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August 1, 2012

Keep Doing What You’re Doing, Squeenix: The Lightning Saga

Man, it’s getting late.  I’ve done all the writing I need to for one day, and I don’t think there’s anything else online of note.  Guess I’ll call it a night.

…Oh wait.  I forgot to check what’s on Siliconera.  I even have a tab open.  Well, let’s see what they’ve got, and then I’ll hit the hay.

Hmmm, Persona 4 Arena news.  Good stuff.  Gotta remember to work on getting that Naoto wallpaper from the Japanese site tomorrow.  3DS news…RPG news…a little something from Capcom…and…

Wait.  Wait, whatWhat is this supposed to be?




And then I screamed a lot, shot Frieza in the face with a ki blast, and escaped from Namek in one of the Ginyu Force’s pods.

Now that that little story is out of the way, let’s talk about Final Fantasy 13 for a minute.

If you’ve spent any amount of time on this blog, it should come as no surprise that I hate Final Fantasy 13.  I think it’s an awful game.  Nothing worked in it.  Nothing came together.  Everything that could have been screwed up WAS screwed up.  The story was terrible.  The heroes were terrible.  The villains were terrible.  The gameplay was terrible.  The world-building was terrible.  The combat was terrible.  The customization was terrible.  It was an all-out maelstrom of failure -- but of course, nobody would find that out until AFTER they’d plunked down the cash for the game.  Squeenix got paid (presumably rather well) and laughed their way back to HQ, while gamers all over had to see a supposed military official take a page out of Comic Book Guy’s book and spout “Worst birthday ever.”  Because don’t you just LOVE it when characters act like selfish, immature pissants? 

I would say that 13-2 came out of nowhere, but I imagine that’s not the case.  I imagine that after the shambling mess of a release/launch of Final Fantasy 14 -- a game announced in the summer of ’09, months before 13 would even be released -- Squeenix needed to put some money back in the bank following their wallet-burning venture and the apology that followed.  (Given that the failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within ALSO necessitated a sequel that nobody asked for, I’d say this is history repeating itself.)

Months after 13-2’s release, the question still remains: was it a game that needed to be made?  In terms of financial obligations, yes.  In terms of offering an apology after fans disappointed with 13, possibly -- though the “successes” of 13-2 open up a whole new batch of issues.  In terms of repairing Squeenix’s reputation, no.  In terms of making the Final Fantasy brand special, legitimate, and worthwhile once again, no. 

Don’t get me wrong; considering that there are thirteen mainline FF games now, they aren’t exactly something rare and precious to begin with.  And when you think about it, we’ve been privileged enough to get multiple games per generation.  7, 8, and 9 were part of the Playstation era.  10, 11, and 12 came out last generation.  Suspect localization and naming conventions aside, 4, 5, and 6 made it to the SNES.  That’s a pretty hefty release schedule -- one that makes you question the sanctity of the series.

Question, but not outright reject…at least, not because of past endeavors.  There’s a big difference between going from, say, FF9 to FF10 and going from FF10 to FF10-2.  Part of the allure of Final Fantasy was being able to pick up each new game and get familiar with a brand new world, a brand new cast, and a brand new system.  Sure, you’d have references and relations via items and concepts, but each game was an isolated tale that could exist on its own.  Flawed as it was, FF13 at one point looked primed to offer the same…that is, until 13-2 came around and added a new story when there was exactly zero need for one.  If 13 was a step in the wrong direction, 13-2 could only be a FURTHER step in the wrong direction, building upon its poorly-realized world and trying to make some sense out of it.  More importantly, the two games take place in the same world; even if Squeenix added in new areas and time-shifted zones and -- holy crap, guys, check this out -- towns, there are chains to a muddled mythos that drags both games down.  And rather than take some time off to start fresh and come back harder and stronger with a slew of new ideas, Squeenix is content to push forward with this mistake of a story -- one that was already finished in the first game -- and pass it off as a “saga.”  But then again, it’s not the first time something terrible has been passed off as a saga.

Look, I like JRPGs.  I’m a stalwart defender of the genre in spite of its decline in the public eye, mostly because there are still a lot of FANTASTIC games out there.  Persona 3 and 4?  Fantastic.  Lost Odyssey?  Fantastic.  Devil Survivor and its sequel?  Fantastic.  Tales of Graces f and Xenoblade Chronicles?  Fantastic.  And as proof that anything with the Squeenix brand DOESN’T have to be shit, we’ve had The World Ends with You on DS for years now, and it’s also fantastic. 

