On December 17, 2009, my mother walked into an electronics shop in Kyoto and purchased me a copy of Final Fantasy XIII. The night she got home from her business trip two days later, she turned the game over without delay –– a late birthday, but early Christmas gift. For years I’ve gotten Final Fantasy titles as gifts during this time of year, and this time was no different. The only thing that had changed was that I was now proficient enough in Japanese to be confident I’d understand the bulk of the game in its original language without the use of a dictionary, a lofty goal that I had dreamed of ever since I made up my mind to study the language a good 10 years before after falling hopelessly in love with Final Fantasy VII. I plopped the game in my shiny new PS3 slim and was immediately blown away by the sheer beauty of what I saw before me. "This is going to be everything I know and love about Final Fantasy," I thought. Little did I know that I was about to experience the biggest game disappointment in recent memory.
Final Fantasy XIII arguably received the most mixed reception of any Final Fantasy title to date. While everyone clamored for the first HD Final Fantasy installment, FFXIII left many long-time fans of the series feeling cheated and dissatisfied. Where were our sidequests, towns populated with colorful NPCs, and that sense of adventure into the unknown we had come to know and love the Final Fantasy series for?
Though there were inevitably those who were charmed by the game’s gorgeous visuals and fast-paced combat, many fans implored Square Enix to go back to their roots to bring us another Final Fantasy title that could restore our faith in the series. Instead going back to the drawing board and starting in on Final Fantasy XV (or, dare I say, finishing Final Fantasy Versus XIII), Square Enix announced the unthinkable: a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII.
“Don’t worry,” they assured us, as a parent might quiet a stubborn child, “we’ll be taking all of your comments and requests into consideration for the sequel.” But will Square Enix actually deliver what they’ve promised, or is Final Fantasy XIII-2 simply continue down the path paved by its predecessor?
Take a cursory look at the new features Square Enix has implemented in Final Fantasy XIII-2 and it almost seems as though they’re running through some sort of “Final Fantasy essentials” checklist. Towns? Check. Interactive NPCs? Check. Moogles? Check. Chocobo racing? Check. Instead of only allowing you to control one character during battle, you’ll now be able to freely switch between characters, allowing for another party leader to be chosen should your current one die, much like Final Fantasy XII. Well, that covers everything the fans like, right?
Along with familiar Final Fantasy elements, Square Enix has also added a few new features to the mix. Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be the first Final Fantasy title to offer selectable difficulties, as well as a gameplay feature that allows you to tame monsters and attack with them. Monsters will no longer be free roaming on the map, but rather randomly appear as the player approaches them. A new system called “Live Trigger” enables the player to choose how they would like to interact with NPCs by offering different dialogue choices, which is said to only effect the conversations and not the game’s multiple endings. In an attempt to up the ante of non-linear gameplay, Square Enix has added a time travel element to the mix, allowing for players to explore different possibilities in each of the game’s locations and multiple game endings. An expansive array of DLC will offer not only provide the chance to clothe the male protagonist in Ezio of Assassin’s Creed’s gear, but also a variety of exclusive weapons, monsters, and more. And finally, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will also feature, for the first time ever, both an auto-save and “save anywhere” function, along with a new game plus-type of bonus for completionist players.
So what does this all mean? Is Final Fantasy XIII-2 really going to be the next-gen Final Fantasy everyone’s been waiting for?
With the implementation of multiple difficulties, quicksaves, and expansive DLC, it's clear that Square Enix is looking at the success of major western RPGs for inspiration. You may argue that many Japanese games feature these three elements to varying degrees already, but what can’t be argued is the stagnating state of the JRPG scene in recent years. As western developers come up with larger and more expansive worlds for us to play in and explore, Japanese RPG developers are barely scraping by, and they stubbornly continue to reuse tired old formulas and offer us angst-filled teenage protagonists.
I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Square Enix is becoming increasingly more absorbed with telling their stories through flashy cinematics and an extremely linear approach to gameplay (a trend we’re also seeing in western developers, I might add). We’re now hearing Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be toning down the amount and length of pre-rendered cutscences, which can only be a good thing, but in order for the game to make up for the mistakes of its predecessor, we’re going to have to see some drastic improvements in the story and less reliance on western RPG tropes to pull in a wider audience.
No matter how many new and familiar gameplay elements Square Enix injects into Final Fantasy XIII-2, they can’t change the fact that the majority FFXIII’s characters were uninspired, the story was bland, and the sheer number of cutscenes made the experience feel more like watching a movie than playing a game. Final Fantasy XIII-2 features the same gorgeous graphics and epic battles, but will its story and characters be both immersive and memorable? Producer Yoshinori Kitase stressed that he fully intends to focus on the story this time around, and I, for one, sincerely hope he’s kept good on his word. You can have all the chocobo racing and conversations with NPCs you want, but without a solid, engrossing story, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is just going to further cement my fears for the direction of the franchise.
In the end, it may come down the fact that Square Enix just doesn’t care about old-school RPG fans such as myself anymore. They’ve stated before that they’re aware of the direction the Final Fantasy franchise is taking, and that there is a distinct dichotomy between the fans of older Final Fantasy titles and those who are looking for a new type of experience. Just as many “hardcore” gamers felt betrayed by Nintendo with the release of the Wii and the company’s increased interest in the “casual” gaming market, so may RPG fans who exalt the glory days of Squaresoft be left behind as Square Enix moves towards increased reliance on cinematics and linearity.
Though I will remain cautiously optimistic for Final Fantasy XIII-2, I’m worried that I, too, may be one of the gamers that Square Enix has left behind. The unfortunate but sad truth is that I am no longer hopelessly enthusiastic whenever a new Final Fantasy title is announced. That’s something I haven’t felt since Final Fantasy X was announced for the PS2. Perhaps I am simply stuck in the past, harboring an unrealistic fondness for turn-based battles and Final Fantasy VII’s horrible attempt at 3D animation. One thing’s for sure: Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be the first numbered Final Fantasy title that I will not purchase day one.
Oh, and you know what else? The moogles are ugly.
( Editor's Note: Final Fantasy XIII was released on December 17, 2009 in Japan. Updated the article to reflect this fact. )