Two Competing Visions

On page 80 of Game Informer’s December 2011 issue, writer Joe Juba gives a preview of what to expect from Mass Effect 3’s new multiplayer component. 

Directly following this is an extended impression by Tim Turi of Square Enix’s upcoming sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2.

The juxtaposition of these two colossal titles made me think about just how far the console role-playing genre has come.  Here are two highly anticipated games, each a direct follow-up to its predecessor and both a part of well-established franchises. 

In fact, XIII-2 hails from a prestigious family extending back decades and spanning several consoles.  Only a few years ago, a major series release would have been big news.  That the neither Final Fantasy XIII or its soon to be released successor received a GI cover (but Mass Effect 3 did) is testament to just how much brand rebalancing has occurred in recent years.

While Mass Effect 3 is adding online multiplayer and completing the mainstreaming that the series has undergone since the original, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is harkening a bit back to the tried and true formula of earlier iterations.  The hallmarks of Western RPGs like allocating skill points, completing random missions for NPCs and engaging in dialogue trees, remain relatively foreign to the Final Fantasy franchise.  Despite its departures, or maybe because of them, FF XIII was extremely conventional.  Here was the long awaited thirteenth entry simplifying battle even more, offering fewer side quests instead of more, and all but doing away with the intricacies of free exploration and NPC interaction. 

Mass Effect 3 is set to redraw the lines that separate video game genres with its mixes of action, over the shoulder shooting, open exploration, vehicle operation, level acquisition, and true RPG story telling.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be the culminating result of adding electricity to the ever stagnating pool of JRPG elements in hopes that they might spontaneously rearrange themselves into something more inspired and compelling.  However, in addition to the traditional mingle of voice acting and written dialogue, gathering dough from fallen enemies and shopping at towns, the new game will also acknowledge new developments in the industry by rolling out DLC within weeks of release and for some time after that.  Square Enix is also looking to have players pillage the depths of XIII-2 by offering “New Game Plus” modes as well as the still mysterious “Paradox Endings” that players can encounter as they re-explore areas in the past, and in so doing change the future, all via the new “Historia Crux System.” 

But none of these are necessarily revolutionary ideas.  Instead, Square Enix appears to be taking the best practices of the past and dressing them up in all of the graphical prowess that is currently available to developers.  “New Game Plus” is certainly always welcome, and should in fact be an industry standard by now, but it’s nothing new.  Chrono Trigger (which  made great use of the new game + concept) also demonstrated the possibilities for time travel in JRPGs, even if few later games continued to build on this achievement.  In other words, it’s not clear what exactly, if anything, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be doing to revitalize either the series it comes from or the genre it’s operating in. 

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two franchises and where they currently stand is the relative scope of each series upcoming entry and the underlying discrepancy in grandeur that this represents.

Each installment in the Final Fantasy series is more or less unconnected to what came before it.  They are each discrete adventures in sometimes similar, but never identical worlds.  X-2 and XIII-2 are exceptions in this regard.  XII also saw its own lesser spinoff in Revenant Wings for the Nintendo DS.  And indeed, XI and XIV were both MMOs.  The picture this paints is of a series that has continued to fragment and devolve into a combination of safe standards and failed experiments.  Whereas each iteration of Mass Effect has offered improvements upon the last and built toward an truly epic conclusion, the recent past of Final Fantasy is one riddled with half-hearted attempts and risk averse choices.  Many thought Final Fantasy XIII would be the start of the next era in a series that had always pushed the boundaries of RPG storytelling.  What it ended up being was a mummified version of everything that made past installments vibrant and endearing.  It was as if Square Enix was content to relegate its most exotic and mystical animal to a sterile existence in the most tawdry and stilted museum display conceivable. 

As the series producer, Yoshinori Kitase, told GameReactor:

"When you think of Western AAA titles like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Assassin’s Creed, they seem to work with a lot shorter turnaround - they make a new game in one to two years. That is something we need to follow up, because that seems to be the best way to keep our fans interested and attracted to the franchise."

That right there?  That’s Square Enix throwing in the towel.  And it’s demonstrative of an attitude that seems to make the contrast between franchises like Mass Effect and Final Fantasy all too clear.  Churning out yearly releases may be an ambitious task but it’s not an ambitious vision.  Whereas previous Final Fantasies were each a new epic, relaying the struggles, conflicts, and idiosyncrasies of entirely new worlds with every title, the trend going forward appears to be toward mining the lore and myth already established, as well as spinning off more tried and true additions, rather than to push the boundaries on role playing mechanics and video game story telling as franchise once had.

Compare that with Mass Effect which has gladly taken up the challenge to create new role playing experiences and deliver a massive story that spans the galaxy and explores the devastation of existential conflict without failing to develop a deep set of character relationships, underlying motives, and moral struggles.

What becomes apparent is the widening disparity between the new generation of gaming’s winners, and its losers.  In the world of micro-transactions, DLC, online multiplayer, and brutal competition, some will win, some will lose, and some will simply continue to survive.  What will happen to the Final Fantasy series going forward is still far from clear.  But for the time being, the franchise seems more than comfortable to remain on life support and simply get by.