My Games of the Decade Part 3 – Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy Series

This one is from left field, so let me take you for a ride for a moment.

Fabula Nova Crystallis was the codename shorthand for a 3 game series from Square Enix, the birth of Final Fantasy on the PS3 (and also the Xbox 360 eventually), which was set to kick off with Final Fantasy XIII, and then accompanied by two other titles – Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII.

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As you may have noticed via the titles, this, obviously, changed…a lot.

Final Fantasy XIII was the closest to the original vision, and the only one of the three titles named above that was released as originally planned. The game then spawned two sequels in its own right, not a part of the original plan – Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Agito XIII turned into Type-0, which was released on the PSP in Japan and eventually an HD version on the PS4 and Xbox One, and, famously, Versus XIII turned into Final Fantasy XV, as delays pushed it into the PS4 generation.

Final Fantasy XIII came out in 2010 in the west, and it was certainly a game. I enjoyed it, but it was very much a one and done experience – played beginning to end and with no need to explore again. XIII-2 came out in 2012 and was an improvement in many ways, at least to me – I enjoyed playing it far more and we’ll discuss that in a moment, with the last title in that series, Lightning Returns, coming out in 2014.

Now, there is a weird reason this is on the list for me. Firstly, to be clear, I haven’t played all of the titles in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series – Type-0 I don’t own, and I’ve not finished Lightning Returns or FFXV. However, there is something interesting that this series of games marks.

Firstly, though, from a gameplay perspective, I really did enjoy elements of FFXIII and XIII-2. While XIII was a tunnel for about 80% of the game, the world looks gorgeous, and the total package of the presentation does a fairly good job of obscuring that for a longer time than you might expect. It builds a lore that is somewhat weird (too many uses of ‘Cie) but creates an interesting sort of drama and mystery. XIII-2 does this better by virtue of not being burdened by the original plan for the FNC series.

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The fascinating thing about the whole idea of a series of loosely interconnected games was that the games, while built in vastly different worlds, they’d have a sense of shared theme and mythos, with some high-level elements of the stories being tied in to each other. Most notably, the deities of the worlds were supposed to be interrelated, with the stories that emerged showing how the varying characters responded to the call to adventure – being made into L’Cie, being called by the crystal, or the varying other themes that were originally present prior to many of the games changing forms after the project announcement.

It isn’t a bad idea – in fact, there is something pretty cool about the idea of a unifying mythos and deity cast for Final Fantasy! If you build that out in a really cool and detailed way, it paves the way for a ton of fascinating interactions and overarching stories that could be presented. Imagine something in FFVII being setup, but paying off later in FFVIII or IX – it wouldn’t be a major plot point, but it could build a massive, entry-spanning narrative with an interesting continuity.

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The problem is that a lot of that supporting material never really materialized in a meaningful way, and so in retrospect, FFXIII fell apart. XIII-2 and Lightning Returns came around with complete lore and tried to enact various retcons and clarifications to make the story of XIII logically consistent and fitting of the original narrative scope. They don’t necessarily succeed, but the fact that they even tried is fascinating to me.

Before my big premise here, I want to discuss the individual elements of gameplay in these games, the XIII trilogy in particular. The systems used mark a return to a sort of Active Time Battle system, with menu navigation speed being the primary skill vector you can use to sharpen your gameplay and take down foes. XIII has a traditional, large Final Fantasy cast, with the emphasis being on developing and growing a balanced party to meet varying challenges. XIII-2 changes this to a core two-person party, with a rotating third spot for captured monsters – which creates a ton of gameplay interactions that are all very cool! Lightning Returns focuses on making Lightning the party on her own, using rapid changes in ability and a bastardized revamp of the ATB system to create more of a real-time combat feel. The core action of the gameplay is pretty okay for the first two – LR is a bit more of a clusterfuck, but still fairly enjoyable when you get into the groove.

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However, none of the games offer much of an incentive for playing exceptionally well, outside of some small rewards at the end of each battle. Combat is built around the Stagger mechanic, meaning there is value to pushing each enemy to a limit early to increase damage taken, and the strategies available to do this vary. It means that the combat of all 3 titles is defined by Stagger-pushing builds, encouraging you to play at a higher level to push Stagger sooner and then unleash on the enemies. Small foes Stagger in no time, while most bosses have mechanics built to time out their Stagger to specific phases or at certain times. What this means in practice is that use of actions for pure recovery is punished in gameplay, meaning there is at least an incentive to avoid frustration or overlong fights by keeping your party ready for the next fight.

