Wednesday, December 28, 2016

New Review: Despite a terrible final act, FF15 proves to be a great open world game, if not quite a true Final Fantasy one.

Final Fantasy 15’s opening moments had caught me completely by surprise. 

All throughout the game’s massive time in development I’d cringed every time I’d seen footage, every time I’d heard details, every time I’d witnessed another shift in direction towards road movie territory and CGI films. 

But once I’d booted the game up on the brand new PS4 that I’d (doubts aside) purchased to play it, I was stunned to realize how much Final Fantasy XV’s opening moments grabbed me. It wasn’t the bland action scene that actually opens the adventure before flashing back, but the scene that followed it. My main characters found themselves in the middle of a vast open world, complaining about their predicament while pushing their car along the road, a very cool theme song from Florence and the Machine playing over the soundtrack. 

Shortly afterwards, they arrive at what resembles a rest stop, and immediately you’re free to wander around listening to NPCs, to progress the storyline, and even to take on Hunts and venture out into the world, and what a world it is. Final Fantasy XV instantly proves itself as something truly different for this series, and I fell in love with its atmosphere and characters almost from the get-go. By the end, it doesn’t quite live up to its promise, partially due to its lacking storytelling and a complete pivot towards blandness in its final third. But for much of the experience I was thinking of it as among my top “open world” RPGs ever, and while it never really felt right to me as a Numbered Final Fantasy game, I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through Final Fantasy XV. 

What gets my full praise is the vast, fully explorable world. Having begun the series with Final Fantasy X before working backwards, I never got to experience what it was like for PS1 owners back in the day to be blown away by the worldmaps in VII-IX, but when I managed to unlock the Chocobo-riding feature in XV and got to ride across the plains, I caught a glimpse of what that must have felt like. XV’s world isn’t an especially populated one; outposts, (which usually consist of resting quarters, a diner, a couple shops, and that’s about it) dungeons, and campsites dot the otherwise empty world. You only visit two actual cities over the course of the adventure, and even there many of the NPCs your characters meet serve very little narrative purpose and get nothing resembling development. 

Instead, Final Fantasy XV presents itself as a road trip; many of the events in the actual story, regarding warring kingdoms and empires, are mostly only glimpsed by listening to the radio. The journey is instead about Prince Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto (names I had to Wikipedia the spellings of to write this review, a first for FF for me) as they travel the kingdom in a car, taking photographs of each other, listening to music, and stopping at camp spots along the way. Make no mistake, this is a full-on open world game; most people you meet outside this main group of four characters serve almost no purpose except to sell you items, give you quests, or provide small banter in towns. Though there are cutscenes throughout, much of the story and character interaction takes place as you play. It’s similar in that regard to games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. 

What helps Final Fantasy XV to stand out is how wonderfully Japanese it is. Its Japanese roots shine through, in everything from the character designs to the art direction (which is most like Final Fantasy VIII) and the combat system, which, while action-driven, thankfully never enters button-mashing territory. The dynamic among the cast of characters is surprisingly lighthearted, at times feeling almost more like a Tales game than what one might expect from Final Fantasy. The dialogue is very well-acted and it, along with the writing, gives the game a natural feel. 

Exploring the vast world is pretty painless, though I wish the characters ran a little faster. The car can almost always be set to auto drive, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the gorgeous 8th gen scenery. (This can be skipped for 10 gil.) Letting the car drive itself is recommended, as it can only move along paved roads anyway and its controls aren’t the best. Other means of travel include of course Chocobos, which you can rent and take pretty much anywhere, and yes, on foot as well, though it isn’t recommended for long journeys. The world’s seamless, with no load times separating the field from towns or outposts, and combat’s much the same way. 

A big issue I tend to have with action RPGs is that they become far too grind-heavy and button-mashey. Final Fantasy XV avoids this in two different ways; its combat system is more about holding buttons rather than pressing them, and its difficulty is kept fairly moderate throughout, which will likely be appreciated by turn-based fans but may bum out those who are well versed in action RPGs. Fans may also be upset that Noctis is the only controllable character, and that you can’t even issue commands to the others, though thankfully it didn’t prove to be a huge problem for me. 

Hunts, which can be taken on at diners and other eating establishments, are fully encouraged, not only as a primary source for gil (which does not come from winning battles) but also for EXP points. Interestingly, Final Fantasy XV doesn’t allow your characters to make use of those EXP points to level up except at campsites, inns, or other save points. AP, which allows you a ton of character customization across an upgrade grid, can be used anywhere. It’s a clever idea that further enforces the “road trip” theme, and I ended up appreciating it. The game features a very clear quest menu, both for main story quests and sidequests, and allows you to set blips on your radar accordingly, making stepping off to do side missions something that’s fun and rewarding, not something that feels like an interruption. Doing these is a major part of the Final Fantasy XV experience, and just breezing through for the story might not prove nearly as satisfying. 