And I like Final Fantasy…at least, the concept of it.  Like a lot of people, I didn’t jump into the series until FF7 -- but man oh man was that something special.  I played FF8, and had my fun with it.  I played FF10, and I will gladly claim (in spite of naysayers to that) it’s far superior to 13.  While I can’t say I enjoyed 12, it’s certainly a competent product -- well, nervous breakdowns and switches in creative control aside.

But as for 13, I find it extremely difficult to have any form of excitement about it.  The first game wronged me so badly that it broke my respect for Squeenix -- in the sense that others before me were broken by other FF games, like 8 or 10 or 10-2 or even 7.  The second game’s mere existence is nearly enough to turn me from the Eternal Optimist into the Jaded Avenger (to say nothing of continued story/gameplay failures, adding in the trappings of modern games like quicktime events and DLC, and ending the game on a “To Be Continued”).  And now here we are, on the verge of being “blessed” with 13-3.  This, in spite of the six years and counting since the ill-conceived announcement of Final Fantasy Versus 13.

And on that note, let’s talk about Versus 13 for a bit.  I’ve heard the argument that Squeenix can continue to work on other projects because they have a separate team dedicated to Versus 13.  That, so long as they have a pool of guys working on that game, they can have another pool putting out new products faster.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see the appeal and business savvy in such a move, and I’d wager that there are other video game companies that have done the same.  But here’s my issue with that strategy.

Let’s say there are two guys who make soapbox racers -- we’ll call them Dave and Jay.  Dave and Jay are the best in the biz when it comes to making those racers, and making so many high-quality products together has given them a synergy that no other team could hope to match.    

But then one day their boss, Mr. Kent, decides to go for something different.  He wants to put out a very special pair of racers.  So he decides to split Dave and Jay up.  He’ll have Dave work on the Black Burner, while Jay will spearhead the Red Striker.  With two strong craftsmen working on two separate but equal projects, there’s no way they can fail.  Dave and Jay -- not wanting to incur their boss’ wrath, as well as put out something fantastic for their fans -- go to work on their projects.  And at the outset, everything seems fine.

But as time passes, things start to go awry.  Part of what made Dave and Jay’s racers (and in turn, their successes) so great was that they pooled their resources -- money as well as intelligence.  Separated as they are, they have to rely on themselves and their own money.  Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but since the latest racer-making tools cost so much nowadays, things don’t go as well as expected.  So Jay ends up getting a heavy load for the Red Striker that pushes him further and further behind schedule while he musters up the resources.  Meanwhile, Dave (without the input from Jay) focuses too heavily on the paintjob, and is absolutely certain that the new square wheels he’s designed for the Black Burner will revolutionize the industry.

As you’d expect, things don’t go as planned.  Dave’s Black Burner finds a welcoming audience, but there are just as many voices crying foul of his new racer.  Hasty to recoup production costs and regain credibility (and pay for Mr. Kent’s increasingly destructive cocaine addiction), Dave decides to make the Black Burner Mk. II.  He manages to fix some of the problems, but compounds others -- the wheels are now triangle-shaped.  Meanwhile, Jay has to face the burden of costs and production all on his lonesome…and gets pushed further and further and further past his original deadline.  He’s the meticulous sort, and won’t put out until it’s perfect.  Only problem is, he’s trying to shoulder the burden -- one too great for a single man -- on his feeble shoulders.  Eager to bring in money, Dave picks up the slack; even with the Mk. II barely out of the gate, he’s ready to announce, and eventually release, the Mk. III...much to the dismay of soapbox fans the world over.  Most likely because the Mk. III will have straws for wheels.

Can you imagine what could have been?  Can you imagine what would have happened if Dave and Jay had chosen to work together?  Two of the brightest minds in soapbox racing, working together, complementing their strengths and covering their weaknesses to put out one fantastic product instead of a slew of flawed, increasingly-aggravating racers and keeping the single “hope” of revitalized glory in the shop?  Is it really worth it to strain a reputation, a franchise’s good name, and the goodwill of your fans?  And is it just me, or is this analogy a little too on-the-nose?

