I’ve been playing Final Fantasy games, by my count, for the past 24 years. It’s the premiere Japanese RPG series, one that guarantees high production values and solid gameplay, spectacles equivalent of long-running summer blockbuster sequels1. Starting from Final Fantasy IV all the way now to Final Fantasy XV, I have enjoyed pretty much all of the main games and have put in anywhere from 30–100 hours of play per game.
The shine on FF, though, has waned in the past decade. Square-Enix has mishandled its flagship series by spending too much time and effort building spin-offs from the main games2, as well as stubbornly sticking to its ways even as game designs moved forward. In particular, the freedom in world and battle systems found in Western-type RPGs—Fallout, Skyrim, the Witcher—really made FF games feel archaic in comparison.
Final Fantasy XV is supposed to be a series reboot that drags the series into modern gaming times. I finally beat the game a couple of weeks ago, and have a lot of thoughts swimming in my head about the game. Here they are, in no particular order.
Great Soundtrack + Sound Design
Around FF8 or so, Final Fantasy games had their own extensive soundtracks, with a vocal theme song plus character-specific themes plus world and town themes. FF15 follows that tradition, but adds in a dynamic soundtrack that swells in boss battles. There’s also good use of phone ringtones, and great banter with the party throughout the game that serves a major role in establishing the band-of-friends-on-an-adventure vibe.
The soundtrack supposedly took 10 years to flesh out, so maybe its quality should not be a huge surprise. It relies a tad too much on Latin chanting to invoke a sense of epicness, but there are some fun songs that are staying on my regular playlist.
Big, Limited Overworld
The tagline for FF15 is “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers”. To fulfill that promise, the game does bring back many familiar FF tropes—Tonberries, Cid, Mythril, legendary weapons, etc.—as well as push ahead on RPG ideas that Final Fantasy hasn’t done as much before. Specifically, FF15 has a huge overworld available for exploration from the beginning of the game, a series of monster hunts, and many explicit side-quests that are triggered by the now-familiar floating question mark on top of an NPC.
I’ve found FF world creation to be at its best when the game takes its time to craft a detailed town or dungeon; areas like Midgar in FF7 or Rabanastre in FF12 provided a sense of scale and was central to the plot. FF overworlds usually served as big abstract maps between destinations, with random battles breaking up the monotony. FF13 did away with the overworld altogether.
FF15’s map is better, in that it can feel like something out of Skyrim at times, particularly around carefully-designed points of interest. Everywhere else, though, is generic and really only serves to host either items (which always show up as an abstract point of light) or monsters. The world is also big enough that even with a car that autopilots (via another non-playable character) to destinations, it takes minutes of real-world time to get places for fetch quests. I suspect the world of FF15 can be half the size and the only casualty would be game length.
Chaotic, Fun Battles
FF13 started the idea of moving away from the traditional psuedo-realtime menu-based battle system into alternatives that break up the tedium of selecting “Attack” every turn3. FF15 is definitely the fastest FF battle system; you go directly into a fight from your exploration mode, and have full-control over your character throughout the battle. The fights are now in complete real-time, but retains some of the RPG elements by providing generous auto-targeting with most attacks, and by ensuring that the amount of HP and attack power scales throughout the game so characters feel stronger in leveling.
All this means that most battles can be won by mashing on the attack button plus a few well-timed team-up combos. Most fights involve a group of enemies, though, and with the auto-targeting, it can get a little messy; I miss some of the strategy of previous FF battle systems, whether it’s by controlling the actions of the entire party in FF13, or pre-programming the party’s actions in FF12. It’s still flashy and fun, but loses some flow and depth.
An Incomplete Plot
FF15’s storyline reminds me a little of FF7, especially when that game was first released. The original game came on 3 discs, but the last one only contained a tiny amount of content before the final boss fights and ending. The ending itself felt unsatisfactory, and didn’t really explain enough or provide conclusions to that game’s cast of characters. That world and its characters have since been fleshed out with more games, anime, and a movie.
FF15 also feels like a game that had to cut and tweak its storyline, and while it does have a definitive conclusion, the path for the player feels like a fraction of the what it could have been. Characters are again left without sufficient screen time or resolution—a feat given the game’s main storyline is still 30 hours long—and plot lines are introduced and dropped without much fanfare. Events happen “offscreen”4, while major locales get glossed over.
It’s too bad, because what’s there in FF15 shows so much promise. The road trip vibe works, the world with its multiple nations and politics reminds me of FF12’s Star-Wars-like factions in a good way, and I was particularly happy about how they wove in classic Final Fantasy summons—Ifrit, Shiva, Bahamut, etc.—as a major part of the story and made them feel like more than just fancy battle animations (though this game has that too).
A Bunch of Disconnected Systems
To compound that theme of incompletion or simply distraction, many of the systems that FF15 introduces feel half-baked. The magic system is so bare-bones that I’m not sure why the team included it, the skills tree is basic compared to FFs past, while the equipment and outfits continue to be less important with every modern FF game. There are a handful of one-time gameplay systems that seem like they were meant to be reused, but had to be cut for the game to be launched.
On the other hand, the core battle system is solid, each team member’s abilities (fishing, cooking, photography, and scrounging for items) are mostly well-done, and the monster hunts constitute much of the side quests available in the game. It’s just too bad that the systems don’t interact more, and so playing within each system feels modal as opposed to an integrated whole5.
Ambitious, but Flawed
This is cliche, but FF15 feels like a really good game that could have been a great one if it was a bit tighter on multiple levels. Less and more focused gameplay systems and a better plot line set in an already-fully-realized world would go a long way to improving the game, even if it means less gameplay hours. Then again, they set out to do something different and grand in scale, and I can’t fault Square-Enix to make that kind of a bet when playing it safe is so often the alternative with big budget titles.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the game evolves in 2017, as the company has committed to more content, plus patches to some of the rough edges. Final Fantasy has never been treated as a service like this before, and with so much additional DLC adding story, it’ll be up to the storytelling skill of that team to improve on what they have now, instead of making things worse by trying to fit incoherent pieces. My plan is to wait for all the content to come about, and if enough issues get fixed, go through the game again via New Game+.
Such is tradition.
The movie equivalent at this point may be the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero films.↩
Modern re-releases of classic FF games, in fact, have an option where your characters can just auto-attack in battles to save button presses.↩