FINAL FANTASY: A History – Part 2

The second part of our epic feature focusing on the history of the sprawling Final Fantasy series of games.

Brad Fear

Contributor

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the interest of condensing what is an extensive library of games releases, this article focuses on ‘main series’ titles: let’s be frank, they’re the ones we most care about and – honestly – this’ll end up being a ten-part feature if we cover every game which ever had ‘Final Fantasy’ in its title.  Sincerest apologies to the half a dozen people who view this as a travesty.)

And so, much like the Final Fantasy games we today honour, we reach ‘Disc 2′ of our epic story.

For those of you who either missed or have gone to great lengths to repress Part 1 of our history lecture, I will try to recap (rolls 8-bit quest BGM to scrolling text).  Our story told of a small-time games developer called Square and how, teetering recklessly close to the pit of bankruptcy, their brave captain – one Hironobu Sakaguchi – helmed the genesis of one last desperate stand… his ‘Final Fantasy’, if you will (pauses for tumbleweed to pass).

One decade passes.  The year is 1997.  Blair has just become prime minister.  People flock to cinemas to watch Leo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet shiver in the North Atlantic ocean.  The Spice Girls and Hanson are (somehow) in the charts.  More importantly than these trivial details, however, is the unveiling of a role-playing epic poised and ready to take the world by storm…

For lo, true believers, Sakaguchi had suceeded in his noble quest.  The Fantasy had not been final at all.  Nay, t’was that five sequels had since followed in its wake, culminating in what many had deemed the finest in the series so far, the triumphant Final Fantasy VI.  In Japan, certainly, Square was on to a consistent domino-effect of hit after hit.  However, with only three of the series so far (namely Final Fantasy I, IV and VI) making the transition to North American shores, the series success as a global enterprise was still questionable.

Until Final Fantasy VII.

A game which, for most of you reading (and myself included) was our first taste of Square’s fantasy epics.  Indeed, for a huge number of us in the West, this was our very initiation into the glorious world of ‘RPG’s’… and the standard by which all that followed would be measured by.

Those reading on from the previous article will already know the production details: two years in development, the most expensive gaming project in history, the title which marked an end to Square’s long-running relationship with Nintendo and the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Sony and its Playstation offspring.  The premise of the seventh entry into the series will also be little secret to a good percentage of you.  But, for those of you who may be in the dark (and, quite frankly, one questions why you’d even be reading this article if you weren’t familiar with FFVII), I will elaborate.  Set in a world of considerably more advanced technology than its predecessors, Final Fantasy VII  told the story of mercenary Cloud Strife and his battle to save the planet known as ‘Gaia’ from either being milked dry by the power-hungry Shinra Corporation or, worse still, being totally obliterated by meteor-summoning bad-ass Sephiroth.  And that’s me seriously watering down the plot into a digestable size.  Stretching over no less than three discs, this adventure was huge on a scale previously unseen by Western gamers.  With a menagerie of unforgettable characters — gun-armed Barrett, talking cat-wolf Red XIII, staff-wielding Cid Highwind, to name a few — and boasting some of the series’ most moving pieces of cinematic story-telling (the death of one main character, in particular, will forever be among gaming’s memorable shocking moments), Final Fantasy VII was the worldwide sensation which took Square… and its fabled series… global.

Within three days of release in Japan, the game pushed 2.3 million copies.  In America, over 500,000 in three weeks.  To date, it’s sold a grand total of 10 million copies worldwide.  It was, and still is, the highest-selling Final Fantasy of all time by a long way.

Naturally, Sakaguchi’s promise of his Fantasy being ‘Final’ was still far from being realised.  On the contrary, the Playstation years marked a brave new age of International stardom, one which Square would meet with rigorous enthusiasm.  Such success had opened many exciting new avenues for the developer, including, of course, the commercial potential of a Hollywood film.

Now, no-one could tell poor Hironobu Sakaguchi at the time that his visually spectacular attempt at a blockbuster, dubbed Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, would be the sort of tragic global disaster which you’d expect Sephiroth himself to summon, should he be bored with ‘Meteor’.  Thus, they all continued merrily without a care in the world, leaving Sakaguchi with significantly less free time to commit to the eighth game.  He assumed the mantle of Executive Producer on the project and direction was handed to Yoshinori Kitase.

Kitase sought to blend the fantasy elements of previous titles with cinematic realism: giving the characters realistically proportioned features and exploiting motion capture technology to give them more fluid and natural movement.  The environments would be heavily based on technology  and the visual feel of the game was to be notably less optimistic and colourful than its predecessors.

