Reinventing Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy was once the RPG series I couldn’t wait to play. It was a franchise that made over-priced imports sound like a good idea ($90 for Final Fantasy VIII? Okay!). It was a series that inspired me – and thousands of others – to go through the trouble of importing various multi-disc soundtracks, which were only recently brought to North America via iTunes.

Our obsession should be obvious to anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game. The first chapter may not have had the deepest story, but it was a triumphant step in a new direction, introducing a fresh and addictive form of turn-based gameplay. The sound quality was limited by the existing technology, but the underlying score became a fan favorite.

When Final Fantasy IV (or FFII, as it was once known on the SNES) arrived in North America, the series reached a new level of storytelling prestige. But despite the likable cast, the unforgettable score, and the creative magic spells, it wasn’t long before Final Fantasy IV was dethroned.

Final Fantasy VI (known as FFIII on the SNES) arrived a few years later and quickly became the fan favorite, offering the deepest character development – both in terms of the story and in the way the cast developed in combat – of any RPG on the SNES. For years, I couldn’t bring up the genre without someone mentioning Locke or Kefka. These are characters that have dug deep into the hearts of gamers and won’t let go.

In 1997, the series took another leap forward – commercially, mechanically, visually and aurally – with the release of Final Fantasy VII. As the first Final Fantasy of the 32-bit generation (a time many have come to know as the PSone era), FFVII introduced us to a world filled with computer-generated movies, pre-rendered backgrounds, 3D characters, and CD-quality audio. It was an RPG experience unlike anything we had seen before.

Over the next four years, Final Fantasy introduced an entirely new magic system (in FFVIII), rekindled some of its 16-bit love with stylized characters (in FFIX), and replaced the pre-rendered backgrounds with polygons (in FFX). Meanwhile, Final Fantasy Tactics brought the series into the realm of turn-based strategy.

At the very least, each of these games moved the series in a new direction. The direction may not have been what every player wanted (ex: FFVIII’s storyline was its least memorable quality, some felt that FFIX was too easy and too short, and many complained that FFX was too long). But there was no denying that the developers were doing their best to keep the series fresh.

Sadly – and perhaps shockingly – the same cannot be said for where the series is today. Final Fantasy XIII was more than a disappointment; it was a total disaster. I’m not going to spend the rest of this article ragging on the game (I’ll let Dakota Grabowski’s review do that for me). But as a diehard fan of the series, I couldn’t help but wonder what the developers – and its beloved publisher – were thinking.

Instead of attempting to dissect the thoughts of those in charge, I’m gonna cut to the chase: it’s time for the series to change. Not just for the sake of being different, but for the sake of its own survival. This is a franchise that, at its peak, reached more than 10 million people worldwide.

Can Final Fantasy do it again? Can it return to glory, despite the evolving marketplace, one that’s currently ruled by Call of Duty? Yes, RPG lovers, it can. But the powers that be have got to wake up and listen.

Let’s Get Serious

Players like a good, heart-wrenching drama because we can relate to it. When our favorite characters are in turmoil, we build a stronger connection to them, and become more deeply enveloped in the story. That’s why Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics are regarded as the three best games in the series: because they are the deepest and most powerful RPGs ever created.

Thus, it’s time for Final Fantasy to show us its dark side once more. The series needs to take a cue from its own past (as well as any great novel, TV series or movie) and realize that main characters shouldn’t be sacred. The player should feel like anyone could die at any moment. And when death comes, make it beautiful; use music, magic and mystery to captivate the player. By the end of the game, we should be filled with tears.

Tears of joy, not tears of regret.

If that kind of emotion is too much for some players to handle, that’s alright. But there are plenty of lighthearted RPGs for those players to enjoy. Final Fantasy shouldn’t be one of them.

Bring Back the World Map

It sounds trivial, but the world map is an important part of Final Fantasy. For the first nine games in the series, world maps gave us a beautiful way to navigate between each location. They gave us a sense of how big these worlds really were. Despite what developers tell us about the latest technology and how good graphics prevent the world map from being necessary, it’s time for this element to return.

Magic 2.0

Before the developers begin to work on the combat system, they need to start with a great foundation. First, they need to mix things up by adding a new magic system. That means that the beloved Materia system, and the creative (if not tiresome) Draw system, must not be rehashed. Likewise, the standard formula (ex: where a mage is automatically the guy who will learn to cast magic spells) needs to be excluded.

In their place, how about a system like Fable, where a character is shaped – and evolves – based on good or evil deeds? The developers could take this concept in another direction and make everything location-dependent. Ex: while fighting near a volcano, the characters learn fire-based magic organically, and while fighting through a snowy mountain, they discover how to cast spells relating to ice. To ensure that every character is unique in battle, no two spells should be the same. Thus, one character would be able to learn Fire 1, 2 and 3, while another would learn a fire-based summon spell, and another would learn how to cast Flare (which is not technically a fire spell, but that property could be attached), and so on.

Turn-Based vs. Real-Time: How About Both?

There’s little hope that the next (offline, single-player and story-based) Final Fantasy will be released anytime soon. Since we’re likely to wait three or four years to play it, the developers should use that time to give both groups of fans what they want: real-time and turn-based battles.

However, there’s no point in going real-time if a few turn-based restrictions are attached. Thus, the next Final Fantasy should have a gameplay mode that isn’t that far from being a Zelda-killer. In this mode, players would pick one character and leave the other party members behind. They’d be able to venture off into areas where larger groups could not go, and fight enemies in a whole other way. As a result, the monsters would attack differently, and often surround a character that’s fighting solo. To prevent frustration, there should be a “call” feature that allows the player to pull other allies into the battle and switch to turn-based combat.

The turn-based mode should be a mix of classic and modern gameplay. Final Fantasy VI’s super-fast combat would be a good place to start. But the giant summon spells of Final Fantasy X should not be forgotten. And while the interactive (button-mashing) element of the summons in Final Fantasy VIII was insanely frustrating, it would be cool to see other things in that area of development.

Furthermore, many RPGs allow you to combine spells or special attacks, but what about a combat system that lets you cast a spell within a spell? Ex: You cast a lightning spell, and, half-way through its execution, you cast a water spell to double the damage by enhancing the electrocution properties.

Enough With the Online Sequels!

If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy XI or care about the forthcoming Final Fantasy XIV, there’s little hope that you’re reading this article. So I’m free to bash them into oblivion, right?

Square Enix, unless you’re prepared to rebrand these games as something other than true Final Fantasy sequels, it’s time to stop making them. I know they’re a minor cash cow for you, and that cash cows are all the rage. But they are not what gamers want. They are not going to bring you unfathomable wealth and success. They will, however, continue to frustrate the core Final Fantasy fan base while merely servicing a small subset of gamers who would play any MMO they enjoy, regardless of the title on the box. Thus, the “Final Fantasy” name isn’t helping your cause; it’s only hurting a property that was once – say it with me everyone – 10-million strong.

Swallow Your Pride

I don’t know exactly what happened that made Hironobu Sakaguchi and other Final Fantasy team members leave Square Enix. We can speculate, but no one really knows. Whatever it was, whoever is to blame, it’s time to forgive and forget.

I fear there is nothing that could convince Sakaguchi to return, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. Square Enix, if you listen to anything that I have to say, know that he is one of the reasons for your success. He helped bring the series to life with a level of emotion that other RPG makers can only wish to achieve. If you can’t get him back, then you’d better get everyone else, because your current development team isn’t getting the job done.