With Final Fantasy XIII-2 now released, and critical verdicts now in, it is finally possible to assess the fallout from its reception, and to distill from it one crystalline message: the Final Fantasy series critical bubble has popped, the seemingly impenetrable aura has dissipated and, for the time being at least, the series titles will sink or swim based on their own merits.
Commercial reviews are in almost unanimous agreement on one point: story coherence aside, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a tangible improvement over Final Fantasy XIII in all meaningful capacities. That fact considered, it has come as a surprise to some to see the initial Metarating of Final Fantasy XIII-2 languishing bellow that of the original inferior title. Final Fantasy fans have accused reviewers of getting their scores horribly wrong, yet this is not the case – in fact the current crop of review scores are arguably far more real and informative than those belonging to Final Fantasy XIII, provided that one accepts the premise that the era of Final Fantasy score inflation is currently over.
When a game series is able to accrue the tremendous ammount of plaudits and goodwill that the Final Fantasy series has garnered over its 25 year run as one of the world’s most cherished JRPG franchises, then it tends to find itself in something of a critical bubble, wherein it becomes increasingly difficult for any heavy criticism to stick to new entries. Not only are critics prone to eventual fanboy zeal, but even those who are not so inclined are nevertheless somewhat hesitant to put forth controversial verdicts or to appear to be on the wrong side of history. Then there are purely practical concerns which can locate such a vaunted series in a privileged position, such as advertising revenue and the tendency to placate a readership which decries any score below 9/10.
Final Fantasy XIII was a controversial game to say the least. An excellent battle system married to the most rudimentary of world designs, Final Fantasy XIII scored well bellow the series average, yet was viewed by many as being handled with kid gloves by some of the commercial reviewers. Subsequently, reviewer credibility was routinely trashed in the review comment threads, and the reviewers themselves began to speak about the game differently in retrospect, retconning their judgement to that of ‘disappointing sequel’. In short, this had the effect of changing the narrative surrounding the Final Fantasy series and its thirteenth installment, removing the gloss from Square Enix’s shiniest bauble.
A series which was held apart from its national peers has now become a part of the story of Japan’s downward spiral of game design decline, but while this may read as an epitaph or dirge to some, one is inclined to argue that it is anything but for Final Fantasy fans rooting for the series to be great again. When praise and accolades are unconditional, then it seems intuitive that quality must surely suffer as a result. For a series to retain its integrity long after the initial inspiration is gone, it must be held to best practice standards. If Final Fantasy‘s hardened fanbase were at liberty to decide, then no new series installment would ever be awarded lower than perfect – but that inclination is doing neither themselves nor their hallowed series any favours.
After many a long year of reviewer indulgence a mainline Final Fantasy title is finally being judged to industry standards, which has resulted in the title being awarded an overwhelmingly consistent review distribution mode of 8/10 – and that is OK. 8/10 is a good score, which is awarded to good games with perhaps a few small problems with them. 8/10 is a score perfectly in tune with the text of most Final Fantasy XIII-2 reviews (assuming they are accurate), which paint the picture of a game which fixes most of its predecessor’s problems without bringing anything truly exceptional to the table. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game that tries its hardest to remedy the sins of the past, and has been rewarded with good scores for its efforts – it will be for other games to recapture the series’ critical acclaim.