Once upon a time, you'd be hard pushed to find any decent console RPGs in English. To this day, many 16-bit classics remain translated only by enthusiasts, who have hacked the original ROM files to add the gaming equivalent of anime "fansubs". Even now, Europe still gets treated like a redheaded stepchild when it comes to this genre (Suikoden III? Xenosaga? .hack?), but at least for those willing to import, there's an English language version of most games out there.
For a fan of the genre, there's no more telling sign of this shift in attitudes than the size of the Square Enix booth at E3, a massive black-draped affair in the South Hall, and even more interestingly, nearly every game on the stand also enjoyed pride of place with its respective West Hall-based platform holder, meaning that you could play the games on both sides of the LA Convention Center. A grand total of four games with Final Fantasy in the title were on display - although only one of those was genuinely new to us, as three of the games at the show are already out in Japan.
First off, the games we knew plenty about already. Final Fantasy X-2 is obviously the next 'AAA' release from Square Enix, and if the success of Final Fantasy X (and indeed X-2 in Japan) is anything to go by, it's probably going to be the company's biggest game this year. So we can probably expect some more of these hyphen-2s further down the line. There's not a great deal to say about the game post-E3 that couldn't have been said beforehand, but nevertheless. Graphically, things haven't really moved on from FFX (although given how good looking that game was, we're not really complaining), but it's filled with new locations, new characters and new costumes for the old characters.
This is certainly FFX does Girl Power, and each of the scenes we played featured an almost entirely female cast. It's hardly Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, though - Final Fantasy is hugely popular with female audiences, and they would no doubt object to their favourite series turning into a flesh-fest. Series followers will be interested to hear that the game seems to have overhauled the combat system fairly significantly, and has introduced concepts like character classes - which can be changed mid-battle, complete with an anime-style transformation sequence.
E3 was the first chance we'd had to get any hands-on time with the game (although with X-2 apparently not out in the US until November, it doesn't take a tarot reader to see a Japanese import somewhere in our future), and really the game simply lived up to the brief we expected from it - more Final Fantasy X, with some nice tweaks. We did note that most of the original voice cast seem to be back in the frame for the returning characters - while we don't think the American cast were particularly fantastic in Final Fantasy X, it would certainly be jarring if they changed any of the voices between the games, so we're quite glad to see that they've apparently reassembled the same cast.
FFXI - Hard Drivin'
Square's first attempt at a massively multiplayer online game, Final Fantasy XI, caused a flurry of interest on the show floor, and the demo pods for it were permanently occupied on both the Square Enix and Sony stands - but our conclusion, and that of most people we spoke to at E3, was that it's not really a game you can judge based on a quick bash at a trade show. The game has around 200,000 subscribers at the moment in Japan, and a significant percentage of them ran out to buy the retail expansion pack for it which was released a few weeks ago, so it's obviously holding their attention pretty well.
A brief muck about with FFXI revealed a game that is obviously easing comfortably through the localisation process, with every piece of text that we saw in-game in English. It certainly looks great in the flesh, with very detailed and nicely designed character and monster models, and in-game environments which look better than most PC MMORPGs; however, we're still not entirely sold on the combat system, which looks like it takes far more of its influence from EverQuest than from the previous titles in the Final Fantasy series. Whether applying a layer of Final Fantasy aesthetics to what is essentially a MUD combat system will win the hearts of Square fans in the west remains to be seen, but FFXI is certainly a fascinating prospect regardless, and we're glad to see that the game will seemingly be getting a proper release, complete with HDD, in both the USA and Europe.
Tactics get Advanced
Final Fantasy Tactics' non-appearance on the shelves of European retailers is one of the most heinous crimes of whoever oversaw the release list, because the game - a story-driven, turn-based strategy title played on an isometric 3D map - is arguably one of the best games ever released on the PlayStation. Now, thankfully, Square has chosen to resurrect the franchise on the Game Boy Advance - and in Japan, it launched Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (not a remake, but a wholly new title in the series) alongside the GBA SP. It sold at a 1:1 ratio with the new console for the first week, which hopefully means that the series won't be left to rot again in a hurry.
