final fantasy xv

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It’s hard to know where to begin talking about this game, so I’ll just start from, well, the start: Final Fantasy XV opens with a brief and chaotic flash-forward to a point near the game’s end showing the main characters in the midst of a city on fire, before returning to the innocuous present. The game’s main protagonist, Prince Noctis, is leaving his father’s palace along with his three retainers and companions, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto, to be wed to Lady Lunafreya, a childhood friend and mystical figure in the world of Eos called the Oracle.

For games like this, this is pretty par for the course, but what happens next is one of my all-time favorite opening moments in any video game; perhaps one of my favorite moments in any game, opening or otherwise, period. Upon leaving their home city the game cuts to a shot of the gang on the side of a desert road, in the middle of nowhere, next to their broken-down car. After some light banter they get up and start pushing the car forward. They complain, they take shots at one another, and as their conversation continues a stripped-down cover of “Stand By Me” plays in the background — until the camera pans up to the sky and FINAL FANTASY XV appears on the screen, right as Florence Welch sings “…just as long as you stand, stand by me”.

It’s memorable by virtue of its being so understated — subversive, almost. You don’t fully appreciate the implications of the song until much later in the game, nor the complete passivity of the situation they’re all in until the story has twisted and turned into the kind of sprawling, apocalyptic drama that all Final Fantasy games seem to. It’s a crystalline example of problems in perspective — the way adults often look back on their teen years and laugh about the things that used to bring the world down around them. If only younger them knew what was in store.

If you know anything about Final Fantasy XV, you’re probably at least tangentially aware that it has received a lot of mixed feedback from players — and I’ll be touching on a lot of that below. But it’s important to realize, before anything else is said, that FF15 is treading new ground for the series with this entry. From having a massive, open world to a real-time combat system, it’s not catering to its traditionalist fanbase. And this shows from the very first moment you take control of Noctis, at a service station in the middle of Nevada-esque badlands, with a harmonica score in the background. It’s just so strikingly un-fantastical, so normal.

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And while this would be a perfect springboard into talking about where Final Fantasy XV fits in in the franchise, I’m woefully under-qualified to make any statements about that which would carry any weight, and besides, you can take your pick from elsewhere around the Internet if you care that much. I’m not here to talk about whether FF15 is a good Final Fantasy game; I’m here to talk about whether it’s a good game, period.

Because, well, I’ll be frank here — it has a lot of issues. There are many articles talking about FF15‘s failings, frustrations, and baffling design choices, all of which are often made all the more puzzling by the fact that this game was in development for 10 years. That’s an incredible amount of time for any game to be in development, especially given that most AAA titles seem to spend around a third of that time or less being created. So, especially for a franchise as celebrated and loved as Final Fantasy tends to be, fans had a right to hold onto a certain expectation of quality for this game.

I don’t mean to immediately imply that this game didn’t meet any of those expectations. In fact, the reality of the game’s plainness at the moment you take over wasn’t meant as a criticism; if anything, the opening few hours of the game just serve to underscore FF15‘s desire to set itself apart. The location, the music, the entire situation you find yourself in conjures up feelings of being on a road trip through western America. If you read other reports on the game you’ll hear similar sentiments, as this is an aesthetic the designers were certainly keen to promote. I found this to be one of its more charming aspects — unlike other JRPGs that have you travelling from town to town and resting in hotels or inns, FF15‘s accommodations are rarely nicer than camper trailers. In fact, one important gameplay element gives you the option to make camp at select points around the world map, allowing you to regain your group’s Health Points and gain temporary status boosts at the expense of the experience modifiers that can be found at more comfortable lodgings. It’s a nice little feature, something that is both a practical convenience as well as a singularly endearing addition. Regardless of the jokes that get thrown around (I’ve heard FF15 called a “camping simulator”), this was one of the game’s unique little traits that I found quite winsome.

