As a new parent, I’ve been thinking about the concept of unconditional love a lot lately. It’s something I don’t think you fully understand until you’ve had a child, or at least that’s how it was for me. However, there are certainly some things that come close—parents, life long friends, and pets, for example. But then there are other things we all form strong emotional attachments to aren’t there? Non-living things, i.e. films, books, TV shows, comics, and, of course, video games. I think it’s fair to say we all have at least one franchise or series we fell in love with during our youth, that, for one reason or another, has either not been consistent in quality or has deteriorated or lost its way over time—one we always have hope for with each new installment, and come rushing in unconditionally no matter how dire the situation.
That series for me is Final Fantasy. And just some forewarning, I’m going to get a bit personal when talking about my feelings towards this franchise, just in case you were expecting a mostly analytical investigation (although, there will be plenty of that too). Final Fantasy is a series that’s admittedly become harder to defend over time; especially after the mixed-to-poor reception of the XIII trilogy. During the ’90s, though, when I first encountered the franchise, there was no question it was amoung the best of what gaming had to offer. However, after the merger with Enix in 2003, and under the leadership of Yoichi Wada, is when it all started to go off the rails. X-2 was weird, XII was polarising (though great, in my opinion), XIII was linear with a lot of Western influences, and XIV was just plain bad when it first launched.
In saying that, I’m sure it comes as no surprise I can defend each of these games to some degree. For example, X-2 has one of the best ATB battle systems (ever). XII has incredible world-building and exploration. Both of the sequels to XIII boldly experiment with interesting mechanics that somewhat make up for the convoluted storytelling. And I don’t think I even need to defend XIV: A Realm Reborn (the 2013 re-release) as it is now widely heralded amoung fans and critics as one of the best MMORPGs currently available. I guess when you love something, it’s easy to look beneath the blemishes and faults to find and enjoy what’s good about it. As a critic, however, I’m certainly not this tolerant or patient with other franchises that suffer from similar issues: I’m flat done with Assassin’s Creed, for instance. But why?
I think it’s best to start at the beginning in understanding why Final Fantasy had such a huge impact on me. Just as a little backstory, I grew up with a Sega Mega Drive as my primary introduction to gaming: Sonic, Disney, and licensed platformers were what I knew best—I didn’t even know what an RPG was then. As such, when I got a PlayStation in Christmas of ’97, the natural evolution for me were games such as Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Tomb Raider. It wasn’t until one evening my friend’s uncle brought his collection of games over for us to check out while all the adults conversed and did adult things that I discovered a game called Final Fantasy VII. At that point in my life, I didn’t see games as anything more than, well, games—but I loved stories and read a lot, so I was immediately keen.
It would be some time before I got a chance to play it again, however. You see, it was around this time my parents were going through a divorce (I was 11, for reference), and shortly afterwards my biological father stepped out of the picture entirely. Naturally, like any young boy in that situation, I wasn’t doing so well. We didn’t have a lot of money either, but in an effort to help me, my Mum got a small loan to get us back on our feet, and, in doing so, bought me a copy of Final Fantasy VII. She had recalled me talking about it, and wanted to provide me with something positive I could engage with in my own time (I was an only child). For countless months, FFVII served as a beacon in my young adolescent life, not just because I loved the story, but because I had a place I could escape to whenever I needed it.
Of course, there was more than just world exploration and story that I enjoyed about the game. I had never played an RPG before, so basic genre staples such as the battle system, managing weapons, items and magic, levelling up, racing and breeding Chocobos were all revolutionary to me and re-shaped my understanding of what games could be. There is no doubt in my mind that FFVII was the one game that sparked my undying passion for the medium and my love of RPGs. However, in saying that, there have been plenty of RPGs prior to and since that have done similar things, and arguably better in some cases (when it comes down to raw mechanics). Even though I believe the mainline games have always delivered excellent systems and mechanics, that’s not what kept me coming back over the years.
Despite how fundamentally important FFVII is to me, I’m probably going to shock a few of you in saying that FFVIII is my favourite. The concept of a spiritual successor has always resonated with me so much more than a direct sequel, so the way the Final Fantasy franchise works has always interested me. In fact, that’s a huge part of why I’m more patient and forgiving with a franchise such as this as opposed to something like an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. Final Fantasy isn’t just about iteration—often the mechanics and systems are changed drastically between releases; so much that it almost always results in a divide amoung the fanbase. You only have to look at the current landscape with FFXV and FFVII-R to know this is still true today. It’s not always for the better, mind you, but it is often refreshing.
That’s the great thing about Final Fantasy: no matter how much a single installment might not sit well with you (or even a trilogy), change is always on the horizon. I revelled in the idea of exploring entirely new worlds with familiar staples—e.g. creatures, magic, summons, and music. The music in particular is very important to me. I think it’s these qualities that allowed me to heavily invest in both FFVIII and IX; following which, I played through FFIV-VI. I adored how different each of these games were, both in their appearance and core systems. For years, Final Fantasy provided a place of comfort, even if I wasn’t acutely aware of it at that time. It wasn’t until I was sixteen, however, this would become fully apparent. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I wholeheartedly believe that Final Fantasy X helped to save my life.
