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July 3, 2017

The Final Final Fantasy (15) -- Part 3

You know, sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder: “Did I ever like Final Fantasy?”

Actually, no I don’t.  That’s a bold lie, but I have to start this post somehow.

As I’ve said, I’m not an expert on the franchise.  I haven’t played every game that’s come out, whether it’s a main entry or a spinoff title.  I’ve missed out on the critical, seminal installments.  Honestly, I’ve played more games in the Tales Series than anything from the Square/Squaresoft/Squeenix camp.  But I can tell you right now that I didn’t used to hate FF and/or what it stood for.  I didn’t bear it any ill will until it seemingly started to bear ill will toward me -- something accomplished in an instant via Lightning and the bullshit l’Cie/fal’Cie system.

Like a lot of people, my first taste of the franchise came with FF7 -- not the PS1 edition, because I never had one.  But when my family got its first modern PC, my brother’s first instinct was to get whatever games he could for it.  So he grabbed FF7 with glee (and I grabbed Lego Racers, also with glee).  Three guesses as to which one left a longer, stronger impression on our minds, and the first two don’t count.  My brother went on to become a Cloud fanatic to this day -- guess who he uses in Smash when he’s not losing with rocking Little Mac --and moreover learned to have a deep appreciation for the gritty, grisly aesthetic of Midgar.  As for me?  Well, let’s just say it opened a doorway.  But since I’m still talking about FF, I’ll get back to that.

Now as troubling -- if not sacrilegious -- as it is to hear, I have a special place in my heart for FF8.  Again, I played the PC port, but this time it was beyond sub-optimal.  The PC we had couldn’t handle it at full power, at least not without some decisive lag cropping up.  The only option was to play it in a screen about the size of a fist, and then mess with the monitor display to stretch everything out and force said screen to grow a bit larger…with distorted proportions, but something was better than nothing.

I beat the crap out of FF8, just because I could -- well, and also so I could indulge in some sibling rivalry.  I know the game has taken some heat for being “confusing” with its GF and Junction systems, but honestly?  I never got that complaint.  Not only is it a simple system to grasp, but also makes it so that FF8 is incredibly easy to break in terms of power levels.  Well before the end of Disc 1, I could simultaneously mug enemies, put them to sleep, and deal extra damage with my man Squall.  I didn’t need to bother with GFs ever (though I got ‘em all for completion’s sake) because I could out-DPS them with basic melee attacks.  Whereas it took my brother nearly an hour to clear the last boss, I beat in in maybe five minutes thanks to a combination of Invincible Moon, Aura, and -- of course -- Lionheart.  Because as the saying goes

I’m not about to say FF8 is a masterpiece.  It’s been way too long since the last time I played it -- or crushed it, if you prefer -- and given that back then I had a brain as well-developed as an undercooked tater tot, I doubt I had the critical eye needed to judge its story as well as I could today.  And gameplay-wise?  The only reason I could break it was probably because that was how I spent my weekends -- grinding away gleefully with Draw and card itemizing while my brother spent 3-5 hours at a time getting his hair done.  (He used to wear it in twists; it was part of his aesthetic at the time, I think.)  But damn it, I had fun gaining power.  It was probably because of that game that I learned to love gaining new powers, and stats, and abilities in RPGs.  Besides, if a battle system is fun, then it’s something that can make “the grind” into an adventure with every new gaming session.

Whatever the case, the last FF game I played to completion (not counting Type-0) was FF10.  Once again, I was a late arrival; I got my PS2 as used goods from a friend, and he was gracious enough to toss in a bunch of old games while he made the transition to full-on PC play.  Again, I’m not saying that FF10 is or was a masterpiece -- even though I’ve recently spared some kind words toward it -- but when I watched my bro play through it, and when I played through it myself not long after, I walked away feeling sated.  Satisfied.  The two of us experienced the story, and the combat, and had no massive gripes to dole out.  Well, except maybe for Seymour.  Because Jesus Christ.

The only outliers of note are, to be honest, barely worth noting.  I started a playthrough of FF12, but the Gambit system was a major turnoff for me, and I was lukewarm at best toward Vaan and Penelo.  I was content with watching my brother play through it, but unlike FF10 I couldn’t see myself slogging through a bunch of dreary dungeons with a combat system I didn’t care for and a plot that -- at the time -- just came off as white noise and “HURR POLITICS”.  That’s unfair to the game, I know, and I’m sure it rightfully has its fans.  Maybe I’ll go back to it someday.  But that’s honestly how I felt about it back then.

The other outlier is Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles.  I can’t be 100% sure, but I suspect that playing it without the requisite number of Game Boy Advances and Link Cables is another sub-optimal experience -- not quite the essence of the developers’ creative vision.  For what it’s worth, though, it was fun to play through those stages even if I had to do it solo.  Cute visual style, simple combat, a nice little story (that I never finished)…it’s a shame I only got to try the full multiplayer once via a friend of the family, but that doesn’t take away the charm behind Crystal Chronicles.

