[Edit for addional point I forgot to make about optional characters, and general derp-ness]
Yes, I know, that probably sounds like the title of a Cracked article, and I apologize.
Having gotten that out of the way, I think now would be a good time to point out my policy on spoilers. It’s much the same for games as it is for movies: If it’s a popular game, and it has been out for at least 10 years, then chances are, due to TEH INTARWEBZ, everyone has probably heard any large-scale spoilers anyway, so I don’t feel so bad about including them. Anything more recent than that, I’ll /allude/ to spoilerific events in a way that anyone who has played the game will know exactly what I am talking about, and anyone who has not will know that, for example, there is a plot twist somewhere in the game, but not what exactly it is.
Therefore, in this article, I will probably spoil the crap out of Final Fantasy 1-9, but I will only allude to the events in Final Fantasy 10 and 12, and Final Fantasy 13, because in the grand scheme of things it is brand new, I will only talk about the plot in general terms.
So SPOILERS AHEAD. I MEAN IT. SRSLY GAIS.
I know there have been many articles on what exactly has gone wrong with the Final Fantasy series as of late, and there have been some very obvious points made about Japanese developers and their inability to adapt to a changing market. But I’m not here to talk about that. Or at least, not much. And pretty much all the articles I’ve read were in response to Final Fantasy 13 not being a very good game, in the eyes of the people writing said articles, and in the eyes of a whole bunch of other people who were expecting something very different than what the game delivered.
But… the real issue comes down to one thing: what /were/ people expecting in the first place? I know the knee-jerk response is “A good game”, but even that definition varies from person to person. I, myself, have said that FF13 wasn’t a bad game, it was just a bad /Final Fantasy/ game. So I guess what that leads me to do is reflect on what makes a good Final Fantasy game to begin with, and to funnel that into a general ‘what do we actually expect from this series anyway’ sort of thing.
First, I’m going to go ahead and dispel the notion that what we are wanting is something that’s ‘the same’ as the previous games in the series. If you look at how Final Fantasy has progressed, there has never been a ‘the same’. Each game has added or changed something, some aspect of the game system in general. For the benefit of myself and my own argument more than any need of a reminder to anyone else (I know you all are pretty much experts at all things Final Fantasy by now), I will list those changes in the gameplay systems presently, ignoring any online entry in the series:
1) Final Fantasy 1 started out as basically a simplified port of Dungeons and Dragons. It was also supposed to be the only game in the series, hence the title. Pretty much no plans for further expansion were made from there. Then, the game really took off in Japan, and sequels were demanded, much to the surprise of about everyone involved in the creation of the game to begin with.
2) Final Fantasy 2 took everything about the Final Fantasy 1 system and tossed it, except for the basic game menu system. Instead of gaining levels, you gained points in individual stats based on use: strength for hitting, magic for using magic, and, most awkwardly, HP for taking damage. This system only lasted one game before…
3) Final Fantasy 3. The original level and magic system from FF1 (and D&D) was returned to, and the job system was introduced. Of course, in its first iteration, the jobs weren’t so much unique as just improved versions of each other.
4) Final Fantasy 4. Another complete overhaul, the HP and MP system from FF2 made a return, except with actual levels instead of the ‘you get what you use’ progression. Five characters allowed in the party, the most out of ANY Final Fantasy game. You could no longer select what classes you wanted in your group, they were allocated by means of plot device. Introduction of the Active Time Battle system which produced a semi-realtime combat system with variable turn order.
5) Final Fantasy 5. Improved job system, allowing for ‘learned’ skills that you could assign in a free menu slot no matter what job you had. New jobs were no longer just stronger versions of old jobs. Blue magic (enemy skill magic) made its debut here. Every character could learn every job, meaning that character differentiation was solely determined by the player.
6) Final Fantasy 6. Each character had their own, unchangeable class, like in FF4. However, /every/ character could summon, and equipped summons provided bonuses and allowed every character to potentially learn every spell in the game.
7) Final Fantasy 7. Characters equipped their spells and abilities, and any specific character differences came in the form of stats and special attacks (limit breaks) that activated based on how much damage a character took. In practice, these were mostly just non-elemental damage attacks, so characters were mostly just interchangeable in terms of gameplay mechanics.
8) Final Fantasy 8. The infamous Junction System, in which even the special abilities were determined by what set of summons were equipped. Limit breaks were more varied, but activated randomly so were unpredictable. In practice, there wasn’t any reason to use any one character over another. Also, enemies scaled in level with the MAIN character, resulting in a completely broken level progression.
9) Final Fantasy 9. Return to character differentiation. Each character had a completely unique skill and magic set, learnable through equipment (this mechanic was later ported to the Tactics Advance series). Limit break system from FF7 also made a return, though the limit breaks were more than just improved damage output in some cases.
10) Final Fantasy 10. Weapon system was altered so that damage output had nothing to do with equipped weapons. ATB system was removed in favor of a static turn lineup that could be seen several turns in advance, to promote strategic planning. Characters could be swapped out mid-battle, and each character had a unique skillset and was effective against different types of monsters.
11) Final Fantasy 12. Completely realtime system reminiscent of MMO combat. Skills completely learnable through a ‘license board’ that was common for every character, so characters were complete copies of each other.
12) Final Fantasy 13. Another complete overhaul. Completely realtime system in which characters skills were based on what ‘role’ they selected. Roles were grouped together into party ‘paradigms’, sets of roles that could be swapped at will in combat. In practice, that left the player no control over the party other than to give a general command of what they wanted the party to do, relegating the player to the role of ‘raid leader’, to use a term adapted from MMO combat. Each character had certain roles they specialized in, but the same set of skills persisted in the same role among characters.
