Remembering (?) Final Fantasy Versus XIII

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.

14 thoughts on “Remembering (?) Final Fantasy Versus XIII

  1. It’s odd to rememebr a time when the entire gaming world held it’s breath for the next Final Fantasy, no?

    • No, in my mind the norms haven’t inverted yet, so I still find it weird that Final Fantasy games need to be approached with trepidation.

  2. So what other cancelled titles might compare with this? Star Fox 2? Resident Evil 1.5?

    • The Last Guardian. OH YEAH

      Nah, there have been plenty of big cancellations over the years. Duke Nukem Forever is the most obvious (remember, 2K had Gearbox salvage it; it was fully cancelled for a while), and This is Vegas is probably the most infamously expensive (tens of millions wasted by Midway).

  3. How the mighty have fallen.

    But seriously, do you suppose that Square-Enix will shift to a mobile, free-to-play market?

  4. I don’t care about Versus XIII (should have been Kingdom Hearts 3 all along anyway); it really boggles the mind just how badly Square botched this generation. I don’t know who to blame, but I just hope they get their release schedule together for the next consoles.

    I will, however, cry rivers of tears if The Last Guardian gets cancelled. I don’t know much about game development, but I hope they have enough of a game left to work with to finish the thing.

  5. Oh, and I think Square’s downfall started with that FFVII tech demo. Impossible expectations and all that.

  6. I think their downfall started with FF XI. It was a mistake to make an MMO a numbered entry in the series. Then XII was such a drastic change gameplay-wise that the entire series never seemed to gain its footings again. I understand the series still sold well but in my opinion everything changed after X

    I also think there is a certain bravado with Square that seems to overarch everything they do now. Not just that they assumed that everyone would want so much FF XIII but that they refuse to give people what they really want. They have so many IP’s and yet they re-hash the same things over and over. If they wanted to make an action RPG, rather than make Versus they should make a new Secret of Mana. They also keep putting out these portable Kingdom Hearts games when all people really want it 3. No Chrono Trigger and no classic FF. I am all for change but if they want to do these changes than they need to either make new IP or pick the correct series for the type of game.

  7. I can’t believe the game’s been in development for so long… I still remembering hear it cropping up in discussion during early episodes of Retronauts in ’06 and ’07… Or my mind’s fudging together 1UP’s coverage and my iTunes subscription to the show :) It’s entirely possible.

    Good call on Kingdom Hearts 3 and some good looking back on this generation. Perhaps the next gen will see SquareEnixEidosEtc get past the awkward transition to HD and move forward with some innovative titles. Would love to see a good sequel in the Kingdom Hearts series or a really solid Seiken Densetsu title.

  8. I don’t think any of the main series offline games were meant to be followed up. 1-10, 12 and 13 are self-contained stories. X-2 and compilation of VII were exercises in hubris on par with Spirits Within. The only reason XIII-2 saw any success was because it gave fans of stagnation more traditional gameplay.

    Final Fantasy’s greatest strength has always been in how changeable it is, and any attempts at recapturing past glory will fail 99% of the time.

  9. Square-Enix had the problem of never completing their games since Final Fantasy VII for the PS1. It may look “complete” to the gaming public, but there are certain details (like unfinished 3d models or side quests) that were completely left out of the game due to time constraints. S.E. put so much effort into insignificant details like the visuals, they always wind up putting out games that don’t really match their original vision during the concept stage. Having multiple games being developed at once that must exceed their impossibly high standards does not help at all.

    Regarding Versus XIII, I don’t think the graphics are that bad, considering today’s standards, but after seeing what S.E. did to The Third Birthday, I would not be surprised one bit if it winds up being Final Fantasy XV. The poor prop modelers got to get paid, after all.

    • It’s not like shipping games “incomplete” is unique to Square. Everyone in the industry does it. No one is ever happy with the state of a game when it ships.

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