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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Final Fantasy Is Not Dead.

A link to the article. 

The picture in question

Final Fantasy isn’t dead…
…but it is in trouble.
It’s no secret that Final Fantasy, which was once the go-to series for excellent RPGs, has seen a bit of a decline in recent years. In the most recent piece of scuttlebutt discussing this, an article on proclaimed the death of the series, while showing a screenshot of the heroine Lightning (from the upcoming spinoff title Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII) dressed in a skimpy outfit. This was included with a snippet of an interview where the developers answered questions about Lightning’s redesign, including her increased bust size. The game itself, Lightning Returns, includes an assortment of outfits Lightning can switch between, which allow her to gain new abilities in combat.

Now, I want to be clear that I am in no way positioning this as a takedown of the Wired article- said article presented its own views of the series’ current situation well and I have no problem with that. I do think just a teensy bit hyperbolic to claim that Final Fantasy is outright dead (hyberbole is not uncommon in gaming journalism), especially when cheesecake and fanservice are nothing new to the series. What I do want to talk about is my own feelings towards the Final Fantasy franchise, where it is now, and what I’d like to see from it in the future.

My history with Final Fantasy is a strange one, mostly because I didn’t play the games when they first came out. I first discovered the series in my elementary school’s library, of all places, where the strategy guides for Final Fantasy X and the original Kingdom Hearts were (to this day, both games hold a very special place in my heart). I remember being drawn to the gorgeous cover of Final Fantasy X, flipping through the book, seeing all of the strange and wonderful creatures that inhabited the world of Spira… and then seeing the game in action at a friend’s house (he was stuck fighting Anima, if I remember correctly). Years later, I had a brief experience playing Final Fantasy VII at a science fair. Up until that point, my only real experience with an RPG franchise had been Pokemon, so Final Fantasy VII absolutely blew me away with characters and a story that immediately drew me in and sparked my imagination, even if I only played for about an hour or so (I attacked while its tail was up. Silly me).

The first Final Fantasy games I actually played to completion were the DS versions of Final Fantasy III and IV, two games which sparked my love of traditional RPGs. It was actually only a couple years ago, in 2011, where I really went crazy and played through most of the series- I played and finished (in order) Final Fantasies XIII, XII, X, X-2, VII, VIII, V, VI, IX, and XIII-2 in rapid succession. Around the same time, I was getting into Square’s other franchises, and I played Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, as well as Xenogears. It was a pretty amazing experience, and I think it’s safe to say that I really am a huge Final Fantasy fan, and a fan of Square in general. They have made some pretty amazing games over the years, truly special experiences that invite players to immerse themselves in fantastic worlds, populated by likeable characters that are embarking on epic adventures.      

This brings me to Lightning Returns and the broader series of games in the world of Final Fantasy XIII. Every Final Fantasy has been divisive in some way, but XIII more so than others. I’ll freely admit that I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII, but the more I read about the game’s troubled development and with the foresight of having played the other games in the series, it becomes clear that XIII, in many ways, missed the point of the franchise. For all of the bombastic music, gorgeous visuals, and colorful characters, Final Fantasy XIII never really allows the player to truly explore or become invested in its world, which is especially disappointing when the world in question is so striking. Even Final Fantasy X, with the ‘stranger in a strange land’ plot device, invited the player to learn more about its world and become invested in it, despite the game being more linear than past installments. XIII loses what really made Final Fantasy so special, despite providing the aesthetic many people have come to associate with the brand. The sequel XIII-2, on the other hand, had marginally better gameplay, but also managed to destroy the cohesion of the setting and coherence of the plot, providing a truly baffling continuation of an already troubled game.  With two decent-yet-problematic entries in the series, the idea of a third continuation in Lightning Returns does draw some groans. Add that to Square Enix’s other mistakes, such as bloated development costs for games like Tomb Raider, poor MMOs like FFXIV Online (although if the beta is anything to go by, A Realm Reborn is pretty excellent), and crappy mobile games like Final Fantasy All The Bravest, and one can definitely see where the ire is coming from.

There’s no denying that Square Enix and the Final Fantasy name have lost a degree of significance and respect over the years- but I guess my point, finally, is that they aren’t out just yet. Final Fantasy is still trucking along, and it just needs to find better footing. It’s been reinventing itself constantly, but seems to have forgotten why people loved it to begin with. Fortunately, I think that there is hope for the future.

Have people actually been paying attention to Lightning Returns? Because it looks pretty darn fun. Yeah, it has that kind of obnoxious fanservice angle with Lightning’s costumes, but so did X-2 and that was still a fun game. Final Fantasy XIV may have been rushed out the door and tanked horribly, but A Realm Reborn is a staggering top-to-bottom rebuild of the game. Bravely Default for 3DS is a throwback to classic Final Fantasy that invokes comparisons to Final Fantasy IX, and it looks amazing. I think that Final Fantasy XV has the potential to be excellent as well. And it’s not like every Final Fantasy game released in recent years has been terrible- Final Fantasy XII, Dissidia, The 4 Heroes of Light, and Crisis Core are all really good games. There’s a chance that, finally, Square Enix is getting their act together and trying to make better games- and while we can’t say for sure how the games will turn out just yet, I for one think they still have it in themselves to create something great.

At the end of the day, Final Fantasy is a series with a legacy. It’s had some major bumps in the road, not every experiment has proven to be successful- but I don’t think Lightning showing some cleavage is really a total collapse of dignity any more than, say, Dirge of Cerberus. I don’t think Lightning Returns will be the savior of the franchise, but at the very least I think that it is a harmless spinoff, and that future games like XV and Bravely Default show a great deal of promise. 

Let’s not forget all the good times we have had with this series- and remain optimistic for future adventures. 

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