Friday, February 17, 2017

Final Fantasy XV (PS4)

Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) has dazzling strengths that outweigh its stunning flaws, and the best soundtrack, it’s tremendous, believe me. The game takes several cues from successful JRPGs from the past decade and folds them into familiar Final Fantasy elements as well as a new leveling up system. Overall, it’s a terrific adventure.

In FFXV, players control Noctis, Prince of Lucis and the prophesied King of Light, as he leaves the capital city with his three bros to join his fiancĂ©e, the Oracle Lunafreya, across the sea. What starts out as a lighthearted road trip, highlighted by Noctis’ anticipation of reuniting with his childhood friend/future bride, becomes a much darker journey as the neighboring Niflheim Empire attacks Noctis’ father and destroys his city.

First, let's deal with the elephant in the room: yes, these boys look ridiculous. Their hairstyles are impractical, for one thing--think of how much time and product go into them!
The title is FFXV because 15 is how gay they look on a scale of 1 to 10. 
(Joke source: Sarah Silverman)
Implausibly, their motion-capture actors were instructed to act like they’re models on a runway, all the time. That’s okay! The fun you will have with these fellas will eclipse their boy band appearance and mannerisms. Plus, in the final chapter you get tigasin clothes – that’s Pinoy slang, look it up.

Better, I guess?
Now that we have learned not to judge a book by its outlandish hairstyle, we can move on. Most of the elements of the game are truly outstanding, as detailed below:

Characters: All the main characters grow on you. Most importantly, Noctis, who starts out pretty grumpy, becomes sympathetic as his world changes and his priorities shift. Plus, he’s a dedicated fisherman so that means he’s pretty tight. As for his bros, Gladio is the muscle (official role: bodyguard), Ignis is the brains (official role: butler), and Prompto is comic relief (official role: school chum), but they all get along great and their dialogue reflects that. Meanwhile, side characters include Cid (a recurring FF character) as a grizzled mechanic, Cindy as a fan service mechanic, Aranea as an enemy-turned-ally (more below), her loyal subordinates Biggs and Wedge (who also appear in multiple FF games), and of course, the many people who give you Quests. The focus is primarily on the brotherhood, though, and while a woman in the main party would have been very welcome, the four leads are fleshed out, especially if you watch the prequel anime.

The only problem, in terms of characters, is the lack of Luna. Sure, she starred in Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy, but it would have been nice to spend more time with her in the game. I mean, she’s on the logo for crying out loud.

Napping Luna.
In summary, the bros are cool and I want more Lunafreya.

Combat: FFXV demonstrates that change is good with its reimagined combat system. Gone is the traditional turn-based system of past Final Fantasy titles. Fighting now takes place in real time, a la Xenoblade Chronicles, and is triggered by entering an enemy’s awareness perimeter. During battles, Noctis can switch weapons or cast spells, and there’s a Technique Bar that launches support moves from Gladio, Ignis, or Prompto. Noctis’ warp strikes are a critical feature, wherein he hurls his weapon away and teleports to where it lands. At the end of each fight, players get graded on Time, Finesse, and Offense. (As a mindless attacker, I consistently got D’s in Finesse.) While melee combat can become chaotic, persistent players will eventually triumph over adversity.

I also love the new MP system. Only Noctis uses MP, for warping. Spells, which were usually what cost MP, can be crafted from Fire, Lightning, and Blizzard stores. Adding another ingredient (e.g. Slimy Oil) during spell crafting makes it stronger, produces a unique effect, adds more spells (the default is 3), or all of the above. When you invest in Noctis' magic, it’s very satisfying to hurl a Fira at a group of baddies and watch their HP bars diminish to nothing.

And then are the Summons. This is typical of FF games, but here it’s basically when Noctis goes nuclear and summons a god to wipe out everything. My soul sings whenever I hear "A Premonition" and see the L2 button prompt. These giants saved my bacon during many difficult fights—one time I was losing very badly against Necromancers when Titan charged in and ended it for me. And Ramuh totally had my back at Costlemark Tower, a difficult secret dungeon.

All in all, combat in FFXV is great thanks to its significant overhaul!

Gameplay: A lot of the gameplay is strongly reminiscent of other adventures: the sweeping, otherworldly landscapes (Xenoblade), shiny items on the ground (Star Ocean, Uncharted), and squeezing through tight crevices (Tomb Raider). Possibly the most obvious rip-off is the Ascension system (Tales series), where certain actions earn Ascension Points (Ability Points in Tales), which can be used to acquire new techniques or abilities such as special attacks or earning extra AP by camping.

