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Unpolished Gold

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    Final Fantasy XV

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    Unpolished Gold

    I love Final Fantasy games. Do I love Final Fantasy XV? I have dumped 200 or so hours into it, so yeah I’d say I love it. It is not flawless. The gameplay and story are deep and compelling, but they are also poorly executed at times. The graphics are pretty consistently gorgeous and at times utterly jaw-dropping. The music… what can I say? It’s a Final Fantasy game. The music is wonderful.

    It all sounds great, and while Final Fantasy XV has been a sales success for Square Enix, it has been a bit polarizing among critics and fans. The new battle system, they say, might be fun but is it Final Fantasy? The open world is beautiful and offers plenty to do, but doesn’t that detract from the story? And pretty much everyone hated playing through chapter 13 before Square Enix dropped a patch to help improve the experience on March 28th. In general, my 200 hours with this game have been a bit of a roller coaster journey, but let’s take a more detailed look and see if we can’t sort some of this out.

    Story 3.5 / 5

    The world this game takes place in is called Eos, and its lore is rich and interesting for those willing to seek it out. The greater pantheon of Final Fantasy XV media (including the film Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV and the anime series Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV, among others) helps to flesh the world and its characters out, but the actual game – which should be the flagship world builder – does very poorly in this regard. The Final Fantasy series is known for stories with epic histories involving magic and political intrigue and cataclysmic events, and these are all present in the greater Final Fantasy XV franchise, but somehow the game itself manages to just be about four dudes on a road trip. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave certain characters outside the main four underserved, and certain aspects of the world’s history left to fan speculation.

    Those four guys, though. I like calling them the Chocobros, and they are great. Noctis is the player character; a prince who has left his home. He’s kind of quiet, kind of moody, kind of childish at times; not unlike a number of other Square Enix main characters. Gladiolus is the brawn of the group, able to knock around enemies as readily as he will knock some sense into his prince. Ignis is the brains, and he provides a calming, stabilizing presence in the group while offering some of the best advice. Prompto, my favorite, is the comic relief; he lightens the mood when necessary but he also has a sensitive side that leaves the player just wanting Noctis to give him a hug at times. As a group, they are loveable and more than capable of carrying a player through hours of gameplay. Little moments with the Chocobros are what make this game great. When Prompto is excited about the prospect of riding chocobos, he sings made-up lyrics to the series-standard Chocobo Theme. When Noctis complains about the heat, Gladiolus teases him for not being willing to take off his shirt (Noctis not possessing Gladiolus’ rippling abs, of course). When the guys comment on Ignis’ stylish combat maneuvers, he modestly shrugs it off.
    The characterizations of these four friends is rich even where the narrative is not.

    Outside the Chocobros, I was left wanting more. Too many important events occur off screen. At one point I thought I was being led toward a great confrontation with a villainous character, only to find out that I’d already fought and killed him without realizing it. In retrospect, the story of what happened to this man is actually quite compelling, so why wasn’t it made more clear? Though there is an open-world aspect to the game, certain towns and environments in which pivotal story points occur are sped through rather than giving the player time to absorb what is going on. It seems counter-intuitive to me: when the stakes are highest in Final Fantasy XV, the story is the most fractured. I give Square Enix some credit for attempting patch a few of these plot holes post-release, but the fact that this was even necessary lends credence to the critics who claim that the Day One edition of this game is a great idea left unfinished.

    Graphics 4.5 / 5

    Final Fantasy XV is heart-stoppingly beautiful. I admit I haven’t played a ton of current-gen games so maybe my standards are lower than most, but I found this game to be a joy to behold. In open-world tradition, going to the top of a high tower or mountain and just spinning the camera around while understanding that everything you’re looking can be visited later on is whole mini-game in and of itself. This concept is played to its fullest extent in a late game quest that asks you to defeat an enemy the size of a mountain. From where the quest is accepted you can actually see the enemy clearly, but you still have quite a walk just to get into attack range.

