Sega CEO Hajime Satomi says he wants to improve the quality of their games moving forward. That could mean a lot of things. It's nice to hear, but what they do next with their games is the real answer.
The Fall of Final Fantasy Part II: A Case Study of Final Fantasy XIII
In Part I of this series, we discussed how Final Fantasy has been on a gradual decline since 2003-04 and how changes within Square Enix have correlated with that decline. In Part II, we will look at where the series is currently and dissect the flaws that have caused the franchise to come under such heavy scrutiny.
I can think of no better example than the Final Fantasy XIII saga. Five or six years ago, you may have heard me griping about the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, but some excuses can at least be made for that. XIII flew off the rails real fast and, though sales were strong and some fans loved the XIII saga, it is probably the most controversial of all the games in the franchise.
I won’t lie. I thought XIII was okay. It wasn’t great, but some aspects, particularly the combat, worked well, and I felt the ending repaired a lot of the damage. Then XIII-2 and Lightning Returns came along and not only ruined the first game’s ending, but completely tarnished whatever good was left in the XIII brand. A lot of this can be attributed to the brusque shifts in tone and style between each of the games. Where XIII was ridiculously linear, XIII-2 shed all simplicity for a convoluted plot and Lightning Returns was non-linear to the point of being disorganized.
I covered this in Part I, but I’ll repeat it: western influence ruined the XIII saga as it has been ruining the entire franchise. Yes, XIII was too linear, but the developers put a lot of thought and heart into the game even if it didn’t quite pay off. So many people hated it, particularly in the western markets, so Square Enix attempted a 180 with XIII-2. Instead of having you traverse veritable hallways for ninety percent of the game, a time-traveling element was introduced. Whatever the intention, however, the time-traveling did not render the sequel non-linear. There was more freedom and the maps were more open, but in comparison to western RPGs, options were still limited. The game intended for players to progress through the story in a more or less linear fashion, leaving XIII-2 with a mere illusion of non-linearity and choice.
Lightning Returns was better at its attempts at non-linear gameplay and exploration, but it, too, had a fatal flaw: the time clock. During my playthrough, the clock was an element of paranoia, forcing me to make rushed decisions and forgo exploration to complete as many quests as I could as quickly as possible. Of course, the problem later was I rushed so much I had nothing else to do, but by then exploration was futile as I’d done most everything without taking the time to savor anything. The game was imbalanced and disjointed, thanks to its non-linearity.
Though it was not among my favorite titles, Final Fantasy XII did a much better job with open worlds and exploration. It had a linear story like its brethren, but it had an insane number of side quests and optional ventures. It took the MMO formula that had succeeded with Final Fantasy XI and applied it to a single-player experience. The end result may not have been outstanding, but at least Square Enix accomplished what they set out to do with that game. I cannot say the same about the XIII saga, and like the franchise at large since XI, the game’s tone and style changed drastically with each sequel.
This is illustrated extremely well in XIII’s atmosphere. Of the few things that amazed me about XIII, the environment was one of them. I thought Cocoon (and later on Gran Pulse) was crafted so well. Even if the plot and gameplay were bland, Square Enix managed to breathe life into the world and create the sensation that this was a real place inhabited by real people. This isn’t the first time Square Enix has achieved this. Remember Midgar from Final Fantasy VII? Every time I play the opening hours of that game I feel as though I’m there, despite the dated graphics. How about Spira or Ivalice? Both were handled with extreme care (the latter more in Final Fantasy Tactics than XII).
XIII-2 and Lightning Returns? Not so much. The former spanned a few environments over several hundred years, giving you little room to ground yourself in the world because so much changed from era to era. The world of Nova Chrysalia in the latter was motley but undeveloped, and though there was initial appeal, all four areas quickly grew stale, especially when you realized there was no real depth to any of the worlds. In terms of world-building, both sequels felt incredibly rushed. As the film Avatar demonstrates so well, world-building is as important as any other element of a story.
The reason the worlds fell flat? Details matter. A lot. I’m not talking about graphical detail. I’m talking about smaller things like trifling conversations passersby are having or the denizens’ customs and culture. I remember much more about XIII’s world, like the Guardian Corps or Bodhum, than I do about XIII-2 where everyone was so concerned with time and Lightning Returns where the end-of-the-world motif inundated any versatility or depth the world could have had.
Other things, like music, play a huge factor. It’s no secret Square Enix took a hit when Nobuo Uematsu left the company. He is a god among video game composers, and his absence from newer titles is prevalent. XIII-2 actually had a decent soundtrack (it even received praise in many reviews), but the original didn’t, and Lightning Returns largely rehashed pre-existing music from the other two games. I can’t even recall a single original composition from the game—and I finished playing it a week ago.
Likewise, the music in other recent Final Fantasy titles—XII, Dissidia Final Fantasy, Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII—are unmemorable where titles with scores composed by Uematsu had some of the best music gaming has to offer. This isn’t necessarily Square Enix’s fault; they’re playing the hand they’re dealt. Still, it makes a tremendous difference, especially on the atmosphere of the games.
