First of all, let me start out with this. Yesterday this happened:
Fifteen hours into the glorious Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Level-5 and Studio Ghibli’s critically acclaimed JRPG you visit the small port town of Castaway Cove for the last time, gain your third and last party member and board a ship bound for a faraway city. From that moment, the game’s world opens up completely, giving you access to the entire world’s map, making instantly clear how little of that world you have yet seen, and how much more there is to explore.
I gasped. I literally gasped for a moment, and felt like the younger version of myself who left the confines of Final Fantasy VII’s industrial metropole of Midgar for the first time back in 1997. After what seemed like endless hours traversing Midgar’s slums and Wall Market, you set foot outside the city and was taken aback by the vastness of the world beyond that. It also took me back to Final Fantasy VI, and the cataclysm that occurs halfway through the main plot, leaving you wondering whether the game has ended or not, only to find out your entire party has been scattered to the four corners of the world map, and the continent you just thought you knew split up into three large continents, basically giving you a completely new, second world map. There was a sense of wonder involved in those games I have hardly felt since.
Seeing that same thing happen in Ni No Kuni brought those memories back, and left me wondering where things have gone wrong for Final Fantasy, and many similar games since those days. Mostly, I think, it’s a style over substance thing. Especially Final Fantasy XIII was a stunning, beautiful game to look at, but played as a dull rollercoaster ride; a Final Fantasy title just going through the motions. I don’t remember much of the story revolving around Fal’Cie, l’Cie and Fal’Somethingelses, nor do I remember many of the characters’ names. What I do remember, however, is the vocalized Chocobo theme sticking out like a sore thumb, and the linearity of it all. The absence of towns, actual shops and NPC’s that seemingly went about their own businesses. I also remember the game opening up after 40+ hours, when you get to the vast open fields of Gran Pulse. Lifeless, open fields with only monsters and no villages or NPC’s to inhabit them. By that time, though, you’ve sadly been so pummeled to death with the nonsensical plot and explosive cutscenes that you just can’t bring yourself to care about side quests and an open world anymore.
Back in the day, games of course were just as linear as they are now, they just did a better job at concealing it. You knew the story was going to move on through a number of set points you had to get to sooner or later, but you didn’t care because there was so much to do along the way. And the overworld played an instrumental part in conveying that. The first time you went about the world on foot, as a ridiculously oversized avatar walking by the world’s towns and landmarks, you would spot places you couldn’t reach yet. There would be a cave on a mountain or a small island in the distance, but you knew that sooner or later you would get a boat or an airship (or, in Final Fantasy VII’s case, even a submarine) to help you get to those hard to reach places. There would be optional items in said cave, not needed to finish the story but a great booster to your stats nonetheless. The island, only reachable after hours of breeding and racing Chocobo’s, would house the Knights of the Round materia, also completely unneeded in order to finish the game. It didn’t matter though, because you were felling like you were part of a living and breeding world where you don’t necessarily have to climb a mountain unless you really feel like it.
Modern JRPG developers have forgotten that type of fun and the art of exploring. They try to bring you a blockbuster experience that numbs the senses with over the top action sequences and impressive set pieces, but forget to make the world immersive and would rather give you a scripted, on-rail experience which tries to beat an engaging story into you instead of having you experiencing it at your own leisurely pace. Ni No Kuni’s hunting for Pokémon like monsters to catch and develop and aid you in battle, the massive amount of side quests and bounty hunts, it’s item crafting and the sheer vastness will probably have it end up at the very top of my list or favourite RPG’s at the end of the year, perhaps even best game overall, and it deserves to be. Level-5 once again delivers an experience Square-Enix, with the umpteen Final Fantasy titles they have in production at all times, seems to have forgotten to create, and it’s the better game for it.
That, and ships.