“This is a fantasy based on reality”

When Final Fantasy versus XIII was announced 10 years ago at E3 2006, I was still a high-school student who was infatuated with the PS2 and thought that the PS3 would be the best thing ever (hey, we were all young at some point!). During that E3 Square Enix announced that they would develop 2 Final Fantasy games exclusively for the PS3, namely Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy versus XIII. I can still remember discussing the reveal trailers for both games in various forums and while I was hyped for both games, versus XIII looked more intriguing to me and most others, because of its darker atmosphere. Although it looked noticeably darker than Nomura‘s Kingdom Hearts games, the style of the fights shown and the score by Shimomura instantly reminded me of the KH series and the Action-based combat that they were going for only enhanced this. I was sure that after his success with Kingdom Hearts, versus XIII would be Nomura’s attempt to put his own mark on the Final Fantasy franchise and I was excited to see what would be the result of that. After the long development period of Final Fantasy XII I expected that it would take a bit for the games to come out, but not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that by the time versus XIII comes out I would have graduated from university and joined the workforce.

As I’ve already written in my Monthly Preview for November, I have a lot to say about this game and I want to use this opportunity to summarize some of the major developments of this long journey and my personal thoughts on the final game and the future of the franchise as well. I hope you don’t mind me rambling about this game for ages. 😛

The Nomura era

At first, things seemed to progress as usual. Information was sparse, but Japanese developers were known for being very secretive about their projects, so I didn’t worry too much about it. I would lie though if I said that it wasn’t frustrating that information was so scarce and that the only pieces of info that we would get would be small snippets from Nomura interviews in Japanese game media. Because of the lack of information throughout long time periods, the release of new trailers only turned out to be even bigger events. I was especially impressed by the trailer they showed during a Square Enix event in 2008 that showcased Stella for the first time. The scene in which Noctis and Stella seemingly are about to fight each other looked super cool and my interest literally went through the roof. Who was this woman and what was her relationship with Noctis? Why are they fighting each other although they seemed to be acquaintances? All these questions begged for an answer and I was looking forward to getting those answers with the final game. At the same time it became clear though that development on versus XIII and on the main title XIII did not went as expected, even though Square Enix tried to deny this. When the first rumors appeared that development on versus XIII were put on hold in order to speed up development on XIII, I was not surprised, since it became pretty evident that Japanese developers had huge problems adapting to the reality of HD game development and Square Enix was not an exception. It was a bummer nevertheless though.

Years went by and game show after game show passed without any appearance of the game (except for brief glimpses for the press only) and rumors started to spread that the game had been canceled and after the long silence this wouldn’t have been surprising to be honest. In 2011 Square Enix put an end to those rumours when they finally showed a beefy new trailer for versus XIII in which we could see new story details and footage from Noctis & Co. fighting in the city and in field areas. It was the biggest chunk of info that we got for 3 years. The trailer was great and I admit that I was excited and hopeful that the game might see the light of day after all, but unfortunately the game went into hiding yet again and we would have to wait 2 years for the game to resurface again. It must have been around this time that Square Enix got the first glimpse on the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which eventually led to the decision to move development over to the Next-Gen consoles. In 2013 rumors were spreading that versus XIII might be rebranded into Final Fantasy XV and would no longer release on the PS3, but on the PS4 instead and in the end those rumors turned out to be true. During Sony’s 2013 E3 Press conference the game was re-revealed in a brand new trailer and the game was officially renamed into Final Fantasy XV. It was also revealed that the game would release on the PS4 as well as the Xbox One. The trailer showed off the new visuals for the game which had been heavily improved thanks to the new hardware and some of the action scenes looked very impressive. It was clearly one of the most exciting trailers at the whole conference and optimism spread throughout the fanbase once again.

