A Long Weekend with Final Fantasy Brave Exvius

When I was in college I spent more time than was necessarily healthy playing Final Fantasy XI, the first MMO style Final Fantasy game.  I’d done a few years playing EverQuest in high school, so I wasn’t completely new to the MMORPG thing, but it’s safe to say that Final Fantasy XI was the MMO that I was most successful at.  I never got past level 52 on any Job (the apex of my achievements was that I finished the story line for the original, non-expanded version of the game with the help of my online friends).  I also, somehow, persuaded Rachael to join me in playing this game, and we had a lot of fun together, though as poor college students we realized that it was a money and time sink that we really couldn’t afford if we wanted to enjoy other parts of being in college.

Occasionally I miss Final Fantasy XI, and I get pangs to jump into the more recent MMO Final Fantasy XIV, but knowing that there’s a monthly subscription and that it would inevitably suck up more and more of my free time as I try to justify the expense, I stay away.  Besides, I’m not really interested in social gaming, which I know is wildly contrary to the trends of the day.  If you could give me a game that had the sort of depth of world that MMOs offer but designed in a way that I could enjoy it on my own and without having to sink money into the experience, I’d probably be all over it.

In the year since I got my first smartphone, I’ve learned one thing about my casual gaming habits: I hate microtransactions.  I find them absolutely detestable, and because of my distaste, I tend to steer clear of free-to-play games for the sole reason that I know the free-to-play model is built on designing in game barriers that create temptations to spend real money to progress more quickly.  This model, combined with the generally competitive nature of social gaming, just doesn’t strike me as very much fun.  In some ways its reminiscent of the old gold-seller model in MMOs, but legitimized by developers.

Some background: I’m about a decade out of date on my knowledge of how MMOs operate, but when I was playing them, a persistent problem that the player base noted was the existence of gold-sellers.  These were accounts that were played by people, usually from China, that spent all their time farming in game currency as efficiently as possible to sell to players for real world money.  Most players hated this practice, because in those early days it was cheating; the EULA for MMOs typically stated that you weren’t supposed to exchange in game resources for real world currency.  Beyond that, there was also this prevalent culture that suggested people who participated in gold-buying were somehow less worthy players.  The fact that they invested more money than just their subscriptions into the game was perceived as unfair.

Flash forward a decade and now many games employ a microtransaction model of money making where you spend small amounts of money on digital items that are either exclusive or hard to come by through regular gameplay.  Gold-selling has been co-opted by developers, because it’s all good as long as the money flows to them in the end.

I still dislike microtransactions, and I think a lot of that has to do with the mindset that I was immersed in when I was playing Final Fantasy XI.

Enter Final Fantasy Brave Exvius.

Title card for Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. (Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki)

This is a free-to-play game available on both Apple and Android devices, which is built on Final Fantasy nostalgia.  It has all the microtransactions that I find so reprehensible, and like other phone and tablet games I’ve played, it has a lot of restrictions built in to keep non-paying players from advancing very quickly.  Really, I shouldn’t like this game very much.

But I’ve been playing it on and off for about four days now, and I’m trying to figure out why I find it so compelling.

There’s a story built into the game that you advance by proceeding through a series of quests which usually constitute a short sequence of random battles culminating with a boss fight.  It’s quirky and fun, and certainly no more absurd than the stories from older Final Fantasy games (my contemporaneous play through of Final Fantasy V offers a good point of comparison for this), but it’s not a terribly compelling bit of fiction.  Mostly you advance the story to open up access to new areas with stronger enemies to fight and different resources to collect (this game is very resource intensive).  Play’s limited by your current energy level, which you spend to do quests, and which recharges at an interval of one point per five minutes of real time up to whatever your current maximum is.  It’s possible to stock up energy above your maximum by completing in game objectives and (I’m assuming) buying more from the store, but you don’t recharge energy for free while you’re above capacity.

What’s really compelling about this game is the characters.  Like I said, this is a concerted effort to cash in on fans’ nostalgia for previous Final Fantasy titles.  Through a plot contrivance, the main character is able to summon “visions” of warriors past, which is a fancy way to say that you can spend resources to collect random characters from previous Final Fantasy games.  The sprite era games are well represented (I’ve seen a pretty full complement of heroes from Final Fantasy II, IV, V, and VI) with some characters from the polygon era thrown in (from Final Fantasy IX, XI, and XII).  I haven’t seen characters from the games that Square Enix is inordinately proud of, like Final Fantasy VII and XIII, yet, but I’m guessing those characters, if they are present, are of especially high rarity.  It’s this collection aspect that’s most fun; you play the game in order to gather resources for a chance to get a character you haven’t seen before.  That they’re all rendered in especially lovely sprites doesn’t hurt either.

