Last month (Valentine’s Day to be precise) saw the release of a new game called Lightning Returns. This game is part of a series that has been close to my heart for as long as I’ve been passionate about the gaming industry, and there are many others who can say the same. Having now played it extensively, I’ll be reviewing it at the end of this week.
Before we get to that, let me set a little context about my relationship with the Final Fantasy series. It first came to my attention towards the end of that tough part of life known as primary school…
As I recall, it was around my tenth birthday when Final Fantasy VIII (1999) happened to fall into my possession as part of a birthday present. For the first six months or so I didn’t bother much with it – those who’ve played the eighth instalment will remember that it starts off at a slow, peaceful pace, contrasting with the typical ‘thrust into action’ sequences that we associate with the games before and since. I was not yet fully aware of the series’ international acclaim (not that I cared much at that age anyway) and as far as I was concerned it was some obscure title that bore no guarantee of raising the tempo at some point.
How wrong I would turn out to be; of all the games I have ever played, Final Fantasy VIII still holds my fondest memories. Had you been reading this blog around this time last year you would already know this, and would also be aware of some of my reasons why (read here). There is a saying amongst Final Fantasy fans that the first game you play in the series usually turns out to be your favourite. I couldn’t testify more to such an assertion. But back in my school days, it would be quite a while before I reached that level of affinity with it.
It was only when a close friend of mine found out that I owned the game (I’m assuming I had told him about it; either that or he’d seen it while visiting and was planning to steal it had I not been open to the suggestion he was about to make) that I started to pay a little more attention. As I wasn’t playing it at the time and he was interested in doing so, we came to a mutual agreement: I would let him borrow it, so he could then get back to me on whether or not the game was actually any good. If it turned out to be, maybe I would give it another chance.
He came back with glowing reports not long after that, and thankfully he soon came back with the game too. I therefore gave it more of a chance than I had before, my interest having now been piqued, and well, the rest is history.
By the time I had started to enjoy what would turn out to be my favourite PlayStation game, Final Fantasy IX (2000) had already hit platinum. Needless to say I also picked that one up during a routine visit to my local Game store. If VIII holds my fondest memories of the series, IX would turn out to be a very close second.
The two couldn’t have been more different. VIII bore resemblance to a Western movie in terms of its realistically proportioned characters and mature storytelling, and was by all accounts the most realistic looking of the series to date (gaping questions about plot holes aside). IX on the other hand, recalled the cartoonish elements of earlier games, complete with disproportionate character models and cute humour. It was generally considered a love letter to those fans who remembered the days before the series had went mainstream. Not primarily me then, but there’s little doubt even from my perspective that Final Fantasy IX was a lesson in how nostalgia should be done; the game oozed of it, even if you were not overly familiar with the series’ past.
Final Fantasy IX was a watershed moment for the series, and I think Square Enix (then simply ‘Squaresoft’) felt it too. The PlayStation 2 beckoned. With it came a world of new technical possibilities which, in certain ways, would actually prove to limit what Square had achieved in previous titles. New ground would be covered, but it was always going to be difficult – in the West at least – to maintain the popularity of a series that had to change and, in the process, leave behind a precious golden run on the PSOne that is unmatched by any other series on the console.
No more shall be said on the next generation for now. Let me take this time to wallow in the memories of a lost youth. Tomorrow I will move on, and give you a first-hand account of what it is like to buy a new game from a reputable retailer on a busy high street (I promise, more exciting than it initially sounds).