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‘Final Fantasy VII' remake and the state of the modern ‘Final Fantasy’

by Tanner Kinney Picture this: the year is (roughly) 2007, or so. Nine-year-old Tanner Kinney and his family recently purchased a brand-spanking used PlayStation 2 Slim, along with Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves and War of the Monsters. A friend down the road has a few PS2 games as well, and he occasionally brings them over so Tanner can try them. One of these games was a PlayStation One game titled Final Fantasy VII (FFVII), an ugly looking game that I didn’t understand most of despite being a fairly competent young reader. But, it was loads of fun to play, even though we didn’t have a memory card for it and couldn’t make it past Midgar. https://youtu.be/Ru9zzFEdGWk A year or so later, another friend loans us a spare copy of FFVII and a memory card so we can finally experience the game in full without having to keep the console on overnight. I never made it past Disc 1 (I would always get lost after leaving Midgar), but my brother was able to play through the game and I experienced it with him. It was fantastic, at least what I remember of it. I especially loved Yuffie’s storyline and character arc, since she was (and still is) my favorite character in the game. Even when I got older and edgy in the “popular-thing-is-bad-because-it-is-popular” sense, I couldn’t deny that Final Fantasy VII was a great game. Since then, I’ve played through nearly every single mainline Final Fantasy title in one (or multiple) of their various releases. I have my own personal favorites, of course, but other than Final Fantasy II (Japan) and the entirety of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of them. I subscribe to and even sometimes play Final Fantasy XIV, and I spent the entirety of the week after release of Final Fantasy XV just playing through the game in full, nearly non-stop. That was the first game I ever got a platinum trophy for (although, that’s without the DLC). Final Fantasy is a series that means a lot to me, even with some strange narratives and a nonsense understanding of time travel.

So, you may ask how I feel about Final Fantasy VII Remake (FFVIIR), a game that has been in development (or rumored to be in development going as far back as the PS3 launch) for most of my young adult life. Hot off the heels of a new teaser trailer that announces an announcement in June, the buzz around this game is starting to stir once more. Director Tetsuya Nomura already delivered one promise in Kingdom Hearts 3, so it’s finally time to bring those charmingly ugly 3D models to the 21st Century. And, with some rumors of Final Fantasy XIV’s eccentric director Naoki Yoshida being assigned to a Final Fantasy XVI, the future is finally looking bright again, right? I’ll be honest, I’m very excited for it. FFVIIR looks fantastic, and the changes made will probably be for the best. The original game will still be here in all of its various releases, and will always be the classic that it is. But there was a magic to the Final Fantasy series that’s starting to feel lost, maybe even dated. And I’m starting to wonder if that’s for the better, or for the worse.

The (alleged) death of turn-based combat

Final Fantasy has always been experimenting with ways to play through the various different stories. Final Fantasy IV added the “active-time battle" (ATB) gauge, which became a staple up until Final Fantasy X, where they went with a more traditional “command turn-based" (CTB) system. Throwing Final Fantasy II aside, each game changed things up for the better, improving on what worked and didn’t work while adding new elements to spice the game up. Final Fantasy III and V added the Job system, which allowed players to improvise strategies on the fly and experiment with strange combinations and classes. Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system, Final Fantasy VIII’s Junctioning system, and Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid allowed players to build characters in whatever way they wanted. And Final Fantasy IV, VI, and IX offered for traditional, cut and dry jobs that fit the characters and their stories. But they all had one thing in common: turn-based combat. With Final Fantasy XII, Square-Enix had decided to start experimenting more with the concept of turn-based combat, particularly ways to use the beloved ATB gauge. The pseudo-MMO style combat of the game was an odd choice, but works fairly well (at least, in the Zodiac Age version of the game). Final Fantasy X-2 experimented in the sense of being a joke of a video game that, while fun, doesn’t take itself seriously in any way, shape, or form. It’s better than people give it credit for, particularly in its stellar blend of the best parts of older games’ combat systems. So, where did things start going wrong? Many people attribute the decline of Final Fantasy to Final Fantasy XIII, and I’m not going to say I don’t agree with them. Even when I was younger, the game always just felt a little too boring for my taste. It had impressive visuals and a killer soundtrack, but it never sat well with me. Just as a disclaimer, due to our copy of FFXIII being old and worn down, I haven’t been able to revisit the game in earnest, so critique here is mostly based of what I remember. The combat throughout a majority of the game was very limited, boiling down to mashing the X-button, switching to defensive roles and mashing X there when need be. A three person party doesn’t truly exist until much later in the game when the main cast finally cross paths again. Without the ability to control the actions of your other party members, the game did feel somewhat faster-paced, but it wasn’t a fun twist on the gameplay of older Final Fantasies. Final Fantasy XIII-2 doubles-down on this divisive combat system, adding some gimmicks to try and make it more palatable. It even works, kind of, but doesn’t help the game in becoming more fun or avoiding the other traps the series had started falling into. I only ever played the demo of Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns, so unfortunately all I can say is that the gameplay was again improved, but the story just went further and further into the nuthouse. However, the gameplay not being as engaging worked against the FFXIII trilogy in exposing the flaws within the series as a whole. Without a strong backbone of gameplay, the flaws in the writing and pacing of the series were starting to become more and more obvious. They had always existed, although never as a serious problem, but they stuck out like sore thumbs when there were fewer good things to say about the games. It’s a popular opinion to hate on the FFXIII trilogy, but they seemingly were the games that made Final Fantasy less meaningful to people. The games themselves don’t deserve all of the hate they get, but it’s at least fair to critique them for their boneheaded story choices and, more damningly, making Lightning an actual Louis Vuitton model in the real world that we live in. And yes, that is canon with Lightning Return’s story.

