Tag Archive: Final Fantasy


World of Final Fantasy.

world-of-final-fantasy-pic-1

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

Here’s what I have planned for this blog in the near future, in case anyone thought I’d given up on it.

Video games: my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series is still ongoing. Next on my to-do list are two of the greatest horror video games of all time, and two of my favourite games in general: the original Silent Hill (1999) and its 2001 sequel. I figured it would be fitting to get both of these out – or at least one – by the end of the month, as we are in ‘Halloween’ month after all.

Speaking of which, around Halloween time last year, while I was making the case for why the horror genre is not only great but essential, I promised another film essay, focusing on The Babadook. Granted, I kind of slipped on this one, though it’s always been on the backburner, and hopefully I will also have it out by the end of October. Believe me, I’ve thought so much about this film – my top film of 2014 – that it won’t be too difficult getting a detailed analysis down in coherent words and clicking publish. I had in fact already started working on it around this time last year.

Looking back in my ‘film essay’ category I see that I haven’t in fact published one here since last July, which really is too long, especially considering I was going along at a pace of around one per month up until then. There are two others I have planned immediately following the next: Nightcrawler and Ex Machina, arguably two of the most overlooked films of the past couple of years, and certainly two of my absolute favourites, so I want to do them some justice.

Originally I had planned my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series to, like my plan for film essays, proceed along at a pace of around one per month. Obviously that hasn’t happened for various reasons – not that I’ve just been sitting around, rather I’ve had other things to focus on in the time being – so what I’m going to do with that is, at the very least, get out the two Silent Hill articles (because honestly writing about either of those is an almost limitless joy), then write up something about Final Fantasy VIII (1999), my favourite childhood game and one belonging to a series that frequently splits even its own fans. I’ll be making my case for why VIII, rather than its predecessor, was the peak of the series overall.

After those, I’ll assess whether it’s worth continuing ‘20 Years of PlayStation’ at all. In reality it will probably end with the year 2016 (as we will then technically be into 21 years and so on), and I’ll instead focus on more modern stuff again.

I’ve also been working on an article focusing on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sport, after a year in which we’ve seen a few high profile cases of doping offences and accusations. That one doesn’t entirely follow the politically correct narrative – I think along the lines of allowing some PED’s to be used in a controlled manner, rather than banning everything outright – but I’m writing it mainly to shed some light on the stuff that people tend to overlook when it comes to ‘cheating’ (the blanket term for any offence) in sport.

Otherwise, there are four other prominent ideas for articles that I want to finish and publish here by the end of the year. Those are, first: a piece tackling the issue of review ethics and people who deride critics for any reason, from simply being a butt-hurt fan to those who accuse us of just being ‘haters’ who don’t know how to enjoy stuff.

I have a strong belief when it comes to critique; that it should not tell you what to think about a film, video game, or whatever the product/ service may be, but rather it should help you develop how you think about them. Reviews above all should inform the consumer – they’re not about telling people what they should or shouldn’t enjoy as if there’s some objective standard. Something I love may be something you hate, because everyone has different tastes; but the detail I give about that thing should be enough to tell you how you’re going to feel about it, independent of my own opinion.

Linked to this but worthy of its own article, I’m going to go into the impact that films, video games and books have each had on me personally in terms of my own development. Certain aspects of modern society actively discourage critical thinking and open-mindedness – in fact, I think it’s always been like this, but today’s culture of political correctness means we hear things like “you can’t say that” more than ever, especially on social media (my advice: whatever kind of person you are, it’s healthy to have less of that in your life).

That’s why I think this is important. Art is vital for helping people think outside the confines of the masses; it’s why I value artistic integrity and freedom of expression so highly. Many people who have a single-minded approach to issues in life, on the other hand, don’t. I heard a statement recently that stuck with me: an open mind is a learning mind. Rarely has a truer statement been made throughout history.

My final two planned articles for the year have been an even longer time coming. They are: my Best Films of 2014, and Best Films of 2015.

Now, obviously I understand that most people who like to do this sort of thing prefer to do an ‘end of year’ list and leave it at that. It’s like a nice way to wrap up the year in film, but for me none of those lists are definitive. Not that I’m saying mine would be, though here’s the thing; I consider a film that comes out in 2014, regardless of where it first comes out, to be a 2014 film.

