What a time to be alive. We live in a day and age where I can expect and praise things like a 15th installment to a video game series. Not even the Land Before Time movies made it that far! (pretty close though.) One has to wonder how perilous the leap is when a series gets more and more titles under its belt. While talking about moving from Part one of a series to part two may seem like a linear jump at times, (i.e. the hero gets two guns instead of one, the villain in the first game was just the first of many, etc etc.) jumping to a number like fifteen tears a hole in the fabric of the series’ continuity as a whole. How can we expect to have harrowing life-threatening experiences in each game, only to find some new title where a new evil arises to take its place? It gets to a point where immersion can no longer be established in a game simply because of how far a series has gone since, at the end of the day, there will just be something to undo your work the next day. And that’s not even to mention that a particular setting of a game may have worked great during a certain time period in history, but would not work now as we move into the future.
To combat this, developers make stipulation after stipulation for a series in question to maintain a balance between achievements made in previous titles while also keeping the series alive long enough to keep allow us to further develop on an experience presented through the video game medium. Sometimes its a time-skip, sometimes its an alternate universe, sometimes its a shift in perspective and sometimes they just set your character back to level one to watch you crawl to the top again.
“Oh no, I’ve lost all my enemy killing weapons…again…Now I have to learn how to kill enemies….again…”
No matter how they create the stipulation, the fact remains that when more changes are made to a game’s core formula, parts of that original charm are going to be lost in the process. So the goal then to keep a long-running game series alive would be to maintain a balance between hearkening to the original source material, creating a believable atmosphere for a series to continue, and the big one, catering to veterans of a series and newcomers.
So recently, we’ve seen three completely different series have big anniversary titles that sought to define the game series as a whole. Three games that attempted to bridge the gap and make a series that could continue to stand the test of time and today I’d like to talk about my impressions of how each series achieved or failed their design goals and see if we can iron out what can truly count as a game for fans and first-timers alike. To start, we’ll begin with the elephant in the room, Final Fantasy XV.
Those of you who have read my blog, specifically regarding my first impressions of Final Fantasy XV know that I was not a big fan of the way the game started. Where most Final Fantasy games treat you with a nice opening cut-scene or some kind of exposition to pull you into the world, XV effectively dumps you in the middle of a sand box with an extremely vague idea of what the hell is going on. But, does that conversely mean that to have a good Final Fantasy game you have to have a long intro to set the stage? If so, Final Fantasy VII’s intro bombing sequence would like to have a word with you.
What you have to understand with modern gaming, is that people no longer like the idea of unwrapping a shiny new game, putting it in the game console and then waiting an hour to actually play the damn thing. We are a society that thrives on instant gratification and Square Enix saw this and attempted to move with the times in this regard by putting you into the game world shortly after you press “New Game.” This was also partly done because there had already been a multiple episode anime put out about the game as well as a feature length CG movie that players were expected to have seen BEFORE playing the game. Out of the three being discussed, Final Fantasy XV is the only game that actively tried to bring in these “new-comers” that the series needed to thrive, both economically and as a community. A very common preconception about the Final Fantasy series is “its that game where you play as a spikey haired guy that just stands there when monsters attack him.”
The turn-based action that defined the series was a polarizing feature for newcomers because anyone in a real fight would move out of the way instead of taking the hit in the fights Final Fantasy presents. Furthermore, because its previous games took place in more medieval/fantasy settings, it was perceived as a game that only people really into the fantasy genre would really enjoy. Square Enix attempted to answer all of these questions and extend a hand out to help these people understand the vastness of Final Fantasy and ease them into a world they could more readily understand but in doing so, they tipped the scales of equilibrium for the series veterans who were used to said fantasy settings and turn-based combat.
This phenomena has already been going on well before XV’s release, as we can see with fan reception of the Final Fantasy XIII series and again we see in XV that, what we gain in modernity, we lose in stylistic charm. For XV to have truly been a series meant for both parties, that homage to turn-based combat NEEDED to exist in someway because it divides the priorities players have in one of the most crucial parts of the game-play experience. Armor and accessories were no longer as crucial, and skills were far more limited than they were in previous games because they were made to be flashy and impressive as opposed to means of survival. Fear of damage was also no longer as big of deal with an auto-dodge/auto-parry mechanic added to the game (both of which are not normal for FF in the way they are presented.) The question posed in each battle turned from “How do I survive this/optimize the encounter?” to “How should I beat this particular baddie today? and because of that battles for the whole felt hollow and less meaningful.
And that is unfortunate, because XV does a lot of other things really well to reference the source material. Dungeons were handled wonderfully, Chocobos made a very triumphant return, the summons in the game were all very impressive and the story line, once you eventually got there, played out like a traditional Final Fantasy story line. Its just unfortunate that so much was sacrificed to bring in new players to outweigh what keeps series veterans from coming back. Where button-mashing is rewarded over tactical thinking.
Meanwhile, at camp Nintendo, the Legend of Zelda series receives its 30th anniversary
(So did Metroid but no one noticed) and we got a new Zelda title which had all the same design goals Final Fantasy XV had but with one further goal–get people to buy the Nintendo Switch.
But this was by no means a small undertaking. Leading up to Breath of Wild, the Zelda series had hit a bit of a slump where no title could really stand out for very long among Nintendo’s other IPs. Again and again we saw Zelda game after Zelda game get new sword-play gimmicks that brought in new people for the sake of spectacle, but did little to offer to what many would describe as the “Zelda” experience. Everything was getting very formulaic and structured so for this new Zelda to do well it would have to actually reinvent its game-play instead of relying on gimmicks–the console was the gimmick.