So, looking at this list, there really isn’t one single unifying theme in the gameplay mechanics of the entire series. Instead, there are a few elements that are revisited throughout /some/ of the games in the series. The general opinion that I have gotten from talking to others is that the better games in the series, mechanically, are the games in which there are more differentiating aspects between each character. Looking at the list, that would put the ‘best’ games as 4, 6, 9, and 10. Keep in mind I am only considering gameplay mechanics so far, not plot.
But now is probably the time to consider that. I have heard the general opinion that the plots have declined in quality lately, too. So what is a plot that is ‘characteristic’ of a Final Fantasy game? A love story? A story about heroes saving the world from monstrous evil? A story about loss, about individuality, about fate and free will? A story where everything is explained, or a story in which nothing is explained? Or just a story where the /right/ things are explained?
I propose the following: that the mark of a good Final Fantasy plot is one in which an event happens that has never before happened in a video game. A story that pushes the boundaries. And this is where the series has indeed faltered, but not totally through its own doing.
I would say that it has faltered because video games have grown up, and Final Fantasy is responsible, at least partially, for it. In that sense, the ‘problem’ with Final Fantasy is one of its own creation. The problem is that the series did exactly what it set out to do.
See, when Final Fantasy 4 (2, here in the good old U.S.of A., but that’s another subject entirely) came around, ‘plot’ in a video game was secondary. It was something that served only as a vehicle to getting the hero to a place and time where he could destroy the shit out of some things. Final Fantasy 4 changed all that. I remember playing it because I WANTED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED, not because there was any real challenge to it. And that was a very different sort of game than anything that had come before it, at least in America. Each character was unique, with unique motivations. I can’t even think of a game I had played before that in which a player-controlled character died. Not a main character, but a player character nonetheless.
Then, Final Fantasy 6 came about. Before Final Fantasy 6, saving the world was always the main objective in a video game, and this game set it up so that it seemed that it was going to be the main objective yet again. But then another curveball was thrown, and the world was destroyed halfway through the game proper. And after that, it wasn’t about saving the old world, but surviving in the new one. That was a plot that I don’t remember having to deal with in video games before that point.
Fast forward to Final Fantasy 7, which broke away from Nintendo of America’s strict standards in regards to content. That was the first shock, that a video game could be so completely /adult/. Of course, looking back now, they took it to the point of ridiculousness (Cross dressing! Drug abuse! Gay sex! SWEARING!), but at the time? Revolutionary. But that wasn’t the biggest thing about that game. The biggest was that one of the /main/ characters, and the main /love interest/ in the game, met her end halfway through. And unlike previous games in which this happened, there was no direct replacement for said character. Debate her merits in the group as you will, but this was an event in which the player lost any and all development they had put into this character. And that was probably the biggest shock of it all.
From here, the series stabilized, because once video games, and RPGs in particular, were thrust into grown-up land like that, there really isn’t anywhere to go from there. There isn’t anything else that ‘hasn’t been done before’. Once you go into book and movie plot territory, there isn’t a single thing you can pull that someone else hasn’t already pulled before. There’s just different ways to do it.
And even the things that /could/ be thrown in for shock value got pushed off into other games, games that were not the new flagship cash cow of Squaresoft. Extreme views on religion got pushed into Xenogears and Tactics. Modernity in setting and theme got pushed into the short-lived Parasite Eve series. Everything /experimental/ got pushed elsewhere, instead of the series that, until then, had been the bastion of experimentalism in regards to plot. And that’s where, I think, the mistake lies, and why the common perception is that the series has degraded over the years. It isn’t game mechanics, though that’s part of it I think, it’s that the game mechanics have changed while the stories have lost their flair.
One other point to make is the issue of optional characters. Final Fantasy 6 introduced the idea that there are things that are hidden or optional. There are two characters that are totally hidden, and in fact every single character except for three (THREE!) is optional in the last half of the game, as well as their respective plot events, and most of the summons as well. In the opinions of many, that brought a very, very interesting aspect to the game. So let’s go through the games afterward and see what the count is for ‘optional’ things:
Final Fantasy 7: Characters: 2. Summons: 9 that I remember, and countless spells too.
Final Fantasy 8: Characters: 0. Summons: All but one, I think. So 15.
Final Fantasy 9: Characters: 1. Summons: Again, all but one, I think.
Final Fantasy 10: Characters: 0. Summons: 3.
Final Fantasy 12: Characters: 0. Summons: 8, I think.
Final Fantasy 13: Characters: 0. Summons: 0.
That’s right, even the games that have no optional characters have a ton of optional summons and abilities. Except for Final Fantasy 13.
All of the above points have been said before, I mean, I know I’m not saying anything /new/. So sorry if people were expecting another revelation from me. In that sense, this article is probably like a plot that has been recycled from other plots. But hopefully I’ve said it in a way that makes it make a little more sense. Like I said, Final Fantasy 13 isn’t a bad game… just a bad Final Fantasy game. And not because of its gameplay mechanics, or because the characters were bad (I actually think they were one of the best groups I’ve seen in a long time), but mostly because the plot just wasn’t there to back it up. It was vague where it shouldn’t be, and not original where it should have been, and its ‘continuation’ just didn’t fit in terms of the world that was already established. So really, the problem with Final Fantasy 13 isn’t that it took too many chances, it’s that it didn’t take /enough/ of them.
So here’s to hoping someone gets the message, and decides to write a plot that’s up to par.
[This article is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]