For all the graphical, mechanical, and conceptual upgrades Final Fantasy XIII-2 may have brought to the table, the best feature Square Enix’s latest apparently has going for it is that it’s not Final Fantasy XIII. At this point, it’s not exactly a secret that popular and critical reception to Final Fantasy XIII was, shall we say, divisive. As The Escapist‘s own Susan Arendt most eloquently put it, “Final Fantasy XIII made a lot of series fans “very, very angry.” Indeed.
Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t really an RPG. Nor did it ever want to be.
What may be more of a secret is where all the hatred for the latest core entry (ill-fated MMO excursions aside) in such a beloved franchise may have stemmed from. Yes, there’s been a known litany of common complaints held against the title: “It’s too linear.” “There are no towns.” “There aren’t enough side quests.” “Some of the characters are unbearable.” “I don’t feel like I have enough control over my character.” “I just want Kingdom Hearts 3.” In essence, most of these largely legitimate gripes were all saying the same thing: “This isn’t the Final Fantasy RPG experience I’ve come to know and love.”
There’s a reason for that, though: Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t really an RPG. Nor did it ever want to be.
You don’t have to take my word for this. In a 2010 interview with 1up before the North American release of the game, FFXIII producer Yoshinori Kitase himself noted that his team “didn’t really intend to work within the RPG template.”
“We wanted to create a new game, even a new genre,” he said. “The way we look at it, there’s isn’t a certain format that we have to keep to and build a game around.”
But that “certain format” that had become synonymous with Final Fantasy’s turn-based combat, a large open map that is gradually expanded upon as one progresses, a large party of exchangeable and upgradable characters, an abundance of (awkwardly-controlled) minigames, airships and goofy haircuts, etc.- had become the template for the modern JRPG, and was exactly what fans clamored for, what they desired, what they demanded. Again.
The people didn’t want Final Fantasy XIII, the game, the attempted reinvention of streamlining a decades-old formula. They wanted “Final Fantasy,” the template, the familiar modus operandi, the standard, comforting type of game that, even in the eyes of its own creators, was frankly starting to get old.
This is where things start to get puzzling, where the angry forum posts, hysterical YouTube rants, and scathing columns deriding the new direction FFXIII adopted begin to become a bit baffling.
We know change is scary. Everyone’s felt that lingering uneasiness gurgling within the throes of their guts, that pervading sense of dread that trudges along with each instance of experimentation. But if there’s any industry that welcomes the excitement and potential benefits that change and innovation bring to the creative table, it’s the gaming industry. So why then, when Final Fantasy XIII, an installment in one of the franchises that is explicitly representative of what could be called the “old guard” of gaming, simply tried to shake things up a bit, did so many people resent it for its attempts at innovation? Was everyone just misinformed, not paying any mind to Kitase and the rest of the game’s creators when he spouted off quips like “in a lot of senses FFXIII is more like an FPS than an RPG?” Or is the Final Fantasy series just some sort of strange exception to a gaming public that has always cried out for change in their beloved games?
At this point, I realize I may be starting to sound like someone who’s probably spent a little too much time sketching my own Vanille fan art. First, let me be clear: Final Fantasy XIII was by no means an outstanding experience. The narrative was frequently overwrought with meaningless minutiae, the combat could feasibly be reduced to autopilot for the first nine or so chapters, and I know I wanted to punch five of the six lead characters in the face at one point or another for various reasons (Fang, we’re cool). There are other facets to bemoan, but we know them all already; plenty of people have made us aware of them, and I’m sure a few “w”, “t”, and “f” keys have been broken in the process.
The Final Fantasy series is something of the “bizzaro world” version of franchises like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed.
But complaints like those aren’t atypical to experiences with the Final Fantasy franchise (quick little example to prove my third complaint up there: if you know who Zell is, and you don’t feel some queasiness right now, chances are I don’t care for you as an individual). Instead, it’s the principle so many have taken on in hating Final Fantasy XIII that rubs the wrong way. It seems that those who so ardently hate the title don’t accept FFXIII, the game, so much as they don’t accept what FFXIII stood for: a stab at forward-thinking design, the attempt to simplify some of the Final Fantasy games’ needless complexities, the extension of an olive branch to series newcomers, an aspiration to not just be another Final Fantasy.
