SPOILER WARNING: This article has a significant amount of spoilers covering a range of Final Fantasy titles. You’ve been warned!
While revealing more about their upcoming Luminous engine, Squenix ‘revealed’ the five core concepts of Final Fantasy, each one of them being gloriously and completely wrong. Magic and summoning, which are basically the same thing; gorgeous beauty, which wasn’t really a staple until FFVII; refinement, a buzzword that doesn’t mean anything; and finally – change and challenge, which not only brings the list to six, but also something you’d expect in further iterations of a series.
Looking at these points, it’s not hard to see why Final Fantasy has gotten progressively worse since the PS2 era. If the people at Squenix are literally unable to realise what it actually was that made a FF title so amazing, then how are they ever going to make another decent one?
To help them on their way to making another FF title that isn’t a terrible hunk of uninspired garbage, I’ve gone and redone their list for them.
1A great cast of characters and an even greater lead
Final Fantasy normally guarantees you about 30-60 hours of play, and in-between relentlessly mashing ‘X’ to get them exp points, you’re going to have to watch the characters get to know, interact, and learn off each other. If you can’t stand the cast, then the chance of you actually sticking with them through the long hours is slim. While the leading role of any game should serve as the focal point for the players empathy, without a strong backing the lead role is simply an idea, rather than a person that has to react to emotional stimuli and social tensions. Without strong characterisation and interesting personal stories, you might as well control sprites that simply read ‘experience vessels.’
Great examples: Cecil, Terra, Cloud, Squall, Zidane
Bad examples: FFXII, FFXIII and XIII-2
The reason I don’t name any characters from XII, XIII or XIII-2 is because I have no idea who the main characters are for those games. Vaan wants to be a sky-pirate, which has nothing to do with the rest of the story, Lightning is kind of tilted to being the lead for XIII, but the game is narrated by Vanille (not to mention each character gets their own inordinate amount of time in the spotlight) and who the hell is Noel in XIII-2? Some guy that falls through time and says hi to Lightning before he helps her sister find her seemingly paedophile husband (seriously, look at those two, tell me there’s not an inordinate age difference here).
It’s the characters that incite feelings of investment in players. Cloud lost his memories, and you, along with his friends, helped him recover those memories. Along the way you learn about how Barret came to adopt Marlene, the plight of Yuffie’s clan, how Red XIII’s father died a hero and so on and so forth. The personal stories and struggles of the characters made them as close to real as they could have possibly been.
2A memorable soundtrack
We constantly underestimate the power of music when it comes to properly conveying feeling in narrative. Its recent uses in films have been obtuse and without character, utilised as a crutch for actors and writers who are unable to properly reproduce emotional depth. Final Fantasy, in this way, has more of a grounding in theatre than any other medium. Each act is accompanied by its own piece, each character synonymous with their own theme. These pieces weren’t designed with the intent to simply pull on your heartstrings, they were used to aurally represent the characters. Check out Kefka’s theme:
With the snare being ridden in a garish, militaristic fashion, the melody simultaneously arousing suspicion and delight, it represented everything that Kefka was: a clown with an army.
Great examples: One-Winged Angel, Rose of May, Liberi Fatali, Four Emporers.
Bad Examples: Basically everything that Nobuo Uematsu didn’t work on.
Nobuo Uematsu was the incredibly talented producer behind every FF track that takes you back to when you had the time to sink veritable days into a game. In comparison, listening to the bland, manufactured … I guess they’re ‘rock riffs’… in FFXIII makes me want to claw out my eardrums. The difference between the two is the same as the difference between music and sound. One of them has purpose, and the other one is just there.
3The illusion of freedom
People complained bitterly about the linearity of FFXIII without realising what the actual problem was. Every Final Fantasy is linear: go here, do that, get the airship, maybe do a sidequest, maybe deviate from the path to get a better weapon and so on. FF has always been heavily story-driven, and story-driven doesn’t necessarily mesh well with either choice or exploration. However, Final Fantasy has always been amazing at presenting the illusion of choice, or as I like to call it, ‘The Power of Love.’
See, the Shinra Mansion wasn’t just a big house. Figaro Castle wasn’t a stone box. The Ragnorak wasn’t just a cool spaceship. Each of these places were fully fleshed out, with space to move and rooms to explore. Rooms that may have held absolutely nothing of value or interest whatsoever. They weren’t just Potemkin towns (look it up, people), these were labours of love, works that people envisioned and made. This extended beyond mere localities, as all of them rested on a world map … right up until FFX.
