Identity, who you are, is essential to success in life, sports, and yes, video games. Final Fantasy hasn’t settled in an identity of its own as a franchise since series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi was forced to walk away from Square Enix two decades ago. The first nine Final Fantasy games followed a similar template, despite the different settings, and storylines. There was a structure that was unique to the saga, that made Final Fantasy ‘feel’ like Final Fantasy.
The series, for more than two decades has failed to settle into such an identity, and with the disbanding of FFXVI’s team, the search for a great formula continues…
Yoshida Confirms the Disbanding of the Team…is Square Enix in Trouble?
According to GameRant, Square Enix has disbanded Creative Unit 3’s FFXVI team. This team joins Luminous Studios as a creative entity within the company that has merged with other teams, or has been taken apart by the company. The difference here is that Forspoken was a terrible game that performed equally poorly critically, and commercially, warranting the demise of Luminous Studios. However, Final Fantasy XVI was well received by critics (though not as well received as older 1990s, and early 2000s entries), and sold relatively well, even if it didn’t hit numbers that sniffed Tears of the Kingdom, and Baldur’s Gate 3‘s gargantuan sales.
Thus, the demise of this team is likely the result of the Square Enix’s overall financial situation. Final Fantasy XVI sold well, but didn’t set the world on fire to a degree where it could pull the company out of the hole that other failed ventures had dug it in. While I don’t know what the future holds for Square Enix, I have to assume that Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth is a massive project whose commercial success will determine a large part of the future fortunes for the company.
That said, I never saw it as a good sign when the company sold the IP Tomb Raider to the Embracer Group for a paltry $300 million. That move screamed of “financial desperation” to anyone willing to listen. Tomb Raider is an iconic gaming franchise. One that has the potential for another film franchise, and/or TV show. The Tomb Raider name is recognizable to mainstream consumers, and it can potentially carry it to strong merchandise sales as well. Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be the final big title published by Enix. Critically, it would end up nabbing a 75 (PS4) Metacritic rating, which was not great for such a big budgeted title.
By contrast, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End garnered a 93 rating. Despite these issues, the game sold 8.9 Million units (lifetime). An impressive 4.12 million units of that number were sold before the end of 2018 (the game’s release year). Tomb Raider was one of Square Enix’s most successful franchises. For comparison’s sake, unless the game has a strong holiday season, Final Fantasy XVI will likely only match that number before the year ends.
In truth, Final Fantasy XVI is an exclusive PS5 title, as opposed to Shadow of the Tomb Raider which was on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. But the gist is that Square Enix was so desperate for money, that it gave away a franchise with billion dollar potential for little money in return. Don’t believe me? From 1996 t0 2002 the franchise generated $1.2 billion in revenue. Not only that, but Square Enix also gave rights to other franchises with enormous potential such as Deux Ex, and Thief during the same deal.
Yes, the TB series declined in popularity over the last decade, but the value of the franchise was far greater than $300 million. The Embracer Group (which bought the IP from Square) is not doing too well financially as of late despite the rumors of Amazon ‘leasing’ the Tomb Raider rights for $600 million. So, the future of the franchise within the gaming industry remains a bit of a mystery, but someone is bound to invest in such a big a name sooner than later.
Final Fantasy Remains Square Enix’s Flagship Franchise…But It Hasn’t Found an Identity Since Sakaguchi was Forced Out of the Company
Final Fantasy XVI felt like a reboot for the saga. Naoki Yoshida, the man that saved Final Fantasy XIV (Online title) from absolute oblivion seemed primed to take the reins of the series. Him, and his team at Creative Business Unit III approached the game with the proper reverence for what made Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasies ‘tick’. Potent storyline, great music, and cinematic flair.
Final Fantasy XVI succeed in those areas, but dropped the ball in other key features.
Yoshida further took the series into the action realm, but with mixed results. Instead of micromanaging a party, players now had control over a single character. This premise was no doubt inspired by the success of games like the Witcher 3, and even the Soulsborne games. Yoshida and his team, however, were not quite able to create a challenging combat system, and the game’s world felt too segmented, if linear in an era where open world games thrive. It didn’t help that the game’s side quests were ‘fetch quests’, and quite bland.
As a result, the game fared well with critics, but missed on hitting the 90s range on Metacritic – which consequently – cost it a nomination for a GotY Award at the Game Awards. The game sold well early, as it raced to the 3 million unit mark but then the sales fell sharply as those who had wanted the game got it early.
Square Enix has shut down the studio team that worked on the title, and it seems that the inevitable Final Fantasy XVII will be developed by an all together different team. Thus, the 17th entry in the long running series will likely be another potential ‘reboot’ moment for this franchise.