For example, a film released in the UK in, say, early 2015, yet features heavily in awards season, is undoubtedly a 2014 film (Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, for instance) – because the Academy Awards reward the best films of the previous year. Said film will have been out in the US a few months before, but many of us living elsewhere would not have had a chance to see it yet, and it is therefore, by default, left off the list.

From my perspective, then, to make a list at the end of a calendar year would feel a little silly, bordering on dishonest, as the best films released in the UK that year would only represent around half – if that – of the year’s best films overall. I like world cinema; films from Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. And usually it takes a year or so to catch up on films from those places as their releases gradually filter out across other regions. I prefer to include those in my lists, as I want the list to be as definitive and conclusive as possible.

The other thing to note is my dislike of limiting said lists to a ‘top ten’, again usually done for efficiency (I understand; critics are busy, and wrapping up a compact top ten list at the end of the year is simpler than the method I’m currently advocating). The ‘best’ films of a year may not be limited to just ten – or perhaps in an extremely dry year, there wouldn’t even be ten worthy of inclusion.

Now, most critics actually agree with this to an extent; hence why they do some ‘honourable mentions’ that don’t quite make the top ten. For me that’s curious (why name-drop if you’re not going to detail your reasons?) but again I sort of understand why one would – it saves time, and essentially a ‘top 10’ is more marketable than, say, a ‘top 13’. I have more flexibility in my personal schedule and don’t see why I would restrict myself in that way when I’m not required to.

So basically, my lists will feature the best films of each year, whether it’s 10, 12 or 15 movies long. The 2014 list is almost ready to go and realistically I hope to have that one posted here by the start of next month. 2015, hopefully by the end of the year, and as for my 2016 list, well, I’m thinking Summer 2017 at the earliest. The good thing is, as I’m about to hit another film festival – my second such event of the year – I’ll have a decent head start on a lot of the biggest films to feature in awards season coming up. I’ll probably be writing an article around Oscar time too that will give large hints as to the films I found most impressive over the past year.

One final thing… I plan to do brief film previews (yes I am capable of writing shorter pieces!) every Friday. This will give me an opportunity to look forward to some new movies that catch my eye – that won’t necessarily get the mainstream marketing treatment – and share it with you guys. I’m frequently finding new stuff to get excited about so there’ll be no shortage of things to write about here, and I figure it might be useful to have a category for which posts are regular and somewhat set in stone going forward. That way, one could turn up here every weekend and know they’re at least getting something new, even if I haven’t otherwise written anything of great existential meaning.

Speaking of existential meaning, I’m off to prepare for one of the best times of the year: London Film Festival.

20 Years of PlayStation.

PS logo.

Yesterday marked twenty years since the original PlayStation was first released here in the UK.

I didn’t get in on the action until three years after that; the PlayStation being my first official game console (not counting a borrowed Game Boy) in 1998, around the time Metal Gear Solid was changing how people looked at the previously infantile industry. No doubt about it – Sony’s PlayStation was at least partially responsible for making the gaming medium seem mature and even ‘cool’.

I wanted to mark this special, momentous anniversary with something kind of unique. But I couldn’t think of anything, so instead I’m just going to write some more about video games – in particular those that have been synonymous with PlayStation over the years – over the next few weeks and months on this blog. I might even make a new category for it.

Games I’ll cover during this period will include:

Resident Evil (1996), Final Fantasy VII (1997), Metal Gear Solid (1998), Silent Hill (1999), Final Fantasy VIII (1999), Final Fantasy IX (2000), Silent Hill 2 (2001), Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001), Kingdom Hearts (2002), TimeSplitters 2 (2002), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), Resident Evil 4 (2005), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), Final Fantasy XII (2006), Okami (2006), Journey (2012), The Last of Us (2013), Grand Theft Auto V (2013)…

Note that this list will likely be adapted in the near future (I’m sure there’s some I’ve left out), but for now these are the games that come to mind when I think of how the PlayStation has impacted me personally. Also bear in mind that this is not supposed to be a list of the best PlayStation games – I wouldn’t claim to have played enough to make that kind of call. Though I think this is at least a list of some of the most important games to have been released in the past 20 years, not just in relation to PlayStation but for the industry as a whole. I’ll aim to explain why I think so as I cover each one – and yes, they probably will come across as essays. I have included games in this list about which I feel I have something useful to say – indeed, most of which I feel have something useful to say to us – and I will try my best to say it without pandering to those who have the attention span of a fish.