Squeenix pisses me off.  This generation -- okay, let’s be honest, everything they’ve been and done since they evolved into Squeenix from Squaresoft is just so irritating.  Dirge of Cerberus and Advent ChildrenFF1413 and 13-2.  The MIA Type-0, formerly Agito 13.  The MIA Versus 13, and the negative effects on the company (delaying the inevitable Kingdom Hearts 3 well among them).  Birth by SleepThe 3rd Birthday.  They don’t ruin everything they touch -- as the owners of Eidos and thus the publishers of Deus Ex, they’re absolved of some crimes -- but every time I see their name nowadays it’s enough to make me give pause.  It’s enough to make me blame them for issues with games like Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Infinite Undiscovery…though in the former’s case, Squeenix’s hand in development may be the signal of a corruptive influence.  It’s enough to make me remember other missteps like The Last Remnant.  It’s enough to make me realize that if Squeenix could get their shit together and put out a good product, the reputation of the JRPG would be significantly repaired, by virtue of having its most notable champion shine like the sun. You would think that with all that money and prestige, Squeenix would be able to pull something crowd-pleasing together, and prove itself as a mainstay of the medium.  But then again…

That callback made my soul hurt.  Let’s switch gears.

You know, it’s funny.  A lot of people are convinced that I’m pretty smart, but I just don’t see it.  I do all right for myself, but I can be pretty spacey at times, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes.  And I tend to be a little too trusting at times.  I suppose that’s just a consequence of me being the Eternal Optimist -- and to that end, even after all the bellyaching I’ve done in this post and about a dozen others, I’m still not about to write of Squeenix yet.

Don’t get me wrong -- the prospect of FF13-3 still irritates the hell out of me.  But I want to think of it this way: each time they put out a new product, they give themselves a chance at redemption.  13 sucked, but for 13-2 they managed to remedy some of the issues (granted, that was by adding things that should have been in the game in the first place, but hey, baby steps).  With 13-3, there’s at least a SLIGHT chance that they’ll fix some of the other issues.  The combat system that lets you play while half-asleep, the overwrought and needlessly entangled story, and most of all…

Lightning is the lynchpin of this so-called “Lightning Saga.”  The problem -- as I’ve made clear in the past -- is that she kind of sucks as a character.  13 showed her at her worst, and 13-2, rather than fixing her and adding to her, prefers to shuffle her into the background after the requisite number of boosh-boosh-boosh sword attacks and flip-de-loops.  13-3 -- if they go through with it -- is the one chance they have to end this saga on a high note and put wounded fans at ease.  Question is, how do they do that?

I have some ideas.

1) Put Lightning on the forefront with a definitive focus.  Part of the problem with 13 was that it tried to develop six characters when the writers were hardly-equipped to develop one.  If Lightning REALLY is Squeenix’s darling, they’ll use this last (hopefully last) outing to give her the send-off she deserves.  No more screwing around with half-baked archetypes like Snow and Vanille, or introducing a new character like Noel who needs a new backstory and exacerbates plot issues; make it Lightning’s game.  Give her characters we’re already familiar with -- like fan favorite Sazh -- as her party members and have her fight it out with whatever pretty boy villain Squeenix can render.  But more importantly, show she has a personality besides stoic resolve and token maternal instincts toward her sister.  Make her more than a cipher, and you can salvage 13’s name.

2) Head to the past; give her a prequel.  Okay, this might not be 100% feasible, at least not without some serious time-manipulation.  But work with me here; let’s say that after the…well, unsavory events of 13-2, Lightning has to head back to her past to fix the problems created therein and save the future.  In doing so, we could get some insights into the character and the world.  How did Lightning become the ZOMG-so-awesome-super-soldier we know so well?  How did she come to her conclusions about the way the world works?  With this look into the past -- with her present-self watching over her past-self and looking for time paradoxes -- we could get some serious closure.

3) Finish the Saga with a movie, not a game.  Let’s face it: Final Fantasy is less of a video game franchise nowadays and more of a movie with rudimentary exercises in simulated deicide.  It’s incredibly obvious that they want to make another movie out of their sweet baby, and if they’re committed to shoving Lightning up and down every orifice, this might be the way to do it.  They can’t possibly disappoint on a gameplay level, because there is no gameplay.  They can show off those cinematics and graphics they’re so proud of.  Who knows?  It might be easier making a movie than making a game.

Granted it’ll inevitably suck, given the precedents…but hey, it’ll at least let Squeenix be true to themselves.

4) Have Lightning tag-team with her sister Serah.  I’m still baffled by the sudden inclusion of Noel and the inexplicable focus on the untested, untrained Serah in 13-2.  But if Lightning and Serah were to be in the same party, it would immediately add so much to both their characters and the game.  Really, how much interaction have they had in the past two games?  Not enough, I’d argue -- but with a game that puts the two of them together…well, there’s no shortage of possibilities.  Two established characters with an established and evolving bond could do wonders.  And in the same sense that 13-2 gave characters like Fang and Hope the boot, 13-3 could do the same.  Of course, there’d still be that issue of putting random, faceless monsters in the party…

5) Kill off Lightning.  I’m surprised my rage wasn’t so blinding I didn’t make this my first suggestion.

