Final Fantasy Won’t Be What You Want it to Be and That’s Okay

There have only been a handful of times a game has been so wanted, so craved, and for so long, that people begin to relate them to the second coming before they’ve ever even arrived. Duke Nukem Forever and StarCraft II come to mind, but there has never been a game quite like Final Fantasy XV. Nearing a decade of separation between its announcement and eventual release transitioning both console generations as well as directors, we’re finally nearing the game’s prophesied arrival. Pro tip: it won’t be what you want it to be, and that’s okay.

First, let’s talk about how things started.

Originally unveiled as Final Fantasy Versus XIII back in 2006 during Sony’s E3 Press Conference, Versus was meant to be a PlayStation 3 exclusive. A part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis family of games, it was to be a sister-project to Square’s main-line Final Fantasy XIII, which was also announced that same day. Over the subsequent years we saw Versus fade in and out of the spotlight with trailers as Tetsuya Nomura, the game’s director, toiled away in a secret corner of Square on what could be argued as their most anticipated project.

Years went by and the slow drip of info about the game eventually stalled to a halt. Final Fantasy XIII eventually released and to everyone’s disappointment the headlining act of the Fabula Nova Crystallis world didn’t live up to the hype, still with no word on Versus XIII’ release. Even more pressure was put on Nomura and his team to deliver a game that would meet the extremely high expectations of the series and hopefully shepard the franchise from the dismay of XIII. Unbenounced to the general public however, something began brewing under Square’s roof that would change Versus identity entirely.

Thanks to the surprise success of Final Fantasy Type-O, the third game in Square’s Fabula Nova Crystallis project, the game’s director Hajime Tabata suddenly became a favorite amongst the company’s higher-ups. Eventually, he and his team were put onto the Versus project, which was still run by Nomura at the time, and began helping aid in the game’s lofty ambitions thanks to their action-based heritage on Type-O. As time continued to pass for the Versus team however, it became clear that they needed to transition from working on the PlayStation 3 to next-generation systems.

A new in-house engine, Luminous Studio, was created and the Versus team took advantage. What began as a small sister project for Final Fantasy XIII had now ballooned into a game that was bubbling over the surface. To contain the new size and scope of the project Square made the decision to reclassify Versus as a brand new, mainline Final Fantasy in its own right and re-revealed it to the public at E3 2013, a whole seven years after it’s original announcement, as the new Final Fantasy XV. Nearly a year later, Tetsuya Nomura was taken off of the project so he could focus on developing Kingdom Hearts III while Hajime Tabata was promoted as the game’s new director.

A lot has happened to the game since its original announcement nearly a decade ago. What we were originally sold on has become a relic of a game that simply no longer exists. That amazing trailer from 2006 where a then unknown Prince Noctis took down an attacking group of knights, complete with the series’ first introduction of blood (weird, but it was a big deal back then), will never come to fruition. Stella Nox Fleuret and her complicated relationship with the young prince has been completely reworked in favour of a new, different character that is now arranged to simply marry Noctis instead. The entire invasion of Insomnia, Noctis’ home, has seemingly been cut from the game and put into its own feature-length film Final Fantasy XV Kingsglaive, which you will not experience in-game. All of this and more has justifiably gotten a lot of people very upset.

A nearly decades-worth of work and hype has been reshaped into something completely different. Besides the possible “ethical” issues that come into play when you discuss the differences in a game’s trailer and its eventual release, Final Fantasy XV will be incredibly different than it was originally meant to be. While a lot of the discussion could be chalked up to hearsay since we still hadn’t seen much of the actual game, Square proved many hopeful deniers wrong at this year’s Gamescom as they revealed a fifty-minute gameplay video that showcased the game’s first hour. We saw Noctis and his compatriots learn of his home’s demise via a newspaper headline, completely throwing away what many saw as the game’s most anticipated moments in favour of a angry dialogue scene in a hotel room. It seemed as though XV had became an entirely different game right under our noses, simply reusing characters Nomura made for Versus to regain eager fan’s anticipation.

The funny part is that that’s okay, perhaps even for the better, that they’ve fooled us by resurrecting Versus. Instead of getting a game that would never fully coalesce into anything real, we’re getting an actual game that in it’s own right looks to be reinventing the genre as we know it. In essence, Versus could be the lamb that Square has sacrificed to save big budget JRPGs forever. Here’s why.

It’s no secret the Japanese games industry has gone through some rough periods over the past few years. Hajime Tabata spoke candidly about the difficulties for Japan developing for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, noting the West’s history in PC game development giving them an edge over their console-based heritage. A rift opened that allowed the arrival of mobile games to overtake a market of eager Japanese gamers, quickly dethroning the console market in favour of smaller, easier to make games.

Since then, the JRPG has become known for being large, dense games that are unable to capitalize on what many modern AAA games are known for. A quick look at some recent games in the genre will show you that there aren’t many people looking to throw a ton of money at a JRPG anymore. This past year we’ve seen a surge of games like Bravely Second, Fire Emblem Fates, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, and I Am Setsuna hit store shelves (and digital ones). While a relief to see the genre alive and kicking again, most of the releases either choose to push technology as little as possible or forgo the endeavor all together by releasing exclusively on mobile platforms.

And here stands the new Final Fantasy XV in contrast, defiant at the top of the hill as it has become perhaps the most expensive JRPG of all time. A game that’s running on Square’s Luminous engine (which strikingly isn’t being used for any other game from Square…), that stretches its draw distance far over the horizon and presents its characters nearing photorealism. For all the criticism that have been thrown at XV, being cheap is definitely not one of them. It’s clear that no one in Japan would be able to pull off such a feat, even other big name publishers like Capcom and Bandai Namco would scoff at the idea. It’s here where XV differentiates itself from the crowd, becomming something different than anyone was expecting, growing from Nomura’s original vision into a game that, at least in theory, has the potential to rewrite the script on Japanese game development.

Whether this game is ultimately good or not isn’t the point here. What matters is that this is not the game you expect it to be, and there will without a doubt be some disappointment in that. I know that for myself, I will forever yearn for the game we were once pitched, like a fairytale you eventually learn never reall happened. Perhaps some of that original concept will make it into Final Fantasy XV. Perhaps none of it will. What matters is how XV is on its own, separated from the years and years of anticipation we’ve put onto its shoulders. It’s job is not to satisfy the ideas we’ve all had in the back of our heads as we imagined what kind of game Versus would be, but to deliver an experience worthy of the mantle of Final Fantasy. To some, that is name that means nothing these days. It’s why with baited breath that I hope XV does well, to change that perception.

Let’s do this, Noct. (In three months.)