The Final Fantasy series stands in a perilous state in 2015. Following the lackluster release of Final Fantasy XIII and its subsequent episodic follow-ups, the series felt more lost than ever. Square attempted to revitalize the series by redesigning the core mechanics but failed to understand its primary conceit. Final Fantasy XIV remains the series’ most disastrous launch, and we’re now approaching a decade since Square released a game worthy of the Final Fantasy moniker.
Released only in Japan in 2011–only 19 months after FF XIII went worldwide — the Playstation Portable-only Final Fantasy Type-0 was well-received. The action-RPG similarly broke the mold of the turn-based JRPG model that the franchise had thrived on. Its critical reception and name brand almost necessitated a worldwide re-release, but rather than sticking to the mobile market, Square reissued the game as an HD remaster on the current generation of consoles.
FFXIII boasted problems from a philosophical standpoint. The game had an on-rails architecture that angered fans of the series’ signature freedom and breadth. But of all the complaints that could be lodged against the game, it felt clean and polished. The same cannot be said for Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. The remastered update is out of place on consoles for countless reasons, most notably the foggy visuals and nearly unusable camera manipulation. In combination with the game’s pacing and structure, Type-0 feels like an odd entry in the Final Fantasy universe and fails to reclaim the brilliance of the series’ past.
In Type 0, you play as Class Zero, a group of magic-wielding students in the middle of an unprecedented and unforeseen war. Commence saving the world and rooting out evil while wearing short skirts. The intricacies of the plot are dispensable though, as evidenced by the laughable voice acting. For instance, the first boss that you encounter says “This sucks!” no less than 6 times in the sub-5 minutes that she’s onscreen.
With the plot largely superfluous, the game relies on its combat system to carry the load. That Type 0 is labeled an HD remake is disingenuous at best and blatant deception at worst. The draw distances and fuzzy visuals make enemies in the distance indistinguishable from the background. Controlling your character stands as a Herculean task because of the shoddy camera. Screen blur and twitchy controls abound as you run frantically through muddy battle arenas trying to target enemies and dodge attacks from offscreen. From a pure “feel” standpoint, Final Fantasy Type-0 HD may be the worst game in the series.
But Square doesn’t mind if you’re uninterested in Type-0. The elephant in the room is Final Fantasy XV, a demo of which was packaged with day-one versions of Type 0 and is indisputably the thing Square cares about with this release. FF XV has been a part of the video game consciousness since 2006 but has only recently seen renewed interest and signs of life. What the recent Square releases have done to damage the brand and aura of the Final Fantasy series, FF XV looks to rebuild.
Gone, at least insofar as the demo is concerned, is the linearity, but the real-time battle system has been preserved from XIII and Type 0. The series’ turn-based, random battles were always time sinks and jarring experiences. Running through open fields only to be dragged into endless swarms of enemies was off putting. In XIII and Type 0, Square attempted to remedy these issues by forcing the player into a hallway of clearly defined enemies. But even this structure misses the point: players are not drawn to the series because of the fights, rather, fighting stood as a necessary evil to exploring the unique worlds in each game. Final Fantasy games are revered because of their open environments, the uniqueness of the settings, and the feeling that each town or enclave is different and important. Stripping the series of these moments show how out of touch Square has become with its fanbase.
Arguably Square’s best JRPG, Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo, dispatched the need for random battles. In Super Mario RPG, all enemies are clearly visible and can be addressed or not. Your resources (either in game or your patience for fighting other menial baddies) can be managed and you can approach the game as you deem appropriate. Instead, with that game Square, focused on creating a truly unique world within the Mario Universe that remains the oddest piece of Mario lore. That a race of marshmallow people exist in the Mario canon is unsurprising, but important not to forget. Geno is a magical hero sent from the stars or by an otherworldly being that, to my knowledge, has gone completely unaddressed in subsequent Mario releases, but I digress. Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy before it featured weird, goofy worlds that begged to be explored, not fought through.
With FF XV, Square has completely reimagined the battle system once again. Fights no longer exist in an alternate universe. All enemies roam the same plane that your characters do and battles can be entered and exited with the same controls that you use to navigate the rest of the environments. More importantly, you no longer gain experience points for completing battles. This is the method through which you gain XP, but you don’t receive those points until you reach a camp (ie, a save point). Fighting every random enemy that you come across is not only time consuming but less immediately rewarding. FF XV demands that you manage your time, evaluate your risks, and recognize your priorities — often, arrival at a new destination — before engaging in another insignificant battle. Much of the game is about running from battles. If you’re uninterested in fighting, just keeping running to whatever objective you want and the enemies will acquiesce.
Perhaps the demo’s most gripping design aspect is relative size. Though enemies and summons in the series have always attempted to mimic something of grandeur, the inability to interact with them in real time hindered that experience. FFXV, with current-gen technology and a return to an open world, takes full advantage of the ability to make you feel small, terrified, and insignificant. FF XV‘s much-ballyhooed summon is one of the series’ signature moments. That it comes in a demo shows just how promising the game is.
FF XV finally accepts the “fantasy” as the series’ highlight, something that Type-0 and most recent titles have forgotten. Type-0 attempts to pull you in with more realistic, graphic violence, and an intro scene/prologue that draws heavily from the likes of an Attack on Titan-like apocalyptic event. But the game never delivers the wonder that could make the game worth playing. The series-saving potential of Final Fantasy XV should be taken with a grain of salt though. XIII and XIV were supposed to do similarly and failed universally. But with FF XV, Square has embraced what made the series great while changing the series’ biggest sticking points. Now, we’ll have to wait and see if it’s ever released or remains stuck alongside The Last Guardian in mythical video game lore.