Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Final Fantasy XV

The story of Final Fantasy XV’s development goes all the way back to Final Fantasy XIII, which spawned a compilation called Fabula Nova Crystallis (“new tale of the crystal” in Latin). One of the titles originally announced for this compilation was Final Fantasy Versus XIII, directed by Tetsuya Nomura. However, the game went through a troubled production cycle, including on-and-off pre-production, to the point where the game changed hands to a new director, Hajime Tabata, who changed up a few elements of the game in order to help development move forward. To reflect these changes, the game’s title became Final Fanatsy XV, officially removing itself from the Fabula Nova Crystallis compilation.

The game's logo and title pre-E3 2013.

Details about the production will end here, as I hadn’t followed it until after the announcement of Final Fantasy XV’s release. This review will cover not what could have been, but what became of the final product.

Post-E3 2013, Final Fantasy Versus XIII
officially became Final Fantasy XV.

In the story of Final Fantasy XV, the Kingdom of Lucis is to sign an armistice with the Niflheim to end a long-standing war between the two nations. To formalize the union, the ruler of Lucis, King Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII, sends his son, Prince Noctis, to marry Lady Lunafreya Nox Fleuret of the imperial province of Tenebrae. To help him on this journey, Noctis travels with his three closest companions, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. During Noctis’ journey, however, the Empire of Niflheim takes the crown city and its crystal while the Lucian shield is down. As a result, King Regis, Noctis and Lunafreya are all considered dead, the news of which shocks Noctis. As his world falls apart around him, Noctis must strengthen his resolve and trust in his companions to face the adversity that awaits him to prove himself a worthy King of Lucis.

The execution of Final Fantasy XV’s story is a bit mixed. From Chapters 1-9, the game moves at a generally steady pace and introduces different characters and concepts at a rate that’s rather easy to pick up and understand. Here, the plot is surprisingly straightforward and, although due to this half of the game being more open-world, it’s easy to go for long stretches without advancing the plot. Chapters 10-15, however, take up the linear portion of the game, where the story is given a laser focus. As a result, the story feels a little more rushed and underdeveloped, with no time to truly flesh out a lot of the characters and allowing a few supposedly major events to occur off-screen. In addition, a lot of major twists feel like they had little to no real buildup and came out of nowhere.

This all culminates in an ending that’s somehow pretty emotional, in spite of the exact events feeling muddy, and while it didn’t elicit very strong reactions from me, the climax felt somewhat fitting for the journey that Noctis and his friends embark on. It gave a number of elements somewhat of a real meaning and I still got caught up in what I witnessed.

L-R: Ignis Scientia, Prompto Argentum, Noctis Lucis Caelem, Gladiolus Amicitia.

And yet I must confess that the only real reason I cared about the main quartet, and some of the supporting cast, is because I actually watched/played some of the tie-in material beforehand. Firstly, since I pre-ordered the game at GameStop, I was able to play A King’s Tale: Final Fantasy XV, a game that takes roughly 1 ½ hours to beat, which fleshed out a little bit of the relationship between not only King Regis and Prince Noctis, but also King Regis and some of the supporting cast who later appear in the game. Secondly, I watched the five-episode (totaling roughly one hour) Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV anime on the official YouTube channel, which established the backstories and connections of Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. Lastly, I watched the two-hour Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV movie, which established much of the backstory of the game and filled in the details of what occurred before and after the fall of Lucis. While the characterization wasn’t perfect in all three pieces of tie-in material, it gave me enough context to actually care about the characters while playing, which in turn gave some events in the actual game more of an emotional weight. As such, I don’t know what it’s like to play with only the knowledge provided by the game, but I can agree it could have done a better job of explaining things without the need to go through around 4 ½ hours of extra material, including the “Omen” trailer, beforehand.

Much of the backstory is contained in
Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV.
Unfortunately, the backstories of the main cast are
contained within Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV
(freely viewable legally on the official YouTube channel).

With that said, the actual gameplay is stronger than the story overall, though still a little uneven. The main aspect of the game is its open world, calculated to take up roughly 780 square miles. The fastest way to traverse the map initially is to drive the Regalia, a car gifted to Noctis by King Regis for his travels. Later on, the player can ride Chocobos, a well-known bird species from the Final Fantasy series, across areas the Regalia can’t normally get to and at a faster rate than walking or running. Should the payer visit enough locations, they can also begin to fast travel to certain destinations as long as they pay 10 gil, the game’s currency, and take the Regalia. Additionally, more power monsters, called Daemons, roam the world during the night, at which point only manual driving as Noctis is allowed until a certain part of the story is reached.

