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"Fixing" Final Fantasy

Michael Cunningham

The Final Fantasy franchise is far from over as it celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, despite what some might believe. However, during a recent Twitter discussion about whether Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the right next step for the series, I was asked how I would fix the current direction of Final Fantasy. This whole question is founded on the assumption that Final Fantasy needs fixing, and the answer goes beyond a simple yes or no. Fixing the series would imply that it is broken, and I don't feel that it is. On the other hand, the question wouldn't be coming up if there were not issues that need to be addressed.

So what are the problems facing the series? The biggest have to do with the most recent releases, and it is a twofold issue. Final Fantasy XIII, released in 2010 in North America, is one of the most polarizing games in the series. There are nearly as many who praise its battle system as those who loathe its linearity. The lack of universal praise for XIII was enough that the game's producer Yoshinori Kitase has publicly stated that his team is trying to address some of the game's perceived failings in the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII-2. Not to mention 2010's other numbered release, Final Fantasy XIV, a broken and unfinished MMORPG. Things were so bad upon release that Square Enix quickly made the decision to replace the game's development leads and suspend account billing until the game was deemed worthy. And despite efforts underway to fix the game, its problems have yet to be remedied. To say this was a rough year would be putting it kindly, but this is merely one year.

For a series with fourteen main series games, many of which are immensely beloved, one down period would usually not be enough to send off warning bells. The other side of this issue, which has further amplified the problem, is the release gap. Before 2010's dual release, the last entry was Final Fantasy XII on the PlayStation back in 2006, an entire console generation ago. Going back to the next single-player release before XII would take us back another five years all the way to 2001's Final Fantasy X (if you ignore X-2 and dozens of spin-offs). This gap has merely served to distance fans from the fond memories that once lingered in their mind and left many with only unhappy feelings towards the recent releases. Even those who enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII have little else to remind them of the greatest strength of the series: its diversity.

The Final Fantasy series is unique in that each game in the main numbered series brings something new to the table. This tends to be because the development staff for each game cycles between releases. Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII shared similar staff as did Final Fantasy XI and XIV, but Final Fantasy XII's development was headed by a team not currently known to be working on anything. The head of that team, Yasumi Matsuno, has since left Square Enix, but many of the others that worked on that title such as Hiroyuki Ito are currently still with the company and likely at work on another project. And let me say that if you don't know what role Hiroyuki Ito has played within Square Enix, you need to look him up. So while there is no official confirmation that a fifteenth entry in the series is even in development, there is a strong chance that it is, and if so it's being worked on by a team with no ties to the MMORPGs or the Fabula Nova Crystallis collection.

Herein lies the problem that has some gamers proclaiming that the series needs to be retired, though I'd argue that these people need to take a deeper look at the franchise. Looking simply at the five single-player games since 2000 (FFX, FFX-2, FFXII, FFXIII, and FFXIII-2), the thing to note is that four of those five have all been headed (to some extent) by the duo of Yoshinori Kitase and Motomu Toriyama. Whatever your feelings about the series might be, for the past decade these two have been at the head of the majority of the main series releases, so they deserve your love or ire. This cyclical approach that gives the series its strength of diversity has been so spread out over the past few years that it has been nearly impossible to recognize. I have hope that it still exists, and if it gets back on track, people will once again see that each Final Fantasy is different and that the series is far from dead.

If we move away from the unknown, here is what we do know. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is on the way in early 2012 and hopes to address many complaints about the original. Despite that, it is not likely different enough to draw the attention of those who have written off the series already. Final Fantasy XIV is in the middle of a complete reboot that will hopefully get this MMO back on track by the end of 2012. And as for other parts of the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, there is Final Fantasy Type-0, the PSP game that was originally labeled Final Fantasy Agito XIII. It is out in Japan, but there has yet to be a hint of a North American release. Last, we have Final Fantasy Versus XIII, officially revealed in 2006, but still in development limbo without even a Japanese release date. So yes, there are some issues that might easily give pause to fans whose trust in the series is wavering, but calling it broken would still be a little premature.

Although there is plenty of hope for the series, I do have worries about Final Fantasy's future. Despite outlining one potential outlook for the next Final Fantasy, there is no telling what direction it might take or when we will see it happen. Yoshinori Kitase, who heads Square Enix's 1st Production Department, even stated in an interview with Gamereactor UK that he believed that Final Fantasy XIII "took a little too long" to release on a new generation of hardware. So as we head into 2012 with rumors of the next PlayStation console in development and with a game like Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a PlayStation 3 game in development since at least 2006, still nowhere to be seen, there is cause to worry about the development process for the series. Kitase also stated in the same interview that releasing a new game every year or two is "the best way to keep our fans interested and attracted to the franchise." While I believe that alone is not the answer, with better cyclical development between teams it could be. However, with the current track record, the company needs to make some major adjustments in order for this to happen without running the series into the ground by mindlessly rushing out games.

Final Fantasy is far different from other series, even Square Enix's own Dragon Quest. Where Dragon Quest is typically a refined experience based on a core foundation. Each Final Fantasy more or less starts from scratch, keeping a few series staples, but brings about a new experience for each game. The variation between games is so different that it is nearly impossible to define the series by a single title, though many fans try to do just that. The issue we see right now is a heavy focus on the single player games in the main series being produced by Yoshinori Kitase and directed by Motomu Toriyama and therefore lacking the variety once seen. Square Enix still had a lot of variety in developers, as Final Fantasy Type-0 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII saw Hajime Tabata take the helm and Final Fantasy Versus XIII has Kingdom Hearts mastermind Tetsuya Nomura behind it. There is also Hiroyuki Ito, who directed Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy IX, and worked in tandem with Yasumi Matsuno on Final Fantasy XII before heading up the International Zodiac Job System by himself. There is talent there, and it needs to once again be shared around the series to hopefully cut down on half a decade development cycles that are not helping anything. Be it Final Fantasy Versus XIII or Final Fantasy XV, fans are ready for the next new project, and it is taking far too long for that project to materialize. So no, Final Fantasy is not broken, but does need to get back to being the diverse series fans know it can be.

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