Depending on who you ask, the last time the world saw a decent Final Fantasy title was back in 2006 with the release of FFXII. Or maybe back a ways more to FFX. Or even FFVII, because of the shiny new polygons, but also because Sephiroth is really one hell of an antagonist. Regardless, one thing that nearly every Final Fantasy fan can agree upon is that, as of late, it's kind of looking like the franchise has jumped the shark.
FFXIII seemed promising. It looked pretty, it was on the (semi-distant) heels of the reasonable success enjoyed by Vaan and company in FFXII, and for all the bits of information we heard, it was shaping up to deliver a solid follow-up. And indeed, some of the prematurely hyped successes were true: The graphics were breathtaking, and there was a reasonably strong female lead that didn't seem to fall into the tired rut of female video game behavioral stereotypes (in which the character can either be irritatingly buoyant, evil, or ugly. Or some combination thereof). The thing about Lightning, though, is that any of the taciturn, no-nonsense warrior attitude she displayed was almost immediately counteracted by the atrocity that was Vanille. I found Vanille to be so repellently, loathsomely blithe that when I encountered a startlingly convincing Vanille cosplayer in the ladies' room at PAX Prime, it was all I could do not to completely ignore her when she indicated that there was no paper in her stall, and would I mind handing some over the door.
And of course, everyone had something to say. There was criticism, backlash, counterbacklash, whinging, placating, and all manner of other nonsense. The aggregate scores hovered around the area of a low B or B- (81-85 range, for those not in school, or in some kind of hippie school). Actual critics were more divided. The game was praised for continuing to improve the ATB fight system, and I'd say that's a fair one. I've often found combat in the Final Fantasy games to be kind of tedious and even awkward, at least when juxtaposed with the epic nature of the games, so building upon the open field approach from its successor was a good move.
The thing that got to a lot of people, myself included, was the rigidly linear plot. It felt more like a simulation with a series of encounters than a game. If games are supposed to fulfill our need for sufficient challenge, connection between effort and reward, and a level of variation that hits the Goldilocks/Baby Bear sweet spot of being neither too simple nor too complex, FFXIII fell a bit short of the mark. The plot looks good on paper, but the way in which it was executed almost recalled low-level moments of panic I would feel when playing old King's Quest games, and worrying that I'd accidentally gotten myself stuck in a point in the game that I wasn't ready to be yet, without any way of going back and correcting this. The only difference is that in King's Quest, it's usually because some stupid dwarf mugged you, but here, you had perhaps not done enough grinding before moving on to a part of the game where you'd be trapped.
Not to complain endlessly about FFXIII, because it's not even the most recent title from the series, but I guess I sort of don't count FFXIV, because it's an MMORPG, and it's already been confirmed that FFXV is moving back to straight up RPG format. I mean, yes, I guess the MMORPG thing works, as these do tend to involve pretty people running around in ridiculous outfits. So there's a lot of overlap with any Square Enix game already (see Nier re: ridiculous outfits). But my point is that I'm going to refrain from ripping FFXIV apart here, as well, because it's apples and oranges. Or apples and pears, depending on your point of origin with the English language. All are fruits, and thus more similar to one another than apples and trousers, or monkeys, for example, but they are not the same fruit, and thus cannot really be held to the same critical criteria. So for my purposes, I'm sticking with FFXIII as my basis for desired improvements. And here they are.
First off, the combat system better not change too much. That was one of the few things they've started to do better, and it needs to be able to keep up with the incredible visuals. In older platforms, the tedious fighting procedures did not stick out like a sore thumb quite as much as they do when everything looks almost photorealistic, and then suddenly the action just freezes and everyone bobs slightly in place while waiting for an attack. Buzzkill!
Also, regarding character design, I really dig the idea of a protagonist who breaks some molds. Strong females are a great idea. Even better if they're not dressed like Hugh Hefner's girlfriend(s). And don't get me wrong, it's also totally fine to have some characters dress that way. Just don't present it as the only option, as though skin cells in people with XX chromosomes repel all but the bare minimum of body armor. Because seriously, kicking someone's ass in a mini-skirt is probably not nearly as hot as it sounds in real life, and we appear to be striving for realism. By that same token, I'd like to see more variation in the male characters, as well. Not every dude has to be a total island. Maybe what we need is-dare I say it- a guy version of Vanille. No, no. Hear me out, I KNOW it would be annoying. But the girls ALWAYS have to be the annoying ones, and anyone who has ever spoken to a male between the ages of 12 and 35 knows that menfolk can be just as bad.
Finally, we need to do something to open up the world a little bit more. Final Fantasy games have always presented very unique and appealing worlds, everything from palaces and swords to airships and blunderbusses, with a dash of cyberpunk and wizard chic. However, what's the point of having so much attention paid to creating an environment if there's no room to run around and explore it just a bit? Earlier titles were good about this, and I'm not saying otherwise. I'm also not saying that FFXV should just be a total sandbox, because that's just not how Final Fantasy games should be. But recently, running around in-game has felt more like being a rat in a maze, especially when there are so few side quests or reasons to look around or interact with things at all. Discovering stuff through poking around and talking to NPCs is half the fun, and when you're just marched from one fight to the next until you've fought enough to meet a boss and earn a cutscene, well that makes it seem kind of pointless.
I suppose one could argue that ultimately, gaming IS pointless. We don't earn money from it, nor does it benefit us physically. But to these factors I would add the clause "…yet". Because the fact is, regardless of whether you like RPGs, FPSs or Monopoly, everyone has played some kind of game. The more we are able to incorporate games into our daily existence, and the mechanisms by which we go about our business, the happier we are doing these mechanisms. In order to progress from a society which increasingly resembles any given scene from Office Space, we're going to have to gamify at least some of our tasks. And right now it's up to those already creating complicated, worthwhile, and beautiful games to take the reins, lead by example, and show the rest of us how it's done, so that we can someday do it, too.
Beyond that, it would just be nice to actually enjoy a Final Fantasy title again. Because there was surely a time, not even that long ago, when I would put nearly everything aside for an uninterrupted evening of improbable swords and impossible hair. I hope that I haven't already seen the last instance of this in my life.