In the back of the Los Angeles Convention Center this week, on a massive screen that seemed more suited for a movie theatre than an E3 show floor, Square Enix was running a loop of video footage from their biggest games. Every 10 minutes we'd see their newest and most impressive announcement: Final Fantasy XV.
Whenever the 15th Final Fantasy appeared, people would stop what they were doing. They'd flock to the screen like moths to a flame, or like sheep that have finally found their spiky-haired shepherd. They'd stand in large crowds, heads tilted slightly upwards, eyes fixated. The Final Fantasy trance.
It's been a long time since I've heard people get excited -- really, genuinely, can't-stop-talking-about-this excited -- when it comes to Final Fantasy, but here we are. Square's newest game, a striking contrast to E3's cacophony of shooters and cars, has created the type of buzz that only a series like Final Fantasy could. Conversations with RPG fans in Los Angeles this week have usually come around to the same topic: "Did you see that trailer? Holy shit, right?"
Final Fantasy XV, once called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, was re-announced and rebranded on Monday night, with a dazzling video that leaped through CGI, action, crystals, and just about anything else you might expect from a Final Fantasy game. It was impressive not just because it looked great but because it took care of many of Square Enix's problems in one fell swoop. The name Final Fantasy Versus XIII had been tainted thanks to a troubled development cycle and the polarising Final Fantasy XIII, and for many years Versus was a joke, a vaporware punchline on the level of Duke Nukem Forever. Tallying over seven years in development as a PS3 exclusive, Versus had been a no-show at almost every major gaming event, and the team reportedly had issues executing on the PlayStation 3's restrictive Cell processor. Now they've got a fresh start: a new name, a new platforms, and a new opportunity to make sure the next Final Fantasy game is all it can be.
Rebranding the game was another smart decision by Square Enix, adding to what has been a disarming number of wise moves by the troubled, oft-frustrating Japanese company. Financially crippled by costly mistakes like the under-cooked Final Fantasy XIV and the under-performing Final Fantasy XIII-2, Square Enix has decided to shift direction. They're done with the type of troubled development cycles that leave half of Final Fantasy XIII's assets on the cutting room floor. They want to get their shit together. It's exciting.
So, OK. With another E3 behind us, let's talk about what this week meant for the future of Final Fantasy.
Five months ago, I was bummed out about Square's flagship series. I wrote that they had ran Final Fantasy into the ground, and that cash-grubbing disasters like All The Bravest were indicative of just how far they'd fallen.
Today, things feel different. Maybe Square needed to hit rock bottom before it could start climbing out of the pit. Or maybe shake-ups in upper management made all the difference. Whatever happened, it was effective. Like Celes finding Locke's bandana on the shore, there's a glimmer of hope that maybe the future won't be so bad.
There are three big new Final Fantasy games on the horizon: 1) Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, the FFXIV overhaul that by most accounts is shaping up to be much better than its predecessor; 2) Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did when I played it yesterday (more on that game next week); and 3) Final Fantasy XV.
Go ahead and watch the trailer again. Here:
It's... really cool. For a number of reasons. There are both eye-popping spectacles on the backs of giant monsters and heartfelt emotional scenes involving green soup. There are castles and airships. There's a montage of mysterious-looking characters, some of whom will inevitably betray you (and then maybe betray your enemy too, just for the hell of it).
The villain in this three-minute trailer is immediately more interesting than the villains in Final Fantasy XIII, who you've probably already forgotten about. Did you remember that there are significant enemy characters in FFXIII named Jihl and Yaag? I thought not. Antagonists in Final Fantasy have always been fascinating and memorable, and it's nice to see this one getting a lot of attention.
And then there's the combat. Seems actiony. Modern. Here's a closer look:
Traditionalists have already come out criticising director Tetsuya Nomura and crew for ditching turn-based combat. "Just look at that guy bouncing around the battlefield. Where are the turns? The strategic decisions? This isn't Final Fantasy!"
And, OK, yes, every mainline Final Fantasy game to date has featured some sort of turn-based combat. But that's not what Final Fantasy has ever been about. Final Fantasy, beyond the crystals and the summoned monsters and the increasingly beautiful hair particles, is about surprise. It's about unfamiliarity. It's about picking up a controller and entering a world and never wanting to leave. The series has lost a bit of that, and Final Fantasy XV feels like it's trying to evoke that feeling again. Square should do whatever they feel needs to be done in order to achieve that.
The best part of my week wasn't seeing that FFXV trailer: it was seeing the end of that trailer. It was the "But..." It was the logo morphing from Final Fantasy Versus XIII to Final Fantasy XV. I've replayed that chunk of the video a hundred times in the past few days. I get chills every single time. We're up to the fifteenth Final Fantasy. Fifteen! I have been playing these games since as long as I've been conscious, and even the most cynical parts of my brain can't help but have an emotional reaction to the idea that the series has lasted this long. And everything we've seen about FFXV so far looks and feels like a game on the right track.
So bring on the crazy combat. Bring on the politics, the crystals, the drama, the magic. I want to jump into Final Fantasy XV and feel like I'm on a grand adventure again. For the first time in years, I'm excited about the future of Final Fantasy.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.