June 19, 2017

The Final Final Fantasy (15) -- Part 1

I think…

I think

I think

Yep.  This franchise is dead to me.

Intrepid gamers out there may be well aware of the fact that Final Fantasy 15 actually did the impossible and came out.  It’s in the wild.  It’s available for purchase.  It’s something that people can play right now.  That’s how it’s been for -- as of writing -- well over six months.  In the time since, Squeenix has moved on to DLC plans, and has even asked fans what they might want out of future content.  Even if they didn’t, the game has apparently been a top-seller, with enough money pulled in to justify its long, tumultuous development cycle.

People are happy with the game.  People have finished the game.  But I don’t belong to either camp.  And the way things are looking, I never will.

For the five of you reading this and know me well (shout outs to mah boi Mortimer), I can already tell what you’re thinking.  “Oh, of course Voltech doesn’t like FF15!  It’s a modern Final Fantasy game!  He has to dump on it, because that’s what he does best!  He decided to hate it the moment it came out!”  And yeah, I’ve put myself into a niche where people probably expect me to open fire on whatever Squeenix pushes out the door next.  But I don’t go into a game looking to hate it just because it exists.  Do you have any idea how stupid of a proposal that is?  If I’m going to commit anywhere from eight to 128 hours on a game, then why would I set myself up for a fall by preemptively making myself miserable?

Innocent until proven guilty.  That’s how it should be when you’re analyzing a work -- and indeed, that’s how it was when I started FF15 about half a year ago.  It signaled the end of the dreaded Lightning Saga.  It buried the ever-baffling Type-0.  It was the fresh start I was looking for, and the fresh start Squeenix was looking for amidst the ashes of Versus 13.  And at first, I was intrigued by the game.  Interested.  Impressed, even.  I told my brother that I agreed with an assertion he made: “It’s dumb, but dumb in a good way.”

On paper, the idea isn’t a bad one.  The recent, modern FF games have had incredible difficulty just writing a basic plot, so the best way to sidestep that weakness (which shouldn’t be a weakness at all for a multimillion-dollar company, but whatever) is to focus on something else.  So there’s the road trip affect between the four FF bros, Noctis, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto.  Given that people bond with characters in stories more than anything else, it’s a surefire way to make sure that the fun people have with the story is tied into the fun with the core quartet.

That was the theory, at least.  But for me?  Things went way off track.

So here’s my big confession: I made it about 15 hours into FF15, essentially dropped it, and haven’t touched it since.  It wasn’t my intention, to be honest.  The plan (if you could call it that) was to play 15 hours of 15, then play 15 hours of the then-recently-released Tales of Berseria to do a compare-and-contrast post.  The problem, and the unexpected outcome, was that Berseria ended up being so engrossing that I broke past the 15-hour limit.  And I kept going.  And going.  And going.  So it led to me putting 77 hours into the game from start to finish, while FF15 sat in its case.

That was a mistake.  I shouldn’t have touched Berseria at all, because the only thing FF15 has on it is the graphical quality (and production values, if you want to be generous and ratchet it up to two).  The combat is better.  The gameplay is better.  The story is better.  The characters are better.  The themes are better.  And sure, you can’t compare 77 hours of gameplay to 15; that’s unfair, and overshadows the good stuff that might be in Squeenix’s latest down the line.

Except…since when were you under the impression that I was comparing all 77 hours to FF’s 15?

In 15 hours of FF15, I have no grasp of who Noctis is.  I can only see the basic archetypes of his friends.  I don’t know what the plot is besides “Grr, the Empire is a pain in my backside!”  I don’t know who the villains are besides that Empire; it comes off as so basic in execution at that point that they feel like placeholders in a rough outline.  I don’t know this world -- which is to say, I have a hard time caring about this world even with its million-dollar visuals. 

