Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
September 2010

Final Fantasy Disappointment

The first time I was disappointed by a Final Fantasy game I was six years old. My family had stopped off at a neighbor's yard sale and I found a copy of the original NES game half hidden in the midst of the used wares. It wasn't in the best of shape - a bevy of chew marks signaled to it having once served as the chew toy of a capricious canine. My parents eyed it with a bit of apprehension. It was only ten dollars, but it was still money they weren't keen on wasting. The original owner, however, insisted that it still worked fine and, perhaps softened by those boyish charms of mine, they conceded and we took it home.

I spent the ride home imagining what my new game would be like. The original owner had offered only a brief assessment. "You fight monsters and stuff." Staring intently at the sword on the cover art, my young mind conjured a Zelda-esque adventure where I, a brave warrior, would single-handedly save the world from a horde of medieval baddies. Popping the game into my brother's NES, I soon found it was like nothing I had ever played before, and also nothing like Zelda. Instead of fighting the monsters yourself, you selected options and let others do it all for you. Suffice it to say, I couldn't see the appeal of text menus and statistics. My disappointment was pretty substantial.

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My experiences with Final Fantasy since then have been far more positive. In the years since, I've come to appreciate the original NES game as an RPG classic and to this day count Final Fantasy VI as one of the greatest games ever made. In the past five years though, a trend has emerged that has me disturbed: for the first time in a long time I'm finding myself genuinely disappointed in Final Fantasy games.

It began back in 2005. Having just received some birthday money, I ventured down to GameStop and picked up Final Fantasy XII. At first I was impressed. The tone of the game was far grittier than the oft times too sugary Final Fantasy X. The gameplay certainly wasn't my favorite in the franchise, but it worked for me. Sadly, as I pressed through the game, the story - which had initially seemed so good - tapered off into boredom. Plot points were far between and the characters did little to earn my emotional investment. Bored of the game I returned grudgingly to GameStop and sold it.

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It was something that I hoped Final Fantasy XIII would rectify. I should have had more doubts when it launched to mix reviews. Regardless of the actual quality of the game, I can't remember a single recent entry in the franchise that hasn't launched to rave critical reception. The fact that many gaming journalists were disappointed and in some cases downright disgusted with XIII should have been an alarm. Some hated the gameplay, complaining that it took too much control from the player. I could agree to a point; XIII's combat was certainly not my favorite in the franchise, but I still managed to enjoy it. Others took issue with the streamlined over world. Where previous entries had all maintained large explorable game worlds, a majority of XIII was spent running down linear corridors traveling literally from plot point to plot point. Again, this didn't bother me as much as it did others. There hasn't been a single Final Fantasy that isn't linear. XIII just had the guts to drop the pretense of an open world.

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What killed it for me was again a lackluster story. That actually may be a bit strong. Compared to Final Fantasy XII, I found the story of XIII to be far more interesting. The actual plot, tone and themes that it explored were fairly deep. Unfortunately, the story was irreparably floundered by one of the least likable cast of characters I've ever experienced in a game.

At first, it was hard for me to pinpoint the source of the problem. Truth be told, the dialogue and writing in this game isn't the worst in the series. Final Fantasy VIII, a game that I held highly for a very long time, is littered with inane plot points, twists and wretched dialogue. Moreover, on paper the cast of XIII is easily more interesting than many of the early games in the franchise where the heroes were either blanks slates, or so generic that they may as well have been. With all the technical reasons for why Final Fantasy XIII should have been good laid out, it dawned on me as to why I disliked them all so much.

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Back when the film industry was changing over from silent movies to those with spoken dialogue, there were some growing pains. Silent films required physical exaggeration to help make up for the lack of spoken dialogue. Without a tone of voice, they built a tone of action. When silent films bit the dust, many of the actors transitioning into speaking roles habitually continued with the lessons they'd learned from their experience. This often led to wide eyes that were a bit too wide, people literally jumping a foot in the air when startled, and of course, the ridiculous swooning of damsels in distress. Many of those films now are ridiculous to watch.

Final Fantasy didn't incorporate voice acting until its tenth entry in the franchise, and as anyone who's played the game can tell you, the results were mixed. Many of the performances were annoying, exuding the same over the top sense of acting as their silent predecessors. Where characters doing silly things and overreacting worked as a way to get a point in a game with text boxes, when translated over to the spoken word it just didn't work.

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Final Fantasy XIII continues with this brand of awkwardness. I cannot count the number of times I literally cringed at moments that were supposed to be tragic, serious, or dark. When working with 16-bit pixilated sprites, it worked to have them fall to their knees in sorrow. How else were you going to express that when their faces were smaller than your thumb nail? When similar reactions were repeatedly in Final Fantasy XIII they just felt out of place. Real people don't reach up toward the sky screaming "No!" They don't fall on their knees at the drop of a pin. As overblown as we can be, we're generally more subtle then that.

And that really is the biggest problem with Final Fantasy XIII. It lacked any sort of subtlety and as such most of the characters, even in their genuinely vulnerable moments, came off as obnoxious. I loathed playing as Snow. Hope was about as whiny a protagonist as I've ever met, and don't even get me started on the train wreck that is Vanille. Why every JRPG insists on having an insipidly "quirky" female character is beyond me.

Over the top acting can work if that's what a game is shooting for. Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden; these are games that embrace ridiculousness and use it deliberately to entertain. Final Fantasy has certainly employed silliness from time to time, but for the most part it's a franchise that takes itself fairly seriously. These are games that have employed themes of murder, betrayal, and blasphemy. On more than one occasion you've basically been tasked with killing God. Suffice it to say these are stories built for dramatic effect and to screw that up with unintended absurdity is criminal. Not every game has to have a great story, but you should be consistent with what you're aiming for.

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Maybe I've just been spoiled. This generation has seen something of a revolution in terms of writing across the board. Bioshock, Uncharted, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption - these are just a dabbling of games in the past few years that have delivered excellent stories and dialogue. I should be able to count Final Fantasy XIII amongst them, but in the end I sold it. Many reviews noted that at the twenty hour mark it takes something of a narrative upturn. When I reached twenty hours into the game, I was too burnt on it to want to play it anymore. I felt nothing for the characters I'd been following so long. Whatever fate lay for them in the hours to come, I just didn't care. That I would feel this way about a Final Fantasy game two times in a row makes me immeasurably sad. I love this franchise, but as more time goes by I'm becoming convinced that its architects are losing their touch.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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