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TGS: Can Final Fantasy XV Bring the Series Back to the Cutting Edge?

Square Enix finally gets serious about the long-delayed RPG, announcing a new director and a playable demo.

Analysis by Jeremy Parish, .

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.

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  • Avatar for Roto13 #1 Roto13 4 years ago
    Honestly, the less Nomura is involved in a Final Fantasy, the more interested I am in it.
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  • Avatar for Wellman #2 Wellman 4 years ago
    Surprised at how good it looks. From this most recent trailer, it looks like the development team has taken the success of other games like Monster Hunter, Xenoblade and maybe even the Western RPGs games to heart in trying to simulate at least titanic battles, large expanses and other details that can now be created with stronger tech beyond more detailed character models.
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  • Avatar for stephenpollard09 #3 stephenpollard09 4 years ago
    I would say Lightning Returns was a misstep, but I guess that began under Wada as well, and I've heard plenty of people who disagree on that point.

    As for a VII remake, if they were going to do one, it would make sense that they'd have it ready to go sometime around 2017; it's the 20th anniversary of FFVII, and Square Enix had previously announced the Compilation of FFVII wasn't over, they were just taking a break. With Kitase taking a vested interest in Western fans' input, it's not 100% inconceivable to imagine that's what he's got up his sleeve.
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #4 Vinheimer 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish

    Thanks for posting this, Jeremy! I was very pleased with the new FFXV trailer--FINALLY we get to see something new from this game. I've also been following this game since long, long ago--can you believe that it was actually my reason for buying a PS3, naive as I was?

    This is the first XV trailer that's really comfortable in its own skin. Seeing all this raw, in-engine footage instills more confidence in the project than the sum of all previous trailers, which have consisted mostly of CGI and grand, scripted set-pieces. Up until this very moment, there's been lingering doubt that they might cancel it after all.

    They've clearly gone all-in with action-based combat, something simultaneously refreshing and concerning. IIRC Square Enix has never developed a notable action game, and the intense strategizing of ATB combat is something that's always drawn me back to the series. Will FFXV be able to stand out among the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles X and Bloodborne? Only time will tell. I, for one, will preorder this game (something I almost never do) and buy an extra copy for my brother. Whether it's disappointing or not (which I hope it isn't), actually putting the disc in my console and playing this game will bring about some necessary closure to ten years of waiting for...something.Edited September 2014 by Vinheimer
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #5 jeffcorry 4 years ago
    @Wellman I am glad you said something about Xenoblade. The similarities were one of the first things I noticed. In fact I had a little bit of a hard time realizing this was Final Fantasy instead of the new Xenoblade coming to Wii U...and after seeing this...I am excited for both games...but I think credit needs to be given to the Wii U on what is being accomplished with Xenoblade.
    I am glad to see the Wii U capable of competing against Final Fantasy. I am also excited to see Final Fantasy learn some lessons from other studios and finally look half finished (as has been stated).
    Really. I just kept thinking Xenoblade while I watched this.
    Side comment: I hope the frame rate is decent. That was a major turn off for me with Lightning Returns. Pretty good game...but the frame rate...
    ALSO. For some reason I want those guys to yell, "Frozen Mocha Frappuchino!" and then start dousing each other with gasoline. It's going to be Final Fantasy: Zoolander.Edited September 2014 by jeffcorry
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #6 cldmstrsn 4 years ago
    After that trailer hell ya it can. Man when that crystal theme starts going...gives me chills everytime.Edited September 2014 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #7 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    Honestly XV looked so bad from that trailer. The combat looked beyond bad. I disagree with the take in this preview but as he said, it is only a trailer.

    Maybe it looks better than what I think and worse than what he thinksEdited September 2014 by Stealth20k
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #8 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    It looks promising. And I didn't realize that Yoko Shimomura was working on the new soundtrack! Sounds like a match made in heaven! Honestly FF's last few soundtracks have been a bit disappointing, so I am really hopeful that XV's will be a return to form!
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I don't know if Shimomura is still attached to the game, but she was the original composer... like, a decade ago.
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  • Avatar for Nazo #10 Nazo 4 years ago
    Looks good, this could be the game to convince me to get a PS4 if it turns out well.
    Encouraging that Tabata is involved too, I didn't get too far into Type-0 but it's tone was quite different from other FF games and I still turn on my PSP sometimes just to watch the incredible intro. I wish the HD remake was coming to Vita though.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #11 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Well, I hope so! As far as I'm concerned Yoko Shimomura can do no wrong, and she seems like a natural fit for the series. I'd love to see her take over and become a mainstay, because FF has been kind of bouncing between composers since Nobuo left and it's lost it's musical idenity.
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  • Avatar for The-Fool #12 The-Fool 4 years ago
    Well, I'm quite excited, now.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #13 secularsage 4 years ago
    It's hard to believe it's 2014 and we're STILL talking about how Versus XIII looks like the game we'd all wished XIII could have been. And that TWO sequels to XIII have been released while Versus XIII has gone through numerous changes (including an upgrade to being part of the main series) and only this year revealed any real gameplay footage. An entire console generation has passed this game by.

