Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Final Fantasy Renaissance?

After a decade spent in development, Final Fantasy XV is due for release finally in just over a month. Another new console Final Fantasy, World of Final Fantasy, will be arriving even sooner at the end of October. A little further off, the long-demanded Final Fantasy VII remake is at last going to be a thing too (maybe?). After some pretty fraught years when the series was clearly relegated to B-tier status, we may be coming upon a Final Fantasy renaissance. Or if Final Fantasy XV underperforms, this may be a last gasp for the series, the developer, and the JRPG genre.

Personally, I already know I won’t be playing Final Fantasy XV. I’ve watched the trailers with the Japanese male model protagonists, and the image they’re pushing with this game just has zero relevance to me.

By no means am I implying that I've outgrown the series. The truth is, I’ve been playing a ton of Final Fantasy lately. It just so happens that all of that gaming has been on mobile platforms, where I would say Final Fantasy truly is experiencing a renaissance.

Final Fantasy Record Keeper

I recently updated my blog post about Final Fantasy Record Keeper to better reflect how awesome the game has become. Read my full review or check out some of my videos for a better sense of how it works, but, in short, imagine one of those JRPG coliseums—one where you can team up all of your favorite Final Fantasy characters to take on classic battles from throughout the series. From the gameplay to the visuals to the music, it’s a veritable best-of edition of Final Fantasy, and, more than anything else bearing the name in the last decade, it has helped to remind me that, once upon a time, I loved this series. No, there isn’t much of a plot to Record Keeper, but, through the battles, longtime fans get to relive some of the best moments of past stories, which is probably better than having to slog through a new, terrible story.

I’ll add that right now is also a great time for newcomers to jump in. A recent update to the game made the gacha lottery mechanic far more generous. Now, any time you spend 50 mythril (or, alternatively, about $30) to enter the 11-item drawing, you are guaranteed to pull at least one 5-star relic. Furthermore, there is currently a beginner-themed banner offering enhanced odds to pull the most useful weapons in the game, and, on top of that, you get to select an extra 5-star armor to go with your 11 other items. This means that, for the price of 50 mythril (which can be earned in about a week or less), you’re guaranteed to receive at least two 5-star items, with a pretty good chance that one of them will be among the best in the game. The game now even starts you off with one 5-star item completely free. When I started playing, it took me about a month to obtain my first 5-star, a Danjuro dagger from FFXII, which carried me a long while after. If you were to start now, you could pretty quickly have an entire party armed with 5-star gear and be able to tear through the early-game content.

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius

Pretty much everything Final Fantasy Record Keeper gets right, Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius gets wrong. My understanding is that Brave Exvius is essentially a Final Fantasy-themed re-skin of developer A-Lim’s hit free-to-play mobile RPG, Brave Frontier, and its origins in that unrelated franchise may explain why it doesn’t feel very much like Final Fantasy.

Like Record Keeper, the big draw of Brave Exvius is its inclusion of a ton of Final Fantasy characters to collect and rotate into your party. The difference is that, in Brave Exvius, you can only obtain these characters via the gacha lottery, and the odds of pulling your favorite are slim. Brave Exvius further dilutes the pool by including a bunch of characters that would not be on anyone’s radar. Maybe some fans will be mildly pleased to finally play as Giott from FFIV or Lani from FFIX (though probably not after you’ve pulled your third useless Giott). But the lower ranks are populated primarily by generic “original” characters created just for this game. Unless you have a ton of real money to burn to bypass the odds, chances are you’ll be spending weeks, if not months, playing with a garbage party of no-name commoners before you finally win any of the famed heroes of Final Fantasy lore. Before long, you’ll wonder why this game even bears the Final Fantasy name, except to tease you.

Even once you acquire some name characters, the actual experience of playing with them is disappointing. In Brave Exvius, the weak characters (which includes most of the name characters) are hopeless and interchangeably so, because what they all have in common is that they can’t use the few key abilities that make the strong characters good. And the strong characters still are not fun to use, because these good abilities are merely better versions of the numerous crap abilities in the game. Basically, you just hope you get a strong character (which may not be a character you otherwise like), and then you use the same ability over and over again. Everything else is a waste of space. The battle system itself is turn-based, not taken from any previous Final Fantasy, but simplistic enough to feel familiar to any JRPG veteran. It’s not inherently flawed, but the game balance so far has not been conducive to tactical depth or tension.

