Recently I was asked to write an article explaining why Final Fantasy XV was going to be so important for the Final Fantasy series. The fact that you’re reading this now is proof that I did, but the thing was, I was already writing a similar article before I got the pitch. Proof of powerful psychic potential present in publishing, or just a really damn fine coincidence? Well, neither; it was because we both noticed a trend in the Final Fantasy series. For such a juggernaut franchise, there’s a considerable amount of trepidation that goes into each new instalment. We’re rightly worried that the name might actually be accurate for a change, because there have been some problems going on in the series to date that have split the fanbase. Well, split an already split fanbase. Well, to be perfectly exact, this game split the split portions even more. It’s Final Fantasy, you need a spreadsheet just to tackle the fan factions.
The major cause of the current uncertain climate, at least in my opinion, is the Final Fantasy XIII series, and the fact that I had to tack on series at the end of what is supposedly already an instalment of a series shows just why that might be. Let’s take a trip in the wayback machine for a brief moment. Before Final Fantasy X, an instalment of the series was just that. A self-contained world in which colourful characters would act out their own variation on ‘collect magical crystals of some variety, slay local god of evil, save world’. Please do not immediately leap to the comments to correct me on instalments where that’s not precisely the plot.
Final Fantasy X-2 was a genuine surprise that really shouldn’t have been a surprise in the end, because of the open-ended nature of Final Fantasy X’s ending; that being, Tidus swimming towards the surface of the water somewhere, despite having recently died to save Spira. X-2 set the standard for sequels in the series, and while I personally really enjoyed it, it was a light-hearted instalment that followed on from a rather poignant original series in which death played a major role. Sure, it got serious later on, but ask people about the game and they’ll point you in the direction of real Emotion, the love child of J-Pop and Charlie’s Angels, which is a slightly unfair description of the Final Fantasy X-2 experience. Or at the very least, not so much wrong as imprecise. It wasn’t followed up on immediately, because Final Fantasy XI was a MMORPG, and Final Fantasy XII was for the most part, a self-contained and rather sprawling epic of a game focusing on dynamics and world building. Both, of course, later received sequels, as well the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, which we all remember, I hope. Otherwise you were probably very confused when I talked about Crisis Core before.
Compilation was the model that ultimately took, however, and following Final Fantasy XII, Square Enix announced that its next project would be a rather large offering of content in the form of the Fabula Nova Crystallis series of games. Three titles were announced to be part of this project: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII Versus and Final Fantasy Agito XIII, all sharing a mythos, if not the exact same world. I hope you’re noticing one of the problems right away from just what I’ve italicized here, because it was about this time that Square Enix began their questionable relationship with the Latin language, and if you can tell me what an Agito is, please don’t, because I don’t actually care. If you’re looking at your games collection, and are noticing that the last two games don’t seem to be there despite being announced almost a decade ago, well, don’t worry. Final Fantasy Agito XIII was rebranded as Final Fantasy Type-0, released on PSP in Japan only, then eventually ported to PS4, and Final Fantasy XIII Versus’ development was so delayed that the plot was eventually reworked, and it’s now being released as Final Fantasy XV. Yes, that’s almost a decade of production.
I’m being unfair in that comparison, because we’ve had a playable demo of Final Fantasy XV and it duly blew our goddamn minds. But as you can see, problems were rife with the Fabula Nova Crystallis series. This is one of the things that we are seeing a lot more of in recent days. Gaming companies promising gamers the sun and moon, but ultimately not even able to deliver a piece of land in Scunthorpe. Square Enix’s ambition outstripped its development capabilities, and Versus XIII almost went the way of the aforementioned Duke Nukem before it was rebranded as XV. But at the very least, one of those games got released on time, didn’t it? Final Fantasy XIII, the flagship of the series, the first game in the Final Fantasy line to debut on the PS3. Featuring a new action combat system, high definition graphics, and a futuristic setting, Final Fantasy XIII had the massive job of convincing people that the new direction was going to work. It was also working in the shadow of two of its older siblings; Final Fantasy VII, which it was being compared to thanks to the design of main protagonist Lightning, and Final Fantasy X, its predecessor in the console debut market. And the result was ultimately divisive. Yes, I know, a divisive Final Fantasy title – will miracles ever cease?
