Final Fantasy XIII – where did it all go wrong?

As many of you will know I’m a MASSIVE Final Fantasy fan, mainly VII and VIII, and back in early 2010 I wrote this blog post about my hopes and fears for the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII. It’s such an epic post that I thought I’d post it here. Sadly, Final Fantasy XIII turned out to be the worst game in the series for me, even worse than XII, which is saying a lot. Not a single thing in this post that I hoped for was made a reality, and all of my fears were just. I think making XIII – 2 is a very bad idea, but I really do hope that Square Enix can prove me wrong. I’ve heard that they are addressing some of the issues for this one, but I’ll believe it when I play it. Please bring back Nobuo Uematsu Square . . .

Anyway, for anyone that’s interested, here’s the original post:

 

The Countdown to Final Fantasy XIII Begins

With the recent announcement that Final Fantasy XIII will be hitting European shelves on March 9th, I thought I’d take a bit of time to share my hopes for it, point out what has made other Final Fantasies so outstanding and try to explain what XIII needs to do in order to redeem itself after the abomination that was Final Fantasy XII.

So, Final Fantasy XIII has been released in Japan, and I’ve managed to read a couple of reviews in English by Japanese speakers who’ve been playing the NTSC-J version. Most of the reviews seem positive, though there was one reviewer, Tim Rogers, who seemed to have a deeper understanding of the enjoyment and experience of Final Fantasies and he had a few problems with it, I won’t go into them for the moment, but he summed up his experience as being like eating a Tabasco sauce covered pizza with a chapped, infected top lip – it’s painful, but it’s still delicious.

The pain he’s referring to is the pain of longing for the days of golden era Final Fantasy. The pain of knowing that with the right writers, musicians, programmers, etc. these next gen Final Fantasies could be mind blowing, and yet . . . they’re missing the mark so badly.

I can’t comment on Final Fantasy XIII yet as I’ll be waiting for the European release, but I’ve felt that pain when I was playing Final Fantasy XII and it made me want to jump on a plane to Tokyo and shout through a Square-Enix window “Bring back Nobuo Uematsu!” or “What happened to the love story?” The thing is, I played XII anyway, because despite its catastrophic flaws, it was still enjoyable. So I understand exactly what Tim means when he says ‘painful but delicious.’

Anyway, let’s take a look at what made Final Fantasy VII so incredible. I judge every Final Fantasy by the standards of VII as it was undoubtedly Square’s masterpiece, not just in my opinion, but in the opinion of almost every gamer out there – just search the internet for ‘best Final Fantasy’ and you’ll see what I mean. A lot of people, a vast amount of people, believe it is the greatest video game ever created, and I am one of them. So here’s a list.

A villain to hate - He murders our protagonist’s innocent love interest, this is what a villain should do, we need to hate them in order to care about defeating them.

Plot twists - Cloud isn’t real? Sephiroth is actually already dead? The more twists the better. It’s why Lost, Heroes, Flashforward and M. Night Shyamalan films do so well.

An amazing soundtrack - Nobuo Uematsu absolutely nailed Final Fantasy VII by composing music that brings tears to your eyes. Music is pretty much the most powerful thing to evoke emotion. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I listen to Anxious Hearts, Tifa’s theme, Aeris’s theme, and Sending a Dream into the Universe.

A love story - Final Fantasy games are, at heart, romances, and that’s what they should be. Our protagonist should fall in love. It’s the basis for any good story.

Mesmerising visuals - Midgar was absolutely beautiful, in a tainted, industrial, lamentful way, with its abandoned trains and railway lines and warm orange lamplight emanating from late night bars.

A world to explore - Final Fantasy VII was probably the first game I played which had sandbox elements, and after all these years it still seems to be the best example of how to mix sandbox freedom with a linear narrative. It gave you the excitement of being able to explore, while restricting you just enough to follow the main story.