If the list seems to become more sparse as the years go on, that is quite simply because I think the general quality of games (on console at least) has somewhat declined in those years. This may seem an outrageous claim considering the fact that games are technically ‘better’ today than they’ve ever been. But consider, for a moment, the reasons why you might think that. Consider the trends that seem to have gripped the industry in the past ten years.

Or don’t worry about it right now and just bask in the nostalgia, as I am doing. At 25 years old, I not only feel like I grew up with these games – when it comes to PlayStation I literally did grow up with it. We have matured alongside each other, and to look at the PS4 now without truly admiring where it came from would be an injustice that I’d like to think current and future generations won’t suffer. But I realise, in reality, how fortunate I am that this is the time I’ve grown up in. It will never quite be recreated because it was our time. No one else’s. The era of the PlayStation has run its course – or perhaps, in a sense, it is only just beginning.

One final point: I won’t be tackling the above games in the order I’ve listed them. This is partly because doing so would be formulaic and possibly boring. I will cover each of them as and when I feel it is relevant – in other words, precisely when I feel like it.

Iwata pic 1.

Aside from owning the original Gameboy back in the day, which was used almost exclusively for Pokemon Blue (and then Silver) as well as the occasional game of Tetris, I’ve never been a big Nintendo guy.

My first home video game console was the PlayStation in 1998. The NES and SNES were well before my time, while Nintendo 64 was very much in second place behind Sony’s console in the market by the time I became truly intrigued – indeed it was the PlayStation’s impressive selection of games (Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, Final Fantasy VII were already at the height of their popularity, with Silent Hill to grace the landscape soon after) that first got me so interested in what the industry could be capable of. Gamecube would find itself in a similar spot next to the PlayStation 2 a couple of years later, its faltering position exasperated by Microsoft’s entrance into the market with the Xbox.

Enter Satoru Iwata, who took over as President of Nintendo in May 2002. Not to say that’s where his legacy with the company began, of course; in 1999 he had assisted in the development of Pokemon Gold and Silver, creating a set of compression tools that made it possible for the game to become almost twice the size of its original potential. That’s right – you have Iwata to thank for the exceptionally huge post-game of those titles, in which you were able to explore a whole other region after completing the main story. To this day Pokemon Silver is still one of my all-time favourite games, due in no small part to that aspect of it.

Iwata become an official Nintendo employee in 2000, working as head of its corporate planning division. During his time in this role, profit increases up to 41% over a two year period were attributed (at least in part) to him. Such was his success and soaring reputation, that Hiroshi Yamauchi (Nintendo president between 1949-2002) eagerly gave him his blessing to succeed him in his role. This was especially significant as it marked the first time Nintendo had a president outside of the Yamauchi family line. It was a role Iwata held right up until his death earlier this month (July 11), and he certainly made it his own.

During his tenure Nintendo re-established themselves as a major player on the home console market, as well as further strengthening their hold on the handheld one. The Nintendo DS released in 2004 and has gone on to become the best-selling handheld console ever, and the second best-selling console overall behind the PlayStation 2. I only recently invested in a 3DS myself last year for the nostalgia trip that was Pokemon Alpha Sapphire, and I don’t regret that decision one bit. Ten years on, the DS console line is still going strong, with only incremental improvements necessary to keep it feeling modern and up to date with the competition (though that competition is admittedly light at the moment).

The Wii came out in November 2006, pretty much alongside the PS3, and though Sony’s console took a while to settle, Nintendo’s hit the ground running, aiming for a broader family-oriented demographic. Now, I admit never having liked the Wii very much for this reason – it doesn’t exactly help the general impression that all games should be kid-friendly. For as much as there is a place for that, I believe there should also be a place for more mature gaming experiences that tackle more serious issues, and the blatant success of the Wii may have put us some years behind on the industry getting to that point in a wider context.