Yet that’s just why Final Fantasy XIII was doomed from the start. It wasn’t because it did anything particularly offensive as a standalone experience; it was because of how horribly disagreeable it was within its inherent confines and restrictions as a Final Fantasy game. In short, its gift – the name that virtually assured the game would have some sort of commercial success – was also its curse. Rename Final Fantasy XIII as Lightning’s Quest and you’d probably have a terribly-named game that was still being praised for how committed it was in its attempt to evolve the tired JRPG procedure.
The Final Fantasy series is something of the “bizzaro world” version of franchises like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. Whereas those two series are loathed for cranking out yearly iterations of their long-held formulas without any significant changes in design, Final Fantasy games like FFXIII appear to be detested for not sticking to what made their series popular in the first place. The inherent hypocrisy in this “hardcore” fanbase that cries out for innovation in one franchise one minute, then shouts down anyone who messes with their traditional templates in another franchise the next, is startling. Chances are these are the same people who would rise up to defend Skyrim or Dark Souls, when the reality is that those titles do not aspire to do much more than their already mass-accepted predecessors; that is, Skyrim doesn’t stray that far from Oblivion and Dark Souls plays very similar to Demon’s Souls. Final Fantasy XIII sought for more than that, sadly.
Now, this isn’t to say that Final Fantasy XIII couldn’t have gone about its radical design shift in a different way. Let’s consider the alternatives that may have given the title the mass acceptance it never achieved. The game very well could’ve followed the lead of those aforementioned more Western, more successful RPGs that have dominated the critical and popular landscape of the genre in the years surrounding FFXIII‘s release, games like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles, BioWare’s Mass Effect series, or From Software’s Demon’s Souls games.
Final Fantasy XIII gave fans something new. And it was vehemently hated as a result.
Considering the waves of negative feedback towards its now-infamous, strictly linear level design, it’d be safe to assume FFXIII would’ve been better off opting for a more blown out, Skyrim-esque open world setting, if it just had to act on its impulse to change things up. Considering the amount of flak Lightning and co.’s story received for being too confusingly overblown, too hands off, and, frankly, too up its own ass in its world’s terminology, a Mass Effect-style mechanic, with branching dialogue options would’ve sated things slightly (FFXIII-2 even meagerly attempts to add in this sort of popularly-accepted conversational system, albeit fleetingly). As for its combat, it’s not an enormous stretch to assume that there wouldn’t be too many qualms from the Final Fantasy faithful if Kitase and crew tried to implement, in some respect, a more visceral, challenging combat system in the vein of Demon’s Souls (although, I’d venture to guess that taking all forms of turn-based combat out of a FF game would probably cause at least one, maybe two world wars). And so on.
The possibilities weren’t endless, but they were there. All Final Fantasy XIII had to do was adapt to these new genre standards, and everyone might have gone home happy to have just spent their $60. Instead, Final Fantasy XIII gave fans something new, something legitimately unique, something different than what had been, and what still is, being offered. And it was vehemently hated as a result.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t played much of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Despite the modestly positive feedback it’s been getting in the critical and popular communities, I’ll need some time before I sink away some serious hours into it; its existence alone is just too tragic. It’s something of a failed dream, a forced reversion into a more familiar product. It’s a half-hearted return to the old ways, a game held hostage by an endlessly vocal fanbase fueled largely by misinformed expectations and hypocritical demands. The legacy of the Final Fantasy name, for all its critical and commercial successes, is now what’s preventing the series from progressing in any meaningful way.
Where the core series eventually goes from here is anyone’s guess. I’d guess Square Enix themselves can’t be too confident in whatever direction they may choose. How could they be? They’re dealing with an audience that simply doesn’t function the way most other audiences do. It’s a rather unique dilemma; many of those fans that have been loyal to the franchise for so long are the same ones keeping it from growing with any significance. All the designers can know is that, by stamping those two little words, Final Fantasy, onto their product, they are effectively placing an anchor around their collective neck. It is their albatross. Fifteen years ago, Final Fantasy -the name, the game, the ideal-could please everybody. Unfortunately for all of us, those days appear to be dead and buried.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance writer currently based in Worcester, MA. He has trouble tanning. You can read his nerdy musings over at PopMatters, That VideoGame Blog, or, if you dare brave his sense of humor, on his Twitter.