Final Fantasy VIII was released worldwide in 1999 and followed brooding teenager Squall Leonheart, training at Balamb Garden Academy to become a ‘SeeD’ mercenary.  Set in a world at war, Squall and his companions (including love interest Rinoa Heartilly) must face off against the evil sorceress Edea (an unused character design for an early FFVII) who seeks to manipulate the conflict to her own ends.  The game removed the conventional point-based magic system of earlier entries, exploiting a new ‘junction’ system which included the collection of power-based cards and the summoning of Guardian Forces (GFs) – whose presence could also influence the users statistics, rather than simply providing one powerful assault on the enemy.

Though it was not destined to out-sell FFVII in terms of quantity, Final Fantasy VIII did go on record as the fastest-selling title in the series, in its first 13 weeks in the US alone it accumulated no less than $50 million.  Though this is hardly surprising when following an act like Final Fantasy VII.  Heck, the game could have been a series of moving dots and rotating triangles for all anyone cared… so long as it had those two magical ‘F’ words in the title (not those  F words… though I suspect they’d probably sell a game or two also).  Luckily, the game wasn’t half bad.  Many critics practically kneeled in its wake – citing it as one of the greatest releases ever to grace the original Playstation.

So, where do we go next, eh?

Here’s a massive clue…

That’s right, it’s Final Fantasy IX.

Development had already begun on the title while VIII was still being fine-tuned and, better still, our man Sakaguchi had (hopefully) seen the error of his ways with The Spirits Within, returning to input some of his creative flair into his brain-child RPG series.  In light of the ‘realism’ reached with both the film and with FFVIII, Sakaguchi decided it was high time to pay homage to those colourful Fantasies of old.  Bringing back trademark character designs (such as Vivi’s black mage) and even the names of some familiar villains from the very first Final Fantasy (namely the ‘Fiends’ and Garland), it was both a nostalgic trip for players of the original titles and a whole new ball-park for those only familiar with the Playstation entries.  And, in spite some shared reservations among players with those first screenshots, the game proved to be as much a masterpiece as its older brothers.  It was also to be Sakaguchi’s new favourite – the man going so far as describing it as the “closest to [his] ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be”.

This time around players join monkey-tailed thief Zidane Tribal and his merry band of mismatched buddies as they face the malevolent (and oh so very ugly) Queen Brahne and her sinister ally Kuja – a narcissitic arms dealer (who, obviously, proves to be much more than he first appears).  Fans of the series will already recognise that trademark theme of the ‘evil empire’ from so many of the Nintendo titles.

The 2000 release of FFIX was delayed when Square’s long-time rivals, Enix (plays an insidious melody), released Dragon Quest VII, with the Japanese getting it in July, North America in November and Europe waiting until February 2001.  The game was, of course, a top-seller upon release.  However, in spite its undeniable charms, the success of the game was notably smaller than the previous two Final Fantasy games.  Not exactly a promising trend.

The transition to the new Playstation 2 was going to have to be spectacular and Square knew it.

So, armed with a budget of a paltry $32.2 million and a crew of more than a hundred able-bodied nerds, the game aimed to be an even more cinematic affair than its predecessors (that includes Spirits Within, which was just a migraine-inducing affair).  It introduced a fully-voiced cast to liven up proceedings and the much more fluid Conditional Turn-Based Battle (CTB) system – to give battles a faster and more action-based feel.  Innovative facial-rendering technology allowed characters to grin, frown and generally pout with more conviction than the doll-faced heroes of older titles, adding that extra bit of ‘movie magic’ to the immersive story telling we’d all come to know and (for the most part) love.

Final Fantasy X was the series’ Playstation 2 debut in 2001 and, fortunately for the guys at Square, all that money seemed to pay off.

Set in the exotic world of Spira, FFX sees superstar ‘blitzball’ player Tidus and sexy summoner Yuna teaming up to take down the monstrous entity ‘Sin’ – who, as his name suggests, hasn’t exactly been leaving rainbows and sunshine in his wake.  As expected, a menageries of weird and wonderful characters cross their paths, friendships are forged, tears are shed, twists are unveiled and heroes and villains alike go painfully overboard with the hair gel and make-up.

Contrary to anyone’s reservations after the (and I use this term reluctantly) ‘lighter’ release of Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy X smashed records once again.  1.4 million pre-orders were shifted within 4 days of release in Japan – a rate of sale which secured it as the fastest-selling RPG of all time.  It recieved numerous awards and near-perfect reviews across the board, perhaps immortalising it as the best thing since Final Fantasy VII.  It’s no small wonder then that, two years later, Square released it’s first main-series ‘sequel’ in the form of Final Fantasy X-2– a game which was even more ridiculously sexy, thanks to its blatant homage to Charlie’s Angels.

