That Umbrella Guy Looks Awesome, but Is Final Fantasy XV Something New, or Just More of the Same?
At this year’s E3, Square Enix announced that what had previously been Final Fantasy Versus XIII was being transformed into the franchise’s next numbered installment: Final Fantasy XV. The trailer Tetsuya Nomura showed off to introduce the new game left many longtime fans of the series, including us, speechless. In what follows Adam Harshberger, Tom Auxier, and I discuss our reactions to the announcement and both of the new trailers Square Enix debuted at the conference.
Ethan: For a few moments last night I actually felt like a kid again, as if watching the trailers of Final Fantasy VII and VIII for the first time. Let’s not beat around the bush: Final Fantasy XIII hurt a lot. The original Playstation gave us three Final Fantasy titles while it’s most recent successor only gave us one, and a tragically tortured one at that. So I’ve been in Final Fantasy withdraw for–the greater part of a decade now?
Square Enix’s three-plus minute trailer filled that void just enough though to remind me how empty it’d felt before. A beautiful combination of cinematic CGI and actual gameplay, Final Fantasy XV looked so real and tangible I wanted to reach out through my computer screen and grab it while laughing maniacally. Adam and Tom, before we go deeper into everything we saw in the trailer I want to leave you with my favorite moment and the one that’s inspired and won me back: the umbrella man. It’s dark and weird and ominously ridiculous–Kuja crossed with Kefka if he were born in Midgard.
Adam: It’s funny you said that, Ethan – I felt the same exact way. I planned on opening my first response by talking about that. And I’m still going to.
Man, did that feel good. I had some friends over for the presentation last night; we played Dominion, drink beers, sat around, and watched what Sony had to say. It was my turn in Dominion when the Final Fantasy XV trailer came on, and as soon as it started I knew I had to put my cards down and watch. I was enraptured. I was saying the most hopelessly fanboy-ish things in my head the whole time, and when they showed the combat – that crazy, spastic combat – I about shit myself.
The entire feel of the trailer – huge, sprawling, but decidedly morose and grim – has me excited. The game looks to have a mood and a tone, which I always thought the PS1-era Final Fantasy games (and FFVI, of course) were very good at. It’s a welcome break from the sleek, overly-immaculate sterility of FFXIII.
“Also the old man sticks his tongue out and it’s very sentimental and nice, though also kinda weird and creepy. Exactly what you want from Final Fantasy.”
It reminded me of how it felt to have Square Enix capture my imagination again. I was a kid looking at his first Final Fantasy IX screens on the internet and being overwhelmed with wonder. And Ethan! That umbrella guy! You’re right. Something about him was so sinister, in a distinctly Final Fantasy way. He seems like a villain it’d be fun to go up against and hate – like Kefka or Sephiroth. An iconic, memorable enemy that has personality beyond just wanting to end you and everything else.
I’m assuming he’s the villain, by the way, though honestly I have no fucking clue.
Here’s two things that I thought were really interesting that I’d love to hear you thoughts on, Tom.
1. There’s a scene at at minute into the trailer which got me excited beyond just blind FF fanboyism. A young boy and a middle-aged man are sitting at a dinner table, alone. It’s a very grandiose setting, but everything seems very sad, and it’s a curious scene for an E3 AAA trailer: no guns, no gruff philosophizing on war, no death, no nothing. The boy talks about the soup – he doesn’t like it – but the man tells him not to say anything, or he’ll get the chef fired. You can tell, from the setting, these are too important, ruling-class-type people. It’s a quick and very sad reflection on positions of power and the unseen responsibilities that accompany them. That’s like … a topic. That’s a thing you can say stuff about. I was very happy to see it, a portent of something like depth, in that trailer.
Also the old man sticks his tongue out and it’s very sentimental and nice, though also kinda weird and creepy. Exactly what you want from Final Fantasy.
2. Around 1:51, in the midst of the combat footage. I have absolutely zero reservations about SE going the action route. It looks like all the hallmarks are there, regardless – but what really got me was this moment were you see one of your party members (or allies, whatever) in battle. He yells something at the main character. There’s something about this that’s very visceral, I think: imagine seeing Barrett or Zell absolutely kicking ass in a gloriously high-fidelity battle. Imagine them yelling out to you. Imagine how that’d feel. That little sequence screams Final Fantasy to me – that it’s you and your team against an insurmountable evil. I’m happy to see the idea of conserving a “party” throughout the action combat is important to SE. It wouldn’t feel like Final Fantasy if you flew it alone.
Tom: You’re right to think I’d zoom in on the soup scene. The soup scene was what I love about Japanese games.
I mean, look at what it’s surrounded with. Videogames are full of violent people grandstanding. This trailer, everything else in it, definitely fit that. Final Fantasy XIII had that in spades, too. It had its occasional quiet moments, but they felt aggro. They felt like Square telling us holy shit, look, these two are in love and flying around in fireworks, or goddamn Lightning is really sad, but here she comes again. She’s gonna kick ass.
