JRPGs are always changing. The genre is constantly reacting to the latest trends in games, anime, and popular culture to craft adventures that are relevant to the modern era. Persona 5 is a biting commentary on the plight of young people, while Final Fantasy 16 is poised to take inspiration from the most popular modern fantasy stories like Game of Thrones and The Witcher. We’ve come far from the dawn of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, while continuing to maintain a constant connection to the past and how much it means to us.
Despite first bursting onto the scene several decades ago, Final Fantasy remains one of the major players in the genre, holding the attention of its audience with mainline entries, a stellar MMO, and frequent stream of remasters and spin-offs to ensure it always remains relevant in the cultural zeitgeist. I grew up with the series, and seeing it evolve over the years has been a bittersweet affair that I haven’t always been enamoured with.
The PS3/Xbox 360 era is widely regarded as the dark times. Final Fantasy 12 closed out the previous generation in style, but it took years for Final Fantasy 13 to surface and its barrage of sequels meant the series was slowly dooming itself to stagnation. Classic releases and a couple of remasters kept hardcore fans satisfied, but the property as a whole was difficult to recommend when the future seemed to unclear. You just sunk into the classics or were a regular of the MMO scene, there was little middle ground.
But before this, Final Fantasy 10 had teased an exciting future for the genre. It felt like a comprehensive evolution of everything Final Fantasy 7, 8, and 9 managed to achieve on more powerful hardware with a more ambitious vision. It blew my mind as a kid, arriving as my first game on the PlayStation 2 alongside the brilliance of Dynasty Warriors 2. An unbeatable duo if I ever saw one.
It’s still an excellent game, and one of my favourites in the series, yet bears so many of the archaic hallmarks that would eventually see the series sink into mockery. While the adventures of Tidus and Yuna took place across the vast world of Spira, it was a linear journey where you moved obediently from place to place, essentially walking in a straight line as a melody of battles and cutscenes played out before you. The story was engrossing, the characters were amazing, and the battle system was magnetic – but it all served a level of linearity that went against the spirit(s within) of Final Fantasy. I still miss it.
Many of these elements would emerge across Final Fantasy 13 in a fiercely negative way. I still believe the trilogy is solid, but the idea of exploring a world and finding a place of belonging within it was replaced by a rollercoaster ride driven by nonsensical storytelling that never gave you a chance to breathe. It grew tiresome because there was seldom a place to stop and smell the roses. If you did, there was nothing to do and you’d be pushed onward anyway. Follow the path, fight the thing, watch the cutscene. This was repeated until you eventually reached Gran Pulse and had an entire planet to explore. But you can’t tell your friends to keep grinding for 30 hours with the promise of it getting better.
It’s similar to the procurement of an airship in Final Fantasy 10, a vehicle that allowed you to revisit all previous locations to speak with characters and pursue side quests. It was more than just a planet to explore, it recontextualised the entire experience through a party who had fought to survive and formed relationships in the face of adversity. Touching upon old haunts to catch up with friends and fight ultra-hard bosses felt like a substantial reward, while the main narrative continued to tick along in the background waiting for your presence before reaching the next big milestone. This was a good balance, but Final Fantasy would veer in the wrong direction in the years to come and take so, so long to recover.
Even though it emerged over a decade later, even Final Fantasy 15 hadn’t repaired the damage caused by the 13th entry – or entries, since there were three 13s and none of them made any progress for the series. It was empty, unfocused, and kept afloat by an excellent cast of core characters, but it didn’t feel like the series I grew up with. I’m aware that things change and nothing ever stays the same, but this is a household name with such a pedigree that reshaping it will always be a risky endeavour. Ironic, then, that Final Fantasy 7 Remake would be the game to usher in a meaningful state of evolution for the series.
For all its reliance on nostalgia, it was willing to reshape the past in service of the future while delivering a gorgeous experience that never failed to impress. A few relics of the past remained such as boring side quests and out of place NPCs, but it was a step forward that will likely be curated further with the release of Final Fantasy 16.
The series has grown, coming to acknowledge its own shortcomings while striving to be something more. It’s a difficult path to walk, and has seen Square Enix falter time and time again in pursuit of greatness. Yet with the episodic remake and a mainline entry taking inspiration from all the right places, perhaps Final Fantasy 10 shaking things up all those years ago was for the best. Blitzball still sucks though.
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