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

Grand Theft Auto V and the not-so-niche market of high definition re-releases.

Only a few days ago Ralph Baer, the man widely acknowledged as the ‘Father of video games’, passed away. Most famous for development of the world’s first video game console (though the term could be applied loosely here), the “Brown Box” in the late 1960s, his pioneering ideas set the blueprint for early games such as Computer Space (1971) and the more popular Pong (1972). There’s something undeniably timeless about watching the video of him and one of his co-workers trying out the Brown Box for the first time; it’s a literal time capsule providing a vital glimpse at humble beginnings for a much-maligned industry.

For the thirty years following this breakthrough, the industry would skyrocket into one of the most profitable that has ever existed. It has long since surpassed films and books in terms of the money it makes and even, in some instances, the stories it has shown the ability to tell. Yet artistically one could argue video games seem to be caught up in a very real and current struggle to avoid periodically stalling.

Consumers have become addicted to the desire for always improving visuals; developers have been pushed to putting all of their resources into extracting more processing power out of the hardware they’re using and sacrificing other design elements in the process – like, for example, actual gameplay.

There also appears to be a worrying trend of developers selling games we already own back to us. Not that this is anything new – films and books have been doing it for many years. As new formats have emerged over time, such as audiobooks, DVD, Blu-ray and Kindle, publishers and distributors have always identified the marketable opportunity to release something old in a newer skin. The ‘special edition’ DVD or ‘limited edition’ nicely designed re-release of a classic novel are just a couple of the tempting offers you’ll see on any given day in any number of high street retailers.

Having said that, the effect this will have on the video games industry will, I think, prove more detrimental in the long run, both for consumers and the developers currently basking in the safe profit margins that these releases provide. It is not hard to see how and why, although having a PlayStation as my main console of choice for over fifteen years now means I can only really comment on the situation relating to Sony’s main console.

As you will likely know even if you don’t so much care, the PlayStation 4 was released last year in Europe and North America to somewhat subdued acclaim. To my knowledge only hardcore gamers and those who must have the latest technology to keep up with emerging trends, were the ones who took the initial investment. For everyone else, myself (as someone who previously purchased a PS3 on release day – and it’s still going strong, by the way) included, the consensus was that our current consoles were still adequate for our needs.

Besides from trying to win over their consumers with more beautiful visuals than ever before, there were some suspicious sacrifices Sony’s new console made that should have given us a hint about where we’d be a year on. The main one, for me, was a lack of any sort of backwards compatibility, including the catalogue of PS1 and PS2 classics available on PS3 through the PlayStation Store. If you were the kind of gamer to recycle your previous console when a new one was released, you could say goodbye to that old sense of nostalgia… for now.

A year on, there are still no essential titles that make me want to buy the new console, and the ones that could eventually entice me (Kingdom Hearts III and Silent Hills most of all) will not be coming out until at least mid-2016. In fact, the two most essential titles for the console so far seem to have one main thing in common: they’re both higher definition versions of the previous generations best titles. I’m talking, of course, about The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. The former I haven’t played more than 20 minutes of, because I didn’t buy it at the time and I’m thinking now the best version to play will probably be the one on PS4.

Grand Theft Auto V, on the other hand, I have bought and played. And you know what? I don’t regret one second of it. It can be a controversial thing to say in the current climate (unjustifiably so, in my opinion), but this game is as close to a technical and creative masterpiece that AAA titles can get. It comes not only with an expansive, living, densely populated world, but also intelligent writing that parodies modern society and the stereotypical caricatures created by a postmodern culture.

Those are the areas in which the game gains its plaudits. Not for the act of being able to murder civilians or have sex with prostitutes. These things are admittedly cheap forms of entertainment (which I don’t personally find entertaining) and if the game relied on them without providing appropriate context to its world, it would be no more revered than the average gratuitous ‘slasher’ movie.

It is a shame, then, that many people don’t consider this context, instead judging the game on one or two of its isolated offerings and increasingly using it, as they have done with this series since its first release, for generalizing evidence that everything wrong with society is in some way related to video games, which don’t deserve to be anything more than Candy Crush.

But if there is one game that shows how maturely and seriously the industry should be taken, GTA V is surely that. This is a game that is certainly not for kids, even more so than previous titles in the series, and the big red ‘18’ rating on the front of the game case emphatically reinforces this point.

Though I don’t hold it against some parents for still being confused about this, because it seems some retailers aren’t helping the matter: Target AU, an Australian company recently subject to a petition urging them to stop selling the game, foolishly went ahead and placed GTA V alongside Peppa Pig and Spider-man dolls in their toy section. If I was a parent I’d be quite mystified and concerned to see it there too; the difference in this case being that I would have actually played the game and could make a more informed decision than the majority of others who would be judging only by what they have seen on the news or the internet.

The issue of whether or not I should praise the GTA V developers, Rockstar North, for re-releasing their already immensely successful game on PS4, taking advantage both of the aforementioned non-compatibility and the increased power of the new console, is of course an entirely different issue. Essentially they are selling their game twice, the second time only one year after the first, making enough changes that will entice those who invested before to perhaps do so again. It sounds cheeky, it feels cheeky, and we all know it is quite cheeky, but that won’t stop the majority of people from buying it anyway. And this, at the end of the day, is the deciding factor for a development team who have a job for which they must be paid and therefore desire the best financial results for their work. If most of us didn’t want it, they wouldn’t make it, because it is our wanting it that means they can make it.

You may think that a worrying sign. Surely there must be other, more artistic factors that decide what they put their energy into? To an extent there is, but in the end it will always come down to one thing: whatever the customer wants you must give, if you want the cycle to continue.

This cycle will continue; I need only look at my own recent gaming purchases for evidence of it. Aside from GTA V, recent games I’ve played include the Metal Gear Solid and Jak & Daxter HD collections, as well as the HD remaster of Final Fantasy X/ X-2. For all the complaining I might try to do about developers not making new games and instead just recycling old ones, I’m forced to admit that I’m part of the guilty party here.

Yet still I worry. I worry because this nostalgia factor can only last for so long, and if we get too caught up in it, the risk remains that there won’t be new classics for future generations to be nostalgic about. Frankly, I think it would be just a little selfish of us to rob them of that.

Nostalgia is indeed a big business for postmodern humanity. I would hope Grand Theft Auto V, both in its self-deprecating content and the wider trends it is part of, represents one of the warning signs that people will take heed of, not only for the benefit of the video game industry, but for the direction of society in general. For this transcendent nature, GTA V could be one of the great gaming classics. It is our generation’s responsibility to recognize that and treasure it.

Video Games

Sequels upon Sequels.

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).

Despite being a huge commercial failure, The Spirits Within nonetheless gave a lesson in CGI to the film industry.
Despite being a huge commercial failure, The Spirits Within gave a lesson in CGI to the film industry.

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.

Meet Tidus: a Final Fantasy protagonist famous for quite a few wrong reasons.
Meet Tidus: a Final Fantasy protagonist famous for a few wrong reasons.

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.

Religious references, such as this one, were rampant in Final Fantasy X.
Religious references, such as this one, were rampant in Final Fantasy X.

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.

XII is an often forgotten Fantasy, despite being the all-round largest title in the series and implementing several gameplay improvements.
XII is an often forgotten Fantasy, despite being the all-round largest title in the series and implementing several gameplay improvements.

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.