There has also been a certain amount of derision aimed at the driving aspect of the game, however, and this is something that is perhaps a bit better founded. You’ll spend a not-insignificant amount of time in the Regalia, a luxury convertible that is your main mode of transportation throughout FF15. The world map is quite large, and while there is a quick-travel option (thank GOD), you still spend a decent amount of time driving from point to point. And if you want to travel to a point on the map that is not an already-discovered town or outpost or landmark, you don’t have that quick-travel option. Trust me, you’ll spend a whooole lot of time in the Regalia, and there’s really nothing for you to do during those drives. Even more frustrating is that in the beginning of the game, due to the mysterious and dangerous Daemons that spawn at night, you are unable to drive after the sun goes down unless you do so manually (meaning that you actually have to pay attention to where on the map you’re going; other than those times, your companion Ignis will drive for you so you as the player don’t have to do anything). Compounded on top of all of this is the fact that quick-travelling isn’t really a whole lot better, as you’re faced with long (1-3 minute) loading screens when you do. Getting around in FF15, then, is probably one of its most arduous tasks.

But riding around in the Regalia isn’t always bad, and in fact is the best way to see the beautiful world that the designers created — although for the first couple chapters you’re stuck in the dry wasteland of Leide, itself quite striking at times, when the rest of the world later opens up, you’re treated to a fair number of really beautiful vistas. This might be the best-looking game I’ve played yet, and there are some truly stunning pieces of scenery that it’s really easy to just stare at and admire. The world is rich and varied, and easy to get lost in. There are plenty of opportunities, especially in the game’s second half, to just go out and explore and see what you can find. Although it’s often nothing (I’ll get to this shortly), the trek is always pretty.

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Much has been made of FF15‘s status as an “open world” game, and I’d like to rest on this for a moment or two because a whole lot of what I ultimately think of this game is directly related to this open world element. It’s true, this is very much a game where you can ignore the storyline and just kind of do and go where you want, at least for a sizable window of the game. In the opening hours you’re restricted to a single slice of the map, which still manages to be rather large and full of places to explore, but eventually you get unrestricted access to everything — it’s just a matter of driving (or riding a chocobo) there.

At first, this seems really cool, no lie — even in those first few chapters when you’re relatively restricted, there’s a certain sense of freedom you get that’s generally lacking in this genre of video games, for better or worse. You can move all over, run around, fight, explore things off the beaten path, and generally just go where you want.

The problem, though, is that the world is just so empty; I mean, yeah, there are outposts and places to go, and there are things to look at in the environment that are kinda cool, but they don’t do anything. For example, you’ll occasionally come across some broken, abandoned structures — houses, usually — but you can never enter them, and there’s never anything hidden around them. They’re just decoration. NPCs are extremely rare, and don’t generally say much (if anything); if there are NPCs anywhere, they tend to be in the cities and pit stops around the map. The world is so big, but it’s so devoid of life or even the illusion of it. And while there is a story-based reason for this, the emptiness of the world often forced me to wonder why I should bother saving it. It doesn’t help, either, that there are cutscenes and asides in the game that imply the world is thriving and alive. You just don’t see it or feel it.

Similarly, there tends to be little incentive to explore, outside of general curiosity about what it might look like over that hill, or behind that huge rock outcrop. There are several “procurement points” that litter the world — points on the map where you can find treasure, cooking ingredients, or minerals. After picking up whatever item you find at a given point, you can come back later and something else will be in that same spot. It’s a nice idea to keep you engaged in exploring, but it ends up being utterly useless, as one of FF15‘s primary sins is its total overabundance of items. Now, this is a problem with the genre as much as it is with this game alone, but it’s especially bad in FF15 — there are hundreds of different items, 90% of which serve no immediate practical purpose. You can sell any of the items you find for gil, or you can use these items as ingredients in crafting magic spells, but outside of these two uses, they’ll mostly just take up space in your bottomless inventory. The fact that items are everywhere in FF15‘s world very quickly cheapens the thrill of coming across a new treasure lying on the ground.

So, this begs the question — why such a large world, if there’s nothing much in it? What do you do with this enormous, open environment, where you can travel anywhere at any time? The purpose, at least according to the FF15 development team, is sidequests. And here, really, is the game’s most glaring, aggravating flaw, and one that I can’t simply gloss over or try to explain away. Of all the strange decisions that the developers made, their approach to sidequests baffled and frustrated me more than any other.

See, sidequests are, essentially, the meat of this game — it’s where most players will probably spend most of their time. The sheer number of sidequests in FF15 is simply enormous. This article puts the number at over 200. In a vacuum, this doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but trust me when I say that it’s more than enough. Way more.

