In a previous Checkpoint, I discussed the recent fad in the video game industry where games from previous console generations are being rereleased in HD. My main focus was whether or not this fad was proof that consumers are purchasing games either for graphics or for gameplay, and not necessarily for both. I wanted to narrow my focus on a specific developer and discuss how well their more recent releases hold up against their older entries. Square Enix, who before 2003 was simply Square Co., are touted as the creators of the hugely popular JRPG series Final Fantasy, which has no final game in sight due to the success of nearly every game. The games that gained this developer so much respect, however, contrast sharply from their most recent releases, and in several ways.
Final Fantasy I through VI solidified Square Co. as a developer who knows how to make games with epic journeys, amazing musical scores, and, most importantly, really good gameplay. Turn-based RPGs were generally unheard of before Final Fantasy, and really only became popular in the U.S. following the release of Final Fantasy I. This battle system consists of the player wielding a party of usually three to four characters, each with differing abilities and equipment. Each character is given one turn per round to attack, defend, or use an item. Final Fantasy made these battles interesting in that the battles always surrounded a greater plot, whether the characters were simply fending of fiends in a dungeon or defeating an epic boss in a dilapidated castle. Additionally, the characters would grow stronger by “leveling up” and this would give them access to greater abilities and equipment, all of which would be more aesthetically pleasing to the player as they leveled up further. FF I through VI were 2-D, although they did receive more graphic detail as the series progressed. It was Final Fantasy VII that changed everything.
Final Fantasy VII was the first fully-3D entry in the series but what really set it apart was the delivery of a deeply heartfelt and engaging story that perhaps connected the players to the characters more than ever before. A skill system called the materia system was also introduced in which special orbs could be placed on characters’ weapons and armor and would allow for greater skills, magic, and even summons of creatures. Despite the game being fifteen years old, I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. The game is nonetheless worth playing to those who have already enjoyed it as well as those who never got a chance. To date, this is likely the most popular title in the series and is still regarded as the height of Square’s creativity. This game did not rely on graphics simply because home consoles didn’t have the capacity to run anything better. This in no way created a void of enjoyability, however. In fact, since it is relatively difficult to find a decent copy of the PS1 original, Sony chose to make it available digitally on Playstation Network on the PS3. FF VIII and IX were both worthy entries and are considered by some to even be superior to VII, but in terms of popularity, the two were greatly overshadowed by VII.
Final Fantasy X was another leap or, a staple, in the series. This game proved yet again that fans of the series appreciate a good story more than anything. The graphical leap from PS1 to PS2 was a plus and added to the fans’ general adoration of the game. FF X did not use graphics as a crutch and focused on a love story surrounded by the greater story arch of the possible end of the world. Perhaps even more than the story, it was the characters who really engaged players and gave them the desire to see them through the game’s end. A boy transported far into the future, a girl tasked with sacrificing her life for the sake of her world, and several guardians with their own individual story lines created an even larger fan-base for the series and it even led to a direct sequel. The sequel was quickly maligned as a cheap way to capitalize on a greater story, coming off as vapid and generally worthless. The gameplay was actually somewhat interesting because it involved a new battle system, but that was the extent of any possible enjoyability. More recent entries seem to be so graphic-oriented that something has certainly been lost in the process.
Final Fantasy XI gained some attention before its release in 2003, but because the game was a poorly-created MMO, it only ever gained a specific group of players – namely those who simply enjoyed punishment in the form of endless grinding, nearly impossible bosses, and genuinely impossible drops of useful gear. Most of the servers running this game have since been shut down but certain masochists continue to enjoy its supremely difficult gameplay. Yet here again it is proven that gameplay (which in this case only ever supports the storyline) and not really graphics, is what the players respect. Final Fantasy XII received generally mixed reviews and is truly hit-or-miss with most people. The graphics and gameplay seemed to be limited because it is a product of a fading console generation. I can’t help but feel it would have been better received on the PS3. It is rumored that this game, like FF X, will eventually receive an HD remake which, in my opinion, is actually warranted in this case. XII was, after all, marketed as a single-player game set in an MMO-sized world. I just don’t think the PS2 handled it as well as the game deserved.
Final Fantasy XIII is somewhat of a consumer-minded abomination of the series. When you ask a fan of this game what is so markedly impressive of the title, the ubiquitous answer is the graphics.
Other than the main character, the characters in this game lack any reason for the player to care about them. The main character does not carry the game, though, nor should she. Instead, like every Final Fantasy, the game jumps from the personal story of one character to another. Were the characters actually interesting, this would be acceptable, but they simply aren’t. Most of them have stories that either aren’t interesting or actually don’t even matter for the purpose of the main storyline. What’s worse is the gameplay. I feel like Square Enix thought the graphics were so good that the gameplay needed to be cut back in order for the player to gaze at the beautiful polygons even more. This was a huge mistake on their part, in reference to the respect of their fan base. Since consumerism determines “the shinier, the better,” XIII has done well and has even spawned an even worse direct sequel. It’s disgusting that a developer which is so obviously capable of amazing games has taken this direction and it’s really inexcusable.