Great gameplay - Probably the most obvious of the bunch, Final Fantasy VII played fantastically. Characters levelled up as they should, battles were exciting and set at the right difficulty, and exploration was technically sound.

Now I just want to briefly mention Final Fantasy VIII, as I think it was an outstanding game that almost equalled VII. The only flaws I believe it has are the following:

Uninteresting villain - Ultimacea had no backstory. She seemed to be inherently evil, and doing evil for no purpose, unlike Sephiroth who had interesting motives, a maternal complex, identity issues and the like.

Technical slowdown - Final Fantasy VIII used textures as opposed to shaded polygons and even though it looked stunning most of the time, during battles the frame rate was sometimes quite low.

Aside from this I thought VIII was stunning, it had all the right plot twists, gorgeous art design, a beautiful soundtrack, solid gameplay, and a genuine romance. In fact, VIII was a more romantic game than VII. Even the cover was a picture of Squall and Rinoa hugging. One of the main aspects that VII was praised for critically was its love story and I think Square decided to capitalise on this with VIII. This was the right decision in my opinion, the more romance the better. VIII was also romantic in a traditional sense – there were formal balls, Parisian-esque hotels, and a moving sub plot in dreamy, 50′s style bar in which our (secondary) protagonist falls in love with the resident singer, not realising that she is falling for him too. This is not to mention the invention of the Final Fantasy ballad, which was Uematsu’s beautiful ‘Eyes on Me,’ a hidden declaration of Julia’s love for Laguna, and then played in its entirety during the game’s most emotional scene – when Squall and Rinoa realise that they’re going to survive.

I’m going to skip talking about IX and X because this post is already insanely long. I’ll just say that they both had their fair share of merits and downfalls and I’ll go into them in another post in detail. For now I just want to focus on VII and occasionally VIII as I believe them to be the standard by which all future games should be compared. I also have to talk about XII because this is where Final Fantasy went very, very wrong for me. (XI doesn’t count as, being an MMORPG I believe it to be disregarded, and have no idea why Square would use the Final Fantasy name on an MMO. They should have treated it as a completely separate entity, which is exactly what I’ll be doing. With the announcement that Final Fantasy XIV is going to be an MMO there will be more on MMOs in another post, but for now, XI isn’t coming into the equation.)

So – Final Fantasy XII . . . what happened?

Well, here are my main problems with it:

No love story - A big shock. Final Fantasy is known for its epic romances. Where did it go? Without it, the game had lost its heart and soul.

No twists - Plain and simple, there weren’t any that I can recall. Vaan and his team didn’t like the suppression of the Archadian Empire so they fought against them. That was it. That’s your story.

- No villain - Probably the biggest shock of all. Having no villain is just asking for a disaster, surely? I mean, of course there’s the Archadian Empire as a whole, and a series of faceless judges, but is that it? Where’s the new Sephiroth? That’s what people want. Someone to despise. Someone to care about enough to want to destroy them.

Almost no story - Aside from there being no villain and no love interest, there was an even bigger problem. There was almost no story, full stop. Like I said, Archadia suppress Dalmasca because they’re tyrannical and greedy, so Vaan and a bunch of others decided to fight against them. That’s it, that’s all you’re getting.

Awful music - Why didn’t Nobuo Uematsu score the soundtrack? He made the other Final Fantasy soundtracks a phenomenal success. He can make you cry with his music. The music in Final Fantasy XII was lifeless, without melody or any form of structure, just a mish mash of orchestral snippets which left me feeling nothing, even when scenes were attempting to be engaging. In a way, I’m almost glad Uematsu wasn’t called upon to score this game. I don’t know how he could have scored a soundtrack to something as unmoving as this. It would have been a disservice to his talent. The only thing that would have been made better by Uematsu would have been the sense of location he creates by scoring the background music to towns and areas.

Now, as I said earlier, I still played Final Fantasy XII. Despite these fundamental flaws, it still had some redeeming elements:

Decent geometry - exploration was fairly good. Areas were designed well and most environments were non linear (linear environments were a big, big problem in Final Fantasy X, it’s good that they corrected it for this game.)

