This post is a long unstructured rant. Read at your own peril. Square Enix is the poster-child and public choice whipping boy for the decline of Japanese RPG (JRPG) popularity, and I would be hard pressed not to agree. To clarify, by “Eastern” I am referring to Final Fantasy or any Final Fantasy-esque style role-playing game. I recognize that there are other excellent titles on the market. I haven’t had a chance to play Valkyria Chronics, The World Ends With You, the Persona Series or a small number of Japanese titles on my to play list.
I remember when a Final Fantasy title used to be a real treat, the one game series that bridged the gap between Eastern and Western game storytelling and game culture. The careful attention to detail, story (no matter how ludicrous) and characters were elements that could be enjoyed by all. Nowadays, it seems as if Square Enix continues to push out more and more junk. Their flagship title, Final Fantasy, has been inundated with crap; diluted by numerous sequels and unnaturally long development cycles. Destructoid had phrased it nicely in one of their recent articles: Square Enix is, essentially, the George Lucas of Video games.
A good story offers something enjoyable to everyone. I don’t think that Final Fantasy falls into that category anymore. It seems as if every new title just panders to an increasingly narrow demographic. For example, playing a young character is fine, but I am not sexually attracted to teenagers nor do I really emotionally connect with them anymore. I can appreciate a good romance and good character development but not high school level cheese. I just don’t get my jollies off of anything like that anymore.
I liked Final Fantasy X, went back and finally finished Final Fantasy XII and learned to appreciate it. But the last game of the series that I really loved was FFIX. Unsurprisingly, FFIX was also the last game produced by Sakaguchi before he resigned from Square. Also, unless I am mistaken, FFX was the last Final Fantasy game produced under Square’s label before the company merged into Square Enix. From that point on, my enjoyment of the series sharply declined. I don’t think that Nomura is a very good character designer, certainly not as good as Sakaguchi or Matsuno.
Because of my work and real life schedule, my free gaming time is limited to a couple hours of play time at most. I need a game that will accommodate my schedule. I need the ability to pick it up and put it down in an hour or two. That means discreet, natural periods of play time, whether it be in a form of a quest, mission or whatever. Actually, it doesn’t really matter as long as there is an intelligent save mechanic in place, allowing me to save anywhere or at least frequently autosave upon entering a new area and/or exiting combat. I like not feeling lost after picking a game back up after letting it collect dust for a period of time. Usually, just a synopsis of what I have done so far as well as my correct objectives is sufficient.
Also in regards to time usage: Please cut some of the crap grinding out of role-playing games. I know that grinding is synonymous with the RPG genre, but I would rather play a 25 hour game of solid gameplay than an 80 hour game crammed with filler. In all honesty, most 80 hour games only include about 25 hours of solid gameplay, if that. If difficulty is the root issue, that problem needs to be addressed in a more intelligent manner, whether it be through improved fight mechanics or otherwise. All-in-all, Square Enix isn’t very good at pacing games.
A big part of Final Fantasy’s problem is that the game mechanics haven’t evolved much in the past two decades. It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation: On one hand, the slow turn based system is part of what defines Final Fantasy as a label. On the other, it’s one of it’s biggest problems. In theory there’s nothing wrong with a turn based system, but that system in combination with massive grinding really really really does not work out. If repetitive fighting is a must, then combat needs to be lightning quick. That means, no combat bullshit, no cute battle transactions: Combat must occur naturally. Integrating combat from other genres works for most Western style RPGs. Turning a role-playing game into a first person shooter may or may not be a good solution but if all else fails, characters and story included, it’s almost always fun to shoot someone in the face repeatedly.
And to all forms of RPGs: Please cut out some of the unnecessary micromanagement (party swapping and gearing mostly). If you are going to include 12 party members, either make the all level equally regardless of which members are active. Or at the very least, do not ever place me in a situation where I am forced to use a party member that I dislike and have thus not bothered to level.
Along similar lines: I have always appreciated games that blend gameplay elements and introduce the story in intuitive and creative ways. Never underestimate the power of doing things within a game. Passive observation has its place, but interactive play is the one element that gaming has over virtually all other forms of media. Please don’t tell me a story in the form of a giant monologue. I want to discover and experience it on my own. I love watching rendered cutscenes, but I feel like they should be on their way out or at least used more sparingly than every 5 minutes or so. Any break from gameplay detracts from the game (not only picking on JRPGs. *cough* quick time events *cough*. Looking at you Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, etc).
Final Fantasy VII:
The vast majority of Final Fantasy fans, myself included, place FFVII on a pedestal. It was an exceptional game for its time, way ahead of the competition. But nostalgia aside, I am unsure if it holds up to the test of time. I would love to see this game remade in HD and finally retired. We don’t need to dilute it with even more inane sequels.
Final Fantasy XII
I liked Basch quite a bit, he was a good character. In fact, Basch was originally supposed to be the main character. Vaan and Panelo were added later in the development cycle because adult male leads apparently don’t sell, based off of the figures from one the development team’s previous games (Vagrant story, one of my favorites by the way).
Vaan was an awkward main character. Other than providing a new perspective on the main story, I don’t recall him contributing much and by the end of the game he did not evolve much as a character. Because he was tacked on, I didn’t really emotionally invest in his story. Consequently there was a huge disconnect between the player and the characters of FFXII. Character empathy was replaced by uninteresting and generic political intrigue. I absolutely loved FFXII’s feel, setting and design. In those departments, it is one of my favorites but I play Final Fantasy for the characters and the character stories. DON’T EVER compromise on the character stories, that’s probably one of the biggest draws for JRPGs.
Final Fantasy XIII
I’ve already said my piece about this title, but I feel as if XIII would have had a more positive reception had it not been under the Final Fantasy label. Most of the people who actually enjoyed playing this game had little no no experience with other Final Fantasy games. For better or for worse, Final Fantasy games have a list of expectations that need to be addressed. Otherwise, it’s not really a Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy has had a good run but I’m not sure I will be purchasing future titles if they follow the same trend. Versus XIII does look pretty good though. I’m a sucker for action RPGs so I will probably pick it up.