July of 2001 was a hopeful time, with grassy lawns lit with fluorescent sunshine and drenched in sticky, summery humidity, and evenings aglow with the dozy drift of lightning bugs and punctuated by madcap rounds of Calvinball. Still, though, the air was laced through with the unmistakable whiff of something putrid. A threat was looming. Final Fantasy X was that threat, and it was Tidus, its protagonist, bedecked in black and yellow and chains and pants with mismatched leg lengths and a frosted, Ellen-style butt-cut, that smelled so bad. After the triumphant streak of Final Fantasies VII through IX—all winners, although you may try and argue that VIII wasn’t any good, and you’re wrong, and that’s the last I’ll hear of it—Squaresoft had finally released its first entry in the series for the new console generation. And goddamn if it wasn’t something awful.
I’ve already monologued at length about my apparently controversial take on Final Fantasy X, so I won’t dig back into that can of worms here, but suffice it to say that it sure isn’t my favorite game. I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy blowing a few gaskets belly-laughing at Tidus while he yelped and squealed his way across Spira, and there was some pretty scenery along the way, but my ratio of sincere joy to eyebrow-furrowing and frowning was way off-kilter. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what changed between IX and X—sure, the jump to the PlayStation 2 allowed for full voice acting, and since it was 2001 and voice acting was still a new thing, it was accordingly terrible, but that doesn’t explain the abolition of a walkable world map, the lame story to bring down a giant whale-alien (a…whalien?) named “SIN” of all things, or a host of other small-scale downgrades that, in the aggregate, hamstrung the whole experience. Unfortunately, now that it’s 2017 and we have the benefit of all this 20/20 hindsight, it’s pretty clear that Final Fantasy X marked a turning point for the series that Square Enix hasn’t been able to fully course-correct.
I’ll go ahead and admit it: I have not played Final Fantasy XV. Back in 2006, when it was announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, I was about as pumped as a young man can be about such things, but it’s hard to maintain that level of red-faced excitement for more than ten minutes, much less ten years. That’s a dangerous amount of pressure, and I didn’t have many gaskets left to blow after all the Tidus-laughing a few years earlier. Now, though, the game is out there circulating in the wild with its new name, and I’ve read the reviews and watched the videos, and while it sounds and looks fine, rumor has it the story is bogus as all get-out, parts of it drag interminably, and the highlight—the supposed best part of the game—is puttering aimlessly around the drab landscape with your buddies in what looks like a 1970s Cadillac and taking selfies. That doesn’t sound like a must-play to me. That doesn’t really sound like anything. It’s time we got a reading on the heart-rate of this series to figure out what’s happened to it and where it’s supposed to go from here, because I can almost hear it gasping for air.
Were the games before X actually any good, or is it just puffed-up nostalgia that gives them such a shimmery tint in the collective hive-mind? The nostalgia theory—that we’re all wearing Rose-Colored Glasses, which, incidentally, I’m pretty sure are a collectable item in Final Fantasy VIII—is certainly batted around the internet with regularity, but I don’t buy it. Yes, I played those games when I was a little kid, but I also ate meatloaf when I was a little kid, and I’ve eaten meatloaf as an adult, and it’s terrible. I’ve played those same games as an adult, and they hold up just fine. Unlike meatloaf, which, again, sucks. The games were full of compelling characters, they told gripping stories, they constantly reinvented and improved upon their mechanics, and above all—even when they differed significantly from one another—they adhered to a rigid set of Final Fantasy strictures: character-driven narratives, a confirmed absence of voice acting, random battles and grinding, upgradeable equipment, a world map to be stomped around on like Godzilla, and a multi-level final boss that may or may not incorporate body horror and/or angel tropes.
With Final Fantasy X, though, the series began to ditch those strictures like ballast off the side of a hot air balloon, and as it did so, that balloon bee-lined straight for the sun with compounding acceleration until it promptly exploded in a hot shower of stupidity. Final Fantasy X was bad; Final Fantasy XI was online and for that reason doesn’t count; Final Fantasy XII was a step in a positive direction but almost completely indecipherable plot-wise (also, it featured an anthropomorphic bunny-human named, uh, FRAN, so there’s that); Final Fantasy XIII was actually three games that each came saddled with major and variable baggage in addition to unhealthy doses of grimace-worthy voice acting and JRPG-vaguely-orgasmic-gasping; Final Fantasy XIV was marred by a dumpster fire of a launch and, again, was online anyway and so won’t be heavily scrutinized here; and that brings us up to speed with the erstwhile Final Fantasy Versus XIII, now available for your purchasing pleasure as Final Fantasy XV and featuring a moody prince with cool hair and his ripped, heavily accessorized homies.
Even given my (probably) unfair summary of the game, I’d be on board to give it a shot—hell, it’s still a Final Fantasy game at heart, right?—if it didn’t look like a marginally worse version of every other open-world game that’s been released in the past few years. Maybe I’m naive, but I refuse to believe that the desired endpoint of every game’s development—the target, best-case-scenario endpoint absent any technological or financial restraints—is Assassin’s Creed. With every big budget game prizing unexceptionalism, eroding itself into a state of absolute banality and stuffing its spare open world with icons to track down and cross off like a list of chores, there’s an increasingly gaping void waiting to have something more interesting chucked down into it. Yes, there are a million smaller, often-Kickstarted games doing their part, and a lot of them are great, but these big-time developers with their enormously deep pockets ought to be able to come up with something new and interesting or, at the very least, find a way to iterate on the genre conventions that used to make their games unique and noteworthy until the best-self versions of those games are achieved. In other words, Square-Enix would be better served to pursue the natural, irrefutably killer evolution of ‘90s-era Final Fantasy than to chase the Far Cry template.
To be sure, there are plenty of open-world games that get it right—there’s nothing innately wrong with the bones of the genre. The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild make clear that open world can be executed in a thoroughly compelling way, but those successes also bring into starker relief the lesser games that don’t quite get there. It’s understandable that Square Enix would want its flagship to keep pace with industry trends, but with the standard-bearing pinnacles of the open world genre out there providing stiff competition in that arena, Final Fantasy ought to leave that fight to be waged by some other poor sucker. Check out the Persona series—it’s been parked firmly within the boundaries of its original genre since 1996 but also manages to dramatically improve each series entry and garner critical and popular acclaim in the process.
That being said, Square Enix has as much right to reinvent Final Fantasy as any other developer that discovers its once-lauded intellectual property is calcifying like a funky loaf of old bread. And reinvention can be wildly successful if performed thoughtfully: Breath of the Wild, um, breathed new—shit—breath into Zelda’s decades-old formula to rapturous, universal applause, but the fact that it did so by going open-world shouldn’t be written down on gold leaf as connect-the-dots gospel for any developer attempting to seek similar critical reception. In a sense, Zelda was always open-world, and Breath of the Wild simply makes good on all of the series’s potential that had lately been waiting in the wings. Final Fantasy’s potential is of a wholly different flavor, and Square Enix will accordingly have to draw up its own map to self-actualization. Simply expanding the world won’t be enough. And, in light of the recent announcement at E3, fishing’s not likely to do it either. Fishing, as they say, is never the answer.
For now, then, I bid you a fond adieu, Final Fantasy. Call me back when you’ve sorted yourself out.
When he’s not chained to his desk during the workdays, Lewis Beard is a writer, gamer, and musician living in Atlanta, Georgia. You can check out his thoughts on a wide range of random, possibly compelling topics at run4itmarty.com, and you can bask in the filthy goodness of his music on Bandcamp.