So far, I haven’t run into any barriers that are hard enough so as to be frustrating.  None of the high value resources needed for getting new units and powering them up are unreasonably difficult to collect, and the cool down timer of a player’s energy is a good natural incentive to step away from the game and do other things with your time.  I don’t know how long my interest will last; it may peter out once the story campaign is finished and the odds of collecting new characters becomes smaller and smaller.  Until then, it’s not the worst game I’ve ever installed on my phone.

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Is Final Fantasy Anti-Religion?

To start, yes, this is kind of a silly topic.  Yes, it’s been revisited many, many times before.  I remember reading editorials online about how Final Fantasy Tactics was a slam on Christianity way back in middle school (yes, we did have the internet in 1998).  And yes, I think that the general tone of the video that I’m responding to is meant in good fun, and shouldn’t be taken extremely seriously.

Let’s get things started by giving you folks a link to the video that I’m answering.  It’s about eleven minutes long, so watch it first.

Okay, we good?  Let’s go then.

File:YunaSeymour-Marriage.JPG

“You know, technically this marriage is against our religion, what with you being dead and all.” “Shut up, Yuna.” (Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki)

First, let’s do a closer examination of Final Fantasy X, since that’s the game that gets most of MatPat’s attention in this video.  His summary of events in the game is pretty accurate (Yu Yevon, a powerful and respected summoner from the historic Zanarkand, asks the city’s citizens to sacrifice themselves to become the medium through which he can sustain Zanarkand’s memory and create an Aeon powerful enough to end the war and keep anyone from ever becoming technologically advanced enough to start another conflict on the same scale; this plan goes south as Yu Yevon loses himself in the process and becomes consumed with the basic idea of preserving Zanarkand’s memory and maintaining an Aeon that will prevent technological advancement; flash forward a thousand years and the game’s protagonists discover all this and decide to put an end to the cycle, drawing the ire of the world religion that’s sprung up around Yu Yevon’s desire to stagnate technological development).  Besides the background story, which doesn’t really come majorly into play until near the game’s end, there is an ongoing conflict between the heroes and the church of Yevon where the upper echelons of the church hierarchy are revealed to be extremely corrupt.

I don’t have a problem with stories that suggest religious organizations can be corrupt; that’s true enough in real life that I think it’d be absurd to ignore it in fiction.  However, I do think it’s a stretch to suggest that the core plot of Final Fantasy X supports MatPat’s argument about the series being anti-religion.  On close examination, the plot of this game follows a version of Gnostic cosmology (which modern Christians would dismiss as heretical, even though we’re pretty bad at separating concepts of gnosis from our own religious practice) that’s built around the usurpation of power from the true god by a false one.  To keep it brief, Yu Yevon represents the demiurge, a being in Gnostic thought that created the physical world as a lesser version of the spiritual one (either out of ignorance or spite, depending on the interpretation), Sin is representative of the inherently flawed nature of the physical world and the consequent suffering that ensues, and the journey of Yuna and Tidus to destroy Yu Yevon represents the acquisition of special knowledge (gnosis) necessary for salvation and a return to the way of the true god.

This isn’t a story that attacks religion; it just presents one that’s not such a major part of the popular consciousness anymore.

The second game that MatPat discusses is Final Fantasy Tactics (which is, objectively, the best game; I am not being hyperbolic).  This one’s a lot harder to argue against, because the basic plot revolves around a corrupt church that has all the trappings of Roman Catholicism, and it turns out that the figurehead of the religion, Saint Ajora, really was possessed by the demon Ultima after looking for the power to carry out a revolution (this story eventually gets eclipsed by a mythological narrative of salvation and divinity on Ajora’s part, similar to how proponents of texts like the Gospel of Thomas suggest that Jesus’ divine nature was a later imposition on the story of a revolutionary teacher).

It’s true this game isn’t kind to Christianity, but it should be pointed out that in this case the target is again simply organized religion.  The Glabados Church is corrupt, and its figurehead is a false god, but that’s not an indictment of divinity in general (within the narrative, we only receive confirmation that Ajora was possessed by Ultima; other details about how his story grew into the Glabados Church are obscured).

