The announcement of the Retro Video Game System, a cartridge-based console, is the latest case study in the debate of whether gaming should continue evolving beyond its roots.
The Fall of Final Fantasy Part I: The Decline of Square Enix and Its Flagship Franchise
From the light of dawn they emerged, bearing the instruments that would crystallize their tales, in the hour they were most needed. Conquering all trials put before them and righting the wrongs of the realm, their successes were lauded and admired, recounted and venerated. And when all was done, they became legend.
Such is not only the tale of the original Final Fantasy, but the tale of the company behind its genius: Squaresoft (now Square Enix). In a day when Squaresoft was a small-time studio on the brink of bankruptcy, Final Fantasy took the industry by storm and propelled Square Enix into immense profitability. For the remainder of the century they enjoyed increasing popularity and financial success, culminating in what is arguably their magnum opus, Final Fantasy VII.
Fast forward to the present day. Square Enix, once a thriving company and juggernaut of the industry, is stumbling over mistake after mistake, scrambling to recover. Am I saying they are about to go under? No, but what I am saying is that the company is not what it once was, and worse yet, neither is its flagship franchise, Final Fantasy.
The gradual decline of both Square Enix and Final Fantasy seem to walk hand-in-hand, but in order to illustrate the latter, it’s important to elucidate on the former’s continual missteps since the turn of the century. Now, I have spoken with many people who opine Square Enix and Final Fantasy began tumbling downhill in the late 90s or with the release of Final Fantasy X, and still more who say that Square Enix hasn’t fallen at all and Final Fantasy is stronger than ever. I believe, no matter where it began, it was kicked into fifth gear in 2003 and 2004 with the merger with Enix and the departure of Hironobu Sakaguchi, respectively.
I have no particular hatred toward Enix. In fact, I believe Valkyrie Profile to be one of the greatest games for the original PlayStation, and I haven’t played much else from Enix before the merger to form an opinion off of. However, the company definitely changed after Enix was brought on board. That itself may have not been a huge deal, but when Sakaguchi left Square Enix the next year, Final Fantasy broke free of his influence and began drastically changing. Some say the change is a good thing. I believe it wasn’t.
Perhaps one of the most obvious changes, aside from shifting the combat to be more action-oriented (more on that later), is the increasing characterization in the franchise. To be sure, this began long before Enix entered the picture or anyone thought Sakaguchi would ever remove himself from his greatest creation. Really, it was Final Fantasy IV that first introduced major changes to the franchise. While the first three titles were rife with fetch quests, generic playable characters (I and III simply titled its protagonists the “Warriors of Light”), and basic storylines with a deficit of dialogue, IV revolutionized, injecting far more developed characters into a thought-out, complex story. While the basic elements remained, IV evolved far beyond its predecessors and molded the future of the franchise.
This trend continued through Final Fantasy X, where another tremendous evolution occurred: voice acting. Love it or hate it, the voice acting rendered the characters with more personality, coupled with graphical enhancements that allowed for facial animation to convey emotion. More and more Square Enix’s vision of fleshed-out characters was coming to life, and its end result (thus far) is perfectly illustrated in Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels. (We’ll be discussing XIII in detail in our next installment.)
Another huge influence on Final Fantasy has been the western world. I’m not entirely sure whether this stems from Sakaguchi’s departure, the merger, both, or neither, but it’s definitely there. Granted, a lot of this is rooted in Final Fantasy XI, as well, which took the linear, story-based formula the series has become known for and stuck it in an MMO. Obviously, this was Square Enix’s chance to compete on a new front, but it caused another drastic evolution fueled by the “need” to westernize.
The two prevalent examples are open world exploration and non-linearity. MMOs function this way, but that doesn’t mean non-MMO RPGs have to. Alas, western RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age have adopted a non-linear approach, and for whatever reason critics and gamers alike have come to expect Final Fantasy to do the same. One of the reasons may be Final Fantasy XII, which aimed to be a MMORPG that wasn’t online. Curiously, however, XIII did a 180 and became probably the most linear game of the franchise.