“Maybe it’s not a Japanese Role Playing Game anymore, but maybe it’s something better.”
Final Fantasy XV will contain a scene where its protagonist eats soup, and it’s bad soup, and that’ great.
I’ve been writing a piece for a while now about how Japanese RPGs and platformers are so similar. In short: they’re lo-fi ways of expressing huge issues. You can’t make a realistic platformer, because the concept is just so alien to reality. It’s the same with Japanese RPGs: if you’re teleporting away from reality to fight battles every so often, it’s not really real, is it? It’s just videogames.
And the thing about the Final Fantasy’s of our youth is, it’s that they felt real. They felt genuine. We filled in the blanks the games left us. Then, sometime, the blanks went away. They were left with awkward scenes–Tidus laughing, Vaan pouting, Lightning crashing–we couldn’t reconcile with reality. Final Fantasy XV seems to take out the concept of our battles being different from our reality, and that’d be a great thing. Maybe it’s not a Japanese Role Playing Game anymore, but maybe it’s something better.
Here’s another thing: the people in XIII looked like cartoon characters. These guys look like dudes I could know. I mean, sure, dude has an umbrella, but he’s stylized, not obviously a cartoon. He’s acting like he exists in a world that exists outside of the bounds of the game, which is what we need. I got that sense in the hugely underrated XIII-2, which felt like a real fucking videogame. It was silly–I mean, you eventually meet Snow in the far future where he’s fighting a war against a sentient evil plant–but it felt believable. And I want them to sell me my absurd, insane reality, and not force me to buy it wholesale.
Then again, I can talk myself into any Final Fantasy game.
Ethan: Guess we’re on a different wave length when it comes to Soup! It was cute, sort of endearing, but felt to me like XV’s analog to this glorious moment from X.
I definitely agree with what you said Adam about the gritty feel to the mood on screen. something in the mix of medieval and punk made the game seem whimsical and foreboding. It’s got classically influenced airships but also mud crusted jackboots left behind at the Salvation Army and technology crossed with magical crystals.
Somehow the older Final Fantasies made these seemingly incongruous styles work well together–something that was lost when the franchise made the jump onto the Playstation 2 with Final Fantasy X I think. After a series of pop-influenced sequels like X-2, XIII, XIII-2, and XIII-3 though, it looks like Square Enix rediscovered some of that Je ne sais quoi that made older titles feel both distinct and familiar.
“That trailer was awesome and I’m psyched now to see what they ultimately deliver.”
I’ll be honest, as much as people Love Final Fantasy IX and IV, the game’s original take on D&D roleplaying never did a whole lot for me. While I liked going to the underworld to swap Adamantium with the dwarves, and Alexandria may be my favorite Final Fantasy city to date, the naturalistic romanticism (old-school knights, princesses, and magical forest) of those titles left me underwhelmed.
Instead, my Golden Age begins with VI and ends with VIII. That trio of entries forced together elements of punk, dystopic futurism, and militaristic, industrialized knighthood that still blows me away to this day. The juxtaposition in the trailer between the upper and lower classes, what’s up in the sky with who’s down on the ground, and the colorful baroque interiors with the muted costumes of the main characters just knocks me off my feet–and I barely have any idea what the game is even about yet!
Many will chide Square Enix for losing Versus XIII somewhere back in development hell, but you know what? I couldn’t care less now. That trailer was awesome and I’m psyched now to see what they ultimately deliver.
Adam: I’m gonna zone in on what Tom said – that maybe this is the moment where Final Fantasy stops being a JRPG.
“But if you’re Trying to Do Some Serious Shit In A Modern Videogame, ATBs are not going to help anything. Tom Bissell ain’t gonna do a write-up on Grantland of a turn-based combat game.”
Is that alright? Are we cool with that? I should start by saying that I love ATB combat engines more than anything on this Earth. I love the little drama of it, seeing if your character’s bar will fill up before the boss kills her, the split decision making (Do I go for the kill? Or play it safe and heal this turn?), and somewhere there’s an argument in me that music plays a huge role in turn-based JRPG combat – making it fit the story – and I love that. Some of the most passionate, I’m-gonna-murder-this-motherfucker videogame battles of my life have been within the ATB system, in no small part because Square Enix is brilliant about setting them up as payoffs. If you’ve ever felt your stomach drop as you’re “sucked into a major boss battle, you know what I mean.
But I don’t care if Square Enix needs to ditch that shit to move forward.
First of all, it doesn’t make any sense. Not that most videogames do. But if you’re Trying to Do Some Serious Shit In A Modern Videogame, ATBs are not going to help anything. Tom Bissell ain’t gonna do a write-up on Grantland of a turn-based combat game. The bro-shooter crowd ain’t gonna respond to that, either. The blogosphere, I imagine, won’t fall in love with a turn-based game. I hate this term with a passion (I, in fact, hate most terms) but it’s hard to avoid a choking amount of ludonarrative dissonance when your characters fight important battles like they’re a boy scout ceremony.
