You didn’t think I was going to let this one slip away, did you? Please. Even though I’m not “the Final Fantasy guy”, I’m gonna go ahead and be “the Final Fantasy guy” for a hot minute. I’ve even got my hat ready.
But before I go into the demo, there’s some Square-Enix stuff and news worth staring in the face. By extension, there’s a question I need to ask. It’s a very important question, and one that I’m surprised I never directly asked before now. So brace yourselves.
Okay, so this is the question. You ready?
Seriously, are you ready? Okay, here it is:
Why does Square-Enix keep fucking up?
I mean, seriously. The writing’s on the wall -- on every wall. I’m not just talking about Final Fantasy (for once); it’s a company that’s consistently invited scorn and derision in the pursuit of money…which may or may not be going well. Off the top of my head, there was:
1) Deeming a trio of AAA games -- Hitman, Sleeping Dogs, and Tomb Raider 2013 -- as financial failures, even though TR2013 sold at least three million copies
2) PR bungles by way of controversial ads for Hitman and spokesmen claiming that players would want to “protect Lara Croft” (presumably from sexual assault)
3) A forward march with preorder culture, including the nutty “Augment Your Preorder” scheme for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
4) Splitting up the latest Hitman game into episodic installments even though there’s been no guarantee of its quality or even continuation
5) Kingdom Hearts III being MIA, despite the second main game in the franchise celebrating its 10-year anniversary
6) Only turning a profit on big-budget games (like TR2013) by pushing out an updated rerelease for the latest consoles
7) Making Rise of the Tomb Raider, the sequel to a game that underperformed despite appearing on all the available consoles, into a temporary console exclusive (for a console that’s lagging behind the main competition) and expecting success
8) Putting out the mobile game Final Fantasy: All the Bravest, the mechanics of which make it hard to even call a game -- save for its cash-grabbing incentives
9) Launching an MMO so bad that it needed a complete overhaul -- AFTER an apology from the company figureheads
In all fairness, it’s not as if Squeenix is the only company out there that you can almost count on to fuck up. As long as EA, Ubisoft, Activision, and the like still draw breath, then the house that Fnal Fantasy built is going to stay comparatively clean. That doesn’t make the company harder to mock, though; every bit of anger and scorn thrown their way is entirely deserved. It’s not just because of business practices, even though those definitely factor in. They’re purveyors of games -- of products, but forms of artistic expression nonetheless -- that should speak volumes about why we should put our trust in them.
I don’t think I need to tell you that they managed to fuck that up, too. Even without the third game in our midst, Kingdom Hearts has turned into a baffling mess that rightfully gets made fun of all the time. Dragon Quest has barely left an impact in the west, and (barring the Musou spinoffs) people are lucky to get a glimpse of the next major installment in the franchise before the heat death of the universe. One franchise after another has been ignored, forgotten, or run into the ground; Star Ocean: The Last Hope was a good game twisted into a disaster, and even if Squeenix is only acting as the publisher, I’m about ready to give up on it by default.
I have problems accepting a situation where the best the company can do is release a spruced-up version of a twenty-year-old game, least of all because the company itself is on record of saying that it has yet to top FF7 in terms of quality. That’s before you take into account the fact that A) there are only fragments of concrete information, with a release date once again in the netherworld, and B) people are expecting the company that can barely make a competent RPG or story to successfully revive a marquis title in gaming history. Also, why are they diverting attention away from Final Fantasy 15 when that’s the game coming first, the game they need to push into relevancy once more, and the game people have basically waited a decade for?
I guess they’re pushing FF15 now, though. And I mean pushing it. They recently had a big whompin’ event to announce the release date -- which in itself isn’t all that impressive, but it came with plenty of other news. It’s getting a tie-in anime…from the studio that brought you the modern classic, Sword Art Online. It’s getting a CG movie…from the team that brought you FF7: Advent Children. It’s bringing in major actors like Sean Bean and Lena Headey…because I’m sure they won’t come with a hefty price tag. It’s getting a mobile game…because this is the company you want to trust with that. It’s collaborating with Audi and ROEN to deliver goods in-universe and out of it…because if there’s one thing gamers associate themselves with, it’s luxury cars and leather outfits.
How is any of that stuff supposed to make the game better? How are designer clothes supposed to help Squeenix reach its lofty goal of 10 million copies sold?
Squeenix officials caught wind of that news making the rounds, and opted to clarify: they don’t need to sell 10 million to break even, but they want to. Well, that’s what they say, but who knows? Ten years of working on the game -- off and on, presumably, but working nonetheless -- must come with a hefty price tag. Come this September, it’ll be time for them to cash out; it’s not hard to imagine them wanting as much money as possible for what’s by nature a major AAA release. Even if this wasn’t in the oven for a decade, it’s hard to imagine the company being satisfied with the paltry 3 million that TR2013 earned in its first run, or the roughly 6 million that Resident Evil 6 pulled in.
