Officially announced ten years ago this week, the project that has now become Final Fantasy XV is most likely going to be one of the most pivotal releases in gaming history. What was once one of the most influential and beloved gaming franchises of all time has now nearly been mishandled to the point of total exhaustion. Beginning with Hironobu Sakaguchi’s 1987 NES masterpiece Final Fantasy, the series has been critically and publicly celebrated for nearly thirty years. Popularizing the Japanese RPG genre and consistently releasing some of the greatest games in history, the series seemed nearly unstoppable. During its prime, no one would have suspected that it would eventually fall to the lows that it has endured for the past several years. Final Fantasy XIII’s worldwide release in 2010 (December 2009 in Japan) marked a turning point in the brand’s direction. While Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XII were merely seen as failed experiments in evolving the genre, Final Fantasy XIII was received as a sign that the magic that once inspired the games had faded. What fans had hoped would be a phenomenal return to form on next-gen systems, turned out to be an embarrassingly simple title that prioritized style over substance. Following two sequels that no one asked for, an MMO so unplayable that it had to be recreated from the ground up, a few poorly executed remakes, several uninspired spinoffs and a slew of cash-grabbing mobile games, the Final Fantasy name is nearing Sonic the Hedgehog levels of failure and desperation. In this sorry state, Square Enix is now relying on the upcoming fifteenth installment in its once proud series to redeem their failures in the eyes of gamers and prove themselves to be a relevant force in the industry.
This unfortunate situation that our community has found ourselves in begs the question: can Final Fantasy XV possibly ever live up to the expectations that have been set for it? Time and time again, we’ve seen games enter development hell for months, years and even decades, often resulting in some of the most reviled excuses for entertainment imaginable. For every unlikely gem like Fallout 3, Half-Life 2 or Starcraft 2, there is a proportionally larger amount of poorly-handled messes such as Duke Nukem Forever, Too Human and Daikatana. Originally announced at E3 2006 as a spin off game of Final Fantasy XIII, titled Final Fantasy XIII Versus, the game experienced multiple setbacks that delayed the current version’s development until 2012. Reemerging as a numbered entry into the main series at Sony’s 2013 E3 press conference, we are now closer to the game’s September 30th release date than most fans ever imagined we would be. As though completing a project that was widely predicted to remain vaporware wasn’t difficult enough, the development team behind the latest chapter in the Final Fantasy franchise has now undertaken the unimaginably difficult task of returning the series to its former glory. In order to do so effectively, I believe that Final Fantasy XV must do three things.
1- Learn From the Series’ Recent Failures
The first step to reestablishing Final Fantasy as an industry leader is to identify the factors that contributed to previous title’s poor reception in the first place. Although the case can be made that the Final Fantasy series began its fall from grace with any number of games, I’m going to focus on the flaws of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, as they are the most relevant to the creation of a new, single-player focused experience. While I don’t vehemently loathe Final Fantasy XIII as much as the majority of the public has come to, I do contest the generally favorable reviews that it had garnered at its launch. Possibly due to the public’s deprivation of a recognizable Final Fantasy game for several years, many players were initially awed by the sheer spectacle of the game’s graphics and music. Over time, critics gradually began to realize that Final Fantasy XIII only truly excelled on its surface, revealing a bare-bones character customization system and absurdly streamlined mess to be the core of the game. What most players thought was a highly linear opening tutorial, turned out to be the main structure of the game, confining the world to a single corridor that is only broken up by branching paths leading to dead ends. This monotonous hallway that the developers try to masquerade as “level design” drags on for roughly 20-25 hours before revealing a relatively open area that can be explored for a few side quests and special items, until it eventually funnels the cast back to the familiar straight shot environments that begrudgingly lead to the final boss. Along the way, floating save points serve as the only means to purchase and upgrade items, replacing the charming merchants, stores and towns that littered previous titles.
Keeping with this process of dumbing down and sterilizing the parts of the game that gave its predecessors their charm, character progression and weapon crafting were both grossly oversimplified and unsatisfying. Upgrading weapons became both unreasonably expensive and inconsequential, while character customization was gutted in favor of an unsatisfying menu process that only made marginal changes to gameplay, and discouraged specialization by allowing every character to max out their stats. Combat used a slimmed down version of the series’ active-time battle system, which focuses on ability cooldowns and mana management, except now the only controllable character was the party leader. The new Paradigm Shift mechanic forces the player to constantly rearrange the roles of their current party members in order to defend against, debuff or destroy their enemies, rewarding them with arbitrary star ratings and more fluff items to sell. While the encounters of the late-game can be exciting and hectic at times, the interesting mechanics are introduced so slowly over the course of the game that many players are unlikely to reach this point. Perhaps most insulting, the battle menu’s default option is an “Auto-Battle” command that attempts to perform the player’s optimal move for them. While I’m aware that its inclusion is meant to shift the focus of the player from their character’s individual actions to their party’s paradigm composition, it is not conducive to newcomer’s learning of the game, and seemingly mocks the veterans with how contrived and formulaic the majority of fights are.