Though the release was generally met with positive reviews, the sudden change in style and tone of X-2 caused a rift between fans, with many viewing it as too colourful and ‘light-hearted’ by comparison to its former.  Alas, change is not always an easy pill to swallow.

With that in mind, players were going to have to open wide with the next release in the series…

Before getting to that though, it’s worth noting the further significance of 2003 to this timeline.  After almost two decades of all-out RPG war against one another, titans of the industry (and former mortal enemies) Square and Enix finally laid aside their arms.  It had taken approximately three years of consideration and negotiation before an alliance was struck in the form of a merger.  Thus, Square Enix was born.

In this shining new era of camaraderie, it’s no wonder that Sakaguchi elected to take his beloved franchise into the mystical realm of the MMO.

Yes, observant readers, this was in a pre-World of Warcraft context (though just barely – WoW was on the horizon, the end of 2004), when Everquest was still the king of the genre – however miniscule the number of subscribers to it seem by today’s standards.  FFX had nailed the cinematic epic, thus it would be up to Final Fantasy XI to broaden the ‘social’ aspect with globe-spanning multi-player.  It would be the first PC release of a Final Fantasy, though would also be the first cross-console release with a Playstation 2 and, sometime later, Xbox360 release too.

Producer Hiromichi Tanaka likened much of the battle and magic systems to Final Fantasy III – taking the ‘job’ system to a new and intuitive level of customization.  As with other MMOs, players were expected to elect the race, gender, hair colour, body size and alleigance of their homemade characters and (much unlike other titles in the main series) would find themselves battling totally in real-time as opposed to turn-based combat.

Set in the world of Vana’diel, the surprisingly thin plot (we expect little less from any MMO which isn’t Star Wars: The Old Republic) centres around groups of mercenary-heroes as they merrily quest their way across the various kingdoms, chopping down various forms of rare wild-life and passing Noobs as they do so.

Though it was a far cry from the single-player adventures that came before it, fans warmed to Final Fantasy XI‘s charms.  The game saw 200,ooo subscribers by late 2003 and maintained between 200,00 and 300,00 players daily by 2006, earning itself gleaming reviews and positive feedback as it did so.

It’s unfortunate, really, that the world of Azeroth had to suddenly pop up and smash any hopes FFXI had of being the number one MMO.

Success or otherwise, fans of the series were pining for a return to those single-player epics they were so familiar with.  A new title for the Playstation 2 had been in development since the release of Final Fantasy X, with Hiroyuki Ito and Yasumi Matsuno (director of the Final Fantasy Tactics strategy spin-off) helming the project.  The latter, however, was forced to bow out due to health problems – and Hiroshi Minagawa was forced to step into the role of co-director.  Series creator Sakaguchi was so dismayed by Matsuno’s departure that he couldn’t bring himself to play the new title beyond the introduction.

The new title, Final Fantasy XII, would once again seek to revolutionise the battle system: this time employing the ‘Active Dimension Battle’ (ADB) system (aren’t you just loving all these acronyms?).  Random encounters were replaced so that players could see enemies in the overworld field and the transition to battle was made to appear seamless.  Battles themselves employed elements of both real-time and turn-based systems, giving even greater fluidity than seen in Final Fantasy X.

Conforming closley to the hallowed formula of many a Fantasy before it, FFXII centred around an evil empire (this time the Archadian Empire) and the resistance that is formed when it annexes the small kingdom of Dalmasca.  The central character this time is the unsettlingly feminine looking street urchin, Vaan, who crosses paths with Princess Ashe (the resistance leader) and sky pirates Balthier and Fran – thus propelling him into the ongoing war.

The game was release in 2006 in Japan and North America, with Europe and Australia seeing it the following year.  Of course, there’s little to be said where reception was concerned: 5.2 million copies in the first year, gleaming reviews, an inevitable spin-off – Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings… it seemed that, even with a dozen titles to the main series, Square Enix was still firing out Final Fantasy games with the same loving quality each time.

Then there was Final Fantasy XIII (oh, unlucky number thirteen).

Development of the thirteenth title had begun in 2004 (yes, that’s a few years before even FFXII was released – gotta love these guys for their optimism), with the initial intention being for it to be another Playstation 2 release.  However, by developing the game with the new ‘Crystal Tools’ engine, Square Enix were able to render effects worthy of the next generation, prompting them to hold out for a Playstation 3 release.

