Fantasian has quite a lot to live up to.
Director Hironobu Sakaguchi has been writing and developing video games for more time than I have existed on this planet, and Fantasian could well be his final game. With that in mind, I approached Fantasian incredibly optimistic, excited by the promise of playing a modern work from a living legend who, when it comes to this medium, has basically seen it all over the course of three decades.
One of Fantasian’s opening gambits is a pretty aloof protagonist. “Huh, seen that before,” I thought, bringing back memories of a lackadaisical Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy 7. Then there’s an eager Princess who disembarks her throne for an adventure, which harkens back as far as the original Final Fantasy’s Princess Sara. That’s not even to mention Kina, a possible love interest for our aloof protagonist who hates to admit her attraction, which reminds me of just about any JRPG over the last god-knows how many years.
As I began to recognise trait after trait in Fantasian from JRPG history, my mind admittedly began to sour on these aspects. I saw them for what I thought they were: tropes from the annals of JRPG history, plucked from various franchises and console eras to sit neatly in the neat new cohesive story shell that was Fantasian. I didn’t think Fantasian could bring anything new or exciting to the table, with the weight of all these tropes threatening to stifle anything genuinely original. I wondered what Sakaguchi had really been going for when he penned these tropes into Fantasian’s script.
Then something clicked in me as I was casually scrolling through Sakaguchi’s vast Wikipedia entry. “What the hell am I doing here,” I thought to myself, playing through the latest project of someone with more game developing and story writing experience than I could ever hope to amass. I don’t know if it was the imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head, or just me taking a big chunk of humble pie, but I’d managed to talk myself down all the way from originally criticising Sakaguchi’s lack of original ideas, to looking at these “tropes” with a very different mindset.
I slowly began to recontextualise the JRPG tropes in front of me according to Sakaguchi’s career. Instead of looking at every idea that had been hashed out a million times by countless other JRPG developers of old and rolling my eyes into the back of my skull, I began to think about the tropes in the context of the creator they were coming from. In particular, his incredibly long and storied career of possibly even popularising some of those traditions in the first place.
Take Fantasian protagonist Leo, for example. At first glance he’s little more than an aloof kid with god-like battling prowess, slashing through monsters and men alike with relative ease. Compare him next to Cloud Strife, and the two are near indistinguishable, except perhaps from how overtly horny Cloud makes everyone around him in Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I did my homework and saw that Sakaguchi had a certain influence over Cloud’s final design, despite the fact he was chiefly designed by Tetsuya Nomura.
It’s this that chiefly caused me to take a step back and reconsider where Fantasian’s tropes were actually coming from. They didn’t originate from someone new to the game development business, looking back on classic JRPGs to find some inspiration — they came from someone who had a hand in developing them. I think the aloof, cool, and slick protagonist in a JRPG can be credited partly to Cloud Strife in 1997, which means in turn, it can be partly credited to Hironobu Sakaguchi, who drew up the first draft of Cloud’s character during pre-production for the classic JRPG.
It’s not every day that a creator who helped popularise a trope comes back to re-establish it in a brand new creation of theirs. It’s this that made me reconsider Fantasian as something else entirely: a love letter to Sakaguchi’s storied career. The Final Fantasy director hasn’t been shy about possibly stepping away from game development after 30-odd years, and I find it impossible to put myself in Sakaguchi’s position, having to round out your extensive career with one final bout.
Therefore, the tropes in Fantasian merit a wider discussion about where, and who, they’re coming from. They don’t simply deserve to be discarded and overlooked as overwrought ideas with nothing new to bring to the table. Instead, they deserve to be held up and analysed in the context of Sakaguchi’s celebrated career as perhaps one of the most influential game developers on the face of the planet. At the end of the day, Sakaguchi has absolutely earned a swansong, and if collecting storytelling aspects that he helped popularise is how he wants to bow out, then who am I to question it?