I personally didn’t mind the Regalia all that much, since I gained the ability to earn AP (Ability Points) and EXP (Experience Points) for long drives and Chocobo rides, plus I could do something else while waiting. However, there are certainly long stretches of nothing happening during this time, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the destination. After a certain point in the game, I also resorted to using fast travel more often and used Chocobos to traverse longer off-road stretches of land. There is also the matter of needing to refuel the Regalia, though I didn’t mind doing this at all, considering it only costs 10 gil no matter what and it forces the player to pay attention to the amount of fuel left (and prevents abuse of earning AP and EXP). In addition, you can do various side quests to upgrade the regalia with parts that make it faster and more fuel efficient, or even drive away Daemons during the night, so there’s eventually even less of a worry of running out of fuel.

The Regalia is the party's main method of
transportation for most of the game.

As for the battle system, dubbed Active X Battle, or AXB (read: Active Cross Battle), it’s simple but at the same time has some depth. To initiate combat, the party can engage monsters in the field, some of which won’t attack until you do and some of which will attack as soon as they detect you. This is determined by a red bar at the top of the screen which starts from the center and slowly grows outward until it hits the edges. Once it hits the edge, combat has begun and an area marked in red on the mini-map, typically a circle, determines how large the marked combat area is. If the monster does not attempt to attack first, then striking one will automatically create a combat zone. It is also possible to attack monsters before combat is formally initiated.

Once combat has begun, be it against monsters or bosses, the primary actions revolve around the use of three of the action buttons on the controller. On the default controller layout, holding circle will have Noctis attack a single target continuously or run toward a target to begin attacking. Holding square has Noctis defend against attacks by phasing away from attacks, but at the cost of MP, or initiating a parry attack with the correct button prompt. Triangle is used for warping, which consumes MP, either to a designated Warp Point by holding the button or striking an enemy from afar by holding down R1 to lock on and then pressing triangle. Noctis can also automatically team up with his friends with link-strikes and attacking an enemy from behind results in a blindside attack or, if performed with teammates, a blindside link.

HP and MP, or Health and Magic, replenish automatically over time. If Noctis reaches a Warp Point, his MP will fully recover and his HP will recharge at a faster rate. This also occurs when he takes cover either behind an appropriate object or by hanging from a high up Warp Point. However, should a character’s HP hit zero, they enter a Danger state and their maximum HP begins to drop for the duration until either another party member rescues them or a healing item, such as a Potion, is used. Once their maximum HP becomes zero, they are knocked out for the remainder of the fight unless a revival item, such as a Phoenix Down, is used. If Noctis is knocked out, there is a small window of time to revive him, otherwise it’s Game Over. Outside of battle, maximum HP recovers over time, but at a slower rate than recoverable HP.

Each party member can equip various weapons and accessories, all of which can be adjusted for each individual’s playstyle. However, Noctis’ friends each prefer certain weapon types, while Noctis can equip any weapon. Different weapons also have different properties, which can affect how they interact with the strengths and weaknesses of different monsters. While party members can only have two weapons equipped at a time, Noctis can equip four, all of which can be freely cycled through with the d-pad.

Two special weapon types are Royal Arms and Magic, which must be equipped. Royal Arms are found throughout the game by accessing Royal Tombs and represent Noctis’ ancestors. However, each use drains their health, so the player must keep a healthy supply of curatives on-hand to make up for it. Magic, on the other hand, comes in two flavors. There’s magic crafted through Elemancy, which are essentially grenades, and there’s Ring Magic, aka Arcana, which the player cannot use until the late game. The effectiveness of the former can also depend on the weather. While crafted magic comes with no MP cost, Ring magic does, though the ring has immediate access to three powerful spells of its own.

Noctis using Elemancy Magic.

There are also two gauges which fill up during combat. The three-segmented Tech Bar gradually fills up over time and allows Noctis to command his friends to perform specific Techniques, which can damage the enemy or provide a tactical advantage. Different Techniques cost a different number of segments, which the player can view each time they bring up the Tech menu to help keep track of their options. Once the player has acquired enough Royal Arms, they also have access to the Armiger Gauge, which fills up with each blow Noctis deals to an enemy. Activating the Armiger leads to a powerful move where Noctis repeatedly attacks a targeted enemy until the gauge runs out. Noctis is also immune to entering a Danger state over this period, though he can still take damage.