Unfortunately, that’s where the charm of the series ends for me.  Well, except for FF9.  I started a playthrough of that one (via the PSN release) twice, but never made it past the first major boss.  So let the records show how dumb I am: I’d rather suffer through an abysmal game for 40 hours than sit down with a sweet game for 5.

If you’re familiar with my work, then you know how this saga goes.  If FF13 wasn’t as bad as it was -- if it hadn’t left me angry and bitter, and forced me to quit right at the last boss -- then I would probably have never even started blogging.  You could argue that that one game changed the trajectory of my entire life; if I’d never played it, then maybe I’d be on a boat somewhere.  But since I did play it, and since I did hate it, it served as proof that the franchise had been dealt a grievous blow.  (Not that Dirge of Cerberus -- and similarly Advent Children -- didn’t deal damage, but those are easy targets.)  It would’ve been hard to come back from that, but not impossible.

Except it seemed like Squeenix didn’t even try to come back with 13-2.  I’ll contend for years to come that 13-2 is actually, legitimately the worst game I’ve ever played in my life.  I don’t agree with the sentiment that it’s better than vanilla 13; sure, there are towns now, and you’re not just in an endless hallway, and you don’t do a stupid dance whenever you need to heal, but at what cost?  The story is absolute tripe coupled with revisionist history, the gameplay is coma-inducing in its blandness, and -- in a rare Squeenix departure -- the presentation has taken a hit that would’ve knocked out Mike Tyson and George Foreman simultaneously.  Literally the only nice thing I can say about it is that it has one song I like.  Exactly one.  In a franchise world-famous for its astounding music.  Let that set in.

I refuse to play Lightning Returns unless I’m paid handsomely for it, and that’s the way it’ll stay.  So that means there are only two other FF games I’ve played.  One of them, of course, is Type-0 -- and at the outset, I was on board.  It wasn’t the greatest game ever, but it was more than decent enough to warrant continued play -- not to mention that at a base level, the combat system was actually kind of interesting.  Coupled with the array of characters you could use and learn, I could see the potential.  I was ready for more.

And I got more.  More garbage, that is.  The gameplay gave way to cheap gimmicks, frustration, and woefully-uneven “challenges” -- to say nothing of design decisions and systems that I swear were birthed from a drunken platypus.  But what really kills Type-0 is the same thing that killed 13 and 13-2: its story.  The whole game is predicated on a war, but damned if I knew why it started or why it continued even as I neared the game’s final hours.  Despite putting on airs of being darker and more serious, barely anything happens across 40 hours; it’s basically just an excuse to toss in more blood and drown players in undeserved angst (a Squeenix staple, I know).  I…I don’t even want to talk about Machina and Rem.  They’re bad.  They’re real bad.  And let’s leave it at that.

So that leaves FF15.  By the looks of things, that’s where I’m tapping out.

To be fair, at least FF15 doesn’t out itself as a complete disaster within the first thirty minutes; that’s more than I can say about 13-2.  But if I had to guess, I’d say that it’s going to be a Type-0 situation: a slow burn, and a progressive tumble into the dumpster.  I mean, they did bring in Hajime Tabata to save the project from Nomura/development hell; I don’t know how much the former changed the vision of the latter, but I can already see some of the telltale signs.  Vaguely-defined concepts and world-building, shallow archetypes standing in for characters, a whole lot of nothing happening until something incredibly stupid happens…frankly, all I need to clinch it is to have a character be so irredeemably stupid at the 20-hour mark that the game is basically broken.  As if it wasn’t already.

I keep thinking back to the Titan fight.  Ideally, that should’ve been the moment where I would get on board and stay on board.  Finally, things are happening!  Finally, there’s some life in this corpse!  Finally, Squeenix is giving us a spectacle we can play through for ourselves!  And…I really, really think it sucks.  I hate the idea of Noctis deflecting the blows of an ancient colossus single-handedly, and wearing it down in combat (even if he had help, but again -- ancient fucking colossus).  I resent the fact that such an almighty creature is nothing more than a trinket -- a collectible, slotted in as a gameplay feature you can’t even trigger without random chance (as far as I know).  But wait a second.  If I hate the Titan fight, then doesn’t that mean that I hate something like the Metal Gear Ray boss fight from Revengeance?

The answer is no.  You shouldn’t even have to ask.

Yeah, Metal Gear Rising may come off as a bunch of dumb fun, but its high-spectacle fight has much more going on than FF15’s -- credibility chief among them.  The key word here is context, and no matter how ridiculous it looks, MGR gets it right.  We know who Raiden is (especially if you’ve played other games in the series).  We know what he’s capable of, especially with his cybernetic enhancements.  We know he’s got Mission Control assisting him in his battles.  We know what he’s up against, which takes on added relevance if you consider other Metal Gear games.  Once upon a time, Raiden struggled to take down one; with years of experience and technology on his side, the OG Gears are relics of the past.  Of course it’s going to be treated as little more than tutorial fodder.