Following that, MatPat spends a short amount of time discussing Final Fantasy VI.  This game’s first half is lifted more or less whole cloth from the plot of Star Wars, but its second half deals with the heroes gathering together to destroy Kefka, who’s usurped the power of magic from the Warring Triad, a trio of deities who stirred up a pretty catastrophic war in the past, but who also aren’t necessarily the only divinities in this world.  It’s true that Kefka does steal all the power of magic from the Triad and in fact become the God of Magic, but he’s an ascended deity with only a single aspect; killing him is about restoring the world to order.  The Christ imagery that MatPat talks about is definitely present, but that should be viewed as a revelation of Kefka’s own twisted self-image, not evidence for the game’s ultimate disdain for religion.  Heck, the defeat of Kefka is treated as something bittersweet, where magic (the game’s analogue for faith) disappears and the world, though capable of moving on, is diminished by the loss.

As for the final game that MatPat discusses, Final Fantasy Legend, well… yeah.  The final boss is supposed to be God, and you do kill him for being a jerk who causes human suffering for his own amusement.  No argument with that one (except that technically that game’s part of the SaGa series; it only has the Final Fantasy title because Squaresoft thought the game would sell better in North America with the name recognition).

So is Final Fantasy, as a series, against religion?  I guess it depends on what your definition of anti-religion is.  On the one hand, yes, there are a couple games in the series that have plots revolving around rebellion against corrupt organized religions (Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy X are the most salient examples although Final Fantasy XIII has some similar overtones), and yes, there are a lot of games that involve combating an entity that represents God or someone aspiring to become God (Final Fantasy IV, V, VI, VII, IX, X, XII and probably more if you look at them the right way).  However, I don’t think the series is opposed to religion in general.  Fighting against cosmic (and pretty much always unjust) forces makes for a good conflict in an RPG.  The gods that get struck down by Final Fantasy‘s heroes are not being attacked because of their divinity; they’re being attacked because they happen to be evil (or in the case of Legend, just a jerk).  I don’t see that as being anti-religion; I see it as being anti-evil (deities who don’t jerk the heroes around typically get treated with a lot of respect; see for example Lightning’s devotion to the goddess Etro in Final Fantasy XIII-2).

Being anti-evil is a good thing to promote in your narrative.  It follows logically that if you set out to eliminate evil, and you discover in the course of your quest that there’s a divinity which is evil, then you should eliminate it.  None of the gods that get put out of their misery in these games are gods that a rational human being should want to follow in the first place.  As a Christian, I look at these stories and I think, “Well, I could see reason to get upset with the message here, if I thought my God resembled these gods, but I don’t think that.”  My God isn’t a psychopath who inflicts suffering for the sake of his own satisfaction; if he were then he wouldn’t be my God.

Finishing Final Fantasy XIII-2: It Was an Ending. That’s Enough.

About a month ago I wrote up a post with my initial thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII-2 after the first few hours of gameplay.  I just finished it to my satisfaction, so now I’m back to offer some thoughts after I’ve acquired a fuller picture of what the game experience is like.

I suppose I should begin with the plot, because this is an RPG we’re talking about, and if the plot’s no good, then that’s a big blow against the quality of the game.

As I said before, our protagonists are Serah Farron and Noel Kreiss, two people from opposite ends of the timeline within the game; Serah lives in the aftermath of the fall of Cocoon that concluded Final Fantasy XIII, and Noel is from seven hundred years later when humanity’s gone extinct.  Their quest involves seeking out Serah’s sister, Lightning (the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII), who was erased from the timeline suddenly following Cocoon’s fall.  Lightning, it turns out, was abducted by Chaos (an amorphous force of entropy that lurks underneath the ordered universe that’s held in check by the Goddess of Death Etro; it’s all very Miltonian) and shunted to a place called Valhalla where time is meaningless and death doesn’t happen.  Lightning gets conscripted by Etro into becoming her champion and fighting against Caius Ballad, an immortal man who’s intent on slaying Etro and unleashing Chaos so that the timeline will be eradicated.  Caius’s motivations for his actions revolve around his desire to free the eternally reincarnating seeress Yeul (a young girl who’s destined to die every time she’s forced by Etro to see a prophecy regarding changes to the timeline).  As Serah and Noel go zipping along the timeline making changes to try to restore Lightning, they constantly butt heads with Caius, who’s justifiably angry as every change they make ends up killing another reincarnation of Yeul.