These glaring flaws are only made worse by Final Fantasy XIII’s nonsensical plot and infuriatingly idiotic characters. Contrasting the painfully slow implementation of in-game mechanics, the plot immediately bombards players with made up words that all sound similar and are rarely introduced explicitly. To have a remote grasp of who, what and where they are, players must read the seemingly endless walls of text that are lazily added to an in-game encyclopedia called the “datalog” ad nauseum. Replaying the game for this article, I found the actual dialogue to be even more arduous to sit through than the datalogs, opting to quickly read through a scene’s summary rather than listen to the main characters needlessly debate the ethicality of their slaughtering of innocent soldiers by the score. Because of this, even interesting ideas and environments, such as the godlike beings called the Fal’Cie and the floating worlds they create, are wasted on a script that relies on all of its characters being either utterly incompetent or inexplicably informed. There are no real standout characters to get invested in, including the game’s protagonist, Lightning, who is so bland and one dimensional that the game’s own manual struggles to find characteristics to describe her; only coming up with “This solitary young woman speaks little of herself- even her true name is a mystery” (A mystery that has no impact on the plot or is of any importance). Non-player characters and party members alike will often act without reason or directly contradict actions they’ve previously committed, and by the end of the game, nobody learns anything of actual significance. Paradoxically, it feels as though the gameplay and story were made entirely separately, each under the impression that the other would be the important part of the game. Mind-numbingly long cutscenes do nothing but rush the characters to new locations to kill more monsters while the gameplay isn’t designed for the player to do anything but walk in a straight line to the next cutscene.
Apart from Masashi Hamauzu’s excellent imitation of a Nobuo Uematsu score and a visually impressive world, Final Fantasy XIII is a disappointment in almost every aspect of its design. With the gift of hindsight, even reviewers who received it positively have revised their assessment of the game to gauge how unintuitive and poorly designed it was compared to other RPGs at the time. Resting on its laurels, the game became a commercial success, spawning two sequels that were able to re-use the assets and engine of the base game; Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (yes, they really did name it that). To nobody’s surprise, neither managed to significantly improve on the fundamentally simplified experience of the original, though not for a lack of trying. Final Fantasy XIII-2 recast Lightning’s equally boring sister, Serah, as the game’s lead and tried to appease fans with the return of explorable towns and environments. In practice, its NPC’s bland writing and boring sidequests became a case of too little too late in the end. Although I enjoyed the novelty of collecting monsters, their function as a third party member did little to improve the game in a meaningful way. Additionally, the story’s attempt to use the overdone time travel gimmick as a means to reuse as many levels and character models as possible somehow made the trilogy’s already ridiculous plot even more contrived and needlessly complicated. Surprisingly, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII admirably made huge strides in the combat department by integrating Final Fantasy X-2’s dresspheres into the series’ combat. Simulating the job system of older Final Fantasy games, various articles of armor and clothing could be equipped to unlock stat bonuses and abilities. Fitting with the game’s refocus on Lightning, the final game in the trilogy fully commits to the player only controlling one character, and is much better for it. With actions mapped to the face buttons, the encounters are far superior to the “auto-pilot” found in the other parts of the trilogy. Unfortunately, the improvements made to its mechanics are squandered by the constraints that the narrative handicaps the game with. At this point, the story is both completely unintelligible and cumbersome, shoddily introducing a time limit mechanic in the vein of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, then immediately nullifying it by giving the player the power to stop time with the Chronostasis ability. If Final Fantasy XV can learn anything from this trilogy, it’s that neither gameplay nor story should be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Luckily for fans, if the demos are any indication of the final game, Square Enix may have already gained the foresight to correct such missteps.
