Japan’s biased love of the Final Fantasy series was confirmed in 2006 when readers of Japanese video game magazine Famitsu voted Final Fantasy X (2001) as the best game of all time. Not that there’s anything wrong with a love for this series (I guarantee you could do a lot worse), but X certainly isn’t the best of them, let alone the best of all games ever made. Nevertheless, it was this popularity in its native land which led to Final Fantasy’s tenth instalment becoming the first of the titles to get a sequel; Final Fantasy X-2 (2003).
Let me assure you, this is less confusing than it sounds. Think of each game not as a direct sequel to its predecessor, but a brand new volume of stories within the expanded Final Fantasy universe. So while Final Fantasy I through IX, for example, were self-contained volumes of these particular pockets of the universe, X merely expanded its story into another game.
In reality, of course, X-2 was one of the main signs of a slight change of direction for Square, who officially merged with Dragon Quest publisher Enix in 2003 to become ‘Square Enix’. In February 2001, still a few months before the release of X in July, the company had posted its first quarterly loss since going public. Partly in response to this, key figures such as Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi ‘resigned’ from their positions to take responsibility for the loss, resulting in mild upheaval within the company.
One cannot ignore the elephant in the room around this point in time as well. Production costs for what would become Square’s high profile failure to make an impact on the film industry, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), contributed significantly to the company’s loss. Ironically the film actually received positive reviews from critics, and is cited today as being hugely influential on the development and use of CGI in future movies – including James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2009).
Regardless, this lack of reward for Square’s creativity as a company perhaps produced a more conservative business outlook for the direction of future titles. It may be worth bearing this in mind when we come to look at the Final Fantasy XIII saga, released almost a decade later.
First, let’s look back at Final Fantasy X. While X did not represent quite as big a technical jump from its PSOne predecessors as we had seen in the jump between VI and VII, it is certainly remembered for changing much that we had come to know and love about the series. In many cases these changes, such as the departure of the overworld map in favour of a more linear route through the game or the often cringe worthy voice acting, have since become permanent.
That’s not to say they worked brilliantly in Final Fantasy X. Main lead Tidus is widely considered one of the most annoying protagonists in the series for his vocals (remember that awkwardly loud and unnerving laugh anyone?) and facial animations, written descriptions of which would fail to capture their true essence. Whether this was a localisation problem (translating from Japanese to English for the text boxes in previous games had been hard enough; now Square had to consider tones of speech, mannerisms, among other additional details) or just plain bad acting, itself a given in the gaming industry at the time, is debatable.
Blitzball, an entertaining mini-game best described as ‘underwater rugby’, was my favourite part of Final Fantasy X. What this says about the rest of the game – i.e. its story, characters, gameplay, and any generally memorable moments – I’m not quite sure. But X is at least notable for highlighting one further aspect of the series which we have not touched upon thus far: its subliminal anti-religious message. Only, this time around, it wasn’t so subliminal. It was the whole crux of the story.
Your main mission in Final Fantasy X is to stop a giant whale called SIN, which spends its time travelling around the world’s oceans and destroying any civilisation unlucky enough to have a beach resort. As the main sport in the game is – rather counterproductively you would assume – the water-based sport of Blitzball that I have mentioned above, water is kind of hard to get away from for all the civilisations in this game. Which means this SIN creature is a problem and has to be destroyed.
The twist? That SIN, when it is destroyed by your party, as it has been by the numerous parties that came before you, is set to be reborn again and continue its mission of terror against the world. You discover that the person behind this is the spirit of ‘Yu Yevon’, an ancient ruler who originally created the creature to aid his homeland in war and is now worshipped in modern day times by the ‘Yevon Order’. One of your party members is in fact a devout follower of Yevon’s teachings who considers all doubters as ‘evil heathens’. Over the course of the game he begins to doubt himself and by the end has denounced his prior beliefs completely. I will not spoil who the final boss of the game is but you can probably guess by where I’m going with this.
Anyway, enough of the looking back; we want to push forward. While it’s a shame that I will spend less time talking about it here, Final Fantasy XII certainly deserves a favourable mention. Not released until 2006, the game went through a stop-start development cycle due partly to the company changes I have described above.
The wait on this occasion was worth it. XII gave us the true vision of what a next generation Final Fantasy game was capable of, doing away with random encounters for the first time and using the opportunity to implement a newly revamped, seamless battle system with a fully controllable camera.
In some ways I think Final Fantasy XII is, like VIII, one of the forgotten black sheep of the series, scorned by some who never wanted future games to change and move forward. Did it recapture the charm of the PSOne trio I like to talk so much about? No, but one wonders whether anything ever will, and XII had undeniably unique traits of its own. It was released late in the PS2’s life cycle, when attention had started to focus firmly on its successor, the sleek PlayStation 3. Sandwiched between this and its predecessor, the very different online title Final Fantasy XI (which I have helpfully skipped over due to never having played it), XII’s lack of favouritism perhaps means it can be simply labelled a victim of its own timing.
Then, before we knew it, it was once again time for another revamp. Another graphical upgrade. Another fundamentally different game that would disappoint as many fans as it pleased. Such has been the way of Square Enix since 2001.
Fast forward to 2010 and Final Fantasy XIII is released for the PlayStation 3. This game is, for me, still one of the best on the console, but it predictably split Western fans due to its tendency to hold your hand for large parts of the first third and guide you down nice-looking corridors until the final third. Visually, XIII seems even more beautiful than its sequels, although this may just mean it was more colourful. I reviewed XIII-2 (2011/ 12) last year and will be saying no more on it here. Already I have come close to revealing details of the final act in this trilogy.
To conclude, I wish to clarify where I currently stand. I acknowledged at the beginning that Square has gone through several changes in the last decade, including financial failures, company reshuffles and even the odd critical bomb (the less said about XIV’s recent appearance and reappearance, the better). I am not, like some others, of the opinion that this has been bad for the Final Fantasy series, minor gripes with individual titles aside. I think Final Fantasy XIII was ample proof that it still has critical acclaim and subsequent market value. But indeed, that was four years ago. Where does the series stand now? Tomorrow, I review its latest instalment, Lightning Returns.