Greetings, fellow GIO denizens!  Here’s hoping that all of you are having a great new year thus far.

Speaking of new year, I couldn’t help but notice that next month, the last chapter of the FFXIII sage – Lightning Returns – releases in North American and European markets.  This fact brings me no small amount of joy, if only because it means that we will not be seeing any more games in the FFXIII universe.  Judging by the precarious drop in franchise sales, it looks like I’m not the only one who’s happy.  And really: how did one of the great juggernauts of gaming fall so far, so fast?  Final Fantasy X is widely considered to be one of the PS2's penultimate titles, and despite its oddities, Final Fantasy XII has a devoted following.  This is to say nothing of the legendary quality of the SNES/PSX-era entries, which are held in high esteem as some of the greatest games ever made.

Having played as much of the current titles as I can stomach, my money says that aside from the games themselves being generally mediocre, they just don’t feel like Final Fantasy!  This series has been around for over twenty-five years, and has amassed an absolutely monstrous following over that time.  Those folks are expecting a particular kind of game, and I think that in the end, Square-Enix missed that mark by a pretty huge margin.  And the reports that FFXV’s design includes things like third-person shooter-type sequences should send a chill down the collective spine of the fanbase, since I get the feeling that the last thing it wants is more of a lean away from JRPG basics.

Here’s my two cents as to how Square-Enix might get its groove back:

1) That Awful Story: Let’s get this one out of the way real quick – FFXIII’s story thus far has been a confusing, shallow, and cliched abomination.  It (somehow) manages to be even less interesting and understandable than that of the Kingdom Hearts saga.  Seeing as how the beating heart of any JRPG is its story, this has proven to a crippling flaw.  So for the next outing, I might suggest we go back to the basics – interesting protagonist, big conflict that is easy to understand, gripping villains, etc.  It might not be the most complicated setup, but experience has shown that the more complex stories churned out by Square-Enix tend to implode under their own weight..  I’d take the “simple” narratives of FFVI/VII any day.

2) Less Cait Sith, More Terra: JRPG’s have had a nasty tendency lately to reduce their characters down to one-dimensional archetypes.  And boring ones at that.  You have the plucky heroine, or the grizzled veteran, or the bright-eyed child.  In a game genre where you have to sink dozens of hours into a story involving said characters, this makes absolutely no sense.   FFVI had sixteen characters, all of which had at least some kind of greater importance to the larger story.  They had flaws, feelings, back stories, mannerisms, dreams – in short, they read like characters, and not stereotypes.  So please, give me a character roster that actually feels like a fully-fleshed-out ensemble!  And for God’s sake, let’s bring back interesting villains!  I don’t care whether your favorite is Kefka, Sephiroth, Ultimecia, or Yu Yevon; they’re all good antagonists.  People will remember them in the years to come.  In stark contrast, I couldn’t even tell you the name of any of the main antagonists from the Thirteen games. 

3) Bring Tactics Back to Battles: Final Fantasy in an RPG series.  Not a single-player action-RPG-lite series.  In FFXIII-3, you control one character, in an action scheme that looks like some strange hybrid of Kingdom Hearts and the Tales games.  Again, Square is trying to fix what isn’t broken, and completely screwing it up in the process.  Was there a huge cry from the masses to ditch turn-based combat after FFX?  No.  Was there anyone who thought that allowing you to control only one character in battle during FFXIII was a good idea?  Again, no.  When it comes to the design of an RPG, developers have shown us that menu-based, active-time, turn-driven battles can be just as tense and exciting as their action-game counterparts.  And Square should have enough faith in the concept to ditch the gimmicks and serve us up challenging, tactical combat.

4) Less Pre-Game, More In-Game: Another recurring flaw with a lot of JRPG’s is the fact that lots of them won’t let you play the real game unless you do a lengthy introductory sequence of some kind.  Kingdom Hearts II was an especially egregious offender, as the pre-game slog took upwards of four hours.  That record was obliterated by FFXIII, which held your hand in corridors and tutorials for more than twenty hours before the “real game” in Gran Pulse.  In any other genre, such an approach would be universally derided, and I have no idea why it is still considered acceptable in the JRPG space.  FFVII did this right – the game put you right into the action, and introduced every significant concept within an hour or two of gameplay.  That is just a smarter way to go.

5) MOAR SIDEQUESTS: Final Fantasy games pretty much invented the idea of “side-content” in RPG’s – you know, the cool stuff you get to do outside the story?  Hell, the entire second half of FFVI was one huge series of non-linear content presented in such a fashion.  That sort of thing is great, since taking a break from the story can be a refreshing change of pace.  FFVII had Chocobo breeding, Stage IV limits, endless hidden nooks and crannies......the works.  FFX had Blitzball, the Al-Bhed primers, and a metric ton of hidden super-bosses.  FFXIII had.........I dunno, treasure hunting quests?  Do better, Square-Enix!

OK folks, there it is.  Maybe the developers have different ideas, but I think they ignore common-sense items like this at their peril.  Let me know what you think in the comments!