I haven’t been writing much recently; the Holiday season threw me off my game. However, I did manage to write a short piece on Final Fantasy IV for Beneath the Tangles’ 12 Days of Christmas feature.
At the risk of becoming a bit one-note I’m going to do yet another Final Fantasy related post, this time on Final Fantasy XV, the most recent entry (having gotten my hands on a PS4 I can now partake of the full splendor of the modest upgrades that the current generation has seen over the previous one). I’m far from completion, but have logged enough time to have some opinions about the thing.
It’s fair to say that I had low expectations for FFXV. With the exception of XII, modern Final Fantasy games have proven to be quite spotty for me. FFX was decent, but quickly paled in comparison to a lot of the other RPGs of that era; FFXI and FFXIV were MMOs and hence uninteresting to me; FFXIII was a good battle system and tech demo wrapped in a terribly mismanaged game. All that, combined with FFXV’s own troubled, decade-long development suggested a product that would be a mess. Even the initial positive reviews made me wonder if the whole thing would just be a repeat of my experience with The Phantom Pain, where my hopes of seeing an old franchise’s return to form gradually fizzled out as the experience sank into me.
So it is quite a pleasant surprise for me to write that FFXV might just be the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with the franchise since FFIX some seventeen years ago. There’s still plenty of time for the game to wreck this impression, but it has so far managed to disarm much of my cynicism. And it did this in spite of being a flawed game that bears the scars of its wayward gestation.
Set in the world of Eos, the story begins with Noctis Lucis Caelum, the crown prince of Insomnia, heading out on a journey with his three trusty J-Rock themed retainers. The purpose of the journey being to go to the Nifelheim empire and enter into a marriage alliance with Lady Lunafreya, who seems to fulfill a dual role of being a princess and a quasi-religious figure – I’m not sure about a lot of the details. Anyhow, these overtures of peace turn out to be a charade when the empire attacks Insomnia, killing King Regis (yes, really) and stealing the magic crystal that the royal family guards. Thus it is up to Noctis and his friends to go on a road trip across the land, collecting the magical family heirloom macguffins so that he might become strong enough to rescue the crystal and bring peace to the world.
It’s not a terribly interesting plot, but what’s surprising is that it doesn’t matter. FFXV takes a very personal approach, keeping much of the scope focused on Noctis and his friends, who are for the most part fun characters to be around. Noctis himself is a bog standard sullen anime hero, but Prompto, Ignis and Gladolius (honestly these names) are endearing riffs on old bro archetypes: Gladolius is the jock, Ignis is the intellectual, and Prompto the younger brother. Their often silly banter is a welcome change of pace from the overly serious recent FF casts (as much as I appreciate the relative maturity of FFXII’s characters, even I have to admit that they’re on the dry side). What I’ve been reminded of the most so far is FFV, which similarly paired a generic fantasy story with a small cast of lovable goofballs.
Also like FFV, the game almost seems to be in on the joke of its own campy schlock. A dungeon with horror movie jump scares! A mini story arc where you take back your stolen car in an over-the-top attack on a military base! etc.
But the world of Eos is much closer to the mundane, modern fantasy look that FFVII and VIII went for, while pushing it to surrealistic limits: modern infrastructure and cities exist alongside Star Wars style retro-future tech, while the bestiary has returned to its older, D&D inflected look, with Tolkienesque monsters prowling about the highways. It’s a fun world to mess around with.
Which leads to the next major point: a much touted feature of the game was its embrace of open world gameplay. I was suspicious about this move, as it felt like an overreaction to the criticism lobbed against FFXIII’s linearity rather than a choice that would fit the series well. The Phantom Pain had also given me a crash course on how, like a buffet, the many options of an open world can eventually feel unfocused and shallow compared to a more limited but more fulfilling three course meal approach.
So far this hasn’t seemed to be the case. Part of this is because a weird fantasy world is inherently more interesting to mess around in than war-torn Afganistan, partly because there’s just enough structure to it for the exploration to feel meaningful. But we’ll have to see how I feel at the end.
The combat is the real weak link so far. Unlike previous titles, all vestiges of the old turn-based approach have been stripped away in favor of an action RPG style. While there’s a theoretical wealth of tactical options available, actual combat often dissolves into total hack-and-slash chaos. It looks very exciting and visceral (assuming the camera hasn’t decided to hide behind a bush), but there isn’t too much going on. Though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Chrono Trigger, for instance, is a good example of an RPG whose combat chooses spectacle over depth – and hasn’t irked me much: the game is far less grindy than most other FFs, so there isn’t enough fighting for it to feel tedious, and the focus is more exploratory anyhow.
The more mechanically brilliant stuff is elsewhere. Traditional RPG pit stops like staying at inns and camping are given an interesting overhaul: you now need to rest overnight in order to level up, and you can forage for ingredients that Ignis can cook into lovingly HD-rendered meals which provide stat bonuses. And a lot of locations will also often unlock some quiet buddy moments. It’s a nice touch.
At least a nod also has to be given to Yoko Shimomura’s bombastic, achingly romantic orchestral score, which fully lives up to the series standard. But there’s also an amusing, nostalgic element to the game’s music: while The Phantom Pain has the player scouring the world for tape cassettes filled with 80s music, FFXV allows the player to find old FF soundtracks to play in the car. You can even buy an mp3 player to listen to them while you walk. This, given the embarrassing amount of old FF music I have on my itunes, makes this one of the most meta forms of nostalgia bait I’ve seen.
My understanding is that the second half of the game plays out quite differently both in terms of gameplay and story, and that people have some gripes about it. So my ultimate verdict on Square Enix’s revivified vaporware remains to be seen. But at the moment I find myself excited for a new triple A JRPG – and for a Final Fantasy nonetheless – and that hasn’t happened for at least a decade.