Saturday, December 31, 2016

“A Final Fantasy game for fans and first-timers.”

I guess this is sentence will count as your spoiler alert.



As of last week, I’m pretty confident that I’ve hit the point where I’ve seen everything that I think I’m going to want to see in Final Fantasy XV’s universe. We’ll see if one of the updates that Square recently detailed will interest me enough to boot it back up, but I’m skeptical as of now.

Final Fantasy XV is simultaneously a confusing clusterfuck of disappointments and a handful of intriguing steps for the series. What began in 2009 for me was being sold on the premise of something I’ve wanted since I was a child, a Final Fantasy game with a real-time combat system (even if it was only a spin-off at the time). Instead it entered a prolonged state of development hell and was eventually re-purposed as Final Fantasy XV.

That ‘process’ took ten years and what we ended up with is a mess as far as I’m concerned. It’s not an offensively bad mess, but definitely one I’m flabbergasted whenever I just sit and think about it.
What it was, what it is and what it could have been are so separate it’s fantastic.

So what is it?


Well it’s definitely one of the darker Final Fantasies, and not just in terms of color palettes and aesthetic motifs. There’s a grand path of deaths, loss, and overbearing somberness hanging over the entire experience and at first it works in the game favor. Then it very quickly proves that it’s not very concerned with giving any weight to it at all.



I should have recognized this as a red flag from the jump as the Final Fantasies that go this route are usually ones I have to work to love. IV was the first time in the series I can remember seeing it as a problem. It’s typically the lighter entries in the series that I gravitate towards and within the framework they use are sometimes dark themes that are handled well[1].

This game earns almost nothing its plot attempts to draw out an emotion for. In a lot of ways it reminded me of bad version of NieR. The irony being that NieR was largely ignored because of a handful of middling things that contributes to the game’s technical mediocrity, yet NieR smokes a grand slam at the very same thing XV fails with. It’s almost a mirror image (but not quite, as while NieR is a passable action game, XV is too all over the place for a direct 1:1).

The parallels are mostly superficial but are still worth noting, right down to both existing as messy action-RPGs featuring a bantering party of four, taking cues from a handful of different genres with a very specific character arc for one of your team members as part of a gross living-weapon experiment[2]. It's even the most upbeat and optimistic character in both games.

I could simply go down a rather extensive list of things I simply found dumb, goofy, or just plain bad, but that wouldn’t be fair to all the good stuff I found in the game either. I think it’s far more poignant to look at the stuff I did like and just how aggressively the game assaulted its own strengths for no reason.

A beautiful open world with enjoyable hunts to participate in

Undercut by: Those hunts are about the only thing worth doing. Eos is alarmingly empty, with inane fetch quests and almost zero reason to explore it. Seriously, almost every sidequest I did in this game was fucking terrible. This is coming from someone who extensively plays this game’s predecessor which IS an MMO featuring a ludicrous amount of fetch quests, padding out an otherwise endearing (if not a bit by-the-books) Final Fantasy story. The thing is that even XIV’s most time-wasting sidequests go out of their way to support the world of Eorzea and aren’t as terrible with most of their actual writing. Very few of XV’s give Eos that same respect, and it has the added benefit of being a single player story with full voice acting. There’s just no excuse for that[3].



Ifrit: Might by my favorite incarnation of the long-running djinn’s appearance in the entire series, and the accompanying Hellfire might be one of my favorite pieces of Final Fantasy music.


Undercut by: The way the game deals with the Astrals and their concerns of the planet in general. Ifrit is the only one with an outright hostility towards humans when the game probably would have benefited from having only one Astral sympathetic towards humans. Bahamut, Ramuh, Titan, Leviathan (alright, she wasn't exactly gung-ho with the crew, but eventually went along anyway), and Shiva all have a weird tenuous usage in the story beyond “Gods above us, with no concerns” yet 4/6 of them can still be subjugated for the sole use of Noctis (though they are through weird and arbitrary-ass conditions).

Ardyn Izunia’s motivation and usage



The main antagonistic force in this game revolves around the very personal revenge story of Ardyn Izunia. Amongst the entirety of the Final Fantasy series’ villains he probably came away the most successful.