The charm of the road trip wore off within three or four hours of starting the game, and that’s a generous estimate.  I need substance, but I didn’t get it.  And speaking of which, I’m led to believe that the game is suffering from a major identity crisis; I don’t know if it wants to be the road trip or the epic tale of a fallen prince.  I don’t know if it wants to be an open-world sandbox in line with various AAA games, or a linear, straightforward, and narrative-driven title.  Right now FF15 seems content with straddling the line and earning nothing more than a scraped-up scrotum.

And that wouldn’t be so bad -- well, no, I’m not even going to finish that thought.  A JRPG with a bad story is an automatic fail-state, and no amount of good gameplay can save it.  But at least good gameplay would help.  You know, ease the sting.  Bandage up those gaping wounds.  But the gameplay isn’t there.  It wasn’t there in the Duscae demo, it wasn’t there in the Platinum demo, and it’s not there in the final game.  The combat is unsatisfying, some of the mechanics are truly baffling, there’s too much downtime that comes off as filler, and the difficulty is nonexistent.  The frustration most certainly exists, though.  I can guarantee that.

I tried with this game.  I really did.  But the more I tried to like it, the more it pushed back.  After a certain point, it seemed like every time I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, FF15 would do something to deflate itself but act as if it did something good.  Like it was worthy of praise.  But it wasn’t.  Again, and again, and again it let me down and turned me away.  Berseria, in contrast, left the door wide open.  In 15 hours with Noctis, I’m struggling to come up with anything substantial to say about him.  Comparatively, it took me less than three to know who Velvet was, what she’s about, what she wants to do, who her enemies are, who she loves, what she thinks, how she conducts herself, and where her character might go plot-wise and arc-wise. 

All things considered, it’s a wonder I didn’t give the FF15 disc the old Office Space special.

The way I see it, FF15’s underlying problems -- at least those outside its universe and inside ours -- are twofold.  First off, it’s showing its age in the worst way possible with every additional hour, and every new game released.  Second, and maybe more importantly, it’s proof that Squeenix hasn’t learned a goddamn thing about how to make a good HD-era JRPG.  It’s reached a point where I’m about ready to rescind earlier claims that this is the best modern-day FF game and give it back to Type-0.  So in other words, they’ve actually managed to regress instead of evolve.  I don’t know how you accomplish that, but clearly I’m in the habit of underestimating Squeenix’s penchant for fucking up.

I don’t understand what’s so hard about this basic concept: one button press should, on average, lead to one attack executed.  Press a button, swing a sword, hit once.  Is it flashy?  Not particularly.  But it is responsive -- an audiovisual signal that’s true to the player’s button press.  If you buy into the Dissidia or Kingdom Hearts philosophy (as Squeenix once did), then one button press = half a dozen sword hits in one go, with all of the flying around their animators can muster.  Flashy, sure, but it makes for a nebulous combat system full of imprecision and unresponsiveness.  I can’t feel my attacks if I can’t perceive where and when my input matters -- and that goes double when I can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on mid-battle.

Luckily, Squeenix grew out of that phase.  Unluckily, they grew into something even worse.

So FF13 and 13-2 banked hard on its Paradigm battle system.  In theory, it was a way to make combat more strategic, while giving the player more control over AI partners and simplifying the Gambit system of FF12.  In practice?  The only thing that mattered 90% of the time was mashing X to choose the auto-battle option -- i.e. a way to save time on picking options from menus and fight more efficiently.  Basically, the game played itself until it was time to heal or turtle up.  Maybe not even then, if you had a full-time healer on deck.  I know that there were complaints for previous FF games, where it seemed like all you had to do in most cases was mash X to speed through melee attacks, but A) 13 didn’t bother to fix that problem and B) actually made it worse by slowing down the process.

Then you get to 15, and it’s got the worst of multiple worlds.  Noctis will keep attacking on a seemingly-endless loop if you just hold down a button, which means you don’t even get the “luxury” of mashing out a stream of attacks.  So from a tactile standpoint, you can’t feel your attacks being executed -- and when you’re looking at the screen, you can’t see them being executed, either.  It’s just a stream of blows that blend into one another with no sense of weight.  Even attacks with the big boy broadswords end up being bleh in no time at all.

