Thursday, September 19, 2013
Feature: “Living the Final Fantasy”, Part 3

Feature: “Living the Final Fantasy”, Part 3

Crossing over to the modern era, our feature’s second-to-last part gets done with the games.Just after the absolute rise to success detailed in the previous article comes the mixed bag of succes, failure and redemption. This article will explore the damage taken when a towering giant slams on the ground, and gets up only to slam down again, without ever losing hope, and clinging to what gave it power. This is the story of Final Fantasy’s recent history.

Breaking into new territory

After Final Fantasy X’s release, stakes were high. The 2001 game was setting records for Square, and was critically referred to as a masterpiece, both for the franchise, the JRPG genre and gaming in general. So, what do you follow that up with?

An MMO. What seemed like the most out of the blue choice for Square was now a reality, as 2002′s Final Fantasy XI was one of the earliest great MMO’s, and not only that; it wrote its name with fine gold letters in gaming’s history for being the world’s first cross-console MMORPG. Released initially for the Playstation 2 in Japan, it was later followed by PC and Xbox 360 versions worldwide. The idea that you would be able to explore a huge world only Final Fantasy can offer, while not being the sole hero of the story, blew people’s minds. Battles were happening in completely real-time, staying in line with the evolution the series were known for.

Conceived by series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Final Fantasy XI was inspired by west’s EverQuest MMORPG, which was a huge hit at the time. While at first unsure about what it should be called, the development team managed to get it into the main series as the eleventh entry. Sakaguchi questioned whether MMORPG’s could really tell the captivating stories that Final Fantasy made a name with, and the first pitch for a name was Final Fantasy Online. However, after the team wrote its storyline, it was final: it was worthy of bearing the core games’ roman numerals, and was named Final Fantasy XI, the next part of the Final Fantasy saga. Producer Hiromichi Tanaka even went as far as to say it’s “the most Final Fantasy” ever made; the new hardware and structure allowed for features the developers wanted to implement in previous entries, but were unable to.

Utilizing the Job System of the earliest games, players could choose between six starting jobs out of twenty two in total, with the Advanced Jobs unlocked as the player progressed. What was a first for MMORPG’s is that characters weren’t restricted to a specific job once chosen; like in the offline entries of the past, you could switch between jobs at certain places around Vana’diel, and keep levelling it. What’s more exciting, though, is the Support Job system. Through that, players could use a sub-job’s traits and abilities unlocked up to half the level of their main job’s. That means, a level 30 Paladin could use the abilities learned by a level 15 Thief, excluding signature abilities, which were preserved for Main Jobs. This allowed for unprecedented combinations and experimentation, never before seen in an MMORPG nor in a Final Fantasy.

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This played a major role in a player’s Party. Having other players join your Party, or joining another’s, allowed for a pool of different jobs, sub-jobs and innumerable combinations and formations. Up to six people form a party, and up to three parties form an Alliance. Teaming up for the game’s hardest bosses was essential, and this is where the Job System truly shined: skill and job combinations were to be tactically decided by the players, in order to take the best out of their party and use it to crush the enemy for splendid loots.

Personalization was another new feature people were introduced to with Final Fantasy XI. Instead of rolling with predetermined characters, you could now create yours, out of five races: the Hume, the Galka, the Tarutaru, the Elvaan and the Mithra. Each race boasted different strengths and weaknesses, and added another layer of tactical decision. For example, the hulking Galka could become great physical attackers and tanks due to their high strength and defence, but would be awful as mages, due to having the lowest MP pool of all races.

Final Fantasy XI was a huge success for Square – 11 years after its release, it still regularly gets updated, has had five expansions release for it, has a dedicated playerbase of over half a million people subscribing, and boasts its status as the most financially successful game in the franchise so far. The world of Vana’diel sure was a huge treat for Final Fantasy fans back then, and everyone who stuck with the game to see its wealth of content to its end were rewarded. However, Square had to move on.

The offline MMO

A project that ran from 2001 to 2006, Final Fantasy XII represents the first game in the main series that’s not a sequel after Square’s merging with arch-rival, Enix. Hironobu Sakaguchi left shortly after Square’s merge with Enix, and you could interpret that as a bad sign of what was to come. What cost around $35m was originally envisioned as an online game, as was the case with every game post Final Fantasy X in Square’s original plans, according to Akitoshi Kawazu. However, things went a different way.

