Thursday, December 8, 2016

Final Fantasy XV - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

To better or for worse, no two Final Fantasy games are alike. Similar in ways sure, but for the most part (especially after the SNES era) each title has been wildly differen from another, only finding common ground in their nomenclature. Final Fantasy XV is perhaps one of the boldest departures from its predecessors, introducing both character action combat and a grand open world into its traditional JRPG structure. It's adventurous, has a ton of style, and is an absoluuuuuute messssssss. I can understand why plenty of people are singing its praises—there's definitely no game is quite like it!—but holy cow does it wear the proof of its troubled development like a badge of honor.

I want to preface the discussion of the story by admitting that I like how it ends. Despite what you may think at the onset of the journey, FFXV strives for ambitious heights with its characters, and the final chapter alone nearly justifies the bizarre "boy band road trip" premise. The problem, however, is the manner in which is told. Characters disappear offscreen to do god knows what (or flat-out die) and rarely are there attempts to inform the player why events are unfolding the way they are. A lot of spectacle is put into the summon battles but there's no explanation given as to what you're trying to accomplish (am I here to kill them or enlist their help?) and throughout the story you'll find yourself constantly questioning character motives (are we really going to help the Empire explore this dungeon guys? Really?)

Honestly, the plot of FFXV is the game's weakest point. Multiple red flags appear early on: the lore of the land is given in the damn tutorial (it's not even accessible from the main menu!), the invasion of your capital city is summarized through movie snippets, nearly nothing is told to you about who/what/where the Empire is, and there's not even a glossary of terms à la FFXIII that you can reference for quick reminders. The game does an atrocious job of introducing you to its core enemies (the first named foe you meet—Loqi—is subsequently killed in the following boss encounter) and the foreign lands you visit in the latter half barely amount to anything more than window dressing along a narrow hallway. The scarcity of reasoning that the plot provides is something I expected from the old Famicom titles, so I can't even begin to articulate how mystifying it is to encounter such obscenely woeful storytelling in 2016. Seriously, when your plot has the same exact "who the hell is Stan" moment from True Detective season two (complete with multiple instances of characters mourning said paper-thin nobody), maybe you shouldn't have left the rough draft phase so early.

The last thing I'm going to rag on is Luna, because she's an affront to the game. Certain scenes in FFXV are among the most honest and heartfelt that the Final Fantasy series has to offer, and it's all thanks to the great chemistry between the core cast. And yet Luna—one of the most pivotal characters to Noctis' development—is a stodgy bore, an old lady in a teenager's body. As a young girl she orates to Noctis the magnitude of his office (because children love talking about stuff like this) and as an adult she barely does anything other than wistfully pine for Noctis in-between sending him dry, emotionless messages via carrier dog. It's bad enough to write a character so hopelessly dull, but even worse to have her play such an integral part of the story despite never even establishing what makes their relationship meaningful. Noctis and Luna are arguably the worst couple in the entire series; the player forms a deeper attachment to Iris during their adventure because she participates in what the game does best: battle, sightsee, and chat.

Where FFXV undoubtedly hits its mark is in the combat; fighting fiendish enemies with your allies at your back is a joy. While your brothers in arms don't have the most sophisticated AI, the battle system is fun enough that you won't really mind if they never seem to get out of the way of AoE attacks (including your own spells). It takes some time to get used to the flow of combat in the game (as you're either holding the auto-dodge button or auto-attack button most of the time), but it provides enough of a spectacle that I was never agitated by some of its jankiness (the camera gets stuck behind shrubbery quite often). Though I wish there was a smidge more monster variety in the game, what's provided here is entertaining enough to last you the 30 hours it takes to complete the main story.

Would that I could say the same about the design of the open world, but as Conan O'Brien so bluntly put it, FFXV's countryside is an "aggressive wasting of our time". I have no qualms with attempting to portray a vast open landscape properly, but with that comes the inevitable tedium of traversing it from end to end multiple times as you undertake one hunt at a time (and can only track a single quest on your minimap). You'll use your royal vehicle to ferry you from town to quest and back again, and after a while a tiny voice will balloon in your head, whispering "it's just not worth it to do all these quests". Even though I enjoyed my time with FFXV's combat, exploring the post-game content was too great of a task for me, due to how cumbersome and draining exploring the world was.

Beyond that, there's a myriad of little designs that I can't believe made it into the final game. For instance: when someone offers you a quest, why do you pick it up/drop it off in a separate but directly adjacent spot to where you talk to them? Why can't you adjust the volume of the song in your car on the fly? Why can't I cook my own meals without resting? How the hell are your friends supposed to avoid getting nuked by the higher tier spells? Why are there no save points mid-dungeon? Why is "slow walk" the standard speed in dungeons? Why are all treasures a minuscule, glittery dot on the ground? When I'm selling treasures, why can't I see how they specifically alter spells so I can keep the quintcast ones? Why don't I get gil from side quests? Why can't you undertake more than one hunt at a time?!

Mind you, I'm not actually as irate at FFXV as the above tirade may suggest. There are still a ton of things I appreciate about it: I love how each day ends by looking at the Prompto's photos, I like the monster designs, the character animations are magnificent, magical explosions have a good weight to them, and gil is actually a rare commodity for once. For as wonky and imperceptible as the combat gets at times (good luck figuring out whom the damage numbers belong to when fighting more than five foes), at the end of the day FFXV is a fun game to play when you're playing it. All of the downtime is a chore though; FFXV is only enjoyable as a whole if you have plenty of time on your hands, or plan on playing only one game this month...

... oh, and, you know, if you're immune to terrible storytelling.

The problems with Final Fantasy XV are manifold to those not drunk with hype. There's no shame in liking it but this is a game riddled with issues in a series typically known for its above-average quality (I didn't even get into the never-ending slog that is Chapter 13!) I don't regret that I played it, but I do feel a pang in my heart for the good that is present here, as it's eternally submerged in a swamp of poor decisions. It took a long time to finally get to FFXV's release, but unfortunately it's going to take even longer for the franchise to catch up to where RPGs are at today.

Images obtained from: finalfantasy.wikia,

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