There was a time when the Final Fantasy brand was reassuringly focused. Each new sequential release was appropriately numbered and sought little more than to better the previous game's scope and technical achievements. The setting and characters changed but the rules never did: Final Fantasy, as with most long-running Japanese products, was a series of incremental evolutions, and both developer and fans knew what to expect of one another.
But in more recent years Square-Enix has become frightfully promiscuous with its most valuable IP. Tactics, Crystal Chronicles, X-2 and the various Chocobo games are all spin-offs that have sought to expand the series' gameplay vocabulary and to provide Final Fantasy-themed experiences for fans of other genres. Then, last year, the floodgates opened as the company announced an overwhelming slew of new Final Fantasy-titled spin-offs and direct sequels across both handheld and console systems.
With so many confusingly tag-lined Final Fantasys on the horizon, as well as a clutch of brand new games announced, it's been a little difficult to keep up with it all. And that's why Eurogamer, along with journalists from across the world, has been flown into Tokyo for the Square-Enix Party 2007 - a chance for fans and critics alike to try out some of these new titles and for us explain to you what the hell is going while, they hope, reassuring you all it's all going to be fine.
Over the next week we'll be interviewing many of Square's key producers and directors as well as giving you first impressions of where these forthcoming games in Square's bulging portfolio are up to. But before the show started, on a cloudy but humid Tokyo afternoon, Square explained a little about where the company is headed as well as revealing for the first time (at least officially) two new games which are currently in development but won't be playable at the show.
The big US gaming sites sat in front of Eurogamer during the conference and indulged in that pointless typing-of-the-dead race to be the first to upload their copy to the internet and win at being the first to tell everybody what the press release says. We, on the other hand, decided to take our sweet time
drinking copious amounts of sake and singing our karaoke hearts out with SE staff mulling over the details of what we'd seen with appropriate gravitas and taking time to form mature and distinguished opinions.
The key theme of both the pre-event and the party is Square-Enix's drive for expansion and domination. Company President, Yoichi Wada, was keen to emphasise that the company is entering a new era as it seeks to widen its user base by creating 'rich gaming solutions' for the new casual market that Nintendo is busy nurturing. Grotty marketing speak aside, this is interesting as casual gamers are hardly a group the company has courted in the past. Moreover, the game they're pinning these mainstream hopes on, Chocobo's Dungeon: Toki Wasure No Meikyuu (The Dungeon of Forgotten Time) might well be for the Wii, but it comes from a line of prohibitively niche games.
Chocobo's Dungeon: Toki Wasure No Meikyuu (The Dungeon of Forgotten Time)
The release of this Wii-exclusive is designed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the release of Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon, a Rogue-like random dungeon crawler, which never made it out of Japan. Those who played the game (and its US localised sequel) will remember the punishing difficulty common to all RPGs that randomly create their maps on the fly - hardly an ideal basis for a mainstream adventure title.
The game is set in Ville, a city of forgotten time where the town's inhabitants have lost their memories and time has stopped moving. It's your job as Chocobo to search for these lost memories, which are represented in the field as sparkling items. The video we were shown showed the super-deformed style Chocobo synonymous with these spin-off games exploring a traditional dungeon area. Overlaid was a near identical HUD as was seen in the earlier games while the few characters were all also making a return.
The game's producer, Yuki Yokoyama, was keen to promise that the game will appeal to a wide and diverse range of players and that it will borrow some of the popular features from its recent DS cousin, Chocobo Tales. However, while the jagged polygons on display might be part and parcel of the Wii's graphical delivery, the washed out colours, low quality textures and sparse particle and lighting effects are certainly not. Visually the game looked a little incongruous to its intended audience although, as is the case with everything we will report from the show, the game is obviously still deep in development and subject to change.
The second big announcement of the day was Last Remnant, details of which had leaked onto the Internet a few days before the press conference. Allegedly a response to the (entirely legitimate) criticism that the company has been drawing too heavily on the Final Fantasy legacy, Last Remnant is to be a new IP, designed to sit alongside their flagship games as a new 'global hit series' .
Set to be simultaneously released in Japan and the US on both 360 and PS3 (two firsts for the company) Last Remnant uses the Unreal Engine - something which has clearly helped speed the game's development along since full-scale production began less than a year ago. Square Management's excitement over the game was palpable as Akitoshi Kawazu (Executive Producer on Final Fantasy XII) explained how the company has brought together a new team of young designers with the instruction to revolutionise RPGs.
However, any initial rush of excitement at the possibility of seeing Square innovating in the genre they helped define quickly dissipated upon watching the first two of three Last Remnant videos. While the opening sequence of the game was technically solid, showing a young androgynous boy rushing through a forest looking for a friend before witnessing a huge-scale battle scene, it was also based firmly in Lord of the Rings cliché, armour-bearing, boulder-throwing monsters et al.
The second video offered a view of the map screen and various locations in the field - all of which looked remarkably close to those enjoyed in Final Fantasy XII. One city, Athlum, was decidedly Rabanastre-esque featuring a similar colour palette as well as presenting various inhabiting races wandering around. The key difference between the two cities was in Athlum's gigantic sword - a towering construction and one of the titular remnants, which loomed over the residents 200 metres into the air.
To travel between locations the game employs a Fire Emblem-style cursor that the player uses to select firstly which location on the world map to travel and then which part of town. This, perhaps worryingly, implies that you won't be able to walk from location to location through the environments - something many gamers have come to expect from their modern RPGs.
Obviously it's early days but graphically the lighting was rudimentary and the textures on the ground of a low quality. Conversely the motion capture on the lead character in the opening movie (all rendered in the game's engine) was impressive as was the sheer level of detail in the character models. Indeed, some of the close ups on hands showboated incredibly high levels of detail. Nevertheless, there was little we haven't seen before albeit with a little more polish here.
Until, that is, the Battle System Director Hiroshi Takai, took centre stage and talked through an astonishing gameplay movie of the game's central conceit: large scale battles. The fight we were shown took place on the huge plain first seen in the game's opening movie. Takai insisted that there are to be no random battles as each fight will be on an 'unprecedented scale' in which new enemies can join in fights to bolster their allies numbers enlarging the battle's geography.
During combat the camera swings and lunges with cinematic flair circling all the involved characters as the player inputs various moves. Attacks seem to be a complex mixture of macro directions (for example one group of mages targeted a group of enemies marching on top of a cliff in the distance wiping them out in one spell) as well as micro management and even Quick Time Event-style against-the-clock button presses.
Takai explained how morale in your squads can ebb and flow as the battle develops and how, as enemies group together to fight you with reinforcements, what looked like a straightforward fight can turn nasty. At one point the enemy squad summoned a huge dragon -a dramatic move which the main character countered by calling upon a gigantic clockwork Cyclops to fight alongside his team.
What's difficult to express in words is quite how effective the camera is in drawing the player into the action. The sequence was clearly a recording of somebody playing the game and yet the game still managed to communicate much of the cinematic drama seen in the close up battlefield scenes in movies such as Gladiator and 300. With dynamic audio shifting to match the action on screen this appears to be an extremely significant and dramatic development in RPG battle systems.
Last Remnant lends dramatic substance to Wada's assertion that the company is seeking to forge new paths in videogames. However, neither game particularly seems to fit the bill of appealing to a wider, more mainstream audience at this early stage and it will be interesting to see how the company manages to realise expansion of vision without alienating their already significant dedicated fan base.
Check back with Eurogamer over the next few days for first impressions of some of Square-Enix's games nearing completion.