Sunday, October 20, 2019

Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix, 2016)

It took me two years on-and-off (mostly off) to slog my way through the first five chapters of Final Fantasy XV, about a month of intermittent play to plow through the middle four, and only a single day to sprint through the last five. It’s a JRPG with a split personality, to a degree I haven’t encountered since Xenogears.

Many players bemoan the unrealized potential of the open world, which midway through the campaign becomes closed off and gives way to a rigidly linear experience. In the case of such a story-driven JRPG as Final Fantasy XV, I personally feel that leaving players to explore at their leisure undermines the alleged urgency and high stakes of the characters’ situation even during the earlier part of the game, and would make zero sense once things shift into high gear later. For me, Final Fantasy XV becomes much more interesting after it narrows its focus. This despite the story not being very good.

Following a one-line prophecy and an intense but absent-context flash-forward, Final Fantasy XV’s story begins with the protagonist prince and his party setting out to rendezvous with his fiancee, while the king prepares to host “guests from Niflheim.” The loading screen for Chapter 1 clarifies that this is a political marriage you’re off to, but then your car immediately breaks down, and you find yourself consequently steered toward a series of detours and quid pro quo errands for the bumpkins you meet on the road.

During those first 2-3 hours, the party’s tedious on-screen activities became so disconnected from the sparsely detailed plot that very quickly I lost sense of either—the former because I could hardly become invested in fetch quests, the latter because I never knew it to recognize it from easily overlooked bulletins and overheard conversations. Thus, when—SPOILER (but not really, since it’s the first significant event of the story)—you receive word that your home has fallen to Niflheim, your father slain, your bride-to-be gone into hiding, the very existence of this evil empire felt like news to me, so long had it been since I’d heard the name “Niflheim.” (And having not read the lore guide in the optional tutorial, I did not recall ever being informed in the first place that we were at war.) In the wake of these calamitous tidings, you are shortly invited to resume hunting marks and selling your services to the yokels who remain cluelessly unaffected by the geopolitical turmoil.

This is a game whose narrative is another casualty of the inexplicable and insufferable arms race toward inscrutability that has overtaken Square’s storytelling since the PS1 era. In the SNES days, getting the latest Final Fantasy was like receiving a stylish new pair of pants. Then Final Fantasy VII was like a pair of one of those "distressed" jeans. You scratch your head at the frayed ends and pre-ripped holes, but then you see staged photographs of some hot-yet-cool model showing you the “right” way to wear them, and maybe you’ll grant there is something to the look that works. Unfortunately, Tetsuya Nomura and Kazushige Nojima decided that that “something” needed to become everything, and so by the Kingdom Hearts sequels, we were getting only bags of tatters, and paying full price for them.

Final Fantasy XV’s mess of a plot is not as wantonly opaque as Kingdom Hearts (insofar as the basic laws of its reality do not feel moment-to-moment fluid), and the manner in which it tells or doesn’t tell its story deserves less credit, because there's not even a sense of calculated elusiveness to its disjointedness. When pivotal events or major character deaths occur off-screen, or when proper nouns are mentioned for the first time yet treated as though they should be common knowledge, these don’t read as considered creative decisions. Instead, it just feels like, over the course of the aforementioned generations of escalation toward increasingly obscure storytelling, even the editors can’t keep straight anymore when the writing is being deliberately enigmatic, versus when they are simply forgetting to mention things because their blind spots have blotted out their vision.

Cynics might posit that the flimsiness of the story is because Final Fantasy XV was intended to be a multimedia product, and the main game’s many holes were intentional to force audiences to seek answers through the companion movie, anime webisodes, and post-release DLC, among other projects that never materialized. (And this is without even taking into account its complicated origin as "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" and attendant murky connection to the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology.) I watched the atrocious Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV movie, and while it helps a little to set the scene and clarify the roles of figures who are allegedly major to the plot yet scarcely appear in the game, mostly it is just more of what is wrong with Final Fantasy XV: underdeveloped characters, nonsensical lore, and action that suffers from a lack of properly discernible beats because the ceilings of these characters’ abilities are never elucidated.

A microcosmic example of the game’s fundamental storytelling inadequacies: At one point the party receives word that a minor character has died. Everyone acts devastated by the news, but my immediate reaction was “Who?” As if hearing me, the game then cut to a few sepia-toned flashes of the character from when they were introduced. But that flashback didn’t exist when the game launched. It was patched in later, precisely because players couldn’t remember who the hell this character was. And you know what? The addition ultimately doesn’t fix anything. Yes, I remembered now who this one-scene nobody was. But I still did not care!

