Mistwalker's Hironobu Sakaguchi, who oversaw the Final Fantasy series up through X-2, has been around the role-playing block enough times to know what he likes about the genre and what issues could stand to be addressed. Having worked on Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, he's come to the conclusion that the increased focus on visuals often results in too much attention being diverted from the game's core.
During an Iwata Asks roundtable originally held in 2010 but only recently translated into English, the Gooch described to the Nintendo CEO his process during the development of The Last Story. In regards to moving from HD consoles down to the Wii: "We had to consider how we should convey the story to the players under such restrictions. Now that high-quality graphics rule supreme, you can reproduce what you want to communicate visually, but at the same time, I don’t know how to put this, but there's an element that's slightly excessive about it all..."
Instead, the Gooch welcomed the opportunity to return to the building blocks and craft a stronger, richer experience because of the shift in focus. He wanted to make sure the game itself was structurally sound, so his team spent a year and a half on a prototype that consisted of just square blocks for characters, a process that he last used on Final Fantasy VII. Since he didn't have to worry as much about the hardware's graphical pipeline, he was free to experiment more than he would have otherwise.
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None of this, of course, is to say that visuals aren't important: "I was really averse to allowing the quality of the graphics to drop just because we were working on Wii, which doesn't have HD graphics. I do really think that, in the end, what we've created can hold its own against other hardware." Merely, the team was able to approach The Last Story from an angle that they wouldn't have been able to had this been another project for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
He continues, "There's a tendency for developers to allow all their energy to be diverted into maintaining the high quality of the graphics." His sentiments are similar to some that Jim Sterling has mentioned before and which I share as well. While working with high-end consoles can provide ample opportunities, it's very easy to get lost in the details. Final Fantasy XIII, for instance, was criticized for limiting the scale and scope typical of the Final Fantasy name in exchange for fantastic visuals. It's a simple matter of economics -- if money is being funneled in one direction, it's not going elsewhere. A fine balance needs to be struck, and sometimes, working with "less capable" hardware might be the ticket to help a team refocus its priorities.
The Last Story launches in Europe on February 24. At that point, English-speaking gamers will be able to find out for themselves if Sakaguchi and Mistwalker succeeded in their experiment. If the extremely warm reception of Xenoblade Chronicles is any indication, The Last Story might just pull it off yet.
Also, make sure to read the full interview. Iwata Asks is always good for some juicy tidbits.