    Although the open-world is relatively small when compared to, say, GTA V, it offers enough variety to never seem boring. There are plenty of deserts and forests and swamps and forts and beaches and volcanos to explore. And these environments react dynamically (if only temporarily) to battle. Throwing a fire spell will cause the ground to become scorched, while an ice spell will cause a chilly mist and some snow to fall for a bit. It’s all very well done and nice to look at.

    The characters also react dynamically to their environments. After a long day of battles Noctis will appear dirty and disheveled (and he’ll usually comment that it’s time for a bath when you get around to resting). During a rainstorm, poor Prompto’s usually spiky hair will become a bit limp. For a laugh, try throwing a fire spell in battle when your chocobo is nearby. It may seem cruel, but the cartoonish signed effect is cute enough to justify a slightly roasted bird.

    In general the character designs are well done, if slightly boring at times. Unlike most Final Fantasies, there is really only one race depicted: humans. It’s more realistic, but gone are the interesting Moogle or Rhonso or Viera characters of games past. The Chocobros themselves tend to dress in all black (though you have a few choices of the outfits they wear, and several of the DLC outfits for Noctis are particularly cute). The best-designed character in the game is coincidentally the most colorful as well. Enemy designs are typical for Final Fantasy: by which I mean some of the best in the business. Leaving out the mountain-sized baddie previously mentioned, there are also huge dinosaur-cow things and creepy mechanical humanoids and just-plain-cool samurai daemons. One early quest pits you against a behemoth whose ferocity and danger is very well depicted in the moments leading up to the actual battle. The sequence would not have been nearly as riveting if not for Square Enix’s usual application of graphical panache.

    I knocked off half-a-point here for some animation flaws. Notably, the lip synching (at least in the English language version) is pretty poorly done. This was the first time a Final Fantasy game was released world-wide on the same day, so perhaps there was less time for localization than usual.

    Gameplay: 3 / 5

    Where Final Fantasy XV excels is making the player look cool without necessarily taking much effort to do so. Can that be called fun? I’m not really sure. Many people will descry the battle system as being “not a Final Fantasy game,” but history shows that this is the direction the series has been headed in since Final Fantasy XII eschewed battle transitions. Fighting in Final Fantasy XV takes place in real-time, not entirely unlike Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts series. Hold a button to attack, another to dodge, another to warp. Hot-swap through weapons and spells using the directional buttons as shortcuts. Noctis and his friends will often perform acrobatic feats and spectacular combos without the player really meaning to. None of it takes much skill. The aforementioned mountain-enemy has a ton of HP, which means it will take a lot of time to kill it, but it doesn’t take much effort. Certain weapons, and one DLC weapon in particular, are game-breaking. Indeed, the Ragnarok sword was released when I was about halfway through my 200 hours. It makes warp-strikes devastatingly powerful and all but prevented me from doing anything but warp-striking in the rest of my play though. Useful, but kind of boring. What was never boring were the epic summons. They’re huge, devastating, specatacular, and rare. Really rare. Rare enough to afford you a trophy for the first time you’re able to summon one (outside of the mandatory story summons). On my play through I wasn’t able to earn this trophy until Chapter 14. There are only 15 chapters in the game! I would have liked to see these beautiful sequences a few more times during play.

    Outside of battle there is much to keep you occupied. There’s typical JRPG fare like fishing (surprisingly deep) and chocobo racing, there’s a rewarding but also kind of boring pinball mini-game, and there’s the beautifully implemented photo-taking mechanic. Prompto is the group photographer, and he will automatically take photos throughout the day, earning filters and gaining skill the more photos he takes. Every time the group rests they will look through and comment on the photos Prompto took that day. The players can also take their own photos and apply the filters of their choosing. Of course, using the PS4’s share features these photos can then be displayed on a variety of social media. In this way the player connects with the characters and other players at the same time through their shared experiences.