One of the most troubled games bearing the Final Fantasy name, when it comes to development, Final Fantasy XII suffered many changes, ultimately becoming a love-or-hate situation for people who failed to see the past appeal in it. Yasumi Matsuno was appointed as a producer and director for the game, but halfway through, he cited health concerns as a reason and left the company. IN his place were appointed veteran designer Hiroyuki Ito and Hiroshi Minagawa as directors, while Akitoshi Kawazu took over the mantle of the executive producer. Matsuno, however, never let Square-Enix down; even sick, he helped however he could throughout the game’s development, and was credited for “Original Work/Scenario Plot/Supervision” in the full release’s credits section. Nobuo Uematsu scored a single song for the game’s soundtrack, “Kiss Me Goodbye”, the vocal theme of the game, with Hitoshi Sakimoto composing the rest of the game’s soundtrack.

Hiroyuki Ito’s latest idea for the battle system was something curiously weird, albeit intriguing. The Active Dimensional Battle system was introduced,taking a page from Final Fantasy XI’s roaming enemies that you have to attack manually instead of random encounters occuring. This was explored further through the Gambit System.

The Gambit System was meant to offer a “single-player online experience”, where party members would act independently but according to a plan the player gave them. This system worked on the same basic algorithms the monsters from the SNES Final Fantasy games operated with. Similar to XI’s Macro system, players could now create a list of commands for every character, and have them execute them automatically in battle; this could be spiced up by setting parameters like ally HP limits for certain commands, etc. Active and Wait modes are present, with Wait having action freeze as the player chooses actions, but only one can be executed at a time, while Active allows for multiple actions to be performed as long as Effect Capacity is not heavily saturated by them. Weather and terrain also played a major role in battles, as they affect the accuracy of ranged weapons and the effectiveness of magick spells. Weather is randomized, whereas terrain is mostly static with a few area exceptions.

The classic Job system that was initially planned to be in the game, but it was removed in favor of the License Board system to avoid “confusing players”. The over-arching theme of these systems were designed around destiny, meant to not give players the expected outcome every time, even randomizing chest contents and even making the game’s staple Ultimate Weapon missable easily. Intending for the players to make every character different, and not just copies of each other by owning all licenses, the License Board ultimately failed in delivering. Players would exploit treasures until they got the result they wished for, ending up with an army of clones instead of different characters. The 2007 International release saw the inclusion of the Zodiac Job System, which fixed these problems to an extend, but not enough to wash the bad taste off of people’s mouths.

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This was not destined to be the only complaint, however. The hit-or-miss story was criticized for its vastly political theme, while complemented by strong characters who didn’t have their chance to shine. A return to the futuristic setting, it involved Sky Pirates using airships and a corrupted Empire in war with other nations, with an underlying theme of revenge. Many, though, felt it strayed way too far from the Final Fantasy spirit, and as a result, is one of the most polarizing games in the series.

On a brighter note, Summons are back in the form of Espers, creatures you have to defeat first-purchase later through the License Board, and are tied to a single character. Limit Breaks are back, now named Mist Quickenings, available for purchase on the License Board for each character, and are tied to MP instead of HP. For example, in earlier games you could use a Limit Break when low on health; in Final Fantasy XII, you could use it as long as you had the required MP. They can be chained if joined by other party members’ Quickenings, and specific combinations can trigger a Concurrence, which not only damages a single target, but also the enemies around it.

The game managed to score some perfect 10′s around the boards, but also drew a lot of criticism for its overly complex and confusing new systems, namely ADB, License Board and Gambits. It managed to sell well over 6 million copies worldwide, with an impressive opening week in Japan with 1.750.000 copies sold. Despite the changes, it managed to sell well for an exclusive tied to a console that was slowly giving its place to the Playstation 3. What’s better for fans of it is that Square will do an HD version of it, provided Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD sell well — which is a given, in my opinion. Until then, though, you can enjoy the game’s sequel.

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings is a Nintendo DS title, released in 2007. While technically a sequel to XII, the developers wanted it to be an independent Final Fantasy title, and downplayed the “sequel” title; they went as far as to say “it is not accurate to call this a sequel. We want people to view it as the latest FF game. This is not FFXII-2″.

