A decade ago, Final Fantasy was the undisputed king of RPGs. Every game in the series was a massive hit, and every title received plenty of critical acclaim. The franchise had its missteps, like the box-office bomb Spirits Within, but it bounced back with ease. Dethroning Final Fantasy seemed all but impossible.
10 years later, the future of Final Fantasy doesn't look so bright. XII was an undisputed success, but a new battle system and poor pacing led to a fan reaction that was icier than usual. XIII sold well, but its reception was even rockier, and its title became a synonym for linearity. XIV was an unmitigated disaster, and required a full reboot to be playable. XV looks promising, but will it be enough to save the flagging franchise?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where Final Fantasy went wrong. People have lambasted Motomu Toriyama for his work on XIII, but he also directed Final Fantasy X, one of the most popular games in the series. The Square Enix merger of 2003 is a convenient scapegoat, but it doesn't explain why modern games feel so different from the classic titles of the past.
Recently, Square Enix released Bravely Default, a handheld RPG that feels like a love letter to Final Fantasy's past. Despite a cliche story, the game is an absolute joy to play and is a reminder of everything that made Final Fantasy great. It shows exactly what needs to change if the series is going to regain its former glory.
One of the greatest charms of classic Final Fantasy titles was their refusal to take themselves too seriously. They'd weave epic tales and introduce a fantastic cast of characters, but they weren't afraid to be ridiculous along the way. One of VI's recurring villains was a pun-cracking octopus. VII requires you to win a squat competition so that you can crossdress more efficiently. These little moments didn't have the same impact as dramatic death scenes or epic battles, but they went a long way towards improving the overall experience.
Final Fantasy's save-the-world adventures have always been a little absurd. IV kills and brings back characters like a comic book on crack. VIII's plot hinges on groan-inducing memory shenanigans, and IX's final boss quotes Yoda. But when the series embraced its silliness, the more ludicrous moments were easier to swallow. All those goofy sidequests let players relax when it came to the little details and allowed them to fully appreciate the game's best moments.
Bravely Default breaks up the darker portions of its story with silly skits about food or wooing women. A little comic relief goes a long way after some scenes and helps keep the game from ever feeling too serious. It's a perfect example of why Final Fantasy needs to be goofy again.
But while Bravely Default's story is appealing, it's the gameplay that's earning the bulk of the praise. The job system makes battles highly strategic, and the brave/default system adds even more dimension to the fights. It's incredibly addictive, and even grinding for job points can be pretty fun.
Final Fantasy titles have always been known for their stories, but their gameplay is what got players hooked. Final Fantasy began with traditional turn-based battles, but moved onto the ATB system, move chaining, and more. Players spent hours deciding what materia to equip or where to go on the sphere grid. They cared about advancing the gameplay just as much as they did moving along the story.
XII and XIII definitely have their fans, but neither has a battle system as resoundingly appealing as their predecessors. They lack that addictive quality that has you scrambling for just a little more XP or a few more ability points. Both systems can essentially play themselves and minimize player importance. XIII's sequels have attempted to improve on this, but it isn't enough.
Final Fantasy needs a battle system that will catch the interest of gamers the way Bravely Default's has. They need more fun in their stories, and they need to let their characters be goofballs. XV may successfully recapture the series' old charm, but right now, it's too soon to call.
Once upon a time, Final Fantasy was an RPG titan, and it can reach that status again. Although it's not an official Final Fantasy title, Bravely Default is a big step in the right direction. If Square Enix can transfer that magic into a full console game, they'll have themselves a hit.