Word has it today, from 1UP’s sister site IGN among others, that Square Enix’s long-delayed Final Fantasy Versus XIII has been quietly taken out behind the woodshed to put a bullet unceremoniously into its temple as a compassionate act of mercy killing. If true — and I’m not going to even bother with an attempt at journalism to inquire for confirmation, because there’s no way the company will offer a comment to the press until it makes an official announcement one way or another — this news is at once shocking at not at all surprising.
Let’s brood, shall we?
It’s shocking to see such a huge project canned after so many years and undoubtedly so much money; I’d wager that the entirety of the game’s CG cutscenes have long since been rendered out at extraordinary expense. It’s shocking to see that the Final Fantasy brand name no longer has the power to salvage a troubled project. But at the same time, it seems to most logical outcome for a game that was announced more than six years ago and somehow has grown less visible over time. I’d love to see Versus XIII actually somehow still see release, but perhaps it’s best to cut losses (as rumor has it) and focus on rebuilding the Final Fantasy legacy with the inevitable FFXV.
Assuming it’s really dead, Versus XIII will go down in history as a cautionary tale against getting ahead of yourself. I can certainly understand the logic that birthed the Versus XIII project: Square had struck on huge success with the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project, making big loot on spin-offs of FFVII. Yet FFVII, like all the early Final Fantasies, was never meant to be followed up; it stood as a complete work. The instant Square began planning sequels to the game, they were forced to split apart the original story at the seams to insert new hooks and details. Suddenly there was a more convoluted back story to the birth of Avalanche; Sephiroth no longer seemed a unique snowflake thanks to Genesis and Angeal and those dumb kids from Advent Children; we learned mundane details (often nonsensical) about Vincent and Zack that did nothing to improve those characters’ original arcs. Oh, and FFVII’s deliciously ambiguous ending — did humanity perish in the clash between Meteor and the Lifestream? — lost its mystery as the writers were forced to pin down, “No they didn’t,” as canon in order to build sequels without an entirely dead cast.
So obviously, the thinking went: “What if we made a game like Final Fantasy VII with the spin-offs baked right in?” Thus, Final Fantasy XIII… and Agito XIII… and Versus XIII… and maybe Haeresis XIII, too, if that really ever existed. It wasn’t an inherently bad idea, but Square got ahead of itself in several ways. For one, it banked on the idea that FFXIII would be insanely popular. It banked on the assumption that the production process would be smooth and painless. And it banked on the belief that the company’s dev teams would have sufficient bandwidth to handle all these projects at once.
Unfortunately, Square was mistaken on every count. Sure, FFXIII sold fairly well, but it underperformed compared to its predecessors and split the series’ fanbase right down the middle. That, in part, came from the developmental difficulties the game faced due to the demands of HD development, which in turn delayed FFXIII’s release, ate up tons of resources, and forced the company to push the game out the door without the final coat of polish that would have made it meet many players’ expectations. And as FFXIII dragged on a couple of years beyond its intended date and switched development platforms, it almost certainly ate up manpower that the company expected to invest into Versus. And, in turn, Square elected to invest additional resources into a FFXIII sequel in order (one assumes) to soak up some of unexpected costs of the games. Much of the grunt work on XIII-2 came courtesy of tri-Ace, but even so it stands to reason that everyone in the office working on XIII-2 wasn’t putting in any time on Versus. Or Kingdom Hearts 3. Or Agito XIII, which was shuffled around to a new platform and got a new name and ended up being delayed so long Square decided to cut its losses and not release it in the U.S. despite it being a pretty great game.
Like many older publishers, Square missed the mark on its predictions for this generation. It anticipated the enthusiasm and loyalty of previous generations to carry forward, and it badly underestimated the resources necessary to make cutting-edge HD games. Some people look to the whole Final Fantasy XIII saga — the Fabula Nova Crystallis thing — as hubris or arrogance. I suppose that may factor in. But mostly I think it was a woeful misjudgment: A failure to read the coming sea changes. Lucky for Square Enix it can fall back on Eidos’ output, eh?
For what it’s worth, I’ve enjoyed following Versus XIII over the past half-decade-plus. Readers ate it up for a while, and wringing precious droplets of info from Square’s coy reveals became a sort of annual challenge at Tokyo Game Show. The enigmatic first CG trailer; the half-dozen additional CG trailers that added a couple of seconds of new footage to the original reveal; Yoko Shimomura’s excellent “Somnia.” I’ve enjoyed the precious trickle of new imagery — the first real-time footage of people talking! a 3D game camera! real battle footage! — and I got a kick out of the fact that you could apparently buy a replica of the protagonist’s asymmetrical suit. I want to imagine that tonight, the streets of Shinjuku are clogged with thin young men with amazingly teased hair, walking forlornly in their official FF Versus XIII suits, wondering what the hell the game’s story was about.
Man, four years later, these graphics actually look kind of bad. Those heads look so fake on top of those bodies. Visuals have come a long way since this game was announced… which is the whole problem, I guess.
I suppose I knew it my heart it was all over last year at TGS, when Square didn’t offer a single hint about the game. Not even a three-second camera phone video of a developer drunkenly ranting about how amazing it would be over top of a snippet of new footage.
The funny thing is, I bet that even if Versus XIII really is cancelled, Square Enix could make back a fair chunk of change just by releasing special books and DVDs about its story, art, and cutscenes. I guess we’ll know pretty soon — Square will be hosting a Final Fantasy 25th anniversary event in a few weeks, so in addition to (likely) announcing Final Fantasy XIII-3 or some such, they’ll probably give a definitive statement on Versus. Fair warning: If that statement turns out to be, “We’ve cancelled Versus XIII… because that game is now called Final Fantasy XV,” I’m gonna barf on a photo of Tetsuya Nomura.