Regardless, it is set post-Final Fantasy XII, and follows the main party’s adventures after the end of the Playstation 2 game, albeit in a more kid-friendly design. While retaining the Gambits, Quickenings and Summons of its predecessor, it is actually vastly different in gameplay, being a strategy game. Heavily relying on the DS’s touch-screens, it’s a pretty straightforward strategy game, with enough depth to keep you interested in seeing its ending.

Fabula Nova Crystallis

The New Tale of Crystal, or Fabula Nova Crystallis as officially adressed by Square-Enix, is the saga that started with 2010′s Final Fantasy XIII. The dawn of a new era for Final Fantasy on the seventh console generation, Final Fantasy XIII blew us away with crisp, ultra-detailed graphics and an evolved combat system. But, boy, did the love-or-hate tradition continue.

Originally planned as a Playstation 2 title in 2004, the main development team was taken in order to create the Final Fantasy VII tech demo for the Playstation 3, which brought production to a halt. Square-Enix was so pleased with the result, though, that they shifted the whole development to a Playstation 3 version instead, essentially restarting from scratch. Yoshinori Kitase overlooked the development of the title, which utilized the brand new Crystal Tools engine, created solely to make development for the notoriously difficult Playstation 3 easier.

First revealed at E3 2006, the game was vastly different from what we got. The more action-based gameplay and the protagonist’s levitating ability were cut, along with more dynamic camera shifts and angles, and replaced with a more classic Final Fantasy combat style. Gone was also the almost-seamless transition between exploration and battle mode, replaced with series’ standard blurring image and field change.

The team wanted to strike a balance between strategic, command-based battles and over-the-top action, similar to the CGI movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.Though opting for a more cinematic approach, a lot of content was cut even from working, unreleased builds, to save on content volume and length. Art director Isamu Kamikokuryo even said that the amount of cut content could make a game on its own.

Problems surrounded the game’s production, though, as it had the biggest team in Final Fantasy history with over 200 people, and that led to communication troubles. The lack of a unified vision hampered progress, and the E3 2006 video release was actually just a video: no gameplay was ready, and the team was sweating over what the battle system would be like. To make matters even more complicated, the team was also working on the new Crystal Tools engine, wanting to implement it on every Square-Enix game at the time, and that led to a wall; without finalized engine specs, the games couldn’t ever be completed.

Developed in a time when the West and Europe were not too fond of JRPG’s because of linearity and command-based battles. Square-Enix was worried, but because the game was a top-secret project, it couldn’t be pitched to western audiences for testing, and when it was, it was too late to implement a lot of valuable feedback. Around that time, the first ever demo of the game went public, and featured a small section primarily focusing on combat. Well-received, it inspired the team to unite under a single vision, and that increased production rate, leading to a finished game soon.

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But it wasn’t that easy, even then. Localization was a huge problem for the company, which worked on both that and the game simultaneously, with no infrastructure to support it whatsoever. Cutscenes were changing even after voice recording was done, leading to the script being re-recorded five times. Translators were translating solely from text, and when they saw an image of what they translated, they scrapped it because they knew it wouldn’t work in context, and when placeholder voices and videos were released, the text had to be re-translated because it wouldn’t match lip synching or character emotion. Tom Slattery, who was head of the English localization, and Teruaki Sugawara, the sound engineer, were the representatives of their respective departments at the monthly meetings of Sound and Localization, and decided that a solution needed to be found in order to get the game finished, without putting extra burden on any of the teams, from developers to translators. A tool called “Moomle” was created after the game’s launch, in order to keep development synchronized across all departments for future projects.

After 5 hard years in the making, the next chapter of Final Fantasy was real. What was originally released as a Playstation 3-exclusive would later appear on the Xbox 360, though without its sacrifices. Being one of the most visually gorgeous games on offer even today, the fidelity between gameplay and cutscenes was astounding, at least for the Playstation 3 version; on the Xbox 360, it was a 3-disc affair, with uglier (though still pretty) visuals. Nevertheless, it was a next-gen marvel, it was as beautiful as it gets, and utilized the impressive Command  Synergy Battle system, which mixed and matched the tactical layer of X, the speed of X-2 and the seamless integration to the world of XII. Using only one character per battle, the other two are controlled by the AI, though not entirely; the Paradigm Shift system is present. Every character has a Crystarium, similar to the Sphere Grid of Final Fantasy X, through which they unlock abilities and stat upgrades, as well as class unlocks. For example, a character that is a Sentinel (a tank), can also become a Commando (damage-dealer) through it, just not be as effective due to the late unlocking of this ability.