And that brings me to another important point: there’s context in the story as well as context in the gameplay.  The two of them work together to create a stronger effect.  You fight Metal Gears within the first 5-10 minutes of the game, with absurd sights and sounds to show you that you’re playing a Platinum game, and this is the level you’re supposed to expect from here on.  It’s a tone-setter.  At the same time, the fact that it is a tutorial means that you’re bound to get whooped later on -- and indeed, Raiden does get whooped, and badly, by Jetstream Sam.  As implausible as it seems, the hierarchy is basically ultra-skilled human > skilled cyborg > autonomous machines.  Given the nature of the game, it works.

The Titan fight doesn’t work for FF15.  Remember, it’s been sold and pushed -- by the game itself, no less -- as a laid-back, heartwarming road trip across a mostly realistic world.  So according to Squeenix logic, the best way to play to that sensibility is to have you fight a gigantic rock monster.  And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if it was integrated more smoothly, but it wasn’t.  All of a sudden, the plot -- what little there was of it -- gets derailed so you can fight Titan and earn your first summon.  It’s completely different from everything that happened in the 15-ish prior hours.

And there’s not enough context to support anything before, during, or after it.  Why is Noctis’ power level suddenly through the roof, allowing him to even chip at Titan without shattering his forearms?  If Titan has ungodly amounts of power over the earth, why doesn’t he just smash all of the assholes nicking at him with a big rock?  Come to think of it, what the hell are summons even for in this universe?  To power cities, I guess?  To be revered?  So aren’t people going to notice if Noct decides to mess around with civilization’s bread and butter?

I mean…shit.  Even Kingdom Hearts II understood when and how to work in its spectacle; yeah, Sora and Riku flew around and cut through buildings in their final battle, but at least that came up after Sora self-actualized with Roxas and Riku regained his true form in the light.  So how is it that this company continues to progressively move backward, to the point where zero lessons are learned or remembered from the games they fucking made?

All right, look.  Let’s get back on track here.  It’s not as if I’m saying that FF15 is a game no one anywhere should enjoy.  It’s just that I can’t bring myself to care about the game anymore -- not when there are so many other, better games I could play instead and have infinitely more fun.  Does that mean I’ll never touch it again?  That’s a real possibility, but maybe if the madness of the 2017 release schedule lightens up, I’ll go back to it.  With that said?  If I wasn’t a blogger -- especially one with a noted, marked animosity towards the modern FF games -- I wouldn’t even consider it.  By extension, that means that this could very well be the last FF game I ever play.  Not counting the FF7 remake, of course, because I already played that in its original state.  But even then, I wonder if I'll give the remake a try.

Going all in with a remake of FF7 seems like an intensely bad idea.  Let’s set aside the fact that, if done properly, it’ll require huge investments of time, energy, and technology to render everything as fans envision them.  Let’s set aside the fact that the talent behind FF7 is basically gone at this point -- and yes, I know that they’re bringing in people that worked on the original, but I know exactly what I just typed.  I stand by it.  The more important issue is that Squeenix as a whole, for the foreseeable future, has turned its back on the future.  On new adventures.  On untapped potential.  On fresh starts.

I have an interest in the FF7 remake, but right now it’s just that.  An interest -- curiosity born out of obligation.  Compared to the inevitable FF16, I don’t give a shit about the remake.  I want something new, and different, and forward-facing.  I want Squeenix to prove that it knows what it’s doing with one of the biggest franchises in the history of gaming.  The fact that they would break the glass in case of emergency and scrabble over the remake smacks of more than mere desperation.  It’s a signal that the executives, figureheads, and employees up and down the ladder have no idea what they’re doing anymore.  They aren’t going toward the future, because they can’t.  They don’t know how.

To me, that’s plainly obvious with FF15.  It’s a schizophrenic game that can’t settle on its tone, objective, or vision -- the end result of having too many cooks in the kitchen for virtually a decade.  It tries its best to be modern with all sorts of mainstream-appeasing features, but A) not all of them are well-implemented, and B) there are still some incredibly regressive design elements on display here.  I can’t decide if the combat is more unsatisfying, or the story; either way, it doesn’t change the fact that everything past the first hour or two becomes a slog. 

And maybe the worst part -- which is saying something -- is that even if I think FF15 is a bad game, it’s bad in the worst way possible: it’s not as stunningly awful as 13-2, which at least offers a lot of talking points.  It’s not even bad like Type-0 was -- which (on a good day, assuming I’m drunk off my ass) could in some ways be looked at as a good game with flawed execution and/or an array of misfires.  I have no such feelings toward FF15

Even if it’s been months since I touched it, and even if I only put 15 hours into it, my grand takeaway -- the feeling I got, and will continue to get based on a summation of my memories -- is this: “I didn’t have fun with it.”  The overwhelming sense that I get is that my time has been wasted.  My kindness has been disrespected.  I was tricked, plain and simple.  And because of that, I’m just about ready to lock FF out of my heart.  Even if I play the games again, it won’t be with that sense of joy.  It’ll be strictly business.  Nothing more.

That’s not the way I want to feel about this franchise -- because it’s one of the key reasons why I want to be a writer.

Tune in next time.  Because next time…it’s origin story time.

Or something.  Something to do with time.

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