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Final Fantasy XV

Where next for Final Fantasy?

You can argue (series stalwarts will claim it simple fact) that Final Fantasy's been crippled by creative arthritis for some years now.

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The games continue to outstrip their fore-bearers for shear spectacle, and battle systems continually invigorated with tweaked mechanics. Yet they no longer feel like pioneering benchmarks of the genre, and the glorified cinematics disappearing up their own finely-polished arses.

The numbered entries have lost heart, conceded that honour to offshoots that celebrate either its great characters (Dissidia) or music (Theatrhythm).

One opinion, but one surprisingly echoed by the franchise's owner. Sentiments aired a few weeks ago when Square-Enix CEO Yoichi Wada stated that a remake of the now fifteen year-old Final Fantasy VII - something constantly requested and heavily-rumoured throughout this generation - would only happen when the studio managed to better it. Something, he believed, that was yet to happen.

The emphasis clear then, though paraphrased from a translated account of his investor meeting comments: current Final Fantasy games aren't matching their pre-millennium counterparts.

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Created back in 1987 and quickly producing sequels that defied the black humour behind its naming, Final Fantasy soon developed a massive following in its native country as each new iteration refined mechanics, strengthened storytelling and continued to celebrate those reoccurring motifs that'd become franchise standard.

The series' pinnacle came in mid-90s due to three, possibly four, key transitions.

The much-lauded SNES release Final Fantasy VI in 1994 was one, as the series perched on the edge of global acclaim and success, only to be hobbled by a lack of UK release. As a result, British magazines at the time carried guides to the import scene specifically so gamers could get their hands on the game. The import-friendly Super Play mag ran a monthly section dedicated to the title's many secrets. FF was getting major league coverage.

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Second was Square's jumped ship from Nintendo to PlayStation, the former's refusal to adopt the CE-ROM format depriving Square of the extra space it needed for what it believed the future vision for Final Fantasy.

That led to Final Fantasy VII, and the series' going truly global.

American magazine GameFan ran multiple features in the run up to the game's Japanese launch - and long before the US and UK launches, due to translating the game's text. The game was a complete tonal shift from Lord of the Rings swords and sorcery to a darker, seedier cyberpunk stylisation, much easier to sell to wider audiences, both those with western sensibilities and newcomers brought in on PlayStation's edgy marketing campaigns.

The extra space and more powerful programming with the PSOne afforded Square the opportunity to replace sprites with detailed 3D polygon characters, and drop them onto stunning pre-rendered backgrounds and intersperse with a barrage of slick CG cut-scenes to underscore critical story points. It was a trick they continued for the next two console entries.

Final Fantasy XV

1999's Final Fantasy VIII saw the final transition as the company embraced realistic character models for the first time, the 16-bit super-deformed cast a thing of the past: Square waved goodbye to the origins of the series' by way of 2001's Final Fantasy IX - a tribute to the franchise's more whimsical elements.

Final Fantasy's matched only by the likes of Mario and Dragon Quest as one of the longest-running game series of all time. Yet unlike its contemporaries its found itself unable to evolve past these last critical transitions, and bogged down by the elements that once defined it as a critical franchise in any publisher's line-up.

Much has already been made of the Japanese RPG genre's inability to adapt with the times. The complaint isn't exactly right though. Sticking resolutely with core mechanics rather than become some bastardised mega-mix of genres - something western games have done to varying effect - should be applauded.

Yet it's because the those foundations are wildly different in terms of their own advancement that there's an issue. Final Fantasy games now come with movie-like production values. The advancement in ten years is astonishing. Yet the cost is severe.

Sprawling fields have become linear walkways, secrets now a camera pan rather than an epic journey down an unknown route away. Towns have shrunk, almost disappeared. Worlds and their inhabitants no longer have the chance to breathe. The developers have to keep routes rigid and straight - there's only so many fantastical scenes a budget can stretch to. As tech gets more powerful, it's taking longer to craft worlds to triple-A standard. Today it's too expense to explore.

Final Fantasy XV

2005's Advent Children, a cinematic spin-off of Final Fantasy VII was a flurry of hyper-action sequences lavish with flashy but unrealistic moves (even when based on a story about genetically-tampered super-humans and summoned monsters). A 40 hour long RPG that hinged on the emotional connection between the player and cast had metamorphosed into a vacuous one hundred minutes of anime set-pieces.

It's a trend that's continued in this generation's game entries: sympathetic characters and drama replaced with caricatures and cinematic shots that dazzle but are drained of suspense. How can we care when the games lack an empathetic viewpoint?

We're happy to be transported to another world, but partly if we're intrigued by a great cast, fantastic story. Find that emotional connection. A forty hour plus RPG has got to hook us on much more than the mechanics - even the most well polished combat system can edge into grind territory thirty hours in.

Final Fantasy VI and IX hooked us on diverse characters, different perspectives, a sense of wonder, adventure - and so spiralling into heartache and heartbreak was an easy shift. VII's bio-engineered gods and spiritual world connections came after we got to know the key players of an environmental resistance group and sympathise with their goals, grass roots movements counterbalanced with government conspiracies. VIII ground itself in high-school drama and graduation fears before tackling the mind-boggling subjects of time decompression and group amnesia.

We connected to the games because of the characters. We became infatuated with the worlds because we were able to explore them. Soap opera escapism, but with the tempo of world-saving realities. And they were dense with optional, and completely superfluous quests. Spend an evening in the Golden Saucer theme park, try your hand at Triple Triad. Work your way up the Blitzball league.

Final Fantasy XV

A colleague in the industry recently brought up the point that if players today tried out Chrono Trigger, (the 'other' greatest SNES RPG of all time) their opinion on contemporary Final Fantasy games, and by association, modern-day Japanese RPGs, would greatly alter. To wit: they don't make 'em like they used to. You can apply the same logic to Final Fantasy VI on the PSN. Both are reminders of the time when you felt you were heavily in control with RPGs, rather than being heavily guided.

With the company willing to admit that the latest iterations have been linear, and are making a concerted return to the exploration of old with offshoots like FFXIII-2, it at least shows willingness to find a balance between old and new.

But those steps are uncertain. In a market were the biggest sellers are either projects with hollywood budgets or indie success stories, Square-Enix needs to once more make Final Fantasy relevant again: for fans the world over, and newer audiences. It needs to make an impact.

Exactly what path it can take to make Final Fantasy not only fit in with fan expectation, but be beloved by all again is a tough question. We know some of what's required - less convolution, more heart - but that doesn't mean a return to past glories. A re-imagining of Final Fantasy for today's audiences? That sounds like reboot territory. And that is something Final Fantasy - with its constant changes every game - is already doing, and can do again.

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Final Fantasy XV

REVIEW. Written by Jonas Mäki

"It feels like the series should feel, but adapted for a modern audience, and we're so glad that Tabata pulled this massive project together in the way that he did."

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