I can sum up my distaste for the shape of modern Final Fantasy in five words: there are no black mages. Despite all the shiny new graphics and fancy processors, the games have lost their core sense of wonder and otherworldliness. The black mage is a mystery, an unseen figure shrouded in heavy robes, oversized gloves, and a pointy hat which hides all but his eyes. In Final Fantasy IX, this idea is exemplified in the character of Vivi, a black mage who struggles to understand the riddle of his own existence.
Final Fantasy X at least had Lulu. She too wore a voluminous outfit, although it didn’t quite hide all of her… assets. And she, like Vivi, has had a traumatic history and wrestles with her own sense of purpose. But really it’s not these physical or thematic similarities that are important. What really matters is that this idea of a black mage calls out to our fantastic, childlike urge to explore other worlds and dabble in the ars arcanum.
Something about this got lost in Final Fantasy XII and XIII. Oh, both games have magic, of course — in XII’s case probably more magic than any other game in the series. But in both games, magic is not a central feature of the plot. It’s just kind of… there.
In XII, magic is just a commodity. Your characters purchase a license for it and then go to a magic shop to, well, buy magic. And any of them can do it. There’s no differentiation whatsoever. Not since the NES days has magic been such a peripheral and bland part of the gameplay, to the point where there’s nothing magical about magic.
In every Final Fantasy game between Final Fantasy IV and X, magic was crucial not just to the gameplay but to the story as well. In IV, for example, a wall of ice blocks your progress until Rydia overcomes her fear of fire magic. In VI, the secret of how Terra can cast magic and her relationship to the Espers is central to the plot of the game. Magic wasn’t just a crude feature of everyday life in these games, but something special and dangerous and cool.
XIII took a few steps in the right direction, with only certain characters being able to cast magic at first and the ability flowing from the cryptic fal’Cie. But the game sort of loses steam halfway through, and you never really find out what the fal’Cie are or if there’s any importance to magic beyond just being pretty to look at.
Now I’m not saying that Final Fantasy XV needs to have a classic black mage class complete with cartoonish hat and invisible face. The series has evolved into something a bit more mature than it once was, and even the lighthearted IX dealt with some pretty dark themes. But there is something to be said for brand recognition. One reason Mario has been so consistently successful is because Nintendo does a masterful job branding their games. When you play a Nintendo game, every element of the presentation, from the fonts to the sound effects to the characters themselves, tell you you’re playing a Nintendo game.
Square could stand to learn something from this example — and their own past. Final Fantasy VII struck out in a bold new direction for the series, but retained the mechanics and flavor of its predecessors. XIII’s resemblance to its forbears is in name only.
The black mage is a nod to Square’s past. Vivi was an homage, a visual callback to the black mage of the original Final Fantasy which gave the character a voice and waxed philosophical about the origins of the ubiquitous mages. It’s a thread that ties the fabric of the franchise together, like Chocobos or Bahamut or Cid, all of which have seen diminished importance, or even absence, in recent days.
This is what’s really missing from the console Final Fantasies recently — and I say “recently” although XIII came out in 2009 and XII was back in 2006. That’s only two main franchise games in the past seven years, and it’s even worse if you consider that X came out way back in 2001. Instead of making new games, Square Enix is moving further and further away from the franchise by making prototype sequels to XIII.
Square Enix likes money — specifically, your money. And if you happen to be younger than twenty, chances are good that your first experience with Final Fantasy was XIII. Square is essentially gambling that enough new consumers will buy its new prototype games that it doesn’t need to worry about branding anymore, and to some extent they’ve been right. But this kind of thinking is very short-sighted. It may capture customers in the short term, but how long can they sustain a franchise of prototypes? And if they cut the new games off from the rest of the franchise, how can they expect to sell remakes? If new customers only have experience with XIII, IV is going to look completely foreign to them.
Obviously there’s more to the franchise than just black mages, but the cloak-hat-and-gloves black mage is probably the most recognizable image in the entire Final Fantasy canon. It’s fine if Square Enix wants to make prototype games. I encourage them to experiment with new things, because that’s how the industry stays fresh. But experimentation is best left for side games, and perhaps the recent resignation of CEO Yoichi Wada and a massive company restructuring reflects an understanding of this maxim.* When it comes to the flagship franchise, key elements of the brand need to be there as a reminder to fans and as an emblem of its own proud history.
And that means more black mages, god damn it!
*But of course that was mostly about huge financial losses. Sayonara, Wada-san.