In my Final Fantasy VII remake review, I wrote about how the original had a huge impact in my formative years as a gamer. Part of this is due to its epic scale. I had not really experienced this in a game before, and I got sucked into its world and its characters. I began to see how games could be a great medium for storytelling.
I have since become a huge fan of the series, and I have been immersed with its sequels in a similar way. I have played all the mainline series since VII, aside from XI and XIV (I’ve no interest in MMORPGs), and I have played ports of V and VI. Final Fantasy VII has remained a high point with its rich and diverse cast and a compelling villain in Sephiroth. VI has similar strengths with a villain that actually succeeds with his plan. Some of the other stories were less successful but still compelling. Final Fantasy VIII stands out here with a story that starts well but turns into a mess later on.
However, despite the series’ reputation of having strong stories, I do not think this is the case anymore. Particularly since X, which despite having some faults, including some silly scenes, told an interesting story that critiques religious dogma. But whilst I liked XII, I felt its simple tale about a young, blonde boy and his friends fighting against an evil empire felt obviously derogatory. But even that was a relative high point compared to the games that followed. Granted, I have never played XI and XIV, so I cannot comment on the stories of these instalments. But I think these instalments point to a problem with the series and how these in turn have affected the quality of their stories. Namely, that the series is suffering from an identity problem.
Final Fantasy XIII is still the only game in the series I unequivocally detest. Admittedly, I thought the battle system was quite enjoyable, but there was nothing else I liked about the game. The cast of characters was, on the whole, very irritating, and for me they represent the worst cast of characters in the series. The story itself was an incomprehensible mess, using nonsense names for things, like l’Cie and fal’Cie. Final Fantasy has always had names like these, but Final Fantasy XIII went too far here, resulting in a story that made little sense.
It doesn’t help that Final Fantasy XIII obviously takes place in a corridor for the majority of the game. Final Fantasy has always been quite linear, and I do not have a problem with linearity as I believe it leads to tighter narratives. But even in the more linear instalments, such as X, this wasn’t so obvious, and it felt like the player was part of a living world. The poorly disguised linearity of Final Fantasy XIII contributed to me never feeling connected to a world that was clearly artificial and helped erode any investment I could have with its story.
Final Fantasy XV went in a completely different direction by going open-world. I have spoken elsewhere about my problems with open-world games, but I genuinely think that Final Fantasy XV works best as an open-world game. The side quests aren’t exactly the most interesting, but driving around and watching the character’s charming interactions and listening to classic Final Fantasy soundtracks gives the game its own vibe. It felt like being on a road trip with pals.
However, with this kind of vibe, the story takes a back seat, to its detriment, as the game becomes more story-focused in its linear second half. Without the necessary groundwork placed in the first half, when the story comes thick and fast, it is hard to care about any of these developments. There are also many holes in the plot, seemingly in place to justify the DLC episodes or are covered in the multimedia tie-ins.
Final Fantasy XV is a game that feels like it isn’t sure what it wants to be. Whilst the open-world setting feels like a response to the criticisms of Final Fantasy XIII and chasing a trend for this type of game, the game works best here. But then there is an attempt in the second half to tell a story more akin to a typical Final Fantasy game, leading to a game that fails by trying to be too many things at once.
Surely, a remake of Final Fantasy VII would not have this same identity crisis? But even in this remake, there are problems here, and this in turn affects the quality of its story. As it is based on the Midgar section from the original game, it does not feel like a complete story. There are also story elements that are taken from later in the original, and whilst this would work with those who are familiar with the original, certain plot points and character motivations may lack clarity for those who are not. This extends to the ending, which would only have an impact for those that know the original version but promises that the story in future sequels may be a complete departure. It leads to a game that, again, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be and what story it wants to tell. Is it a remake or a new game?
These last few instalments have had stories that have been a mess and poorly told, which is no surprise considering they all went through problems during development. There seems to be a drive for each new instalment of the series to be bigger and better than the previous one with the best graphics. And with the series going on so long, the pressure to come up with brand new worlds and stories was always going to start to tell. I think that the series is constantly trying to reach the same level of success that Final Fantasy VII attained. It has led to the series trying to stay relevant when it looked like JRGs were starting to go out of fashion, chasing trends with open-world games and MMORPGs. It seems reductive to blame it on the merge between Square and Enix, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the series has dipped since. But then, it looks like this merger was a result of the money lost with Sqauresoft’s unsuccessful foray into the movie business with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It seems trying to chase trends has been a problem for a while.
So, how does this get fixed? I would suggest that a back to basics approach would work: simplify the story and settings with a more traditional medieval setting. This has already worked before with Final Fantasy IX, and I would argue it is just what the series needs after years of excess. It appears that at the very least, this kind of setting is what we will see in Final Fantasy XVI. Whether or not this is chasing more trends after the success of Dark Souls and The Witcher 3 in these settings remains to be seen. But hearing mention of crystals in a Final Fantasy game never fills me with confidence and makes me doubt whether Final Fantasy XVI will keep the story simple. Despite my cynicism, I have loved this series for a long time, and I genuinely hope that Final Fantasy XVI helps to rekindle this love.