If you’ve played one of the earlier games in the Final Fantasy series (as in, pre-Final Fantasy X), you’ll probably remember a world map or two. Even three, in Final Fantasy IV and V’s case. Back in those days, world maps were like hot cakes and one was never enough. Now, you’ll be lucky if you see get one at all. Why has such an iconic feature of the series been slowly phased out and replaced with linear corridors and fast-travel? Sure, there were points where not being able to find an obscure cave tucked into the butt of a mountain range somewhere was frustrating, but the maps served some purpose. The question is: is that purpose no longer relevant now that graphics have evolved to the point where we can count the number of pores on Lightning’s face? Or is it a bigger issue?
A big issue that gamers have voiced displeasure about the Final Fantasy franchise’s direction recently is the growing linearity of story lines and gameplay. It is naturally arguable that Final Fantasy’s story has always been somewhat linear (as most RPGs are), pushing you from quests to towns without much choice and shunting you in the direction of your destiny. The End. Game Over. However, the world map in early versions of Final Fantasy, especially when graphics were in their infancy, gave the player the feeling of a vast, open world, and that they were part of something bigger. In recent Final Fantasy games, in place of this map you have linear corridors, or areas that you pass through with a specific entrance or exit.
The explorable map also gave you the choice not to be shunted for a while, to explore rich story and different areas, to play mini-games and to take the risk that the area you may be walking into has some unknown beastie that will one-hit-KO your under-leveled protagonist into the dirt–hello, Final Fantasy 2! To put it simply, of course the end of the story will always be reached–but now, it’s just without all the faffing about like before.
Gone are the days of tents, the item that was like liquid gold in earlier games. Gone are the days of jarring random encounters on the world map, and the excitement of breeding Chocobos so they can pull sweet moves when you ride them like John Wayne to the next plot point. In are the days of Final Fantasy XIII, where the only exploring is what you get via a slice of Gran Pulse. Cocoon was such an integral part of the game–why weren’t we able to see the big picture and where everything was located? So much effort was put into beautiful surroundings and awe-inspiring graphics that the rich world almost seemed to get lost in translation. This is especially sad because Gran Pulse was such a staggeringly wondrous location, putting the player into the perspective of a huge world and making, at the very least, a small portion of FFXIII’s world explorable. If this had been the nature of the whole game, it would’ve been mind-blowing.
With the death of the world map in Final Fantasy, it seems like the number of mini-games and side-quests have diminished greatly as well. Many in Final Fantasy’s past used the world map’s vast area to its advantage, such as the trials and tribulations you have to go through to get the Knights of the Round Materia in VII (that involved breeding a gold Chocobo, the only vehicle in the game that could access the required area on the world map), and VIII’s Obel Lake side-quest that requires Squall to travel all over the world to find rare items and hidden areas.
Perhaps a premium example of immersing the player and utilizing the world map’s unique topography is the Chocograph mini-game in IX. The player is required to identify landmarks all over Gaia and excavate graphs found in the Chocobo gardens, which end up providing them with treasure chests containing valuable items and cards, as well as additional abilities for their Chocobo that allows them to reach new areas. This in turn helps the player to continue other side-quests, like Mognet Central.
Not that it’s to say that there aren’t any mini-games or side-quests post-IX, of course. X had a rich assortment, including Blitzball and the Monster Arena, and XIII did make a halfhearted attempt with the stone missions. However, with the only mini-games in XIII listed as the missions and ‘acquiring all the achievements for the 360 or PS3′, as well as the lack of world map from X onwards, we may be in a bit of trouble.
So, if the world map added so much to previous games, then why is Square Enix phasing them out? ‘Recent’ games still employ the explorable world map as a major feature, such as Tales of Vesperia and Ni No Kuni, so it can’t be that they’re simply going out of fashion.
There are several theories why the world map is being dashed in favour of linear corridors in Final Fantasy, one being that the warped proportions that are required to make a world map actually traversable by the character are no longer appropriate. In earlier games, the character is obviously disproportionate to their surroundings so that they have the ability to explore without several hours of in-game running ruining their experience. However, with the recent trend in Final Fantasy to render all surroundings proportionate to the character, the world map would seem out of place with the current design direction. Not only that, but it would take you damn near forever to run from one side of a proportionate world to another.
Another theory is that perhaps there’s just not the budget to create such massive worlds with a rich variance of in-game content now that production values are higher and there’s so much more pressure on the industry. Square Enix has lost their president and suffered recent financial losses reaching more than $138 million, and some predict that the worst is yet to come. Maybe there’s just not the money there to recreate the scale we’re used to, something that shows fairly badly in the bland nature XIII’s missions are laid out–take quest, run to point A, fight monster, done. Mostly just a rearranging of pre-existing content, really. If they couldn’t even swing an absorbing side-quest for the one area in the game that actually feels like you’re exploring a world, then perhaps they were just a penny short.
X, XII, XIII/XIII-2 all had engaging stories and beautiful characters, which is one of Final Fantasy’s defining features. X and XII had, at least, viewable maps which you could travel to different destinations to with an airship. Square Enix even listened to players who were unhappy about the lack of side-quests by turning it around in XIII-2. Who knows? Maybe this could even happen with the explorable world map… someday.
But for now, it looks like our Chocographing days are over.