That Umbrella Guy Looks Awesome, but Is Final Fantasy XV Something New, or Just More of the Same?

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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.

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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) ffwere 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 fffresponsibilities 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.

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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, asdLightning 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.

saffdSomehow 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.

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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 jJayOdaturn-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 mqwANGKafter 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.

afdasdfdXIII 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.

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  • Richard

    This game is looking insane, not just visually but in the gameplay, story department (Dark). I’m actually glad they are taking their time now (they had already mentioned that doing towns this gen would take a lot of years) Will it de-throne VII and the other fan favorites… I gotta say, I think this is Square’s only shot at that; and I think they are finally going to deliver to the HARDCORE gamer.

  • Adriane Chalumeau Fox

    It’s not coming as any surprise that the only people I hear actually
    excited about this game are the VII/VIII crowd. To those of us who’ve
    played the *whole* series… this game just does not say “Final
    Fantasy” to me. I liked the direction XII was going, with its gambits
    and maintaining party-based combat. It was a balance of technological
    advance (a mainstay theme, evident in most FFs) while sustaining
    tradition. Dungeon exploration, the relief and excitement of reaching a
    new city… XIII seemed to discard this. XV looks like it’s going to
    demolish it. Do they really think the presence of Behemoth and Iron
    Giant automagically merit the FF main series brand?

    • Tom Auxier

      Okay you got me I never played Final Fantasy II. Then again, nobody else did, and if they did they probably didn’t enjoy it.

      The thing is, the people who made Final Fantasy Final Fantasy have their own company now. They make pretty mediocre RPGs. We have the producer from a lot of games and Tetsuya Nomura now, and they have two options: to stop making Final Fantasy games (which would be hard seeing how much money Square loses), or make one that they can own. The medieval elements, the “classic” Final Fantasy elements were Sakaguchi, and he’s at Mistwalker. We have Nomura and Kazushige Nojima (who wrote a lot of their later offerings) and Kitase who I like to imagine as an accountant.

      I want a Final Fantasy feeling Final Fantasy–and this feels like some of them, certainly. It feels like an evolution of elements in previous games. Even if it didn’t, I would take a good game over a bad one that pays lip service to old elements (hi, Final Fantasy XIII! I’m taking your sibling, the weird, non-FF feeling XIII-2, thanks!)

      • Adriane Chalumeau Fox

        I am unsure how your response is especially relevant to mine, considering I praised XII, criticised XIII, and did not bring up Sakaguchi or Nomura. (And for what it’s worth, II is one of my favourites in the series.)

        Square-Enix has not impressed me since 2006, barring handheld games. I do not get what people are seeing in FFXV, which spawned from a /spin-off/! Why people aren’t criticising the heck out of this, I have no clue. It’s like instead of doing a *real* XV and dealing with the continual procrastination of Versus XIII, their solution was this. And it looks nothing like Final Fantasy.

        I agree that good games should be the priority. But I also think that they’re simply banking on the Final Fantasy title to generate sales; It can be a good game… but as things are now, it’s still not Final Fantasy to me. Alienating a portion of the fanbase is a very risky move that admittedly can pay off (VII). You’re also assuming a “lip service” game would be bad, when it very well may not be (IX).

        • Tom Auxier

          Pretty much 100% of my point would be that a lip service game would be miserable. As one of the rare FFIX haters, imagining something more soulless and obligatory than FFIX makes my head want to explode. And it would be, because Sakaguchi was the dude who I would strongly guess was interested in the traditional tropes.

          How is this not a real FF game, though? There isn’t a whole lot of continuity between their settings. We can place FFX and FFXII as FF games now, or even FFVII and FFVIII, but they were all incredibly different from what came before. Hell, FFVI was incredibly different, too! The leap between V and VI is *massive*. If the internet existed then in a modern form, people would have been going nuts: holy shit, this isn’t my Final Fantasy! There’s giant robots!