The first problem we run into is that these sidequests typically fall into one of only a few camps: go out and kill this monster/these monsters, collect X number of items and bring them back, take pictures of things, help stranded travelers, or fight your way through dungeon areas to collect powerful weapons. These are all pretty standard types of quests for an RPG, but the issue lies a lot deeper than a lack of variety. Allow me to illustrate with an example.

The game has a number of “quest dispensers”, for lack of a better term — a select few NPCs who task you with going out and completing sidequests for them. For the most part, all of the quests you undertake from any one of these NPCs is going to be the same type as any others you get from that same NPC. One such character is Dave; he’s the head of the Hunters, a loose group of brave souls who wander the land, killing dangerous creatures to collect bounties and keep civilians safe. Sounds cool, right, if maybe a little cliche? But no matter — you’ll come across Dave time and time again as you wander the world, and he’s always ready to give you a task to undertake. This is always going to be finding the dog tags of Hunters who have died in the field, so that Dave can return them to that person’s loved ones, in order to provide them with some sort of closure.

So far, so good — this doesn’t seem like a bad setup for a series of sidequests. The problem is that the developers, for whatever reason, decided to ignore every single opportunity they had to flesh out these sidequests into anything that feels meaningful. There’s no backstory on these dead Hunters, no explanation of why they were out where they were, what they were hunting, or who they were as people — you literally just go to the point marked on your map, probably kill a small group of low-level baddies, pick up the dog tags, and then bring them back to Dave. Rinse and repeat like 15 more times throughout the game.

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This is about 99% of sidequests in FF15. And it’s so frustrating, maddeningly so. The developers took the time to craft this huge, beautiful world — they took the time to program some 200+ sidequests, give you tools to find them and track them, and it all feels like an egregious waste of time on both their part and mine, as the gamer. At every point where they had a chance to paint the world with life, history, and purpose, they simply looked the other way and instead decided to give a few trite, interchangeable lines to one character or another to spout about whatever task they happen to be engaged in.

The fact that there are so few categories of sidequests really wouldn’t bother me all that much — after all, most RPGs offer a rather narrow range, but most other RPGs at least understand that sidequests are some of the best vehicles that developers have at their disposal to make the world relatable and alive to the player. FF15‘s sidequests are the very worst kind — utilitarian to the core, existing only as a means to kill time and provide experience points. They feel flat, worthless; just something else for me to check off of a list.

Which brings me to my next complaint — for compulsive sidequesters like myself, this game provides a seemingly never-ending parade of yellow question marks on the map (indications of where to find an NPC that will present you with a sidequest to complete). I tend to do as many sidequests as I can before advancing the story plot because, hey, you never know when something will become unavailable, right? The problem is, because of the sheer volume of these sidequests, I found myself locked into a mindset of “Must…complete…everything…” which totally interrupted the whole flow of the story. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were times where I would spend 10-20 hours (if not more) just doing sidequests instead of actually advancing the game. When you consider that most times, I would only be able to get in an hour or two of playtime a day, if I was lucky, this translated to literal weeks between story points.

Now, I admit that this is probably more of a “me” problem, but it doesn’t help that the game tends to take an approach that kind of dangles these sidequests in front of you, tempting you to take them up, at which point they show up on your quest tracker — a list of active quests so you know what has and hasn’t been completed. This is a common (and necessary!) element for huge open-world RPGs like this, so it’s not exactly a complaint that this is the approach the developers took, but it caused me to play the game in a way that made it feel more like a chore — checking quests off a list — rather than out of any sense of wanting to discover more about the world (not that these sidequests would have provided any satisfaction there anyway).

I could go on in this direction for a while, but suffice to say that this is by far the game’s biggest issue. This game took me close to 90 hours to beat — probably the most I’ve ever spent playing a single-player game in my history as a gamer — and I’d say that probably 65-70 hours of that time was spent on these sidequests. For some people, this ratio isn’t an inherently bad thing, but when you consider that almost every single one of those hours contributed nothing to the game besides experience points, it starts to look like a huge time sink.