But more importantly, no one plays Final Fantasy for the combat engine. There’s magic in those old games, and I think a lot of people would agree with that, but most of it isn’t when you’re watching combat happen. Final Fantasy is about the setting, characters, world, plot, that kind of stuff… in a very distinctly videogame way. You aren’t compelled through Final Fantasy games by the hunt for a new level or bigger sword, you’re compelled through the games because you want to see more of this crazy stuff the developers made for you. Final Fantasy XIII, I’d argue, is the one game where the combat was actually more interesting than the story – and it failed utterly because of that. As long FFXV keeps the focus on what we care about, and keeps the combat as a pleasant distraction and a means for emotional payoff, I think we’ll be fine. I don’t want to be fighting constantly – I want to be drinking in the overblown glory of Final Fantasy. I hope Square Enix remembers that.
Tom: Adam, you may have forgotten recent turn based hero simulator X-Com, which everyone loves and whose closest cousin is Final Fantasy Tactics, but I’ll forgive that.
The thing is, turn based games tend to be abstractions, and Final Fantasy after X is pretty much the least abstract game in existence. Final Fantasy VI fought the way it did because it couldn’t do anything more graphically intense while still being as complex as it needed to be. XIII, however, showed us they could render pretty much anything, and they chose to do, basically, a watered down “action” version of the old system.
Why not just do action? Why not be an action game where I can pick statistics? That seems like where they’re going, and I am beyond okay with it. I love classical styled RPGs, too, probably more than you do, Adam, but they’ve had an awkward life after the original Playstation. Final Fantasy X succeeded on nostalgia and a surprisingly competent story. Everything else had a battle system where you punched dudes in the face.
“I hope this is Kingdom Hearts minus the silly Disney characters and plus Umbrella Fedora”
I’m really heartened, watching the gameplay video that came out between the beginning of this talk and now. It looks like the middle point between Kingdom Hearts and the Souls games. Cinematic, but with a weight and purpose behind your actions. It looks less like a battle system and more like fucking dudes up, and that’s a marked change. Nobody uses the words “battle system” any more.
So I’m glad they ditched it, and I’m glad they kept the rest. Because–as harsh as I am on FFXIII–I really thought the insane background story had potential. It’s why the soup scene gives me hope, Ethan: XIII had the problem where it was always on. XV might have tonal differences. It might have people being happy, or at least not always maddeningly intense. They might play Blitzball, or Triple Triad, or some other batshit minigame I can obsess over (not Tetra Master). Maybe they’ve remembered how to pace a videogame.
tl;dr: I hope this is Kingdom Hearts minus the silly Disney characters and plus Umbrella Fedora (I hope that’s his name!) and Actual Japanese Police Cars. Because that sounds pretty sweet.
Ethan: Interestingly enough Tom, the shift from “battle systems” to “fucking dudes up,” is one of the few things that actually worries me about the upcoming game.
“I would have liked to see just a few moments of one of the characters walking around a town, or field, or house, maybe buying some items, or hell even riding a chocobo.”
One of the defenses first erected by the creators to shield Final Fantasy XIII from criticism was that it was more akin to a linear FPS than a traditional JRPG. Which was totally correct, and totally logical, seeing how that was and remains the most beloved genre, but also totally resulted in a complete mess.
Watching the E3 gameplay trailer for XV what strikes me is that it’s all about combat. It’s as if the only thing that counts as action and gameplay anymore is “fucking dudes up.” Being a badass is great–but being a badass all the time is not. I understand the trailer has to be big and explosive and fast-paced, but I would have liked to see just a few moments of one of the characters walking around a town, or field, or house, maybe buying some items, or hell even riding a chocobo.
XIII didn’t have those things, which was to its detriment. Not because aimlessly wandering around villages and forests necessarily makes everything better, but because building up relationships between the player and the characters and the world takes time, it requires space, and can’t simply survive on cutscenes and behemoth-bashing alone.
The best looking RPG at this E3 was Witcher 3, a game that’s quasi-open world, uses a real-time battle system, and fleshes out it’s story, characters, and worlds through quests and conversations. While I don’t think FFXV should simply try to ape what the West’s been doing (Skyrim, Mass Effect, Witcher, etc.), I do think that there are plenty of examples of how traditional RPG elements can be successfully tweaked and updated.
I’m already in love with the quirky magical realism that XV seems to be born from, now I just need to know that creators won’t try to go any further down the rabbit hole into making Final Fantasy the hack’n slash equivalent of Halo.
Here’s hoping Final Fantasy XV is the phoenix down that puts the series back on its feet again.