How many times have we heard fellow gamers lament that the Final Fantasy series is terrible these days, and how they wish that Square Enix would only make 'em like they used to? On one hand, at this point it seems like Final Fantasy has a virtually unpleasable fan base. No matter what Square Enix does with the franchise, somebody who wants a carbon copy of an earlier game will be unsatisfied. On the other hand, some of Square Enix's recent design decisions have been very unpopular and have detracted from the general enjoyment of the Final Fantasy games.
Thus, what would happen if the Final Fantasy series stuck more closely to its roots? Let's break down some of the major systems that fans enjoy, and see what might happen if Square Enix had made the decision to keep these classic elements of the series intact. Please note that we'll be leaving the MMORPG entries in the series out of this article, concentrating on the single-player games.
It seems that as the years have gone by, there has been less and less fantasy in Final Fantasy. Most of the games since Final Fantasy IV have had science fiction elements, and the settings of VII, VIII, X, and XIII strongly departed from classic fantasy. Although they're not quite "science fiction," these settings are about as futuristic as a fantasy setting can become.
While Final Fantasy IX was quite popular for its return to a more classic fantasy world, would the series as a whole benefit from removing futuristic settings? Futuristic elements certainly didn't seem to hurt Final Fantasy VII or X, which are both series favorites. While Final Fantasy XIII's setting has yet to resonate with fans, it's not the futuristic elements of the setting that put fans off as much as the somewhat discombobulated way that this particular setting was introduced in the game.
Whether set in a fantasy kingdom with magnificent airships or a magitechnological society replete with gunplay and spacefaring gods, Final Fantasy settings are made or broken by the way they're designed and used in the game. The diversity of settings is a strong point for the series and shouldn't be abandoned in order to stick to classic fantasy.
It's very difficult to define what "classic" combat means in terms of the Final Fantasy series, although it can certainly be argued that the series' combat mechanics are experiencing increasingly rapid and drastic changes in the modern era. From the classic turn-based "Fight, Item, Run" system to the semi-turn-based Active Time Battle system to the unique systems being used today, Final Fantasy has always been a series that strives for combat system innovation.
That said, it would be nice if Final Fantasy's developers took a stronger look at what has worked well in previous combat systems rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater in each new setting. For example, Final Fantasy XII's gambit system was interesting and popular, and a modified gambit system would have been an excellent solution for giving the player more control over the actions of party members in Final Fantasy XIII's fights.
There's one thing about Final Fantasy's combat system that most people can agree upon, however. Random battles that happen every few steps are tedious, frustrating, and it took far too long for the series to drop them. They deserve to remain in Final Fantasy's past.
When the classic explorable overworld map was dropped in Final Fantasy X, many fans were disappointed. It felt like a certain sense of wonder was sapped from discovering the world when the party was simply spirited from place to place via plot developments.
Although the explorable world map may never truly come back, the Final Fantasy series should strongly consider having a world map that players can at least look at, as well as building multiple large explorable areas into the games. Knowing where the party is in relation to the world at large is an important part of building that world in the player's imagination. Having large and interesting areas to explore adds to the sense of discovery and appeals to a large number of players—as long as those areas are worth exploring and aren't overpopulated with unavoidable battles.
Mature Cast and Stronger Villains
While Final Fantasy has never featured a cast full of grizzled veterans, players (especially players over age 16) experienced a certain level of "angsty teen" fatigue after VII, VIII, and X. Giving a Final Fantasy cast a mature bent doesn't need to mean that the characters need to be over 25, but nobody wants characters in books, movies, or video games to spend too much time moping around like spoiled children. An important rule in writing fiction is to show rather than tell, and Final Fantasy characters are at their best when they're taking action rather than wallowing in excessive internal monologs or extended group discussions. It would also help to keep main characters (both male and female) from appearing overly naive, a mistake exemplified by Final Fantasy XII's Vaan and numerous "cheerful" female characters. That character trait becomes tiring very quickly.
Villains in Final Fantasy have suffered greatly since the days of Kefka and Sephiroth, two strong villain characters who were present throughout the games in which they were featured. More recent Final Fantasy games have largely featured a parade of fake-out villains followed by a final villain that either makes no sense or has little personal connection to the heroes. Whether they be truly evil or simply misunderstood, Final Fantasy should return to developing villains that connect personally to the player characters and therefore the players.
Stories on a Human Level
On a similar note to the complaint about villains, recent Final Fantasy games have departed greatly from the simple adventures and/or human stories that were featured in the earlier games. There's been far too much metaphysical mumbo-jumbo in recent stories, and while part of this complaint can probably be laid at the doorstep of poor localization, there's much more to it than that. Recent Final Fantasy games have had increasingly complex plots involving things like a character being a projection of the dreams of a lost society or the labyrinthine machinations of a group of immeasurably powerful and malevolent gods.
With Final Fantasy games becoming more cinematic and complex, they've also lost some of the human touch that ironically was easier to find in the earliest and most simple games in the series. We likely can't go back to the days in which much was left to the player's imagination, but we can go back to stories that we can relate to as game players. Give us stories of love and hate, forgiveness and vengeance, courage and cowardice. Give characters a goal they want to achieve, and allow them to achieve that goal by completing the game's main quest. Don't overwhelm the main story with overly complicated settings or endings that introduce impossibly powerful and inscrutable foes that we've never seen before.
In the end, the Final Fantasy series will continue to evolve, and it's not worthwhile to hope for new games to be overly similar to past games. There are, however, a number of positive ways that Final Fantasy could go back to its roots, especially in terms of world-building, characters, and storytelling. If future Final Fantasy games were to return to simpler stories, less self-indulgent characters, and worlds that beg to be discovered and explored, we'd likely see a much happier Final Fantasy fan base.
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*