Friday, 16 December 2016

Final Fantasy XV - Review

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Ten years. Final Fantasy XV’s development time is notorious. A whole decade, and half of that time the game was a side story to Final Fantasy XIII’s weird, convoluted extended universe. The fact that Final Fantasy XV exists at all, in any form whatsoever, is something of a miracle.

Factoring in that lengthy development time is important when discussing Final Fantasy XV. Not only did the game see an extensive shift in focus, jettisoning the connection to Final Fantasy XIII, the game also saw a change of director, with Tetsuya Nomura being replaced with Hajime Tabata.

This is perhaps the best explanation for why Final Fantasy XV is all over the place. This sprawling, sometimes epic, sometimes shallow, Frankenstein’s monster of a game is nothing short of a mess. It’s an open world RPG, but only for the first half, and even then, only when it wants to be. It’s also a road movie (well, game) about four friends sticking together, but it’s also a fantasy epic about warring countries and magic crystals. Final Fantasy XV is a game built on the corpses of several others and damn does it show.

The aforementioned road movie aspect would seem to be how the game wants to be remembered. Prince Noctis and his band of friends start the game pushing their clapped-out car to the nearest garage, whilst Florence and the Machine play “Stand By Me” over the scene.

Its cast at the very least have more heart in them than the weird, soulless voids that masqueraded as characters in Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XV might have you running around with a group of characters that look like a J-Pop boy band but they at least have some humanity to them.

The other big side step is avoiding linearity. The open world RPG aspect is Final Fantasy XV at its most modern and most conventional. It’s The Witcher 3 meets Xenoblade Chronicles. Here’s a huge stretch of land, go forth and explore it. Other ideas are lifted from Square Enix’s back catalogue. Monster hunts comprise a hefty chunk of this game’s side content, and function essentially the same as they did in Final Fantasy XII.

You even get to drive your car around from location to location, and there’s certainly something enjoyable about simply soaking in the landscape as hills roll past and the sun begins to set. Game-as-road movie is an unbelievably fun concept; camping to level up and restore yourself overnight, picking up monster hunts to pool some money together to get you to the next town. When Final Fantasy XV ignores all of its other nonsense to focus on living out the back of a car it latches on to a really promising concept.

Step beyond the boundaries of the open road however, and the game’s world collapses right in front of you. Don’t go thinking about driving that car by yourself, it’ll just railroad you back into the middle of the road, whilst invisible barriers prevent you from crashing into oncoming traffic. Its world is hollow, devoid of interesting things to see and do. The litany of side quests are pulled from the standard MMO structure of “go to A, pick up/kill B”. The game has size and scope but nothing to show for it other than pretty vistas.

The game’s combat is the real killer, though. Final Fantasy is a series that’s become enamoured with the visual cacophony of Advent Children’s fight scenes. Characters no longer obey basic laws of physics, and instead can perform superhuman feats for no explainable reason, all in tightly choreographed sequences. This began to bleed into the games starting with Kingdom Hearts 2, and then again with Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XV continues this obsession, moving the combat to real-time. Combat is rendered idiot-proof; holding one button will launch Noctis into a string of sword-flourishes and acrobatic lunges as he zips and warps around enemies. Meanwhile, holding another button will have Noctis dodge enemy attacks automatically provided he has the MP reserves to do so. He can also engage the enemy with a warp strike in order to quickly close the distance.

I can’t stress this point enough, the entire combat system of the game is governed by two buttons, three at best. There’s no strategy or meaningful decision-making to be had mid-fight. Whilst it’s in real-time, there’s no rhythm to enemy attacks, monsters rarely have clear tells that telegraph their attacks so that you can respond in time. It’s a case of holding down a button and waiting for whatever you’re fighting to eventually die.

Noctis’ party also suffer from a severe lack of interaction. Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus accompany Noctis throughout the game’s campaign, and, bar the occasional guest character, are the only party members you’ll have.

Your input into how they go about combat is minimal, however. All three characters have a different weapon type available to them (Noctis isn’t bound by this, and can equip any weapon), further reducing the strategy involved in arming each party member. Swords go to Gladiolus, guns to Prompto, knives to Ignis; the game does the work for you.

Each character also has a number of skills, or techniques, that they can use in combat. Again, the game throttles any life this mechanic would have by only allowing them to equip one at a time, and also forcing all three companions to share the same resource used to fuel these techniques. It also doesn’t help that many of them have vague properties outside of “does a lot of damage”. I have a hard time working out why Gladiolus hitting things with a shield is better/worse than him battering everything with his sword. When the game doesn’t simply make every decision for the player it instead leaves the scope of its game systems vague and poorly defined.

