Monday, July 6, 2015

What is wrong with Square Enix and the Final Fantasy series?

The Final Fantasy series used to be the ubiquitous quintessential highest-quality JRPG game series in the 80's and the 90's (alongside the Dragon Warrior series by Enix.) But at some point Square Enix just lost the ball completely.

Thus we get a Final Fantasy game that goes contrary to almost everything that makes JRPGs so enjoyable: Mind-numbingly linear and short levels that are completely contrary to the idea of a (J)RPG and are even more linear than most FPS game levels, no overworld, no free exploration, abstract scenery that's only loosely tied to the story, an overabundance of cutscenes, irrelevant and inconsequential NPC's, no freely-explorable towns, and the removal of almost every archetypal JRPG element.

I'm, of course, talking about Final Fantasy X.

What? You thought I was talking about Final Fantasy XIII? Well, that one was like that too, but it seems that Square Enix started this trend much earlier than that. Everything that FF13 did wrong, FFX did it first. And I mean everything.

I have by now played all games in the series from the first one to the 9th, and then all three FF13 games (although the third one only partially). I had never played FF10. Recently I noticed that Final Fantasy X/X-2 Remaster was being sold at the PSN store, so I thought that great, I get to play one of the games (well, two in fact) in the series that I have never had the opportunity to play before! What a wonderful opportunity.

When I started playing the game, it was highly linear; however that's to be expected. Most games, even wide-open sandbox ones, tend to be very linear at the very beginning (because they are introducing both the story and the game mechanics), but become more open soon after. That's completely normal.

However, when hour after hour had passed it became clearer and clearer that it wasn't actually going to change. It became clear that the entire game would be like that. (Granted, I have still not played the game through when I'm writing this, but by this point it's quite clear that it isn't going to suddenly change to the same mechanics as previous games in the series.)

It felt like FF13 all over again. All the levels are astonishingly and mind-numbingly short and linear. There is no overworld, there is no exploration, all NPC's are boring and inconsequential. And what's absolutely the worst, there's a staggering amount of cutscenes.

If you haven't actually played the game, you wouldn't believe how many cutscenes there are. You know the semi-humorous criticism of current video games that they are essentially just cutscenes which are occasionally interrupted by brief sections of linear gameplay? That criticism is somewhat an exaggeration. Except in the case of FF10. In this case it's literally true. You can't walk for a minute without yet another (often long) cutscene kicking in. It's just amazing. And amazingly boring.

Mind. Numbingly. Boring.

And no, the problem is not that the game is very story-heavy. Very story-heavy games can be really well done, compelling, and interesting to play. (The game Life is Strange is a perfect example of a story-heavy game done right. FF10 is an example of the exact opposite.) The astonishing amount of cutscenes in FF10 doesn't make the game good, it only makes it annoying.

I must confess that I slightly cheated in the second paragraph of this post when I said that the scenery is abstract and detached from the story. To be fair, that's not completely true. It is somewhat abstract, but not nearly as much as in FF13. That's one point in favor of FF10. Another is that the story is much easier to understand and follow than in FF13.

But those are about the only things that are better in FF10 compared to FF13.

I'm a bit torn about it, but I am actually tempted to classify FF10 as worse than FF13, as surprising as that is to me. I wouldn't have expected that in a million years.

This is in big contrast with Final Fantasy IX, which was published just a year earlier than FF10. FF9 was a fully-fledged "traditional" JRPG (of the 3D variety). This clearly shows that Square still knew how to make a good Final Fantasy game. For some reason, however, they went in a completely different direction with FF10. (I originally thought that the first game where they took this direction was FF13, but it seems that I was very wrong. It was FF10.)

What really amazes me is that the game got generally extremely positive review, both in Japan and in the west. 91.84% in GameRankings, 92 out of 100 in Metacritic. Famitsu gave it a 39 out of 40 (ie. almost perfect score), Eurogamer gave it 9 out of 10, Game Informer a 9.75 out of 10... and so on.
Were all these people high? Did they play a different game than me? Perhaps the only rational score I can find is from the Edge magazine, a mere 6 out of 10. (I'd personally score it even lower, but I suppose I could agree with that, at least compared to all those other scores.) Said magazine described the game as "tedious and uninnovative", something I fully agree with (to put it mildly), and the dialogue as "nauseating" (yeah, it's not exactly Shakespeare.)

