You can't play Final Fantasy XV at Tokyo Game Show this year, but despite its absence this week the game just might make its way into the world before it reaches the 10-year anniversary of its original announcement.
FFXV has had, to put it lightly, a rather troubled existence since its original unveiling at E3 2006 (as Final Fantasy Versus XIII). I've followed its curious progress (or lack thereof) firsthand from the start, having been present firsthand at every press conference and theatre presentation in which Square Enix plotted out the game's evolution. For ages, it was nothing more the more intriguing of the two Final Fantasy XIII side projects, a "story based in reality" that consisted of a very slick CG trailer and little more. Every year I'd attend E3 or Tokyo Game Show and watch the latest Versus XIII reel, which invariably consisted of the same trailer from 2006 with a few seconds of new footage spliced in each time. But as FFXIII's release date slipped, Versus XIII seemed no closer to coming to life, despite the glacial transformation of its launch trailer.
Square Enix wasn't shy about merchandising its most vaporous project, though. I attended a 2008 event to promote the various projects headed up by director Tetsuya Nomura, and Versus XIII was definitely the centerpiece — though its "new footage" consisted of nothing more than an in-engine cutscene of protagonist Noctis talking to a woman on the observation deck of what appeared to be a fancier version of Tokyo Tower. In a display case nearby, you could gaze in reverence at a real-life version of Noctis' outfit, a ridiculously expensive asymmetrical suit by Japanese clothing designer Roen. They also released the game's main theme, Somnus, that year, though composer Yoko Shimomura admitted she'd barely begun to work on the main game's music. "My work for Versus XIII isn't finished at all! It's like there's a huge black mountain in front of me," she joked.
A year or two after that, though, Versus XIII began to recede into the background. It had a less prominent place in Square's sizzle reels. One year, its sole presence at TGS amounted to a quick bit, hidden inside the company's closed trailer theater, in which a bit of shaky cam footage showed the game engine running on a PlayStation 3 development system. It was a few years after that when we finally saw something that resembled actual game footage: Noctis juggling a monster in a decidedly Kingdom-Hearts-like combat engine. A few years after that, the game emerged once again from the shadows with a new title — Final Fantasy XV — and a new target console, PlayStation 4.
It seemed a little strange at the time that Square Enix would seemingly put all its eggs in the basket of a game with such a protracted history, proclaiming this seemingly directionless release forever mired in development hell as the future of their tentpole franchise. Some saw it as an act of desperation, a sign that the Final Fantasy series had gone so far off the rails that the only candidate for the next proper numbered entry would be a repurposed spin-off. It's not an unreasonable assumption, given the dicey history of the series' most recent entries. Now that we've learned a bit more about the game, though, I'm finding much more reason to be optimistic about its prospects, and those of Final Fantasy in general.
The biggest FFXV news to come from TGS this week isn't that a playable demo will be included with the physical release of Final Fantasy Type 0 HD, though certainly that's a good sign. We've finally gone from 2006's CG-rendered proofs of concept to something concrete enough to put in players' hands. The beleaguered FFXIII launched about nine months after its playable demo back in 2009, so it's entirely possible FFXV could be on track for a late 2015 launch.
No, the real news is that Nomura is no longer attached to the project. He's shuffled over to work full time on Kingdom Hearts III, while Type 0 director Hajime Tabata has taken over for Nomura on FFXV. Tabata told us he had taken a role with FFXV when we spoke to him a few weeks ago at PAX Prime, but he didn't indicate just how big a role.
Tabata seems like the perfect person to salvage the project. Like Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn director-cum-savior Naoki Yoshida, Tabata doesn't have an extensive track record as a high-profile leader in the company; his previous work has been in the portable space, pushing the PlayStation Portable to its ragged edge with games like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and The 3rd Birthday. Most importantly, his games have shipped. He's demonstrated an ability to get things done — something desperately needed for the aimless FFXV project.
His "outsider" status works to his advantage as a public face as well; much like Yoshida, Tabata is remarkably open in interviews, even about his enthusiasm for games designed beyond the walls of Square Enix. Much of Final Fantasy's troubles over the past decade have boiled down to a resistance to changing development processes that had grown obsolete, and fresh blood like Tabata's could provide a welcome antidote. He's very much the opposite of the "prima donna" game designer archetype that Nomura represents.
Tabata's influences are on clear display in the latest trailer for FFXV. Unlike previous reels for the game, this feels like a presentation designed to draw people in and get them excited about the project. More to the point, it seems designed to appeal to Western gamers more than Japanese. There are no abstract conversations between star-crossed lovers, no Alan Rickman lookalikes sticking out their green tongues. Instead, the conversations this time play out between Noctis and his buddies as they drive a car across the scenery — a real-time, in-game demonstration rather than CG — weirdly combining modern-day technology with Final Fantasy standards like Adamantoises. The brief glimpses of combat make it look fast-paced and exciting in the style of games like Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed.
Compare that to the footage of the game in its Versus XIII days, in which combat resembled a fairly simple Kingdom Hearts affair and much more air time was spent on showing people looking cool and dramatic, and you can see a massive shift in direction and tone for FFXV since Tabata came aboard. The new FFXV trailer definitely looks like a Final Fantasy game, with elaborate magic spells and immaculately coiffed young men being heroic, but now it's one influenced by and building on contemporary action games. The driving-and-talking bits look like a much slicker version of in-car conversations from Saints Row IV or Grand Theft Auto V. Meanwhile, the combat looks fantastic in its own right, placing heavy emphasis on large crowds of foes and dynamic character reactions; Noctis spends more time in the trailer dodging and parrying enemy attacks than dishing out punishment.
It's a long way from lining up and trading blows with static monsters in classic Final Fantasy, and purists will hate it; but Square Enix's designers and executives alike have been fairly frank in recent years over the difficulty in reconciling classic turn-based combat with the physical realism inherent in more detailed visuals. We've known Final Fantasy has been moving toward real-time action for a while, and at least this expression of the concept looks legitimate. But perhaps that should come as no surprise; Tabata helped forge this path several years ago with Crisis Core, an essential half-step between menu-driven combat and pure action.
Of course, you can't judge a game based on a trailer alone. But at least this trailer provides us with more material to judge than we've seen across all the previous trailers we've seen over the past eight and a half years.
Besides being good news for FFXV, all of these upheavals bode well for the franchise in general. It's probably no coincidence that the game's new name and direction appear to line up neatly with the departure of former Square Enix president Yoichi Wada in early 2013. Since current CEO Yosuke Matsuda's succession, the glitches affecting the Final Fantasy brand have quickly subsided; the only major misstep we've seen in the past year or two has been All the Bravest, a project that began under Wada.
The renewed sense of purpose and direction we see for FFXV, along with other ventures like the HD remake of Type 0 specifically assembled for the West, the near-simultaneous global launch of Type 0 and the FFXV demo, and intriguing spinoffs like Final Fantasy Explorers speak of a series getting back on track. It makes you wonder what could be next for Final Fantasy in the wake of Wada's departure. For example, he always seemed like the biggest naysayer on a Final Fantasy VII remake; with him gone, could that guaranteed crowd-pleasing best-seller finally be in the works? Original FFVII director Yoshinori Kitase still hasn't announced his latest project post-Lightning Returns, after all, and currently Square Enix seems to be refocusing on giving fans what they want.
For now, it's simply heartening to see that Final Fantasy XV at long last feels like present-day concern rather than a forever distant illusion. Tabata faces no small task, trying to bring this endless project on home, but for the first time I feel optimistic about — and interested in — FFXV.