How Dissidia NT is taking Final Fantasy from JRPG to JPVP, and making an unexpected bid for esports success

Dissidia Final Fantasy NT is coming to the PlayStation 4 next year and, according to the game’s producer Ichiro Hazama and director Takeo Kujiraoka, it could be an esports hit waiting to happen. 

The game is a 3 v 3 brawler, released in 2015 as a collaboration between Team Ninja and Square Enix exclusively for the Japanese arcade. All of the characters are borrowed from the core Final Fantasy series, but anyone coming into this expecting a JRPG is in for a rude upset: there’s a lot of punching, with flashy beatdowns and spurts of particle effects taking the place of narrative or storyline. Not that a storyline would make sense, seeing as the game is largely just Final Fantasy heroes from different universes coming together to beat the snot out of each other. 

The game has already been a success in the fighting game community, with groups of players, arcades and even Square Enix itself coming together to throw tournaments for the game in Japan. The game itself has many of the same mechanics as its older sibling on the PSP, but while the multiplayer capabilities of Sony’s tiny handheld, multiplayer on the PS4 is a much more viable proposition, which has allowed the inclusion of the 3v3 gameplay and many many more shiny particles.

Dissidia’s biggest draw so far in the East has been its use of the Final Fantasy license. 

“The first thing we do is we consider the original games that the characters were in, and the systems that were built within that game itself, and how we can incorporate the moods of the original characters themselves into an action game” says director Kujiraoka via a translator, discussing how they manage to make sure each of the Final Fantasy characters feels authentic when they’re pushed into the spin-off game. Kujiraoka says that a lot of time is devoted by the team to assessing each character’s personality, and to work out how each character is seen by fans.

While trying to ensure the characters are unique, one of the biggest challenges wasn’t so much about making characters feel unique, but in dealing with the fact so many of the heroes of Square Enix’s RPG franchise are partial to swords. 

“Many of the protagonists do use swords. That was one of the challenges that we faced, because how do we give uniqueness to a character when they all have the same weapon? We’ve made sure those differences are in there, and they feel different both in play but also in the controls themselves.  

“One rule that we are adamant about in this is that each and every character is compatible with each other.”

Still, once players have been convinced to try the game, they will find it’s solidly balanced. The benefit of two years of competitive play in arcades around Japan. It also offers the unique experience of having two groups of three players laying into each other, a team dynamic that is rarely scene in a fighting game scene that is often just two players, shoulder to shoulder. 

“Even if the other two members of the team, or the other people playing on your side, aren’t that good and they haven’t got as much experience or as much skill as you have, you can actually help them out, you can work together.” said Hazama via a translator. “That kind of teamwork becomes crucial, and it’s a fascinating part of the game.” 

Both Hazama and Kujiraoka are adamant that the game offers a competitive experience like no other, and insist that I play it, facing off against Hazama, assisted by two AI characters. I managed to scrape a win by busting out FF7 hero Cloud Strife’s trademark Omnislash. However I was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of complexity you have to learn on the fly, moving around the arena to pick a better spot to fight, flitting between cover to keep yourself shielded from ranged attacks but also to sneak up on your enemies squishier members for quick kills. 

While Dissidia is a fighting game, the ebb and flow of the game reminds me of a MOBA, with the flashpoints when battle is joined more reminiscent of a League of Legends teamfight over a round of Street Fighter.

Hazama and Kujiraoka say the game offers a unique esports experience that can’t be found anywhere else, and after playing it, it’s tough to disagree. Dissidia feels like it straddles several genres, and it could well be a tough sell for audiences in the west, but the mix of strategy, brawling and giant haired JRPG characters is going to attract a niche crowd that won’t be able to find this anywhere else. 

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