Then what happened? There was an outcry that the game was too straightforward and didn’t feature enough exploration, so Square Enix took a different direction with the sequels. The primary issue with this is not that critics and fans were wrong about XIII’s linearity; they were wrong about the nature of Final Fantasy as a whole. Perhaps XIII went overboard, but the franchise has never been about exploration and non-linear gameplay. Sure, earlier titles had open world maps and some optional areas like caverns to explore, but even the original game, with such a limited story, was fairly straightforward. With IV, the driving force became story, and a linear plot calls for a linear game. Any choice the player is offered in Final Fantasy is illusory; even Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, boasting exploration and non-linearity, has one ending (unless you fail to complete the main quests, in which case you are forced to start over from the beginning).
To use an outside example, look at last year’s The Last of Us. I was baffled that people complained about its linearity because the game, by nature, had to be linear. People wanted to see another Dark Souls, where dying had some permanence. But if it did and Joel was killed, how would the story ever progress to its conclusion with just Ellie? Naughty Dog did not seek to create some “make-your-own-ending” game a la Heavy Rain, but a strong, linear story with a definite ending. People seem to have forgotten the merit of linearity and why it is necessary in some games, Final Fantasy chief among them. That pressure is killing the franchise.
What may be killing the franchise even more, however, is Square Enix’s nasty habit of money-grubbing. This is personified impeccably in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. Riding on the enormous success of VII, Square Enix sought to treat fans to additional titles set in that world to flesh out the backstory and illustrate what happened to the characters afterward. While I found mild enjoyment in most of the titles, they were largely half-assed messes with so many continuity errors that it’s ludicrous for Square Enix to claim they’re canon to the original game.
I won’t get into all the problems woven into the Compilation, but I believe one of the core problems was a lack of respect for the source material, which has plagued the franchise as a whole. When you completely change plot elements and expect people to accept it even though it makes no sense, you are disrespecting the source material. Yes, it’s their intellectual property, but there is still fan expectation that should be honored. The Compilation is guilty of this in almost every title.
The Final Fantasy series is also guilty of this. Instead of giving fans what they expect, Square Enix is straying far from what the original idea of Final Fantasy was. Now, that’s not all bad; some modernizing is necessary, and without experimentation the series would surely grow stale, but look at its most successful years. The gameplay never really changed much until XI, yet the titles sold extremely well and reception was always positive. That’s not to say Square Enix shouldn’t institute some changes, but they’ve definitely strayed too far from home.
Another problem the Compilation faced, again, stems from western pressure. Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII aimed to blend RPG elements with a third-person shooter, an extremely western genre and definitely not characteristic of Final Fantasy. Whether you feel it worked or not, it was definitely a more western title than the series is accustomed to. The Compilation also suffered from several feeble attempts at experimentation. Releasing a title for mobile phones (Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII) was a bad move, and a lot of the gameplay choices for both Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII hindered the games more than it helped them.
The combat in Crisis Core, incidentally, leads directly into the next (and final) element I feel has contributed to the current state of Final Fantasy: another highly successful Square Enix title, Kingdom Hearts. It wasn’t until Kingdom Hearts launched to immense acclaim that Square Enix began incorporating action-based combat into Final Fantasy. Crisis Core is one of the earliest examples of this, but certainly not the last. Dissidia Final Fantasy expanded upon this (albeit necessarily, given it was a fighting game), as did XIII. In fact, Lightning Returns stripped away almost all semblance of turn-based combat in favor of heavy, fast-paced action.
Much the same, Square Enix has found itself dipping more and more into western trends, even outside the Final Fantasy series. This past decade it has published titles such as Call of Duty (in Japan only), Tomb Raider, and Thief, all of which are glaringly western compared to the company’s trademark titles. Like Square Enix, Final Fantasy is following a trend that is stripping it of its essence and leaving it unremarkable and, if Square Enix isn’t careful, dead. (A term I frequently hear thrown around is “irrelevant.”)
In Part II, we will take a look at the Final Fantasy XIII saga and how it represents most of the flaws stigmatizing the franchise. For now, feel free to share your thoughts and opinions, whether supportive or critical, in the comments!