So basically, we have a story wrapped around some very personal motivations that have immense consequences for a whole lot of people (like, everyone who’s ever existed within the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe).  Actually, after reading up on the background mythology of this particular world, the point of the story starts to make a lot more sense.

Anyhow, this is a time travel story, and so we have to talk about all the causality that’s explored here.  The short answer is: what causality?  Seriously, from a logical standpoint, a lot of what’s used to explain why Serah and Noel’s actions cause such massive changes in the timeline are total nonsense.  I’ve tried to figure out a logical way to explain the story’s central conceit that changes caused at one point in the timeline create changes not only from that point forward, but also from that point backward (at least once in the course of the game, something that our heroes do creates an alternate past relative to the point where they make the change).  What’s funny is I could totally go along with that if there were more explanation along the lines of time as a linear concept being largely constructed by beings who exist within time and have to experience it linearly (for Lightning and Caius, who exist primarily outside of time in Valhalla, it makes perfect sense that their personal timelines are all wibbly-wobbly with them being aware of things that will happen in the future because everything’s kind of happening simultaneously from their perspective; that would explain why they’re the main ones saying that changing the present changes the past, but for Serah, Noel, and the player, that’s a load of nonsense that’s just very ill-explained within the game–I shouldn’t have to do this kind of mental gymnastics to understand the phlebotinum of a game targeted at Japanese teenagers).

Of course, I’m complaining about the parts of the game that are nonsense, even though I know full well that Final Fantasy is a piece of pop entertainment, and while the writers may have certain ideas they’re exploring, the meaning of any given story is largely surface, and therefore is best appreciated without too much deep thought (it’s only my own English major background that drives me to put this much thought into brain bubblegum).  So let’s back up and evaluate based on the effectiveness of the emotional impact of the story.

Serah wants to find her sister.  I generally like the characters from Final Fantasy XIII, so I’m emotionally invested in seeing that come to fruition (Lightning was, after all, conceived as a female version of Cloud, and because I liked Cloud, I like Lightning too, although she’s much less of a poser and a little bit more broody than Cloud’s original conception).  Noel’s an unknown quantity at the start of the game, but as I’ve played through and seen his history, I feel bad for the position he finds himself in, and I want him to succeed in finding his own personal redemption (living to be the last human creates some serious baggage).  Caius is a fairly complex villain whose end-of-the-world motivation is grounded in his very positive inclination towards protecting Yeul.  I genuinely feel bad for him spending thousands of years watching his ward (and friend) repeatedly die and be reborn to die again.  I can’t comment on his choice of hairstyle or his Mick Jagger scarf, but absurd character designs are a standard part of the series, so whatever.  Yeul, unfortunately, comes off as a football with pretty much no agency whatsoever.  She’s a tragic cursed girl who (literally) exists only to die and give exposition on what’s happening (also to give the two central male characters their motivations).  It’s not that I’m surprised at this poor characterization, but where I think the other two primary female characters of this story, Lightning and Serah, seem pretty well fleshed out with their own agency (as much as anyone can have in a plot that revolves around the immortal villain manipulating everything to happen the way he wants it), it’s a shame that Yeul doesn’t get that same treatment.

Briefly, in terms of the ending, I like that the game ends with Caius winning (I had heard from critics that the game was good, but it had a cliffhanger ending that seemed to come out of nowhere).  Like the heroes, I don’t fully understand what Caius was doing, but the reveal that he manipulated everything to destroy time works for me.  I mean, it’s not like I saw it coming, so I can’t fault Serah and Noel as idiots who should have known they were doing exactly what Caius wanted.  I know that’s cold comfort since the ending does have the sense that after everything turning out okay, two extra minutes where it all falls apart were tacked on to set up for the sequel.  Of course, an ending where time’s been destroyed doesn’t really carry the same sense of dread because what it means is that consequences have essentially stopped, and now it’s just a matter of waiting until our heroes find a way to set things right (coincidentally, I’m looking forward to the North American release of Lightning Returns, because I’m hearing good things about its Japanese release and Final Fantasy XIII‘s series seems to be getting better with each iteration).