Tabata takes over

Soon thereafter it was revealed that Tetsuya Nomura would no longer be the Director for XV and would move over to Kingdom Hearts 3 instead since his tasks on XV were finished. He was replaced by Hajime Tabata who directed Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Type-0 before he joined the XV team. According to various sources Tabata made some drastic changes to the way the team was working and it was in his era in which information finally started to flow. There has been a lot of debate on whether Nomura left the team voluntarily or whether he was forced to leave, but this might be something that we’ll never know.

Anyway, starting with the TGS Trailer 2014 and the announcement of the “Episode Duscae” Demo, Tabata has constantly given out new information on the development process via his “Active Time Report” Livestreams. This change in communication was very much welcomed and for the first time I had the impression that this game is actually going to be finished. But of course, the rebranding of the game and the change of directors led to some major changes with the game as well and some of the things that have been changed are still hotly debated among the community today. The most controversial change is probably the replacement of the character that we knew as Stella with Lunafreya. Stella had been a fan favorite among the community throughout the development even though we knew mostly nothing about her character. This was mostly because in the trailers, she was portrayed as a strong and independent female character with a mysterious background. Although Tabata likes to stress that Lunafreya is also a very strong female character, fans are not convinced of that yet (and neither am I tbh). Nonetheless, development seemed to go fine and in March 2015 we all got the chance to have a fist look ourselves by playing the demo that was released as a Day-1 Bonus for FF Type-0 HD. The demo definitely did not blow me away and it was clear that the final game would need much more polish, but the potential was clearly visible. The demo suffered from technical issues and a wonky camera and the combat required some time to get used to, but I felt that it could be pretty fun if they work longer on it and refine it. The monster design was cool and the summoning of Ramuh actually blew my mind and I can’t wait to see all the summons that they haven’t revealed yet. All in all the demo didn’t alleviate all my worries that I had about the game, but it made me believe that this game could work out after all.

Fast forward to the end of the year when Tabata confirmed several times that the game wouldn’t come out later than 2016 and that the final release date would be revealed in a special event the following year. That event turned out to be “Uncovered: Final Fantasy XV” that took place on March 30th this year. Although the eventual release date leaked a few weeks before, we got the confirmation that the game would indeed launch on September 30th world-wide. Square also showed that they are going all-in with this game and announced a full feature CGI-prequel-movie titled “Kingsglaive” and a short anime series titled “Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV” as well. I still haven’t seen the former, but a good friend told me to watch it before the game comes out and I will probably do that this weekend!  They also released a second demo called “Platinum Demo” in which you mostly control Noctis as a child. The demo instantly reminded me of certain segments of Kingdom Hearts and was unfortunately more of a tech demo than an actual representation of the final game. The only notable scene was the final fight against the golem and that one had its share of issues. The demo neither explained the combat mechanics nor the changes that had been made for those who played Duscae and even if you got a grip on the combat, it still felt clunky as hell. I was especially disappointed by the lack of responsiveness in Noctis actions and I had the feeling that I am mostly fighting the combat system rather than the actual enemy. The demo suffered from technical issues as well and was therefore pretty disappointing as a whole imo.

Nevertheless, the release was getting closer and E3 seemed to be the perfect opportunity for a last big marketing push, but unfortunately Square dropped the ball completely during this year’s E3 if you ask me. The Titan-stage demo they showed during the Xbox Press conference was a mess. The combat looked clunky as hell and a mixture of inability of the guy playing the demo and technical issues made the game look horrible. In addition to that, the E3 trailer featured a terrible remix which ruined the whole trailer. I can still remember ranting about that for days. If you have one of the best composers in the industry composing the soundtrack for you, why would you not use that music for your trailers? It was ridiculous. Thankfully the gameplay demonstrations that they showed outside of the big conferences looked solid which barely saved their E3 appearance for me.

