Wired Gamelife's Chris Kohler certainly seems to think so.
Kohler's justification for this bold statement largely stems from recent controversy surrounding upcoming Final Fantasy XIII sequel sequel Lightning Returns -- specifically, a recent question-and-answer session in which Japanese publications asked Square Enix's Nobuhiro Goto and Motomu Toriyama a number of distinctly... provocative questions about Lightning's breasts. Questions that were answered with the revelation that Lightning would be equipped not only with bigger boobs, but also with 'jiggle physics' in the new game.
"If in 2013 this is what a Q&A session about Final Fantasy has become," says Kohler, "then any claim that the series once had something approaching mainstream respectability done gone and caught the train out of town.
Strong words indeed. Does Kohler have a point, or is he overreacting? We threw the question "Is Final Fantasy Dead?" around the USgamer offices and attempted to come to some conclusions of our own. As always, we'd love to hear yours, too; feel free to share your thoughts in the notes or comments.
Let's begin with our esteemed senior editor Mr Parish who is, as most of you know, a longtime fan of JRPGs.
So, yeah, the author of that Wired piece -- Chris Kohler -- is a friend of mine. But we do not see eye-to-eye on Final Fantasy. Like a lot of fans who grew up playing the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, the series more or less ended for him as soon as it deviated from the style of FFIV. But I've always felt that Final Fantasy is defined by its mutability; it makes for an interesting contrast with the other main pillar of Japanese console RPGs, Dragon Quest, a series that clings to tradition and convention.
Reading over all the down beats Kohler listed seems pretty damning, but there's some serious selection bias going on there: "The series is terrible, so here are the terrible things about it, and none of the good ones." The shine is off Final Fantasy's star for sure, but the overall picture is not nearly so bad as Kohler makes it out to be.
I don't even agree with him about the series' failures; Final Fantasy X-2 was great, demonstrating a refreshing willingness not to take itself too seriously (something generally lacking in the series since FFVII), and it married its breezy tone to a totally fantastic combat system that made the first effort to evolve the classic ATB system since Chrono Trigger. There have been plenty of excellent Final Fantasy releases in the past decade: FFXII is one of my favorite games ever, Theatrhythm was ridiculously fun, Crisis Core made a great prequel to FFVII, Type-0 was fantastic (though it didn't come to the U.S. -- rumor has it through no fault of Square's), and so on.
"This past generation has been brutal to Final Fantasy, and also to Square in general... but the rest of Japan was hit equally hard."Jeremy
I would actually say Final Fantasy nearly sank a few years ago but has been righting itself since. Final Fantasy XIV was a botch job, yes, but the ensuing shakeout put a very sharp, very forward-thinking man at the helm who has the potential to make FFXIV the last great classic MMO. Each sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, though entirely superfluous, has brought the team closer to understanding what it is people actually want from contemporary RPGs. And thank God they renamed FF Versus XIII to be simply FFXV -- it's just a name, sure, but it represents a very important perceptual step forward. The sooner they can dig themselves out of the current-gen rut, the better.
And that's the problem, really. This past generation has been brutal to Final Fantasy, and also to Square in general… but the rest of Japan was hit equally hard. The corporate and development culture of older generations doesn't work for the needs and expectations of contemporary gamers. The rules changed beneath this and many other series, and we've watched in real time as the franchise, like many others, was caught unprepared then struggled to find new direction. It hasn't been pretty, but it seems like Square Enix (and Final Fantasy) may have made it through the worst of it. The future is no slam dunk, but it's not a funeral, either.
That being said, the Dengeki interview that sparked all of this was just awful. I can't decide who I'm more irritated by: The developers for playing along with Dengeki's click-bait questions, or the Dengeki interviewer for asking them in the first place. Although a part of me is a little relieved by Dengeki's lack of class. Talk about the dire state of Western games journalism all you want, but it's nice to have irrefutable proof that we still have a ways to go before we hit the barrel's bottom.
I don't think Final Fantasy is dead, but both of its legs have been broken and it's limping behind the pack. Square Enix (or, as it was previously known, Squaresoft) used to set the bar even if every entry wasn't pure gold. There was a sense of adventure in their output, a willingness to try something new in the gameplay and the story. The last time I felt something new coming from Final Fantasy, it was the cancelled Fortress concept from the now-defunct GRIN. Not the best of signs.
That's not to say the recent entries have been bad. Final Fantasy XIII to XIII-2 definitely had a sense of improvement, but at times it felt like the story was held back by the drive in technology. Final Fantasy X and its spin-off were probably the last in the series that I really enjoyed all the way through. X-2 was actually stronger than its parent game, because while Dresspheres looked problematic from a distance, you could tell Square Enix's staff had fun with the game and the costumes. There seemed to more thought beyond "boobs" (there was a bit of that present though), and that entry in the series hit a high note with women, at least those who cosplay. All those costumes also fit and respected the characters, as opposed to Lightning's Miqo’te costume seen in Chris Kohler's article.