That was the stages of me processing Final Fantasy XV’s story in a nutshell. First would come exasperated confusion: I have no idea what anybody is talking about. Why won’t they just explain who/what this is? Then in my foolishness, I would look up the extended lore on the wiki to try to find answers, only to arrive at hollow resignation: I now know what they were talking about, and yet it all still feels as meaningless as when I did not. When I eventually learned to skip straight to resignation, the experience became more enjoyable. Although the story never came together in a coherent (or competent) way, I found it worked on a primal level, becoming oddly compelling through its absurdly high stakes and relentless momentum during its later chapters.

Many of the details actually echo Final Fantasy XII—political marriages, imperial backstabbing, treating with gods, legends of hero kings—but that’s all dressing in Final Fantasy XV. Once the story finally picks up steam (around Chapter 9), all one really needs to know is that it's good guys against bad guys in a literal fight to save the world. The layers of nonsense over top of that never amount to anything meaningful, but the base level still has some draw, especially as few other games would even dream of going as big as Final Fantasy has and here does so again in depicting the end of everything. A major point of tension straining willing suspension of disbelief in Final Fantasy XV is how modern the world feels—cars, smartphones, consumer culture—while still maintaining a high degree of arcane religiosity, with oracles being the most discussed public figures of the day. But it does make for spectacles of fearsome grandeur, gods sundering cities, and a potent mood of bleakness, as things continually go from bad to worse, and civilization’s total collapse seems to take all of a few hours.

I haven’t discussed the gameplay of Final Fantasy XV at all yet, because that was never the appeal of a numbered Final Fantasy for me even in the heyday of the series, and now in my mid-thirties with limited gaming time, I can hardly feign interest in learning a whole new set of complex RPG mechanics. Stupidly, I’ll admit in retrospect, I even took as a point of pride that I was not going to try to learn to play Final Fantasy XV. I would instead just set it to the easiest difficulty and cruise through the main scenario. (Which did not really work out, by the way, because the only thing that makes “Easy” mode easy is the fact that, every time your party gets wiped out, Carbuncle will resurrect you for free, allowing you to die and die again as you chip away at enemies out of your league.) This I regret, because the game was actually kind of fun once I finally grasped some of the systems toward the end of my playthrough.

If I could offer my past self some advice, here are the pro-tips I wish I’d figured out much sooner:
  • There is no traditional white magic for your characters to learn, so get used to relying on other means of healing.
  • You don’t get money just for winning battles. Instead, you collect junk, and that junk can be sold for cash. Seriously, unless you sell that junk, you won’t have enough funds even to buy basic potions or pay to rest at inns.
  • If Noctis gets low on HP, you can warp to nearby ledges. While hanging from them, he’ll automatically heal at a fairly rapid rate.
  • The skill tree screen has multiple pages. On the “Recovery” page, each of Noctis’s allies can learn the “First Aid” ability. Additionally, Ignis can learn “Regroup” on the “Techniques” page and “Regenerate” on the “Teamwork” page. These abilities by themselves should suffice to get the party mostly self-sufficient with healing on Easy mode.
I won’t say exactly how long it took me to realize each of the above, but you can infer that, for a significant portion of the game, my potion stocks were stuck in the single digits, and I basically could never heal myself during combat. Once I learned these basics, Easy mode went from “getting resurrected three times by Carbuncle is about par for a boss fight” to “now I’m cruising.”

The very first screen that loads when you boot the game is the message "A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers," a clear statement of the development team's intention to restore the brand to relevance after it fell so mightily the previous generation. Final Fantasy XV is the first numbered Final Fantasy I’ve beaten since 2001's Final Fantasy X, so I can see myself a bit in both demographics, and I don't feel it serves either. It recalls the classics only in its lack of subtlety, but between its narrative deficiencies and mechanical density it also doesn't feel like a game of modern sensibilities or mainstream accessibility. I still don't think I've fully processed that it's over. Part of that is me not comprehending what was happening at any given time—either the story or the combat—but I also feel some genuine mixed emotions. I can't say with confidence whether I ultimately liked it, but I won't deny that the second half was at the very least engaging. In keeping with the pattern of senselessness, I really don't know anymore what it means to be "A Final Fantasy," but I suppose Final Fantasy XV does just enough, albeit through terrible means, to live up to the name precisely by keeping the franchise identity hard to pin down.

I beat Final Fantasy XV, and all I have to show for it is this photo of a Tonberry going in on Gladiolus’s crotch.