It may come as no small surprise that I’m an avid fan of the Final Fantasy franchise, and truthfully, the whole of the products that Square-Enix creates, since their styles I dig permeate through each and every one of those products.
I’ve been a fan pretty much since I played Final Fantasy back on the NES, and that love was solidified with Final Fantasy VI (III at the time) on the SNES. I’ve also been in love with Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Vagrant Story just to name a few of their non-FF games.
Then came the newer stuff; World Ends With You, Kingdom Hearts, and now recently Bravely Default: Where the Fairies Fly which came out on the 3DS. Bravely Default in particular has given rise to a lot of old thoughts I’ve had in my head for a while now, sparked by a lot of people saying how the game is Square’s “return to form”, and more succinctly that “Bravely Default is a Final Fantasy without the name”. Both of these statements are very true, and it’s really gotten me thinking, especially with the more recent titles (the trilogy of Final Fantasy XIII) being rather divisive, with many reasons diluting to “it’s not Final Fantasy” because the latest entries lack what many feel is the core of “Final Fantasy.”
While Final Fantasy XIII makes several large changes to the formula of Square’s older RPGs in the franchise, it still holds to what I feel has been that “core” of the franchise, or what I usually refer to as…
I’ve come to the conclusion that Final Fantasy is much more of a brand than it is a franchise in the traditional sense. Many of the unifying elements that are persistent throughout Final Fantasy titles are also prevalent in other games that Square has created: skill, spell, and item nomenclature; iconic enemies, classes, and characters; themes like crystals; it’s all just an overarching philosophy of elements that Square likes to use, and you can see much of this in their newest “Final Fantasy” called Bravely Default. Pretty much all it was missing is someone named Cid.
One of the other key ideas of the brand is that Square likes to try new things, and improve on the existing formula, hence why every single installment of Final Fantasy has been different from its predecessor, and not just in some minute way like a refined mechanic here or there, sometimes they change in big ways, like moving to the use of the Active Time Battle system, or the introduction, removal, and tweaking of the Job system over several installments. The changing and improvement of ideas are just as integral to the series as the ideas themselves.
So really – what’s in a name?
Bravely Default and how so many love it, myself included, is a prime example of how Final Fantasy is really just a name and a Roman Numeral, simply a generic, unifying title that helps consumers understand what the product will have. Honestly, nothing would change if each of the installments was titled something different. Well, other than the rampant discourse of what a “true Final Fantasy is”. Saying it’s a Final Fantasy has pretty much the same connotation as saying it’s a “game from Square-Enix” does. People are interested in that brand, or simply in specific installments if they’re more picky. The problems I have arise when people talk about Final Fantasy as being very stringent in its definition. The franchise has been around for nearly thirty years, and is ever-changing, but it’s as if many feel that Final Fantasy is whatever their favorite installment was.
Similarly, many franchises have names synonymous with a kind of gameplay; Metal Gear Solid is “stealth action and surreal events,” Super Mario is “running, jumping, collecting shiny stuff,” Call of Duty is “look down a gun and shoot terrorists,” and Silent Hill his “holy shit what the fuck is that oh my God get it away!”
Many today say that by the time Final Fantasy XIII came around, it was “no longer Final Fantasy,” as if the name implied a rather strict definition of gameplay. The funny thing is that with all of the disparity between each installment, really the only one thing that stayed consistent with the franchise was it being “a turn-based RPG.” While XIII‘s combat was certainly different, it was still “turn-based” for all intents and purposes; it’s just that those turns were taken whenever they were ready.
Which was much like how things went back when Square created the Active Time Battle system with Final Fantasy IV, which itself was a new take on the simple act of taking turns in the first three games. Despite the over-the-top actions that could be taken, it was still turn-based, and it’s not like the oft-complained about “anime style” stuff, like…
…and shooting meteors from your sword wasn’t around for a fairly long time before XIII let us launch and juggle enemies with strategically timed attacks and turns. Even then, these abilities are par for the course in a fantasy genre. A decent amount of what we attribute to being “anime styled” in Final Fantasy is really just a Japanese (read: overly exaggerated) interpretation of things you can find in a Dungeons & Dragons handbook.
But! I digress. People say that Final Fantasy XIII isn’t Final Fantasy, but what the heck does that mean? How much of it can be defined by the name that doesn’t set it to being one, specific installment (which might be colored by bias), or a few from a specific generation (like the SNES or PSX era installments)? The only real departure from the series is Final Fantasy XV, which started its life as Final Fantasy versusXIII, a side-title that used a Kingdom Hearts-style combat system, but the elements and tone of its namesake, specifically the mythology set up in Final Fantasy XIII. Then, for whatever reason they decide to make it into a “main series title” with a hallowed number, and showed off some incredible footage at gaming conventions, which were quickly followed by cries of “It’s not Final Fantasy!”
Anyway. People can be dissatisfied with the changes Square decides to make, or the directions they want to go with a particular installment, that’s perfectly fine – I don’t dig every change made in each, I still struggle to like Final Fantasy XII‘s gameplay. However, declaring the franchise “isn’t what it used to be” is going a bit too far, since it’s been doing pretty much exactly what it had been since they decided to make Final Fantasy II – improving on the existing formula and bringing different ideas into the mix. Then of course, there’s the changes to aesthetic that come from keeping up with the popular styles and fashions at the time, which is something they’ve always done as well. At first it was 80s rocker types, and now its stylish pop culture. Let’s be happy they haven’t tossed in flat-billed caps, gold teeth, and pants worn well below the waistline. We won that battle, but we’ve still gotta pick those battles carefully.
I mean, c’mon. This industry has enough troubles as it is, and I’m happy to see that one of my favorite developers is still bothering to improve upon what it’s done, and to try out new ideas. So often we see gamers lambasting Call of Duty for being the same thing year after year (despite the subtle changes/improvements each installment has to it), crying out for innovation and new ideas, and then we turn around and seem to lament that things aren’t like they used to be. I know we can’t please ’em all, but at some point does anyone wanna be happy? Let’s just remember that stagnation is bad, and sometimes the best of ideas don’t come in the same old ways.
Until the next post, Keep Yourself Alive!