Few video games have inspired the fanatical devotion that Final Fantasy has garnered. With a new instalment now in stores, James Wilkinson finds out if it’s worth the hype
The idea of video games as a big-bucks industry is news to nobody these days, not when Modern Warfare 2 is making more money in its opening weekend than most Hollywood blockbusters do in a week. And while many may point to the 2000 release of GTA III as the point that video games started making Big Money, we think you should look back to the 1997 release of Japanese RPG Final Fantasy VII.
This was many gamers’ first encounter with the increasingly ill-named series. The fifth instalment to be released in the US (after FFs I, IV, V and VI) and the first to break into the European mainstream, the game’s stunning use of cinematic CGI video was unlike anything previously seen, and its fast-paced story kept players gripped from the start. To date it has sold almost 10 million copies worldwide, leaving it just off the bottom of the top 20 best-selling video games of all time.
The buzz it created allowed the franchise to flourish, and although each of the core Final Fantasy games (there are a number of spin-offs) is set in a different world with a standalone story, the series has become synonymous with certain things: epic storylines, believable (if fantastical) characters and continually refined and redeveloped battle systems.
But now Final Fantasy XIII has arrived and it looks as though creators Square Enix may have taken it all a bit too far.This time the story is set on the world of Cocoon, ruled by a fal’Cie, a kind of mechanical overseer that occasionally marks humans as its slaves and gives them a vague mission. If they fail to complete it, they become shambling monsters. If they succeed, they are transformed into living crystal. This no-win situation provides the dramatic crux around which several of the player’s characters meet, and their attempts to free their families from the curse provides the start of the story.
It’s a brilliant concept, but one barely explained by the beautifully rendered cut-scenes. Instead, the player has to root around in the text summaries hidden in a sub-menu. It’s as though the creators were so enamoured with the world they’d created that they didn’t remember it was supposed to be played by a third party until it was almost too late. It’s not surprising, given that the game was in production for five years; working on something that long will skew anyone’s judgement. It’s just a shame nobody caught it in time. The same is true of the game’s most crippling flaw: its pace.
Like its predecessors, Final Fantasy XIII introduces a new combat system that is probably the most beautifully constructed yet. Fluid and challenging, it sees the player acting like a football manager, guiding the group as a whole rather than controlling each character individually. Although easy to pick up, it’s a complex system, so the game – like many – teaches you as you play, drip-feeding new tactics as you go. But it does so too slowly. You’re two hours in before you can do anything but attack; eight hours before you can cast spells; 12 before tactics are necessary. Yes, you have to play for half a day before you’re even close to being in the game proper.
Now 12 hours is only a sliver of the game’s running time, but it’s a huge amount of dedication to put in. And you have to play for about 20 hours before the game’s scope really opens up and you’re no longer being led by the nose through corridors. By comparison, FF VII got all the training done in an hour and let the player see the rest of the world by eight.
And that’s the core of the problem. While Cocoon is such an enthralling planet – and the characters sufficiently well written – that you’ll keep playing if you can just force yourself through those first two hours, it’s clear that the designers have lost sight of what energised the franchise in the first place. ‘Epic’ is not the same as ‘enormous’; ‘dramatic’ is not the same as ‘slow’. Once upon a time, Square Enix knew this. We hope they can learn it again. Available now in stores
Much has happened in the 23 years since the Final Fantasy series started. Here’s a potted history
Final Fantasy (1987) The Simpsons debuts as a series of short cartoons on The Tracy Ullman Show; Ronald Reagan apologises for helping to sell arms to Iran.
Final Fantasy II (1988) Obscure singer Celine Dion wins the Eurovision Song Contest for Switzerland; George HW Bush is elected president of the USA.
Final Fantasy III (1989) Timothy Dalton stars as James Bond in Licence to Kill; Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran dies.
Final Fantasy IV (1991) The Soviet Union begins its collapse; Freddie Mercury dies.
Final Fantasy V (1992) Jay Leno takes over The Tonight Show, where he remains for 16 years; Dr Dre releases The Chronic.
Final Fantasy VI (1994) Friends and ER both premiere; Kurt Cobain commits suicide; work begins on the Burj al Arab.
Final Fantasy VII (1997) Dolly the clone sheep is born; Tony Blair is the UK’s new prime minister.
Final Fantasy VIII (1999) Columbine High School massacre takes place; The Matrix is released.
Final Fantasy IX (2000) The Y2K bug fails to appear; after 50 years, comic strip Peanuts ends.
Final Fantasy X (2001) The 9/11 attacks take place; CSI and The Weakest Link debut.
Final Fantasy XI (2002) Iraq is told to disarm non-existent weapons of mass destruction; The Wire and The Shield debut on US TV – both have since finished.
Final Fantasy XII (2006) Blu-Ray discs are released in the US; the war in Lebanon kicks off.