It’s no secret that the Final Fantasy series has been an enormous success, a success spanning nearly three decades. The series is easily one of the leading series of games in Japan and has been for quite a while. With 15 main entry titles (one pending) and an innumerable amount of spin-offs, this series has had success that few others can even imagine. Several entries in this series alone have been hallmarked as pinnacles of gaming: Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy X, in particular, stand out.
But ever since the release of Final Fantasy XI, things just haven’t been the same for this king title of JRPGs. While the games certainly still sell, reception and legacy of the games have suffered. What happened that caused this king of games to fall from grace?
While I believe various specific things happened, I think the umbrella problem is experimentation. Things just seemed to have started going wrong as soon as Square Enix decided to try new things. Usually innovation amounts to some positives, but in the case of Final Fantasy, these changes just started eating away at the series’ very foundation and brought about the precursors to ruin.
From a holistic perspective, the decline in quality and reception seems to stem from a shift away from what the series had established in its first ten entries. Beginning with FFXI, Square Enix tried to push something “new” with every installment. Final Fantasy XI was an MMO, FFXII brought a spin on the battle system and a mismatch of importance between main character and who the story was really about. Final Fantasy XIII (and its sequel, FFXIII-2) also brought along a new battle system, but made some significant changes to the way the game approaches its world. And lastly, Final Fantasy XIV, besides being an MMO, got off to an incredibly terrible start that speaks for itself.
Surprisingly enough, one of the deficiencies the later games seemed to have was the lack of an overworld (I refer more to FFXII, FFXIII, and FFXIII-2 rather than the MMO titles, FFXI and FFXIV). Overworlds were great in the earlier games, as I imagine lesser technological abilities did not allow for particularly detailed universes. This was something that was overcome by an increase in scope of the universes. As pixelated as these overworlds may have been, they were enormous. Seeing the breadth of each game was awe-inspiring, and they gave the player the feeling that the world had so much to offer, so much character, so much to see, so much to do. Disregarding the MMOs for obvious reasons, the later titles seemed so much smaller. While they undoubtedly looked prettier, I don’t feel as if these cosmetic improvements did anything for me, especially since I’m not one who cares all too much about graphics. I can imagine it was very disappointing for many to see such huge worlds become so narrow and limited. And while I personally don’t mind linearity in games, I can imagine how suffocating it must have felt for fans of these giant worlds to be running through linear pathways in FFXIII.
Rather than an overworld, FFXII has players traverse between towns and cities through small map areas specifically designed for through-travel.
Something that was a staple in the series was the combat system. While each installment may have made minor changes or additions to the existing system, the end result was always the same: a simple turn-based RPG combat system with a party of a handful of characters who usually served specialized, archetypal roles. Each new entry since X has seen a departure from the turn-based system. FFXI and FFXIV follow a pretty standard MMO battle format, and, while nothing is particularly bad about these battle systems, they just don’t jive all too well with the series at large. As it is these games are MMOs, which is enough to alienate themselves from the rest of the series. FFXII introduced a very strange sort of combat system. There, the combat seems to take an odd active time battle/MMO-style/turn-based crockpot system. While the system wasn’t bad, it was definitely out of place, awkward, and distant from those of its predecessors’.
The change in FFXIII, however, was the largest. Here, a big part of the game’s marketing revolved around a new, cutting-edge battle system known as the Paradigm Shift that borrowed a few elements from the active time battle system. Traditionally, combatants in RPGs tend to take such roles as Warriors, Mages, Clerics, and so forth. In FFXIII, each character could assume a variety of these roles and switch among them in an instant, allowing your characters to synergize with each other in different ways as different situations arose in battle. While I personally enjoyed the system, I can understand why long-time fans did not. It was a rather distant system where you did not control your character, but rather, you input commands for them. However, unlike in earlier entries, these commands feel like they’re more reactive to immediate situations, allowing incredibly little for long-term strategy. I also suspect that a problem with this combat system came from the suggestion that you actually could control your characters. In battle, you can move your lead character forward and back a little bit and the dynamics of the combat itself make it seem like you control what is going on, but this cake is definitely a lie. Your control over the character is minimal and the player’s involvement in battle is little else than hitting the command button.
And this idea holds true for all titles post-FFX. With the loss of the turn-based system came a significant loss in strategy. No longer did it feel like the player was in significant control of combat, but rather, it felt like the player was simply there to spectate with some minor influences. For RPGs, the element of strategy is typically paramount, but this element was knocked away in favor of more action-oriented combat styles which felt more like movies than games. To me, it felt like combat devolved into little more than “Do I have to heal? No. Okay.” This sort of combat is fine for those who are just in it for plot, but I enjoy combat just as much as I love story. I certainly don’t want my games’ stories to be as flat and simple as the combat systems they sacrifice.
And on that note, and particularly with FFXIII, there seems to have been a huge increase in the concern over graphics and flashiness in these later titles (not including FFXI). While the presentation of combat in these titles definitely became more pronounced, the changes came at the cost of combat interactivity. Again, I stress that player’s involvement became little else than hitting the command button. Instead, what players got were battle systems that spent too much time on appearances and not enough on interactive value. The flashiness started creeping its way through in FFXII, and while it wasn’t overbearing, it was obvious to me that certain efforts were being made to make everything look more grandiose, more epic. This combined with an-already awkward battle system made me believe that the team was focused on the wrong things. By the time FFXIII rolled around, battles practically became movies. In combat, even a simple sword strike brought about a flash of light, magic animations were constantly flooding the screen, characters would jump fifty feet up and attack their enemies as they were suspended in mid-air, and camera angles were constantly changing. All the while, all I did was press X to repeat the prior commands and occasionally L1 to shift paradigms. I’ll be honest, as cool as the battles were to watch, I didn’t know what the hell was going on half the time. FFXIV slows down the theatrics of battle a little bit to accommodate for the fact that it is an MMO, but that definitely doesn’t stop it from flooding the screen with flashes of light and color and other explosions that are nowhere near necessary.
Here’s a video of FFXIII doing its crazy flashy thang:
All that combined, I think we’ve boiled down to what the real problem with these later Final Fantasy titles is: they’re not Final Fantasy games. Sure they share a name, similar names for attacks such as Fira or Blizzaga, and coy references to one another, but part of keeping a series running is honoring the legacy and heritage of those before it. I feel what makes all these newer entries Final Fantasy titles is the fact that they were developed by teams appointed by that name under Sqaure Enix, not because they shared a vision with those of the games prior. FFXII is the most similar to the entries before it, and even then it’s pretty different. FFXI and FFXIV being MMOs are ridiculously radical departures from what these games are that don’t even have a real emphasis on plot, a huge part of the series’ success. And FFXIII, while certainly good-intentioned, tried so hard to be “new and exciting” that it lost sight of its namesake.
It’s weird, though. I feel as though the biggest problems with these games aren’t the aforementioned shortcomings, but rather, that they are called Final Fantasy titles. I feel very confident in saying that had these games been developed and produced as independent games (that is, not Final Fantasy) games, they would have been received far better than they were.
As a side note, I just wanted to put it out there that I’m a huge fan of all these games. I loved XII, XIII, XIII-2, and XIV. I know I’m bashing on a lot of them, but I’m bashing them as members of the Final Fantasy family, not their own individual existences. I’m still incredibly excited for the upcoming titles. Part of being a fan is recognizing that flaws do exist and maintaining zeal anyway.
I’ve also chosen to completely ignore FFX-2 in this analysis because I feel the less it is mentioned, the faster it will be drowned in the annuls of history, never to be seen or heard from again. And this, my friends, is a kindness the entire world will enjoy.