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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV spent a decade in development, backed by numerous delays and worries that it would be a mess like the XIII trilogy before it.  But did Square Enix take pains to make it worth the wait, or is this just another blemish on the franchise's name?

Final Fantasy has undergone a lot of changes over the years, changing from a relatively "stable" Square franchise into something much more experimental.  While the core elements of the franchise and its lore remain relatively constant, the storytelling style, gameplay and overall design have varied wildly with each entry, with some being relatively well-received while others garnered a much more mixed response.

Final Fantasy XV (formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII before undergoing extensive rewrites and alterations) is no different in that regard, taking the gameplay for the franchise in an entirely new direction.  One much more reminiscent of western RPGs like Elder Scrolls and Fallout with its largely open-ended exploration, as well as a plethora of sidequests to complete (mostly consisting of fetch quests and monster hunts).  To this end, it also incorporates some more mundane, non combat-focused skills for your playable characters - fishing, photography, survival and cooking skills are worked in, with each granting the player various benefits as they level up throughout the adventure.  Raising Survival, for example, allows restorative items to be found after battle, and raising Cooking unlocks new recipes that grant the player temporary statistic boosts.  While nowhere near as in-depth as in games like Fallout or Skyrim, it is a nice nod to those genres, and nicely complements the experience by letting the player power up by doing something other than fighting for a change.

Another indicator of this is the game's experience system.  While the player still gains points for taking part in combat with mundane enemies, it's a relatively minimal part of their overall gains.  Far more benefit is gained from successfully completing quests - delivering items, defeating a boss character or bounty mark, collecting one of the thirteen Royal Arms, and taking part in minigames like chocobo races give the player much more to do - and much more sense of accomplishment - than simply monotonous grinding.  The game subtly encourages the player to take the occasional break with the aforementioned cooking system, as well as the fact that experience is not granted on the fly - one must rest at a hotel or camping spot for their experience points to tally up and their characters to gain levels.

Of course, no western-styled game is complete without some type of crafting system or another, and in Final Fantasy XV's case, this is done with its spell system.  Throughout the game world, there are several points where the player may draw one of three types of magic (fire, ice and lightning) from magical stones and stockpile it.  Gathered magic may then be used to craft spells that are stored in "magic flasks"; these are set at a flat three charges apiece, though using more magic points in one gives them more punch.  But where things get interesting is in the Catalyst system - the player can combine almost any consumable item in with the spell to get a variety of new effects, from granting bonus experience points to restoring HP on the caster to getting multiple castings of a spell with each charge.  An overall interesting idea, though I found it to be a bit too much work for relatively little payoff and mostly just stuck to using weapons throughout the game.  That said, it does also lend itself to some highly abusable possibilities, like gaining over two million experience from a single battle when used properly, so die-hard Final Fantasy fans used to finding clever loopholes in the games' mechanics can certainly have some fun here.

Combat is greatly changed up from the series norm; rather than being in its familiar "active time" style, Final Fantasy XV takes place almost entirely in real-time, with the player taking command of Noctis and his three allies all being computer controlled for the most part (the lone exception being when the player commands them to use a skill or item).  Instead of giving the player a huge plethora of skills, items and spells to choose from, things this time are a bit more limited - the player instead has four equipment slots to work with, which can be used to wield various types of weapons and spells.  Rather than having to manually select commands, battles are largely governed by two buttons - a dedicated "defense" button that automatically causes the player to dodge most attacks when held down, and a button that causes the player to continually attack their targeted foe.  Therefore combat in the game does not come down to simply spamming your best attacks as in most Final Fantasy games, but rather having an eye for watching your enemies and having a sense of timing for when to play defensively and when to attack - not always the easiest thing when you're being swarmed by a group of a dozen or more enemies.  It works well enough for what it is, but I would prefer a bit more active control over my character than something which ultimately provides minimal gameplay in favor of a cinematic experience, particularly when your character seems to like doing slower attack animations against an opponent that cannot easily be stunned or comboed, resulting in them frequently getting a hit in and then being knocked down themselves before they can dodge or parry.

Fortunately, the game does give you some ways to deal with larger groups and tougher foes.  You'll frequently get warned throughout fights that enemies are about to go for a big attack with a prompt to "Parry" by pressing the defense button.  Doing that successfully causes the action to pause for a moment and gives the player a chance to instantly counterattack by pressing the attack button, which will temporarily put the attacking enemy off guard and do quite a bit of damage to them.  The player can "warp" to another target with the Triangle button or teleport to a Warp Point by holding it down, allowing them to break way from the action for a short time and rapidly recover their HP and MP.  The aforementioned ally attacks will temporarily grant your main character invincibility while their animation plays out, as well as allowing the player to deal extra damage with a followup attack triggered by a timed button press.  As the story progresses, Noctis also gains access to a "limit break" of sorts in the Armiger Arsenal, which allows him to summon all of the Royal Arms he's collected at the same time and fly around the field unleashing a relentless barrage of attacks on nearby enemies while mostly safe from harm himself.  It generally doesn't deal enough damage to completely turn a fight around, but it can at least grant the player a bit of breathing room and get them out of a bad spot when timed well.  Finally, the game may at times allow you to call in a Summon during the longer encounters by holding down one of the shoulder buttons, which deals heavy damage to all the enemies on the field; though generally not enough to take out tougher foes or bosses, it can easily turn the tide against mundane enemies.  However, the fact that the prompts seem to occur randomly (and have a lengthy cooldown period) prevents the player from relying on them too heavily.