An aspect of the ATB system is back, in the form of the ATB bar, replacing the MP pool, and is instead divided into sections. As each section fills, an action can be performed, provided the section cost is met. Lastly, another great addition is the Chain Gauge, which requires Paradigm synergy to fill up, and staggers the enemy for extra damage when it does. For example, a Saboteur debuffs and weakens the enemy, and a Ravager fills up the gauge faster than a Commando, but a Commando’s input is required to stabilize it and keep it from diminishing quickly. This 3-part team of roles is called a Paradigm, and the player can create a total of 83 different Paradigm combinations. Summons are also back, and one is tied to each character when acquired.

While all this sounds exciting, it’s often the only reason people don’t wholly overlook Final Fantasy XIII. The driving themes of Final Fantasy XIII are people fighting against fate, and a futuristic world fantasy dystopia, and as great as that sounds, it’s pretty linear for the first 20 or so hours, with the game opening up later, meeting Final Fantasy standards. But having to play 20-25 hours just to find the good part of the world is not what you’d expect from a top game maker like Square-Enix. The story doesn’t do it much justice, either; a convoluted tale of two factions that seek their respective gods after their abandonment, and a cast of half-and-half strong and super annoying characters doesn’t do much to alleviate it.

But I liked it, a lot. If not for the weak supporting characters, I would actually love it, and don’t mind the many hours it takes to open up. And as it sold more than 6.5 million copies in a year, I wouldn’t say I’m alone. And through our support, Square-Enix listened, and implemented the feedback that remained in the sequel. Final Fantasy XIII was a polarizing success.

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Final Fantasy XIII-2 came along in 2012, after a lot of subtle hype, which even involved Tetsuya Nomura himself sending autographed photos of Lightning, the first game’s protagonist, to Square-Enix Members Japan fans, with the quote “she must not be forgotten” written on it. It wasn’t long before it was announced; Lightning’s Saga would span another game, this time featuring an important character from the first game – her sister.

With this game, director Motomu Toriyama proposed more Western details should be added, and all gathered feedback should be applied. With a more focused team, and better communications, the game was made in just over a year, and would now fit on one disc for both systems by cutting prerendered cutscenes from the mix and replacing them with real-time ones.

Tri-Ace helped with the development, something Square-Enix was very pleased about, and that led to squashing a lot of complaints made with the first game. The game’s world was now open almost from the get-go, and events were triggered at the player’s leisure. The party was shrinked to two people, to allow for a more focused story than its predecessor, and the fantastic Command Synergy Battle system was tweaked to be made even faster and satisfying. It even featured multiple endings, encouraging multiple playthroughs, which was a first for Final Fantasy games. Toriyama compared this to X and X-2, in terms of differences between the original and the sequel.

However, it was not without its problems. An even more complicated story that ended up in a cliffhanger “TO BE CONTINUED”, was worrying. When the actual ending was released as DLC, fans raged, and in my opinion, had every right to. An outrageous tactic that rewarded fans with a paywall for their favorite franchise’s newest game’s ending.

Regardless, a new game is in production, launching in February 2014, ending Lightning’s Saga in an exciting way. But that’s a story for another time. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII combines Majora’s Mask with Final Fantasy and modern RPG’s, aiming for the stars and preparing to send off Lightning with a big bang. As with spin-offs and yet-to-be-released games, this will be discussed in the next chapter of our feature.

A realm reborn

Oh, Final Fantasy, how you love to hurt me. In 2010, the next step in MMO territory for Final Fantasy hit, bearing the XIV number with confidence. Great graphics, cross-platform play between PC and Playstation 3… what could go wrong? Well, apparently, everything.

From client to lag issues, and from game-breaking bugs to developer inability to mend them, the game was the absolute trainwreck you could lose sleep over. Since the game is over and done now, there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Instead, let’s talk about the greatest, and most sincere apology ever made by a games company.

