final fantasy of the Halcyon Days off

Wednesday, February 22nd 2012. | Games News

Screen-shot-2012-02-20-at-9.07.17-PMThe first time I played a Final Fantasy game, I didn’t quite ‘get it.’ I was eleven years old and I had my hands on a borrowed copy of the ninth installment in the series’ core line of fantasy-based role playing games, terms that I was oblivious to in the 6th grade.

For one, my classmate said I could spend over 50 hours playing it. At the time, I could not fathom the idea of spending more time on a game than on Pokémon Silver, especially one where you had to sit idly in front of television screen instead of playing it nearly every second your parents made you leave the house. (Yep, I was that kid at the supermarket and doctor’s office and mall and before and after school.) I also found myself dumbfounded that a game was capable of spanning four entire discs and incredulous to the claim of reviewers that it was one of the most graphically complex games of its time.

In the beginning hours of Final Fantasy IX, I became increasingly confused. Why did this game involve so much reading, dialogue and exposition? Why did it take hours upon hours of gameplay to discover what it was I was actually going to be doing in a game that my friend referred to as “like Pokémon, but way, way more complicated’? Why were all the male characters so androgynous?

As I plowed through FF IX and proceeded to devour the seventh and eighth installments as well, I began to see the series for what it truly was: immersive, book-like fantasy epics. (I have since played the first, third, fifth, tenth and twelfth installments.) They were the first video games that I found myself lost inside, spending hours exploring the world beyond Midgar in VII and coming to know the characters, like the tailed, extraterrestrial protagonist Zidane of IX, as intimately as one would any beloved book series of their childhood.

Sadly, the Final Fantasy series is now a hollow shell of the golden titles of the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s that used to define the pre-HD console era. I currently have a copy of the latest installment, Final Fantasy XIII-2, sitting in my Xbox 360, having already swallowed the stupidity underlying the release of a sequel to a game titled Final Fantasy after they did the very same thing with the tenth game.

I’ve hardly played it, and not necessarily because I don’t have the time. I find myself turning instead to 1998’s Final Fantasy Tactics, a title I unfortunately overlooked when I was younger due to me being uncharacteristically inept at tactical video games. I’m playing that, and increasingly so every day, because of how engrossing the mix of story and battle is, a trait that a traditional Final Fantasy pulls off with ease. I’m also enjoying it immensely because of how well it illustrates the stark shift in the series since its golden PSX era.

This evolution of the series has taken it from some of the strongest narratives video games have ever delivered to glossy, over-produced trash that relies on fan-boy dedication and the promise of a revamped battle system. The disappointment arises from stories that have, since the transition to the PlayStation 2 more than a decade ago, become increasingly muddled and forgettable. While Final Fantasy X did manage to pull off its delicate mixing of old and new, it showed signs of the series’ teeter toward decline with a borderline-absurd time travel plot that has returned with a terrible, nonsensical vengeance in XIII-2.

This decline may have started with the tenth game, but it was Final Fantasy XIII, the basis for the shit-show of a sequel sitting freshly on store shelves, that sealed fans’ opinions of the modern story capabilities of the series. XIII was criticized heavily for its linear storyline that basically held your hand from destination to destination and its storyline that fell flat on its face consistently before briskly wrapping up in one of the most disappointing endings I have ever endured. Both of these critiques were weighed against the game’s only defense—its hyper-paced and unique battle system. While this did make for some of the most tactically interesting moments in the series’ history, it did little to alleviate the fact that the game brought out a level of emotional investment better suited to smartphone puzzle game.

This deviation from placing a priority on rich, well-written storylines has done irreversible damage to the series, one of the last remaining torch-carriers of the classic RPG. There was a time when Final Fantasy VII was considered by many to be the greatest game ever made for a number of reasons, the hallmark of which was the insistence that it was the first game to bring players to tears when one of its principal characters was killed.

Explaining that in the context of the modern Final Fantasy is almost laughable, and it pains me to play the current copy sitting in my Xbox knowing that its story will not only remain emotionally untouchable, but will in fact frustrate me with its lack of depth and its characters that manage to reach an offensive level of unlikable. I have played through a good portion of the game’s opening chapters and have been consistently surprised at how terrible the dialogue and story exposition has been, especially considering how poor of a job Squar Enix did at veiling the ridiculous time travel-based, “we can change the future” plot.

Maybe it’s because now that blockbuster RPG series like Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls, which emphasize choice making and sport variations of the ever-popular morality-based game mechanics now dominating the genre, the RPG model of the late 20th century is dead and gone. It truly pains me to see these types of games making huge developmental leaps for the medium while the defining series of my video game childhood gets left in the dust, scraping up enough bullshit loose ends to release another Kingdom Hearts spinoff or failing miserably to capitalize on the already-over-crowded MMO market.

Currently, developer Square Enix’s focus is on the remaining two thirds of its ambiguous Fabula Nova Crystallis saga, which contains an exclusive title for the new PlayStation Vita handheld that a small fraction of people will probably play and a game that would be far more exciting if the only thing we’ve seen of it in the last three years wasn’t the same rehashed CGI cut scenes. Who knows what will come of the series when it reaches its next unique installment, but I know now that the days of being lost in the narrative of a Final Fantasy are most likely stuck in the past, and no shitty, ill-contrived time travel storyline can bring them back.

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