Thursday, March 2, 2017
Long-Delayed Final Fantasy XV Review
When "Versus XIII" was announced I felt Final Fantasy was at a high water mark. I had just spent a couple years feverishly playing through the entire series. "Final Fantasy XII" was just around the corner, representing a huge revolution in the series. That was what I thought the future of JRPGs was going to be. (A decade later, turns out it was more of a dead-end.) I was so obsessed with Final Fantasy I would end up spending my high school years editing the Final Fantasy Wiki. Then came the disappointments. "Final Fantasy XIII" and "Final Fantasy XIII-2" were both awful experiences. I don't think any other games have made me as angry for as long as those two. But weirdly enough, I actually finished those. Months and months after starting "Final Fantasy XV" and spending an unwise $60 on it, I realize now I'll never bother to get to the ending.
See, I understand "Final Fantasy XV". I get it. If I were a game developer today who needed to sell six million units of a Japanese RPG, I would probably make a game just like "Final Fantasy XV". It's clearly following popular trends: it's open world, it's got beautiful graphics, it has very cool-looking fast action combat, and it's full of mindless sidequests to grind hours of freetime into. "Final Fantasy XV" is competent and safe. It is a huge step forward for Final Fantasy... into becoming utterly generic and nothing I want to be a part of anymore.
Now first I'll interrupt to shill something. I was part of a Final Fantasy Wiki discussion on "Final Fantasy XV" that's currently up on Youtube. You can hear me make many of the same points there as I will here:
So now that I've made this whole review mostly redundant, I'll get into it:
"Final Fantasy XV" is as far away from a traditional RPG as this series has gone in its mainline entries. I thought that would be a good thing. Instead of even being merely having pretensions to action, like "Final Fantasy XIII" had, Square Enix would just make a Plain Jane good old-fashioned action game. In 2006 everybody thought "Versus XIII" was going to play like Kingdom Hearts, but "Final Fantasy XV" didn't need to be a Kingdom Hearts clone. There are plenty of other great action games. And yet "Final Fantasy XV" is just not fun to play.
In "Final Fantasy XV" there isn't a pseudo-turn based system now, but you're still greatly limited. For one instead of a fluid system of combos, you just hold down a button for all attacks. Instead of careful dodges and parrying, all blocking is also simplified to holding down a button. The game will loudly scream "PRESS BUTTON TO PARRY" whenever you need to. Warp striking like a freak seems fun, yet combat eventually boils down to a boring routine of warp strike, combo, block, escape to recharge MP, and then repeat. Occasionally you can vary things up by switching weapons, team combo attacks, and using magic spells. But there isn't much strategic meat on these bones. Nor is there skillful gameplay demanding quick twitch reflexes to master.
(Hell, the game is impossible to lose at. Even when you reach 0 HP you can spam cheap Potions forever.)
The game attempts different kinds of combat. You can steal enemy guns to fire on oil barrels. There are terrible stealth elements. There are huge QTE-filled boss battles that lack real challenge. "Final Fantasy XV" even took a page of Assassin's Creed's book and included a tailing mission. Plus there's the extra junk of video games of Christmas past. Anybody want a fishing minigame in 2017? Boy do I have a game for you. There's about a million lame mobile phone tie-ins. There's an attempt at a crafting system with food. And "Final Fantasy XV" is set on a gigantic open world that's thousands of miles across in a great marketing selling point... but it's also mostly empty and full of junk items.
On top of that the story is weirdly hollow. "Final Fantasy XV"'s world is theoretically set in the middle of a major war, the kind of stuff that director Hajime Tabata did rather well with "Final Fantasy Type-0". Yet most NPCs are living simple lives of bland normality. Instead of the war-scarred horror of Velen like in "The Witcher 3", "Final Fantasy XV" is set in doo-wop diners and road side attractions of pleasant Fifties Americana. Most characters have no arc. Scenes are clearly missing, and events are wildly inconsistent with the "Kingsglaive" movie. (Which is fine, I guess, nobody should have to watch "Kingsglaive".) I would complain more about this, such as how disappointing the non-ending to "Metal Gear Solid V" wash. But "Metal Gear Solid V" at least started out interesting. Where "Final Fantasy XV" starts boring and never gets better.
