A few words about Final Fantasy XV (Royal Edition)

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As I wrote last month or so, FFXV had come to Game Pass so I decided to give it a shot as it had always piqued my interest, just never enough to actually put any money down. As part of my gaming Netflix? Why not.

I am not a big Final Fantasy fan. That is not to say I dislike the series, I simply have very little experience with it. My personal Final Fantasy timeline is rather short: I had played FF6/4 ages ago and really enjoyed it but due to some poor saving decisions I got stuck in a hard dungeon with no healing items and no matter how I tackled a particular boss encounter I was not able to progress and had to give up. Years later for whatever reason I purchased FF13 and actually enjoyed it quite a bit. As someone that was not well versed in JRPGs, the extremely linear nature of 13 lent itself really well to a relative newcomer. The story was convoluted but at least there was a codex so I was, for the most part, able to follow along. I also really enjoyed the bizarre role oriented combat. At times it felt like a battle of attrition more than anything else, but once again for someone that hadn’t played a whole lot of these in the past it was really cool and exciting.

That brings us to FF15, the third Final Fantasy I have ever played.

Eyes up here buddy!
Eyes up here buddy!

FF15 is really fascinating. There is so much happening here and a lot of it is handled in such odd ways that I would love to see a full documentary on the making of it. The gameplay had always intrigued me from the videos I saw with it’s stylized action and great visuals. At first blush it seems complicated and a lot to wrap your head around. With time though you come to realize that like most of FF15 a lot of it is very automated favoring style over substance. Combat has some strategy to it but it's all very surface level “attack from the back” or “exploit the elemental weakness” strategy, and most of the time combat encounters are a mess. You will typically face multiple enemies that all attack at the same time making any attempts at stylish character action weaving and split-second dodging a hopeless pipe dream. You are much better served by alternating between holding down the automatic evade button and then holding down the automatic attack button when appropriate, mixing in Blindsides, Warps and Counters. Once in a while you will get to do a summon although the mechanics and conditions required for this to happen are never quite explained and I ended up summoning maybe a total of 6 times throughout the entire game +postgame content (typically in battles that never even required the overkill of a summon). At the outset, even after going through the full tutorial, I didn't really get the battle mechanics and I can proudly say that by the end of my 35 hour run and several YouTube How-To videos later I was still none the wiser at how to gracefully make your way through combat encounters. I beat the game, maybe in spite of it, but I did finish it so maybe I was playing it right all along? There are a lot of systems at play and they’re all odd. Spellcasting for instance is relegated to a usable item that you craft with very finite uses instead of the mana based classic iteration. Each time you want to cast a spell you will need to craft an instance of it and even if you have the necessary ingredients the spell will not automatically repopulate upon depletion. Similarly awkward are the signature Royal Arms which you are tasked with collecting. These magical power weapons boost your stats and have unique movesets but they drain your health as you use them and will drain more health the more damage you deal - a truly baffling system of balancing power weapons if I’ve ever seen one. There is hardly any armor to be worn and the few outfits that do impact your stats come very late in the game. The Royal Edition comes with a variety of clothing options from the very start and also Magitek armor which as far as I can tell is like a Godmode built into the game? The armor blocks all damage and has enough power to easily take you through an entire dungeon. I guess it’s one of those DLC items that completely breaks the game and I ended up only using it once to finish a dungeon simply because I was getting tired of it.

Lunafreya is an important character - she is also in the game for about 15 min
Lunafreya is an important character - she is also in the game for about 15 min

