Saturday 21 January 2017

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix

Finally! With Final Fantasy XV we now have a reason to hit that share button on the PS4 controller that’s, until now, gone underused. It’s all down to Prompto, one of your three companions on this road trip adventure and an amateur photographer. Throughout the game he takes photographs that can be viewed at camp and shared online. The results vary from cool battle poses and goofy selfies, to questionable blurs, but they’re never less than hilarious – the bad ones especially.

It’s as much a marketing trick as anything else, making the game more visible across social media, but it’s just one of many great ideas in Final Fantasy XV. Yet for every stroke of genius, there’s an equally poor decision that results in a frustrating experience.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
Expect plenty of goofy pictures

Let’s start with the good: the world itself. It’s a fantasy realm grounded in modern reality that cleverly finds real world parallels for predictable RPG tropes. Every adventure is, after all, a road trip, but here it’s taken literally as Prince Noctis and his pals drive around, swap banter, and rest at camps and hotels to level up their skills and eat specially prepared meals to enhance their abilities. Diners are a haven of information, battles take place in real time, and magic has to be sourced from specific procurement points. It’s a departure from the series that lacks some fantastical imagination, and it’s also somewhat imperfect, with flat textures, pop-in and technical bugs evidence of the game’s long development from previous consoles. It makes up for it, though, in its grandeur, character design and cinematic scenes.

It’s a beautiful open world that you’ll want to explore, especially to uncover its myriad dungeons. Hidden in the depths of the world are these self-contained labyrinths that host some wonderful design, tense boss battles, and new hidden weapons. They truly make you feel like an explorer and make this adventure worth investing in.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
The world is stunning

As a whole, it’s soundtracked by a score that may not be the best in the series, but certainly has its moments. Cruising around in your car listening to old Final Fantasy soundtracks on the stereo is a retro thrill, but elsewhere there’s glorious flute melodies to mark the sunrise, gentle piano in the menus (where you’ll be spending plenty of time), and rousing, sweeping orchestration to accompany the majestic summons (more on that later).

Best of all is the relationship between Prince Noctis and his three companions, clearly a focus of the game from its comic opening that sees their car broken down, to the closing credits paired with a cover of “Stand By Me” by Florence + The Machine. Whilst their chatter can get repetitive and there’s little individual development, the bond between them is well written and believable. Noctis himself regresses into typical moodiness at times, but his friends are there to pick him up – often literally when it comes to gameplay. That said, it’s at the expense of the periphery characters: the shallow villain, the abomination that is Cindy the “sexy” mechanic (not to mention the general lack of female characters), and the overall plot itself.

Oh the plot. It’s here that Final Fantasy XV stumbles most critically. What’s most frustrating is that there’s the skeleton of a fantastic story, a coming-of-age tale about friendship, kingship, responsibility and sacrifice. Yet the gaping plot holes are unforgivable; it’s like a theatre play where half the story occurs off-stage. Partly this is down to the open world, a decision that seems to fit more with the vogue for open world games than it does to implement a satisfying narrative. For that, linearity is required – something that does occur in the game’s later stages, but they’re missing the expected emotional weight due to earlier plot holes. The game crucially lacks dramatic impetus or urgency, so quests are uncovered and completed with little explanation of motivations or character development. That’s not what you expect from the usually dense lore of most Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
Battles are spectacular, if too easy

More so, there’s disconnect between gameplay and story, again owing to the open world. Noctis is a prince on a journey to save the world. So why is he stuck doing menial tasks like picking vegetables, collecting dog tags and finding food for a cat? Why, if he’s suspected to be dead, does nobody stop and question him? There’s an inescapable tension between storytelling and gameplay that ultimately undermines the reality the game works so hard to establish.

Lastly, there’s a distinct absence of challenge. The multiple side quests may distract from the story, but anyone who completes them will end up so overpowered that the main story quests can be breezed through. Get used to the rhythms of the battle system and there’s fun to be had, but it’s all too easy to beat enemies by simply holding down the attack button with little strategy. And if you’re close to dying, the summon command pops up whereby grand beings can be summoned to battle and most likely destroy your enemies in one hit – even bosses. Their power is pleasingly undeniable, but the game isn’t transparent about the circumstances under which they can be summoned. As such, they’re rarely seen beyond a fail-safe as opposed to being part of the player’s strategy – a disappointment when they’re so spectacular to behold. 

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
I think this is a frog? Thanks Prompto.

The summons are just one of many elements of both story and gameplay that are undercooked. The ascension board, for instance, allows characters to learn new techniques, but with so many high power skills requiring an unfeasible amount of ability points to unlock, they become pointless in the context of the main game (the game opens up post-finale). Items are rarely needed beyond a few healing potions. And the magic system has creative potential, but the game does a poor job of explaining it – it’s feasible to progress through the whole game using weapons alone.

Despite all these faults, the game has charm enough to warrant play and becomes strangely addictive. Perhaps it’s to cruise around this beautiful world with your buddies listening to retro tunes. Perhaps it’s to check off the lengthy list of quests. Or maybe it’s to see what crazy pictures Prompto comes out with next. Final Fantasy XV is a curious experimentation for Square Enix that’s uneven in its execution but enjoyable nonetheless.