less about technical or gameplay refinements, but instead focus on personal things I think would go a long way in creating a reboot that even the thickest neckbeard can genuinely praise its merits.
So in no particular order, here are:
First thing’s first; the numbering scheme has to go. The Final Fantasy series has already reached an obnoxious point with its bland titles, and it’ll only get sillier if they keep sticking with it (we’re not that far off from Final Fantasy XX). Dragon Quest, a series long considered its ultimate rival in Japan (even though they are now under the same roof), got the right idea by adding a catchy subtitle to uniquely classify their games (Hand of the Heavenly Bride, Sentinels of the Starry Skies). On the subject, they also need to stop sticking the Final Fantasy title to every tangibly related spin-off title, because it’s only taking away the magic from the title. Final Fantasy Versus XIII has no connection whatsoever to the recently released Final Fantasy XIII, and could have easily just been called “Versus” without detracting my excitement for the game. There’s no obligation to add the FF name to a title, even if it does have Chocobos or Moogles (usually the only things that link these spin-offs together).
Even as a tentative project name, “Type: 0” is already an improvement, as it’s both simple as well as imply that they really are done with the Roman Numeral classification. But most importantly, it inspires imagination on what it could be…Square could announce “Final Fantasy XV” the next day and no one would bat an eye, as the next entry could end up any number of ways. Speaking of which…
It’s been a series tradition that each new Final Fantasy game is different from the last, featuring a completely different (sometimes even thematically) world, cast of characters, and mythology. It’s why we can have a gritty futuristic setting in one game and a cartoonish Disney-inspired fantasy setting in the next.
But after 13 games and several spin-offs, the FF series is in danger of losing its identity. Part of why there is barely any anticipation for new games anymore is because the sequels always offer a clean slate; usually the first thing that the trolls will lock in on is regarding the new world and main character. This is why it’s become another tradition to read the backlash over the unveiled look of the next FF world (“that monkey guy looks like David Bowie!” “that blonde guy is a jock!” “that chick looks like Cloud!” etc). Occasionally Square will re-visit a particularly popular world, but even this will result in accusations of “cashing in” on a popular franchise (FFVII, FFIV). As a result, Final Fantasy means so many different things to different people, that it needs to find itself one singular identity that people will associate the series with from now on.
So with the reboot, Square should create a large, creative setting that is deeply rooted in mythology, and is capable of being used for future sequels without growing stale. Part of the reason games like Mass Effect have developed such a large following is because of the consistency of its canon; even if Shepard and his squad will never appear in any game after Mass Effect 3, the inevitable follow-up will still have a large amount of fans ready and waiting, because they are already deeply invested in the rich and expansive universe that Bioware created for them. If they were to go back and say that Mass Effect 4 would not bring back any elements or lore from the last game, you can bet there would be a lot more jaded fanboys.
Final Fantasy needs a similarly expansive world that people won’t mind revisiting. This doesn’t mean that the sequels need to feature the same cast members or setting, but creating a consistent world that grows along with its players can result in a much deeper connection than just starting things over and over again. This will also keep people from having the same old “this FF’s cast and world sucks compared to this last FF which I loved with supreme bias!”. Make it interesting the first time, and people will be happy to jump back in for more.
This one’s a bit of personal bias, but I think Square should take the latter part of their Final Fantasy title a bit more literally. Even though some of my favorite entries in the series don’t feature the typical medieval world with princesses and castles (FFVII and FFX), I also feel that the more futuristic they try to make their games, the more out of touch fans will become.
Final Fantasy XIII has a futuristic world with lots of pretty CG and technology: it’s also nothing new or interesting. At this point, the sci-fi look has been done to death in games, with titles like Mass Effect showing far more imagination and intrigue than Square’s efforts ever will.
Of course, there are lots of fantasy-specific settings out there as well, so I’m not saying the FF series needs to stick to that route either. Instead, focus on a middle ground, something that isn’t purely old-school medieval, but instead adds futuristic elements to it (such as Final Fantasy VI’s steampunk setting, which creates an internal and physical conflict of cold, machine-based technology that threatens to envelop a purely fantasy world) or something entirely unique (Final Fantasy X’s Caribbean-influenced island locales). But deep down, the series should always contain a primary focus on its fantasy roots rather than outright replacing them. Zelda games have always featured different backdrops (a world mostly submerged in water, an island powered by the dreams of a sleeping monster, and soon a world with villages up above the clouds), but it’s always stuck to one specific and identifiable “look” in every game.
