How Mediocrity Made Final Fantasy Great Again
Final Fantasy VII Remake released to rave reviews this month. Its been lauded for its battle system, storytelling, and just about every metric one would measure a good game by. With such fanfare over VII R it’s easy to forget Square Enix fell out of favor with gamers. Through a series of sub-par outings, Square’s fans were skeptical if the company could capture the magic from their games in the ’90s.
Square became synonymous with development limbo and nonsensical plots. Game Director for Square Enix, Tetsuya Nomura, became the personification of convoluted dev cycles. Final Fantasy XIV Online shut down and restructured due to its poor design. Things were really bad at Square Enix for a very long time. However, through the lens of VII Remake this may have been by design. Could it be that Square Enix took a bet on nearly 15 years of mediocre games to get this singular project right?
Downward Spiral: Final Fantasy XII
It’s 2006. The golden age of Square games is over. It’s been five years since Square and Enix merged. The company is ready to release Final Fantasy XII, the first single-player game in the series since 2001. XII drops and its a dud. Not because it’s not graphically stunning or unsatisfying to play. No, FFXII has the title of being the first game in the series to get panned for its story. Its lead protagonist, Vaan, was virtually irrelevant to the story. The lead villain was forgettable and its central conflict seemed to change at the drop of a hat. But to XII’s credit its battle system was revolutionary.
Previously, all Final Fantasy games had what’s called “turn-based” combat. Literally, I pick an action and then the enemy does then we watch what happens. It gave combat layers of depth and strategy than people loved. But in XII, with the Playstation 2’s superior processing power, that combat could transition to real-time. Press a button something happens, no waiting. To account for the increased input Square Enix made the gambit system. A series of “if/then” codes that let you automate your party members. If a character dropped below 60% health the AI could automatically heal them, if you had the gambit for it. It created a good balance of user control and AI that made battle fun and interesting. The following game was not nearly as engaging.
Getting Worse: Final Fantasy XIII, XIV, XV
Final Fantasy XIII is often regarded as the worst entry in the series. The openness of previous entries shrunk to 50+ hours of running forward in tight hallways. The story was chock full of lore and references that didn’t get good explanations. And to top it all, the battle system took even more control away from players. As a result, XIII felt robotic and soulless. However, the stagger system in battling made it so enemy weakness could be easily exploited.
Square Enix’s second foray into online games, Final Fantasy XIV, is also polarizing. While its original iteration was literally blown up (in-game), its new version is very successful. Fans seemed to want to trust Square Enix again after XIV 2.0. Game Director, Naoki Yoshida, and lead composer, Masayoshi Soken, lead an intrepid team to reclaim Final Fantasy’s soul. Its story is amazing and battles engaging. So much so that it’s hard not to see its influence on the games that followed it both in tone and development.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XV was another misstep for the brand. Originally planned as “Final Fantasy Versus XIII”, the latest entry of the series sat in development hell for the better part of seven years. It released with a litany of extra content like anime, films and mobile games to flesh out the world. Fans had to watch the extra content for a basic understanding of XV’s world. Even worse, XV had DLC episodes that were needed to know what happened to certain party members. Fans and consumers felt burned by XV’s monetization model. Its real-time combat system was hyper-energetic and gorgeous to look at but ultimately deemed too easy. All of this created a perfect storm of exasperation and anger for Squeenix fans.
VII’s Whole, Greater Than Its Parts
With almost a decade and a half of sub-par outings, gamers everywhere were ready to write the company off. Even with the excitement surrounding VII Remake’s reveal trailer in 2015, skeptics were ready for the game to fail. But at last year’s E3, SquareEnix wowed the live audience with a gameplay presentation. Fans and games journalists clamored over the hands-on demo. The hype train pushed on full steam ahead.
When the game finally got in the hands of players it became evident that VII Remake took from the best parts of its predecessors. The party control system was reminiscent of XII’s without the gambits. Enemies had stagger gauges like in XIII that allowed you to cripple your foes. And all of this was in real-time, an even better version of XV’s battle system. Lead composer on XIII, Masashi Hamauzu, returned to update Nobuo Uematsu’s original VII score. Everything about VIII Remake feels like a massive collective effort from everyone in Square Enix. Like the past few Final Fantasy games were testing out systems the company knew would come in this game.
VII’s Victory Lap
It remains to be seen if VII Remake will have the impact of its original version. The story is really only about a third of the way done, and the ending left just as many questions as it did answers. But one thing about VII Remake is true. Square Enix can recapture the magic if they want. Fans are not only speculating what comes next in VII Remake’s story, but also what remakes could come next. With development on character models, battle systems and art direction are done already, the next entry of the VII saga shouldn’t take another six years to make. But if the last decade is any indicator of Square Enix’s work-rate we shouldn’t expect it any time soon. But here is another opportunity for Squeenix to surprise us again.
For another Checkpoint XP take on Final Fantasy VII Remake take a read of Kali Sloan’s opinion of the game!
Lead Image: Square Enix