Moving away from story and getting into my thoughts on gameplay, I feel like this game did a lot to improve on the mechanics of Final Fantasy XIII, and it was easier.  Some people might be put off by a sequel being easier than it’s predecessor, but for me, as someone who values not having to sink a lot of time into repetitive tasks in order to fully enjoy a game, I thought that was a plus.  I never finished all the side quests in FFXIII, mostly because I just didn’t want to invest the hours grinding my characters so they were strong enough to make the fights not absurd, and I suspected that something similar might happen with XIII-2, but that never happened.  I actually over leveled my characters by accident about halfway through the main story, and the difficulty never caught up with me after that (this may be a weakness in the game’s design because the side quest areas can be visited at pretty much any time in any order, so the difficulty of the enemies seems rather flat across sections that are associated with one of the game’s six chapters).  Despite the reduced difficulty, the boss fights were still varied enough that I enjoyed their challenge without being overwhelmed.

One major complaint I have is related to the design of a couple of the side quests.  There’s a “complete the bestiary” side quest that involves killing at least one of every monster in the game, which on its face is nothing unusual for an RPG (it’s a rather standard gameplay extender), but it was infuriating to have a monster that only spawns in one spot at the end of a rather irritating dungeon with only one chance per run through to get it to appear.  If I hadn’t had the idea to save just before going to the spot where it appears and just reloading if I didn’t get it, I probably would have given up on finishing that side quest, and inadvertently being locked out of some of the ending content (there’s a secret ending that can only be viewed after completing every side quest in the game).  Besides that irritation, there was also a side quest that required winning a certain amount of money from the game’s casino area.  I absolutely hate luck-based gameplay, and being required to spend time playing a slot game that was essentially just me holding down a button for a couple hours with a sufficiently large pool of money to put into the machine was the worst.  I finally just wrapped a rubber band around my controller and did something else while I waited for the quest to finish.

All that’s to say that I hate design decisions that are designed to induce obsessive behavior in a player without offering them anything in the way of gameplay rewards.  It is not fun to do repetitive tasks with a small random chance of success.  Game developers, stop doing that crap.

Otherwise, the gameplay was fun.  I would play something like this again.

Final Fantasy XIII-2: It’s Not Final Fantasy XIII

I’ve jumped headlong into playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 (to anyone who’s not familiar with the larger marketing scheme behind Final Fantasy, each new entry with a Roman numeral is set in a world that’s independent of the other main games in the series; very rarely, a numbered entry will get a direct sequel, which Square Enix likes to mark very cheekily with a -2), and after about seven hours with it, I’m enjoying the game.  In a lot of ways, it’s a superior experience to Final Fantasy XIII.

FinalFantasy XIII-2 Logo

Final Fantasy XIII-2. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

I should back up for a moment and explain the issues that I and a lot of other people had with FFXIII.  Now, it wasn’t a bad game by any stretch, but there were elements to it that could grate mightily.  For me, the most significant problem with the game was that you found yourself about halfway through the story before all of the game’s battle mechanics had been fully unlocked.  What I mean is that while there were constantly new aspects of the battle system being introduced, I often felt like the game was holding me back from enjoying everything I could about its best feature.  Perhaps because the battle system in FFXIII was its best feature, the developers felt that it needed to be drawn out so that players didn’t get bored with it too soon.

Besides the tight grip the game keeps on your ability to customize your party for battles throughout most of the game (I’m cool with being forced to use certain characters due to story restrictions, but sometimes it just felt absurd), there was also the issue that virtually everyone complains about: Final Fantasy XIII is perhaps the most unabashedly linear RPG ever released by Square Enix.  That’s not to say that previous entries in the series haven’t been linear, but FFXIII was very upfront about the fact that in any given scenario, you had an objective, and the only thing you could do was run towards it.  It’s not until the last quarter of the game that the player’s allowed any sort of open world exploration, and what we get is a beautiful, but empty, landscape where there’s literally nothing to do except fight monsters.  The game’s version of sidequests revolve exclusively around hunting down and killing monsters (Final Fantasy XII had a similar mechanic, but those were not the only sidequests available in that game).  It was a fun distraction for a while, but I’m being honest when I say that I just got bored with running around and killing stuff.  After I finished the story, I played around with monster hunts for a little bit, but then gave up and moved on to other games.

Besides those rather glaring flaws in the game’s design (which, if I’m fair, aren’t so much flaws as just design choices that don’t appeal to me as a gamer), Final Fantasy XIII is a very solid entry in the series, and it does what I think every Final Fantasy strives to do: differentiate itself from its predecessors.

Having said all of that, I can finally explain what I’m enjoying about Final Fantasy XIII-2.

