Video Games

World of Final Fantasy.

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At face value, a review for this game should be easy. Ask yourself one question: would you consider yourself a Final Fantasy fan? Or have you never touched one of the 15+ main series’ titles in your life?

If you fit into the latter category, rest assured World of Final Fantasy offers little to convince anyone this is a good starting point. This is unashamedly a Final Fantasy title for the fans, of which there are many. So I’ll continue on assuming that anyone reading beyond this point has at least a passing interest in the series.

To set some context here, I’m the type whose introduction to this series was during its initial PlayStation run (I wasn’t yet born when it began), more specifically Final Fantasy VIII. I’ve played every title since, apart from exclusively online titles XI and XIV, and even ventured back to sample earlier games IV, V, and VI. I think it’s fair to say, then, that I belong around the middle of the spectrum, not quite a hardcore fan who’s played every title to completion, but someone with a good working knowledge of the series and proficient knowledge of those titles I have played. In other words, I’m enough of a fan overall to appreciate many of the references included in World of Final Fantasy, though a few did admittedly fly over my head.

At its core that’s essentially what this game is: fan service, in its self-referential nature, gameplay style, and characteristic meandering plot. Initially it feels rather like 2000’s Final Fantasy IX, itself seen as a romantic title harking back to the series’ earlier days before it moved on to the ‘new’ era with Final Fantasy X on the PS2. This is most obvious in its retro-feeling visual style, which is undeniably charming and, in its own way, beautiful.

Character models verge between cartoonish, child-like and disproportionate (a slight nod back to the 2D era of gaming when every character’s head was as big as the rest of their body) to more realistic and evenly proportioned. This is worked into the story, as the two main characters you control during this game, Reynn and Lann, can transform between the former (known here as ‘Lilikins’) and the latter (known as ‘Jiants’).

While your party is, on the surface, restricted to these two characters for the entire game, this gives way to arguably this game’s best attribute, at least in the earlier stages. That is its battling, which revolves around catching ‘mirages’ (basically, monsters with a name that won’t put children off) and stacking them within your party.

Tactically, the stacking system feels addictive, while the colourful visuals add character to the game world.
Tactically, the stacking system feels addictive, while the colourful visuals add character to the design of the game world.

Every mirage has different strengths, and they’re split into three different sizes – small, medium and large – which naturally leads to multiple playing styles and tactics you can employ. Will you stack mirages with similar strengths, or try to balance out their weaknesses? Fans will enjoy the nostalgic designs; being able to get on top of a Malboro’s head in battle is just one of the small joys this game offers. The return of turn-based battles, random encounters and the ‘active time battle’ system from earlier titles is also strangely refreshing, while levelling up occurs on a board similar to the method used in Final Fantasy X and XIII.

The system is not perfect, though. As every mirage begins at level 1 from the moment you catch it, you’re going to have an issue if you find one in the late-game that you wish to add to your party. In my case I had a few different stack selections I was happy with relatively early on, and didn’t vary them much beyond the half-way stage of the game. On the flip side, battle difficulty also appears to wane slightly as you get further on and your team becomes more powerful, when traditionally the opposite is true of RPGs and even other Final Fantasy games. This may be due to the game trying to appeal more to kids and not wanting to be too hard for them to get through it, though it is still interesting enough overall to appeal to more mature players – if not those who prefer a hardcore challenge.

While the gameplay represents World of Final Fantasy’s most addictive aspect, the characters you’re playing with represent something else entirely. Brother/sister duo Lann and Reynn are generic and stereotypical, the former filling the role of an ‘annoying brat’ and his big sister being the typical know-it-all. But far and away the most irritating aspect of this game is their companion (i.e. mascot) Tama, an overly cutesy mirage who places ‘the-’ in front of random objectives every other sentence (she’ll regularly say stuff like “we have to the-run” or “time to the-catch the mirage”). Thankfully there’s an option to skip dialogue, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing that every time Tama starts talking. Even the average 10-year-old I doubt would find it enjoyable.

Generic and annoying main characters aside, others you meet on your journey around the land of Grymoire – basically an amalgamation of various regions from past Final Fantasy titles – help keep the experience fresh. These include famous protagonists from the series’ history such as Cloud (VII), Squall (VIII), Tidus and Yuna (X), Lightning and Snow (XIII), as well as several older characters who I didn’t initially recognise (though the first ‘summon’ you get in this game is a wonderful throwback to the original Final Fantasy; even I could appreciate that).

