Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Final Fantasy XV


If you listen closely, the lyrics to Somnus read "Why is everything in Latin?" 

This is not a review. At least not in the traditional sense of offering a balanced perspective to inform a purchasing decision. Final Fantasy XV has received glowing reviews, a far cry from my resoundingly negative experience with it. Maybe the “Final Fantasy” name has given it a clout it doesn’t deserve, perhaps the 10 year delivery time meant people didn’t want to imagine it being bad, maybe I’m just really out of step with mainstream thought. Either way, this post seeks to address a perceived undeserved positive bias in the games favour.

Plot / Characters

The first half of the plot is best described as a leisurely road trip. Major plot developments include the car breaking down. Noctis - hero and crown prince of Insomnia - is swiftly informed his home has been invaded by Niflheim. He’s then tasked with collecting the weapons from tombs of the ancient kings, but this plot ends up not really going anywhere. Instead we decide to make covenants with the Astrals (summons) to take revenge. Of course in FF tradition there is a huge plot twist but the initial presentation of the story is so slight all you can really see is the foreshadowing to the swerve.

If a picture says a thousand words this is basically the first half of the games manuscript.
There’s a few hints to what the villainous Niflheim empire are up to, but not much. Even as Evil EmpiresTM go, this one is underdeveloped. We’re introduced to a band of higher-ups in an early scene and I’m fairly sure half of them never appear again. Perhaps their identity is established more in the supplementary Kingsglaive and Brotherhood, but if that’s all they're involved in then they shouldn’t be here. Likewise, material critical to understanding the plot should be in the game itself. Though the game isn’t a huge offender here, it is an increasing trend and worth noting.

Assisting Noctis are his childhood friends and protectors. This game is unusual in the series in that the party are already fully formed friends from the start rather than growing and changing, and I think the dynamic suffers for it. By assuming their friendship, I felt the game gave us little reason to invest in it. The same is true for the oracle and Noctis’s love interest Stella Lunafreya. Despite her huge relevance to the plot and mythos, she gets startlingly little screen time and no development. Her brother Ravus is built up as a significant villain with deep personal motivations, but again we barely see him. The cast have a lot of potential but despite lots of room to breathe nothing gets a look in.

Events begin to pick up once the party reach Alitssia about half way through, and becomes more linear. We spend several chapters stuck on a train while several world-defining events take place. Niflheim launch a full scale attack on the kingdom of Tenebrae, seemingly kill a god and plunge a region into eternal winter, and unleash demons and endless night on the world. All of these potentially magnificent set pieces receive around 4, maybe 5, minutes of attention before moving on. This is upsetting given the opportunity for spectacle and ramifications they should have on the cast’s journey. I would describe it as rushed but… Well, 10 years. Clearly, the developers preferred to focus on Chapter 13, which will have its own section.

The Open World

I was disappointed to see FFXV hit every single issue I have with open world game design: 
  • Large expanses of nothing. You will spend a lot of time driving through vast countryside to reach your destinations. It is boring. What doesn’t help is that the games commitment to realism means there’s usually not even a great deal to look at. Oh and god help you when quests are far from the roads and you have to travel on foot. In fact...
    • Irritating stamina mechanics.
  • Pointless side quests to make the world feel somewhat populated. All mostly very shallow and tedious fetch quests. One notable mission has you finding cat food. Cat food. Few have a discernible impact on the world
  • Aimless story. The lack of urgency and slightness of plot previously discussed is no doubt in part due to the world design.
  • Annoying mechanics added for “realism” such as characters complaining about hunger, and needing to set up camp at night. These do not add to the experience. Please stop.
    • Seriously though why do I have to awkwardly dismount from a Chocobo to pick up items? Even FFXIII got this right!
Open world design can work if it adds to the experience. It works where there’s lot of extra lore, people, and variety to find. It works where the side quests make a difference to the state of the world, even influence the main story. The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, they all do well at this. FFXV does not. It gives us big, vestigial environments with very little of significance going on. Truly it is time for stop viewing “openness” as some sort of holy grail.

Also in the interest of realism, most of the dungeons are aesthetically dull caves. 

Combat

On the surface, the battle system of FFXV has a lot going on. It’s an action RPG, unlike any FF before (and nothing like Kingdom Hearts before that comparison rears its head). Noctis can equip up to four weapons at once from a variety of classes including swords, greatswords, javellins, and twindaggers. All the classes have a different rhythm in how they attack: greatswords obviously are slower, more powerful, and have a greater ability to stun. You can assume a defensive position by holding Square/X, you can “phase” harmlessly through most attacks, block and parry when prompted. Finally, the triangle/y button can be used to warp to enemies and attack, or warp to points on the battlefield.

But behind this seemingly rich system lies little. One would think that with different attack rhythms, timing attacks well would play an important part in the battle system. It does not. Combat is sustained by just holding the circle/B button and to this end fighting kind of feels like being on autopilot. You can push different directions while attacking but this change is almost entirely superficial, the only notable point being greatsword classes have a charging attack. Shifting attention to dodging appears to be the intended counterpoint here, but enemy attacks are either too rapid and not strong enough to bother, or easily telegraphed.

