Returning to its Roots: Which Path Should Final Fantasy Take?

Looking around the message boards there is a perpetual request that the Final Fantasy series go back to its roots. Of course, the Final Fantasy series is famous for constantly changing. Gameplay, stories, characters, all of these things vary greatly between instalments, so it isn’t as easy to pinpoint what a traditional Final Fantasy is. However, Final Fantasy has more of tradition then it lets on. Starting with the original, Final Fantasy has had a tradition job system that has been included in various games, and has been the basis for many character designs throughout the years. This job system includes iconic occupations such as the Black Mage, Red Mage, or Dragoon(Lancer if you wish). There have been several Final Fantasy games that have used the job system for character design and role without actually implementing the system as a whole. These games often limited character customization, or at least heavily slanted it in an attempt to create set roles for the characters. The second Final Fantasy did away with the rigid job system and allowed the player to design the characters however they see fit. While the second Final Fantasy was not as well received as the first and the series reverted back to the traditional job system for the next game, later Final Fantasy games would be based on the total freedom model established in Final Fantasy II. The question at hand is whether Final Fantasy should go back to the job system, keep the more open character customization, or restrict character customization. This article is primarily concerned with gameplay, but does touch on character development inherent in the various systems.

The Red Mage: Eternally rocking his pimp hat.

Firstly let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of fully implementing the traditional job system. It has been fully implemented in Final Fantasy I, III, V, and XI. It has also been featured in the spin-off titles: Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Advance, Tactics A2, Final Fantasy X-2 and The 4 Heroes of Light. The major advantage to the traditional job system is that it gives the player freedom to customize their party, while still restricting their options in order to maintain character uniqueness, and gameplay balance. The games  basically ask you one major question about how you want to develop your character: do you want them to focus in might or magic? Most of the games allowed class changing, and sub-classing, which allowed the player the ability to properly mix and match classes. The major downfall of these games is that characters were generally lacking in personality. Not including spin-off games or sequels, only Final Fantasy V had characters with a defined personality, and even then, it was among the weakest in the series. This was part of the flexibility, as it didn’t shoehorn the characters in any particular role. Unfortunately, this made it so that both Gilgamesh and X-Death outshined the heroes in terms of characterization. A return to this system would create a strong emphasis on customization, but with rigid boundaries which would prevent from characters seeming like jack of all trades.

Gilgamesh didn’t need a job. All he needed was to keep being awesome.

Next let’s look at the set roles approach. Traditionally, this is where the job system is used in creating the character roles, but without the freedom to select or switch the jobs that are assigned. This form of system was seen in Final Fantasy IV, IX, X, and XIII. The main advantage to this system is that each character has a well defined role, which allows for each character to be, for the most part, completely unique. Final Fantasy IV, and IX limit customization so that each character is entirely defined by the job they are assigned, while Final Fantasy X allows characters to break out of their role later on in the game. Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t use the job system as a base, but its style of gameplay fits here the best. Each character is given a specific set of paradigms, which define what role they can be placed into for battle with little to no ability to break out of this role. This approach also allows for better characterization than a full implementation of the job system as each character can more easily have a fully defined personality without it getting in the way of their gameplay role. The downside to this approach to character development is that it can be too archaic as it leaves little for the player to do other than collect equipment and level up the character in a traditional way. A future Final Fantasy using this style would be taking the series back to a very old school JRPG style of stagnant character growth.

I really can’t picture Vivi as a Dragoon.

Finally there is the total freedom approach of Final Fantasy II. This approach is characterized by a higher amount of customization to characters. This approach can be seen in Final Fantasy II, VI, VII, VIII, and XII. Final Fantasy VI uses the job system as a base for their character designs, but any character can fit any role easily. Final Fantasy II, VII, VIII, and XII allow full customization of the characters with no real attention paid to defined character roles. The major advantage with this approach is that it allows the player to decide how they want to use their characters. They are free to make a character strong in magic, physical attacking or both. At the same time, these games often allow for the best characterization of characters as no character is forced into a role, so they are usually more well rounded. The major downside to this approach is that it tends to lead to every character being a jack of all trades and leaving very little difference between characters aside from limit breaks, or any limitations you have purposely placed on the character (Going full mage for example). A future Final Fantasy that follows this approach would allow for more emphasis on customization and player choice than the other selections.

Squall can do anything from fire and blizzard to sword and gun. The only thing he can’t do is stop angsting.

The answer to the question at hand can vary greatly depending on the person answering it. What do you value more? Total customization, or uniqueness? Do you want a customizable, yet rigid job system, or simply characters already in preset, unchangeable jobs? The problem with saying that Final Fantasy should go back to its roots is that even from a very early time, the series took very different approaches to story and gameplay development. The current trend in RPG development is to allow a large amount of freedom to the player in developing their character. In this way the market favours the freedom approach; however, there is also a strong retro gaming push that would be much happier seeing a knocked down story, with traditional job classes a la 4 Heroes of Light. Will Final Fantasy be the next series to jump on the retro gaming bandwagon, or is it more likely to follow WRPGs in granting more freedom to the player.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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