When Final Fantasy XI launched in America, it received a pretty shining reception, which should say a lot about MMOs at the time. This release was a port of a game programmed for a very specific Playstation 2 peripheral, released long enough after its initial launch that a significant portion of the existing Japanese playerbase viewed the incoming American players in much the same way that you would view an army of roaches assembling just outside of your front door. The resultant culture clash and sheer ambiguity of the way the game functioned led to problems that Square-Enix is still pretending to clean up, not to mention that it included PlayOnline, a service so magnificently useless that it makes Games for Windows LIVE seem almost fashionable.
It was problematic, is my point. And that isn’t even getting to the actual game, which I’ve previously said is sort of like some bizarre outgrowth of Stockholm Syndrome, constantly assaulting you for the crime of trying to play it even while you find yourself aware of its deep-seated loathing and contempt for players. And yet the game did well. It was a success. It’s still relatively successful now, more than a decade out from its launch, warts and all.
Like any game, there are lessons to be learned here.
Playing The Secret World was in many ways both satisfying and infuriating. On the one hand, here’s an MMO that genuinely wanted its players to be engaged with puzzles beyond simply clicking on the right answer from a short and obvious list. That’s kind of awesome. On the other hand, the actual puzzles it had were highly reliant upon you scanning through fake websites, assembling clues very vaguely hidden in context, and then producing a synthesized answer. Or, as was far more often the case, looking up the solution online and skipping that whole tedious and unenjoyable aspect.
Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that the game did earnestly try to provide a challenge for its players that stretched beyond the norm. It was trying to challenge players beyond the usual sides of gameplay (which ties into that bit I outlined near the start of this feature) or simple common-knowledge trivia, asking players to flex a different skillset. They’re challenges that rely partly on things you’re not usually asked to do and partly upon the fact that you’re taught there’s a certain way video games play.
So let’s tell the story of why I didn’t play the Final Fantasy IV remake on the DS, and the convoluted story that is the sequel to the original. Because by my own rules, it could be argued that the remake is closer to being the default for Final Fantasy IV now, especially as that’s what’s up on Steam at the moment.
See, when Final Fantasy IV was being remade, the developers had a clever idea. If the players wanted more story, why not give it to them? Why not have a companion piece produced showing what happened after the events of the main story, showing the next generation of characters many years down the road?
Final Fantasy IV: The After Years started life on mobile phones, then as a series of downloadable installments. On the PSP, the whole thing was packaged into a single game, which essentially took the remake version that was released for the Gameboy Advance (i.e. minus the improvements in the DS release) and added a new feature. Which brings us to today’s piece, a bonus piece of content between Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, bridging our way to a sequel that I’m pretty sure no one needed.
I’m not fond of excuses when it comes to critical thought. You hear a lot of them thrown around consistently, usually that a given film wasn’t supposed to be winning awards, so why are you critiquing it? Because apparently it’s impossible to both be a good action film and not insultingly stupid, never mind that Pacific Rim showed us exactly what Transformers could have been with a better script instead of the blaring obnoxious films that we’ve seen for years now. Just because a film is meant to be entertaining action doesn’t mean it also has to be bracingly stupid.
We need to tear down the idea that critical thought and questions somehow need to step out of certain discussions. It is possible for something to both be a straight action piece meant to show off cool hardware and explosions while also being a likable piece on its own merits. You do not get to defend blockbuster titles on the premise that they’re meant to just be action extravaganzas, as it’s possible to have both. But that’s the least of the defenses that I want to skewer and be rid of.