When most parents think of video games now, the Wii probably comes to mind – along with the relatively harmless games that came with it, which the whole family can enjoy from a six year old to your grandmother. This kind of stereotypical image is partly why Grand Theft Auto V still garners so much widespread controversy despite having a clear 18 rating on its cover (hint: that means it is unsuitable for children).

Still, my personal gripes shouldn’t take away from the Wii’s success. It owed this directly to Iwata, whose decision to aim for a more casual gaming market smartly meant Nintendo would no longer be fighting a battle they couldn’t win against the Xbox 360 and PS3, who kept their focus on hardcore gamers (i.e. the 16-49 year old male demographic, which one could argue is just as detrimental to the industry long-term as my aforementioned gripe about focusing on families). The Wii’s release and subsequent success helped to almost double Nintendo’s stock price – another sign of the company’s upward turn under Iwata’s leadership.

Of course it was not all good; though even during the slight downturn for Nintendo in more recent years (the Wii U, released in 2012, has been underwhelming in comparison to the Wii’s success and found itself falling behind in the console race once Xbox One and PS4 arrived on the scene), Iwata led the company with dignity and retained the confidence of his employees. In 2011 he voluntarily cut his salary by half in response to poor sales – and did the same thing again in 2014. But in truth, by this point his legacy at Nintendo had already long been cemented.

There is a quote from Iwata, which he made at the Game Developers Conference in 2005, that for me sums up precisely why he had such success and respect from his peers within this industry: “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer”.

This man was a gamer first and foremost, and that is why I felt the need to write a little bit about him now. It may sound like a given, that someone working in such a prominent position in this industry would also have been a gamer, but the current market trends of games being released broken (which, by the way, Nintendo simply don’t do) and over-priced DLC tells me the business men in this industry are no longer in step with gamers. They are merely men who know business, and were brought here simply because they saw potential in video games to be one of the most profitable industries on the planet. It is certainly that, but unless we see more men like Satoru Iwata around these parts again soon, I doubt it will retain its heart for much longer.

Trying to please your own fans is a tricky business in the gaming industry. Square Enix should know this better than anyone. After releasing Final Fantasy XIII to Japanese audiences in December 2009, they took on board immediate criticisms of the games linearity and began work on a sequel that would hopefully satisfy those gamers who missed the golden days when there weren’t so many polygons to worry about.

Final Fantasy XIII-2, a game that I had a few problems with due to time travel induced plot holes and a general feeling of ‘why is this even necessary?’, was released two years later to bizarrely better reviews than its predecessor. It was not a better overall game, although granted it did have some charm as any Final Fantasy title does.

XIII was as epic as it needed to be; the first title of the series on a new console generation. It felt like a classic, modern version of Final Fantasy. For me it was the most enjoyable one since IX. I would perhaps say it was hampered in the end by a conclusion that made no sense, but since when has any Final Fantasy game truly made sense?

If ‘making sense’ is a high priority for you when it comes to purchasing a new video game then you’ll certainly feel like staying away from Lightning Returns. I’m torn as to whether or not I’d back you up on that initial assertion. You see, in some ways Lightning Returns makes a lot more sense than any other game in the series; in other ways it makes a lot less. It is a game confused, not knowing whether to treat the end of the world seriously or spend it pursuing new career options, set in a universe where retrieving a child’s ball from a ledge is on the same level as wiping an entire race of monsters off the face of the earth.

Will your version of Lightning have the qualities to prove herself a worthy saviour?

Will your version of Lightning have the qualities to prove herself a worthy saviour?

Assuming you know this really isn’t the best place to start from if you’re entirely new to the XIII trilogy, I’m going to skip the story recap that would involve trying to explain what a fal’Cie is, where main character Lightning gets her attitude from, or why it was necessary for Serah and Noel to jump back and forth through time in the last game (in fact, I’m not sure I fully understand that myself). Instead I’ll set the premise for Lightning Returns in a way that makes the most possible sense.

