I will not mention the release of Versus XIII. I will not mention the release of Versus XIII.
Evening, ladies and gentlemen, the Inverseman here with a cursory look into one of the household names of gaming put out by Square-Enix. With many critiques and claims of “it doesn’t even look like Final Fantasy” and so forth, what does it mean when it does “look like FF”? Granted, I have not played every entry in the series exhaustively, but take what you see with a grain of salt and let’s dig into the design philosophy of Final Fantasy.
1. The Four Heroes Era (I, II, III, and sort of IX)
Back when Square-Enix was just Squaresoft, they were on the verge of collapse. Final Fantasy was a last gambit for the NES/Famicom. Western RPGs and western tabletop RPGs were popular, so what if we had a video game that was someone’s original RPG campaign? Dragon Quest under Enix was successful. Hironobu Sakaguchi was onto something, and with his brand of thematic elements and storytelling, Squaresoft was back in the black. The first three FF titles were probably closest to the western RPG ideas they came from. You named and classed four nameless adventurers and proceeded to go on quests, ride airships, defeat evil empires, and save the world. The DM was the game, which took care of combat math, dungeon crafting, and storytelling, leaving you, the player, to focus on fun things like beating bad guys or fleshing out who Fighter Dan was. Very cut and dry with a lot of times to get silly, serious, and many of our modern RPG traditions. Making an RPG in this style would be seen as cliche, but you can’t take it out on the games that did it first.
2. The Spoony Bard Era (IV, V, VI)
Upon hitting the Super Famicom/SNES, games 4-6 showed a certain innovation. “Okay, so the digi-DnD is cool and all, but how can we go beyond being a board/tabletop game but now on SNES?” Have gameplay elements that you can’t do elsewhere. The next three games focused more on the story with the player characters having a voice and making decisions. It’s not a step back but a different manner of conveyance as the cast now had meaningful personal impact on their world and vice-versa, which engages the player even more. The ATB system we’ve come to know was “more real” than waiting until your turn in the queue came up again, another thing you couldn’t do in tabletop RPGs.
For its time it was a novel departure from the norm for “more action”. Adventures could include more action elements like fighting on a runaway mine cart, inputting special commands to attack with certain characters, or copying enemy skills. At its best, this era of Final Fantasy focused on motivating the player by the story and giving the player a clear idea of what to do next by the way the story was told. We moved from simple fantasy settings to more unique tales of intrigue, like fighting on the moon or steampunk empires. The story style could get serious one point, but at the next you could be recruiting a Moogle or a yeti as a team member. Personally, I remember this era fondly for Final Fantasy VI which was the first entry I played, and I personally think was the best.
3. The Belts and Zippers Era (VII, VIII, IX, X, X-2)
As the series got moved over to the Playstation, games 7-10 (and 10-2) had a different idea of design. To keep the essence of an experience, Square focused more on a cinematic storytelling. With FMV cutscenes and an emphasis on visual flair, the series dove headfirst into the 3D era with styles gradually looking more realistic and serious. The overarching stories were a bit more complex, involving battle schools, corporations, and the like instead of the usual evil empires. Design became more complex too, especially in any games Tetsuya Nomura was on the team for.
With the exception of IX, which was more of a throwback game, there weren’t many ways to get away with spoony bards or little girls that attacked bad guys with art. However, even in the midst of angst, there was still time to play a handy game of Blitzball, attack enemies with fanservice, and delightful times to make snarky sarcastic comments like the main character you are. Gameplay stayed much the same, ableit with three party members instead of four. Characters in this era tended to have a bit less distinction from the clear-cut roles they served in previous eras.
Cloud could easily hold his own as a caster under the Materia system, which was where the real meat of the battle system was. Whether it was Materia, Junctions, or a Sphere Grid the idea was to build on the unique character growth systems introduced in previous games. By holding onto the idea of “going big”, Square stayed competitive to give an interactive “movie-like” experience, and the PS2 means the better the hardware the bigger it could be. Certainly in the “EXTREME” days of the late 90s and early 2000s, this era has its fans among many young people today.
3.5 The MMO-era (XI, XII, XIV)
The eleventh and twelfth games compose a miniature phase in the series. Turn-based battles don’t really agree with the photo-realistic appearance the series was getting, so many changes to combat had to be made, which was received with mixed results, especially handing over the other acting members to the AI and the initial complexity of the License Board. The stories focused on political intrigue and in the case of XI was more geared to the ideas of the MMORPG. The key was that the nature of XII challenged many conventions players already were used to, it made going for overpowered builds and completionism difficult and tedious, but character building even more open-ended than before than the very locked-in job classes. Though in the end, credit is due for such a gamble. (Final Fantasy XIV goes here too, but pales to accomplish much of what XI did well, much to the point where it required a complete rework, but I suppose I’ll put it here.)
4. The Modern Paradigm (XIII Fabula Nova Crystallis)
With the ambitious nature of the planned Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, the series has a bit of soul searching to do. While Final Fantasy Type-0 did well, the main centerpiece of the trilogy did not. In spite of continually magnificent visuals and many worldbuilding ideas, resorting to reading datalogs to learn about the game is a step back. The development of the Paradigm system is reminiscent of the earlier eras to make for action-packed fights but in battle, while much more streamlined, feels limited in comparison to the visuals. The storytelling has returned to the “defy your fate take down the evil empire” simplicity but tries to play the cliches seriously (unlike the first two eras) rather than tongue in cheek (unlike the third era) after years of trying to knock them down.
It’s rather underwhelming when one look at Lightning can essentially tell you everything you need to know about her as the stoic soldier-type and that the aesthetic of XIII-2 would be an attempt at X-2 but end in a mess. Rather than reconciling previous eras of design, the developers play a ping-pong between ideas that run contradictory to each other if introduced in a careless way, which shows a lack of a clear direction. Things only got worse when we saw time travel and a mess of arbitrary gameplay styles in XIII-2. This era isn’t all bad, though. Even though it’s no guarantee of quality Versus XIII (Okay, I lied) has a clearer sense of design direction in its modernization and steps towards an action-leaning even more dynamic leaner battle system mostly building on Kingdom Hearts. Type-0 brought together the old-school plot initial setups but with a more modern and arguably more darker take.
The lesson is at the end of the day isn’t necessarily bad ideas but the need for vision, the clearer it is the higher chance of better ideas and hopefully success. As it stands now, the recent tech demo “Agni’s Philosophy” may look like a generic war movie but with dragons at the very end, and while still beautiful may rub many the wrong way. It’s telling that Square Enix is still searching for where to take their flagship series, and that the idea of “what looks like FF” is always in flux. While there are many doomsayers to Lightning’s Return (probably me among them), no one can say if Square has found the direction they were looking for until it’s finally out. Join me next time where I practice my comedy act with a cephalopod.