The game has a surprisingly clever sense of humour and regularly pokes fun at itself – including THAT unbearably awkward laughing scene from Final Fantasy X when you visit the region of Besaid from that game. Every time you catch a new mirage, you’re given a short description that may reference the monster’s past in other games, and the subtle jokes inserted in there never failed to make me chuckle. It is in this aspect that I think the game appeals to more mature players, as there’s no way kids are going to get the humour in most of the references. I certainly enjoyed this element of the game immensely.

Unfortunately, the backdrop to these wonderful references and nostalgia trips is a rather uninspiring plot that becomes unnecessarily convoluted the further you go in the game. This, like the annoyance one feels toward the central characters, exposes World of Final Fantasy’s weakness: its original elements (i.e. when it isn’t relying on nostalgia, borrowed characters and ideas) are utterly forgettable.

But for most fans, I daresay that won’t be a problem. It certainly didn’t stop me enjoying the overall experience for what it was. In fact, there came a clear emotional point in this game for me in which I couldn’t help but react with the kind of pure nostalgic joy that I haven’t felt since revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4. Obviously I won’t spoil it here, but I will say it was upon visiting a well-known location from my personal favourite game in this series, Final Fantasy VIII, at a pivotal point in the story. Yes, it was a joyful fanboy moment, and I have few of those.

So naturally I will be grading this title on a curve, the caveat being that those who aren’t quite as big a fan of Final Fantasy may very well find their overall enjoyment of World of Final Fantasy affected by that. Technically this is a game with a few glaring flaws, but one that has the priceless value of nostalgia thanks to the extensive back catalogue the Final Fantasy series has built up over its 30-year history. Catching and battling with mirages admittedly has the air of Pokemon about it as well; you can even ‘transfigure’ them into larger mirages when you level them up or obtain certain items. For completionists, there is an unmistakable joy to be found in discovering them all. For the rest of you, you may just be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

7 / 10

Video Games

A lot of Fantasy, but nothing Final.

December 17, 1987. The release date of the original Final Fantasy, a humble role-playing game intended by video game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi to be his final attempt at success in the industry. Had the game failed financially, he planned to leave Square – themselves a humble computer software company only formed one year earlier and reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy – and return to university in preparation for a change of career.

Needless to say, the game is now remembered for anything but financial failure. Developed by a core team of seven staff members (including Sakaguchi himself) within Square, Final Fantasy introduced many elements that would serve as the groundwork for its numerous sequels, including an overworld map, towns and dungeons, a battle screen and the infamous random encounter system. While these fundamentals had appeared in some form in previous RPG games, where Final Fantasy set itself apart was in two key areas, those being its plot (a mature, winding story with the occasional surprise twist) and a memorable soundtrack composed by Nobuo Uematsu.

Final Fantasy was the first game to show the player's characters on the right side of the screen and enemies on the left in a battle scenario, as opposed to the typical first-person view.
Final Fantasy was the first game to show the player’s characters on the right side of the screen and enemies on the left in a battle scenario, as opposed to the typical first-person view.

Inspired by the games unexpected success and resulting financial boost for the company, Square initiated development of a sequel almost immediately. Final Fantasy II was released exactly a year after its predecessor and established certain staples of the series. Chocobos made their first appearance, appearing in every subsequent main title, as well as a character named Cid. These two recurring elements have tied each game since loosely together when almost everything else changes. The games story, world, characters and certain gameplay mechanics were completely fresh and new, a rule that would be adhered to until future generations decided differently.

Development and release of the early games in the series continued at a fast pace with Final Fantasy III (1990), IV (1991) and V (1992), with the series transitioning from the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) to the upgraded SNES (‘Super’ NES) between III and IV. This first generation of Final Fantasy titles hit their peak in 1994 with Final Fantasy VI, the final title released for the SNES.

The series’ sixth instalment was as epic a game as you could find on the SNES; the greatest achievement of the time for such limited hardware. Retaining and perfecting the aforementioned elements from previous titles, VI also boasted fourteen unique playable characters, the most of any game in the series before or since. Its setting paralleled that of the 19th century, featuring opera, fine arts, railroads and steam ships; to step into the game was almost to step into the time period of the Second Industrial Revolution. During the course of the story, the geography and landscape around you would change according to plot developments. Visually it was more impressive than gamers raised on current console generations can possibly appreciate.