2-Establish Gameplay Engaging Enough to Sustain Such an Ambitious World
While fixing deeply rooted problems in a game series is certainly impressive in and of itself, it is still only half of the process. After removing aspects that don’t work, developers still have to establish core mechanics that do. With this in mind, it might seem strange for me to say that my biggest concern for Final Fantasy XV right now, is that it may be a little too ambitious in what it is trying to add. To be clear, I obviously don’t mean to suggest that developers shouldn’t dream big and think outside the box. I simply mean that before a game starts flaunting things like extravagant summons, dynamic weather and day-night cycles, it should prove that it’s using its existing systems to their full extent. And honestly, I’m not 100% convinced that Final Fantasy XV is doing that yet. The game’s first two demos, Episode Duscae and The Platinum Demo, have shown an enormous amount of potential, offering brief glimpses of the game’s stunningly detailed world as well as smaller touches such as the brief interactions between Noctis and his friends. Everything from the enemies to the atmosphere are expertly done in a way that further conveys the darker, more realistic tone that is present here (well, as realistic as a game with magic wielding soldiers who dress like futuristic boy bands can be). That being said, there are several problems with the combat in these two demos that continue to keep me skeptical. My chief concern stems from the consistent lack of challenge in the scenarios we have played up to this point. However, this problem goes beyond the simple, one-sided “games today are too easy/hard” arguments that are rehashed with every major release. “Challenge” is not a problem that can be quantifiably altered by mindlessly raising enemy damage or lowering player health, it is when a game forces the player to understand and utilize every tool available to them in order to succeed. To best demonstrate this idea, consider Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots; while it is entirely possible to ignore the more complicated stealth options and gun down every enemy on the game’s “Naked Normal” difficulty, limits placed on ammo, rations and health capacity found on the “Big Boss Extreme” difficulty require the player to make use of less traditional methods/items and master the core stealth mechanics in order to progress. By failing to provide a sufficient challenge, in the form of enemy attack patterns, environmental hazards or resource management as of yet, Final Fantasy XV has not encouraged players to do much more than button mash.
The Kingdom Hearts series, to which this game’s combat owes its inspiration, similarly struggles with creating a balanced difficulty. Games in the series tend to either not provide substantial (or just interesting) means to overcome enemies (Kingdom Hearts), or totally overpower the player with enough special moves and spells to make the game a cakewalk (Kingdom Hearts 2). Luckily, the developers have already shown their responsiveness to criticism during demos by greatly improving numerous aspects such as its clunky warping, unwieldy camera control and limited evasion options found in Episode Duscae. Even if my main concern isn’t completely remedied in the full release, Final Fantasy XV still has tons of things going for it. One of the largest changes made to the demo mapped weapons to the d-pad instead of linking them to specific phases of Notctis’ attacks, allowing for more diverse approaches to encounters without having to cycle through multiple items just to get to the desired one. Character animations are very fluid but come at the cost of some questionable movements when making quick turns or trying to move out of an attack animation. The developers have also taken note of this and have stated that players will be able to cancel their attack animations with dodge rolls in the full game.
As it stands in the demo, mana conservation and spacing play large roles in the flow of fighting, forcing the player to warp or run away to safety when Noctis needs to regenerate his resources. This becomes problematic during longer battles, as more difficult foes, such as the target of the main quest, Behemoth Deadeye, require multiple recharges in order to whittle down large enemy health pools. While some fans have complained that this process will quickly become tedious, Final Fantasy XV’s director, Hajime Tabata, has noted that the balance of these resources and how fast they can be recharged is subject to change. Similarly, the demo was criticized for allowing players to simply hold down a button in order to dodge, making the game too easy, but yet again, this is likely to be different in the final game. With such an extensive offensive portion of the combat system, offering multiple weapons with distinct attack patterns and capabilities (as well as the ability to switch between them on the fly), it would be a shame to relegate the most effective defensive aspect to a single button (though it is unclear whether or not the main game’s equivalent to the warp-dodge is any more challenging to use).
Following Episode Duscae’s second update, the developers took many criticisms to heart and fixed several of the more prevalent issues brought up. On March 30th of this year, Square Enix decided to follow up the expansive showcase of possibilities in Episode Duscae with another playable teaser for the final release, called The Platinum Demo. Rather than repurposing a pre-built level to suit new players, the small team behind this project created their own unique levels to serve as a story based prologue to the retail game. Following a young Noctis’ adventure through his dreams and nightmares, a summon named Carbuncle guides the player across some of the most aesthetically stunning environments available on the 8th generation of consoles. After navigating a few surreally whimsical environments and toying around with bizarre magical buttons that can alter the scenery or player’s appearance, the demo reiterates the basic fighting and movement mechanics to the player before facing them with ridiculously easy boss fight that somewhat deepens my worry about the final game’s challenge to the player. Upon defeating the boss, Noctis can gawk at his surroundings leisurely or initiate the ending sequence that introduces his complicated relationship to his father. It’s a nice moment of characterization that goes a long way in setting up the protagonist as something more complex than the generic JRPG hero archetype that litters the genre, even if it is very brief and straightforward. If The Platinum Demo was designed to be anything more than a quickly thrown together tech demonstration, I would be much more concerned about the complete game’s quality, but as it stands, it just got me more excited for the final release.