Credit where credit’s due, though: you can give Noctis a gun.  Truly, the weapon of a noble and courageous warrior.

The nicest thing I can say about the combat is that it works.  It just doesn’t feel good most of the time.  There are moments when it comes alive; when enemies are actually putting pressure on you and forcing you to work more effectively with your comrades, it actually made me wake up and feel some excitement.  But those moments are, to my recollection, few and far between.  Holding an attack button is something I couldn’t stand in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I can’t stand it with this game.  I think you can change your attack properties/styles by holding a direction while attacking, but that doesn’t solve the problem either -- and the fact that I struggle to know the difference between attacks does NOT say kind things.

I don’t like automated attacks, and I think I hate automated defense even more.  To be fair, you do have a dodge roll right off the bat, but it’s just as optimal -- maybe more -- to hold down the defense button to dodge nearly anything that comes your way (except for random unblockable attacks).  There’s a parry system, too, but it generally pops up as a faux-QTE, or like a Reaction Command from Kingdom Hearts II.  It’s not great, basically.  Warpstrikes aren’t nearly as dynamic as past trailers advertised, so in terms of basic gameplay it’s little more than a gimmick.  I like the idea of calling in your teammates to use their special techniques, but so far it seems like the only one that matters is what’s very close to a free heal from Ignis.

And then there’s the magic system, proving once again that Squeenix doesn’t want you to use magic.

I don’t understand how you fail to grasp this.  Kingdom Hearts I had it down: equip your spells -- different spells with different attributes -- and cast them in real time by either selecting them from a drop-down menu, or using a hotkey function by holding a trigger and pressing a face button.  It’s such a simple but useful system, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been co-opted by more games out there.  Further, I’m surprised that it hasn’t been co-opted by more Squeenix games.  In FF15, you can only use magic if you assign it to one of your four weapon slots.  Worse yet, you have a limited stock of that magic -- which was true of FF8, but in that game you could hold up to 99 of a single spell if you wanted to. 

In this game?  Magic is akin to holding onto grenades -- not even a half-dozen in stock, with the same general AoE/splash damage with different particle effects.  And different status effects -- which I know about extensively, because for whatever reason the devs made it so that your magic can hurt you and your teammates.  So using it in close quarters is a bad idea unless you want to electrocute the Backstreet Boys.  It's a shame, but I (vaguely) understand the reasoning behind it; magic is so overpowered in this game that whenever you see an Empire dropship release a bunch of soldiers, you’re almost guaranteed an instant victory if you lob a spell -- one with HUGE range -- at them from a distance.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me go “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh…”  And the sad part about it is that that’s not the only way it disappoints me.

The customization/upgrade system in RPGs is always a big draw, because there’s nothing better than seeing your character get stronger or learn new moves.  But then when you get to FF15, some of the “better” stuff is hidden behind MASSIVE AP point walls, which means I’ll be waiting a long time to get “rewards” for my efforts.  A ways into the game you unlock the Armiger ability, which is basically Noctis’ version of the Devil Trigger.  So you’d think that that would inject some life into the game by mixing things up -- appearance, moveset, strategies, etc.  Nope.  It just makes it so that Noctis does stupid boosh-boosh-boosh-flying-with-lots-of-sword-hits moves at an even faster and more incomprehensible rate…which means all you have to do is hold a button to watch enemy HP melt away.

Then you get to summons, like Titan -- something that, near as I can tell, you don’t have full control over at the outset.  Basically you get a prompt to summon him with the press of a button, wherein the big guy throws a rock at the baddies for monumental damage.  I have many issues with summoning in this game because of the gameplay and story integration (or lack thereof) it introduces, but I’ll have to save that for later.  Consider that another bullet in the chamber.