It may look awfully minimalist now, but at the time this was the best it could get for console games.
It may look awfully minimalist now, but at the time this was the best it could get for console games.

Without a doubt, Final Fantasy VI was a fine artistic and technological feat. But historically, it would (perhaps unfortunately) be overshadowed by what was to come next.

It was a long time coming, but in 1997, ten years after the series’ first humble instalment, Final Fantasy VII was released for Sony’s PlayStation (Square having realised, with the SNES now becoming outdated, that the CD-Rom had more storage capacity and potential than the Nintendo 64’s cartridges), helping to popularize the JRPG genre outside of its home market. Western interest in the series skyrocketed. This was due not only to the switch over to a more powerful console, but also the ambitious changes that VII introduced.

One of the most obvious changes was in how the game looked. Although the main locations and environments consisted of 2D pre-rendered backgrounds through which you guide your 3D character model – it wouldn’t be until the PS2 era that these would become fully 3D also – the overworld map, along with battle screens, were now in glorious 3D and made the game feel more realistic than any previous instalment. This represented the biggest visual jump of the series; beyond this would only be incremental improvements, despite further jumps to the PS2 and PS3 consoles to come.

The vast visual improvement in Final Fantasy VII is immediately obvious.
The vast visual improvement in Final Fantasy VII is immediately obvious.

This graphical realism helped to give fans some of their most memorable characters and moments of the entire series. I am referring of course to Cloud Strife, with his oversized sword and hair style; Sephiroth, the main villain who everyone loves to hate; and that one scene mid-way through the game, which cemented its plot as an all-time favourite in the minds of many a gamer. Few stories, even in cinema, are able to create such emotional resonance with their audience as Final Fantasy VII achieved here.

Yet I would argue that these sentimental attachments lead people to over-rate Final Fantasy VII slightly. Taking it as a whole, I struggle to see, aside from great visual improvements, a game superior to its immediate predecessor. Then again, a similar accusation could be hurled at me for saying the next instalment, Final Fantasy VIII, is my favourite in the series – it was, after all, the first one I played.

I have already talked about VIII and IX. The former took great strides towards additional realism and revolutionised certain gameplay mechanics – substituting magic points for the ‘junction’ system included – for one game only. It is, I would argue, the best game for sceptics of the series to start on (highlighted further by the fact that so many fans were upset by it). IX was an amalgamation of all the best elements from the previous eight games, and could be summed up in one word: nostalgia.

FMV sequences helped make the Final Fantasy games on PSOne some of the most visually impressive on the market.
FMV sequences helped make the Final Fantasy games on PSOne some of the most visually impressive titles on the market.

From here the series changes further. It is hard to believe that in the space of seven years we go from Final Fantasy VI (1994) on the SNES to Final Fantasy X (2001) – complete with voice acting for the first time and fully 3D rendered in-game environments – on the PlayStation 2. But that was the nature of the fast-paced gaming industry when I was growing up. It has since slowed down significantly in terms of technological advancement.

As has Square’s output as a company. VII, VIII, IX and X were all released within five years of each other. It would be another five before we got the next main console game in the series: Final Fantasy XII. This can be attributed to numerous factors, including the box office failure of The Spirits Within (2001) and the departure of Executive Vice President Hironobu Sakaguchi – with whom we started this article – from the company.

Sakaguchi’s story is a fascinating one, and it is fitting that we should bring this retrospective back to him. He had started as a part-time employee at Square back in 1986. During the development of the original Final Fantasy, his small team’s project was dismissed even from within the company. Its success saved both them and his career in the industry; four years after this (1991) he was appointed to the EVP position that he held until his departure.

With that, Square changed, and so did the series that was beloved by many. Whether for better or worse is something I will consider tomorrow, as we bring this story back into the present.

Video Games

A Gaming Anecdote.

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.

Turn based combat was a staple of the series, but Final Fantasy VIII was the first in which it looked semi-realistic.
Turn based combat was a staple of the series, but Final Fantasy VIII was the first in which it looked semi-realistic.

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.

IX was considerably more stylised, but beautiful in its own nostalgic right.
IX was considerably more stylised, but beautiful in its own nostalgic right.

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).