Just a few days ago, the world went back into Eorzea, in Final Fantasy XIV. How, you ask, since I said it’s done? Let me elaborate. When the disastrous previous game launched to horrible reviews and fan reception, Square-Enix decided to do what we never expected: remake the game from the ground up. Everything, save for lore, some mechanics and basic stuff like that, was changed and created on a brand new engine. Announced in 2011 was Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, with a completely different development team, and a more fan-friendly approach from newly appointed director, Naoki Yoshida. Orchestrating a fantastic way to “kill” the previous game through lore, this was but the start of a new era. But, what can works do when beautiful, passionate videos are available instead?

Now, let’s talk the game. Taking cues from Final Fantasy XI, the other online-only, MMO entry in the series, it revolves around the same systems; Jobs and sub-jobs, 5 races with strengths and weaknesses, and a rich questline. But, damn, is it so much more than just a typical MMO.

The grand realm of Eorzea varies heavily from region to region, and with it also do the monsters on offer. Expect Final Fantasy staples in one form or another (like Ifrit being a Primal, an arch-boss, and traditionally, the first of its kind you encounter), but also expect a meaty adventure with cross-play between 3 platforms (Playstation 3, PC, and Playstation 4 when it releases).

Spicing up things to avoid direct comparison with XI are a number of mechanics, implemented so subtly you’ll pull them off without knowing. The FATEs (Fully Active Time Event) are XIV’s take on random events throughout the regions, and basic questing has matured. Missions are varied (though not wholly unique), and rewarding, offering more than enough incentives to complete them once accepted. Limit Breaks are a new addition; available only in player parties, a bar similar to VII’s is present, but fills up over time when engaged in battle, and when full, one party member can perform a Limit Break that varies depending on Jobs. For example, a tank class will unleash a Limit Break that greatly ups defence for the party, while a healer will cast Healing Wind, which resurrects fallen allies and heals everyone. There’s a tactical aspect to this, and once you reach difficult battles (like Ifrit’s), you’ll have to make good use of it.

For additional Experience, Guildleves are introduced. After joining any guild, you are free to acquire Guildleves, which are basically quests of varying types and difficulty, and only a number can be completed per day. Furthermore, the Duty Finder will find you duties (duh), which translates into missions with no limit on how many you can do per day — these involve difficult, high-level dungeons or bosses, and more complicated scenarios as well. I still remember how much fun me and the party had when we had to beat a giant tortoise enough to weaken it. This would reveal a new opponent, which would drop a specific orb used to light a fire, and then I (as the tank) lured it over burning herbs to make it fall asleep and extract it. Coordination is key in situations like this, and XIV offers them in plentiful amounts.

This all is displayed through a magnificent engine, with graphics unprecedented for an MMO, and even though Guild Wars 2 arguably looks just as great on PC, there’s no online game on the Playstation 3 that quite looks like it, even with all the compromises made. I’m waiting until I get my hands on the Playstation 4 version, once I get the console this November and the game launches in early 2014. Nobuo Uematsu is back for the music after his hiatus in XIII, and of course, Yoshitaka Amano provided his excellent art. I’m currently playing through to get enough experience for a review, but I can safely say, this is the first MMO that wins my subscription.

Square-Enix described the “Legacy” version of XIV (a.k.a., the first one) as a disaster that nearly destroyed the company and the Final Fantasy name, and that a second mistake like that wasn’t allowed. It seems they’re on the right track with XIV: A Realm Reborn: after all, when your servers are flooded because triple the amount of people you expected bought the game, you get a bittersweet feeling of victory.

Our feature’s third part concludes here, detailing the history of all released entries in the franchise. In the next one, I’ll provide you with a story on everything else; the upcoming games like Final Fantasy XV and it’s history as the infamous Versus XIII, the movie that almost destroyed Square named Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and even more. Remember that you can recover from a hit, severe as it may be, and bounce back gracefully and stronger than ever; just keep in mind how XIV was a disaster, and how XIV: A Realm Reborn is a game changer.  Until next time, enjoy gaming!

About Christos Chatzisavvas

Senior Editor. Your go-to man for everything you need, from games to Games Thirst; I'm always here to help. Gaming lover, web developer going for HND and Bachelor, founder and developer at Underground Journey. When I'm not under the faint light of a PC monitor or TV playing games, I try to lead a life as exciting as I can. Follow me on Twitter @CrashOkami, or Facebook.
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