And it answered that call in a very masterful and humble way. Nintendo was able to easily pull from every Zelda game from the very first to the very newest to meld their styles and pieces of the story into one beautiful portraiture of what Zelda means. Fans of the retro NES styles games will love the freedom of challenging dungeons and bosses at their own pace while fans of the N64 games will love the locations and characters referenced within the games, as well as the signature combat style that the Zelda series came to be loved for, and newer Zelda players will love the modern additions to the game that make the world feel more accessible and alive.
On top of all this the game is gorgeous and delivers a wonderful fusion of Chinese and Japanese culture on top of modern technological advancements we see in today’s world. I can’t tell you the sheer atmospheric euphoria I experienced when entering Kakariko Village for the first time. The signature music was still there but beautifully remixed and if I blinked my eyes I could see the N64’s version of the town in my distant memory. That experience is what you’ll experience in every part of Breath of the Wild. It pulls from the source material but makes some very careful and slight revisions to make Hyrule brand new all over again.
Some would argue that the various dungeons scattered around the world are not exactly the same as traditional Zelda dungeons, to which I would agree. Many dungeons involve one to three puzzles and sometimes an enemy encounter or two. This is a large departure from older Zelda games which boast expansive and very structured dungeon exploring and is the only thing that really derives heavily on the core game play aspects of Zelda. I don’t necessarily welcome the change, but find it to be a nice change from the Forest Temple –> Fire Temple –> Water Temple set up. If one can look past the lack luster dungeons they will instead find a thriving over-world to explore every nook and cranny of, and embark on an adventure far greater than many other games in the same genre.
And then this cocky thief shows up and quite literally steals the show
It’s funny when you think about Persona 5’s game dev meta and their correlation as “Phantom Thieves”. In nearly every aspect Persona 5 blows the previous two games out of the water, but because it is the newest to be released it was able to do this largely off of hind-sight. It was literally able to steal certain aspects of popular games and make improvements on them with the snap of their fingers. People complained about the restrictive travel system and slow loading times in Final Fantasy XV and Persona shot right back with a Cat Bus to drive around in any direction you like as well as a fast and fluid fast-travel system that gets you where you need to be with style and ease. People complained about Zelda’s lack luster dungeons and enemy design, so Persona shows a completely unique and beautifully crafted dungeon for every boss lined up in its campaign as well as a rich tapestry of monsters to choose from in both older Persona games and the Shin Megami Tensei games that it originally hails from. On top of this it is able to recreate the various calendar, social link and battle system mechanics that the series has come to be known for.
Every part of Persona 5 is crammed with style, elegance and heart. Its music spurs you into the mood, its graphics are frankly, far better than what we deserve and its loaded with fleshed out, optional character interactions and full anime-style cut-scenes, which was something that Atlus definitely did not have to do, but wholly improved the experience for doing so. It almost feels like the devs went out of their way to uproot all original video game conventions with no concern for what people expect out of JRPGs. The way you enter your character’s name, purchase health items, how you handle the world around you and in turn how the world looks back at you, everything about the game is a breath of new life and presents them in a way that is showy, but not willing to wait around while you pick your jaw off the ground. And therein lies its change from traditional Persona games.
Persona 5 is not going to wait for you to grind up a particular stat or social link in between its own agenda. You are truly at the whims of time’s constant flow and how you spend your time after school is even more critical then it has been in previous iterations. The game makes sure to bombard you with things to do to fill that vital time slot or forcing you this way and that for the flow of the story-line in an attempt to slip the rug out from under you. Its brutal, but its rewarding as you attempt to prove your existence against a world that seeks to only put you down.
Fans of Shin Megami Tensei games rejoice as the hold-up system allows players to converse with monsters and convince them to join you or give you loot…albeit by holding them at gun point. Persona fusion is as intricate and rewarding as it ever has been, truly Persona has never been better then the present. Its difficult to truly sing its praises without getting into the nitty gritty inside of this game, but know that Persona 5 masterfully upholds the standards expected in the Persona series and modernizes them with such stylish flair that you can’t help but be impressed.
So what do we learn from all this? If I had to rank which games kept the balance between catering to newcomers and veterans, I would put Persona 5 at the top, Breath of the Wild right beneath it and Final Fantasy XV at the bottom. XV focused far too greatly on appealing to new players which, while helping sales goals left a game that only left players wanting more. Breath of the Wild beautifully answered the call of making a new, original Zelda but was held back by the gimmicks of the Nintendo Switch and its lack of fleshed out dungeons while Persona fits snugly in the middle for both newcomers and veterans.
Its ironic that XV, being the game that set out to be designed for both sides of the coin, failed to address its long-time players while Persona 5 was able to so easily cater to the problem, but then again the Persona series is at its fifth installment as opposed to Final Fantasy’s fifteenth. Will have to see how what Persona looks like when it gets to Persona 10 or even Persona 6. Keeping this in mind, truly it is Zelda that came out on top in this divide and its clear now that the key to bridging the gap between players is centered around building at the heart of the original source material rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel. It would seem evident that the question that should be asked when making an anniversary title to celebrate a long-standing series should be “what was it that brought people here and how can we re-emulate that?”
((Also I’m really sorry to everyone for just disappearing for 4 months! Time just flew by and I hope this long post counts for something, gonna try and jump back on the grind for anyone interested in more articles))