Final Fantasy has never been short of characters burdened with saving the world, but there's something different about its new breed of heroes. When Naoki Yoshida was tasked with salvaging the mess that was the original release of Final Fantasy 14, the challenge seemed insurmountable. With A Realm Reborn, it's a feat he pulled off, and with some style: the rebirth of the once troubled game has done more than rescue an expensive, wayward project. It's restored faith in Square Enix, and in a series that for too many years seems to have drifted away from its audience.
Now, a similarly herculean task has fallen at the feat of another employee of Square Enix. Hajime Tabata, the director who previously worked on Final Fantasy 7 offshoots Before Crisis and Crisis Core as well as, most recently, Type 0, has been given responsibility to deliver the project that's haunted Square Enix for over eight years. It's fallen to Tabata to deliver Final Fantasy 15, the game born from the development hell that enshrouded Final Fantasy Versus 13, with former director Tetsuya Nomura having been moved aside to focus on Kingdom Hearts 3.
Having sat down with Tabata for an hour-long roundtable at Square Enix's Shinjuku headquarters, it seems he is the perfect man for the job. Like Yoshida, Tabata cuts a contrasting figure to the directors who have immediately preceded him. The Final Fantasy 13 era that staggered throughout the entirety of the last generation, though not without its own moments, felt defined by a stuffiness that, by the time of the second sequel, almost bordered on arrogance, the likes of Yoshinori Kitase and Motomu Toriyama seemingly deaf to Final Fantasy's many fans.
Tabata couldn't be any more different. Warm, embracing and with a gentle curiosity, his eagerness to please the fans of Final Fantasy can be disarming. Maybe it's because, like Yoshida before him, he's aware that it's the fans that can make the difference, that they're the ones key to the game's reception and that they're the greatest tool in his arsenal - something Tabata knows first-hand after pressure from Final Fantasy fans in the west led to the HD remaster of Type 0 getting a global release next March.
"With Type 0, it was literally the demand from the fans that tipped the scales," he says. "The players are very important to us in the development. If I could, I'd love to go and thank each and every person who voiced their opinion, and wanted it to come to the western markets."
"We're definitely sorry - we want to apologise for keeping the fans waiting for a very long time."
It's that deference to fans that persuaded Square Enix to release a playable Final Fantasy 15 demo alongside Type 0 next March, too. "I joined about two years ago, and since then we have changed platform and we've also had a staff change in the team as well as revisiting what content and mechanics would be included in 15," says Tabata.
"We're definitely sorry - we want to apologise for keeping the fans waiting for a very long time. The current status [of the full game] is at about 55 per cent at this point, and while we'd love to continue polishing and raising the quality as much as we can, because fans have been waiting for such a long time, we wanted to bring it in a playable form as a demo attached to Type 0 so people could see there is progress being made."
A teaser shown at last week's Tokyo Game Show helped showcase some of that progress, and it's looking delicious so far. After the long corridors of Final Fantasy 13, 15 makes a break for an open world, explorable in a squat caricature of a car and with combat that flows freely. There are elements that remain from Nomura's take on the project - the characters and world are retained, of course, and the combat bears a resemblance to the last time we properly saw Versus 13 back in 2011 - but much of it is new, and carries the stamp of Tabata.
What exactly is Tabata's style? Despite his previous games having been on portable platforms, he's certainly got an affinity with more traditional console fare. "In Japan, more and more gamers lean towards games that can be played very casually," he says. "I personally like and grew up with those core-centric games, those substantial standalone games. I want to preserve the integrity of them, and leave a legacy of those standalone games in the best form possible."
"With Final Fantasy 15, I do want to make it more casual."
There's a physicality to Tabata's games - something seen in the more grounded fantasy of Type 0 and in the more direct combat of Crisis Core - that's retained and underlined in Final Fantasy 15. "When we were making the transition, we sat down and I discussed with Nomura the game," he says. "I felt that I wanted to shift it more to be more realistic. For example, when you're battling a really strong boss like a behemoth, if you go at it from just the front you're going to get hit with his counter-attacks. You have to think about baiting it to attack forward, but then break its stance and attack it from the side. I wanted to make it so you're fighting a real animal, but with easy-to-manipulate controls as well as dramatic effects. My basis was to keep it grounded in reality."
Other elements seem to have crept into Tabata's Final Fantasy 15, too. Open worlds aren't exclusive to western games - an expansive overworld to explore has been at the backbone of the very best Final Fantasy games - but its implementation in Final Fantasy 15, where characters traverse epic plains in an automobile, seems to have some deference to the open worlds of Grand Theft Auto and its like. Tabata's happy to acknowledge those influences.
"Ever since I took a central position for the Xbox One and PS4 Final Fantasy 15, I would make the judgement call based on my personal taste, which did lean towards western games, and then tweak the visual aspects as well as the combat aspects," he says. "Rather than it being influenced by western games, it's more my personal taste. I like that style, and I wanted it incorporated in the game."
Tabata's also in pursuit of a Final Fantasy that's not as overwhelming as its predecessors, and one that can be enjoyed by a broader audience. "With Final Fantasy 15, I do want to make it more casual," he says. "Of course the depth of the game is going to be there, but I want to make it so players can easily experience the satisfaction of the depth of the game." There's an option to set that car to drive itself, allowing players to sit back and take in the sights - although there is also an option to drive it manually, should they want to engage more fully with the world.
"Another example is in the combat," explains Tabata. "With the hardware specifications of the newer consoles, it's possible to set it up so you have different enemies and different choices of attacks you can enter in, but I want to simplify that. It'll basically be a one-button action, and the AI intuitively outputs an action that kind of satisfies, gives you that instant gratification, and it connects with the simple touch of a button. I myself am not getting any younger. I don't want to be frantically pushing buttons. I also want to utilise the intelligence of the hardware spec, and not have to go through too much hassle or trouble in order to execute moves."
A more streamlined Final Fantasy might be anathema to some fans, but Tabata seems keen to push in some areas while trimming away others, restoring a sense of grand adventure to the series that's been absent for nearly an entire generation. More importantly for Square Enix, he has a proven ability to ship games, which, after what will likely be a decade when its launch finally comes, is what Final Fantasy 15 needs above all else. And, despite his relative lack of experience when it comes to mainline Final Fantasy games, Tabata's not short on ambition either.
"Personally, I'm working on 15 to make it the most emotional Final Fantasy title that I've worked on," he says as our hour comes to an end. "My goal is to have people play Final Fantasy 15, and for them to think this is the best Final Fantasy they've ever played."
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