Even though E3 was kinda disappointing everything was prepared for a release in September, but in August, Tabata had to apologize to fans yet again and announced that the team needed more time to polish the game since they want to ship it in the best state possible and officially delayed the game to November 29th. People were disappointed, but in hindsight, this decision was probably the best, since the builds they were demoing during E3 and Gamescom were suffering of major performance issues which seem to have been fixed in the newest builds. Also you had the feeling that another delay just had to happen for this game. 😛

The end is in sight

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And now, finally, after this 10 year odyssey, we are less than 2 weeks away from the release of Final Fantasy XV and I don’t think I can believe that it is actually happening until I actually hold a copy of the game in my hand. But what do I actually expect from the game now and how will it shape the future of the franchise and Square Enix in my view?

I think the most important thing is that I feel relief that this game is finally coming out. The last 10 years have been difficult for the Final Fantasy fanbase and following this game since its announcement has been beyond frustrating to say the least. It didn’t help that the reception for XIII was mixed at best and that XIV 1.0 turned out to be one of the worst MMOs ever created. The expectations for a new mainline FF are always high, but with a development this long, expectation will be even higher and Square Enix has shown that they are trying everything they can to make this game a success. Because of the long development time, Square wasn’t able to attract many new fans to the franchise in the last 10 years and they probably know that they cannot rely on their fans from their PS1 and PS2 era forever. I think it’s not overly pessimistic when I say that I don’t think that these high expectations will be met. The game was in development hell for a reason and it’s hard to imagine that the team was able to create a masterpiece after all the troubles they had to go through. I am not saying that the game will be bad, but I am definitely keeping my expectations in check. Judging by the 2 demos that I’ve played and all the footage I have seen thus far, I think that the game has a lot of potential. I am especially curious whether they will nail the road trip atmosphere they are going for and whether the relationship between the 4 main characters works as intended. I am still worried about the combat system tbh, since the combat in the Platinum demo felt overly clunky and the controls were not responsive enough for me. I am not one of the persons who think that turn-based combat is the Holy Grail in FF games, but for an Action-RPG the combat felt lacking and I hope that they improved on it for the full game. The only important aspect that I am not worried about is the music. Yoko Shimomura is not without reason considered to be one of the greatest contemporary video game composers and everything that I’ve heard from the soundtrack thus far has been brilliant and I can’ wait to get my hands on the full score in December.

In terms of critical reception I expect a lot of 7 and 8’s. I doubt it will be one of the highest scored games of the year, but not a complete train wreck either, although I am sure that this is not what Square Enix is hoping for. Nonetheless, I don’t think that this game will either make or break Final Fantasy. Yes, after FFXIII and XIV 1.0, the franchise would need a really good game again to inspire confidence in the franchise, but I don’t think (and this might be a controversial opinion) that XV has to be that game (XIV ARR actually did inspire confidence imo, but since it’s a MMO, many people will have ignored it). XV is clearly one of the last relics of a Square Enix company troubled with the reality of HD-gaming and I don’t think we can expect a game with a troubled history like this to shoulder the burden on its own. If anything, XV should serve as a good example for the company of how to not handle a large project. I hope that they have learnt their lesson and will approach the development of an eventual FFXVI in a different way and XVI would then be the game that would have to deliver for me personally. I think that the change in development philosophy that both the XIV and the XV team had to go through to save/rebuild their respective games is already a good first step and is something that will benefit future projects within the company. In addition, the fact that Kingdom Hearts 3, Dragon Quest XI and the Final Fantasy VII remake are built with the Unreal Engine 4 shows that Square Enix has realized that developing a custom engine for every game is too costly and can slow down development tremendously. I know that people are already worried about a long waiting time for the FFVII Remake, but I am confident that thanks to the UE4 engine it will come earlier than we expect, especially since they are releasing it in parts.

To end this piece I just want to say that regardless of how well I will like the final game, I am just glad that the journey is over and that I personally will be able to close this chapter as a long-time fan. For 10 years, discussions about mainline FF entries have mainly revolved around Lightning and Noctis and it’s about damn time that we can finally leave those two behind (inb4 FFXV spin-offs and sequels happen) to finally see new heroes and worlds that we can associate with the franchise.

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