Even though he is blamed for nearly everything that takes place in the games he does character artwork for (even though 99% he’s merely, in fact, just the character designer) I’m still a big fan of Tetsuya Nomura. His artwork is always easily recognizable and almost always stylish, be it garish hairstyles or the “unique” placements of belts and zippers.
But after so many games where he’s served as character designer, it’s time to step down and give someone else a shot. Again, this isn’t an indication that I’m bored with his work, but I do feel he’s been overused by Square, including non-FF games. Just as Final Fantasy’s reboot should offer a fresh look for its technical mechanics, so should it also feature a change in aesthetics. Find a new artist or artists that can come up with a new and consistent look that will be the new “standard” for the series. Nomura is already deeply invested in some of Square’s biggest series (including Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy VII, both which are destined to keep on churning sequels and spin-offs for years to come. And heck, who’s to say Versus won’t become its own series?), I’m sure he can pass the FF mantle to someone else. He probably would be happy with the newfound freedom, too.
This is a pet peeve that I’ve been having with most RPG games, Final Fantasy included. It’s become common practice for developers to immediately reveal the full playable roster of your party before the game is even close to release. What happened to the good old days where you weren’t told who would end up joining the hero? By not knowing who will fight with you, not to mention who might fight against you (or in many cases, first one and then the other), it makes every encounter with a person of interest a memorable one, because you find yourself wondering where that character’s loyalties will stand. One of the things that originally excited me about Final Fantasy XIII was the unveiling of the newest Cid, who looked like a capable fighter who could fit easily well as a possible party member. Rather than tease you with the idea, Square was quick to dismiss such a possibility, instead revealing the cast in its complete form.
Sometimes it isn’t always obvious who the good guys and bad guys are, so stop giving away the story so early. Of course, it would also help if the story was compelling to begin with…
Another popular topic among the trolls is that Japanese RPGs have “terrible” stories that lack the complexity and imagination found in Western titles (such as Gears of War, Call of Duty, and Halo, amirite?). I naturally disagree, but mostly because I feel what works for one game doesn’t necessarily work for another; Final Fantasy a series that has always had its own style of storytelling, and when the characters are memorable enough or the scenarios compelling enough, you overlook such ridiculous concepts like “a space whale that takes you to the moon” or “an evil wizard made from a tree who then turns into a bigger, scarier tree”. Again, it’s called Final Fantasy for a reason.
But the stories have gotten stale from a conceptual standpoint, and that is mainly due to the recurring themes and clichés that have been present in almost every game, as well as almost every RPG made in Japan.
1. A teenage protagonist with spiky hair and/or an implausible looking weapon
2. He usually finds himself cast away from his hometown. Usually due to fire.
3. He will find himself in the middle of a love triangle between a childhood sweetheart and a mysterious girl he just met.
4. He will find himself at odds with an old friend/rival who usually ends up as the main villain.
5. The main villain usually has long hair.
6. There will be a certain fictitious religion and/or deity that serves as God to the inhabitants of the setting.
7. By the end of the game, the heroes will fight this God.
At least four of those seven plot points will find themselves in an FF game. Final Fantasy XII, which was supposed to break new ground by placing a grizzled, militaristic adult as the main character, actually had a young teen boy and his childhood not-girlfriend shoehorned into the story by Square’s execs. Final Fantasy XIII, which features a unique protagonist (based on personality as well as gender), still bases 90% of its story based on clichés 6 and 7.So it’s time for a change in narrative. There are still some basic things you can leave in, such as inevitably saving the world or finding love in the arms of a party member, but with so many RPGs taking its stories straight from FF’s own textbook? It’s time to give the knock-offs something new to imitate.
This is another case of personal opinion, but I prefer that each character in my party has one specific task that they contribute to the group. Many people like the freedom in choosing their own jobs for a character, but this kind of freedom is arbitrary by design. The truth is that each character is fated to have a certain kind of job based on their stats. Sure, you could make Barret the healer of the group, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be good at it. This is why no one used Khimari in Final Fantasy X, as his stats left him “open” to have whatever role you wanted him to have. Since you already had a capable White Mage like Yuna and a powerful Black Mage like Lulu, why waste the extra time training a character to only be half as good?
There are also the games that do assign specific roles for each character, but usually gives the same role to multiple ones. Say you’ve got a swordsman in your group filling one out of a specific number of slots in the party. Several hours later, you meet another character who is also a swordsman, the difference between him and the one you’ve been using up to now negligible at best. Why waste the extra time bringing swordsman number 2 up to speed when you can keep making swordsman number 1 even stronger?
Either assign one specific job to one character only, or give them the chance to have multiple roles without requiring any extra effort on the player’s part. Give them a reason for wanting to use a certain character besides personal attachment.