On the writing side of things, Final Fantasy XV succeeds in ways most of its predecessors couldn't even dream of approaching.  The camaraderie between the characters is very strong, with frequent scenes of banter throughout that highlight their friendship and dedication to one another, even complete with some good-natured jabbing and jokes.  This even persists throughout the game's many dungeons, quests and combat scenarios, though you'll be hearing a lot of the same exchanges throughout the game as you explore.  Even the villains are surprisingly interesting, with some clever banter of their own and some interesting and complex motivations for each of them.  The game's writing shows a considerable amount of restraint; while the heroes and villains alike aren't afraid to crack jokes, they never let it interfere with the gravity of the situation or make them impossible to take seriously as characters; all of the humor is perfectly balanced out with the drama of the storyline.  In terms of setting and keeping a tone, this is easily the best the franchise has ever done.

Final Fantasy XV's production values are a cut above the franchise in many respects.  The game's setpieces and locations look amazing, seamlessly blending fantastic and realistic elements together into one cohesive whole without over-reliance on glitzy spell effects and reflective textures.  The characters are equally well-animated and modeled, with details like lingering flames and ice on enemies after being hit with spells adding a surprisingly realistic touch. The voice acting is excellent; as mentioned, the characters come off as extremely natural here, with no over-embellished dialog or excessive hamminess in anyone's delivery to take the player out of the moment.   This may just be Square's most impressive release to date on a production level, and that is saying quite a lot given the effort they've put into their visuals over the years.

On the storytelling side of things, however, is where Final Fantasy XV starts to show some fault.  While the game feels very fluid and well-integrated with its open world elements for the first half of the story, things start to go downhill in the latter half.  The game takes on an extremely linear style that simply whisks the player from one location to the next to complete a given objective and move on; there's almost no room to explore the environment or interact with NPCs in any of these locations, which has the unpleasant effect of making it feel like a much different (and considerably worse) game.  At one point it even abruptly changes up the gameplay style entirely to something more akin to a stealth/survival horror title, having the player slip into cracks or duck into empty rooms to avoid detection by enemies, collecting keys and even having to solve a switch-flipping puzzle to proceed.  This whole segment feels overly long, more than a little tacked on and has no real sense of tension or fear due to your character's constant flippant remarks throughout, so I was just left wondering why they included it at all.

The overall narrative of the game feels incomplete; characters constantly drop terminology and lore tidbits throughout with little context, which often left me wondering what they were talking about.  I later found out that this was because of the game being pushed as more of a multimedia project, with major elements of the universe's story being filled in via an anime series and a feature film.  This is fine if you're into the game and want to learn more about its world, but those who just picked up the title out of the blue (like myself) can easily find themselves a bit lost.  Regardless, I much prefer that to the Mass Effect approach of simply having all of the backstory filled in via a dry Plot Codex; it's ultimately more costly to the customer to get the full experience, but at least there's a legitimate feeling of effort to the entire experience.  FFXV's narrative is also well-crafted enough that while I felt left in the dark in some respects, I never felt like any of the events depicted were illogical or out of place.

On the technical front, Final Fantasy XV has a few bugs, which is to be expected with the expansive and free-roaming nature of the game.  On a few occasions I had my allies get hung up on scenery, go transparent or get stuck in a strange AI loop with Ignis simply standing in one spot and letting me repeatedly attack him during a training exercise.  The controls overall feel somewhat sluggish (with more than a few instances of me getting a prompt to press "X" to pick up an item and my character choosing to jump instead) and the game did soft-lock on me at one point after resting.  Thankfully these occurrences were rare and didn't dampen the overall experience, and the autosave feature and ability to create manual saves at almost any time ensures that any losses in progress are kept to a minimum.  The game operates very smoothly, with almost no visible load times, texture loading, severe framerate drops or other issues while exploring.  Load times when fast-traveling or changing locations during a story scene can be a bit long, however.

In the end, Final Fantasy XV, as its tagline suggests, is a game that both long-time fans and newcomers can enjoy.  While the gameplay is a much different turn for the series, it's well-handled enough that the game ends up being a very enjoyable, if unconventional, Final Fantasy experience.  Long-time RPG gamers will also have a lot to enjoy, with lots of little nods to older Square games (including King's Knight of all things) and even references to other RPGs like Earthbound (which, as a huge Earthbound fan, I certainly got a kick out of).  Its heartfelt storytelling, compelling characters and enjoyable, if simplistic, gameplay make for an overall entertaining experience, though I can't say I had any real desire to complete all of the quests it had to offer.  With the exception of the Royal Pack, which adds back in many omitted story elements and extends the ending, its DLC is also of dubious value, mostly consisting of short (1-2 hour) campaigns centered on the various secondary characters in the story.  Still, while Final Fantasy XV may be a long way from perfect, it's the most enjoyable thing to bear the name in a very long time.

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC
Released: 2016
Recommended version: I have only played the PS4 version, but from all that I've seen and heard both versions are very similar, with some slightly different visual bugs on each.  The PC release also supports player modding.  I would also recommend getting the Royal Edition if possible, as it adds in a significant amount of content to the game that was omitted from the original release, as well as bundling all of the DLC missions released to that point (notably, the PC version has this installed by default).