In its favor, one could point out that, unlike Record Keeper, Brave Exvius actually includes most of the elements of a full-fledged standalone RPG. There are dungeons and towns to explore, and there is a story and lots of dialogue. I personally find that these things bog down the mobile experience. I don’t have time to go on fetch quests, and I don’t enjoy wandering around using clumsy touchscreen controls and getting caught in random encounters en route to a dead end in a dungeon. As for the story, it’s laughably poor and nowhere near worthy of the Final Fantasy name. A mix of dull cliches and asinine banter between the two dimwitted male leads, it feels like any random uninspired C-tier JRPG from the 32-bit or even 16-bit era.

The only bright spots to Brave Exvius are the music and the hi-res graphics, which are all brand new. The art style is colorful and cartoony. It doesn't do much for me personally. It doesn’t offer the nostalgic appeal of Record Keeper’s SNES-style sprites, and it also bears no resemblance to the art of Yoshitaka Amano or Tetsuya Nomura. Basically, Edgar and Sabin in this game don’t really look like Edgar and Sabin to me, which further contributes to the perception of Brave Exvius as an “impostor” Final Fantasy.

Mobius Final Fantasy

Unlike Record Keeper and Brave Exvius, Mobius Final Fantasy is developed internally by Square Enix, and immediately it comes off quite a bit more ambitious than the other free-to-play mobile games. The 3-D visuals, evocative of Final Fantasy X, are perhaps of the caliber of last-gen console graphics, though lacking the variety of a full-budget release. There are also fully voiced cutscenes. Perhaps what really sets it apart, though, is that, unlike Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Mobius Final Fantasy actually has a story and, unlike Brave Exvius, that story actually feels like a real Final Fantasy, albeit stripped down.

The plot could be considered a very loose reimagining of the first Final Fantasy. The amnesiac player character in Mobius Final Fantasy is referred to as the “Warrior of Light,” and there is also a Garland, a Princess Sarah, and a Chaos. There are also numerous references to other Final Fantasy titles, but the game doesn’t lean on nostalgia. Mobius Final Fantasy feels like a new addition to the Final Fantasy canon, and that is something I can respect. Mind you, I’m not saying it’s an especially interesting tale, but the telling, in keeping with the rest of writer Kazushige Nojima’s oeuvre, is gloomy and introspective, and there are elements of mystery and intrigue that are at least more compelling than anything in Brave Exvius.

The battle engine is also mostly original, and, as with the story, I respect the ambition, though I don’t love the actual experience. The combat is quasi-card-based. You can equip up to four ability cards to take with you into battle, and these will cover your spells, healing, special techniques, basically anything other than regular attacks. Once in battle, these abilities in turn are powered by elemental orbs that are randomly drawn each time you perform a regular attack. When it works, it can feel quite strategic, and you’ll pat yourself on the back for knowing when to play which card to win a round in the minimum number of moves. At other times, it will seem like the game just refuses to deal you the right orbs, and you’ll curse the randomness of it all.

Currently, the game’s undoing is that the battles take too long and occur too frequently. The pacing, in terms of both the plot and the leveling system, is plodding. Your gameplay progression can be measured in the number of job classes you’ve mastered. To even unlock most jobs, you have to pull from the gacha system. One positive is that there are no “doubles"; the gacha will never deal you a job you already own, so you’re guaranteed to eventually get the job you want. Honestly though, unlocking a new job class just isn’t as exciting as unlocking a new character, so this isn’t all that enticing to begin with. Then, even once you get a new job, in order to level it up, you have to grind through thousands of tedious battles to gather the right materials.

I’m still keeping one eye on Mobius Final Fantasy, understanding that it just came out and might take another month or two to get going, but right now the story is too limited and the gameplay far too repetitive for me to actively invest my time in it.

Evolving Together

Three free-to-play mobile games may not seem like much of a renaissance, especially when only one of them comes recommended. But, like I said, Final Fantasy Record Keeper has helped to remind me that I really do love this series. Some of that is nostalgia, true. But a large part of what makes Record Keeper work has to do with how it departs from the Final Fantasy games of my youth. I have outgrown the series as represented by Final Fantasy XV, but it isn't because it has become overrun with sullen pretty boys. At least, that isn't the only reason. At my age now, I can't see myself ever having the time to invest in another console Final Fantasy. And that's why I'm so pleased to find the game evolving, in its better mobile incarnations, into something more considerate of my circumstances—something I have on hand at all times but can play in short bursts without it taking up all my time. Even just five years ago, the idea of one of my favorite video game series going mobile is something I would have fought. Now, I find that Final Fantasy on mobile is the Final Fantasy comeback I'd been waiting for, and I'm excited to see more.