          Basically: what is or isn’t canon FF is something that people only put together once the games are released. You say XII was a “traditional” game, but it’s *really*, *really* not: it plays like no other FF game, it looks like none of the others, and its story bears more in common with a gaiden (FFTactics) than anything else. Yet, it’s part of the series now, and it’s part because…well, they said it was, so we’ve accept it is Final Fantasy. When the dust settles on XV, when the blustery trailer is replaced by real game, we’ll probably say that about it, too.

          • Adriane Chalumeau Fox

            Well, you said yourself that you’re an outlier when it comes to (dis)liking IX.

            To me, it’s not a real Final Fantasy game because it lacks what constitutes every Final Fantasy prior: JRPG-style turn-based(-ish) party-oriented battles.

            X was one of my least favourite FFs as a game, but its battle system, which many people loved, was exemplary of this. As was XII’s, which got rid of the random encounters people were tiring of but kept the classic ATB from SNES/PS1 games, so yes, it does play like other FF games, considering XI preceeded it especially (and it tends to get immediate dismissal for being an MMO). Considering VII has spin-offs of different genres, I see absolutely no reason as for why there couldn’t be a main series Ivalice game.

            The difference between V and VI is not nearly as great as you’re suggesting. VI took elements of IV and V and polished them excellently. The core gameplay is largely the same. What changes from title to title is how magic is obtained and how characters level up/grow, from II’s stat experience, to the evolving job system, Espers, Materia, Sphere Grid, License Board, and so forth. Hell, XIIi was the last game to actually *have* jobs, which is very traditional.

            My point is that you can do a lot with a new coat of paint. VII changed a lot of things that I found disappointing, such as shrinking the party size and consolidating equipment options. But the core mechanics were still there: Materia was a different take on the Esper magic system; Limit Breaks took Desperations and turned them into a pivotal battle element, etc. This trend continues in each game after.

            Many people complained about XII, yes, but not like what happened after XIII. And now XIII is getting a second sequel and we’re getting a spin-off-turned-main-series. If you removed the Behemoth and Final Fantasy title, what about this game makes you think “Final Fantasy”? The ridiculous weapons and physics? Where is the party-oriented combat? Where is the world outside of this city? Modernising settings isn’t a bad thing (again, this has been happening all series long), but you can still relate all of the previous games as Final Fantasy. And for the record, “giant robots” have been around since FFI; the series has always had steampunk influences (that peaked around FFVI-VIII).

          • Tom Auxier

            You and I have very, very different recollections of FFXII. And of the reaction to FFXII.

            I think it depends on perspective. You look at all the Final Fantasies–all lined up, like bishounen models, of course–and see what they have in common, while I see what’s different. You look at the difference between V and Vi and see continuity, evolution, while I look at them and see that all your characters could now cast every spell, and the storyline is quite more directed and dramatic.

            Your core element of the series is its battle system, while mine is the narrative hook: younger characters figuring things out in a preposterously magical world filled with odd macguffins. You look at FFXV and see a game that plays probably pretty different from previous installments (I mean, neither of us *actually* know how it’ll play. XII and XIII didn’t look like the old games, either); I look at it and I see Umbrella Man and imagine Kefka, and I look at the protagonist’s dad and I see FFVI’s Cid, and okay I see everything in terms of FFVI but whatever.

            Basically, I think we both can be right: it might not look like your Final Fantasy, but it definitely looks like mine, and our introductory points were probably very similar (IV and VI). We just took different things from the same games.

            Which, I think, is why it’s so hard for Squenix to give us all the game we want. To me, FFIX–which is a very classic feeling game–plays like a horribly regressive experience. It has a bit of a nonsense story. It’s like…it’s a nebula of callbacks to previous games.

            Meanwhile (and this might not apply directly to you, but hear me out!), I love XII. Lots of hardcore fans didn’t, because it has gambits and action and doesn’t play like the others. But if felt like a Final Fantasy to me, because it was an evolution of older ideas into the modern day. To me, that raging evolution is Final Fantasy. I like X even though X’s plot doesn’t feel like Final Fantasy at all.

            Basically, I think there’s two subsets of hardcore Final Fantasy fans. You’re on one side, and I’m on the other. And unless they’re going to make a horribly reductive, corporate game, they’re going to have to pick a direction and alienate someone.