But where FFXV takes an existing element and just kicks all the ass is fishing, which is a regular feature of the Legend of Heroes series, specifically the Kiseki stories. In Kiseki, you just stick your line in the water and hit a button when an exclamation mark appears. In FFXV, Noctis must use the correct lure and reel in the fish patiently so his line doesn’t snap. IT IS SO FUN. I think I spent 10 hours just fishing. I caught 45 fish so far (out of 100), but they include the Vesper Gar, the Devil of the Cygillan, and the Liege of the Lake.

215 lbs!!!
While a lot of the gameplay recalls other games, the crux of advancement in FFXV is unique. See, in past FF games and other typical JRPGs, fighting would increase EXP, improve stats, and get you money or items to buy/craft better weapons, armor, and accessories. In FFXV, EXP is only tallied when you camp with your friends or sleep in a lodging. Each option offers an advantage: camping gets you a stat-boosting meal from Ignis, while lodgings offer an EXP multiplier—the more expensive the place, the higher the multiplier. So for example, I’m at level 72 right now and sitting on 140,000+ worth of EXP–you bet yer butt I’m blowing 10,000 gil to stay at Galdin Quay to double them there points!

But FFXV also excels at a familiar gameplay element: open world exploration. In the first half of the game, your band of bros can go wherever they please, with many delightful surprises awaiting, such as enemies that are waaaay too powerful, or the same man with the broken-down car who needs a repair kit (obviously, what he needs is a new car). Two instances stand out for me: riding a Chocobo around in Leide in Chapter 8 and suddenly getting a mission to occupy an imperial base. I was like, “MY BODY IS READY.” Turns out that completing that would yield [REDACTED] for post-game Chapter 15! Win! The other example of a happy surprise is my first encounter with a Red Giant—we all engaged, when suddenly, Aranea (an imperial officer) shows up in her distinctive red airship. Instead of kicking my butt like I expected, she actually helped against the daemon! In another world, Aranea would be my (Noctis’) queen.


A word on Aranea's cleavage: obviously, she's wearing a high-impact sports bra, which has the bonus effect of, er, enhancement in the chesticular area.

Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Nike High-Impact Sports Bra!
The point is, she's not a fan service character the way Cindy is, and if you disagree, COME FIGHT ME.


And of course, what RPG is without sub quests? FFXV has over a hundred of them, and some players complain that it’s tough to decide which ones should matter. Should you collect the dog tags of fallen Hunters, so they can be returned to their families, or hunt frogs for a nutty scientist? Or should you just do the monster Hunts, a very traditional way of getting EXP, gil, and items? I say, do ‘em all! Hunt all the monsters! Catch all the frogs! Take all the photos! Collect all the dog tags! Win all the Chocobo races! DO IT.

Finally, the Skills element is bomb. Each character has his own unique skill: Noctis fishes, Gladio scavenges healing items, Ignis cooks, and Prompto takes photos. While the first three are obviously fun and/or useful, I was often just annoyed that I had to flip through Prompto's pictures every time we stopped to rest. And then all the photos I saved show up in [REDACTED], which, combined with Florence and the Machine crooning "Stand By Me," made me tear up. Well played, FFXV, well played.

Soundtrack: OH MYYYYY GODDDDDDD IT IS SO PERFECT I CAN’T EVEN. Here, watch this live performance while I calm down. Yoko Shimomura, who became popular here in the US for composing the Parasite Eve OST (remember that game?), has done phenomenal work for FFXV. The music is so powerful because each track perfectly describes the theme, e.g.:
  • "ARDYN"--Sneaky and creepy and makes me want to punch Ardyn in his smug face.
  • "CINDY"--Fun and flirty!
  • "Omnis Lacrima"--Ominous Latin chanting, 'nuff said.
  • "Fishing Theme"--An excellent accompaniment to Noctis' reeling and Ignis' backseat fishing!
  • "Noctis"--Shows that the prince is a gentle, low-key guy who'd rather not bear the burden of prophecy.   
  • "LUNA"--Tragic and beautiful.
  • "RAVUS AETERNA"--Also tragic, but in a threatening way.
  • "Somnus"--The track for the opening title. Melancholic.
I bought the soundtrack, that's how much I love it.

Visuals: While Uncharted 4 is still prettiest (my review here), FFXV is no slouch in the looks department. Riding around in the Regalia, Noctis' dad's car, is a joy because of the beautiful vistas. Prompto will even ask if it's okay to stop and take a group photo when your party passes by a particularly appealing spot. Rainy weather, daylight, and nighttime are well rendered. Even the monsters look great, in that they are appropriately, well, monstrous. Finally, Noctis' expression always lightens noticeably when he receives a message from Luna (via magic dog, which I'll accept as an alternative to texting).

Umbra, Luna's messenger app of choice.
That said, there are some unpretty sights in FFXV. For example, Noctis looks like a very awkward, sentient sack when climbing up or down. The underground dungeons tend to be too dark and uninteresting, especially the hidden ones post-game.