As a reminder, both of those games were deemed financial failures. And given that the company behind one of those games has long since established itself as a big spender on lavish productions -- like engines and CG tech demos that become useless/go nowhere after a few years -- I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to fear the worst. And why wouldn’t you? FF13 sold really well (about 6.7 million copies), but the sheer level of “satisfaction” it imparted led to FF13-2 selling half of that. And then Lightning Returns basically sold half of that. I’d look up the sales for Type-0, but no one seems to acknowledge its existence besides me (which to be fair is kind of a godsend).
The brand name has been tarnished. The prestige has been lost. And now Squeenix thinks that it can jump right back to the top with big sales and a multimedia push -- which itself must have emptied plenty of wallets -- for a game we don’t even know is good? It’s like they’re trying to fuck up preemptively.
Better run out and preorder the $270 Ultimate Collector’s Edition today! Or not.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if there were more concrete details to go by. Maybe if there was indisputable proof that we were in for a good game -- not even a stellar 10/10, but just something adequate -- then they could justify the blitz. But there isn’t. Granted that’s hard to know for sure, because finding out if the story is good means playing through the full game upon release. But even with the trailers and even with the news, I’m not convinced. I don’t need to know every detail, but I need to know why I should care when I’m dealing with a company that can, has, and will burn me if given the chance.
And maybe that would be forgivable if the gameplay was anything spectacular. But that’s extremely hard to gauge right now. The trailers show a lot of epic action, but so did The Lightning Saga (*nervous twitch*) once upon a time. The gameplay featured in Episode Duscae, conversely, was passable at best -- but as a whole, I found it to be a slog with only a couple of bright moments, and whatever potential it might have in danger of being squandered (if it hasn’t already). Imagine my surprise when Squeenix announces and subsequently drops a new demo right into our laps -- with gameplay much closer to, if not a representation of, the final product.
You know what I’m going to say next, right?
Yeah. Time to start worrying.
The Platinum Demo is not good. It’s not a good demo to be viewed and judged on its own terms. It’s not a good way to prepare for what you can expect in the full game. It’s not a good piece of promotional material to get players excited for “the future of Final Fantasy”. It’s a bunch of fluff that’s not only non-indicative of the final product, but also just plain boring when played and “enjoyed” as a separate entity. True, there are some little flourishes and injections of life here and there, but it’s about as worthwhile as it is substantial.
To wit: a timer in the main menu tells you how long you’ve played the Platinum Demo; I clocked in at about 38 minutes, but only because I opted to do the demo’s boss twice (albeit by accident). From what I’ve heard, you can play Episode Duscae for hours and still have stuff to do (the Best Friends did a couple of videos that weighed in at about 50 minutes each). It’s entirely possible that there’s more to do in the Platinum Demo, since there are locked platforms throughout, but I told my brother -- who was watching me play the demo at the time -- that I wasn’t very eager to hunt for that extra content. And as far as I know, he hasn’t summoned the willpower to even try it. I can’t say I blame him; one of the demo’s deal-breakers is that it’s slower than cold molasses.
From what I’ve heard, FF15 is aiming for 30 frames per second in the final version -- although they’re still trying to work out the kinks to make that number consistent. Far be it from me to complain about framerate, since it is basically the standard for a huge percentage of games out there. But as I’ve said before and discovered for myself, there’s a major difference between games that run at 30fps and games that run at 60. To put it another way, there’s a difference between DmC and Metal Gear Rising; 60fps aren’t a necessity for every game, but there are still some times when you need that faster, smoother action.
Is that a necessity for FF15? Not really. Tales of Zestiria (for whatever reason) doesn’t have 60fps during its combat, and you know what? It’s still fine. It’s a departure from the games that came before it -- which is baffling, since it’s running at half the speed on the latest and “greatest” console -- but the core mechanics help keep things exciting and eager for more…barring some nasty camera issues in multiplayer, but whatever. It’s an active system that compensates for the inherent lack of speed.
I can’t really say the same for the Platinum Demo. Some of the mechanics have changed from the Duscae outing, which take some getting used to if you’ve got that muscle memory at work. Hold down Circle to attack, and hold down Square to defend. X is to jump, which is typical for games, but not FF15; if I remember right, that’s what used to control the Warpstrike, which in Platinum is now assigned to Triangle (and even then only usable near the very end).
One of the biggest wrinkles is that they changed the weapon mechanics. In Duscae, Noctis’ combo string was dependent on which weapons you put into each slot, a la God Hand; you could have a spear as your opening attack, which gave you a thrust for an attack animation as well as the passive bonuses built in. The Platinum Demo subs that out for not-quite (but pretty close) real-time weapon change; you can switch between weapons and magic, even in mid-combo, using the d-pad. That means there’s real depth to the combat now, right?