All of these skills, along with a number of other upgrades, are unlocked through the Ascension Grid, a basic wheel-and-spoke upgrade system slightly similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. It’s here where you realize that Final Fantasy XV is barely an RPG. Upgrades have the same generic, all-purpose quality that you see in your average open-world game; “chain attacks do more damage”, “dodging costs less MP”. You don’t build your characters over hours of play, they’re simply built for you in a vague fluffy sense that prevents you from investing in your own playstyle.

The final wrinkles of the game’s awful combat are loosely cribbed from Xenoblade Chronicles, but with no clear understanding of why they worked in that game. The one area of “skill” in combat, when the clunky controls and dreadful camera allow, is flanking enemies and delivering back attacks, resulting in bonus damage and combos with Noctis’ team mates.

Only, there’s no real way to influence enemy aggression in Final Fantasy XV, not in a reliable way anyhow. Part of what made Xenoblade Chronicles so engaging was the basic, Shulk/Reyn dynamic that was expanded upon and made more complex as the game progressed and the party expanded; part of your group was designed to take damage, the other deal it. Final Fantasy XV on the other hand has everything descend into a confusing morass of poor camerawork and hyper-active fights that practically play themselves.

Ramuh, Titan and Leviathan appear as the game’s primary summons, and the latter two are both integral to the overarching plot, as well as major boss battles. Here, Final Fantasy XV gives up any pretence of strategy, with both battles being a clumsy trudge through quick-time events.

There’s little payoff for acquiring these summons either. Like with everything else in Final Fantasy XV’s summoning system are completely random and only occur when the game decides. I suppose you could say this is a suitable way of portraying the game’s summons as capricious and aloof gods that only act on their own whims. The fact that the game places quite a hefty focus on them, though, story-wise, only to have them shoved in the background moments later is underwhelming to say the least.

Magic also suffers from a shallow game system. In fact, magic can be all but ignored and the player won’t suffer. Fire, ice and lightning magic can be drawn from various points throughout the world and then combined with magic flasks in your inventory. Combining the magic with additional items will have bizarre effects, again, with little explanation as to why these items would work in this fashion. Throw a few lightning spells together with a few trinkets and a bit of ice magic and all of a sudden you have quad-cast Thundaga.

All of these issues are only half of what Final Fantasy XV has to offer, though. This is a game that can be clearly divided into two distinct halves that only highlight its troubled development. After the first ten hours or so, more if you delve deeper into the side content, the world narrows, chapters become more linear and cut-scene heavy, while the confused and awkwardly edited story go off the rails.

I mean that literally, too, as most of the latter half of the game takes place on a train. After the first chunk of the game puts the emphasis on its primary cast of characters, the later portions of the game rushes from scene to scene, with the plot becoming increasingly unhinged as it goes along. The Nilfheim Empire is mentioned but very rarely shown, the key players in the political power struggle, that acts as a catalyst for the game’s events, are hinted at but very rarely shown. Occasionally, characters will talk about events that just happened, but the player will not see any of it. Conversely, lavish cut-scenes will show things happening at various parts of the adventure with no context whatsoever. Trying to pick out a story thread in Final Fantasy XV is a nightmare by the halfway mark.

The latter half of Final Fantasy XV is rushed, clearly, even by the uneven and frustrating standards of the first half of the game. Worse than that though is what the game chooses to spend its time upon in the rush towards its finale.

The game frequently gives up being an RPG or an action game and instead flirts with other genres. There’s a whole section involving stealth, and like everything else its rendered pointless by the fact that only one button is used to do everything. In what is perhaps the most bizarre decision, the game’s penultimate chapter takes a weird turn into survival horror, with hiding spots and key cards that need to be acquired.

Someone could perhaps see this as bold experimentation. After all, one of the biggest problems of the long-running series has been its inability to modify and evolve its established formula. Yet, these weird gameplay sequences and experiments aren’t born out of creativity, but out of fear. They come across as a developer throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks, dredging up every cliché of modern game design; bland open world, copy-paste quests, hide-and-seek horror, and generic stealth. Perhaps the best comparison would be Resident Evil 6, another game that attempts to solve its ageing game design by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.

Final Fantasy XV is a bad game. Its combat is frustrating and linear, its story incomprehensible and its world bland and lifeless. There are scraps of something interesting in its laid back road movie moments, where it throws out the fighting and the nonsense story and instead invests in its characters love of photography, cooking and fishing. Of course, even this is partially ruined by the vulgar product placement (this is a fantasy world, remember) for Coleman camping equipment and Cup Noodles.

Nothing escapes the fact that the majority of the game is a horrible mess that’s barely stapled together. It’s gaming’s equivalent of Suicide Squad. If this is what we’re left with after ten years, there’s the impression that the whole thing would have been best left on the cutting room floor.


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