Another choice that changed the style of Lightning Returns (and looks to continue with XV) is the absence of FMVs. I’m not one to say graphics are everything, but since VII the series has incorporated stunning FMVs, and that has become a staple of the franchise. It may not be the most important facet, but its absence in Lightning Returns was noticeable during cut-scenes that would have benefited from some visual flair. I found the game so trite that I yearned for FMVs just so I’d have something to marvel at. XV may not need them as much if the story is good, and it is true the series got a little carried away with them, but they have still become part of the Final Fantasy culture.
Of course, a much larger issue than graphics is combat. Though the battle system in Final Fantasy was stagnant for many titles, it wasn’t such a bad thing. I’ll reiterate I enjoyed the battle system in XIII, but I thought the tweaks in XIII-2 and the overhaul in Lightning Returns were less impressive. One of the primary reasons is that the RPG elements are steadily eroding in favor of fast-paced combat. I don’t mind quickening the pace a bit, but I still prefer a heavier reliance on strategy as opposed to the hack’n’slash and magic-spamming featured in Lightning Returns. It was fun, but not as satisfying.
The biggest issue, however, lies in plot. Since IV, it has been the defining characteristic of the franchise. Since Final Fantasy X, none of the games have had noteworthy plots. This may be attributed to the influence XI has had on the franchise, but whatever the case, the quality of the stories has plummeted. Again I must turn to the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. The original game was commended endlessly for its fantastic story, while every other game in the series was mediocre in that respect. XII and the XIII saga are the same way.
The real shame is that I was so intrigued by XIII’s premise. The fal’Cie/l’Cie concept was brilliant and carried tremendous potential, but like the television series Lost, Square Enix chose to emphasize characterization over plot to the point that it ruined whatever story the game had. The melodrama had me cringing, and in the end the fal’Cie/l’Cie plot was just a backdrop for a far less interesting story.
Then XIII-2 came along and dispensed with its predecessor’s simplicity by complicating the story beyond comprehension. If I had been a huge fan of the first game I might have cared to study the intricacies of the plot, but instead I grew further disinterested. Part of that may have had to do with changing the playable characters. The first cast, with a couple of exceptions, was fairly strong. Serah and Noel didn’t hold a candle, and the entire time I was wishing for a return to Lightning and company.
Lightning Returns sought to correct that, but Lightning’s character was so far removed from her original role it may as well have been a new character. It also became painfully obvious that she cannot stand as a sole protagonist; she is far too stoic. The plot was nothing to write home about, either. The main quests were cut-and-paste, dry refuse, while the side quests were far too trivial for an end-of-the-world setting. Most of all, though, it was completely removed from the first game. I constantly thought back to the first game and its atmosphere and purpose and asked, “How did we get here?” Lightning Returns felt like a bad knockoff of Xenogears‘ story.
The final point I’ll make is about sequels. Since X-2 released to financial success, Square Enix has grown convinced that they have to produce direct sequels or some kind of prequel/side story to every game. Since X-2 we’ve seen a sequel to XII, four sequels/prequels to VII (three of which were games, and I’m not including Last Order: Final Fantasy VII or On the Way to a Smile), a sequel and interlude to IV, two spinoffs of Final Fantasy Tactics, and two sequels to XIII. Before X-2, we had one sequel: a four-part mini-series OVA sequel to Final Fantasy V. XIII has also had several novellas and XIII-2 had two companion novels (prequel and sequel), which should serve as an indication of how convoluted its plot was.
It’s not that producing sequels is bad. More often than not, it’s just superfluous. XII was not nearly good enough to warrant a sequel (especially on the Nintendo DS of all systems), the Compilation was largely sub par, and as far as XIII goes, I never heard a single person express interest in a sequel before Square Enix announced one. The first game ended perfectly, and reaction was so divisive I question why Square Enix decided to poke the behemoth, so to speak. I can only assume the sequels were made as a cheaper way to bring in revenue, thus maximizing profits. X-2 was cheap and quick to produce because character models and locations were recycled from X, and with XIII-2 the studio admitted there was enough artwork left over from XIII to make another game.
But what about the sequels not selling because XIII was divisive? Not an issue with Final Fantasy. Square Enix knows if they slap that name on a game it will sell. My belief is they simply don’t care as much about their fans anymore as they do about making money. Instead of pooling their resources to deliver Final Fantasy XV, a high demand title, or answering the high demand for a VII remake, they took the cheaper, quicker route and gave us sequels we never wanted. (More on this in Part III.)
None of this is meant to be a Final Fantasy XIII bashing, but rather to use the series to illustrate the overall problems the franchise is facing. By looking at these three games, we can see almost all of the problems the franchise has struggled with this century. In Part III, we will examine how Square Enix can redeem the name of Final Fantasy and restore the favor of all their fans. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.