The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 12
“Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII” released on Feb. 11, simultaneously meeting, exceeding and falling short of what was expected of it. Most people seem to like the world design, a handful of the quirky side-characters and the game’s unique battle system. At the same time many reviewers find fault with the game’s unbalanced difficulty, drawn out fetch quests and nonsensical story. Almost unanimously though, “Lightning Returns” has lived up to the expectation that it wouldn’t be an outstanding game.
As a result many people are once again bemoaning the death of the JRPG, and falling back on oft-cited criticisms revolving around a perceived lack of innovation in the space. Final Fantasy is not a genre though, and its failure to succeed shouldn’t be used as a barometer of quality for similar games.
It’s time to stop calling new series, “the best ‘Final Fantasy’ in years.” Tongue-in-cheek acceptance of a genre stereotype is a good portion of the problem. When the “Final Fantasy” name has dwindled into near-irrelevance, evoking it even in an ironic sense at best says nothing of worth - and at worst suggests the entire genre only exists within the series’ slowly eroding footprint. What “Final Fantasy” can speak to, however, is many of the problems plaguing the bigger players in the JRPG genre.
As detractors like to point out, “Final Fantasy” has an innovation problem - it’s not the one many people think of though. The series actually innovates too much, and in the wrong ways. What a game like “Assassin’s Creed” or “Call of Duty” refines, or at the very least re-flavors, “Final Fantasy” hits with a blowtorch and warps into a Frankensteinian amalgamation of overripe, buckle-covered limbs and feathered hair.
There were shades of what was to come as early as “Final Fantasy IX,” when the series’ already relatively new art style took a seemingly random, sharp turn in an attempt to find balance between old and new aesthetics. Every game since has been radically different in some way.
“Final Fantasy X” may seem like a pillar of JRPG traditionalism now, but it changed a lot when it firmly wrestled the ship away from the new course set by “Final Fantasy IX.” While it revels in a shinier take on the styles of the first two polygonal games in the series, “Final Fantasy X” takes what had been melodramatic, yet enjoyable, stories and morphs them into an incoherent blob that retains only the melodrama.
While there’s definitely an explanation for the story of “Final Fantasy X” that makes some sense, it’s buried enough that missing it is the more likely outcome. Add in a collection of equally-confusing systems and pseudo-side-activities and what’s left is a mess draped onto solid turn-based combat in an interesting world.
“Final Fantasy XII” took things a step further, stripping away everything familiar. It exchanged most of the angst for an occasionally rote, but generally easy to follow, political chess match. The game’s world expanded in response to complaints about its predecessor’s linearity, the combat flared with a western touch to counter criticisms of aging turn-based JRPG systems and the side-quest underpinnings of a modern RPG slid neatly into place.
With the series’ recent missteps, and rather vocal detractors, it’s hard to remember the main entries were good enough to earn perfect or near perfect marks from most publications as recently as 2006. Despite being well received by most, the wholesale changes of “Final Fantasy XII” had a destabilizing effect on the series simply because it’s predecessor chose not to build on most of the new elements it introduced.
“Final Fantasy XIII” followed with a troubled development cycle, and hacked distorted hunks off the previous three games to create a lumbering beast that ambled about for 20-30 hours before finding its footing. It retained very little from its predecessor, and twisted most of what it borrowed from past games into something unrecognizable. Unlike previous entries, however, “Final Fantasy XIII” kept chipping away at a still soft foundation. Barring visual similarities and vague story connections, the trilogy of games bearing the “Final Fantasy XIII” moniker could probably pass for three different, unique series. Each game possesses its own individual problems, the result of changing elements instead of improving them. They’re a hyper-compact amalgamation of what’s wrong with the series and a lot of other JRPGs.
“Final Fantasy” shows a penchant for arbitrary change surprisingly prevalent in modern JRPGs. This habitual fault has slowly crept its way out, creating genre flagships which are unwilling to define themselves or promise consistent quality for any period of time. “Final Fantasy VI” is considered by many to be the best in the series because of how successfully it expanded on previous concepts, and keeping most of the series' then-strong foundation intact allowed it to get away with trying new things. Bravely Default is being lauded as a great new IP, largely as a result of borrowing and expanding upon the solid foundation laid by its most successful contemporaries.
It would be harsh to say the team behind “Final Fantasy XII” got lucky, but in a lot of ways they kind of had to be. “Final Fantasy XII” stood a much better chance of falling apart at the seams than hitting its nail on the head with a hammer thrown from the other side of a dark room. As much as I love the game, a middling release struggling to implement a significantly-different design would have more accurately shown how listless the series has been recently. Most recent, successful entries in long-running JRPG franchises seem like similarly lucky convergences of ideas instead of the carefully crafted masterpieces that made their names.
It’s time for the big dogs to start building off of solid foundations again. Overhauling the fifth game in a series is fine, overhauling every game in a trilogy is unsustainable. Even those games displaying consistent quality, like the Tales series or Persona, still suffer from the effects of arbitrary changes to systems that just needed a few loose screws tightened. There’s an undercurrent of solid, young series waiting to devour titles like Final Fantasy if they prove too decrepit to continue supporting the JRPG genre. For better or worse, the next round might be the last turn Japan’s aging giants have to do something special.