The last aspect of combat is the summoning mechanic, a staple in the series. In Final Fantasy XV, Summons are known as Astrals and are obtained after Noctis has proven himself worthy to them. Under specific conditions, the player can hold down L2 for a few seconds when prompted to summon an Astral and deal a huge amount of damage to enemies in an area, if not outright kill the target(s).

Now that I’ve laid out the battle system, I can say that there are certainly some pros and cons to how it works. The AXB system is fairly easy to pick up, but difficult to master, which is good for the surprising depth that it offers, as button mashing (or rather, holding down circle) the whole time will not win you the fight. It’s more about using the right combination of equipment and skills, as well as creating synergy between all of the party members to best eliminate the monsters which await them. In this way, the system is actually pretty fun. Should someone not like active time combat, however, there is a Wait Mode, which from my understanding is more or less similar to turn-based in that you can see enemy weaknesses and time moves when you take action.

An example of combat in Final Fantasy XV.

However, as I had mentioned, there are some downsides to combat. For one, Prompto is surprisingly frail, as he gets up close to monsters, despite using ranged weapons, and has the least amount of health, resulting in him being the teammate I had to help out the most. As much as I liked the Elemancy mechanic, I didn’t really enjoy needing to be careful about it due to it being both an Area of Effect move, a normally good thing, and involving “friendly fire” (sometimes literally). Because of this, I eventually just used it when I thought the benefit outweighed the potential damage to my teammates or when I wanted to potentially end an encounter in one shot. As for the Astrals, I found them to be pretty cool to use when I could pull it off, but the game doesn’t tell you all of the conditions required to summon one in particular, so one would have to either look it up or guess through trial and error. Then there’s the fact that you have to hold down L2 without getting hit, which can be pretty difficult when up against multiple enemies or just one that’s particularly aggressive. In addition, the camera can sometimes be a little wonky, allowing some environmental objects to occasionally obstruct your view.

What is useful, however, is the Ascension Grid, a system where you can spend AP earned throughout the game, though mainly through combat. These points can be spent in nine different grids, which can enhance a variety of different gameplay aspects, including combat, stat boosts and the rate of AP gain through exploration of the world. It’s definitely worth checking out the rewards you can obtain from each grid, as that may influence your playstyle based on how you prioritize your AP spending.

An example of the Ascension Grid.

Apart from the main quests, the player can take part in a large number of side quests and activities, including monster hunts, a pinball game or gambling on monster fights, the last of which can be done closer to the halfway point. The side quests and monster hunts are generally good to do for the sake of earning extra EXP, but can feel a little repetitive after a while. The, sometimes maze-like, dungeons can also be very difficult to get through depending on the dedication of the player to leveling up, which can lead to the need to grind a little before feeling confident enough to take on these challenges; that or somehow acquire a lot of gil to spend on endless curatives. As for the aforementioned pinball game, Justice Monsters Five, it has an interesting concept, but quickly gets boring due to the seeming impossibility of failure and its seemingly never-ending nature. It may have been better off as a regular themed pinball table.

There are some additional aspects of the game which are either staples of RPGs or little touches which further the idea that Final Fantasy XV is a “fantasy based in reality.” While a little sparse, there are plenty of towns to visit where players can go to shops, ask tipsters for information on the game world or engage in side quests and monster hunts. They can also eat different varieties of food, all of which provide some sort of status buffs at the cost of some gil.

Each party member also has a specific attribute that levels up over the course of the game based on certain actions taken. Gladiolus’ Survival attribute goes up the longer he is in the field and increases the chance that he can find certain items after each fight. Prompto’s Photography attribute goes up with each photograph he takes. Ignis’ Cooking attribute goes up each time he cooks a meal, as well as directly proportionate to the difficulty of the food item. Noctis’ Fishing attribute goes up with each fish that he catches at a fishing spot. These attributes help to distinguish each party member in some way and emphasizes the role that they play in the group, as well as their individual hobbies from even before the road trip.

The Main Menu in Final Fantasy XV.

The Photography mechanic is interesting, as Prompto takes a number of photos every day that Noctis can sort through each time the party rests. The player can choose which ones are the best to keep or share on social media, which ties into the realistic elements of the game. However, the player can only save back a total of 150 photos. This limit felt arbitrary, but it forced me eventually to decide which ones were truly worth keeping. Without spoiling, it turns out that there is more or less an actual reason for forcing the player to be selective, but it’s only obvious towards the end of the game.