There are so many complaints leveraged at Final Fantasy XIII that it’s difficult to know where to start. The plot is linear, there are no towns, characters are unlikeable, the battle system means the game can technically play itself, the plot is goddamn nonsensical unless you read the in-game codex, the plot is even more goddamn nonsensical if you read the in-game codex, the overabundance of terminology, and that one character’s Australian accent is fake. And that’s only a tiny sample of the complaints that people leveraged at Final Fantasy XIII. I used to defend the game quite vigorously because I once was a die-hard Final Fantasy fan, but ever since Final Fantasy All The Bravest found and buried that inner fanboy in a shallow grave after plugging him for microtransactions, I recently loaded the game back up and played through it again.
The result of that was that I understood better where the complaints were coming from, but it didn’t really change my perception of the game as a decent entry. Yes, the game is linear, but its real crime in that respect is failing to hide its linearity as well as other JRPGs. Compare, for example, Final Fantasy II, which seemingly gave you a world to explore, then caved your face in with a two by four if you dared to stroll off the poorly defined proper path. Or the previously mentioned Final Fantasy X, which was also a linear game. Final Fantasy XIII didn’t even give the illusion of an open world until halfway through the game. The battle system can be set to auto-battle, but this only works for some early portions and some random encounters. More complicated battles require the player’s manual input to switch up the roles for combatants and manual direction. The complaints about characterization tended to focus on how they were portrayed in earlier portions of the game, which is when we were supposed to find them unlikeable, but those are easily the most memorable parts of the game, and as they say, first impressions count. They were also utterly baffling, and even today I have no idea for some of them. Lightning and Hope were too mopey, and at the exact same time Vanille and Snow were too goddamn cheerful? I certainly wasn’t rooting for Hope to do anything cool because he was such a load, but I found him whining because he was a child and everyone wanted him dead kind of a justified reaction to proceedings, all things considered.
The dialogue could be overwrought at times. I don’t think I was supposed to be laughing my head off at the explanation for why Lightning took on the nickname Lightning, but I sure did anyway. The plot is complex, convoluted and constantly contriving cavernous contradictions with regards to how everything is supposed to work, and some characters make decisions that are utterly bananas in retrospect, particularly the game’s main antagonist who could have won if he’d shut his goddamn word hole and not spewed out the master plan the moment he got his monologue on. For the uninitiated, Barthandelus, the main villain, requires the heroes to kill him so that he can enact a master plan. He has, in his possession, the main character’s sister who is also another party member’s fiancée, and the son of another party member, and every single member of the party is compelled by the force of God to kill him or turn into the shambling undead forever. You would think these were adequate tools with which to incentivise the heroes, but you would be wrong because, off the top of my head, Barthandelus is the only villain I can think of that has to occasionally come down off his perch to convince the heroes to continue thwarting him.
And of course, most importantly and glaring of all, Vanille’s voice actress is from Australia, and having visited Australia, I can confirm that Australians actually sound like Australians when they speak Australian words, so there’s that.
XIII’s reception, despite being overall positive, stirred a wide outcry of opinions and some backlash against the new style of Final Fantasy. The influence of the Kingdom Hearts series became recursive, and brought all the complaints leveraged against that series with them. In truth, Final Fantasy had never been more popular, and each decision was being met with more and more scrutiny. The swathe of opinions regarding Leona Lewis being invited to sing the ending theme for the game probably dwarves most parliamentary debates. In short, the fanbase was far more vocal, coinciding with a time of changes to the traditional formula of the games.
Still, I’m sure Square Enix learned their lessons from the reception of Final Fantasy XIII and never again released a controversial entry. The ending might have caused a bit of a stir, but at least within Final Fantasy standards it made sense, and wrapped the game up in a nice little bow, right? There was no reason to keep exploring the series, and even if there was, it certainly wouldn’t have made a divisive state of affairs even more divisive…