"Dramatic Irony: You think this is a story about a Lucian king who sets out to destroy  “The Empire”. That is exactly what happens, but the king who does so is not Noctis, but Ardyn. Also, Ardyn's mission to snuff out the Lucian bloodline (or be killed in the process and relieved of his immortality) has succeeded since Noctis sacrifices himself to end the Starscourge and Ardyn.[4]


Undercut by: how it’s conveyed to the player. Ardyn shows up pretty early in the game and the second the party meets him they distrust him to the point of outright stating “THIS IS A BAD GUY WE SHOULDN’T  TRUST HIM”. His maliciousness kind of rolls out over the course of this game in a consistent yet increasingly menacing tone, yet the party continually regards him as an annoyance rather than a threat, when it’s obvious he’s the actual fucking threat[5]. This continues right up to the big reveal of  him being a spurned savior from over a millennia ago and that loses its teeth, as its explained as a “btw, this is why I’m bad you dumbfuck(s)”.

The game’s soundtrack

Undercut by: the game’s actual implementation of it. Take for example the primary theme of the game, Somnus. Its use in the final run up to the game’s climax is constantly interrupted do to it being used as a background theme rather than the sole piece of music (where it really would have shined). What’s meant to be an emotional final run is sliced into distracting chunks via the generic World of Ruin battle theme.

I’ve also been spoiled by progressively-generated music, so throwing HP sponge battles at me that don’t change or progress throughout the fight is just naturally going to annoy me these days. FFXV does this constantly, using dry implementations and mixes of its otherwise great soundtrack. As much as people like to tease 'Apocolyptis Noctis' as the Skyrim theme rejiggered, I found it more disappointing that its essentially used as a Power Rangers morphing theme and not much else.


And Speaking of those fucking sponges…



The game’s combat

Ever since FF-media like Advent Children and Crisis Core, the Final Fantasy games seemed determined to capture a very particular type of over-the-top and flamboyancy with their action sequences. For the most part, XV actually captures that aesthetic and feel, while still remaining somewhat unique. In particular, the royal bloodline of Lucis and how its phasing seems to affect the combat of Noctis and everyone around him looks damn cool when it’s working properly.

Undercut by: The game going purposefully out of its way to throw it in situations where you can see just how limited it actually is. The most famous instance of this occurring is the fight with Adamantoise. There’s no way to tackle the boss without seeing prominently what’s wrong with the game’s combat. It’s almost intentionally a non-challenging slog. Personally the ones I took umbrage with the most were the game’s sealed dungeons in the post-story. In particular Steyliff and Costlemark’s sealed counterparts were the extreme end of the combat at its worst and being mainly a chore rather than fun or a challenge. 

There are a handful of instances in this game where you can hold one button to negate what should be a climactic battle. If it’s not that, it’s an HP sponge that drowns in tedium (see: Chapter 13). Neither of these paths are good vehicles for showcasing the combat’s strength, and are more indicative of a problem Square Enix has always had: They can very frequently appear slavish to their own reputation when it comes to visuals, valuing flash and form over function.

Emotional high-loss ending 

Noctis dies, thus his entire lineage is wiped out. Luna dies, ending the line of the oracle. It’s even debatable to whether or not Prompto, Gladiolus and Ignis die. The world falls into ruin and suffers for ten years because Noctis gets trapped inside of a damn crystal.

Undercut by: Giving the player very little to care for any of it. There’s a popular retort to this that runs along the age-old “well you played it wrong!” concerning background dialogue playing out while exploring the world, but even if we’re to accept that broken logic, you’re basically arguing for randomly generated banter to convey a story and make its climax relevant.

Really?

And don’t even get me started on how fridged Lunafreya was in this game. She receives about a grand half hour of screentime for the entire game and is promptly killed off for no good reason, dramatic or otherwise. Some of the scenes which tie to her character and motivation make no sense (though she’s easily beaten in incoherence by her brother’s role in the game).

Everything before chapter 9



This is the open world portion of the game in which a doomed prince is supposed to be in somewhat of a rush to marry an oracle under the pretense of a peace treaty after his home kingdom is occupied and his father is killed. However, a sizable chunk of land is placed in your way to explore on the way to that. It’s easy to forget who the fuck Luna is during this.