"Final Fantasy XV" is what AAA gaming has become at its very worst. It's bland and unoffensive, competent and standard. Sure there's a massive world, but "Final Fantasy XV" can't think of anything to do with that freedom. It has thousands of hours of content for content's own sake but no idea on how to make any of it fun. The sidequests are awful busy work given to you by strangers who never develop into characters. You can drive for hours across gorgeous vistas, listening to old tunes from "Final Fantasy VI", but to what destination? Ultimately it's all more of the same. More scenes to a plot of chasing after a princess you never really get to meet, more fetch quests, more mild banter from your party, more dull gameplay.
Say what you want about "Final Fantasy XIII", and I've said plenty on the subject, but at least "Final Fantasy XIII" was unique. It was terrible in a number of ways. Yet it had an idiosyncratic madness to it that I can respect. Making your tutorial last twenty hours is nuts. Shoving the entire game down a single hallway is even more insane. However that was all also bold and weird. The battle system had faults, yet it still had a clear purpose to streamline strategy. I could hate "Final Fantasy XIII" with such vigor because it was so close to the kinds of games I loved. That was clearly a game only Square Enix could have made. "Final Fantasy XV", other than the spiky hair and Chocobos, feels like something any game company could have made.
On the one hand, I get why "Final Fantasy XV" is popular. It's exactly what the research tells us people should like. Gamers want open worlds, they want good crisp graphics, they want cool-looking action. But on the other hand, I have no idea why anybody would like this. Because what identity is there for this game?
"Final Fantasy XV" has so many of its edges and points sanded down that it's just a gray blob of nothing. It's like a bad pop song, specifically that Lukas Graham "7 Years" trash. Sure it's catchy in a very shallow way, but aren't there a million other things just like it? Why play "Final Fantasy XV" when you could play "Deus Ex" or whatever generic thing Ubisoft made yesterday? Ultimately it all comes down to what dull task you want your time wasted with.
At some point, maybe back in the "Versus XIII" days, when Tetsuya Nomura was making it, maybe "Final Fantasy XV" had a strong vision and real passion behind it. Nomura was kicked off the project years ago, so we'll never know what he wanted to make. But at least his vision felt vibrant and personal. Where it feels like this "Final Fantasy XV" is a compromise in every direction. Huge chunks of story were torn out to make room for that awful movie, combat feels designed by committee to appeal to everybody, and the game is open world for no reason other than to be open world.
So if this is the future for Final Fantasy, I'm out. "World of Final Fantasy" was cutesy and delightful, while staying true to what keeps a Japanese RPG unique and Japanese. "Final Fantasy XV" is a game that doesn't want to be a JRPG. It doesn't really want to be anything other than profitable. And "Final Fantasy XV" already feels like a misstep. Just months later it's now 2017 and we're awash in great Japanese titles. "Resident Evil VII", "Nioh", "Nier: Automata", "Persona 5", and some game called Zel-da (have you heard of this?), they're all well-received unique experiences with their own identities.
I wonder if this kind of goalless, purposeless design philosophy that "Final Fantasy XV" has can even be sustainable. I'm sure some players will be nostalgic for this game in a decade, but will they feel the same religious awe and wonder as I do when I think back to the infinite joys of "Final Fantasy IX"? Who is going to be nostalgic for that time they checked their phone for five minutes while the game drove itself to a cave to pick up some bullshit? I don't know, but they probably won't be the same person that's nostalgic for the scene where two Black Mages, realizing their lives will end soon, decide to spend what time they have remaining raising a Baby Chocobo with love and affection.
"Final Fantasy XV" vaguely looks like a series that I was once a fan of, but it lost everything I liked about that series. And if this is the model that the "Final Fantasy VII" remake is going to follow, I can safely ignore that. There's plenty else to play instead.
...I warned you I wasn't going to be kind.