Final Fantasy has been cheating death for 30 years.
The series started in 1986, back when its title didn’t have any ironic numbers on the end and the gaming industry was still in diapers. The original Final Fantasy was designed as a swan song, a bittersweet last hurrah for a struggling Square (then Squaresoft, before 2003's Enix merger) and then-up-and-coming designer Hironobu Sakaguchi. It was born of a desperation matched only by one director’s determination to make his mark on the fledgling RPG market. And it worked.
The original Final Fantasy didn’t light the world on fire—the series wouldn’t truly explode until the double-whammy of Final Fantasy 6 and 7 in the ‘90s—but it got Square Enix out of the gutter and put Sakaguchi on the map. Initially, Square Enix clung to the Final Fantasy IP out of necessity, each sequel driving the company further into the black. As time went on and the studio found its footing and dipped its toes in other IP, Final Fantasy expanded in kind, spawning dozens of spinoffs spanning multiple platforms and genres.
By all rights Final Fantasy should have been the one-hit wonder it was thought to be, but somehow it developed into an icon of JRPGs and a flagship IP for Square Enix. But the ‘90s have come and gone, and the twenty-first century hasn’t been as kind to Final Fantasy. The pedigree and recognition that once raised it to new heights has become a crutch, and just as often, a weight, the inescapable pressure of expectations that now routinely swallows up new installments.
Today, Final Fantasy is trapped in its own shadow. It has sequel-ed its way right back to desperation, but this time the pressure is on the IP rather than Square Enix as a whole. The company isn’t staring down bankruptcy this time around, but Final Fantasy itself is on the verge of collapse, worn down by burgeoning fan dissatisfaction, diminishing interest from Japanese gamers, and a string of lukewarm titles. To win even five more years, Final Fantasy will have to light the world on fire once again. And it has one shot: Final Fantasy 15.
Final Fantasy 15 has to do what the episodic Final Fantasy 7 remake can never hope to: prove that the series isn’t out of ideas. Final Fantasy is still alive because it had sturdy laurels to rest on these past few years, but that won’t be enough for Final Fantasy 15. That won’t be enough for the game fans have waited 10 years for. That won’t be enough for the game that’s getting an anime and movie before it even releases, the game that’s straight-facedly trying to sell 10 million copies, the game that director Hajime Tabata rightly calls a “make or break” or moment. Final Fantasy 15 has to innovate. It has to shine.
If there’s one silver lining, it’s that Square Enix is aware of the stakes of this unsavory gamble. Unlike some absurdly long franchises, which respond to all concern by tightening their sales figure life vests and deluding the days away, Square is out to do more than turn a profit. Because Final Fantasy 15 is not just a game; it’s a universe, one meant to convince fans of the wonder and thrill the series can deliver. And you’ve got to give Square one thing: They’ve brought out the big guns.
The mobile game, I think everyone saw coming. Frankly, I’m surprised by the triple-A game that doesn’t at least have a companion app. The marketing ordnance only starts to ramp up with Final Fantasy 15’s Platinum Demo, a wholly independent vignette that puts the game’s engine on a catwalk and also serves to characterize its protagonist and world. The Platinum Demo plays like an interactive sight-seeing tour, letting players fiddle with lighting and weather effects to glimpse the game world from the sweetest angle, but all while reinforcing the role of Noctis and the impact of his childhood years.
Actual gameplay only enters the demo during its final few minutes when you graduate to big-old-adult Noctis and warp an iron golem to death, so it’s clear it was meant to do more than bait players with flashes and explosions. It is the forerunner of a line of media meant to promote the story of Final Fantasy 15 and the soul of Final Fantasy. (Note: It is for these reasons that I really, really like the Platinum Demo and encourage all developers to shamelessly rip it off.)
Then there’s the anime, Brotherhood, a five-episode prequel story showcasing Noctis’ bonds with his comrades, Prompto, Ignis and Gladio. As Final Fantasy: Uncovered emcee Greg Miller put it during the game’s premiere event, it’s about “four bros bro-in’ out.” Here, too, the goal is not merely to put coal in the hype train but to get fans invested in the game’s world and characters. If Square just wanted to milk the game’s name for an anime, they wouldn’t be airing Brotherhood for free via YouTube, nor would they have contracted A-1 Pictures, one of the most prolific and talented animation studios in the business. Equally important is the fact that all this supporting media is releasing before the game.
Finally, the big one: Kingsglaive, a feature-length and frankly irresponsibly beautiful CG movie. Kingsglaive tells the story of Nyx Ulric (voiced by Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad) and Noctis’ father, King Regis (voiced by Sean Bean of Game of Thrones), but ultimately stars the city of Lucis, the kingdom Noctis leaves behind. The movie is about Noctis’ relationship with his father and the turmoil Lucis faces in his absence. It’s about the game’s world, one it desperately wants viewers to feel compelled to explore when Final Fantasy 15 releases come September. Kingsglaive puts a big, fat, expensive line under the stance Square Enix has been forced to adopt: Final Fantasy 15 is not just a game, and Final Fantasy cannot merely survive any longer.
If Final Fantasy 15 is not a smash hit, Final Fantasy as we know it will end. After all the time and resources Square has sunk into the project, anything less than runaway success will invariably result in the company distancing itself from the franchise. It may not die outright—in fact, I’m relatively sure it won’t seeing as how every one of the games hasn’t been remade for every platform yet—but it will stall out. Best-case scenario, it goes the way of World of Warcraft: prolonged years of slow but steady decline occasionally defibrillated by new releases and always haunted by the past. But if it works, if Final Fantasy 15 is everything fans didn’t know they wanted and everything Square needs it to be, the franchise may yet earn another 30 years.