The combat system is virtually untouched from XIII as far as I can remember, though there have been some modifications to how the player’s party is constructed.  Where in the first game you had a stable of six characters who had various strengths in the six battle roles (called paradigms in game) that you could pick from to create a party of three, in this game you only get two permanent party members, Serah (the little sister of Lightning, the first game’s heroine) and Noel (some dude who’s from the future).  I’m still early in the game, so I haven’t progressed too far with the party customization, but I get the impression that both characters are rather well balanced across all six paradigms (though they each have unique growth trees).  The third slot in your party is devoted to a roster of monsters you can capture and train (Gotta catch’em all!).  Each trainable monster can only develop in one particular paradigm, but it’s possible to switch between up to three monsters in the middle of battle to have more flexibility in your party layout.  I’ve been having a lot of fun trying to fine-tune my monster stable, so I’ve probably not progressed as far along in the story as I would have normally by now.

The story itself seems relatively interesting, since it revolves around time travel and alternate timelines (I’m actually quite fond of this premise, because it harkens back to Chrono Trigger, a Super Nintendo RPG that Square released back in 1995 which was amazing).  The setup is that Serah is living in the aftermath of the ending of Final Fantasy XIII, and her sister mysteriously disappeared several years earlier, although Serah remembers things differently with she and Lightning having a happy reunion (I think this setup is fantastic because I remember the ending of FFXIII the way that Serah does, and Lightning’s absence is really jarring).  Noel, a guy from seven hundred years in the future, randomly appears and explains that he’s been sent to take Serah to find Lightning, who’s doing some crazy awesome stuff in a place called Valhalla, and the two embark on a journey through a bunch of time gates to various points in the planet’s history in search of the one gate that will take them back to Valhalla to see Lightning.

I am excited by the prospect of this story.

From an exploration standpoint, this concept allows the game to still have sections broken up into deliberate chunks with distinct areas, but the ones that I’ve seen so far (all two of them) seem to be designed to allow for much more in-depth exploration of an area rather than running down a single path.  Huzzah!

It’s definitely way too early to say anything definitive about how I’ll feel about this game when it’s over, but I’m hoping that it will be an experience similar to Final Fantasy XIII but without all the parts that I didn’t care for.  So far, that seems to be the case.

Western Final Fantasy

Anyone who’s a regular reader of my blog knows that I’m a little bit of a Final Fantasy fanboy (in regards to the pre-PS3 era; while I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII, it just didn’t have the same magic for me that the earlier games did; I attribute this to the fact that I’m getting older and no longer find insane distinctly Japanese takes on fantasy tropes to be so appealing).  I mean, I did do a 30 part retrospective playthrough of Final Fantasy VII for the past few months just because I thought it would be fun (it was).

So, about a month ago, just before NaNoWriMo got underway and I was still in that happy place where I thought I’d be able to maintain a daily update schedule on my blog while simultaneously hammering out fifty thousand words on a new novel, I read this article about the fact that Square Enix (the developer who owns the Final Fantasy franchise) has access to a number of major western developers since they bought Eidos a couple years ago (Eidos is a major western publisher who’s responsible for such series as Tomb Raider, Hitman, and Deus Ex), and how that means that there’s a strong possibility that Square Enix will sometime soon ask a western developer in their stable to produce a game with the Final Fantasy brand.

Category:Final Fantasy

Category:Final Fantasy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The comments on that article are all over the place regarding this possibility (granted, it’s Kotaku so the opinions tend towards the extreme “yes, do that, awesome!” or “no, anathema, I will never forgive SE!” ends of the spectrum).  There was some discussion about the fact that Final Fantasy is a series that’s always been developed with an aesthetic grounded in a Japanese approach to European fantasy tropes.  It’s not a bad point, and for the earlier entries in the series, I’d say that’s totally true.  Probably starting with Final Fantasy X, I think the aesthetic started shifting away from “Japanese take on European fantasy” towards straight up “Japanese fantasy.”  The aesthetic for the series has gotten more and more esoterically Japanese since Tetsuya Nomura took over as the artistic lead for the franchise (entries where his involvement was minimal, like Final Fantasy IX, XI, and XII revert more to the traditional European, or in XII‘s case Middle Eastern, aesthetic).  He seems to be fascinated by Japan’s host subculture and includes design elements like absurdly styled hair and flashy clothes that are commonly worn by workers in host clubs.  It’s not my favorite aesthetic, but it’s not unattractive, and I generally have a lot of fun laughing at the visual absurdity.