"The Squaresoft spark looks like it's still there at times, but it's not consistent and I think big-budget development is taking its toll on the series."Mike
The Squaresoft spark looks like it's still there at times, but it's not consistent and I think big-budget development is taking its toll on the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy Type-0 looked like a really inventive and impressive game, but we never got to play it in the U.S. That game's director Hajime Tabata is currently working with Tetsuya Nomura on Final Fantasy XV, so that's two major creatives working on a single title. Why? Because it's been in development forever and Square Enix needs it to be a hit. The World Ends With You director Tatsuya Kando's last game was the iOS title Final Fantasy: All The Bravest. One game had verve and a clear direction, the second is a shameless nostalgia cash grab. The company is flailing towards money, instead of driving towards creativity and assuming money will follow.
Why was Level-5 the first to the market with something like the Guild series? Square Enix should've had that covered with its massive sprawling staff. Let your team play around and be creative for a while! There are probably young developers within Square Enix that have ideas and stories to tell, but they're being crushed from above just to keep Final Fantasy moving forward instead of thriving. A series of small compilation games featuring the talents of those developers would be a "spiritual successor" to the first Final Fantasy; those developers would be forced to pull out all the stops to make successful games. This is dead simple stuff, and the series has sold well for Level-5. Get on it, Square Enix!
Is Final Fantasy dead?
I don't know. I don't think so. However, the fact that they've introduced 'jiggling' into the whole mix certainly makes me think that the franchise might either be on life support or in desperate search of affection. Over the last few years, it feels like we've done nothing but beat on the series. The last attempt at an MMO? Terrible, although everyone seems to be exhibiting tremendously cautious optimism about the phoenix rising from its ashes. The mobile variations whose names escape me right now? I can't remember the reviews themselves but I remember flinching at the cutting remarks about 'cash grabs' and so forth.
"I don't think people are going to stop purchasing Final Fantasy. Fans will be fans."Cassandra
Still, I don't think people are going to stop purchasing Final Fantasy. Fans will be fans. I mean, I buy all the bloody Kairosoft games without question even though I know they're really all the same thing. There are things that people will like. What I do feel, however, is that the people behind the series might be a little confused about what the audience want. "Are voluminous breasts the next in-thing?" "I don't know. But let's try it. Mighty morphing power Sailor Moon girls didn't work out so well."
But I'm hopeful. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn looks like it might be on the right track. It was a flaming train wreck, but it seems to be, against all odds, moving in the correct direction now. Why not the rest of the series?
I find this whole Final Fantasy situation to be fascinating. From VII onwards -- perhaps even earlier -- the series has very much been considered a 'mainstream' or 'triple-A' franchise, conveniently forgetting that the JRPG genre as a whole has always been somewhat niche in nature: its typically abstract mechanics and long playtimes alienate those players who prefer something with a bit more immediacy and a bit less in the way of grinding.
Final Fantasy titles since VII -- my first encounter with the series, though I've since gone back and educated myself on all the earlier installments -- have all been big-budget, flashy affairs that tend to push the capabilities of whatever platform they're on, and this is what's led to that "mainstream" perception which is slowly but inexorably sinking its teeth into Square Enix's posterior: being considered "mainstream" means that certain expectations are forced upon you, particularly with regard to your target audience -- even if they don't really fit with what you're doing.
"JRPGs are now even more of a niche interest than they once were -- even big-name ones like Final Fantasy."Pete
People say Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is "pandering." And perhaps it is. But I see it as something a little different: I see it as Square Enix accepting the fact that JRPGs -- or, more accurately, the Final Fantasy games specifically -- no longer carry the mainstream weight they once did. The market for JRPGs hasn't grown significantly since the PS1 era, whereas other types of gameplay have exploded in popularity. Consequently, JRPGs are now even more of a niche interest than they once were -- even big-name ones like Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, this is causing a bit of a clash between the people who still see Final Fantasy as a "mainstream" series and those who see it -- I believe more accurately -- as a niche interest title.
Another thing worth considering is that "otaku games" such as those that Lightning Returns is being unfavorably compared to, make up a fairly significant market in Japan, even if they're widely derided outside of their native territory. Hyperdimension Neptunia -- a series that, in the West, hasn't broken the 55 mark on Metacritic across three different games -- has proven successful enough to spawn a spinoff anime in Japan; meanwhile, companies like Gust, Idea Factory, Compile Heart and Nippon Ichi specialize in this sort of game and manage to remain not just afloat but comfortable.
Besides, apart from some promotional artwork and some (I believe deliberately) provocative interview answers, I remain unconvinced Lightning Returns will be as "pandering" as people are making it out to be. And even if it is, people who like that sort of thing -- who are by no means just limited to the heterosexual male demographic -- are a proven market for this type of game.
Whether or not Lightning Returns is any good or just fanservicey nonsense is something we won't know for sure until the game itself arrives. FFX-2 proved that you shouldn't judge by appearances, for all the reasons Jeremy outlined above, and frankly from everything I've heard so far, Lightning Returns, too, is shaping up to be a very, very cool game. Alongside that, we also have the newly-rebooted Final Fantasy XIV MMO, which is looking marvellous.
So is Final Fantasy dead? No. Is it hurting? No, I don't believe it is. I simply think Square Enix is accepting the fact that by its very nature, Final Fantasy is a niche series, and as such it's realigning its efforts to focus on a smaller, narrower audience. I don't think that's a bad thing at all, but those still working under the assumption that Final Fantasy is a series for "everyone" may be left wondering what happened.