A substance known as Chaos flooded the world of Cocoon in the previous game, destroying all but four land masses on the planet. God, having decided the world is lost and resolved to create a brand new one, awakens Lightning from the 500 year sleep she started at the end of XIII-2 and appoints her as his ‘saviour’. Her mission, hence yours, throughout the game is to save as many souls as possible for rebirth in this new world. The catch is that you only have thirteen days at your disposal – meaning you (probably) won’t be able to save everyone.

In theory, this sounds like an exciting renegade mission, backed up by a cool opening FMV and prologue sequence that sets the rest of the game up well. In practice, you realise Lightning is actually a glorified errand girl whose job it is to fetch ingredients for lazy people, reunite long lost relatives, and go on a date with a lonely man whose wife had died. These tasks usually end in a kind of counselling session whereby Lightning brings some comfort to the other person and ‘saves their soul’ as a result, occasionally learning something about herself in the process.

Go on, you can say it. So far this game sounds more like a religious soap opera than a traditional JRPG. And at times it certainly feels that way. You don’t level up by the usual method of defeating monsters; it is the completion of these tasks that boosts your stats. Some of the more mundane ones you’ll find yourself trudging through for this reason only, while wondering what you ever did against Square Enix to deserve such punishment. Trying to cheat the system will only result in a swift beating by one of the games very hard main bosses at the end of each chapter.

Now, I know I’m sounding negative. I don’t mean to be too harsh. I know there are many players who will enjoy Lightning Return’s style of play – almost as many as those who won’t. In all honesty, I found myself quite enjoying large parts of it. Although I wonder whether this is because of the tasks themselves or the new time limit restriction imposed on players, forcing them to consider when and how they play the game like few others before it.

This game is set in real-time, or at least as ‘real time’ as games can get. Each in-game hour equates to about three minutes in real life; so each day in the game equates to an hour of play (bearing in mind the counter stops for cut-scenes and battles, it can turn out significantly longer than this). Other games have included this feature before, allowing the game world to transition between day and night, but remember the premise of Lightning Returns: in thirteen days the world will inevitably end.

That means the game itself gives you a set time limit in which to complete it. Such a feature was always bound to split gamers, between those who prefer the free roaming style without restrictions, and those who like certain restrictions because they add challenge and pressure to the experience. I personally belong to the latter category. Many other Western gamers do not.

In other areas, though, the game is less likely to split its critics. The battle system has been largely revamped, with Lightning now your only party member (aside from a couple of temporary cameos); a fascinating new direction for a series that once was known to give you control over as many as fourteen playable characters. The result, surprisingly, is not any less variety than you’re used to, but instead opens up a vast array of new and original possibilities.

During battle, Lightning can switch between different costumes (‘garbs’) which each have their own unique traits. You can set three primary garbs – each with their own set of ‘schemata’, which is basically assigned abilities, weapons and equipment – at a time. Considering these garbs represent well-known classes such as black mage or warrior, you can set Lightning up to fight as a practical one man army, a full party of three by herself. With each command assigned to a face button on the controller too – making a maximum of four, which creates a further need to be especially selective for certain fights – it will make previous Final Fantasy games you’ve played seem unnecessarily complicated and overly reliant on menus.

Some of the games garbs look hilariously silly, but you'll find you don't mind so much if they're giving good stat boosts.

Some of the games garbs look hilariously silly, but you’ll find you don’t mind so much if they’re giving good stat boosts.

So then, how to sum up such a fan-splitting game as Lightning Returns will surely turn out to be? Should it be considered in the context of the overall series, as a conclusion to the XIII trilogy, or as a standalone title? No doubt all three categories are applicable. But I feel whatever context we place this game in, it should be praised slightly more than criticised. This is a style of game that is slowly dying out in the industry; the style that tests gamers appropriately and prevents them from getting everything they want, when they want it, for as long as they want it.

Yet, I also can’t help but feel frustrated at Lightning Returns. You can see here that Square Enix has the blueprint for a really great game that is unfortunately largely obscured under a pile of monotonous tasks added to fill up space and time. Add in an overtly religious theme intended to convey a typically anti-religious message (about which I could write a further essay based on this games content alone) and this obscures it further. In the end, I get the feeling that Lightning is indeed some kind of saviour, albeit one that is slightly confused over what we need saving from.

7 / 10.

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.

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.

The Art of Retail.