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All that said, the game was far from a total loss, and there were plenty of things that kept me turning on my PS4 to play it day after day. For one, the combat in this game is outstanding, if difficult to get a feel for for the first…many hours of gameplay. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, the combat is not turn-based but real time, and takes place on the overworld — i.e. there’s no shift to a “battle screen” when you encounter enemies. This seamless nature of moving into combat is a welcome feature, and makes the combat feel all the more fluid and natural.

The actual mechanics of combat are a blast — while attacking is mostly handled with a single button, there are dodging/parrying/warping mechanics that keep things interesting and intense. There are also “Techniques”, specialized attacks or actions that combine FF13‘s segmented TP gauge and FF7‘s Limit Breaks, which can act as tide-turners in difficult battles.

Speaking of FF13, FF15 takes another cue from that game in that you can only ever control Noctis in battle — the rest of your companions, while (mostly) always present are computer-controlled, and while for the most part the AI is fine for your friends, it’s limited in a couple ways. For one, there are no pure “Cure” spells in this game, so any time a character needs healing it can really only be easily accomplished by using curative items — which the computer-controlled characters themselves can’t access until their health is at a critical point. So, you end up having to manage their healing and revival manually — which can be frustrating. Also, there’s no way to get your friends to all attack a single enemy, for instance, or to retreat and regroup, save through certain Techniques mentioned above.

These are relatively minor complaints though, and combat overall is absolutely delightful. Through all the mundane, repetitive, tedious sidequests, the thrill of engaging enemies in battle was by far the thing that kept me playing more than any other through most of the game. It’s fast-paced, addicting, and just plain fun. As a side note, I suppose I should mention that the game offers a more “strategic” form of combat by allowing you to engage in “Wait Mode”, which pauses combat whenever you stop moving so you can issue commands, scan the enemy for weaknesses, and generally have greater control over the fight. The few times I activated this (through the arduous process of navigating to the game’s options menu and selecting it from a submenu), I found it somewhat clunky and comparatively un-fun, so I didn’t really explore it. Your mileage may vary.

Magic is also worth mentioning here, as it too is used in a very different way compared to past Final Fantasy games, and in fact is rather unique in general. In FF15 there are magic deposits littered around the game’s world that are one of three elements: fire, ice, or lightning. Noctis can “draw” magic power from these deposits, and then combine the elements in varying quantities to create a limited number of consumable spells (usually 3-5 at a time). The spells are then an equippable item, like any other weapon, that can be unleashed in combat.

It’s an interesting mechanic, and a stark departure from the JRPG norm of having an ever-growing collection of spells and depletable Magic Points (which do exist in this game, but for a different purpose). The tradeoff is that these craftable spells can be extremely powerful, and have a significant “cool-down” period before you can cast them again. The limited nature of, and the infrequency with which you can use magic in this game was…different, to say the least, but I have to say I liked it.

For one, it was an element that was extremely easy to ignore (and often forget about), which appealed to me — I rarely find myself using too much magic in these types of games, so its relegation to the sidelines fit into my personal playstyle nicely. That said, I wish I had explored it a little more because it has the potential to be a game-changer — while you can more or less ignore spells, you don’t have to, and there are good reasons not to. When you craft spells you have the option to add in any number of a single type of item or ingredient. Different items add different side-effects to spells, such as providing healing to the caster (the one non-item way to heal yourself in battle), adding negative status effects to the enemy, and providing massive EXP boosts to your party. I started playing with this a little more intensely close to the end of the game, and I wish I had earlier.

There are other elements that I could harp on about as well, like the “Ascension” system, which hearkens back to the Crystarium in FF13, the character-specific Skills, or the Armiger attacks — all are, in my opinion, great things that add plenty of depth to the way the game unfolds, at least as far as gameplay goes. When it comes to the pure, underlying mechanics of the game, I have very few complaints. All these elements interlock so smoothly, and it’s truly a joy to experience.

But I have one big, final thing I want to touch on — the story. This aspect of the game was particularly difficult for me to enjoy a lot of the time, simply because I experienced it in such an uneven, staggered way, thanks to the sidequesting which ended up removing me from the story for days and weeks at a time. It was a real shame too, because the story in FF15 is perfectly good. Actually, I’d push it farther and say that it’s great — besides combat, the game’s greatest accomplishments are its story, characters, and cutscenes.