Cooking is a skill that Ignis can tap into when the party rests at a Haven, a safe resting spot on the map. Cooking requires ingredients the player can acquire either out in the wild or from different vendors. Ignis can unlock more recipes either from acquiring a new ingredient or from eating certain purchased meals. Each cooked meal also provides different status boosts, but these only last for a certain amount of time. While the cooking is good from a gameplay standpoint, it’s also good for taking a load off and seeing more of a social aspect within the main party.

As for fishing, there are once again some pros and cons. Fishing feels more or less like fighting an enemy in the field, except you’re reeling in different fish which can differ in power depending on their location. Noctis can also have different rods, reels, lines and lures equipped to deal with certain fish or last longer during a catching attempt. The fishing mini-game is good for developing concentration as well as increasing Noctis’ skill and obtaining potential cooking ingredients, plus it’s somewhat humorous that catching a fish always feels like an actual battle, complete with appropriate music. However, it can take a while before the player can obtain a stronger rod or reel and it gets annoying when the line is only halfway to breaking and Noctis’ teammates don’t shut up about changing it out. In addition, you lose your lure once the line breaks, so you really have to pick your battles, even when you picked a lure to work on a specific fish. Thankfully, most lures can be purchased again, but it made me consider saving before trying to fish just in case.

Noctis about to fish.

While the game does have its flaws, they certainly nailed the graphics. Everything looks realistic, with beautifully detailed environments and unique and distinct monster designs. Even the Chocobos look real in their feather arrangement and detail. They especially nailed the food, which looked so mouthwateringly real that I wanted to eat it. When Ignis does the cooking, it even looks like someone could’ve made it on a camp stove. A day-to-night cycle is also present, with lighting that accurately reflects how the time of day would affect visibility. The lighting is also good in terms of the reflection of light, including the glare that would be present off of buildings and cars like the Regalia. But the dev team didn’t stop there, even going so far as to render the effects of dirt and weather on the main party members, which affect cloth and hair physics. When it rains, for instance, you can see everyone’s clothes soaked in water and Noctis’ hair flattens.

Noctis' hair during the rain.
The food in Final Fantasy XV looks mouthwateringly real.

Fun fact: The Final Fantasy XV team collaborated with
Epic Meal Time on the Stacked Ham Sandwich.

Another highlight is the music composed by Yoko Shimomura. I’m familiar with her work on the Kingdom Hearts series and she has yet to disappoint. Her score is very memorable and each track feels distinct from one another, with highlights such as the Chocobo theme, the Main Menu theme and the main combat theme, among others. Apart from Shimomura’s score, you can listen to music from current and previous Final Fantasy games through the CD player in the Regalia, as well as an unlockable portable CD player, and Braver by Afrojack. The game also features a cover of “Stand by Me” recorded by Florence and the Machine. Personally, I liked the Florence and the Machine cover and found its usage effective.

One last element is the voice acting. The voice actors did a very good job bringing the characters to life and making them all feel like individuals. The performances from Ray Chase (Noctis), Adam Croasdell (Ignis), Chris Parson (Gladiolus) and Robbie Daymond (Prompto) helped contribute to the relationship dynamic between the main party and brought out their full personalities. I could say the same for Erin Matthews as Cindy Aurum, the mechanic, and Amy Shiels as Lunafreya Nox Flueret. I also have to credit Darin De Paul’s performance as Ardyn Izunia, as he very clearly had a lot of fun in his role.

Although flawed, Final Fantasy XV is quite a ride. The story is pretty straightforward and engaging for the most part, though it admittedly loses steam toward the end as motivations start to get a little muddy. The open world gameplay and combat is also very well done and while the linear half has its moments, Chapter 13 in particular seems to drag on a bit long. The graphics, voice acting and music are all highlights, however, and do well to compliment the surprising touches of realism within a fantasy game, earning the game its tagline, and core concept, of “a fantasy based in reality.” While it is unfortunate that you need to watch a movie and an anime to fully understand what’s going on, I still got into the dynamic of the core cast as they made their journey across the land of Eos toward their ultimate fates. Overall, coming from someone who felt compelled to play and finish a mainline Final Fantasy game for the first time, Final Fantasy XV truly is “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.”

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