Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Reaction to Final Fantasy XV: TLDR I'm Hype

Regarding the News: Final Fantasy Versus XIII now Final Fantasy XV

I’ve had a day now to start getting used to calling it Final Fantasy XV, and my god, it feels so good. Final Fantasy has been a gigantic part of my life, one of the defining elements of my childhood. In the wake of the Final Fantasy XII,[1] the seemingly never-ending XIII franchise, and the failed MMO, I was genuinely concerned that another bad move from Square could bring it all to a possibly-deserved end.[2]

And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. The series has become infamous for its borrowing of tropes and character templates from itself, but in reality, each game in the series is radically different from the others. If Final Fantasy was over, it would just mean that Square would take anything planned as a Final Fantasy game and market it as a AAA title under a different name. That’s what happened to Xenogears and Parasite Eve anyway. But I can’t say I wouldn’t be heartbroken anyway. I liked Angels and Airwaves and I liked +44 but I’d be outright insane to say I wouldn’t take Blink-182 over them any day.[3]

When the trailers for Versus XIII came out years ago I just thought it was being released under the franchise name as a marketing gimmick. Fine by me, the title of anything is ultimately completely unimportant, and using the Final Fantasy name to market something ultimately unrelated to the main series of classical JRPGs allowed many niche franchises to emerge and later flourish. The Mana series for example, started as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden [4], a humble Zelda-inspired Gameboy title, and the first game in the SaGa franchise was released as The Final Fantasy Legend in the United States,[5] and of course Final Fantasy Tactics, whose director Yasumi Matsuno went on to co-direct Final Fantasy XII with the legendary Hiroyuki Ito[6].

I’d been occasionally re-watching the older trailers for what was at the time Versus XIII and thoughts have always been the same: “The graphics look great, the dialogue is fantastic, the music is heartbreaking, and this game is never coming out.” Tetsuya Nomura had been tied up in the Kingdom Hearts franchise[7] and its incessant spinoffs since about 2008. Versus XIII had been labeled his vanity project, which meant there was no way any work was getting done on it until there was somehow a break in the series.

I’ve felt since around the time that XIII-2 flopped that at least from a corporate and from an “ethical” perspective it was time for Nomura to be allowed to direct a main numbered title in this storied franchise. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t despise Birth by Sleep[8] in particular, but because of those prequels and interquels[9] Nomura is one of the only big names left at the company who makes the company any money. Hironobu Sakaguchi is gone and doing just fine thank you (same with Uematsu), Yoshinori Kitase is too comfortable sitting on his legacy[10], Hiroyuki Ito is still in the doghouse for not saving Final Fantasy XII, and (thank the random providence of the universe) Motmou Toriyama is locked with Lightning Returns.[11]

And let’s be real, in a franchise that involves some of the biggest most popular names not just of Square’s empire, but of Disney? There’s not a chance in hell that Nomura has the kind of auteur creative control that one might envision he does. In fact, writing and design by committee are really the only things that could possibly explain how absolutely insanely stupid Dream Drop Distance’s story turned out.[12]

But all of this is ultimately irrelevant. The other day I was driving to pick up my dogs from my mom’s place in fairly heavy rain. I hit an exit ramp a little too fast, and started swerving off road, heading into bushes I couldn’t clearly see into. Looking into the blur of green and brown was the clear thought that in all likeliness there was very likely a tree branch or something of the like that would crash through my windshield, impale me through the chest, and kill me. A moment later, I realized this was not the case. I was fine, so was the car. I turned off the car, hit the emergency lights, and gave myself a moment to breathe while I realized I was still alive and spent the rest of that day thinking yet again about death and the impermanence of all things.

I remembered two winters ago when my father and I were almost in a multi-car accident in the winter of 2009 that would’ve almost certainly killed us. I thought about how my original disc copy of Final Fantasy VII is starting to skip, even after years of me doing my best to take care of it.

Final Fantasy will someday cease to be. Today is not that day.

And on top of that, holy shit this trailer is fucking amazing. So let’s be happy today that we have something that looks this great and this exciting to be hopeful about. I like a lot of different things in this trailer, but I wanna hone in on something particular.

One of the things that particularly impressed me in some of the older FFvXIII trailers was the little snippets of conversation between the characters Noctis and Stella. FFVIII’s dialogue captured the nuances of the adolescent mind, but appropriate to age, the characters in these trailers speak like young adults. The early dialogue in this trailer especially reflects that. A couple that is heartbroken that it cannot be, straining to pull themselves apart from each other. However, the real gem in this particular trailer is Noctis’ interaction with his father, the King, as a young boy.

A particular strength of the best games in this series have been that characters have not been defined by singular events, but by the forming psychological experiences of entire lives. Cloud did not have one particular incident in his childhood that made him want to go to Midgar and become a hero, it was a subtle synthesis of reading about Sephiroth in Shinra propaganda papers, his inability to prove his self-worth to others, the subtextual rejection of him by Tifa, his own violent demons, the lack of paternal discipline from an absent father.

Similarly, this trailer informs the later segments of gameplay and footage that show Noctis’ father in trouble with the human emotions of the relationship between them by showing earlier that scene of the two eating dinner. Noct complains that the food is terrible, the King replies that he shouldn’t say that, the cook will be fired, then sticks out his green tongue in disgust of the food, Noct laughs. Thus, later, when the objective becomes to find and save that character, Noct does not need to outwardly display how much he loves his father to make this an emotionally compelling objective. We know that he does. This isn’t just “OBJECTIVE: Save Your Father, The King.” It’s, “Save Your Father, The King, Who Hated the Food Just As Much As You Did.” This is how writing works and I’ve never seen it written on such a genius level in a videogame.

If the rest of Final Fantasy XV shows as much subtle understanding of human characters as it appears to have already done, and matches it with quality gameplay (which we’ve already seen) we’re not just looking at the first good Final Fantasy game in 15 years, we’re looking at one of the best JRPGs of all time. Get hype.

-Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

[1] It was a bad game don’t lie to yourself.
[2] Actually if I’m being honest I thought it was all over when XIII-2 ended with “To Be Continued”
[3] And lo and behold, Neighborhoods and Dogs Eating Dogs have some of the bands best material, in many cases superior to anything they’d done previously, and far superior to either of those projects.
[4] (rough translation: Legend of The Holy Sword: Final Fantasy Side-Story)
[5] (Japanese title: Makai Toshi: SaGa trans Warrior in the Spirit World SaGa)
[6] Director of Final Fantasy IX, one of the all-time greats.
[7] My main comment on the KHIII trailer: “Well, that was vague as fuck but I’m glad they’re announcing a new console game finally.” Also worth noting that, though it has slowly broken away from that tie-in, Kingdom Hearts was basically markted as a Final Fantasy spin-off. The trailers prominently feature franchise characters, as do the plots of the first three games in the series.
[8] My complete review: Sound and fury. The gameplay with Terra was bad enough to make me not want to play the rest. Lack of immersive setting challenges FFXIII. Moments of vague but affecting melancholy that the series has done to greater effect before without such an artifice of bullshit. Fantastic music by Shimomura as usual.
[9] It’s a word. Accept it sooner rather than later.
[10] But maybe he’ll come back to direct the inevitable VII remake? A man can dream.
[11] When he’s done, make sure he never works in this industry again . . . That’s unfair, stick him with an attempt to reboot the Mana franchise or something. Credit where credit is due though, the actual gameplay in LR:FFXIII looks better than anything in the series before it.
[12] Axel is back! Everyone gets a Keyblade! Yaaaaaayyyy!!!!! (Eat my shorts.)