In attempting to further tantalise gamers with an all-out authentic action experience, the developers constructed a variant of the Active-Time Battle system first employed way back in Final Fantasy IV, with three characters used in battle at one time, though only one ‘leader’ actually controlled, per say.  Other characters were issued ‘roles’ through the use of ‘Paradigm Shifts’, allowing swift changes in strategy without slowing the pace of battle.  It also introduced the ‘Crystarium’ system for teaching new abilities and included numerous familiar elements, such as chocobos, air ships and summoned creatures such as Odin (who has since, apparently, learned how to turn himself into a horse).

Set in the floating world of Cocoon, players followed Cloud Strife wannabe ‘Lightning’ and her allies as they unravel the true motivations behind the ruling ‘Sanctum’ and of the feared world of Pulse that exists below.  Coming into contact with a rogue ‘Fal’cie’, the group is granted magical powers, making them targets of the Sanctum and its agents.  Only through friendship and blah, blah can they expect to blah, blah and win the day etc (by now the narrative structure of these games should be apparent).

Though initially lined up as simply a Playstation 3 release,  FFXIII also graced the Xbox360, making it the only series game other than FFXI to do so.  North America and Europe saw the game in 2010 and, once again, it became the fastest-selling title in the franchise’s history.

It’s worth noting again that when I first mentioned Final Fantasy XIII it was in a an apparently negative context.  Though this may be disputed by reviewers (who once again praised it) and sales figures, numerous critics and fans would agree with me that something abut Final Fantasy XIII just seemed to fall short of its predecessors.  Perhaps it was the horrifically linear levels of the first ten chapters (forget an overworld map, freedom of movement was like trying to derail a train).  Perhaps it was the annoying theme tune which seemed to play every time an emotional scene came up… which was approximately every five minutes.  Perhaps it was the fact that all that Paradigm shifting just made battles feel dull and automated.  Perhaps (and this is a big one) it’s the fact that killing a monster didn’t result in that beloved battle victory theme we’d been so accustomed to in the past TWELVE games.

Perhaps it’s just me and a minority who see it this way.  Heck, the game has been popular enough to warrant it’s own sequel – the recently released Final Fantasy XIII-2.  Graciously, I’ll concede that this game by no means dampened the franchise’s glowing reputation.

That honour goes to (and even the reviewers will agree on this one) Final Fantasy XIV, Square’s catastrophic attempt at exploding back on to the MMO scene.

Released the same year as FFXIII, 2010 was the first year to see two main-series Final Fantasies released consecutively.  That should have been the first omen.

While FFXI had employed familiar experience and level-based progression, Final Fantasy XIV was centred around a skills-based system familiar in Final Fantasy II.  Those of you who read the last article will know that this system was NOT met with much enthusiasm, thus prompting Square to return to the former progressive style in Final Fantasy XIII.  That should have been the second omen.

Blending sci-fi and fantasy, the races of FFXIV closely mirrored those from FFXI, albeit the action this time took place in the region of ‘Eorzea’.  Once again there was no real narrative: you play one of many out-of-work soldiers now freelancing as an ‘adventurer’.

And thus we got to FFXIV’s criminal flaw… it offered literally nothing new to the proceedings.  Upon release, it was ripped apart by reviewers and fans alike, seen as a giant step back in one of the world’s favourite gaming genres.  Though the effects were at their most beautiful to date they weren’t enough to hide the numerous flaws: a bad interface, restrictions in quests and an awful economy system for players and NPC’s.  The game was notable, in fact, for being the first Final Fantasy game ever to recieve overwhelmingly negative feedback.

The result was so humiliating, in fact, that it prompted Square Enix to suspend subscription fees in favour of free play. Furthermore, the game is due for a colossal overhaul in the form of Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 (due for launch at the end of 2012)- essentially an enormous patch over the gaping wound in the beloved RPG series.

It seems depressing to end our timeline on such a down note.

Alas, such is the way of affairs at the time of writing.  Much like a great tale, a dark shroud seems to have fallen over the Fantasy.  But, let’s be honest… way back in 1987 Hironobu Sakaguchi was looking bankrupcty (excuse the pun) square in the face.  His ‘Final Fantasy’ has since spawned thirteen main series “sequels”, countless spin-offs, anime and one (awful) Hollywood film.  Frankly the idea that FFXIV or FFXIII-2 could even remotely be the ‘Final’ Fantasies is madness.

And with Western RPG’s like Fable and the incredible Mass Effect series taking the spotlight, Square Enix owes it to themselves and their fans to dust themselves off and step up to the plate.  Heck, they pretty much invented the modern RPG.

Now that we’ve reached the end I feel it’s only appropriate I take one last dig at Final Fantasy XIII, in the form of this review by ‘The Escapist’s’ Zero Punctuation… enjoy.