As I’ve mentioned before, I consider characterization the most important part of an RPG. If you’re going to invest over 30 hours with a group of fictional characters, each with their own personal issues and battles to fight along the way, it would be important to actually care about them, wouldn’t it?
And yet, it seems in almost every FF game, there is always at least one or two stragglers in the main cast who are put into a corner, lacking in the same focus and development of the rest of his/her group. Or there are two characters who you would like to see interact more, but ultimately share no real feelings for one another. You knew something was seriously wrong with FFXII when Ashe and Penelo, two of the main female characters, would spend the entire adventure not saying a single word to each other. It’s especially painful when this happens to a character you may find yourself wanting to know more about, but are instead disappointed that the game would rather focus on the “less interesting” main hero and his sappy love interest (don’t worry Quistis, you still have your groupies).
Well if you’re going to make an epic-length adventure, then take away a few hours spent on grinding in order to properly develop every character in the cast, so the story doesn’t feel like a rush job. While you’re at it, bring back the dialog choices found in FFVII and FFX, which not only led to alternate responses, but could also increase the affinity of a party member in relation to the protagonist (something FFVII did long before Mass Effect). Take a clue from Bioware and expand on this, maybe even to the point that you can end up deciding who the main hero should be romantically involved with. This could potentially lead to years of online bickering just like the Cloud/Tifa/Aerith debates, but hey, people like choices. This of course applies to platonic relationships with your fellow team members, as handled excellently in the Persona games; even if they end up as mundane interactions that serve no purpose to the overall story, as long as the characters are interesting, than it will be interesting for players to learn more about them, forming new bonds that could serve to further impact the main storyline, should said character suffer an unfortunate fate.
Square is not completely averse to changes, as evidenced by the removal of a traditional world map since Final Fantasy IX. However, with games like Oblivion and Fallout showing what a next-gen open world is capable of, this was one removal that got fans understandably upset.
As welcome as it would be for a reboot to do away with most of FF’s tired traditions, the epic feeling one gets from stepping out into a vast open world littered with hidden areas, creatures, and villages to visit is something that is vital to story-driven videogames, and one that needs to make a comeback to Final Fantasy. For anyone who played through Red Dead Redemption and made it to a certain point where a certain song began to play, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Final Fantasy XIII featured Gran Pulse, which some would argue counts as an open world, but it is in actuality just a really big area map with several restrictive pathways that take forever to get around. It’s not nearly as interesting as a massive stretch of land that extends in every direction, compelling you to wander around and see what this fictional world has to offer. So long as there are imaginative and interesting things worth exploring, and as long as there are several fast-travel procedures in place (including Chocobos and, to take a page from Dragon Quest, the ability to instantly teleport to any discovered location), it’s a tried-but-true mechanic that everyone would welcome with open arms, provided they also do away with one thing….
Nostalgia be damned, random battles have got to go. The process of being randomly spirited away to a separate location to do battle with the same number of foes a million times, listening to the same battle music over and over, is something that was tiring even during the PS1 era of RPGs. We now live in a technological era where there is absolutely no excuse to not implement real-time enemy encounters that we can both see coming a mile away and do battle with right on the spot. Final Fantasy XII featured this mechanic, as one of the few things it did better compared to other games in the series.
Inexplicably, Final Fantasy XIII was unable to repeat this, despite being on a far more powerful engine. Enemies could be seen and often avoided, but when it came to actually fighting them, the screen would still shift to a separate battlefield. This mechanic not only takes away the impact of these fights, effectively making them nothing more than “random battles”, but it’s also disorients players from what’s “really” going on. The opening of FFXIII is a perfect example, where we have speeding jets, exploding buildings, and shootouts among NPCs taking place. Once you run into a monster, though, you’re whooshed away from all that visual splendor and into a self-contained battle. Why not integrate the characters into the actual conflict that we are witnessing with our very eyes? Even Final Fantasy VIII managed to use an effective method of placing players into the center of the conflict, by overlaying Squall and his teammates onto FMV backdrops while the students defended their school from an invading army. It was a cheap green-screen method, but it got the job done.
Elaborating any further would just be a whole spiel about re-working the battle system as a whole, but the point is that fighting in Final Fantasy needs to be done on a more personal level as well as an exciting one.
Hopefully we’ll find out whether “Type:0” will be the ultimate hero to save this series from mediocrity (though for some, it’s far past that point).
Or it could be the long-awaited remake of Final Fantasy VII. It wouldn’t exactly rejuvenate the series, but damn if we don’t want it to come true.