The overworld gameplay of all 3 titles is remarkably similar. Final Fantasy XIII starts with its narrow world and pushes you through to each destination, where XIII-2 is more open, and Lightning Returns is fairly wide open, almost too much so in a way. Each game reflects a position on the pendulum, in a way – XIII at an extreme end of closed-off, funneling gameplay, XIII-2 in the middle with a bit of free-reign and a fair amount of direction, and LR pushing the player to decide with only the in-game clock guiding your time spent and the need to meet the timer for the story. Of the 3, I found XIII-2 to have the best balance of both styles – it has places you need to be for the story to unwind on track, but you get a relatively open window outside of that to explore the spaces you have open, and the game does a good job of sprinkling options throughout to keep choice available.

The story of the XIII trilogy overall centers on the gods of the FNC mythos, with XIII showing the characters defying their fate, XIII-2 showing that defiance’s cost, and LR deals with the characters accepting their new fates in both a negative and positive sense. There are some moments of intrigue and interesting characters and story beats put forward, but overall, I can’t avoid it – the trilogy is a disjointed mess that obviously suffers from having been started as a interrelated project series and ending up a mess of a new trilogy and two spun-off games that don’t really have the content planned that tied the worlds together.

Final Fantasy XV, for what I’ve played of it and know of its later plot, is an okay enough game – not fantastic, not setting itself apart or living up to the idea of Final Fantasy as a franchise, and that is a real problem, given what we’re about to discuss!

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Now, here’s where this gets interesting to me – why this series is ultimately on the list. For most of my readers and myself, Final Fantasy is a sort of golden stamp of approval on a game. It sets forth a standard of quality that a game should meet. Between the XIII series and the launch of Final Fantasy XIV v1.0 happening in the same time window, FF as a franchise was stripped of much of its luster. It would be foolish to say that FF has no brand equity still today, but certainly, between XIV v1.0 and the majority of projects under the Fabula Nova Crystallis umbrella, Square Enix had to do a lot of work to even rebuild the franchise as a force. Most people in their teen years these days, I would imagine, have less affinity for FF as a brand. They certainly know it and are likely fans or at least understand its cultural significance, but they have likely not had the moments of adoration many of us have – unless they played FFXII in 2006, the modern series since that point just hasn’t been that good. XIV v2.0+ is great, but also an MMO, and XV isn’t an awful game, but it isn’t great and it certainly is disappointing.

FNC as an idea and the products that emerged showed something fascinating. Final Fantasy as a brand is vulnerable, and it was the exemplar of the difficulty Japanese developers had adopting to the HD era and the new expectations of players in general. Final Fantasy XIII and the titles going forward from it had a struggle with technology, as Square struggled to spin up development on Crystal Tools, their PS3-era game engine, and the challenges with it caused delays and problems with all of the FNC titles. For FFXV, which moved on from Crystal Tools, it had this problem twice, as it moved from seventh-gen consoles to eighth-gen, switching from Crystal Tools to Luminous Engine (also a Square Enix internal engine!) and that also had a myriad of problems with adoption and use so broad that the FFXV team outsourced a lot of asset creation to make the game meet its launch window, and today now exists as the Luminous Team, dedicated solely to using the expertise they gained working on FFXV and the engine to make new games also using the engine.

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Today, Final Fantasy is a brand damaged by the process of releasing the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, and a lot of the efforts undertaken in the years since FFXIII have been defined by that damage. In a world where the XIII trilogy was a solid, 5 star rated release, the likelihood of A Realm Reborn being greenlit and pursued goes way down. In a world where FFXV succeeds and launches on time, or even as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, would Square Enix be pushing as hard on the FFVII remake? I can’t say for sure, but I have to imagine that if the modern creative direction of these titles was better received, the process to bring them to market less fraught with chaos and uncertainty, perhaps there is no need to revamp FFXIV, to remake FFVII outside of a simple remaster (like the one FFVIII recently received!), or to refocus on the franchise, with a Final Fantasy steering committee being assembled.

On the one hand, I’d be interested in what the original vision of Fabula Nova Crystallis would have looked like fully realized. I can imagine that if the games came together with fewer hitches, there might be something there that would stand apart as a genuine favorite. As it stands today, I don’t hate the XIII series or XV – they aren’t up to the standard of the series, but they aren’t awful games either and I did overall enjoy the time spent with the series.

On the other hand, however, the world we got, with the fizzling out of the original vision of the franchise and the refocusing on Final Fantasy as a brand, with A Realm Reborn and bringing Naoki Yoshida into the fold, leads to one of my favorite current games. If Final Fantasy XIII was a critical success with fans and reviewers, the possibility of that diminishes. If that is the case, well, I’m pretty happy with the outcome of the world we are in, all told.

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