I remember the magic. I remember sitting in front of my friend’s TV as a kid and getting my first glimpse of Final Fantasy VII. I had no previous knowledge of Squaresoft (now known as Square-Enix) or the past games they made for the NES or Super Nintendo despite being a hardcore Nintendo fan. I wasn’t even familiar with the Sony Playstation whose success sky rocketed thanks to the success of Square’s newest game about spikey haired heroes with improbably big swords fighting sliver haired bishonens with even bigger swords. What I knew, though, was I was witnessing magic. So it was with some trepidation I downloaded the brand spanking new demo for Final Fantasy XV.
Titled Platinum Demo, this free taste of the upcoming installment of Square-Enix’s role-playing epic acts as a prelude of sorts in order to get fans salivating for the game’s eventual release in September. Unlike a previous demo released as a pre-order bonus for a separate Final Fantasy spin-off, Platinum Demo is being billed as a completely unique experience from what players will find in the main game. The only problem being how incoherent, boring, and ultimately unfulfilling the experience is. As a matter of fact, the release for Final Fantasy XV is emblematic of what is wrong not only with Final Fantasy or Square-Enix, but with the modern video game industry at large.
For you see, Platinum Demo is not a demo in the traditional sense of the word. The aforementioned pre-order bonus demo was truer to the term as it provided the player with a brief snippet of story and actual combat as it would likely appear in the final version of the game. Platimum Demo, on the other hand, spends most of the experience leading a child version of main character Noct through (admittedly stunning) backgrounds at the behest of long time Final Fantasy summon Carbuncle in what is basically a giant dream sequence. Within these backgrounds, Noct will explore and collect yellow crystals scattered around the area to unlock special tiles he can stand on to activate different effects. These effects include anything from unlocking a new weapon or altering the weather or time of day in the environment in order to show off the game’s technical prowess.
Unfortunately, the technical aspect of the game is the primary focus of the demo with combat thrown in as almost an afterthought. While Noct does battle strange non-descript creatures that pop out of the walls and ground, the combat itself is not particular challenging or engaging. That is, until the final section of the demo where Noct pulls a Shazam and morphs into his adult form to take on an iron giant who would be frustrating if the game did not make you utterly invincible. What you are essentially playing is a version of Kingdom Hearts mixed with Banjo-Kazooie for 45 minutes with an actual battle featured at the end. And, because it is all a dream, none of it really matters except to unlock an extra bit of content for the main game.
Platinum Demo is far more concerned with being a pretty tech demo than it is with giving players a reason to be excited for the next installment in a legendary series. This is, after all, Final Fantasy, a brand recognized over the entire world. The game pretty much sells itself. So instead, Square-Enix has gone and announced not one, but two spin-offs in order to fill in the blanks on the game’s back story. First, there is a five-part anime being published straight to Youtube (aside from an exclusive sixth episode included in the $270 collector’s edition because Square-Enix.) Then there is a feature length CG-animated film ala Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children which will tell the story of Noct’s father’s younger days as they will supposedly tie-in to the events of the game. All of this, of course, is meant to capitalize on the success and popularity of a game that has not even been released yet.
Square-Enix first test-drove this style of merchandising with the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project at the beginning of the century only to take it to extremes with the Fabula Nova Crystallis project for Final Fantasy XII. While Compilation of Final Fantasy VII was a genuine treat for long time fans, allowing them to spend more time in a world with characters they loved, Flavorful Nugget Crystals was a more cynical attempt to artificially recreate the same phenomenon. In fact, Final Fantasy XV itself is a leftover of this failed experiment as it was first announced as Final Fantasy versus XIII nearly a decade ago. So now history repeats itself only this time Square-Enix is taking no chances by releasing all of the game’s spin-offs at around the same time in order to make maximum profits off of its fans.
Square-Enix wants you to be as hyped for the game as possible so you will not give a second thought about spending hundreds of dollars for over-priced special editions and spin-off media. This desire is so large, the company held a press conference to announce these spin-offs as well as the game’s planned release date. If this sounds odd and pretentious to you, it is only because it is. To add more insult to injury, upon completion of the Platinum Demo, you are asked if you would like to digitally pre-order the full game despite only playing an incredibly small taste of what the full game will be. The magic I felt when I first played Final Fantasy VII back in the late 90s has been replaced with corporate cynicism.
This is all part of a wider trend you can see all over the modern gaming industry. Companies like Konami have added micro-transactions to Metal Gear hoping fans will put up with it. Ubisoft churns out Assassin’s Creed game after Assassin’s Creed game in fear of their biggest cash cow losing even the slightest bit of relevancy. Game publishers are constantly pressuring you to pre-order games sight unseen or else risk having an inferior experience due to missing out on exclusive content. Video games seem to have given up on providing compelling new experiences and instead try to milk as much money out of established fans as possible. So many of the games we grew up loving have lost their charm to this brand of consumerism. Games are no longer just games, it seems. They are industries unto themselves.
Final Fantasy XV may end up being a great game, but the way Square-Enix is marketing it leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. Many, my self-included, will argue that the series lost its soul a long time ago, but Final Fantasy XV’s cynical manufacturing of hype and exploitation of fan loyalty is the final nail in the coffin. I still remember the magic I felt playing Final Fantasy games in my youth. I believe that magic can be rekindled but this is not going to be the way to do it.
Platinum Demo: Final Fantasy XV is available now as a free download for Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Final Fantasy XV is slated for international release on September 30, 2016.