Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Has Given Me Hope For Final Fantasy XV
I’m already the hypeman on the Final Fantasy XV redemption train. But my position had been one more born of blind optimism crossed with a staunch fanboyism rivaled only by POD Editor Emeritus Adam Harshberger. It’s based off of conviction, and a serious desire for a Final Fantasy to be worthwhile.
Over Christmas, I sat down with one of the works that made Final Fantasy XV director Tetsuya Nomura a role-playing rock star: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. I’d never played more than an hour or so of Kingdom Hearts, and booted it up on a whim, mostly to make fun of it.
(I play a lot of videogames because I think they’ll be bad. I hope this doesn’t make me weird. I hope it doesn’t ruin our budding friendship.)
After a weeklong, thirty hour binge, I’ve come to love Birth by Sleep. It’s a weird little game. That might be too charitable. Birth by Sleep plays like it has delusions. Its characters never remember quite what they’re feeling. Individuals walk on screen, drop mysterious lines of chatter, and leave without ever telling you their names, or their reasons for existing. It breaks up its central mechanic—beating dudes with a keyblade—with the most insipid collection of minigames this side of a budget-priced Wii title. It lets you gain levels by playing a version of Japanese board-videogame Itadeki Street (Fortune Street in America) for reasons I cannot fathom.
But those keyblade battles. That leveling system. I played a videogame that didn’t make any sense for thirty hours because its—dare I say—core loop was so satisfying. If Final Fantasy XV pulls off its similar looking system with equal aplomb and cuts the Kingdom Hearts induced crap, maybe it’ll be the Final Fantasy we’ve been waiting for.
Birth by Sleep plays like a less-demanding Devil May Cry crossed with Zelda. It’s loose, perhaps to the point of failing. The camera could be described charitably as a nightmare. But don’t worry about that. What’s important is that Birth by Sleep is loose and heavy. Everything—from smacking someone in the face with a nonsensical sword-key to slinging an assortment of spells—feels crunchy. Someone tuned the battles so that you’d feel great fighting.
This obviously bodes well for an action Final Fantasy. When people think of traditional RPGs, they don’t tend to think heft, but the earlier Final Fantasy games were great precisely because they felt heavy. When somebody stepped forward in Final Fantasy VI or VII, you knew they brought the thunder (sometimes the thundaga). Sure, they had exciting systems, and attractive narratives, but I played them because they felt good.
But once Final Fantasy went a more fluid direction—with XII and XIII—things began to fall of the rails. XII had some weight, but it felt more accidental. XIII was quicksilver in videogame form. One of my major concerns with Final Fantasy XV, from the trailers, was that the combat wouldn’t feel right. That it would never feel right again.
Well, Birth by Sleep feels right, and, more importantly, its combat carries a similar DNA. It’s an action-rpg system that feels enough like an action game that it doesn’t seem adulterated. Sure, it’s not as smooth as Devil May Cry, but what 2010 PSP game is? Sure, the camera doesn’t work, but that’s more a product of a game on a console without a traditional dual-stick design.
I mean, okay: Birth by Sleep isn’t really a good game. Its narrative is alphabet soup. There’s so many nonsense minigames that none of them really work. Characters motivations change by the second thanks to a nonlinear progression, possibly the worst design choice here. But that’s not the point: for the first time in a few years, a Square Enix role playing game had a very good set of core mechanics. It wasn’t just business as usual.
I’ll be honest: the history of Japanese role-playing games over the past generation has been spotty, at best, for Square most of all. While handhelds have received a number of classic games, what’s the best major console game released for the Playstation 3 generation? Exclude the Souls games as action games first and foremost, and you don’t have a lot of choices. You’d probably pick Lost Odyssey, a Mistwalker game developed by some of the original Final Fantasy guys, a game primarily great for its well-delivered narrative. It didn’t benefit from using the classic RPG mechanics; it used them because they were there, because they were how Hironobu Sakaguchi made his millions. It used them because Japanese games with stories were always made that way.
If we limit it to Square, things get dicier. Is their best game of the last gen Nier? You could make a case for that, and that’s…well, that’s not ideal. Nier does some fantastic stuff, but its more a beautiful mess than anything else. Or maybe Final Fantasy XIII-2, which gets the same descriptor: perhaps a gorgeous catastrophe.
But really, this has been the RPGs line the past three generations. As videogames tiptoed towards visual fidelity, we became more likely to question why our dudes were standing in a row on the right-hand side of a map. What I don’t question in a chibified Bravely Default I would in Final Fantasy, because one features realistic* looking characters while the other has you controlling people without feet.
Birth by Sleep made me realize how much of these genres is just business as usual, perhaps the greatest danger to videogames as a whole. This was a game with multiple paths of progression, scads of nonsensical minigames, weird powerup drops on enemy death, and a terrible camera system. Why were these things here? Because Kingdom Hearts had always had them. The first game had the Gummi Ship minigames—pretty much the moment where any sane person realized videogames had too much bullshit in them—and multiple path choices. It worked there because you were one character. Here, I kept asking myself, “Wait, I was the last character to go to this world, but the first to go to the next one? How does that make chronological sense?”
Final Fantasy has the same problem, but a much more entrenched fan base. When Final Fantasy XII wasn’t dudes in a row, people table-flipped the internet. Why were they making my mainline Final Fantasy games into a Massively Multiplayer game? Why would they do this to us? It’s a discussion we’ve started to have in earnest about videogames.
Of course, they’d been doing it for years. Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VII, these were experimental games in a lot of ways. But what had helped Square’s experimentation in the past no longer existed. In the past, Square would release a lot of games, with a lot of different mechanics. This brought us Vagrant Story and SaGa Frontier and all these strange oddities where they could try out new things without the fanbase crying out. These games worked, and then Final Fantasy developed in new directions because of that.
During the PS2 era, though, they stopped releasing so many smaller games. Or, the ones they did didn’t work. There weren’t scads of games confirming what Square thought about their audience. They built a new franchise from the ground up—Kingdom Hearts—but none of the side games had staying power.
The next generation continued that trend to a point: eventually, Square started releasing a bounty of handheld games. Titles like Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light, Crisis Core, Birth by Sleep, and Final Fantasy Type-0 worked liked Vagrant Story did two generations prior: they’re clear precursors to the developers’ work on Playstation 4 games. Instead of fumbling about for the best focus tested mechanics, they’ve been making smaller versions of the Big Budget Blockbuster they’re envisioning Final Fantasy XV as.
This concept reassures me, as a lifelong fan of the genre. Modern console RPGs aren’t cheap, or easy, to make, and it’s good to see some developers figuring out how to put things together. Lightning Returns, the last game in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, might not be perfect, but it shows Square trying to branch out, to apply these handheld lessons to console releases. To make videogames that we can get excited about.
After a few down years, I’m bullish about Square again. They still might have something to offer. And I’m bullish about the potential of Japanese role-playing games on next generation consoles, and even on this generation’s boxes. As the smaller companies move forward from the PS2 to the PS3 now that it’s reached the end of its lifespan, and Square moves confidently to the next generation, maybe we’ll have the next great JRPG on a console instead of a handheld.