It's good that exploring the world itself winds up being such a treat. I’d have loved for the locations you visited to have more of a narrative purpose, but the graphics, which are gorgeous, and the music, which is good if not exactly Final Fantasy caliber, helps bring a lot of personality to the adventure and its world, and it was a world that minute-for-minute I had a blast exploring. 

What goes wrong with Final Fantasy XV isn’t enough to break the game, or to make the game un-recommendable. But these are issues that oddly enough give a game that spent over 10 years in development the feeling of being rushed. Everything plot-wise in the first 2/3 of the game left me wanting more; the characters are so likable (Prompto though feels like a next gen version of Zell, which gets old fast) and the cutscenes so well directed and acted, that I was dying to see more of them than what the game shows you. Snapshots that Prompto takes can be viewed at the end of chapters and at save points, and they show the characters laughing and having a great time at the locations you’ve visited. Why not show some of this to us in cutscenes? Why do characters mention things in passing, (“hey, I noticed in that town you were talking to this person….”) that the game never shows you? Why are almost all the characters outside your main party forgettable RPG templates with no motivation or development? Why is a character’s fate revealed but given not even a second of explanation?

As much as I loved much of my time spent in the game’s first 2/3s, its shortcomings in story and character development, while nothing new for the open world genre, feel bizarre in a Final Fantasy game, especially one given the Numbered treatment. The characters interact very frequently as they traverse the world, and the little plot that’s here moves at a decent enough pace and is well-presented, so it isn’t a silent slog across barren plains like Final Fantasy XII was, which was also sparsely-plotted. But there’s no denying that if you buy FFXV entirely for the main storyline, there’s no way that you won’t come off at least slightly disappointed. 

The developers’ answer to this comes in the game's final third, where a series of events abruptly plunge the narrative into full gear. Though at first I was excited by this more story-driven direction, it turns out that finding yourself suddenly on rails after a whole adventure of freedom just doesn’t work. Granted, you can return to the open world if you choose thanks to a time travel mechanic at save points, but it no longer takes place in the context of the story, which instead forces you through drearily industrial-looking environments and a narrative that somehow feels so simple and yet so ridiculously hard to follow. The sudden melodrama might have meant more if we’d gotten a basis for how these characters became friends and how much they truly mean to each other, but in the far more easygoing first 2/3s, there just wasn’t enough of this to allow me to really care about the events which unfold in the game’s final hours. 

The penultimate Chapter 13 proves to be the biggest offender, where your weapons and party members are removed from you for an unbearable amount of time as you’re dropped into a set piece right out of Resident Evil 6, wandering through sprawling corridors looking for security access card keys as the villain cackles at you over the loudspeakers. Beginning with Final Fantasy XII and continuing with Final Fantasy XIII, this series has developed the unfortunate habit of forcing you into one giant, long dungeon as you near the end of the game, and with Chapter 13, Final Fantasy XV again falls victim to it, dragging what little goodwill still exists in the game’s final third down with it.

In the end, it’s the narrative elements that wind up being Final Fantasy XV’s biggest roadblock to true greatness. There are other issues here and there; the camera can be all over the place during battle, magic is ridiculously hard to use, summons show up seemingly at random, load times after loading up a save file or dying are incredibly long, and the jump button serves little purpose except to make your character jump when you’re trying to talk to other characters. But by far the biggest issue with Final Fantasy XV is that as enjoyable as its first 2/3s are, I just wished that we’d had a beautiful, character-driven storyline running through them. The attempt to provide one towards the end backfires completely and hurts the game more than it helps it. There was a time where Squaresoft was able to release games with central exploration elements, while still managing to tell truly memorable, character-driven storylines. Final Fantasy’s VII-IX are really all that Square-Enix has to look at to see that. 

Final Fantasy XV though proves to be a mostly awesome experience. Despite its lacking narrative aspects, I loved the little road trip through Eos that serves as the basis for this adventure. It’s something XV almost manages to fully pull off, and though its linear and melodramatic final act holds it back from greatness, in the end it doesn’t stop me from recommending Final Fantasy XV. 

I just hope that Square-Enix realizes at some point that you can still tell a great story in a game with open world elements; and that doing so doesn’t require throwing their characters into endless dark corridors. 

3.5/5= Good

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