Naturally, weapons may be more or less effective against different enemy types. But ultimately this makes the experience of switching weapons less a fun way to change up how you play the game (see Dark Souls) and merely a game of rock, paper, scissors. Further to this, there is little weapon variation within most of the weapon classes, they all attack in the same way.

Allies can perform techniques to assist you in battle. These are automatic and context sensitive; Ignis will perform Venom Fang when Noctis chains a nearby enemy for example. There’s some variety here; techniques can poison (useless) or divert attention of foes, but their automaticity means you may well not even notice them. Teamwork skills are initiated by the player and can have effects such as healing the party or drawing enemies together, and these are good but certainly nothing to write home about.

Noctis’s point warp is ultimately just a way to quickly get between enemies and is applied in a unique and interesting way precisely once. His single “Armiger” limit break is simply a long string of attacks with no particular special properties. Both are just things which look good in a trailer but amount to little. Oh well.

Meals can be bought or cooked at camps in order to temporarily increase your stats and make an upcoming challenge more bearable. An interesting idea but I could never predict when a tough fight was coming and didn’t fancy wasting sometimes huge sums of money and resources very often!
So combat, for all its glitters and trinkets, is rather hollow. Just get behind the enemy if possible to perform stronger “blindside” attacks, and hold circle. This describes almost every fight in the game.

And it’s remarkably easy. The lack of variety in the battle system means you rarely if ever have to seriously consider a more thoughtful approach to the fight. There’s no boss where you have to cast reflect and bounce spells off your own party. There’s no clever tricks with status effects which can easily end an otherwise insufferable fight. Even the toughest boss in the story is not hard through requiring a good strategy or greater skill, he simply has stronger attacks and a lot of health. Difficulty is determined almost entirely by how many healing items you have.

Magic

I’ve dedicated a separate section for magic because despite being equipable like any other weapon, it feels very disconnected from the rest of battle system. There’s only three forms of magic, the standard fire ice lightning, which can be drawn from deposits found near camps and a few other scattered points. This energy must then be synthesized into three casts of what are basically elemental bombs. The more magic you pour in, the stronger the bombs become. These must be aimed and thrown in the middle of a fight, will damage anyone caught in their blast, and will usually linger.

The game succeeds in portraying magic as a temperamental and dangerous force. But between limited casts, friendly fire, and fairly extensive cooldown times between uses, I felt like the game is actively discouraging magic use. Magic usually offers the means to debilitate foes, empower yourself, and generally deepens gameplay. Here it’s reduced to a party trick you may whip out occasionally to deal with a crowd. And these occasions are blatantly signalled: Yes, it is a good idea to use Thunder on the clustered group of enemies standing in a puddle.

Magic may also be combined but since most enemies with a weakness will also have some resistance, there appears to be little point in doing this...
Summon magic is apparently present in the game. Aside from the one plot-mandated occasion I’ve never seen it.

Chapter 13

Oh Christ Chapter 13… This is in the late game and is built up to be the point where you storm the villains base. A tough but triumphant mission. This is brutally subverted and you’re left without your friends, your magic, or your weapons. I’m all for this subversion of the narrative, even if it does just end up falling into another clich√© of desperate survival horror in an abandoned base. However the execution leaves everything to be desired.

Your only weapon is the Ring of the Lucii; which to its credit is one of the most unique weapons, giving you access to variation of the Death, Holy, and X-Zone spells. It sucks though, meaning you’re expected to use dreadfully implemented stealth mechanics to avoid powerful enemies. The stealth in this section is so poor it is actually easier to just take the opposition on with X-Zone. Imagine the early Metal Gear Solid games where you are vastly outmatched, but it’s near impossible to go undetected and brute forcing was genuinely the best option.

This is also a very long mission. In fact at one point you get sent further back than where you started. It takes at least an hour if you’re hurrying through. Which is hard because you can’t sprint. Even later gaining a passable weapon doesn’t expediate the tedious slog through dull scenery and repeated assets. Dotted around the facility are notes which explain many aspects of what the plot has suddenly redirected to (LORE!) but this is your only opportunity to read them, making the chapter even longer. It ceases to be atmospheric or tense, it is simply mind-numbing.

It’s hard to overstate just how bad it is. I’ve seen people describe it as the worst level they’ve ever played and it’s hard to disagree. The developers have already announced their intention to patch the section, presumably to make it easier. However it is baffling that it was judged to be a good idea in the first place. That everyone involved could look at it as say “Yes, this is fine.”


Final Fantasy XV is superficially well constructed. However, in almost every relevant facet it lacks depth. Inclusion of details and mechanics like fishing and very detailed rocks merely obfuscate just how hollow the games fundamental scaffold is. Perhaps this is why the reviews are so positive? So distracted by the expansive sea of features and not enough time to realise they’re standing ankle deep. I am a huge Final Fantasy fan and I’ve loved more controversial entries; I will ardently defend XII for all its flaws and XIII is one of my favourites. But I have no reservations in calling XV one of the worst in the series. An unpleasant experience to the end.