Hear me out on this.  It doesn’t matter when Squeenix decides to do the deed, so long as they do it: Lightning may be better off dead.  If they kill her off at the start, it could give an impetus for Serah (or Noel, or whatever dumbass twenty-something they want to bring in next) to fight back that much harder.  If they kill her in the middle of the game, it would add a majorly powerful twist as well as invoke memories of FF7’s Aerith -- a cheap move, I know, but considering how much Squeenix loves aping that game (and, you know, making Lightning a “female Cloud”…rather poorly), it’s a viable move.  If they kill her at the end -- not the messiah-invoking heroic sacrifice, but having her just die after a grueling battle -- then it would immortalize her character as a dedicated soldier who fought to the very end.  But most importantly, it would signal the end of her saga, and FORCE Squeenix to move the hell on.

And let’s get one thing straight: I want to move on, too.  I’m tired of holding on to this hate.  I’m tired of looking at every announcement from Squeenix and feeling either indifferent or confused or disappointed or depressed…or even enraged.  I’m tired of being one of those apologetic addicts who condemns Squeenix one day, and tries to defend them the next.  If they could just put out some consistent products…if they could just focus and get their heads in the game -- on ONE game -- then we’d all be better off.

As we are?  We’re losing hope.  As I am?  I’m losing hope.  Notice, for example, that I haven’t called Squeenix by its official name, hyphen and all, even once in this entire post.  Nor have I used roman numerals to describe any of the Final Fantasy games.  That’s because right now, I don’t think Squeenix deserves it.  If they want their titles back, they have to earn them.  They have to regain the prestige they once had, and the willing support of fans who aren’t just buying their games because it has the name Final Fantasy.  That name used to mean something -- something beyond dissent, disappointment, and disdain.

That name can mean something again.  If Squeenix can prove itself once more, then I will GLADLY give them back their titles.  GLADLY.  The only way they’ll regain their honor is to get all the stupid bullshit out of their system.  Misguided as some of their efforts may be, each game they release lets them move closer to the ideal position -- both theirs and ours. 

I may have lost a bit of my hope, but I still believe.  They can do something to win me, and every last one of us gamers back.  I know they can.

They just have to keep moving forward.

…But seriously, killing Lightning off would work wonders.  Just sayin’.


  1. Out of all your arguments, it was number 3 that got me the most. Turning Final Fantasy into a movie is an idea I am capitally against. Why? Well mostly because Sqeenix's writing, pacing and character development quality have turned to shit lately (reference Advent Children).

    The fact that their newest games have turned into slightly interactive cutscenes makes it worse. You see, you can't expect a company to focus on its weaknesses. If anything, they should try to simplify and create humbler games with a better storyline and quick paced gameplay (like the world ends with you) at the expense of the *cough* crappy *cough* storyline.

    What I'm saying is this: Square should look down, now up. They should focus on making smaller things instead of grand, epic projects. Not one of the FF games has been qualified to stand as a movie. Be it the gigantic amount of lore, the need to constantly reference backstories, whatever. Movies are about clear narratives presented in a tight, laconic fashion with a clear motivation.

    FF games on the other hand, are not: they're more like books and series, with a goal that pretty much remains unchanged, but loaded with a cartload of metaplot and other shit that has so far allowed them to work. The fact that this plan is beginning to break down shows that Squeenix should simplify.

  2. I agree with you: Final Fantasy is a game series, and not a movie series, and the sooner Squeenix remembers that, the better off we'll all be.

    Buuuuuuuuut, I honestly think that this 13-3/part of the Lightning Saga -- and ONLY this outing -- should be a movie. If they take that route, then inevitably the movie will suck (again, given the precedents), but it will help get all the suck out of their system. They can come to a conclusion with Lightning and pals, and FINALLY take steps toward a new world and new characters. Basically, they can get a fresh start. Given this generation's...well, let's call them "missteps", a fresh start is something they really need. They just need to put out one movie so they can show off the crap THEY care about, and that little purging will let them re-focus on the crap WE care about.

    With all that said, I'm in 100% agreement with you. Squeenix SHOULD look down. They SHOULD simplify. The fact that they've pissed away so much money AND fallen way behind schedule AND had to make a sequel nobody asked for AND want to put out another product should tell them something's wrong...to say nothing of so many disappointed fans. Will they? I hope they do. I want them to. But what they're doing right now, and what they have done, doesn't inspire much confidence.

    But I want to believe. *sheds manly tear* I want to believe...