    The side quests will be perhaps a little too familiar to open-world gamers. Go there and kill that enemy, then come back and collect some loot. Bring that item from here to there and collect some loot. Nowadays games are beginning to weave the narrative through the side quests to avoid the repetitious feeling (think The Witcher 3), but Final Fantasy XV falls flat here. I was especially disappointed in the hunts, which offer nothing in terms of narrative. Even Final Fantasy XII (two whole generations ago!) provided a narrative nudge toward completing the hunts and rewarded the player with detailed Bestiary entries on each of the marks. In XV, it’s simply “here, go kill this thing for some reason and you can have this loot.” There is no Bestiary (an overall disappointment). Even the hunts’ wanted posters are sadly generic, each of them emblazoned with the same thing: “For Habitat Destruction.” Can that really be the reason we’re compelled to murder every single one of these creatures?

    Music and Sound: 5 / 5

    In the early moments of Final Fantasy XV, I found the gang stuck in a sorry position while Florence and the Machine’s mournful cover of “Stand By Me” plays. Even though Conan O’Brien mocked this sequence as a waste of time, it gave me chills. Unfortunately that’s the only instance of the song playing in Final Fantasy XV, but there is plenty else to fill your ears. A few quests into the game I was able to drive the Regalia again, and the moment I realized you can change the music playing on the radio, and that all of the music comes from all of the past Final Fantasy games was a huge revelation. I never realized how much I had connected with all of this past music, but it only took a few chords of Aerith’s Theme to bring me right back to the late nineties. This may be the most modernized Final Fantasy ever conceived, but the music player mechanic allows it to simultaneously be the most nostalgic.

    The original tracks are no slouch, either. Composer Yoko Shimomura has crafted an auditory delight here. The boss tracks and summon themes are epic and bombastic. It just makes you feel more important by fighting with that kind of soundtrack behind you. Then you go to Wiz’s Chocobo Ranch and realize you’re hearing a softened, pleasant version of the Chocobo Theme and you go all warm inside. Each town has its appropriate theme, each dungeon has its creepy tunes. It’s all a thrill.

    The voices are mostly well done, though I would have asked for more urgency out of Noctis’ lines, and Luna’s lilt is a little too boring for my taste. The voice of Ardyn Izunia, though, is sick. Darin De Paul’s voice work oozes scoundrel and charm in equal measure.

    Pitioss Ruins: 5 / 5

    I had to make this its own category because it is so very different from the rest of the game. Pitioss is a late game dungeon that, oddly, contains no enemies. Instead, in a complete departure from the rest of the game, you are asked to platform and puzzle-solve your way through this maddening hell-hole to reap your rewards. Death lurks under every step, but luckily Nocits will respawn relatively close to where he met his end. Still, I’ve never come so close to breaking a controller as I did playing through Pitioss. Final Fantasy XV was not designed to be a platform game, so the incredibly precise platforming required to traverse the dungeon can get extremely frustrating.

    That said, check out the score I’ve given this sequence. It is a marvel. The level design is some of the best I’ve ever seen outside of Mario, but even more important is the Pitioss mechanic of storytelling. Noctis enters Pitioss alone and there is no dialogue through the entire four-plus hour sequence, but clever players will notice a subtle and beautiful story being told from jump to jump. I’ve played a lot of games, and Pitioss is the most skillful use of story-telling through gameplay (instead of narrative) that I have ever witnessed. The designers of this dungeon have to be geniuses to have assembled such a compelling story in such a manner. I don’t want to spoil any of it, but just know that every action you take in Pitioss is another step in a story that unveils much of the lore behind Final Fantasy XV and the world of Eos. There’s a hint in the very name of the dungeon: Pitioss (pit of Eos). Well done, Square Enix.

    Conclusion: 4 / 5

    I love Final Fantasy XV but I recognize its flaws and I don’t expect everyone to love it. Having taken ten years in development, I suppose I can understand how the narrative became so disjointed. The disservice paid to certain characters and environments is unforgiveable though. Hopefully these holes will be patched in future DLC, but ideally that would never have been necessary. Still, any game you can happily sink 200 hours into has to be worth the price of admission.

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