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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Final Fantasy XV.

Final Fantasy XV.

Ten and a half years. That's how long this game was in development for. For those keeping track, that's nearly as long as Duke Nukem Forever, but that game at least had the excuse of being juggled between multiple different developers, rather than a single company. But now that XV is here, it has significant expectations to live up to, especially when it's coming hot on the heels of the extremely protracted and very terrible XIII trilogy.

Thus we have an interesting situation where Final Fantasy XV is fighting one hell of an uphill battle to get good press, something reflected by the fact that several major review sites have given it middling (by their 6-10 standards) review scores, often even lower than the widely panned Final Fantasy XIII. Coming in the wake of a decade long development cycle, including a title change, and a nearly unremitting decade of terrible games from its franchise, people are rightly jaded, and rightly expect to see some pay-off for their very long emotional investment.

All of which is to say that I really, really like this game -- but I also recognise that that's not necessarily the same as audiences getting an appropriate pay-off for the time they've had to wait on this game, or the tumult of its development.

The game is, after all, not without issues, chief among them being an extremely anemic second half, purportedly the result of the development team simply running out of time on their contract, and closely followed by a story that started off strong and eventually veered into nonsensicality. Not the 'this has never made any sense and never will' nonsense of XIII either, but the shade of nonsense that suggests that you're missing about half the plot.

Altissia looks lovely though.

Set in the world of Eos, a modernised world that mingles present-day aesthetic with the franchise's distinctive brand of fantasy, Final Fantasy XV follows Noctis Lucis Caelum, the young prince of the nation of Lucis, whose trip to meet his bride-to-be is suddenly thrown askew when his father is murdered and his kingdom taken from him. Traveling through Lucis and eventually beyond, Noctis must gather the thirteen Royal Arms of his ancestors, and form covenants with the Six, the gods of his world, to take down the Empire, as well as finding his way to his bride, Oracle Lunafreya Nox Fleuret. But as the nights get longer, and fearsome monsters called daemons begin to encroach on civilisation, it begins to seem like there might be a worse crisis than the Empire to deal with.

Touching quickly on the technical aspects of the game, they are more or less strong across the board. Battle gameplay could definitely use some tweaking, but it's fast-paced and interesting to play, with both some hefty challenges provided to you and a massive arsenal of abilities -- many of which are awe-inspiring -- with which to deal with those challenges. If the battle gameplay has any critical flaw, it's that it can often become difficult to keep track of, turning a system that the game wants to be fast but strategic into an uncontrollable burly brawl where you're just desperately hacking at anything nearby and hoping for the best.

The system shines, then, in its boss battles, especially its boss battles with giant monsters. I've expressed before my hatred of the 'boss battle against a giant monster where you're basically just fighting its face and sometimes its hands,' and I'm actually really happy to say that in the games few battles with giant monsters -- of which there are two, and one optional one -- it handles them with a deftness I've not seen in any game since Shadow of the Colossus (which does, unfortunately, still have this game and indeed every game beaten on the giant monster battle front). Your battles with Titan, Leviathan, and the Adamantoise feel vast and sweeping and epic, and they feel like genuine battles against fully realised giant monsters.

What are they even fighting in this image? And before you say it's the big glowy
figures, they're at least nominally good guys.

So too does the game shine when doing its smaller scale, duel-esque bosses. The final battle is an understated duel where your opponent has all the same abilities you do (plus a few more), and it works brilliantly, and slightly more bombastic but equally small scale bosses like the daemonic form of Ravus are equally as fun to play.

The game is beautiful to look at, surprisingly low on glitches for a game of its size (although not free of them entirely), and is backed up by some rock solid voice acting (with the highlights being Darin de Paul as Ardyn Izunia, Amy Shiels as Lunafreya, and Robbie Daymond as Prompto), and an excellent soundtrack from Yoko Shimomura, who after her extensive work on the Kingdom Hearts franchise could probably be considered a staple of Square-Enix, along with easily being one of their best assets.

The story, meanwhile, is very far from the most original thing in video games or even in the franchise itself, but honestly after XIII's three attempts at striving for originality and failing miserably, I am happy to let that pass. The main draw of the narrative is not, in truth, the story itself anyway, but rather the bonds and banter between the four main characters (hopefully soon to be five, if the rumblings of patches to add ultimate bro Aranea Highwind as a party member proper are aught to go by), and in that respect the game does pretty well. None of the party characters are brimming with depth, but they are engaging and fun to be around.

If Square releases a DLC pack that gives Noctis some better clothes, I will buy that

When the narrative falls apart, however, it falls apart hard, as the last five chapters of the game are an incoherent mess, as the game rushes to its conclusion, scaling down almost the entire last part of the story to a series of very brief set pieces (some of which are actually pretty terrible, but some of which, like the battle to defend the train from the Empire, are bordering on inspired) and one lengthy, survival horror esque dungeon. That dungeon is pretty widely hated, and I admit that while I myself found it enjoyable enough, I can see exactly why people hate it so much, and they're not wrong to do so.

Nor can I forgive the story for having a bizarre time skip just before the ending, and then a strange and whiplash-y sad ending. I've been thinking for a while about doing a post -- or maybe a video editorial, exciting -- on the anatomy of a tragedy, so I'll save my thoughts on the ending for that, but needless to say, I was very far from happy.

Still, this was a deeply enjoyable game for me, for the most part, and I'm very much looking forward to replaying the first eleven chapters and then pretending none of the rest of it exists. That should be pretty delightful, I think.

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