Back on track: Final Fantasy creates head of steam at E3

Friday, 21 June 2013 14:19 GMT By Alex Donaldson

Final Fantasy swapped Versus for XV and showed it has a real future in Los Angeles last week. Alex Donaldson reports on a series reborn.

“When we originally launched the Versus XIII project, we thought that action-based would fit the title. I believe that there is a future for both action-based RPGs and command-based RPGs. It’s not that we’re not thinking of the future of command-based, but we think that this action-based RPG fits FF15.”

Final Fantasy VII is pretty damn famous within gamer culture. One of the best known lines of the game, delivered by walking black stereotype Barret Wallace, embodies Square Enix’s approach to its flagship series over recent years – “There ain’t no gettin’ offa this train we’re on!”

For the best part of a decade now, the series has felt lost. It’s been motoring along the track at speed, yes, much like the trains of the Midgar slums, but the track in question has been one with a muddled identity, and one too obsessed with chasing the success of the quoted game.

This generation’s effort, the Final Fantasy XIII saga, has often felt like it’s been dashing about beneath the shadow of the most successful entry in the series, searching for a soul and an identity. Heroine Lightning was pitched as a female version of Cloud, for instance, and FF13’s combat system was built to mimic the look of FF7 movie Advent Children’s action sequences – all while juggling the turn-based RPG roots and expectations of the series.

Worse, development of the game was a protracted, expensive five-year process. When released, the expensively developed game still split opinion – in large part, I think, due to a lack of an identity unrelated to aping other successful games in the series. Expensive development inspired sequels, too, so assets could be reused – and those also polarized gamers.

Excessive development time and cost combined with modest sales of sequels and the gigantic bungle that was Final Fantasy XIV to leave the company in trouble – something new CEO Yosuke Matsuda admitted and apologized for in an E3 presentation.

“Since the last fiscal year, the news of our earnings call and the change in CEO, I realize we have caused many worries,” Matsuda, replacement for Yoichi Wada, said. “With E3 2013 as our base point, we plan to begin to move forward in a stronger and bigger way.”

And they have, I think. The company clearly hopes that press, fans and investors alike will see their showing at this year’s E3 as a sea change for the company. It’s early days yet, but I’m actually rather inclined to agree, at least based on what we know and have seen so far.

So, here are the headlines: Final Fantasy Versus XIII is now officially Final Fantasy XV, while Kingdom Hearts III is also now in development. Both are coming for both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, meaning the game previously known as Versus has lost its intended exclusivity and Kingdom Hearts will make its very first appearance on an Xbox platform.

That news in itself is all pretty exciting. Versus has just about always looked more interesting than the original FF13, and it puts Tetsuya Nomura – a key component of the massively successful FF7 – back at the front and centre of the series.

It was a difficult secret to keep, and many of Square Enix’s own PR team confessed to me they hadn’t seen the trailer until the moment it aired at Sony. “I was so excited I couldn’t get to sleep,” Shinji Hashimoto, Producer on the game, told the press.

Before talking about that game in detail at their E3 presentation, Square Enix wanted to cover that game’s direct predecessor – the upcoming relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV, titled A Realm Reborn.

“We believe that an MMORPG, FF14 contains the heart and soul of the FF series,” Producer Naoki Yoshida told the assembled press. The E3 trailer pushes this agenda – it’s a story-driven piece, filled with snippets of FF staples such as Ifrit, Ultima Weapon and an airship-piloting Cid.

A key announcement for the company was that the title would also ship on PS4 in addition to PS3 and PC – though that version won’t arrive until 2014. As underlined in our previous coverage, the most impressive fact about this reboot is that it is a true do-over; next to none of the original release remains. It’s been an expensive undertaking, and is something the company argue is an example of their new commitment to quality, to getting it right.

Also out soon are remastered HD versions of Final Fantasy X, X-2 and Kingdom Hearts for PS3 as well as the aforementioned third sequel to FF13, Lightning Returns. The latter is described by its producer at a game that will make fans ask “Is this really Final Fantasy?” thanks to a more action-based approach to its combat.

