The Final Fantasy series needs to emerge from the last decade with a winner. Though the series receives great love for Final Fantasy IV through Final Fantasy X, FFX’s launch in 2001 was followed by mixed-reception titles and a fairly constant stream of cynicism and jaded feelings towards the franchise. The burden of undoing these attitudes will rest on Final Fantasy XV, an anticipated project only ten years in the making.
The beginning of Square Enix’s troubles seemed to start with Final Fantasy XI in 2002. Many fans found the idea of a mainline Final Fantasy MMO off-putting, and while the game was a hit with lots of fans of the genre and series, it was ultimately pretty niche and far from perfect.
Then, Final Fantasy XII released in 2006, basically an offline MMO in terms of gameplay and side quests. This was great for people (like myself) who enjoy that kind of style without the online experience, but it definitely didn’t sit right with many series fans. The political story made for a unique and interesting change of pace from the previous slew of romance and fantasy, but ultimately, the story’s foundation fell flat. When you combine a hard-to-follow tale of political intrigue with the huge, huge gap of running around for 15 hours in the middle of the game, any kind of fluidity the story had going for it is broken, and the game just fizzles out. Balthier and Fran definitely do their best to save FFXII, but ultimately the ensemble pales in comparison to many other Final Fantasy titles.
Now, keep in mind that before FFXII, there had never been longer than a 3-year gap between mainline Final Fantasy titles, and that single 3-year gap was understandably the massive jump from SNES to PlayStation. So after waiting 5 years from FFX to FFXII (for the majority of fans who skipped the MMO) only to receive a surprisingly lackluster title, the announcement of Final Fantasy XIII and the other Fabula Nova Crystallis games made disappointed fans, to put it lightly, lose their shit with excitement. This was surely going to be the next coming of Final Fantasy.
Unfortunately, the downhill tumble only continued from there.
We all know the story behind Final Fantasy Versus XIII; between development hell, director Tetsuya Nomura working on too many simultaneous projects, the game changing engines and jumping to the next generation of consoles, and more, Versus XIII moved away from the Fabula Nova Crystallis group with an official title change to Final Fantasy XV. Meanwhile, Agito XIII became Type-0 (which didn’t make its way stateside for several years, invoking little confidence from the North American audience), and FFXIII released in 2009 to a great divide among fans.
To some, Final Fantasy XIII gets too much flack – the Paradigm Shift battle system, while a steep and unforgiving learning curve, is an excellent new take on the tired old systems. And the story, while kind of confusing, still manages to leave its mark and give the player a few excellent gut-punch moments. But make no mistake, the game’s linearity definitely makes much of it forgettable.
Even if other titles in the Final Fantasy series only give the illusion of open-world, the fact remains that you travel freely throughout the world for much of those games, and can return to past towns practically whenever you want. Hell, you are often required to return to past locales for plot reasons, which makes those setpieces stick out in your mind. FFXIII’s system of “work your way through this city or forest in a single chapter, then never return” is nothing like this. Even though the game is incredibly beautiful to look at, much of it is forgotten as soon as you reach the next chapter.
So, there was a 5-year wait for the underwhelming FFXII, and a 3-year wait for the incredibly divisive FFXIII. Just one year later was the strangely quiet release of the second Final Fantasy MMO, Final Fantasy XIV, which was – to put it lightly – a hot mess. It’s almost impressive how awful the game was, to the point that Square Enix shut the game down entirely and remade it from the ground up, to re-release it as FFXIV: A Realm Reborn three years later.