The 1980s were a good time for video games, a period of innovation when many of the medium’s biggest franchises were born. Mario Bros. introduced its iconic plumbing siblings to the world in 1983. In 1986 Legend of Zelda allowed gamers to adventure like never before.
Slightly less heralded but no less influential was Hironobu Sakaguchi’s role-playing game Final Fantasy, released in 1987. Over the years, the series has proved that video games can be a powerful, immersive tool for storytelling. With 14 main installments and millions of copies sold since its inception, a generation of gamers (and of game makers) has grown up with the richly detailed worlds that Sakaguchi and game design firm Square have created.
Yet in recent years, the series has lost much of its relevance. Several critics have declared the death of Final Fantasy. The release of a new game in the franchise no longer generates the fervor it once did, and the field of competitors is much stronger than it once was. But with a return to the franchise’s roots, Final Fantasy could regain its edge just when the gaming industry needs it most. And surprisingly, Lightning Returns: FFXIII, the lukewarmly received “triquel” to Final Fantasy XIII, could be the first step in turning things around.
In 2001, the gaming world that Final Fantasy had helped shape began to shift. Microsoft’s Xbox’s first-person-shooter launch title, Halo, sold one million copies in less than five months (and more than five million copies to date); the next two sequels sold more than eight million copies each. That same year, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III, whose controversial adult content, although fantastical in its own way, took place in a grittier, more realistic world than Fantasy and gave players nigh unprecedented freedom. In the following years, the demand for first-person shooters and non-linear gameplay exploded.
Final Fantasy XIII came out in 2010, after years of buildup, and used a new game engine that seemed to focus more on visuals. Though reviews were fairly positive, the release was out of step with its times: Over the previous decade, gamers had become accustomed to open worlds—that is, environments that could be explored with an amount of freedom resembling how a person might explore a real-world city. The storyline in Final Fantasy, though, remained linear; you could still only travel the one path the game makers set.
Additionally, it just felt stale. In its early years, each successive Final Fantasy game tried new things and improved upon the last, until developers found a formula that sold well around the sixth installment. Gameplay tweaks and novel settings aside, the series’ basic tropes and story arcs persisted for game after game with few exceptions. It worked for many years, but the series grew stagnant and predictable. Fans were unhappy, the developers confused: Final Fantasy XIII was their low point and wake-up call.
Square attempted to address these concerns with two direct sequels, which “put an emphasis on incorporating the player’s feedback and focused on the game design to provide players with more freedom,” as director Motomu Toriyama told me. The first sequel, XIII-2, was an improvement on the old formula. Lightning Returns, however, is something different.
Toriyama’s team kept Lightning Returns’ main story simple to increase that player freedom—the game progresses differently based on certain decisions—and the lush, open world of Nova Chrysalia feels exciting to explore. Battles are a fast, fascinating cross between real-time and turn-based combat, and a huge departure from the series. So are the character customization options, which come in the form of cosplay costumes and include several winks to earlier games (similar concepts were first tested in another controversial sequel, Final Fantasy X-2). A time limit, though annoying, challenges the player to make tough choices. The mood is campy and chaotic and yes, reviews are mixed, but even the negative ones praise the changes in combat (“brilliant,” “terrific”). For the first time since 2006, a Final Fantasy game feels truly new.
The next step for Square Enix, then, is to refocus on the narrative, which is growing ever more important to the rest of the industry.
Last year, story-driven games lead the pack when it came to acclaim and player interest. The Last of Us, which won “Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing” from the Writers Guild of America, had linear gameplay, but was praised for its well-crafted narrative and characters. The game was so cinematic—around 90 minutes of cut-scenes—that a Hollywood movie is rumored to be in talks. Independent games are also having a moment, like the hit Gone Home, whose stripped down, exploratory style emphasized the engrossing story.
These titles are important, doubling down on the storytelling tradition Final Fantasy started. Though Lightning Returns isn’t perfect, it’s taking that tradition in a new direction. Many in the industry believe things will soon start to shift towards virtual reality, but it is unclear which genres will thrive on devices like the much-discussed Oculus Rift. If the series’ creators can once again tell a strong narrative, Final Fantasy could satisfy a new generation of story-loving gamers, kickstart a wave of compelling role-playing games, and help pave the way for the VR-centric future. Fans have pinned their hopes on the forthcoming Final Fantasy XV, reported to be a dark, realistic exploration of human emotions, to revive the franchise. But Lightning Returns still represents a turning point—a renewed desire to innovate and create compelling, fantasy worlds.