I’m not ashamed to admit at that point in my life I had a major breakdown. I had fallen into a deep depression, and it had gotten so severe that I had to do homeschooling for a semester because I couldn’t cope being around people anymore. The details why aren’t relevant, but suffice to say I had given up. I know what some of you must be thinking, and it’s easy to scoff at a teenager with mental health problems because they lack the perspective to see past their situation—but that’s the struggle of being a young adult, is it not? They have the intelligence to understand the darker aspects of life, but lack the experience and empowerment to see beyond them. Now, I’m not claiming FFX is the only game that could’ve helped someone in that situation, but it was the one for me which had the most significant impact.
While it’s true that comfort can be found in television, books and other media, the most critical component of a video game is its interactivity. Firstly, I think it’s important to acknowledge that as a young man with an absent father, that the themes of FFX resonated strongly with my personal situation (which was a contributor to my depression). For some reason, I also heavily latched onto the phrase “Listen to my story” spoken by Tidus during the introduction sequence—so much as to encourage me to open up about my own life story. However, what is so universally applicable about FFX is its character-driven story; in which a protagonist becomes isolated in a foreign world away from everything he knows, and is driven by the need to move beyond his issues and work with others to overcome insurmountable odds.
There’s much to be said about the cognitive benefits that come from engaging in interactive media as opposed to one that’s passive. However, the reason FFX worked so well for my depression is because of the emotional investment I was able to exert into its world and characters, as well as the ability to roleplay as an active participant in a story filled with conflicts that I could see through to a resolution. While only a fantasy, yes, this game provided the safe space I needed away from the real world—even serving as a sort of stepping stone to nurture my sense of hope and provide reassurance that all problems can be conquered. As I mentioned, it could’ve been any game narrative, but given my origins with this series serving as a fictional place of comfort, that is likely why FFX had such an esoteric effect on me.
I think it’s fair to say it was around this time the aforementioned unconditional love I spoke about was formed. Shortly after FFX, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi left (after the Spirits Within bombed) and the merger with Enix occurred. FFX-2 was the first product of the newly formed Square Enix and the first-ever direct sequel to a mainline game. It was also the first to be truly polarising, but given it was so radically different, and it wasn’t a bad game (mechanically), I still got invested enough to finish it several times. In a similar fashion, FFXII also received a polarising reception; although this was mostly due to its MMO-esque gameplay. Personally, I enjoyed the jump to real-time combat, and while I didn’t connect as strongly with the characters, I did fall in love with Ivalice itself, and lost myself to its world for many months.
What followed, however, is where my patience with the franchise got stretched to its thinnest. I openly enjoyed the first few Enix-era installments, even if they didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as those that came before. On the other hand, FFXIII didn’t feel right from the very beginning. It wasn’t just that the game was linear, had no explorable towns, and required a codex to understand half of the dialogue. Almost everything about it felt convoluted or melodramatic. It didn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game despite all the obvious elements being there. It’s clear now Square Enix tried extra hard to appeal to Western audiences, but they took inspiration from all the wrong places, and the result was a soulless experience. I was willing to accept it as a misstep, given the series’ history of progressiveness, but it was far from over.
It’s always an awkward time when you find yourself feeling absolutely no emotion towards something you thought you loved. You start to ask all sorts of questions: “is it you?” “is it me?” “what went wrong?” Maybe it was because I hit my 20s and Final Fantasy just wasn’t for me anymore. But no, that wasn’t the case. I went back to replay FFVII-IX, and everything I loved about it held true. Because of this, I decided to pick up XIII-2—to give it another chance. And you know what? It was even more convoluted than the first—but it also managed to capture the heart the former lacked. It was creative and interesting, despite its flaws, and I had a great time. Likewise, with Lightning Returns; the story was basically garbage by this point, but it used the opportunity to explore new ideas and make the most of a bad situation.
It’s then that I realised Final Fantasy was still important to me, and that even when it wasn’t at its best, I could still have a great time with it. Just as long as it wasn’t missing the heart that makes it what it is. It’s for this reason, why, leading up to FFXV (formally Versus XIII), I’ve invested a lot of hope. For several years, I’ve gotten to know the new face behind Final Fantasy, Hajime Tabata, and witnessed a radical shift in how Square Enix approaches game development since Yosuke Matsuda took charge. I won’t lie: I’m nervous with how much pressure is riding on this game to be successful. A feature film, anime, mobile games… It’s a lot. However, in saying that, no matter the outcome, I take solace knowing someone who genuinely cares about Final Fantasy is at the helm. That even if it falls short, it was crafted with passion.
I think it’s fair to say a big reason why I keep up with Final Fantasy is simply because I have a long history with it. FF came into my life at a very influential time when I was quite young, and basically reshaped my understanding of what video games could be. It also continued to have a profound emotional impact on me during my teenage years, so there’s that as well. Objectively, though, I still do believe many the FF titles are legitimately excellent JRPGs—I love the worlds, the stories, the gameplay, and the music especially. However, what separates FF from other long-running franchises after so many years is how it constantly reinvents itself—for better or worse, admittedly. That said, I believe it’s this willingness to evolve that keeps it interesting, even if it continues to divide longtime fans—but, I mean, that’s always been the case. There’s no denying it lost its way due to bad leadership, but I strongly believe it’s once again in the hands of someone who truly cares about Final Fantasy. Can it regain its standing? I’m not sure, but I’ll be playing.