Final Fantasy Versus XIII
Tetsuya Nomura speaks.
Eurogamer unbows and the room straightens itself. There's a story that Tetsuya Nomura once told a games journalist, with distinctly un-Japanese frankness, that the questions were rubbish and he wasn't going to answer them anymore. Brilliant, obviously, but as such it's best behaviour and utmost politeness from us tonight as we sit down to talk about Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a counterpoint title to the main thirteenth game in the series, of which Nomura is director.
Nomura is the imagination and hands behind some of videogames' most iconic character designs from Cloud and Sephiroth through to Square and Disney's characters in Kingdom Hearts. He arrives at Tokyo's Makuhari Messe two hours after the Square-Enix Party has closed for the night and quickly fills the non-smoking interview room with dense smoke. Dressed in a Disney T-shirt - which shows a darkly attired Mickey with a crown slipped drunkenly over his face - and a skull and cross-bone cap pulled deep over his eyes, Nomura exudes subdued menace.
It's not the kind of overtly affected and studied anime pout that the more flamboyant Japanese game designers opt for; rather Nomura's sulky cool is understated, dark and authentic. The combination of the man's extraordinary talent and past achievement coupled with his reputation for unpredictable outbursts in interviews and dislike of western journalists has Eurogamer uncharacteristically apprehensive.
It's difficult to overstate Nomura's importance and power within Square-Enix in 2007. He, along with Yoshinori Kitase, is the last of the great creative personalities the company has. The others, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Square's founder and the creator of Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu, one of videogames' greatest composers and Yasumi Matsuno, probably Square's greatest game producer (two of his titles scored 40/40 in Famitsu), have all resigned, left or been discharged for stress-induced illness over the last few years. Nomura is the most powerful creative mind in Square now, putting a face, style and purpose to almost all of the company's heavyweight output.
That Nomura abhors cookie-cutter Wikipedia-filling questions such as 'How many characters will your game have in it?' or 'How long will your game take to complete?' is perhaps just as well. Every interview at the Square-Enix Party event is being closely chaperoned by a Japanese PR from the company who jumps in the second a journalist asks a question to which the answer lies outside of the bounds of permitted revelation. Final Fantasy Versus XIII has so far only revealed its sketchiest details and the chances that the company will reveal some juicy new information to the Western press before the Japanese is obviously nil. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop Nomura from being uncharacteristically chatty and talking over some of the broader issues he is considering with this game allowing us to draw some interesting conclusions.
What we know so far is all gleaned from the five-minute fully pre-rendered action sequence movie that was shown to the event's attendees earlier in the day. In a dramatic and dark scene we see a typically Nomura-esque character dressed in black awaking from cross-legged slumber. He gets up out of a throne-like chair, walks through the glass doors of an office building and wastes a hundred armed soldiers awaiting his exit outside with balletic violence. The video is astonishingly well animated and modelled and makes Advent Children look dated. It's dark, cool (in the narrow, young man-thrilling sense that Frank Miller's 300 also is), supremely well-edited and tells us absolutely nothing meaningful about the game - not even the genre. All that's clear is that Versus looks a fair bit darker than the usual Final Fantasy fare - something Nomura himself has stated in past interviews.
Optimistically, we begin there, chirruping: "In what ways is this game going to be darker than the other games in the series?"
"Well it's mostly set at night," he replies and Eurogamer winces.
A smile, then: "What I want to do is to examine the humanity of the characters in this game. This is not going to be a fantasy world in the traditional Final Fantasy sense. Rather it's based in the world today with all of this world's ugly issues. There's this mainstream tradition of Final Fantasy games and, in Versus I'm trying to propose new vision of how a Final Fantasy game can be. The game's going to be more human than the science-fiction caricature we so often see. It will focus around current world events - in that sense it's darker."
We wonder if this style is perhaps closer to Nomura's heart? "Yes, this game might be closer to my real-life taste than kingdom Hearts is, for example, but there are undoubtedly areas of crossover. Kingdom Hearts is an example of a game world which I have worked on which is full of good things, light and magic. That's fine but I've worked in these worlds for a long time, perhaps too long, and it's time to work on a new kind of world - a bleaker place. This kind of theme is traditionally unappealing to a mainstream audience who want to role-play in generally happy and safe worlds. It's a challenge."
It's clearly still early days with the project but we push a little hard for any more concrete details on the more action-orientated gameplay that has been rumoured. "We don't want to create a classic menu driven RPG here," he explains. "We're moving along lines much closer to Kingdom Hearts' action game system. The only instruction I've given the designers so far is to look closely at third-person perspective shooters - not in terms of game controls but rather in trying to work out how to create a similar kind of tension.
"With previous systems we've always had a great problem in trying to create a seamless environments. Field space has always been limited and loading often interrupts the flow of play. In this game our aim is to eliminate all obvious loading and to create an unlimited field. I want somebody to be able to shoot at you from within a house and for battles to move from outside to inside fluidly."
Final Fantasy Versus XIII, as with its bedfellow, the mainline thirteenth game in the series, remains an unknown quantity. What's clear is that Nomura is deeply excited about the project and intends to move the series, and possibly gaming in the wider sense, into new territory. Few developers have the same access to artists, designers and coders of the calibre or numbers as Square-Enix. Additionally, with Sony likely desperately bankrolling both of the PlayStation 3 FFXIII games to keep them exclusive to the platform, it is going to be extremely interesting to see how Nomura uses these resources to bring our world and his together under the Final Fantasy banner.
Final Fantasy Versus XIII is coming to the PlayStation 3 from Square-Enix. A release date has yet to be confirmed.