How Square Enix Can Save the Final Fantasy Franchise
They great things don't last forever. Sadly it is most often a very true statement people must live with every day. However, there are several examples throughout history, in every walk of life, that prove great things that disappear can always come back as good or better than ever. That is the hope gaming fans have for the iconic RPG franchise Final Fantasy. After years spent in what many call "mediocrity," whispers have begun to spread rumors about the classic title disbanding. Hopefully it doesn't have to come to that.
Final Fantasy VII proved change is good
To better understand where things went wrong, it is best to know the history. The franchise was started in 1987 by the Square company. Ironically it was a last-ditch effort to find success in the gaming industry as they faced bankruptcy. Drawing inspiration from other classic games like Dragon Quest and Legend of Zelda; developer Hironobu Sakaguchi admitted the game was his last effort. If it failed he would've tried a different vocation. Thankfully it didn't come to that. Final Fantasy sold 400,000 copies, an impressive display considering console gaming was still in infancy back then.
From there the popularity of the series took off, becoming a staple of the RPG genre featuring stand alone titles, constantly evolving battle systems, new characters and new stories to engage the masses. By 1994 the sales had climbed to 3.68 millions units sold for Final Fantasy VI. It was wondered if the franchise could get any better.
For a brief moment it felt it couldn't The VI title was, and still is considered the best by a lot of die hard fans. Some wondered back then if it was the culmination of the series since no new title was released for three years after it. Then the Square announced the release of their next title Final Fantasy VII on the Sony Playstation. It was a complete change from the traditional games of the Nintendo and Super Nintendo generations. The game featured revolutionary new graphics, a rich soundtrack developed by series giant Nobuo Uematsu, a battle system not yet seen before and a story that is still celebrated almost two decades later. To date the game has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful titles in history.
What no one talked about at the time was actually how big a risk Square took. Not only did they test the patience of fans by waiting so long to release the game. They also poured a lot of money and manpower into a series of changes that no other RPG had attempted at that point in time. The willingness to push the boundaries and the faith they had in their product was one of the hallmarks of that era. Follow-up titles Final Fantasy VIII and IX saw similar success as did X when the franchise jumped to the next generation Playstation 2.
Enix Merger and the Long Layoff
Where things started to go wrong was when Square merged with fellow successful video game company Enix. Square Enix proved no less audacious and forward-thinking. Years before the blockbuster success of World of Warcraft, they introduced the very first Massive Multiplayer Online-Role Playing Game (MMORPG) in the guise of Final Fantasy XI. While it earned praise for many of its accomplishments in advancing the gaming genre, it also drew the ire from critics for a clunky control system, long installations and difficulty in connection with primary console gamers who couldn't connect properly online through their PS2s. It was not a good omen for a franchise that up to that point could do nothing wrong.
Where things started to fall apart was on the buildup to Final Fantasy XII. The game itself turned out to be a commercial success. What began to turn players against the series wasn't the game itself but the four year it took to come out. Toss in a complicated battle system and often tedious storyline and it was clear cracks had begun to show in the foundation. So when it took another three years to release Final Fantasy XIII, a game that took away the open world exploration of the previous titles, Western gamers had enough despite the fact the game was critically acclaimed for graphics and story.
Final Fantasy XIV signals a need for change
If the primary fan base wasn't ready to admit the series had gone stale, then the release of Final Fantasy XIV certainly did it. For the first time really in the history of the series, a title received more negative than positive reviews. Critics hammered the game for everything from a broken structure to numerous bug issues, and lack of depth. Experienced gamers saw it as a title with potential but felt unfinished. Square Enix issued two apologies for the flub and company leadership readily admitted it set the entire series back. Regardless, it was as close to rock bottom as the franchise has gotten, signaling the need for new ideas to bring back the fans. The only problem is how do they do that?
Kingdom Hearts points the way
Salvation isn't too far off. One thing going for Square Enix is their long history of success and a willingness to change something when it doesn't work. A major gripe among Western fans is that the series has become too predictable and less easy to separate one title from another. Every game is the same terms of how battles are fought, won and how characters evolve. It is a hallmark of the series, yes, but without the sprawling world to explore and the characters to fill it, the games seems limited in what they can do. It is for that reason that games like Mass Effect, Borderlands, Elder Scrolls and Fallout have taken over in the RPG landscape.
Not that everything is doom and gloom. Square Enix already has the answer to their problems. It's just a matter of recognizing how to take advantage of it. By far their most popular title over the past ten years is the Kingdom Hearts series in collaboration with Disney. It's revolutionary battle system featured a nostalgic feel similar to Super Mario 64 but encompassed the best parts of the classic Final Fantasy style including world exploration. It's sequel, Kingdom Hearts II, capitalized on this success and drew rave reviews from critics around the world. Is it too big of a stretch to think the next Final Fantasy titles can't take advantage of this?
In the end, Final Fantasy won over fans with heart. Graphic are nice and pretty, but they don't mean much unless the characters connect. That is something the more recent titles haven't done. Does anybody look upon Vaan, Lightning or the nameless avatars of XIV with the same affection as Cloud, Squall and Terra? Doubtful. That has to change. The franchise has to change. That is if they want to reclaim their rightful spot as the best RPG series of all time.