Even more action-based, though, is what we’re really here to talk about – the fifteenth main-line entry into the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy XV doesn’t just mark a change in terms of Square Enix committing to showing the game and getting it out on time, but also represents a change of direction for the series in general.

In gameplay footage we’re shown at the event lead character Noctis jumps about the battlefield in a manner that appears more fitting for a third person action game such as God of War or Castlevania, and the massive on-screen HUD elements of FF13 are largely absent. At a glance, it looks more like an action game.

This has some RPG fans concerned, but I actually think it’s a rather exciting change. Turn-based battles have struggled to mesh with the action-packed, mainstream vision Square Enix has held for the series in the modern cinematic experience driven age. The end result has been titles like FF13, which ended up failing to fully satisfy either fan base.

It’s an issue that FF15 Producer and Final Fantasy brand director Shinji Hashimoto had to field at E3 – with FF15 taking this approach, what happens to the more traditional systems of FF’s past?

“When we originally launched the Versus XIII project, we thought that action-based would fit the title,” he explained when quizzed. “I believe that there is a future for both action-based RPGs and command-based RPGs. It’s not that we’re not thinking of the future of command-based, but we think that this action-based RPG fits FF15.”

“For people like me, I want the game to be easy to operate – so I’m asking the development team to be a little bit flexible about the difficulty level,” he added – promising to ensure the game will be easily playable for fans of the older, slower-paced games.

Even if a portion of the most hardcore fans of the series are reluctant to stand behind the action-focused approach of FF15, the draw of the footage Square Enix released at E3 is undeniable. As with every year, their booth at the show was defined by a massive cinema-style screen with rows of seating in front of it.

When it aired trailers for games like Lightning Returns or the surprisingly clever Murdered: Soul Suspect, those seated in E3 exhaustion seemed to only partially pay attention – but every time the FF15 trailer came on, people seemed to become mesmerised. More would be drawn into the stand from the walkways, and phones would be raised to film the screen.

“I want you to understand that the FF series is always evolving. It’s always taking on new challenges; this is a positive change.”

It was surreal to see; after years of apathy for the series, people seemed invigorated, excited and interested in Final Fantasy in a manner I haven’t seen since the start of this generation – when FF13 was considered a potentially generation-defining, console war-winning game.

In that sense this is a massive victory for Square Enix, and marks the first time in too long the Japanese side of the company seems to have looped a lasso around what made their past games special. As a massive fan of PS1-era Final Fantasy (9 is my favourite) I couldn’t help but feel a stab of excitement at that trailer – and it’s fantastic to feel again.

It’s worth noting that there are still worries – the gameplay footage shown at the event, less flashily cut than the trailer, is a little less impressive. There are frame rate problems all over, and in places the combat looks dangerously close to the simplistic and I think boring Dynasty Warriors-style battles of Kingdom Hearts.

Even so, things such as an awesome-looking teleport ability, a glimpse of an open-ended in-game map, teases at stealth and underwater gameplay and Uncharted-like set-piece sequences all seem to indicate the game intends to drag the best of Final Fantasy kicking and screaming into the HD, cinematic era of gaming – just in time for the next-gen.

It sounds silly to say considering this game has been in development for some seven years, but it is also early days – it is just reannounced, and hopefully the frame rate improves.

And what of those fans who absolutely can’t stand an action-based title? Shinji Hashimoto wouldn’t be drawn too far, but did essentially say this isn’t the end for that gameplay style.

“The Final Fantasy series always has different systems and mechanics for each title,” he explained. “Each time, the development team for that title reviews the popular gameplay systems. For 15, we have an action-packed game system. That doesn’t mean the next title will be a similar way – but we’re not ready to comment on the future.”

“I want you to understand that the FF series is always evolving. It’s always taking on new challenges; this is a positive change.”

And so the train keeps rolling. As Barret said, there’s no getting off it, especially for Square Enix. Hopefully the tracks are now leading to redemption rather than ruin – fingers crossed.