That’s not to say the story is original, exactly — you’ll find plenty of tropes and Final Fantasy motifs (and even some repeated story points from past games), but I hardly found this to be off-putting, especially for the JRPG genre which tends to thrive on such elements. The game’s primary antagonist, Ardyn, is an especially interesting character, and one who is constantly making you question where the story is going.

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The stars, though, at least for me, were the four main characters. In every way FF15 plays on the bromance angle, emphasizing the deep friendship of Noctis and his retainers. The banter that happens randomly as you’re wandering the map, the little details that litter the game like the way Prompto will get up in his seat in the Regalia and turn around and talk with Noctis and Gladio in the backseat for a minute or two, the photos that you collect through the game (taken by Prompto and reviewed at each campsite or lodging area)…it all starts to add up to a kind of relationship that I simply haven’t experienced in other games before, to this extent. The developers really took the time to make the core relationships of these four characters a driving element of the game. It’s subtle, and it happens slowly — in that sense, the game’s 80+ hour playtime was well worth it — but I do feel like they could have pushed this even further and made the relationships even more real to the gamer by including (more) sidequests that helped explain and develop these characters in a more direct way. But I’m not going to lie, by the end, I felt quite deeply for this cast of four (helped in no small part by the A-list voice acting — the first time I can say that a Final Fantasy game has had good voice actors), which made the ending — and the game’s opening sequence I mentioned earlier — far more powerful than they would have been otherwise.

I do need to also call out the fantastic — phenomenal — cutscenes displayed throughout this game. Bar none, some of the best and most flat-out entertaining cinematics I’ve ever experienced in a game, on par with if not better than The Last Of Us. The developers spared no expense in this area, delivering stunning, beautiful cutscenes that heightened the drama in every way, every time. Even if you don’t play the game, it’s worth watching at least some of them on YouTube.

Finally — and I’m almost done, I swear — the endgame has generated some controversy so I feel like I need to address it. Starting in Chapter 9 (out of 14), the game completely drops its open-world element, trading it in for an entirely on-rails bullet ride to the game’s ending. Although there is a “time-travel” mechanic that allows you to return to the open world starting at this point in the game, anything you do to advance the story is done in an entirely linear fashion.

This part of the game is apparently what lost and frustrated a lot of people, but if you’ve read my full, long-winded review up to this point, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that this was probably my favorite part of the game. Not only was I unable to stop the story from happening, the story started to get really good at this point, and the lack of decisions to be made about where to go or what to look at was a massive, welcome breath of fresh air in an atmosphere that had grown incredibly stale with meaningless freedom. For many players, I think this part of the game brought back bad memories of FF13‘s primarily “push forward on the control stick to win” mentality, but as someone who has largely enjoyed that game, this didn’t bother me in the slightest.

I’ll be honest — I was more frustrated with this game at times than I have ever been with a video game before. It’s long, it’s empty, it’s deathly repetitive, and at its worst, it’s one of the shallowest games I’ve ever played. It can be unforgivingly difficult (if you want a long rant, ask me about my experience in Costlemark Tower), and some of the design choices are nothing short of impossibly mystifying. To put it bluntly, probably every negative thing you will read about this game elsewhere has more than just a little truth to it.

But.

For every negative thing I can say, I can easily balance it out with something positive. It has a relentlessly entertaining and engaging combat system, a deep leveling system, a unique take on magic, wonderful characters, top-notch voice acting (regardless of the language you choose to hear it in), a massive and emotionally engaging story, drop-dead gorgeous graphics, and eye-popping cinematics. The fact that it kept pulling me back, despite my notoriously short attention span and occasional desire to just drop the game altogether speak volumes, at least to me. And while I can’t give a blanket recommendation for this game to everyone who might be on the fence, I will say this: It takes a ton of risks, and a nontrivial amount don’t pay off. But those that do — oh man.

They do.

Scores
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Gameplay: 8/10
Story: 8/10
Personal value: 7/10
Overall: 81/100


Weights as follows:
Graphics: 15%
Sound: 10%
Gameplay: 25%
Story: 20%
Personal value: 30%
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About crakthesky

Mid-20s and vocal about my subculture.
This entry was posted in reviews, video games and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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