Great examples: Every FF with an overworld map, also FFXII.
Bad Examples: FFXIII and its hellish spawn.
While the lack of an overworld map in FFX was the nail in the coffin for me concerning that game, the areas, at the very least, felt as though they still had that touch of love and care, with room to breathe and reasons to retrace your footsteps. FFXII had immense, sprawling cities that were only moments away from the wilderness. FFXIII, already looking like plastic, had long soulless corridors that were simply the physical representation of how far you needed to go to progress the plot. There was little love or attempt to realise the environments they’d created, instead hoping you get distracted by how pretty they were. FFXIII-2 was a worse offender, as you are shown the truly epic city that Lightning inhabits and get to explore approximately sweet FA of it.
4Small scale conflict, large scale conflict, existential crisis
Right, so from what I can remember in my head:
FF1: Four Heroes of Light fight minor bad guy, minor bad guy leads the way for crystal monsters to destroy the world, minor bad guy turns out to be the major bad guy who is supposed to defeat the heroes so he can go back in time to be the minor bad guy and repeat the cycle forever. They heroes beat him, only to never have existed. Mind = blown.
FFIV: Get kicked out of your own army, have to restart life with the rebels, fight against your own nation, find out nation is being manipulated by an evil guy, turns out evil guy is possessed by an entity that wants to destroy the entire world.
FFVI: Lose your memory, fight for the rebels, fight against empire building nation, fight against the armies general, general attains god like power and wants to destroy reality.
FFVII: Try to blow up a reactor, try to bring down Shinra, try to stop evil guy of immense power, try to stop the world from ending.
FFIX: Kidnap a princess, get soft for comrade turned to stone, fight corrupt ruler, fight arms dealer, fight arms dealer as he tries to destroy the entirety of existence, fight death itself.
FFXII: Wants to be a pirate, something something something, the end.
FFXIII: Something, something something something, Ragnorak! something, something something, the end.
This formula is probably the most important part of FF’s. It’s all well and good having characters that can kill the biggest enemies in a few hits, but power reflected in gear and appearance is shallow and meaningless; if their goals aren’t seemingly beyond their grasp, then what’s the point? If the entirety of FFIX was just to get the Supersoft, how would you have ever justified playing more than twenty or so hours after that moment? It was already a running joke that you could buy a soft about five minutes after that event, but twenty hours later, with your characters performing their best moves and raining down 9999 damage on enemies, you’d wonder why anyone would bloody care?
Without these scenarios playing out, you’re left with no investment, no uncertainty, no challenge, no character development, no heightened stakes. When this formula is weak, as seen in FFX and FFXII, the game is subpar; when it’s non-existent, as in FFXIII, it’s atrocious.
5A brilliant conclusion
I’ve written previously on how endings are the make or break of nearly any game, and FF is no exception to this rule. In fact, looking back on the series, Final Fantasy has ended games in ways that were completely revolutionary for the time. As previously mentioned, the ending of FF1 revealed that the main party are now doomed to have never existed, their trials and triumphs washed away by the righting of space and time. In a time when arcades were still going strong, where an RPG’s only reward was the journey itself, the player had to face the fact that everything they had done was more or less for nothing.
Final Fantasy II saw our heroes unsure of what to do with their lives after the friend they fought so hard for is unable to live life as a civilian again, FFIV sees friendships break under the strain of jealousy, the first Final Fantasies had the balls to have dark endings. However, the endings of FFVII, VIII and IX were also exceptional. VII left you helplessly watching as a meteor was slamming into the earth, skipping the happy butt patting celebration of having the calamity not occur, to then show you an abandoned Midgar claimed by nature. This hit home on the environmental theme running throughout the game, and also let you go from the game as well. Cloud had done his job and had passed on from the world, and you, like him, had no more left to do there.
Squenix has no idea what makes a Final Fantasy game a Final Fantasy game, in the same way that George Lucas had no idea what made Star Wars good. I know that many people would disagree with me on the analysis of the points, but I doubt many people would actually contest the points themselves. When a FF game has excelled qualitatively, these are the aspects that were the most refined.
But now you’ve made it to the end, I’d love to hear what you think! Am I full of garbage or Squenix’s best hope? Let us know in the comments below!