This generation of consoles has not been kind to Japanese game developers. The quality of games from “western” game developers has leaped ahead in terms of innovative systems, advanced technology and worldwide appeal; while Japanese quirkiness has proven endearing and fun the past two decades, even the Marios of the industry are ringing in second to the Halos and Call of Duties.
I think Final Fantasy exemplifies the state of Japanese games pretty well: a microcosm of early success, peak popularity, but eventual and perturbing decline. I was reminded of the latter these past few weeks as I slog my way through Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Those of us who gamed in the 90s and 2000s remember the FF name fondly – top-notch production values across the board; an new world with new systems and characters to explore and master; an interesting story (at the time) that will undoubtedly take a turn for the epic by the end of a lengthy campaign. Final Fantasy delivered value and was always a highly anticipated release.
Yet through years of mediocre games and spinoffs and money grabs, the brand has lost most of its appeal. What used to be long but manageable releases has turned into vaporware; FF Versus III has been promised for 7 years running and they’re still showing trailers and even clothing lines off of a game that has no release date. The storylines of the last few games have been a mess: between FF12’s strange pacing issues1, FF13 and 13-2’s incoherent stories, and even Advent Children’s extension of an already concluded tale, other games have simply done better stories with much less hokey dialogue and themes2.
But I’m still inclined to play through the main games, out of a combination of nostalgia, curiosity, tradition, and genuinely enjoying many of the new systems they’ve conjured up. The combat, the magic and skill trees, the items and equipment and summons, and how they all feed into each other are usually well thought-out and surprisingly deep. In fact, whereas the old Final Fantasies had (at least through my nostalgic eyes) better characters and stories, the fights were a chore and the upgrade systems were little more than glorified spreadsheets.
Can Final Fantasy be saved? In some ways, the game, its style of development and what it stands for in gaming history is likely to have run its course. I suspect it’s been harder and harder for Square Enix to justify throwing massive amounts of money to make Final Fantasies that don’t sell that well anymore, whose story and polish are outmatched by other games with much better writing, and whose competitors offer both shorter main quests (for the busy middle-aged gamer) as well as robust multiplayer (for the hyper teenager). And who knows? Maybe lowering expectations will let the developers exercise some creative freedom, and at least make the next FF an curious spectacle.