It's been a long journey, but getting there has definitely been worth it.
The last decade or so has been a very difficult and tumultuous period for Final Fantasy. Originally a just a single title, the game was named after its importance – its success or failure would determine the fate of its parent company, Square. Thankfully, the game shipped over a million units and spawned the beginning of a new lineage, one that has name recognition worldwide with both gamers and non-gamers alike. Very few games summon as much fervour as a new Final Fantasy, as well as healthy derision and cynicism, earned over the years as Square(Enix) continues the trend of making each game look, sounds and play different to the last.
How we got here
Most people would agree that Final Fantasy 7 sparked a turning point for the series as well as a legion of new fans. The 3-D debut for the series was an extraordinarily risky development for its time – it cost $US214 million in today’s dollars to develop and market – and to date has only been pipped in marketing cost by Grand Theft Auto 5 and Call of Duty. This marketing budget was unheard of for video games; in collaboration with its publisher, Sony, Square blitzed airwaves, buses and billboards in dozens of countries. I still remember seeing the advertising on SBS in 1997 and getting goose bumps.
Outside of an exceptional, emotional and unconventional story, FFVII built an enormous, detailed and beautiful world full of quirky, fleshed out characters with well-defined backstories and personalities. Extraordinary cut scenes, well ahead of their time in 1997 and only comparable to the work Blizzard were also doing at the time, created a cinematic experience that only continued to draw you into the journey. Critiques of the game in later years failed to realise how ground-breaking much of this was in 1997, in a time where 16-bit RPGs were still actively being released for the SNES and most 3D titles had about as much depth as a paper towel. And let’s also not forget the incredible soundtrack.
It's a meme now, but I still remember the shock and gasps I audibly made when Aerith was killed. Shuddering at the corruption of Sephiroth and the truth behind his and Cloud’s past. The awe of the detailed cut-scene battles that wove in and out of the game I was playing and controlling. Until that Christmas, I hadn’t played or seen anything like FFVII, and it genuinely impacted me in ways I still think about to this day. Many of the themes – loss, environment, courage, retribution, even sexuality – weren’t things I was used to exploring in a video game. It felt like gaming had grown up with me, caught up with 15-year-old James.
Extraordinary cut scenes, well ahead of their time in 1997 and only comparable to the work Blizzard were also doing at the time, created a cinematic experience that only continued to draw you into the journey.
It was difficult for Square to bottle that feeling and keep going – FFVII was such a defining change for JRPGS and gaming in general that any follow up would have to be special. FFVIII, FFIX and FFX all released to both critical and commercial acclaim, although FFIX markedly less so, due to its unique art style and more playful story. As the series began to grow in stature and success, much of Square began to warp and meld as well, merging with its competitor Enix in 2001 and restructuring its staff, losing many Final Fantasy stalwarts in the process.
FFX was probably the last game in the series that fit a defined structure, one that was influenced heavily by Yoshinori Kitase and Hironobu Sakaguchi – full of emotion, humour, character depth, and themes that explored well beyond the standard RPG frame. Final Fantasy 11 was an MMO, and FF12, while well received, had a very confusing battle and job system mixed with largely forgettable characters and a “standard” story. There was little emotion, little humour or brevity to be felt here – although the producers and designers should be praised for continuing to push past the traditional “ATB” battle system, an evolution that continues to divide series fans.
Final Fantasy 13 was the first big hope for many fans, disillusioned with the direction of the flagship titles, which had pivoted away from the path originally forged by FFVII. Rumours of a remake had floated around before being eventually confirmed in 2015, but that did little to settle the hunger. After being teased with lots of flashy looking trailers, FFXIII released to a flat critical response, mainly due to an overly confusing, genuinely boring story, poor characters, terrible voice acting, a confusing battle system and, again, a lack of what made early FF games appealing.
Focus back on the characters
A good indication to what makes a good Final Fantasy is to ask fans to name three characters from a game and what their motivations are. You’d be hard pressed to find many who can name any from 9, 12 or 13. This lack of devotion and care for personalities, which make up an enormous part of the series' appeal, much less than the overarching plotline, is extraordinarily important in a JRPG. We must care about the people before we worry about what ails them. This is what many successful television shows have learned about successful drama, rather than simply relying on world building or plot twists.
I’ll admit I, like many others, was worried when I learned the main cast of FFXV was four leather-clad future-bros. I was concerned that this lack of gender and racial diversity, coupled with what seemed like an overly silly storytelling method, would be almost like the anti-FF13, too casual and open to keep all the threads linked together. After 25 hours of playing, however, I’ve never been happier to be wrong. Square have finally found its mojo in the most unlikely of places.
Previous games have focused on the main character to lead the cast, using the supporting characters to prop up their story. Cloud, Squall and Tidus all carried their games heavily with strong backup from their allies. In FF15, Noctis may be the player character, but his friends, who deeply care for him and one another, are just as important to the story as him. They have their own ambitions and concerns, likes and dislikes. They take turns being the leader when their skills and personalities require it – Gladiolus the protector, Prompto the joker, Ignis the thinker – and they are always providing a leg up to each other, not just Noctis, when required.
Like 7 before it, you care about the supporting cast as well as the lead because there is reason to. You learn about them as much as they learn about themselves. There is heart here – and there is also heart in the world you inhabit. Couples play on the beach, splashing water at each other. Strangers discuss the impacts of the impending war on each other and their families. Everyone has a part to play, aware of who they are helping, or harming, and why. As time went on, I found it harder to tear myself away from these bros - and yes, they are still bros - as they confided in each other about their fears: about losing one another, how they were perceived and what part they played in the story.
This is a constant – whether you're about to camp for the night or in the morning as you get ready to leave. In the car or walking through the desert. The relationships are in real time, and this is probably one of the best evolutions of the series to date – you can see how this chapter of their lives shapes them as you progress through the story. In the beginning of the game, they are playful and light-hearted. As the stakes get higher, they get scared and defensive. But at the core, their friendships and bonds grow, through battle and support, whether admiring the view or discussing parts of their lives they have shared.
So, sure, I would have liked to see more women in this story, which is primarily dominated by male characters, but what saves it is the lack of machismo. Noctis and his friends are respectful, caring and kind men, fiercely loyal to each other and their shared love for their home. These relationships are exactly what I want to get out of these games, a shared comradery against overwhelming adversity. I want to see a just battle of wills from my crew who fought to get their kingdom back and avenge their fallen family. And yeah, a lot of pointless battles and quests to feed my monkey brain for progression.
I mean, come on, it’s still a JRPG.