Friday, April 17, 2009

Does Final Fantasy still matter?

It's a question I've been asking myself lately.

With the Japanese Blu-ray release of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete this week came the first playable demo of Final Fantasy XIII. For most of us outside Japan, that translates to the first real gameplay footage and system details on this title that has been largely shrouded in mystery since its debut at the 2006 E3. But what does that mean? With the full game's North American release still at least a year off, does the English-speaking community truly give a damn about it right now? And will the game have any real impact in the West even when it does come out?

Back in the SNES days, Final Fantasy was a big deal. Although the system saw only two releases in the core series, for a generation of gamers who grew up playing II and III (North American numbering, obviously), few titles are as fondly remembered. Mario and Zelda may have sold better and garnered wider acclaim, but Final Fantasy's plots were light-years ahead of almost anything else players had seen in the medium, and the comparatively dense dramas inspired the most passionate fan base in gaming for a reason. Then, on the PS1, the series became the big deal, with VII, VIII and IX all probably ranking among the console's ten best titles (Tactics as well, though I'm only concentrating on the mother ship series for now).

But that success was followed by the disaster of the Spirits Within movie, which eventually resulted in the departure/dismissal of shamed series originator Hironobu Sakaguchi. The second wave of FF architects--producer Yoshinori Kitase, character designer Tetsuya Nomura, and writer Kazushige Nojima--put together one more great tale in FFX for the PS2, but the real stories of that console generation were the open-world Grand Theft Auto and the console FPS Halo. Already, the franchise was beginning to fall behind as a serious contender as the loss of Sakaguchi at the helm led into a largely empty period for the main series. Sure, there were more releases with "Final Fantasy" in the title than ever before, but they were nearly all spin-offs, side stories, and remakes. XI and XII, meanwhile, were drastic departures that changed things up without making them any fresher or more accessible to a broad audience. Speaking for myself, I know my confidence in the series has been shaken, my memories dulled by this lengthy hiatus from greatness, leading to creeping doubts about whether even the classics were really that good.

More than restoring faith in the Final Fantasy name, however, there's a lot riding on this FFXIII. For Square-Enix, it's an extravagantly expensive project for which the company can likely expect to trade any possible profit for the potential for glory. The JRPG genre needs its leader back to set the pace and steer it out of its present stagnation. And Japanese game development as a whole is depending on it. With Metal Gear Solid 4 and Resident Evil 5 out of the way, it's the next big Japanese third-party title left on the horizon, and the only one remaining that might silence the parade of Japanese developers conceding defeat to the West.

Yet, as I read demo impressions and watch combat footage, I find myself with no expectations whatsoever that it can succeed on any of those counts. Right now, it doesn't look like a revolution or evolution for the series. Frankly, I feel we've just about reached the limit of menu-based combat and dungeon exploration. The best recent JRPG I played was The World Ends With You--ironically, itself a Square-Enix and Tetsuya Nomura project--precisely because it did away with those systems that were never all that enjoyable to begin with and have only grown increasingly less so with repetition. Persona 3, which I'm currently playing through, is another good example of a JRPG that tries to move the experience away from simple combat and dungeons (though, alas, it has those things as well, and I'm finding them to be quite annoying distractions). That's the direction that the genre needs to be going in. FFXIII, meanwhile, looks like a champion of tradition, full of turn-based combat against repeating groups of generic monsters. For the JRPG that supposedly reinvents itself with every installment, the specific mechanics are different, yes, but not noticeably so to the gaming public at large.

Nor can the game expect to fall back on production as the series might have on the PS1. FFXIII is attractive, certainly, but that's to be expected of an A-list title in the HD era, and not even the signature pre-rendered cut scenes offer much of an advantage anymore over the competition. It also doesn't help that the CG character art style of FFVIII has been so co-opted by nearly every other JRPG of the last decade that, for the generation of new gamers that didn't even catch FFX, XIII looks indistinguishable from such mediocre efforts as Infinite Undiscovery and The Last Remnant.

If the game is going to impress, it will have to be, as it was in the good old days, through its story and characters. Square-Enix has been tight-lipped on that front so far, and it would be difficult to convey much about a fifty-hour arc in trailers anyway, especially since it's not a sequel in the true sense of the word. But, even if FFXIII can deliver a plot on a par with the series's best, does that style of storytelling still have a place in this generation of restlessness? I don't believe that the writing in video games has grown especially more sophisticated of late--have the last eight years yielded a greater self-contained epic than FFX?--but I know that the average age of gamers has risen, and I suspect a lot of older fans have outgrown the heavily scripted narratives that the series and genre are known for. For a passive experience, books and television provide more convenient and typically more mature stories that do not require that you engage in monotonous menu-based combat to progress the plot. What's more, melodramatic tales of attractive young heroes saving the world do not appear presently in fashion among Western gamers.

Then again, taking a closer look at the series's recent history, maybe it's not gamers that have outgrown the series, but the series that had abandoned its fans by departing so significantly with XI and XII. It's worth noting that they've brought back Kitase and Nomura for this one, as well as director Motomu Toriyama, who was a key contributor to FFX (and director of X-2, which I never played). An optimist might brush aside the last two installments as aberrations and instead regard XIII as the first major new Final Fantasy in eight years from the team behind the three best-selling installments (VII, VIII and X). Could you imagine Call of Duty fans waiting eight years between CoD4 and Infinity Ward's next release, with only Treyarch's hackwork to fill the gap? Could that series even possibly survive to the end of that eight-year term? (Mind you, I've never actually played Call of Duty, so this Infinity Ward/Treyarch infighting nonsense is all hearsay.) My point is that it may not be fair to prejudge FFXIII based on the present state of the series as its immediate predecessor left it. But, again, even if FFXIII is that return to form, would that form be acceptable in this present age dominated by the Wii on one side and Western-developed console shooters on the other?

As far as saving Japanese game development goes, my impression has always been that Final Fantasy, like Metal Gear, is a series whose popularity appears several times greater on the Internet, thanks to the sheer fervor of its fans, than it is in real life in terms of sales. The game will sell well, I'm sure, but it will never pull Call of Duty numbers in the West, and Activision will have put out four of those (on a million platforms) in less time than it's taking for Square-Enix to produce its one big title.

Whatever my realistic expectations might be, I've come to the conclusion that, yes, Final Fantasy does still matter to me. The fact that I'm taking the time to write this blog post tells me that I still want a Final Fantasy game that can defy my expectations and remind me why I do care about the series.

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