Wonderful character design - (visually, though not in terms of personality) – Tetsuyo Nomura had been character designer for previous games (along with Yoshitaka Amano), and he’s always done a brilliant job, and this was the debut of Akihiko Yoshida. Now, a lot of people had a problem with Yoshida’s designs, mostly with the androgyny of the protagonist, Vaan. There were a lot of homophobic slurs on the internet about it, but for me, Vaan looked fantastic. Final Fantasy male leads have always been slightly effeminate to look at anyway, though I agree Yoshida took this to an extreme with Vaan. Being very interested in gender studies, and having written my dissertation on the role of sexuality in Japanese popular culture, this androgyny was something I found really compelling.

So, down to the point – what does Square need to have done to make Final Fantasy XIII as good as VII and VIII?

Mostly, they need to have story. If there’s only one thing that can be brought back to Final Fantasy, it’s a good story. Now after reading reviews of the Japanese version I’m filled with a little bit of hope about this. It seems that there is more to its story than there was in XII. It looks like even Square were unhappy with the story of XII, in fact, and that creates hope. This is a quote from Wikipedia:

“Executive producer Akitoshi Kawazu was pleased by Famitsu’s rating but admitted that he thought the game was not perfect; he felt that the storyline did not meet some fans’ expectations.[122] Kawazu expressed his frustration and regrets regarding the storyline, citing creative differences between the PlayOnline and Final Fantasy Tactics members of the development team.”

Another thing that XIII needs is a villain, and this I’m not so hopeful for. As far as I can tell, there is no distinct villain, aside from a collective Empire/Government entity named Cocoon. This doesn’t bode well, though given how well the Shinra corporation worked in Final Fantasy VII alongside the greater villainy of Sephiroth, I may be proven wrong, and I hope I am.

I don’t know for definite, but I don’t think XIII has a love story, much to my dismay. I’ll be ecstatic if I’m wrong. I really can’t understand why Square would want to leave this out, it’s what everyone was talking about back in 1999 – Cloud and Aeris. The interesting thing in XIII is that the protagonist is female, so if there is any love story I bet those male homophobic Yoshida haters will be back online, but who’s got time for homophobes to be honest, anyway? Not me.

Now, one thing that really makes me cringe is this geometary business. X had a real problem, in which none of its environments were open enough. Playing X was like travelling along an escalator with a few chests just off the beaten track, or like playing Crash Bandicoot. XII seemed to address this problem, as I said earlier, and it had full towns and open lands to explore. From everything that I’ve read about XIII, it seems like the problem is back, which is something I really can’t understand. I’d be really interested in knowing what the reasons were for this decision.

And on to the music. I have to say, I’m glad the numerous composers from Final Fantasy XII are gone and have been replaced by a much more talented musician, but Masashi Hamauzu is no Nobuo Uematsu. I’ve listened to the music from a lot of the scenes already, and his style is too classical in a traditonal Japanese music way. It’s lovely to listen to on its own, but it just doesn’t seem to fit the game. What it needs is the epic, sweeping melodies and emotion of Uematsu, something bombastic. Even just something you can hum. Maybe I’m a bit of a Uematsu fan boy but the guy is incredible. It’s been announced that Uematsu’s back for Final Fantasy XIV, so maybe Square will hold on to him now. I hope they do. I’m not interested in XIV but if he’s here for XV It’ll make all the difference.

I had better end this post now, I’ve been typing for a long time . . .

So, these are my hopes and concerns for Final Fantasy XIII. I hope that Square learned valuable lessons from XII and I hope that the problems I have already glimpsed will not ruin the game. Visually, it looks incredible, and no matter what problems it does have, I know I’ll play it, and I’ll enjoy it, just like I have with all the others.

To have someone feel so passionately about the Final Fantasy franchise means that Square, you’re definitely doing something right.

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