Final Fantasy and I go way back. We used to hang out at school, when we were both a bit awkward and ugly and out of place. I'd fake a cold so we could spend hours on a weekday grinding the same battles over and over again, until finally unlocking a character's legendary weapon. We spent a lot of time together at university, too, when we both went through phases of trying out obnoxiously loud hairstyles and experimenting with different party tactics. We were inseparable.
Nowadays, though, it feels like we've grown apart. The times that we do meet up are punctuated with confused, irritated stares as I wonder how its fashion and music tastes have changed so dramatically - from the Cosmo Canyon theme to Leona Lewis - and struggle to feign interest in any of the vapid stories it tries to tell. The whole time it's showboating and trying to convince me things are just like the good old days, I'm thinking back to the times we used to cross-dress and snowboard and play Blitzball and not give a fuck, wondering when exactly it all went wrong. Then I'd go and bitch about it behind its back.
Lightning - unpopular enough to feature in a whole trilogy of Final Fantasies
Like some sort of pink-haired Yoko, personality void Lightning came along and ruined everything. I know Final Fantasy XIII and its follow-ups (collectively referred to as the Fabula Nova Crystallis) aren't without their fans, and admittedly, their share of great moments. But as someone with such a huge love for the earlier FF games, I just couldn't understand developer Square's thinking behind stripping away the classic menu screens and replacing them with battle systems that, effectively, played themselves while you mindlessly pressed X as your brain turned to Moogle-d mush and seeped slowly out your nostrils.
To me, there seemed to be a not-altogether imagined arrogance about the way Square disregarded FF's old-school fans, repeatedly clamouring for more traditional, turn-based experiences, and instead served up games more redolent of Final Fantasy's action-oriented, RPG contemporaries while telling everyone, "No this is what you want. You'll take Lightning, and by god you'll like her by the time we're done. Look, we've dressed her up like Cloud! You like Cloud, don't you? And hey, now she's dressed up like Yuna! That's fun, right? Here, now she looks like Lara Croft. Ha ha ha, how silly and irreverent. No? Alright fine, put her in a pair of arseless chaps and be done with it".
Final Fantasy XV, Tokyo Game Show 2014 trailer
I had long ago given up on Final Fantasy XV. Starting off life as another entry to the Drabula Nova Crystallis series, it's gone through countless iterations and teams, and been in and out of development for the last eight years. Not exactly the most auspicious of beginnings. But now it's back again, seemingly for reals this time, and with the latest gameplay trailer to come out of this year's Tokyo Game Show, it's looking - dare I say - kind of alright, actually.
The title has a new(ish) director, Hajime Tabata, and with him, predictably, comes an all-new direction. Tabata acknowledges more western influences for FFXV, including, of all things, Grand Theft Auto -and it shows. The central characters are apparently on a road trip to save the world. They own a car that looks like they stole it from this guy. If you want, you can have the car auto-drive around as you drink in the sights as a free-range, open-world tourist. I'm not entirely sold on Grand Theft Gran Pulse at the moment, if I'm honest, but after the laborious, straight-laced corridor that was Final Fantasy XIII, the rolling green hills glimpsed in the TGS trailer for FFXV are a welcome sight. And these are punctuated by neon-laced Blade Runner-like cityscapes, the result of Square's intention to make XV a more modernised Final Fantasy than ever before. Hence the Dude-bro-mobile as well, I guess.
Fighting also appears to have changed. It's still not the more gently paced, turn-based battle systems of old, but now at least it goes full-on action in the same vein as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta (the sequel to which is previewed here) rather than occupy a weird middle ground somewhere between the two approaches. Now it's a gorgeous flurry of sparks, strikes and teleport moves as main character, Noctis, darts between allies and enemies alike and throws around what looks like a cross between a Keyblade and a chainsaw sword.
Noctis: XV's leading man and hopefully less dour than Lightning
But while I'm ready to keep an open mind, I'm less than thrilled about the fact that FFXV's entire playable cast, for the moment, appear to resemble B-team body doubles for Busted, right down to their carefully corresponding outfits. There's the pristinely scarred and tattooed bad boy with his pecs out; here's the specs-wearing, no doubt smart and sensitive one who nevertheless has to stand near the back for any and all group pictures. And of, course, we've the generically handsome, bland-as-balls leading man. And don't even get me started on bargain bucket Cloud Strife.
Their design ties into the more mature, realistic take on Final Fantasy Square is currently going for – you can well see these guys in a convertible rather than on a chocobo – but I'm not convinced their patter won't make me want to claw my own eyes out as we kick it around XV's open-world and they chatter on about the girls they like. I grew up on FF games that featured talking cat people, adorable faceless mages and doe-eyed thieves sporting monkey tails. If I wanted to gawp at a load of vest-wearing, pouting pretty boys with improbably beautiful hair, I'd just stick on my Super Junior YouTube playlist again.
I'm not saying I want wacky for wacky's sake, but past Final Fantasy characters often told interesting stories or gave away details on their personality through their character design – think Wakka's Besaid Aurochs Blitzball uniform, or Lulu's badass belted black mage dress. The outfits of XV's characters don't tell me a thing about them, save that when they aren't out saving the world they're probably holed up in their bedrooms listening to My Chemical Romance and scowling at their mum every time she comes in with their dinner.
Dude-bros about to do some serious dude-bro stuff
See look, I came in meaning to be positive and I'm already picking Final Fantasy XV apart. I want to be hopeful, and by god I will be. This could be awesome. The story still bears signs of being focus grouped to death over multiple drafts, mind you. At the moment, it's all about boring political machinations and a royal family that nobody actually gives a shit about. Noctis and friends are setting out to retrieve some crystal red herring, but we all know it'll boil down to saving the world by the final act. Damn, there I go again.
Through all the latest changes to the series, I can still see glimmers of the Final Fantasy I used to love. Behind the clothes and the pomp and the affectations, it's still in there somewhere, and that gives me hope that the latest addition to the franchise, while not playing like its predecessors, might at least recapture some of their magic. We've both grown up a lot since we first met, and maybe we'll continue to grow apart, but with Final Fantasy XV, at least we might not have to pretend so hard.
Final Fantasy XV's release date is officially TBC, but some reports suggest that a playable demo, at least, will be out in March 2015.
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