    It's also crazy to think that Kingdom Hearts III has been in pretty much the same development hell, and that it took two portable releases to move that series forward in any meaningful way.

    Both are strong arguments for why Tetsuya Nomura -- who's always been about style rather than substance anyhow -- should move out of management and just be a consulting producer or whatnot. He's great at cribbing ideas from the youth culture in Tokyo for character designs and for coming up with off-the-wall ideas, but he's a terrible game director who has no sense of how many years he's wasting or how much he's tarnishing the tentpole brands that make the Square side of the organization so special.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #14 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    This is reminding me of what went down with Final Fantasy XII, just in reverse. One creator leaves and another takes over, but I'm a lot more confident in XV's switch than when Yasumi Matsuno was shown the door all those years ago. It's funny, too, that the combat from the demo looks a little similar to XII's open-world battles. I really hope the writing follows suit, but I'm guessing it's probably too far along to punch that stuff up now.

    Still, a lot more excited than I was a year ago
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #15 benjaminlu86 4 years ago
    I think it's a bit unfair to pin everything on Wada. He was definitely a softie who let his producers and directors run free for a little too long (*cough*Nomura*cough*Toriyama*cough*). However, he was also the Main Guy who supported FFXIV: A Realm Reborn against the stockholders and board who wanted to shut the game down, backing the fresh-faced Yoshida to create the most successful Final Fantasy property of the past 5 years.
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  • Avatar for Arvis-Jaggamar #16 Arvis-Jaggamar 4 years ago
    Anyone else think that the ending of Lightning Returns was intended to tie in with XV?

    -Arvis
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  • Avatar for docexe #17 docexe 4 years ago
    It certainly looks like a cross of FFXII with Xenoblade and a touch of GTA/Saints Row.

    I still have concerns about it (I mean, even with a new director, nine years of development hell can’t be swept under the rug that easily), but I can’t deny the new trailer has made me more optimistic about it.
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  • Avatar for Alan_01987 #18 Alan_01987 4 years ago
    Can I say I disagree?

    Honestly, There hasn't been a massive shift in themes and the like. The game sure looks more adventure now but it was promised to be like that in the first place. The old school monster design was given just like the overworld and random towns. Saying the game has a massive shift to adventure with bigger maps due Nomura stepping down or Xenoblade or FF12 now is kind of misleading to be honest.

    The only real change so far is the combat definitely looks less KH/XIV or any Square game and feels a bit more like Capcoms Dragon dogma with DMC's weapon swap due to the more weight, inertia and the decent collision models.Edited 2 times. Last edited September 2014 by Alan_01987
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #19 cldmstrsn 4 years ago
    Everyone keeps saying they see a boy band in the trailer. I have watched the trailer a dozen times and never once see a boy band. whats going on there?
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  • Avatar for docexe #20 docexe 4 years ago
    @cldmstrsn It’s simply the fact that the main party is formed by fancy groomed bishonen driving around in an expensive looking car, so people use the “boy band” comparison (often derisively, for obvious reasons).

    Me? After more than twenty years of being fan of anime, I really couldn’t care less about the characters’ design.
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  • Avatar for januaryembers19 #21 januaryembers19 4 years ago
    "It's a long way from lining up and trading blows with static monsters in classic Final Fantasy, and purists will hate it..."

    Sums up my thoughts on XV pretty well. All along this game has only every reminded me of Kingdom Hearts and while the story and settings of those games are enjoyable, I never really loved the combat. I don't really understand the appeal of "action RPGs" where it's an RPG with tacked on, poorly implemented, action elements. Don't get me wrong, I love stuff like the Souls series, but it seems like the action part of most action RPGs is like the shooting parts in Uncharted: it's not what you play the game for, and you can find it done better in other games.
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