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Old 01-18-2013, 11:40 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Back to Final Fantasy's Roots, and Freedom

I had quite a bit to say about the Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII demo Square Enix trotted our for the press a few days ago, and I came away from the session pretty high on the game. I see some parts that could turn out to be a little awkward; the story seems about as dopey as previous titles in the so-called Lightning Saga, and the forced stealth parts give the impression of game designers borrowing from popular franchises without doing the research to understand that gamers actually hate those things. Sure, tailing a target could make Lightning Returns more like Assassin's Creed or Grand Theft Auto, but why pattern your work after the most reviled elements of those series? Oh well.

Despite my misgivings about some of what Square has shown, though, the bigger picture of the game seems really promising. The potential for a somewhat open-ended experience with multiple possible paths to success appeals to the compulsive free-roaming addict in me, of course -- witness my ongoing torment in Skyrim -- because I just can't say no to a wide-open game world. But it also appeals to the part of me that's been following the series since the beginning, because open-endedness is a pillar of the franchise that all too frequently has been abandoned in favor of the series' narrative pillar.

Do you remember the original Final Fantasy? Its world featured certain chokepoints to progress -- the bridge from Cornelia, continents without docks for the boat, rivers that could only be navigated by canoe -- but on the whole it left you free to forge your own path and figure out where to go next based on conversations with NPCs and which areas featured monsters beyond your capabilities. Final Fantasy II was even more unstructured, with insanely powerful monsters roaming on the other side of invisible lines throughout the world. The message was clear: Don't go this way. Yet the game left you to your own devices, allowing you to discover your limitations and the proper path to the end through exploration.

The linear style really came into vogue with Final Fantasy IV, thanks in large part to Takashi Tokita's involvement, I suspect. Tokita had a background in theater and helped to make the fourth Final Fantasy much more like a play, with playable characters who weren't simply ciphers but actually had their own personalities and motivations. So much of the story played out through the arrival and departure of allies that the game forced you down a very strict path by design. Final Fantasy XIII was the natural endpoint of that design philosophy, a game in which you had nowhere to go except the critical path, but you can see the series taking that shape along the way (especially in Final Fantasy X, which was one airship map away from being as linear as FFXIII).

FFXIII may have taken that structural approach one step too far, but until it crossed the final critical threshold the series' fan base seems to have embraced that linearity. One of the biggest complaints about FFXII is how confusing its unrestrictive world can seem. Even FFVI, which commands the most passionate fans (if not necessarily the most fans), takes a drubbing for its second half, the non-linear World of Ruin. The complaint? The World of Ruin destroys the game's narrative momentum, forcing players to wander around in a wasteland with no major plot developments until the end-game. But that's what makes it brilliant! The World of Balance lays down a very fixed path for players to follow, with plenty of character-specific events and big-picture developments to create an attachment to the party members and a drive to save the world. Then the game shatters all of that, leaving players free to recruit whomever they like and approach the task of world-saving with as much urgency or treasure-hunting as they like.

In a lot of ways, FFVI strikes the perfect balance between narrative and freedom within the Final Fantasy context, and I wish we'd seen more entries structured like it. The closest I think we ever came was with its immediate follow-up, Chrono Trigger. I doubt Lightning Returns will play out precisely like the World of Ruin, but I can think of worse approaches for the team to take. In any case, I'm eager to see exactly how well the team responsible for FFXIII's elaborate but very, very limited world can handle the task of taking the exact opposite approach. Maybe it won't work out, but I appreciate that they're trying.

But seriously, guys, lose the tailing missions.
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