It's fashionable to slate Final Fantasy. It's been fashionable to slate Final Fantasy for years, in fact. Long before the impressive but divisive Final Fantasy XIII left a big steaming turd right in the middle of Square Enix's investor relations, self-styled innovators were poking the game hard for its archaisms and self-indulgences, its pie-eyed grandeur, its risible melding of high fantasy settings and puffy animals, its alternately pouting/unfeasibly cheery teenage heroes and heroines.
There's no denying, however, that Final Fantasy XIII marked a watershed moment among fans, especially in the west - a transition point from muttering apathy to active dislike. Not all of that's Final Fantasy XIII's fault, in fairness. It was the first numbered Final Fantasy on current generation consoles, and thus subject to undue scrutiny. It also had its chances poisoned in advance by the beautiful, fascinating yet compromised Final Fantasy XII.
But even without these disadvantages, and even given some real successes, the game's too often a showcase for Final Fantasy at its worst. A story that takes days to make any kind of sense. A battle system that spoon-feeds you micro-features over the course of a 50 hour grind. 10 levels of glorified corridor-crawling.
The game still managed to shift boxes - over five million worldwide, at the last count - and attracted respectable review scores, the critical consensus being that if you're patient, there's a great gaming experience on offer. Nonetheless, neither scores nor the sales were quite to Square Enix's liking, and a period of introspection duly set in. "Should Final Fantasy become a new type of the game or should Final Fantasy not become a new type of game?" company CEO Yoichi Wada remarked to Gamasutra in July last year. "The customers have different opinions. It's very difficult to determine which way it should go."
Yesterday, Square gave some indication that it's made its mind up. According to Final Fantasy XIII-2 producer Yoshinori Kitase, continuing the drift towards action gaming begun with Final Fantasy IV's Active Time Battle system may be the answer to Square's ills. "In the global market we see many players moving away from games that used turn-based systems toward what you might term an action-RPG. That's a trend, and you ignore things like that at your peril."
"FFXIII and FFXIII-2's battle systems have those elements of speed and action that are the key words for us, though that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to stick to the same route in our next game. That's something only time can tell."
Given the general stampede among multi-million sellers towards iterative sequels, it's comforting that Square has something a bit more fundamental in mind for Final Fantasy XV. That said, I'm horrified to hear that they're considering doing away with the turn-based battle system - or rather, with Final Fantasy's various approximations thereof. It's the one thing Square has always done well, and it's got a lot more life in it than detractors allow.
Stop thinking about turn-based battling as just a needlessly complicated way of making people dead. Don't think of it as a primitive forerunner to "true" real-time combat - the sickly lovechild of limited processing power and gaming's tabletop origins, still in use only because human beings are incurable sentimentalists. Turn-based combat is more elegant than that. It's a means of marrying choice to spectacle, one answer to the question of how you overwhelm and dazzle a player without depriving the player of control.