All of that discussion is a tangent, because that’s dealing with the series’ aesthetics, which are very much influenced by who the artistic lead is in any given production.  From a mechanics perspective, Final Fantasy is a series that’s about innovation.  Every iteration in the series was trying to do something really new and interesting with its gameplay while staying within the classic tabletop RPG formula (remember that the first video game RPGs were all simply adapting tabletop mechanics in a way that would translate well on a video screen).  As the series has progressed, the innovations have gotten farther from that original template, and with the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, the series is finally making a jump from turn based to action RPG.  That’s a big deal because it’s a shift in genre, but it’s not antithetical to the spirit of the series, which has always been an attempt at expressing in the medium of video games Ezra Pound’s maxim on modern poetry: “Make it new.”  The fact that the series has retained the name Final Fantasy stems not just from the fact that Square would have been bankrupted if the original game hadn’t been a huge success, but also that each sequel is supposed to be a unique experience.

So when people talk about the possibility of the series being handed over to a western developer, I just shrug and think, “I’d like to see what would come of that.”  It’s true that there are conventions in WRPGs that I’m not fond of (perhaps most prominent of which is the tendency towards tedious stat modifications; if I get a new piece of equipment, I want to be able to tell at a glance if it’s an improvement on what my character is currently wearing rather than just a minor tradeoff of one stat for another), and a game that simply overlays the motifs common to Final Fantasy on a game structured like Dragon Age (which was a fine game in its own right, but really did nothing spectacularly interesting with its game mechanics) would probably be a bit of a disappointment.

The point I’m trying to make is that Final Fantasy is about innovation, and a shift towards a developer with western sensibilities has a lot of potential for innovation.  It’d be fascinating to see what a non-Japanese developer would do with a property that’s done a lot to define itself as a distinctly Japanese thing.

What do you guys think?  Does the possibility of a western developed Final Fantasy (or any other property that’s considered innately Japanese) sound interesting, or would it just be a bad idea?  Let me know down below.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 26)

As I’ve mentioned before, things really start to speed up after Cloud goes cuckoo.  The next major sequence gives us a break from the Sephiroth chase (we know where he is now; we just can’t get to him) and instead turns the focus back on the megacorporation that everybody loves to hate while being hopelessly dependent on it, Shinra.

Following our acquisition of the Highwind, it’s time to do some major world exploration, character grinding, and chocobo breeding (fortunately for you, I did all that and don’t plan on going into excruciating detail about the process; needless to say, the past few weekends have involved a couple of marathon gaming sessions to get most of the extra, non-plot-related junk out of the way).  The world has opened up considerably, because we’re now able to go pretty much anywhere (ironically, getting the Highwind now only opens up access to one brand new location; all the other fun stuff requires fancy flightless birds and a submarine) we’ve previously been without any hassle (also, the Tiny Bronco and the Buggy are mysteriously missing from the world map, which makes me slightly sad).  This is important, because it’s now time to start acquiring the Huge Materia.

The Huge Materia are Final Fantasy VII‘s nod towards a recurring plot element in the series at large: giant magical crystals that are important to the well-being of the world.  This element goes back to the first Final Fantasy when the four heroes of light (who could consist of whatever party makeup you wanted) came forward to restore the inner light to the four elemental crystals that keep the natural forces of the world in balance.  In keeping with this theme, our heroes in FFVII want to capture the Huge Materia from Shinra in order to make use of the stored up knowledge of the planet inside them (remember that all materia is just crystallized Mako, which is a distilled form of Lifestream energy) to help figure out a way to defeat Sephiroth.  Shinra wants to take all the Huge Materia, which apparently have 330 times more energy inside them than regular materia, stick them in a rocket, and launch it at Meteor to try to blow it up (this plan, naturally, is doomed to fail).

Rocket town rocket2

The Shinra No. 26 lifts off with our heroes aboard. (Image credit: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

Since there are four Huge Materia (to correspond with the series’s original four crystals) Cid and company have to take off on a globetrotting adventure to collect them from Mako reactors all over the world while Tifa nurses Cloud out of a vegetative state in the spa town of Mideel (for such a sparsely populated world, there are a lot of vacation spots; I think there might be more places to go on vacation than there are regular towns where people just live and work in this game).  All of these missions involve some kind of challenge or mini game that has to be completed successfully, or the party loses access to one of the Huge Materia permanently (failing to recover any of the Huge Materia isn’t the end of the world, but it’s inconvenient for purposes of powering up the party).

