It seems that a lot of the AAA industry only develops game in two extremes, either constantly pushing out similar-looking, generic, committee-designed games to copy the latest trend or constantly trying to “reinvent the wheel” to get that same spark that got the company there in the first place. In my opinion, the latter has been the case with Square Enix and a couple of their recent games show the difference this kind of focus makes.
This past February saw the release of two Square Enix Japanese role-playing games, Bravely Default and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
Lightning Returns is the third game in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. The previous two entries in the XIII trilogy boasted new active-time battle and paradigm systems, causing it to lean more towards the Action RPG territory than other games in the series. Lightning Returns took it a step further by limiting the combat to one player character with active battle input, making it a full-fledged Action RPG.
The result? While the first trilogy entry did rather well having sold 1.7 million in Japan and 1 million in North America during their respective launch months, Lightning Returns didn’t even break 1 million global after its first month in North America and the first 3 months in Japan.
Bravely Default was a traditional turn-based JRPG that added a mechanic called the Brave and Default system while still retaining similar job and combat design. Originally planned for a Japan-only release, the game was later published in western territories by Nintendo.
The result? The western version garnered about 200,000 sales in the first three weeks of release and was considered a success by Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda. With this realization, Matsuda stated that the company will begin to refocus on “heavy” JRPGs in the future.
So what does this show us? That traditional games rule and innovative games drool? No. Healthy use of new techniques make for interesting and groundbreaking games. Even Square Enix’s most successful Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy VII, broke away from the traditional mold at the time with its steampunk setting and story surrounding the Lifestream. The issue lies in design focused on innovation for innovation’s sake, or “reinventing the wheel”.
Why bring this up, though? If Square wants to refocus on “heavy” RPG design, why would the problem with overinnovation need to come up? The issue lies in a US patent awarded to Square Enix on Thursday, with one of the inventors being Hajime Tabata, co-director of Final Fantasy XV.
For those interested, you can read the entire patent details here, but in summary, the patent details an RPG battle system based around the character’s position on-screen in relation to an ally and/or enemy character. From the details provided, these positions can have actions tied to them, potentially sharing similar qualities to the gambit system in Final Fantasy XII.
The sticking point lies in the fact that this system is designed around a single button operating use, with the object being to “provide a game apparatus capable of casting various attacks only by pressing the same operating button without performing any complex operation”. Fans of traditional JRPG combat design could see this as a dumbing-down or even a backward direction for the series to go. While this could be true given the series’ recent history, it’s important to look at things from a broader perspective.
In Matsuda’s statement, he mentions that future projects would incorporate a refocus on JRPG design. This doesn’t necessarily apply to Final Fantasy XV, since it has been in development for several years having previously been known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII. It would make more sense for the game to retain its original combat design than to change to a more traditional JRPG system.
Another factor could be that the other director of Final Fantasy XV, Tetsuya Nomura, is also known for helming the development of the Kingdom Hearts series and is the director of Kingdom Hearts III. As such, it would make sense for Kingdom Hearts’ Action RPG design to influence Final Fantasy XV.
The assumption that a single button combat design means that the game will be oversimplified is probably an overreaction at this point in time. For starters, this patent is just that, a patent, and is not indicative that it will be included in this game. Second, the combat is not the biggest problem that recent Final Fantasy games have had.
Bigger issues like story, characters, and world design need to make improvements as well. If the combat can be focused on a simpler style that allows for better enemy design and strategy, it won’t hinder the remaining parts of the game that may need improvement.
The important thing to remember is that just because it feels like Final Fantasy has been trying hard to recapture the allure of the best in the series, it doesn’t mean that the traditional Square Enix RPG can’t exist. For every Final Fantasy, there are game like Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and Bravely Default to fill the void.
In conclusion, while “reinventing the wheel” can be detrimental to a game’s quality, in the case of Final Fantasy XV, some may see it as a necessity. With the series diluted by the story and characters of the XII trilogy, having a brand new story with brand new combat design could be a breath of fresh air. You can be optimistic that the people behind it will be able to rejuvenate the series, but don’t give in to hype or be brought down by the negativity. Wait until you see for yourselves what the game has to offer.