The GBA version of the game doesn't quite live up to the visuals of the PlayStation game, unsurprisingly, but the graphics are still excellent for a handheld system, and the character and environment designs retain the quirky feel of the first title. Again, we saw that the translation of the game seems to be well progressed, and as with all of Square's translations nowadays, it's an extremely good one. One thing which we were very pleased to note about it is that it looks great on a television screen, played with the Game Boy Player. It's one of those rare games that shows every sign of being fantastic on the GBA, but may well be utterly sublime on the Player.
The one question which remains to be asked is whether it can compete with that other stunning turn-based strategy on offer on the GBA, namely Advance Wars. Frankly, though, it won't have to. FFT Advance is character-driven and features a Final Fantasy style magic and skills system for each character in the game, whereas Advance Wars is purely a strategy title with very little in the way of RPG-like elements. Both FFTA and the forthcoming Advance Wars 2 look superb in their own right - GBA owners have a lot to celebrate over the coming months.
Square returns to the mothership
We've left the best for last.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicle is Square's first game on a Nintendo home console since the SNES, and marks the return of the Final Fantasy series to the platforms that spawned it in the first place. And yet this is no traditional Final Fantasy title - in fact, Square has invented a brand new Final Fantasy here in much the same way as they did with Final Fantasy Tactics years ago on the PlayStation. After playing it for a significant amount of time at E3, we can honestly say that we're very happy that they chose to do so.
In keeping with Nintendo's current hard-on for connectivity between the GBA and the GameCube, Crystal Chronicle is best played with a group of people, each controlling a character on-screen through their GBA. The game uses a real-time combat mechanism whereby your characters wander around hacking at enemies with weapons or blasting them with magic - and the clever bit is that you never have to see a magic or potions menu on-screen, because each player has their own set of menus to look at on the GBA. This makes for good looking and fluent gameplay - and the range of different types of attack and magic on offer means that playing with three other people necessitates a lot of communication and a surprising level of strategy.
We're assured that there's solo play in the game as well, and that it's possible to play with less than four players and four GBAs (which is just as well really), but annoyingly neither of these game modes was on display anywhere at the show. We'd theorise that when nobody is directly controlling a character, the AI kicks in and takes command of it according to parameters set by you - but as nobody we spoke to on the stands seemed to actually know, that's pure speculation on our part. That said, we were delighted with the game as it stood - it's the first RPG party game, and it works stunningly well.
Several other innovations make it into the Secret of Mana-style gameplay, one of which is the "bucket" which you need to carry around the playing area with you. The world in the game is filled with poison, apparently, and this magic bucket can dispel the poison within a certain radius of the bucket. Thus, progress through the various areas depends on someone in your party picking up the bucket and carrying it to the next place you want to go, or to the next group of monsters you need to defeat. When a character steps outside the radius of the bucket's power, they lose health gradually until they die. The really clever bit here, however, is that certain enemies can do things such as moving the bucket around, and that your bucket-carrier is vulnerable until he puts it down - which adds an extra layer of strategic thought to the game.
Another interesting factor is the magic system - we didn't get a chance to play with this at any great length, but it seems to be focused on collecting spell crystals for simple spells, and then fusing them together to form more complex offensive or support magic. For example, combining an offensive spell with a Follow spell will create a homing missile of that magical type, and so on. We're not sure exactly how flexible this system will be in practice, but it certainly seems like an interesting way of doing things.
Graphically, Crystal Chronicle adopts the "cute" look, with big-eyed "chibi" characters ala Kingdom Hearts and lots of cartoony environments. It's a visual style that fits the gameplay and presentation of the title like a glove, and on a purely graphical level, this is one of the best-looking games we've seen on the GameCube to date - and certainly the best-looking Final Fantasy game of all time.
We look forward to seeing more of the other game modes available in Crystal Chronicle - the four player mode is fantastic and it's going to be a lot of fun, but at the end of the day, this will live or die depending on the strength of its solo play. However, based on what we saw at the show, this has to rank as one of my personal favourite titles of E3 - it's a game that we were somewhat skeptical of going into the show, but which turned out to be one of the best titles not only on the Square Enix stand, but on the Nintendo stand itself. What's more, a European release should hopefully be in our hands before Christmas too. How times have changed.