My experience of purchasing the newest Final Fantasy title reminded me why I have never been the most natural sales person.

Bear in mind before I go on, that I have in the past worked in Game (the high street retailer that sells video games, for those not in the know) as one of those sales assistants who serves you at the till and provides advice on the shop floor. Coincidentally it was this very same store in which I once worked, where I made said purchase.

It was the 15th of February. I had made my way into town with no intention of buying anything at all (rather ironically, my only intention had been to put money into my bank account). Maybe that’s what made it all the more exciting when I walked past HMV and saw a poster in the window for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, a game that I had totally forgotten was being released on the 14th of February. Immediately I had the instinctive feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to help myself. I don’t deny being a fan of the series, and even a fan within the fandom who has very much enjoyed the previous two instalments of the XIII trilogy on PS3. All of a sudden the release of this game had snuck up on me, and at once I felt a desire to take it home for some alone time.

Then it was only a question of price and, in the end, ethics. HMV was thankfully right across the street from Game, and having observed that both retailers were selling at the same price, I decided to check out my third option. A place where you know you’re going to be able to find stuff like this for just a few coins cheaper: Tesco.

As I had thought, it was indeed a whole £5 cheaper in Tesco. Having double checked this for myself, I still stopped short of picking up that copy and heading to the till, comfortable that I’d be saving myself a little bit of money. I asked myself why it was cheaper, and why saving such a little bit in this instance would be important to me? Most of all, I was just instinctively less comfortable with giving Tesco my money than I was with retailers who actually specialise in a knowledge of the games industry. This, for me, was about more than saving a little money. In an instant I knew that this kind of thing could be the death of places like HMV and Game; that in just a few years from now specialist stores could be history and superstores like Tesco will control the entire retail industry. If you’re thinking this process has already begun, you’re right. On this day, though, I wanted no part in its progress.

Proudly back to Game I went, with my ethical thoughts fresh in my mind. Arriving at the till, I was asked the common questions of whether I would like to make any pre-orders or purchase insurance for the game for just £1. Then, this guy starts trying to sell me a limited edition strategy guide for the game. He mentions that, for this game specifically, due to certain elements of the gameplay, the strategy guide would be extremely helpful.

He goes into all of this without first asking me whether or not I had played a Final Fantasy game before, or used one of Piggyback’s famous strategy guides for the series before. If he had, he would have found out that I have used one of these guides for every previous Final Fantasy title I’ve played, and gotten angry at many people who consider this to be some form of cheating (a needless debate that I am not going to touch on here). A Final Fantasy game, I’ve always said, is only truly experienced in full with an accompanying Piggyback strategy guide in tow.

This time, for me, has been an exception. I did not take up his offer of purchasing the guide, partly due to money, but also because I wanted my experience of this game to continue how it started: with surprise, excitement of not really knowing what I’m doing at first, and a freshness that comes with going into something cold. On this occasion I have not even done what I would usually do before purchasing a new game. This includes checking out reviews, or even the previews that appear before release; things I would recommend others do before giving money to certain developers.

Still, the confident sales assistant stood there quoting his sales line. Having done the same thing myself, I saw right through it. I felt I probably knew a lot more about this series than he did. But most of all, I thought of how I would be approaching it if I was in his position at that moment.

The reason I struggled with this side of selling is that I always felt it was surely so obvious to the customer that you were acting; it was your job to make this thing as attractive as possible, even if it was, frankly, not worth your money at all. Game employees are encouraged not so much to think about that, as the profit they themselves will be making. This is why they will always give priority to selling pre-owned titles as well – in that case, all the profit goes to them, and you save money. Everyone wins, apart from the publisher.

So you can see why I have made a point of ethics here. Granted this is not just a retail problem, or a business problem. It’s a human problem.

I remember from my brief days as a door-to-door salesman (what, I didn’t mention I did that too?), being given a ‘script’, a certain few lines that you had to learn off by heart so you could be ready to spew it at the unsuspecting customer as soon as they opened the door to you. It was specially written to manipulate them into buying. To make them want to hear more at least. Every morning before going out we practised this script on each other. Needless to say, for me it felt totally unnatural, and I think for very righteous reasons.

It still surprises me how many people who are otherwise very ethical, will not see this sales technique in the same way that I do. They will make arguments about it being necessary, saying perhaps it is appropriate if you just conduct yourself in the right way and, most importantly, don’t lie. Sure you may not lie, but if instead you are stating an exaggerated truth in order to make something that your target may not otherwise be interested in sound subtly more attractive, is that any better? The serpent did not lie when he tempted Eve. He was the first sales person.

But I see I have started reaching beyond the scope of this article, and the focus of this week. We’re supposed to be talking about video games here, right? Yes… yes, of course we are.

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).

Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Looks pretty, sounds pretty, feels pretty... The game, I mean.

Looks pretty, sounds pretty, feels pretty… The game, I mean.

Most people could understand why Final Fantasy X (released in 2002 for the PS2) got a sequel. It was the most successful Final Fantasy title ever and the first on a brand new next-generation console. In Japan it is regularly voted the most popular in the series – in fact, it was even voted the best game ever in 2006 by readers of Japanese video game magazine Famitsu. So most people could probably understand Squaresoft’s logic in working on and releasing a sequel two years later that had the women of the original game (the original game in this instance meaning the tenth instalment of a long-running series) now wearing skimpy, even bordering on – although I still hate using this term in relation to video game characters – sexy outfits that would surely draw more sales than ever.

I say most people because I actually wasn’t one of them. To release a sequel to one of their games regardless of its standalone success was unheard of for Square Enix (as they are now called) in those days. Not only that, but to release one for the tenth instalment was also to set a precedent that would cause fans to ask ‘why not release a sequel to our favourite as well?’ Because if Squaresoft believed that X was everyone’s favourite then they certainly made a huge judgment call that wasn’t very accurate outside of Japan.

While I did find Final Fantasy X-2 (2004) reasonably entertaining in the end, I look back now and see exactly what it means. That is what signalled the official end of Final Fantasy’s peak years; those years when they would push the boundaries of interactive entertainment and release some of the greatest role-playing games we will ever see (what I like to call the ‘golden trilogy’ of VII, VIII and IX on the PSOne). What X-2 told me – and others, if they had stopped to think about it – was that Square felt on this occasion, with their brand new development software on the PS2, they hadn’t actually squeezed everything out of X that they could; they felt there was more to come, an extra bit of potential that hadn’t yet been tapped into. And that, for Square Enix, was the real concern. They were in uncharted territory now: where the development potential at their disposal threatened to swamp what they could get into a single game. Thereafter, Final Fantasy XII (2006), while doing a lot better at reaching this potential (turning into what I consider to be the most underrated game of the series, due partly to the time of its release in the PS2’s twilight years), had a mammoth five year development cycle – having began when development on X had ended in 2001. Clearly, the years when Squaresoft could release three of the best games of the era in a four year period were over.

Fast forward another four years and here arrives Final Fantasy XIII (2010) on the PlayStation3, yet another step up for a developer of whom everyone still expected the absolute best. Now, I’ll confess straight away that I loved the plot of XIII, and was hooked until the end. But that was also part of the problem with it. Many people were hooked until the end of the story, but then realised that the storyline, while being the strongest part of any Final Fantasy game regardless, has never been the only thing that hooked you to the series. There are usually all sorts of other attractive things to do in the world as well, and it was in this area that the game found itself falling short of the typical Final Fantasy standard. It was, quite frankly, concentrating too much on something that it should have had anyway, and using it as an excuse for not filling the world with the sort of life that you found by blissfully flying around Final Fantasy VIII’s world in the Ragnarok – and THAT was in 1999. Having said that, visually the game looked glorious and gameplay, while not as comprehensive as previous titles, was addictive nonetheless.

Then, we have Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2012), the subject of this article/ review. Unlike X-2, I do understand, this time, why XIII was given a sequel. It was partly an answer to the criticisms I’ve just mentioned regarding the original (again, the original in this instance meaning the thirteenth original). I can also see the new direction in which this series is being taken in the new era of PS3 and beyond. No doubt Square Enix has now realised that it can no longer get away with releasing a standalone game that encompasses an epic story along with tons of extras – if it wishes to do this, it now has to release a series of games. We have seen this start to take shape with the ‘XIII series’ in a sense: Lightning Returns, the third instalment, is due for release early next year. Those of us who grew up with the PSOne generation may find ourselves feeling slightly offended at the commercial audacity of this new direction; but for the next generation of Final Fantasy fans, those who perhaps are only joining the party now, I presume this will become actually quite an exciting way of doing things. Certainly, in the future, I don’t see how developers can do any different if they plan to release games every two years or so. To make a PS3 equivalent of Final Fantasy VIII or IX now would no doubt take up to ten years to complete with the greater, more expansive (not to mention expensive) technology at the disposal of developers who I wouldn’t blame for missing the days when superior developing skill, rather than the deepness of your pockets, would decide how much you were able to put into a game.

But I’m not going to judge this individual game solely on the context of its release and what it means for the industry. I probably would if it was no good and I felt rather bitter about it, but that is simply not the case. The general consensus, when it comes to XIII-2, is that Square Enix took the criticisms thrown at its predecessor on board and responded with a game that gave you more freedom in the path you took while playing through it.

I, of course, don’t usually go along with ‘general consensus’. While the game did make improvements in the linearity issues from the previous title, it did so by sacrificing some story and gameplay elements in the process. You only use two characters (the previously unplayable Serah and new character Noel) in this game as opposed to the usual minimum of six, and it really doesn’t feel like that much effort to fully level them up, providing you’re not the kind of player who tries to skip every battle and doesn’t like side-quests (which mostly take the form of hunts in this game). This will admittedly make the game more accessible to those who aren’t the completists that spent many hours trying to achieve this feat long after the main story had finished in XIII.

There is, however, a new element to XIII-2’s gameplay that is worth a particular mention; the ability to capture monster ‘crystals’, which then allow you to use that monster on your team during the game, bringing your party up to three members. It’s hugely satisfying to acquire a powerful monster early in the game and then gleefully have him tear things up until you can replace it with something even better later on. Monsters can be levelled up with certain materials, replacing the weapon and equipment levelling up that was present in XIII, which I felt didn’t quite work as well as the ‘monster levelling’ does here. In that aspect, XIII-2 was a resounding success.

The game gets its premise of ‘greater freedom’ from the fact that the story involves time travel, and has you jumping through time to different periods. Initially this sounds incredibly interesting, and it is, but with a few limitations. For example, although it makes a big point of allowing you to ‘time travel’, you actually don’t have the option to (spoiler alert) travel back in time from the point where the game starts. You know, there’s no option to, for example, travel back to an event in the previous game, or travel back to the beginning of the universe, or something. Realistically you realise this kind of expansiveness wouldn’t be possible on a disc that also has to squeeze in many megabytes worth of graphical power as well (relating to the problem I was just mentioning above), but it’s still sobering to come to something that promised so much and in the end actually feels quite limited in the options it gives you.

For the completists out there, there’s no need to feel turned off; there’s still plenty here for you to explore and collect. A total of 160 ‘fragments’ are scattered throughout the game, which can be acquired by achieving certain milestones or completing important tasks. Most of them you’ll have to find by completing side-quests, but there’s few games that reward you for, say, getting 100% exploration on all the maps or defeating every single type of monster (including all of the bosses, and all of the variations of the bosses that you may encounter in different time periods) as XIII-2 does. Again, it deserves credit in catering for those who may perhaps have felt short changed at the ease with which the main storyline can be completed (although having said that, it will still be a strong 35-40 hours – for demanding Final Fantasy fans, that’s just not that long).

This is essentially what it comes down to. Do you judge this game on its own merit, or do you judge it in relation to how it stands up to the other Final Fantasy games? As I have alluded to, the time when a Final Fantasy game could fit all of the elements of a VII, VIII or IX onto the same disc are gone. Technology has advanced, and with it we lose some, we gain some. This new direction that Square Enix is taking with the series is one I’m interested in, but one that I understand won’t reach the personal heights, for me, of those glorious PSOne days. To expect it to would be missing out on something new and exciting, but not quite understanding what it’s good at yet. Hopefully the next instalment will continue where this leaves off, bringing back the superior storytelling elements of the original too. And when I say ‘original’… ah, you know what I mean.

7 / 10.