For now, though?  From a gameplay perspective, I can’t think of a single reason why I should prioritize FF15 over releases from 2017, 2016, 2015, and beyond (forward or back in time, take your pick).  Most of the fights so far have put me on a snooze cruise, including the boss battles.  I’m having trouble remembering one of them thanks to how easy it was to clear, and I think my brain’s trying to block out another because of the cheap shots taken by the enemies there -- which wasn’t helped by the environment/camera, but that’s a complaint you could leverage with every third encounter in the game.  With that said, I do remember the Behemoth fight -- and how it made me go “Ohhhhhhhhhh…” harder than I ever had before.

I remember it from one of the earlier demos.  The Behemoth back then seemed like an extremely powerful enemy, worthy of its moniker as “Dead-Eye”.  I don’t know if it was because of adjusted stats or because of my inexperience with the game, but back then it really put me on the ropes.  I was looking forward to fighting it for real in the full release, complete with my chosen equipment, skills, and strategies in hand.

And then it turns out that in the main game, you win just by detonating the red barrels littered throughout the battlefield. 

How?  How?  How do you do that?  Why would you do that?  Why would deflate one of your marquis battles with something that’s been a video game constant -- a tired, hackneyed cliché -- for at least 20 years?  Why would you strip away a chance for the player to put everything he or she has learned to the test?  Why would you utterly invalidate and disrespect them with a battle that A) makes no sense and B) is totally unrewarding?  Why, Squeenix, are you so obsessed with railroading players toward a single, unsatisfying dominant strategy of your choosing?  I don’t want to use red barrels.  I don’t want to use stupid gimmicks once in a while.  I don’t want to use limp-wristed, automatic melee attacks.  I want to play your games.  But you won’t fucking let me.  You never, ever do.

No, wait.  I take that back.  You do let me play your games, but only so I can enjoy “gameplay” just a half-step above Stockholm syndrome.  I’m so tired of doing meaningless hunts across empty environments with 98 Degrees moving at a snail’s pace outside of their luxury car, and even more meaningless searches for tiny items for people I couldn’t begin to give a damn about.  But if there’s anything I’m going to take away from the gameplay of FF15, it’s going to be all the time I spent (and wasted) running to a site, holding a button to carve through monsters, then running back to the quest giver because…hey, that shit would’ve been aces in 2006. 

What is it with modern FF games and the abject refusal to use phones?  Do you know how many problems could’ve been solved in 13 if Lightning just rang up her sister?  The answer: ALL OF THEM.

Now, look.  I’m not saying that anyone who likes FF15 is wrong for it.  As I’ve said a dozen times before, I wish I could share that opinion and enjoy the same games that others do.  But as always, what I write here is my honest opinion -- and right now, at this juncture, my honest opinion is that the game is not good.  Maybe it gets better.  Maybe there are nuances I’m missing.  But the fact that it takes a minimum of 15 hours for me to find a consistent, decisive level of fun doesn’t say good things about the game, or bode well for my future with it. 

You know what I think?  I think the core problem is that FF15 isn’t adjusted to make the most out of its creative vision -- its mission statement, of sorts.  Xenoblade Chronicles X was; it downplayed its story (albeit not completely) for the sake of letting the player indulge in core gameplay and feedback loops, and was stronger for it.  Even if there’s a decent narrative there (and there is), it’s a game hell-bent on giving players the chance to explore and research a sprawling alien planet, massive in scope and teeming with life.  That game and its developers understood what they wanted to do, and pushed toward it from start to finish.  And they not only did that on a depressingly-unpopular system, but also did it on a system that damn near died trying to run it at times.

So what’s FF15’s excuse?  What’s Squeenix’s excuse?  What was even the point of that decade-long wait if this is the end result?  How am I supposed to believe that this company and this franchise have a future when they’ve not only botched multiple modern releases, but have gleefully declared that their answer for “the next stage of Final Fantasy” is a Hail Mary blast from the past?

I don’t know.  There may not be a clear answer.  But I’m sure as hell gonna try and give my own -- next time.  See you then.

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