Regardless of what happens, this portion of the game closes with Cloud and Cid hurtling through space on a rocket destined to crash into Meteor (Cloud gets better halfway through the Huge Materia plot, but I’ll discuss his recovery more in depth in a future post).  While our heroes escape to safety, the rocket collides with Meteor, and regardless of how many Huge Materia are loaded on board, the resulting spectacular explosion does nothing but cosmetic damage to the giant rock.  Looks like Shinra’s last ditch effort to save the world themselves has failed.

Oh well, at least they still have their great monument to human achievement, Midgar to comfort them.  The world’s only city should be absolutely fine, right?

Right?

I Don’t Usually Get Excited About Upcoming Games, But…

I mentioned before that I was a little bit of an obsessive gamer when I was a child.  Part of the reason for this has to do with the game genre that I discovered when I was 11.  In 1996, Nintendo published a new Super Mario game for the SNES.  Being a diehard Mario fan, just like everyone else who discovered gaming in the early ’90s, I wanted to play it.  So I got my mom to rent it for me, and I was enthralled right away.  It played a lot like a typical Mario game, except you were on a 3D isometric field, there was dialogue, and jumping on enemies took you to a battle screen instead of killing them outright.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Today’s post was brought to you by Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That was the experience of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.  It was my first Japanese style RPG.  It was also, coincidentally, developed by Squaresoft, the company that created the Final Fantasy RPG series.

Super Mario RPG was an amazing game, and I still have very fond memories of it.  I can say definitively that it was my gateway game into a genre that really thrived for about a decade after that point, though it had been going strong before then too.  It wasn’t long before I became a fan of Final Fantasy.

Just to pad out my gamer cred, I was into JRPGs before Final Fantasy VII had even been announced.  Of course, once it came out, that game revolutionized the genre.  It’s not a stretch to say that VII made JRPGs a mainstream genre in the American market.  Sixteen years later (Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997), JRPGs are not as strong in the marketplace as they used to be, but there’s still a very devoted following in the gamer community.  I don’t play as many JRPGs as I did when I was a kid, mostly because the genre relies on a fairly standard set of tropes, and I’ve gotten bored with playing the same story over and over again.  Despite that, I’m still a fan of the Final Fantasy series, and I look forward to each new iteration.

Final Fantasy XIII

Pink hair is actually a conservative design choice in the JRPG genre.  Final Fantasy XIII (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last traditional game in the series, Final Fantasy XIII, was a bit divisive.  Detractors refer to it as “one long hallway with fights.”  The game is extremely linear, and it does little to disguise this fact.  Despite that, I thought that it had a story that was fairly interesting, once you got past all the weird terminology.  Still, I took it as a sign that my tastes had truly changed when I realized that I wasn’t so ridiculously excited about the game that I had to play it right away.  I think I waited six months before even opening my copy after I got it for Christmas a few years ago.  On a positive note, I thought that the female characters were generally well written, with no overt damsel types included in your party (that honor was saved for the heroine’s sister, who you spend most of the game trying to save).

All of this long-winded history is to say that I have a solid fondness for JRPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy series, but I just don’t get excited about them anymore.

Though that’s not the case with the new Final Fantasy that was announced at E3.

Well, I say “new,” but I mean “old with a new coat of paint.”  Final Fantasy XIII was supposed to be the start of a grand sub-franchise in the Final Fantasy series.  It did spawn two direct sequels, which I haven’t played and can’t comment on, but it was supposed to go much farther than that.  A companion game to XIII was supposed to be the aptly-titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII.

Yeah, I think the Japanese have some weird ideas about how to use English words too.

Square Enix announced that game at the same time as Final Fantasy XIII back in 2006.  It became something of a running joke after about the fifth year in development that Versus XIII was just never going to happen.  And now I guess technically it never will, since they renamed the project Final Fantasy XV.

I’m okay with that.  The trailer looks fantastic, with some interesting character designs, a setting that looks more urban fantasy than any previous iteration, and a battle system that appears quite dynamic.  I’d say the visuals are impressive too, but Square Enix is a developer known for its emphasis on beautiful graphics, so there’s nothing really surprising about the quality there.  I’m not going crazy with frenetic game lust, but based on what I’ve seen, I’m looking forward to playing this game.

What about you?  Do you have any games that you remember fondly?  What about upcoming titles that have you psyched?