Oops all Kingdom Hearts

Following up the XIII trilogy was a game trapped in development hell for years on end: Final Fantasy XV. The game was originally announced alongside FFXIII as Final Fantasy XIII Versus, an ill-fated title that received one announcement and entered meme territory alongside The Last Guardian. The original game was led by Kingdom Hearts producer Tetsuya Nomura and, unlike its sister title that eventually became the underappreciated but ultimately forgettable Final Fantasy Type-0, that project never truly saw the light of day. It’s original trailer from 2006 held much promise, but due to bloated development that went nowhere fast, it wasn’t until around 2013 that the final version of Final Fantasy XV entered development. https://youtu.be/b6At_bb1PNU Even from early trailers, this game was never meant to be a mainline title. It didn’t even pretend to be turn-based, it was a full-on action RPG a la Square Enix’s popular Kingdom Hearts series, which is not surprising considering Nomura was on the project. Hajime Tabata, on the other hand, found a way to detach the newly rebranded title from all the fluff and problems of the pretentiously named Fabula Nova Crystallis universe, and worked to build what they had into a (mostly) finished game. He succeeded, producing a title that sold amazingly well and pretty much saved the franchise. However, although I love a lot of things about the game, the combat always just felt off to me. The combat retained its action RPG concept, with the player controlling just Noctis. It was fun to warp around the battlefield and take enemies down in dramatic fashion, but with fairly limited options (and a disappointing treatment of the magic system), it got mindless and grindy particularly fast. It never became “un-fun” like the early parts of FFXIII, but it never felt truly fleshed out. Maybe the DLC helped to improve the combat, but I still haven’t revisited the game and don’t intend to until I have a PC that can handle it. This isn’t to knock on action RPG’s or even Kingdom Hearts, since I love Kingdom Hearts to death, but it doesn’t scratch that JRPG itch anymore for me. And, considering the popularity of Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler, it seems I’m not the only one.

‘Final Fantasy VII Remake’ will never live up to expectations

Which leads me to FFVIIR, a game that is never coming out. Well, it is probably coming out eventually, especially since Nomura is finally free from his Disney-themed prison (for now), but I feel safe in saying it’ll never live up to expectations. This game is on the same tier as Half-Life 3 in terms of games that are hyped even when there are no updates about them, and in a similar vein, that level of hype comes with expectations. Many purists want the exact same game in a fancy new suit and tie, dressed up to take them to prom only to get dumped the Monday after. Nothing will ever make them happy. Newer Final Fantasy fans are excited to experience such a beloved story in a new light, regardless of how the changes that will (inevitably) be made. Then there are those who look back on the golden age of Final Fantasy and simply long for another high-quality, turn-based JRPG. Those people (including me) are in the wrong place. Turn-based JRPG’s are becoming more and more of a rarity, at least in the mainstream. The only game to really break through that is Altus’s Persona 5, and even that game is still relatively niche. A junkie like me has to get his fix through occasionally dodgy ports or translations of Idea Factory/Compile Heart collaborations, random Digimon games, or (god-forbid) RPG Maker games that almost could be passed off as professionally made productions. Dragon Quest, at least, never strays from its roots, although I’ve never invested myself into the series. Hopefully Square continues to fund the teams behind I am Setsuna and Octopath Traveler so we can get some more high-quality turn-based JRPG’s from them. Or, at the very least, someone needs to wake Atlus up so they can finish Shin Megami Tensei V, another game that’s never coming out. In terms of Final Fantasy, I think the series has moved past turn-based gameplay. It’s too big-budget to invest in an (admittedly) niche style of gameplay. More people love action-RPGs, and I understand why Square wants to move their tent-pole franchise in that direction. Besides, with Dragon Quest and their smaller teams, they can scratch the itches of everyone except Final Fantasy Tactics fans, who will never receive anything more than a themed raid in FFXIV. FFVIIR is going to be an amazing game, with tons of polish and charm in its own way. I have always had high-hopes for the game’s eventual release. Besides, since you can play all of the party members, that means my dream of playing as exclusively Yuffie can finally come true. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the thing I loved for so long has changed. The world has changed since 1998, and gaming is a whole different ballpark than it used to be. The series is just growing up — I’m starting to think maybe it’s time for me to grow up with it.
Sources: YouTube, Twitter, Louis Vuitton,  Featured Image: WCCF Tech

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