These are minor quibbles. Other dungeons look fantastic -- Steyliff Grove looks like it's underwater, while Ravatogh is a freaking volcano. Most everything in FFXV is a wonder to behold, so that the lovely sights and the flawless soundtrack blend together into an unforgettable experience.


And now the bad news: the story is a mess, the villain is frustrating, and the transition from grand adventure to depressing slog is abrupt. Also, Chapter 13. Rants and spoilers ahoy!

Story: The glorious sights of the planet Eos are undermined by limited context. Scattered throughout the game's locations are pamphlets describing the six gods and the prophecy of the king granted their powers to banish the darkness. Meanwhile, cut scenes show Luna's powers as the Oracle, whose role is to support the King of Light. (Which, by the way, was already done in Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, in that Zelda was shown to have made her own journey to prepare the path for Link's ultimate battle against evil.) Luna's job is to awaken each of the gods and plead on Noctis' behalf so that they grant him their blessing. Some do it, with conditions--for instance, Titan demands a test of Noctis' strength--while others, like Ramuh and Shiva, seem to like Noctis and easily lend their powers. Leviathan and Ifrit are pissy by nature, while Bahamut only shows up when [REDACTED].

But the nature of the darkness is never made clear. Nor is it ever mentioned that the Oracle's physical presence keeps the darkness at bay, which is information that would have made a reunion with Luna feel more urgent. While the connection between the gods, the darkness, and Luna and Noctis' fate becomes clearer when players complete the game, it's still confusing.

This is compounded by the utter pointlessness of the MacGuffins. In the FF series, the Crystal(s) is/are always sought after by the bad guys, but in FFXV, the Crystal is connected to the Ring of the Lucii, which Luna brought out of the doomed city of Insomnia and needs to give to Noctis. And both ring and crystal do diddly-squat, essentially. They play a bigger role in the FFXV movie, but again, Square Enix, it would have been nice to see more in the game, since Final Fantasy is a video game franchise, last I heard. /bitchy

I still have so many questions! Most of them have to do with Ardyn, the...

Villain: If I understand correctly, Ardyn--who spends most of the game as the empire's sleazy, hideously attired, and bombastically evil Chancellor--was originally an ancestor of Noctis who was chosen by the gods to fight the darkness. Apparently there was an outbreak of daemons, and Ardyn's solution was to absorb them into his own body. But when he did, the gods declared him corrupted, and a "future king, not yet chosen" (his son?) banished him, I think? So Ardyn, who looks to have retained his divine powers plus monster abilities, spent the next centuries plotting to end the bloodlines of both the Lucis monarchy and the Oracles. And, guys? He did it. The villain won. Normally, I would applaud such effectiveness by villains, but Ardyn's beef with Noctis came out nowhere and never felt justified. Seriously, fuck this guy. Pardon my French.

Hipster + hobo goth + Laura Ashley = No thank you.
Chapter 13: Do a Google search on FFXV's most notorious chapter and you'll be bombarded with a lot of griping. I was okay with it, but I do agree with the general consensus that it took too long. The point of Chapter 13 is to have the player feel isolated and helpless, and it works--Noctis is stripped of his weapons, his powers are sealed, and his friends are imprisoned. There are creepy robots and Resident Evil jump-scares. Ardyn mocks you over the PA, because he is an irredeemable douche. And players need to endure it for hours, since Noctis has to keep upgrading a key card so he can get go further through the fortress. It''s pretty bad.

Bonus category: Controls: FFXV's buttons are confusing. The worst offender is the "X" button, which is both the interact and the jump button. So trying to open a door, crawl through a low space, or talk to a Quest giver sometimes makes Noctis jump up and down instead. Sad!

Assorted thoughts:
  • I hate giving Prompto a Phoenix Down because he's just so dramatic about it. The other guys just grab the feather and get back up, but Prompto makes a big production out of rolling onto his back, clasping the item to his chest, and then athletically leaping to his feet. NO ONE IS IMPRESSED, PROMPTO.
  • Funny glitch: Prompto was in the middle of a chainsaw attack when he died, and the graphic showed him repeating the swinging motion, sans weapon, over and over again. Noctis couldn't revive him with a Phoenix Down, but it was hilarious so I was okay with it.
  • The post-game dungeons are gloomy and kinda boring, so it's better to think of them as challenges! Maybe they're meant to remind us of past games, when grinding was the only way.
  • I always crash-land the Regalia Type F. Whoops.
  • 30-year-old Noctis is a stone fox. Meow.


In conclusion, FFXV's defects are only glaring because it's so close to perfection. So by all means, join over five million of us, and play if you haven't already.

TL;DR: An excellent JRPG, very highly recommended.


This post brought to you by Pinay Potluck Night!

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