Outside of combat there is plenty more weirdness to be found. Ostensibly FF15 is presented as this road-trip game, yet none of the systems support this style of gameplay. Camping out in the wilderness thanks to the odd experience banking system is actively discouraged as you lose out on experience multipliers that you can get when resting in towns. There are absolutely no benefits to camping or going out of your way to finding camping spots out in the wilderness. Each time you are ready to level it is far more efficient to travel to a town that has a 1.5x experience multiplier instead of using a campground that gives you nothing. Surprisingly there is quite a big world out there for you to explore when the game isn’t rushing you through narrative setpieces that lock you out of it. Like much of FF15 the world is really interesting from a skin deep aesthetic layer but there is little mechanical depth to it. Side quests are all very mundane and since travel is primarily conducted through the Regalia autopilot you are either sitting through loading screens during fast travel or sitting back as your car steadily makes its way to the quest destination. It is nearly Death Stranding levels of audacity to have the player sit through so much pointless travel with absolutely nothing to do. I guess the team was really proud of that world? Even a tiny gear-shifting minigame that would give you a speed boost would be enough to liven up the time wasted on travelling the countryside. But back to the topic of quests - the only worthwhile missions are the primary story Quests which offer bespoke and often very well produced set pieces. Everything else might as well have been churned out by a computer learning algorithm. The Royal Tombs which the game somewhat centers around are probably the worst offenders of the bunch and the most painfully boring, confusing and unimaginative dungeon designs I’ve seen in the past 10 years. Instead of each of the 13 Royal Arms having interesting, hand crafted mini-dungeons, they are instead a mess of identical right angle hallways that twist and turn to form a maze of identical passageways broken up by combat encounters every 30 seconds. The worst one (and I did them all) being a tower you can only enter at night that devolved quite quickly into room after room of spawning enemies linked by the most barebones of level design. The “puzzle” near the end consisting of moving blocks that animated ever so slowly. Worse yet you can’t save inside a dungeon so you are obligated to finish them out in one go (in my situation I was not about to trust the XB1X suspend feature). Normally OK but a few times I simply had to go somewhere and the dungeon was going on and on and I mean c’mon it’s not 1997 anymore just let me save inside the dungeon this is a quality of life thing more than anything.

Understanding the story is a struggle
Understanding the story is a struggle

But all of that pales in comparison to the absurdity of how they decided to go about telling the actual story of this game. FF15 is a nightmare of cross-media fragmentation to the point where the game by itself makes little sense until you go out of your way to study all available outside sources. There is a full movie I watched which sets up a bit of backstory and character motivations that are otherwise absolutely unclear if you just play the game. Apart from the movie there is a TV show, DLC mini-campaigns featuring each of your comrades in arms as well as a chapter dedicated to the big bad of the game AND if I’m not mistaken a novelisation. In a way it’s incredible. At the end of the day the story told is not even that complicated. This is a simple tale of someone getting wronged and then exacting revenge. It most certainly did not need to be spread out among several different types of media. This choice of course ruins the actual game as you constantly meet people who you should know from THE MOVIE or the SHOW and they are not introduced in any way. There are moments where you party members leave and then come back with huge scars and then say “you should see the other guy” - this is a literal quote from the game - and the story moves on. That particular even is probably elaborated on in one of the characters DLC episodes which I didn’t play. Why? What insane development plan ended up with this final outcome? Apparently the final area of the game had been “fixed” for the Royal Edition because it was somehow unfinished or broken before. I never played the original but I did look through some YouTube videos and they did in fact expand the final chapter quite a bit. Is it for the better? Ehh.. In the original you get back to Insomnia and then after a short trek face off against Ifrit (who had been corrupted by Ardyn but you would only know this if you played his DLC) and then you face Ardyn himself who tells you a few things that make no sense because the game never communicated any of the plot to the player in order for these final revelations to have any payoff. In the expanded version Insomnia is a small playable area that had been populated with some absolutely underwhelming quests like finding 10 batteries for Cindy in random places across the map. You also fight against a lot more bosses this time around. Most notably you fight the old kings whose tombs you visit and these encounters are actually pretty interesting if I knew more backstory about who these kings were. I didn’t.

Despite all this.. Alll in all.. I had a fun time. There are definitely moments in the game that feel very satisfying. The way weapons materialize from thin air never stops being cool. When you finally unlock the flying Regalia it is an awesome transformation and makes getting around the map actually almost fun. Combat is neat when it clicks or when you’re facing a limited number of enemies that allow you to see what is happening. Final Fantasy 15 is one of those sad games that could have been great if only it didn’t turn into such a mess. There is so much potential here that will probably never get a proper chance at being a real game. If anything it did make me excited for the FF7 remake which seems to be doing a lot of what FF15 did right and making it even better - like the combat. I’m happy to have experienced it even though I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a “good” game.

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