Undercut by: Everything after chapter 9. It’s pretty damn hard to remember who she is after this point as well. The scope of the game is irrevocably damaged after chapter 9 funnels everything into forcing the player to focus on a very linear path to the end of the game. Yeah they offer Umbra to you if you want to back to explore, but it’s a very cheap consolation and the game’s narrative offers no justification for it beyond it being you reminiscing or some shit. Hell, the game even lampshades it for some reason.

“Yet when your father died, you were off playing with your friends! When your beloved died, you lay watching, powerless to stop it!”

Everything after chapter 9



There’s actually a handful of good stuff that XV manages to pull off after it commits to leaving its open world behind in Chapter 9, but the funneling it pulls is still a slap in the face. Instances like Ignis’s blindness actually being relevant for an entire chapter are kind of compelling sequences.

Undercut by: Everything before chapter 9. Every major town and setpiece visited after the Leviathan sequence is laughably restrictive in what it lets the player access. One could argue for the focus of the story here, but that would be a bad argument considering the first half of the game doesn’t seem that concerned with it. Obviously this was probably one of those “if we had more time” things, but its worthy of the most criticism regardless. Not being able to explore Tenebrae, Niflheim, or Altissa beyond what the game provides is kind of a joke. 

All are major narrative points in the game as well as major locations in the game’s story. Most offensive is you’re not allowed to explore the kingdom you’re the prince of, Insomnia. There’s of course a story reason for this, but there are a dozen ways around the excuse provided by both the game and Kingsglaive. This is even more pronounced by the game only giving you Lestallum as a major city to access, as the rest of the open world is simply gas stations and hotels (with the occasional imperial base). One of these design methods simply didn’t belong in the game, as it's actively hurting the other. Which one doesn’t belong? Is it the open world or the more linearly-focused roller-coaster ride?

I'll leave that one to you.

The real world “aesthetic”

Undercut by: Real-world logistics. Noctis finding about the incidents surrounding his father’s death through a newspaper rather than his smartphone is hilarious. In a game that’s almost solely about “the night” thematically, the player not being able to skip to the nighttime at will is embarrassing. Also consider that this is an open world game prominently featuring a car which pales in comparison to the freedom of a goddamn chocobo. This kind of stuff is peppered throughout the entire game, and it all extends just far enough beyond the ol’ suspension disbelief lie players have been taught to adopt over the years to be an outright joke.

The tale of four guys on what is essentially a suicide mission while simultaneously being a coming-of-age story for a doomed king





Undercut by: It never proved that the tale of four guys just needed to be those four guys, at least not to me. This is the most egregious failing Final Fantasy XV makes in my eyes. At the end of the day I only mildly cared for the group’s trials and troubles and I had to make numerous concessions and mental gymnastics to do so.

In terms of playable party members, Areana, Iris, Luna, hell---Cor, Crowe (lol), and Libertus probably deserved a part in this game as well.

Yes, a lot of this could boil down to the development team just not having enough time and having to finally rush this game out, but the end product only wound up reminding me what scares me about Japanese-developed games in the modern era, particularly long-running brands such as Final Fantasy. In reality, this ten year old game probably saw less than half that time of actual development, yet I can’t bring myself to excuse it on that basis alone given the game we got. A great Final Fantasy game was right there.

That’s just not what I got.





[1] I should probably state here that my favorite Final Fantasies are XIV, IX, XI and VI. All the others are a take-it-or-leave-it deal (though III and XII come quite close).

[2] Unfortunately for FFXV, the entire note fell flat, despite the fact that I found Prompto the most likeable member in the party.

[3] When you consider how many people go out of their way to mentally justify some arbitrary separation between single-player and multiplayer Final Fantasies (beyond the obvious differences, mind you), points like this seem especially sad.


[5] Where Luna’s death felt like a hollow homage to Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII, Ardyn’s whole deal is reminiscent of Final Fantasy’s long-lasting trope of “the bigger threat is actually right here”. It worked for Kefka, it does NOT work for Ardyn, especially when the game does such a piss-poor job of establishing Niflheim as an actual threatening presence beyond spamming the player with Magitek engines every few minutes.