I’m reliving the past, going back to the era of the Playstation 2 and the golden age of role-playing games. Back to dynamic turn-based combat that, while in its infancy, would soon be perfected. Back to when dialogue, nuance and building relationships were as important as crafting your character.
The May 12 PS4 release of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster brought up so many memories of what innovation looked like in the early renditions of modern consoles.
Final Fantasy X came out when I was 11, and it was my second foray into Square Enix’s franchise-builder. Since the game’s release, I’ve carved out a couple hours a day for it, finals be damned. It’s like rereading a favorite book years after you last opened it. The old pages remain the same.
To this day, whenever I think of the monolithic RPG series, the soundtrack to Final Fantasy X comes on in my head. The staged boss battles and twists in combat gave even the between-choice lulls in fights an air of tension. The blitzball minigame, in my opinion, was the best sidetrack Square Enix has come up with in all its Final Fantasy renditions.
Final Fantasy X had it all. The combat was intuitive, the storyline was dramatic but not in-your-face, the character growth system was innovative and fun to play with — I could go on. I might be biased given that it gave me my first significant “gaming means something” experience, but X had everything I wanted in a game and set the bar for what I expected from the series. Final Fantasy XIII was up there, too. But another recent remastered release, Final Fantasy Type-0, makes me wonder what form Final Fantasy will take in the years to come.
Type-0 takes a lot of risks, and its combat system can be fun. But it strays from the Final Fantasy model — in my mind, a model that’s been nearly perfected — in favor of doing something differently. Players never really develop a connection to the characters. You need multiple playthroughs to feel as if you’ve really “beaten” the game. And another problem for me, which might seem strange, is the real-time combat.
There’s a huge push in the industry toward action. Gamers want dynamic content, and as time has gone on, traditional turn-based fights seem less realistic. The games look real, the characters speak in real time and the gaming experience is much more immersed in realism nowadays. The next step to take from there, then, even for the Final Fantasy’s of the world, is to make combat immersive.
Take Type-0 as an example. Players with a quick dodge trigger and good timing can take on enemies 30 or 40 levels higher than them. In one of the regions, you can farm level 99 Flan as a level 20 character because the Flan are predictable in their movements (and don’t use magic. That’s kind of important.). The approach toward combat changes drastically, and it turns into more of a frenzy of button-mashing and dodge-hammering than a tactical affair. When a bad cut of the camera can get you killed, there’s something wrong with the combat construction. The experience is diminished — and in some ways less realistic — than the turn-based combat we’re so used to in Final Fantasy games.
Final Fantasy XV’s combat system is going to be live as well, but it also has some turn-based elements to it in that dodging and blocking take MP to pull off. You can’t just button-spam. But again (granted, this is in my experience with the demo version) it doesn’t “feel” like a Final Fantasy game. My other worry is that the focus on perfecting a combat system that isn’t a separate event from your surroundings makes combat the priority and interaction secondary. We saw this in Type-0: The story suffered in favor of a combat focus, and though XV has gone through a much longer production schedule, it’s worrisome when the conversation surrounding a Final Fantasy title centers not on its plot but on its combat system.
I’m not a Final Fantasy lifer (mostly because I’m too young to be one), but the thought that style is trumping substance, and that the combat-first mindset will soon be normal fare for Square Enix, is disappointing. I’m an RPG nerd. I come to Final Fantasy expecting to be told a compelling story through characters I groom in my own way. For me, and I’m sure for others, the closer an RPG gets to a hack-and-slash title, the less I can connect with it.
There has to be a way for Square Enix to combine that golden-age quality with immersive innovation. I’m just not sure how it’ll work across a whole playable landscape. Hopefully, we’ll learn more at E3.
Final Fantasy X/X-2 Remaster Rating: 10/10 Fangirl rating: 9/10