I’m not saying that there isn’t depth, because it’s just a demo and only the most basic of the basics are explained (and not even that; I had to find out I could Warpstrike on my own). But even the basics feel limited. You hold down Circle to do some slashes with your sword, heavy swings with your greatsword, and ground pounds with your hammer. I’d bet that you can do different attacks by holding a direction and Circle, as you could in Type-0, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were saving that for the main game/level-ups. Besides, I wonder if that would change anything substantially.
Even with the basic sword, Noctis’ slashes are stunningly slow. They’re slow, and clumsy-looking, and unwieldy; there’s no impact factor to them, so everything feels floaty and unresponsive. Even the greatsword and hammer don’t have a fraction of the power that they should; sure, higher numbers will pop up, and the latter will leave fissures in the ground, but it doesn’t feel like I’m battling monsters or anything. It just feels like I’m swinging -- or holding Circle until all the enemies are gone. I can’t even say that it looks cool, which is a far cry from what the trailers promised.
I get the idea behind the game. You’re supposed to balance offense and defense so that you can pick your shots -- hit and fade, and stay alive even in the most desperate of battles. But the Platinum Demo -- and FF15 in general, I fear -- makes that so polarized and simplified that it sours the experience. Hold Circle to attack until everything dies. If it doesn’t die, then hold Square to enter auto-dodge mode. It’s an action game on auto-pilot. I’m not asking for Bayonetta levels of craftsmanship, but if you’re going to make an action RPG, make it responsive. Make it strategic. Make it fun to play.
To be fair, the game thankfully adds in a manual Dodge Roll (renamed the Roll-Dodge for whatever reason), but it’s a pale imitation of the roll Kingdom Hearts 1 had down more than a decade ago. It takes time to start up, and time to recover -- and I have to wonder what the point of roll-dodging is when you can hold one button to dodge everything perfectly and potentially remain in an advantageous position. Like, I thought that auto-dodging was supposed to take MP or something (considering the sparkle effects that it entails), but either it doesn’t (in this demo, at least), or it’s such a negligible amount that it doesn’t matter if you’re on-point. And the demo implies that there are certain attacks you can’t dodge, but good luck figuring out what those are.
Given that most attacks in the full game likely won’t be immune to auto-dodging, I have to ask: what’s the treat supposed to be when you have a “you can’t touch me button”?
It’s a system that’s more frustrating than clever. You have no choice but to switch between absolute offense or absolute defense (unless you use the roll-dodge, maybe, but you increase your likelihood of getting clipped). If you try to squeeze in an extra hit, you’ll end up getting whacked. But the alternative is that you wobble around while holding Square, and waiting for an attack to go through so you can get back to the action. How is it that the company that at the very least put out Kingdom Hearts managed to miss the mark? Why is there such a clumsy divide between player states? Why does it take so long to accomplish anything, up to and including a basic sword combo?
I’m also seriously worried about the magic system. It’s been up in the air for a while now, and now the Platinum Demo gives an insight as to how it’ll work. It’ll take up one of your four d-pad/weapon slots, and let you hold a magic spell -- in this case, Fire -- in the palm of your hand. Functionally, it’s not that different from a grenade; it even has a projected arc and radius for you to use as a way to scorch enemies for big damage. The downside? It’s literally a grenade -- which means not only does it have all the pomp and circumstance of one (and the fluidity in mid-combat), but also comes with the drawback of stocks. So if you’re like me and decide to give magic a whirl as soon as you gain it, you’ll lose your ONE Fire spell for the rest of the fight. If not the whole demo.
I’m sure (or at least hope) there’s a way to restock on magic in either the demo or the full game. If it isn’t, then that strikes me as a huge problem. It’s like Kingdom Hearts II all over again; there’s magic, but the circumstances around it are so obtuse that it’s like you’re penalized for doing anything besides wailing on an opponent. Throw one fire grenade, and that’s all. You’re stuck. That’s a problem when, presumably, a potential strategy is to let players use Warpstrike to jump to an advantageous position and let them snipe from afar. Why would you limit the opportunity to mix things up?
Duscae let players pick items like potions out of a menu, so presumably the final game will allow for some reliable healing (if not the Platinum demo itself). But that begs the question: is healing magic like Cure or Esuna going to take one of your four slots? How big of a stock will you have? Will you be able to heal your team quickly and efficiently in the heat of battle? If you need to patch up the entire group at once, will the AI be cooperative enough to gather around in case you have to throw a healing grenade? Will it even be a healing grenade?
