Usually, a lacklustre demo is a deathblow for an unreleased title–all the more so when the demo is not merely lacklustre, but is instead stunningly bad. And yet, following the release of Episode Duscae, so strong was the interest in Final Fantasy XV that excitement and anticipation remained high. And thus it continued to remain, even as the news about Final Fantasy XV went from bad to worse–even as the developers made increasingly ominous comments about the content, direction, and overall philosophy of the game itself. When a new, still-underwhelming demo was released, excited gamers were not to be deterred. And, when a resolutely ordinary anime, Brotherhood, saw release, the excitement was undiminished. Even the debut of a genuinely terrible movie–Kingsglaive–could not deter Final Fantasy fans eager for the satiatiation of a decade’s-length hunger.
But fate has a funny way with the satisfaction of wishes, and fans who clamoured for a more action-based, more modern game in the Final Fantasy series might rue the day that they typed their ill-formed reckons into the Square Enix fan survey, for–as the saying goes–one should be careful about for what one wishes, lest one ends by getting it. So it has proven with Final Fantasy XV–a game which takes every individual modern appurtenance recently shoehorned into an RPG and then crams them all into a single massive mechanics melange. The result is a game that does not know what it is, made by people who did not know what they were doing, for gamers who do not know what they want.
Turning on the game, players immediately encounter loading times: a large patch must be loaded. Rest has a loading time. Fast travel from point to point has a loading time. Chapter breaks have a loading time. Waits of two minutes are not unusual and loading times of three minutes have been observed. If one is ‘returning to vehicle’ the wait could be as short as fifteen to twenty seconds. But these transportation-related shortcuts are employed frequently, and thus a substantial amount of time is spent viewing loading screens.
The loading screens are necessary due to the interminably slow methods of transport available to the player. Travel across the vast distances on foot–even at a sprint–would result in a travel time of hours. In the car, these can be reduced to minutes, although travel times in excess of ten minutes are quite ordinary (especially prior to the acquisition of the supercharger, which increases automobile speed). And chocobos, coming several chapters into the game, are not quite as good as the car.
Prior to the release of Final Fantasy XV the developers declared that the car was ‘a character’ in its own right. But if it is a character, it must not be a very important one: access to the car is suspended for an entire early chapter and, before the midway point of the game, it is taken away entirely and never seen again except for during a brief sequence at the end of the story. The car is not the only poorly-developed character–indeed, plot on the whole is underdone.
The writers, looking back at the emotional high points of the Final Fantasy series, clearly sought out the most affecting moments, and then–as with the game’s mechanics–those plot points were shoehorned into the game without any of the substantial development needed to make them emotionally viable. Even the main characters themselves never really matter. Their friendship for each other, already formed before the start of the game, is something which the player must simply accept, not experience.
Therein lies Final Fantasy XV‘s most colossal failure: the basic and elementary need of a storyteller to show rather than tell. As a case in point, the player’s investment in the relationship between Noctis and Lunafreya is minimal: the latter is only seen in a half-dozen cutscenes, speaking lines of cryptic dialogue which allude to these or those really meaningful (but never shown!) events. And, although Lunafreya’s welfare is one of Noctis’ chief concerns, the game’s design so overwhelms the player with other issues that Lunafreya’s importance dwindles into nigh-trivial insignificance: “Lunafreya’s life is in danger! We must hurry to help her–but first, let us collect a handful of peas for this small child in a far-away town. And then, we will buy a portable MP3 player from the car. Oh, and also go on a search for some new metallic green paint. We should also finish a few hunts for people in the village. Oh! And, whilst we are at it, we can buy a cookbook and learn how to make a tasty omelette. Wait guys, I’ve got it–let’s go camping!”
The player only knows that Noctis cares about Lunafreya because the script has him saying so. But these are characters whose affection for each other is almost entirely pre-game and off-camera. Cloud and Aerith, and Tidus and Yuna, are tragic and believeable because the player is with them through their relationship–it is a relationship formed with the player-as-Cloud/Aerith and Tidus/Yuna. But in Final Fantasy XV, the relationship is already formed. It is in action only as a theoretical abstract, in that it impacts various aspects of the plot. And on this rock founders the writers’ attempts to leverage that relationship as a means of eliciting an emotional reaction from players. Players are told what to feel; they are not encouraged to feel that way. Consequently, they feel nothing. The game’s ‘Aha!’ moment, then, does not result in an emotional climax, but rather anger at the incompetent way in which the story is being handled.
But this is not the last indignity–even the ham-handed approach to emotional investment pales in comparison to the game design from Chapter 6 to the story’s end at Chapter 14. Some reviewers have accused this portion of being awful due to its ‘linearity’–a term which is usually understood to mean a lack of branching options–something which need not be a downside. What is actually the case is that Final Fantasy XV–a game in development for a decade, involving thousands of people and with a budget to match–has Xenogears syndrome. RPG fans will remember that the second disc of Xenogears is infamous for long dialogue scenes interrupted only by boss fights before a long final dungeon. Final Fantasy XV, from Chapter 6 onward, is dialogue scenes interrupted by brief dungeons sometimes ending in boss fights. And, to be clear, these dungeons are not connected geographically or temporally: there is a cutscene, a short dungeon, and a boss fight; then the chapter ends, followed by the words “several days later…” and the process repeats with a new cutscene, dungeon, fight. Notably, the entirety of Chapter 9 is a small donut-shaped room with ten goblins in it, and no boss fight.
And there is the rub, for nothing short of a perfectly-executed story could save the mess that is Final Fantasy XV. On ‘Normal’ mode, the combat is conspicuously challenge-free, so that the skill progression system–shallow as it is–is rendered utterly pointless. And, with a modest supply of potions and elixirs–cheaply obtained–even a grossly underleveled party is effectively invincible. Combat itself, in action, is a mess of targetting, relying on a camera that always manages to find something to hide behind. Although the game is very pretty, and its musical selections are appealing (in the few places where there is music), these aesthetic issues cannot hold up the sagging whole. And all of this leaves out mention of bugs which plague boss fights (my encounter with the Malboro did not prompt the hook needed to win the fight, so I fought it for an hour, killing it fifty times), cutscenes (characters wander aimlessly, occluding the camera), and quest design (e.g. the quest to check the power pylons sends the player to the wrong pylons).
With a fifteen-minute initial install, a 12Gb launch patch, and a forty minute forced install from the main menu screen, players are likely already to be disgruntled before they discover that Final Fantasy XV is a disorganised and poorly-executed heap of ideas and concepts dressed up in the tinsel of stunning graphics and a small selection of attractive-but-infrequent music. And yet, this shambling production seems the appropriate output of a company which long ago made a conscious and public decision to prioritise graphics above all else. Final Fantasy XV is the ultimate terminus of that design pathway: a game which excels in graphical presentation but in nothing else. It will surely appeal to the most modern gamers who do not care if a game is an incoherent mess as long as the characters are very ‘now’ and the system is very ‘fast’ and there is no challenge to get in the way of a constant and unremitting sense of unearned accomplishment. Millennial gamers rejoice, your Final Fantasy is at hand! But for those of us of a more discerning bent, and with the forthcoming release of more SquareEnix Final Fantasy titles, the letter grade below is certainly only the beginning of our Frustration.