Granted, I have still not finished the game. I will try to give it a chance still, but I'm not very hopeful. (If the game suddenly turns to a completely different genre that's actually enjoyable, I would be very, very surprised.)

And I spent 50€ on this crap. I could have bought three games of significantly higher quality and enjoyability with that money. But no.

What happened to you, Square Enix? Why did I trust you? Why are you making crap? It seems that your last actually good Final Fantasy game was the 9th. After that it seems that everything is just horrible. (Ok, I haven't played FF12, but having seen both 10 and 13, I don't think I will ever make the same mistake again.)

In my books neither FF10 nor FF13 are actually Final Fantasy games. They are games of some other, completely different and unrelated game series. And quite bad games at that. FF13 was at least somewhat bearable, but not very good. FF10 is just exceedingly annoying.

Edit: I just finished the game. That's to say, I stopped playing it. I didn't  actually get to the end. Close, but not to the very end.

By the final parts of the game there's a really, really long multi-staged boss fight that takes something like an hour to play through (at least for the first time), and with no savepoints in between. Needless to say, I died. And when you die in a FF game, it's just game over. You are returned to the title screen, and you simply have to load your latest save. While that was frustrating, I didn't actually end the game there. I wanted to give it one last try, and level up before trying that battle again. Thus I went to a bonus dungeon (that was not accessible when passing through that area for the first time). There was a quite long section of the dungeon with no savepoints, and there's a stupid gimmick enemy there that easily one-hit-kills your entire party if you don't do the right thing. If you are unlucky, you can't even escape. Something like a half hour of gameplay, and about 5 levels for each party member, completely to waste. I decided to stop playing this f***ing game. It's boring and frustrating to no end.

There had been, in fact, quite many points during the game that I was really, really close to just stop playing it. The game is extremely long, tedious and boring. It consists of astonishingly linear and short levels (much more linear than your most run-of-the-mill lowest-common-denominator braindead first-person shooter) and endless amounts of cutscenes. Those. F***ing. Cutscenes. They drive me crazy. There are literally more cutscenes in this game than actual gameplay. Often you can't walk for five seconds without yet another cutscene kicking in. Cutscene after cutscene after cutscene. I often had the urge to scream in frustration when yet another cutscene started after a mere few seconds of gameplay after the the previous cutscene. This entire game is literally nothing more than one big cutscene that's occasionally interrupted by short linear segments of gameplay and battles.

And the thing is, those cutscenes are boring. FF10 is not exactly a literary masterpiece. Granted, it's clearer and easier to follow than the obscure and confusing story of FF13, but it's still boring, uninspired, tedious and even childish. By the middle of the game, the only reason I kept playing was because the battle system and the level-up system were somewhat interesting.

This is without any doubt the worst Final Fantasy game I have ever played. FF13 was bad, but at least it was barely interesting enough that I could finish it. FF10 is worse than that. I could have never even imagined that would be possible, but it is.

I have still to try FF X-2. I'm not expecting it to be any better. I will probably try the beginning at some point, but if it's just like FF X, I'll probably just save myself the suffering and end it short. That's a completely wasted 50€ there.

This isn't a Final Fantasy game at all in my books. (And neither is FF13, for that matter.) This is some strange experiment by Square, and it failed miserably. I have no idea what kind of game FF12 is because I have never played it, but if FF10 and FF13 are any indication, I'm guessing it's probably equally bad. (FF11 is an MMORPG, which I have zero interest in.) Which means that Final Fantasy IX was the last Final Fantasy game that Square made. They stopped making FF games after that, and just slapped the brand name to completely unrelated sub-par games after that, for shame. (While I'm cautiously optimistic about FF15, I'm not expecting it to be any better. Square has lost the ball, and it seems that they will never make an actual Final Fantasy game anymore.)

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