Despite the questionable lack of incentives for the player to experience the combat’s full potential, both Episode Duscae and The Platinum Demo are an excellent sign of what’s to come. Over the course of their development, the game designers have proven their commitment to pleasing fans while also retaining what they believe is important to the franchise. If the complete game can deliver on some of the lofty goals that it has set here, Final Fantasy XV may rank among the series’ best experiences.
3- Set Itself Apart From the Prominent Modern RPGs
Finally, in order to regain its former fame, the new Final Fantasy must offer something that other RPGs have not, whether it be an innovative new take on combat, an interesting story that hasn’t been told to death or an immersive world that gamers can’t experience anywhere else. If Final Fantasy XV does not have more to it than the stagnated Final Fantasy name and the gameplay of Kingdom Hearts, it will not be able to stand up to other genre frontrunners releasing later this year such as Persona 5, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Divinity: Original Sin 2. Relying too heavily on recycled conventions was exactly what put the series in the pitiful position it’s still working its way out of, and, as the death and rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV has proven, it certainly won’t be enough to restore fans’ faith in Square Enix. Despite two hands-on experiences that showed a multitude of factors that may go on to define the game over time, it is still possible for the game to turn out to be a jack of all trades, master of none. While there are too many areas that it may thrive in to count, we can use what we’ve seen so far to speculate where it is likely to succeed.
Serving as the core of the game, its most shocking factor is the series’ radical switch from conventional turn-based skirmishes to a bizarre hybrid between Kingdom Hearts’ controls and the action found in games such as Devil May Cry. With Kingdom Hearts III nowhere in sight, Final Fantasy XV’s active gameplay style is likely going to be compared to the current action-RPG juggernaut, Dark Souls 3, regardless of how useful or accurate such a comparison may be. Purely based on what we’ve seen, Final Fantasy XV’s combat seems too forgiving, floaty and over the top to be as rewarding, refined and precise as anything in the Souls franchise. However, this isn’t very surprising, considering FROM Software’s experience in the genre. By playing to its strengths, it may be able to go in the opposite direction and create a complex RPG system around Devil May Cry-like action, but as I have suggested, I am still concerned that Final Fantasy XV will not satisfy in this respect, by failing to present a challenge to the player. Stemming from this deviation from typical JRPG standards, the latest addition to the Final Fantasy franchise is also unlikely to satisfy the genre and series purists that have been held over by Persona, Bravely Default and Ni No Kuni in its absence. Hopefully, Final Fantasy XV will take note of the “quality over quantity” writing approach, used to create interesting stories like Persona 4’s flashy murder mystery, and not hinge on narratively bankrupt tools, like Final Fantasy XIII’s datalog. Regardless of the possible change in audience, I believe that Episode Duscae and The Platinum Demo are excellent pillars to build the expansive foundation needed for telling a great story. Episode Duscae’s dialogue between the central characters in Noctis’ party was enjoyable and well acted (with the exception of a few of the English voice actors) and The Platinum Demo’s visual approach to storytelling was a much needed breather from the overwritten scripts that plague so many stories. In addition to this, the highly detailed setting and uniquely realistic art direction make for an even more appealing world to explore. If the main game’s writers, Saori Itamuro and Kazushige Nojima, and the level designers can maintain this level of quality throughout the game, Final Fantasy XV could mark the series’ return to creative worlds asking to be explored.
After over a decade of anticipation, we’ll finally get to experience Final Fantasy XV this September. Backed by a massive amount of Square Enix’s resources, it has already spawned an anime series, a spinoff arcade game and a high budget CGI film with big name actors, before even being released. Its success is likely to determine the future of the franchise and its publishers. While my time with the two demos has been brief, they have been more enjoyable and imaginative than some of the full games I’ve played recently, and although I’ve tried to remain cautiously optimistic, it’s hard to not get excited by the potential resurgence of an industry staple. If the game developers can learn from their predecessors’ mistakes, base this expansive world in an enjoyable game and differentiate the game from its competitors, Final Fantasy XV just might end up being worth the wait.
- Matt Bruzzano
If you want to hear more of our thoughts on Final Fantasy XV, check out Mike and John’s episode of Random Encounters: http://goombastomp.com/podcast/random-encounters-ep-12-can-final-fantasy-xv-save-franchise/
Still curious about the game’s mechanics? Game Mechanics Lab has a great breakdown of some of the more complex systems at play: https://sites.google.com/site/darkwavestyle/games-research/final-fantasy-xv-platinum-demo
My last article analyzed Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and its huge impact on the industry: http://goombastomp.com/features/call-duty-4-modern-software/