There are a crapload of questions that need answering, and time is running out for Squeenix. In the event that the story ends up dead on arrival, I can only hope that the gameplay is up to the task. But I need proof of that first, and right now I’m not seeing the substantive evidence that tells me I’ll enjoy spending 40-50 hours with the game. Maybe I’d feel better if the Platinum Demo was built on a stronger foundation -- if the context within offered something to help me sleep at night -- but it isn’t.
The “Reclaim Your Throne” trailer starts off with the sound and fury you’d expect from the usual round of marketing and hype-mongering. Lots of setpieces, lots of intense action, and lots of bombastic music (since this is a FF game, they’re trotting out the Latin chorus again). I tuned most of it out, but I got interested once the music switched to a cover of “Stand by Me” -- and even if there was still action, it showed Noctis and his crew actually being a crew. They ate food, they wheeled their busted car down the road, and even got hyped over a pinball game. The one thing Squeenix is trying to sell us on is the strength and bond of these four guys; their journey and synergy are apparently something worth celebrating.
So of course, the Platinum Demo has you playing exclusively as Noctis, in a dream sequence far removed from any context or interaction with the game world.
Apparently, Noctis gets knocked out for some reason, and wakes up in
a random set of environments a dream world where
he’s reverted back to his child form.
The good news is that Carbuncle is there to guide him back into
consciousness; the bad news is that he’ll have to fight off a slew of monsters
on the way there, up to a big brawl with a Blue Giant. The rules of reality don’t apply so strictly,
though; if you step on the pads littered throughout the dream, you’ll trigger
various effects. They range from
speeding up time and changing the weather to transforming Noctis into a
crocodile, a giraffe, or a truck.
It’s worth a laugh, seeing Noctis do his best impression of Optimus Prime while wandering through a house better suited for the Colossal Titan. But again, it’s hardly substantive, and it wasn’t enough to mask the sheer boredom I felt on the way to the end of the demo. I think part of it has to do with the sheer lack of stakes; I can ultimately deal without knowing every detail of Noctis’ journey up to that point, but the bigger problem is that as far as I can tell, he can’t die. He can’t gain EXP. You can snag items and weapons by stepping on hidden pads, but why would you want to indulge in the slow-ass combat even more than you already have?
Also, if the Platinum Demo is supposed to represent dreams, then Noctis must be a really boring person. I get that he’s basically (or presumably) going through areas plucked from his memories, but come on. The most exciting locale he can imagine is a big dining room? That could have been an amazing showcase of the game engine, but they most they used it for in that area was to topple some blocks. Riveting. No game has ever tried to do so much with physics. Except for every third game since the release of Half-Life 2.
I also find it troubling that the world has known about Noctis for basically a decade, but there’s still so much that’s unknown about him -- and this demo doesn’t help matters. There’s apparently a soccer ball or something that’ll reveal a few story details, and Carbuncle can give some insights into our hero, but I don’t feel like I’ve gained a greater understanding here. I already knew that he’s a sleepyhead, I could’ve already guessed that he loves his dad, and…his “safe place” is a luxury car? Goddamn, that’s more grating than endearing. (Should I blame Squeenix or that, or Audi? Who knows?)
You know, I can’t help but think back to Metal Gear Rising’s demo. It didn’t give me all of the details, but it gave me enough. I met Raiden all over again, as well as his crew. I learned the circumstances of the mission. I basically played through the first main level of the game, and experienced the pulse-pounding gameplay for myself -- up to and including a boss battle with Bladewolf that, at the time, was practically a revelation. I don’t know how long that demo lasted, but it could’ve ended at the five minute mark and I would’ve been sold.
Comparatively, the Platinum Demo for Final Fantasy 15 makes me feel worry instead of excitement, and dread instead of hope. Assuming there aren’t any delays, the game is roughly half a year away from release. There’s a lot that needs to be accomplished, and set up, and proven in order to repair the damage Lightning has done to the franchise. Will it succeed? I don’t know. I have my doubts, to the point where I’m starting to miss the Duscae build…even though that demo wasn’t exactly thrilling.
I hate this feeling. I hate having to take shots at a game (and a demo, even) instead of being able to look forward to some genuine thrills. I hate having to know that FF15, the dedicated shot at breathing life into the brand, is struggling just to run in just a couple of vertical slices of gameplay. I want to like FF again without any qualifiers, and I want to believe in Squeenix without suspecting the worst. But they just keep fucking up.
Supposedly, FF15 won’t be getting any more demos, which means this might be the last the gaming community -- those on the bottom rungs, at least -- will see of it until release day. There’s a part of me that’s relieved by that notion. If they can’t or won’t prove why this is the great revival we’ve all been waiting for, then so be it. At this stage, I’d rather have nothing.
I’ll just sit here and wait -- and see what the future holds.