While Sakaguchi changed the series typical ‘World Map’ formula in Final Fantasy X. That game, still felt like a Final Fantasy title. Then came Final Fantasy XII (XI was a MMORPG) which was the first title under a different direction (though Director, Hiroyuki Ito, had directed FFIX under Sakaguchi’s eye), and team.
FFXII wasn’t a bad game. In fact it remains the highest rated – 92 Metacritic – Final Fantasy post Sakaguchi era. The game would sell over 6 million units on the PS2, 2 million less than Final Fantasy X, and about half of what Final Fantasy VII sold on PS1.
Despite being a great JRPG, Final Fantasy XII looked and sounded different from previous entries. It just didn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game to me. While Final Fantasy XII was a commercial success, Square Enix would once again hand over the reigns of the series to a different team (though some key staff members have overlapped in certain entries), and director for Final Fantasy XIII.
Obviously, main Square Enix stalwarts like Yoshinori Kitase, and Tetsuya Nomura have always hovered around these entries. But with the constant flow of directors, it seems like each subsequent game after Sakaguchi left has a different design philosophy, and “feel” from the preceding entry.
Final Fantasy XIII was a linear affair that lost a lot of the world building elements that franchise fans loved, driving many of them away from the series despite decent sales for a mutiplatform Final Fantasy game.
The next single player game in the series, Final Fantasy XV, would further split the fan base when it ditched turn-based combat in favor of an action system, and a half-assed “open” world. The game felt more like Monster Hunter…with a car… than well…Final Fantasy (despite the fact that I did find the story quite enjoyable).
One has to give Final Fantasy XV credit for actually existing. The game was previously titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and it was a Nomura project that went nowhere until Hajime Tabata – miraculously – saved the thing.
All of this brought us to Final Fantasy XVI…which I gave a 90 on the strength of its story, and presentation. Still, I have seen the comments on our JRPG group. A huge section of fans were turned off by the combat, and the boring side quests. Personally, I am no longer that interested in turn based games (though I am enjoying Sea of Stars as we speak), so I felt Final Fantasy XVI‘s design foundations had the potential to massively improve in a future iteration under Yoshida, but now it looks like that will not happen.
Will We Ever Have Stability in Final Fantasy?
An identity is important. Despite the massive leaps and bounds that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made over Skyward Sword (and the previous Zelda formula), the game still felt like Zelda. Nintendo EAD has been a constant on the series and it shows. On the other hand, I don’t think that I am alone in my take that I no longer know what makes a Final Fantasy game a ‘Final Fantasy’ game.
Honestly, I don’t know what to expect from the eventual Final Fantasy XVII. That’s a problem for older fans like myself who remember the 1990s, and how special it was to await for a new Final Fantasy entry. It no longer feels that way. In fact, it hasn’t felt that way for nearly 2 decades.
The reason why I mentioned Square Enix’s odd decision to sell Tomb Raider (and Deus Ex), is because I no longer trust the company in terms of its decision making when it comes to steering important gaming franchises to success.
Going back to Sakagchi’s template might not be the right thing to do. That formula has shipped, but it seems that series has failed to match the quality of the turn-based entries in the attempt to turn it into a fully fledged action-RPG.
However, some of the spirit of those 1990s entries can still be salvaged.
What Was Final Fantasy’s Identity?
This could be a subjective matter, but to me, it was all about storytelling. This is something Final Fantasy XVI tried hard to establish…but Final Fantasy was all about great storytelling within a wondrous world (planet). The excitement of traveling to a new town, and finding a new party member, or just simply triggering a new storyline point, was always a fantastic experience. In the 1990s, I honestly felt like I was part of the game world, and that said game world was ‘real’. Final Fantasy XVI failed miserably at this.
There was a certain magical feel to exploring a planet (even if the world map was a shrunken version of said planet and not up to 1/1 scale with the characters) the illusion of a living world, and the promise of a substantial reward awaiting for exploring its environments was always present.
Square Enix can still create pretty games, and excellent music, but it seems like the company lost the series’ “soul” at some point in the last two decades. Final Fantasy hasn’t felt like Final Fantasy since I was a teen, and if Square Enix cannot re-discover its identity, I fear that the series might never reach the critical, and commercial (Final Fantasy VII did shift fortunes in favor of the PS1 in a substantial way) heights that it once did.
Correction 1/1/24: The original version of this article said Creative Unit 3 had been disbanded but only the FFXVI team in it has been disbanded.
Agree with the author? Couldn’t disagree more and are frothing at the mouth to tell him? Leave a comment here, on Facebook or send an email and make sure to follow Never Ending Realm on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube!