“If my fate is to die, I must simply laugh.”
This curious sentiment was delivered by a powerful demon king some 20 years ago. It was a jarring statement, then and now: if death is inevitable, what can you do but accept it with a smile on your face? But we’ve experienced deaths a lot of deaths since then in Japanese RPGs and greeted few of them with smiles. We cling to memories like Yuffie clinging to stolen materia, tightly, but without a smile to be found.
Perhaps that’s why so many keep believing in Final Fantasy. That the megalithic series is so far from its prime is almost too much to deal with. We’re not sure how to react. An ardent interior circle of fans have abandoned ship, but most hold on, and the games have begun to decay at an astonishing rate. If the wounds are left to fester, we could be seeing the death of the genre altogether.
Should we begin the funeral preparations? It may well be time. Final Fantasy itself is in a state of flux, summoning an Eidolon-sized stage persona that's content with adopting cinematic finesse rather than falling back on the traits that made it so legendary. Narrative over bluster, circumstance over pomp. Final Fantasy XV (and Final Fantasy XIII before it) is proof-positive that the franchise has to forge a new path in order to be recognized as the powerhouse it once was. It's as if the long-running role-playing tsunami has had to assume two different roles: the “innovative” blockbuster and the staunchly traditional fantasy full of childlike wonder that we see in next week’s Bravely Default.
While Final Fantasy XV weaves a more modern tale hellbent on making its players larger-than-life, Bravely Default is like the logical extension of the excellent remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV back on the DS. It eschews the darker atmosphere the numbered Final Fantasy games have adopted for a brighter, more traditional experience. In that regard, the old Final Fantasy is dead. Long live Bravely Default.
It's obvious the major tonal shift of Bravely Default, as well as its presence on a handheld, have helped to a craft fresh new world rather than the hackneyed maps we’ve already charted ad infinitum. Focusing less on awe-inspiring visuals and ensuring instead that the world players are exploring is a memorable one has helped the game rekindle the fire of in that ardent inner circle. It has already generated far more hype and positive press than the recent Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which, five years after the release of the original game bearing that name, appears fixated only on righting wrongs rather than inventing anything new.
How strange, then, that the reactionary title proves to be the more important one. Bravely Default deals in death, darkness, and the ever-present evil seen in nearly every RPG; to look at it is to recognize all you may appreciate about Final Fantasy as it was in the past: a job system, careful lines of combat, and a characterful narrative that is, literally, full of characters. An injection of humor here and there feels like such a breath of fresh air these days—if it's not a roaring badass, it can't be exalted. Bravely Default is content to bask in the fanciful; the super-deformed character models, a fantastical world rather than one smeared in grit. It's forging a path created from what was beloved about older JRPGs and infusing it with just enough modern verge to make it completely playable, if not completely new.
Perhaps it’s time to let nature run its course, to let this depleted soul go while it’s still clinging to its last few shreds of dignity.
The kicker? Bravely Default could well be this generation's Final Fantasy VII—if not a defining experience, at least one that clears the way for new ideas. It's making waves, and that's more than we can say for the darker, more “adult” games that have been released in its stead.
All of which is still simple to laugh off, and as long as the people making JRPGs continue to be happy with the status quo, we could be looking at the cruel end of a long, feverish videogame dream. Perhaps it’s time to let nature run its course, to let this depleted soul go while it’s still clinging to its last few shreds of dignity. I can do that if need be. Because at some point in the silence after death someone will begin to rebuild, and it probably won’t like Final Fantasy II or Uncharted. Until then, we’ll keep dreaming, wearing nostalgia on our sleeves like the hearts of the sprightly protagonists we send into war.