Way back in 1987, Hironobu Sakaguchi and his seven-member team at Square developed and published Final Fantasy for the Nintendo Famicom. That last-ditch effort put Square on the map and launched a franchise that has sold over 100 million units. The series is Square Enix's tentpole franchise worldwide, with almost double the total sales of Final Fantasy's predecessor, the Dragon Quest series.
The first Final Fantasy laid the gameplay groundwork for most of the fifteen primary titles in the series' twenty-six-year history. Player characters on one side, enemies on the other side. A menu allows the player to command their chosen party in battle. The visual presentation of this combat may have changed over the decades, but this basic setup is what could be considered the gameplay core of Final Fantasy.
As the series has evolved, the framework around this core has shifted and changed. Overworlds have grown and shrunk, being anywhere from Mode 7 spaces to 3D cities trapped in time. Characters have changed from cyphers you could name to fully-realized heroes and heroines. Spells sometimes have a certain number of uses and other times they require MP to cast. Random encounters are the norm for the series, but occasionally enemies have made their presence known on the map. The games have twisted and morphed, but retained a center that you could safely call “Final Fantasy”.
Until Final Fantasy XI Online, the series first massively multiplayer online game.
Whether it was for creative or commercial reasons, Square decided to make the first online Final Fantasy a numbered entry in the series. Prior to this, Square had played around with ideas outside of the basic Final Fantasy core with spinoff titles. These games took some of the visual tropes of Final Fantasy - chocobos, black and white mages, the summon creatures - and explored new gameplay. Final Fantasy Tactics, the Chocobo series, and Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden (Final Fantasy Adventure) all explored different genres, but aren’t considered true Final Fantasy games.
That model is a standard in the industry. A franchises’ numbered titles stick to familiar ground and if you want to step outside that ground, a spinoff is created. Notable examples of this include Halo Wars, Phantasy Star Online, Heroes of Might and Magic, Metal Gear Acid, and Metroid Prime. These experiments don’t always work out - Street Fighter 2010, Death by Degrees, Fable: The Journey, and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces say “hi” - but it gives developers a chance to play around while giving players something known to latch onto.
Numbered entries in a franchise come with certain expectations, and Final Fantasy XI Online was well outside of those expectations for the Final Fantasy franchise. Players controlled a single character in real-time combat, joining other players to combat larger foes. It was a typical MMO of its time, based roughly on gameplay found in and popularized by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Square (and later Square Enix) did find success with the title and have another paid expansion, Seekers of Adoulin, which came out earlier this year.
With Final Fantasy XI Online, Square told convention to go screw off and blazed a new trail for itself. What if the rest of the industry did the same? Imagine Grand Theft Auto VI as an 4X strategy title, where you take control of a gang to carve out your own neighborhood in Los Santos. Imagine if Metal Gear Solid VI was a visual novel detailing the creation of Foxhound. Imagine Persona 5 as a racing game. Imagine Castlevania as a God of War-styl-- oh wait, they did that one.
Final Fantasy XII returned somewhat to the series’ core gameplay, but kept the real-time combat with its Active Dimension Battle system. Final Fantasy XIII followed that with a variant of the Active Time Battle system present in most Final Fantasy titles since Final Fantasy IV. The key difference in FFXIII is players only controlled the lead party member, with other members controlled by the AI, not unlike the Tales of series or latter Star Ocean games. Final Fantasy XIV Online was another MMO in the series released in 2010, but the game launched in an unfinished and incomplete state, which is the kiss of death for many MMOs. The negative reception combined with MMO players' growing preference for free-to-play forced Square Enix to raze the entire thing to the ground and start anew. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn will be re-launched in August of this year. (Read Pete's beta impressions to see if the game is any better!)
Which brings us to Final Fantasy XV, announced at this year’s E3. Final Fantasy XV was previously developed under the name Final Fantasy Versus XIII, clearly denoting it as an action-RPG spinoff of Final Fantasy XIII. The game was announced back in 2006, planned as part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology which included Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and Final Fantasy Agito XIII. Final Fantasy Agito XIII upheld its status as a spinoff when it was renamed Final Fantasy Type-0 and released on the PSP in 2011. Final Fantasy XIII came out in 2009, was followed by Final Fantasy XIII-2 in 2011 (a sequel to a numbered FF is oddly not a franchise first), and the third entry, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, is coming in early 2014.
In contrast, Final Fantasy XV has switched from a PlayStation 3-exclusive to an Xbox One and PlayStation 4 title. The game was previously developed on Square Enix’s Crystal Tools, but has now changed over to the publisher’s new Luminous Engine. When it was announced, game director and character designer Tetsuya Nomura acknowledged that Versus XIII was beyond the scope of numbered Final Fantasy games, originally envisioned as an action-RPG in the vein of Nomura’s Kingdom Hearts.
“With Versus, we are trying out a type of adventure that we couldn't do in the numbered series,” he told Japanese magazine Gaimaga (via IGN).
What changed? Probably eight years worth of development effort and cost. Maybe the desire to distance themselves from a series of games that will be finished by time Final Fantasy XV hits stores, seeing as the game still doesn’t have a firm release date.
Does Final Fantasy XV deserve to be seen as a numbered Final Fantasy game, or is Square Enix moving in the wrong direction with the series? The publisher is moving forward regardless, but I wonder if the hearts and minds of Final Fantasy fans will follow. A number of fans have already checked out of the franchise due to previous development choices or fatigue and indie developers like Zeboyd Games are there to provide a classic take on the RPG genre.
Perhaps it's better for Square Enix’s developers that Final Fantasy is more of an aesthetic style married to certain visual tropes, instead of a certain type of game. Square Enix has been in a creative rut, but with the renaming of Versus XIII, the future of Final Fantasy XVI is now full of possibilities. Who knows exactly what form numbered Final Fantasy games could take now?
I'm of two minds on Final Fantasy XV and the future of the series: I look forward to finally seeing what Versus XIII has become, but I prefer that numbered entries to stick near the classic core. What do you think? Is Final Fantasy XV a sweet dream, or a beautiful nightmare?