Spoilers for Final Fantasy VI, VII, X, and XII. You’ve been warned!
Yeah, I said it. I said it, and I’ll say it again: Final Fantasy fans, by and large, are a confused bunch.
Whenever I read comments over the internet regarding the Final Fantasy series and JRPGs in general, I always see the same statements repeated over and over again: “Square Enix has gone downhill.” “Final Fantasy is a shadow of its former self.”
Many vocal fans of the series have taken to social media to denounce Square Enix and their most recent games. In particular, the Final Fantasy XIII saga has been the scapegoat for people’s rage. Mobile Final Fantasy games have also been met with vehement opposition (opposition that I, in fact, completely defend, as I find micro-transactions and touch-screen games to be as damaging to the hardcore industry as the next guy or gal).
The Source of Many Fans’ Woes
Now, I’ll admit, right off the bat, that I was disappointed by Final Fantasy XIII myself. I remember back in 2010, as a freshman in high school, waiting with bated breath for the end of the school day so I could run home, tear open the packaging for the title, slip the disk inside my PS3 (which I had purchased specifically to play this game), and experience the old Final Fantasy magic.
To my surprise, I was greeted by a complete antithesis to what Final Fantasy had always meant to me.
Now, if I were to ask any number of Final Fantasy fans what they think I found disappointing in Final Fantasy XIII, I honestly believe that they would all guess incorrectly. However, before divulging such details, let me take some time to provide my own personal background of how I got into playing Final Fantasy.
Where it all Got Started
It was my 12th birthday. I had had a couple of friends over to celebrate. As someone who had grown up playing Nintendo games, I had a GameCube set up upstairs in the family den where my buddies and I would play games like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart. However, it was the Legend of Zelda franchise that I ended up loving the most.
That day, I had just been finishing up Twilight Princess. As I triumphantly finished the Hyrule Castle level and faced off against Ganon with the help of Zelda’s light arrows, my friends cheered me on. After succeeding with nary a scrape (thanks in part to a trusty Prima strategy guide), my friends and I went downstairs so I could open my birthday presents.
My friends and I all loved to game, and as such, I opened up a lot of GameStop gift cards (a priceless item when I was a kid). However, out of all those gifts, it was the one my little brother gave me that I’d never forget. Unlike all the others, it was not simply a gift card disguised in an envelope.
To my utter surprise, it was Final Fantasy XII, a game I had heard quite a lot about on gaming websites, yet had never thought of purchasing for myself, as it appeared to be a very complex and large game from the previews.
“I asked the guy at GameStop for a recommendation. I told him my brother likes Zelda, and he handed me this.”
A Steelbook for the Ages
And what a game that was.
Now, before people start scrolling down to the comments section to berate my taste in Final Fantasy, I’d like to say that, of all the numbered Final Fantasy titles, I have completed—from start to finish—I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, X, X-2, XII, and XIII. That’s a lot of Final Fantasy.
While I have not yet finished Final Fantasy VIII and IX (they’ve been sitting downloaded on my PS3, but I just haven’t had time to play them), the fact that I have experienced the works of Square Soft/Square Enix from Final Fantasy I all the way up to VII and beyond should show that I am far from a novice player. In fact, Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls was the very, very first collection of Final Fantasy games I had ever played. However, Final Fantasy XII was always the one that I found closest to my heart, which is why I choose it to be the focus of this discussion.
You may ask, why am I bringing up Final Fantasy XII? Well, simply put, Final Fantasy XII is the perfect example of a game that has always been mixed when it comes to popular opinion. While critically, the game sits with a strong 92 on Metacritic, the game only has a 7.8 user score. Additionally, prior to the release of Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XII had been the scapegoat for fans’ dislike towards the Final Fantasy series. They claimed that XII was boring: It had a forgettable main character, monotonous gameplay, little character variety in terms of specific weapons/skills to equip, and a meh soundtrack.
While I do not claim to have a perfect argument as to why I personally love XII so much (and, honestly, do not want to argue the point), let me make one point: Before XII, how was reception towards Final Fantasy?
Well, if we look at Final Fantasy X, we will see the same Metacritic score, but a much more comparable user score of 8.7. Yet, even with such strong critical and consumer praise, there are always people that claimed that Final Fantasy was better before X.
And before Final Fantasy X? Before VII, VIII, and IX? Fans will say that IV, V, and VI were the true best games, and that the quality of Final Fantasy has been depreciating since the early 90s.
Before “X,” before “Y,” before “Z.” Always the same argument from fans: that games were always better in the past (doesn’t even need to be Final Fantasy; just look at many Halo, Call of Duty, and Metal Gear Solid critics).
A Particularly Easy Target for Gamers to Take Aim At
So again, I return to the question, “What exactly makes these older Final Fantasy games so special?” In fact, What in particular makes Final Fantasy, well…. Final Fantasy?
People always cite the gameplay as critical faults of Final Fantasy XIII. Narrow hallways, tutorials that hold your hand until the 30th hour. A Crystarium system with little freedom, and the lack of towns, airships, a world map, and proper turn-based battles. Basically, XIII lacked everything that Final Fantasy VI had.
Many Fans’ All-Time Favorite Final Fantasy Game
But was the gameplay of VI really what set it apart from the pack, back then? I’d beg to differ. No, I don’t really think that random encounters were, or are now, desirable to the average gamer. I also do not think world maps, airships, or even chocobos and moogles are defining characteristics of the Final Fantasy lineage.
No, no. What one really gets, when they boil Final Fantasy down to its essence, is a gripping narrative. When I played VI for the first time, I wasn’t raving about its battle system (it was good, but I think VII and X are both examples of stronger applications of the turn-based battle system). I didn’t rave about having a world map (XII had a large, expansive world that made me forget about world maps in JRPGs altogether).
Yes, what made Final Fantasy XIII bad to me wasn’t the lack of towns, the linear pathways, or even the lousy Crystarium system. It was the utterly horrendous and confusing story it attempted to convey to the player. The confounding plot was truly a shame too, since I found the characters of Final Fantasy XIII to be decent (yes, I’m referring to Snow, Hope, and Vanille); they were just underutilized in a story that made little logical sense, never evolved past “we have to have faith in ourselves,” and just lacked the heart of the stories found in IV, VI, VII, and X.
I could start on how I think Final Fantasy XV will not only be the Final Fantasy game that saves Square Enix’s reputation, but also that I think it’ll be quite possibly the greatest JRPG ever created, but I think I’ve ranted long enough.
Final Fantasy‘s Savior? Only Time Will Tell
The point I’m trying to get across? That JRPGs are not a simple product of engaging battles and fun combat. For it’s the storytelling, the moments like Yuna and Tidus’ kiss scene in X, Basch confronting his brother in XII, Kefka’s triumph in VI, and Aerith’s death in VII, that truly makes these titles memorable.
You Can’t Get These Experiences on a Smartphone
After all, without a good story, couldn’t we just get the same gameplay adrenaline playing Candy Crush?