Saturday, January 14, 2017

Extended First Impressions: Final Fantasy XV

Ahh! Real life got in the way of plans, so today's post is a day late! Apologies!

So my "extended first impressions" of Final Fantasy XV are a bit of a mess. See, I have this nasty habit of pretty much never finishing video games... so I've still barely started the main storyline.

HOWEVER, I've got lots of gameplay under my belt and lots of things to say about it.

I mean, this game has so many elements. I almost wonder if the development process was like...

"So, we want to make a fun game. What do you find fun in a video game?"

And every time a person answered, the lead developer just pointed to them and said, "That. That's now going into our game. Make it happen."

This game has fishing, cooking, traveling (by foot, vehicle, or animal), hunting monsters, crafting magic spells, teaming up with special moves... and probably more I haven't even gotten to yet.

Yeah. There's a lot of ground to cover.

Let's get started.

Combat

There's no FFXV without combat. Heck, about 80% of the beginning (optional) tutorial is all about how to fight in this game.

This game doesn't have the best tutorial, but the tutorial is optional, and it does what a combat tutorial should: throw you in a room to practice without suffering any real repercussions. However, they throw a lot at you at once. Attacking, dodging, blocking and countering, warp-strikes, and point-warping come one after the other, peppering you like a machine gun spewing out bullets. The game introduces each new item with a pretty boring dialogue box and then throws you into battle to practice the new move.

This game proclaims it's a Final Fantasy for long-time fans and newcomers alike, and the combat reflects that.

For instance, instead of requiring trigger-finger timing to attack and defend, FFXV heavily relies on holding down buttons. This is great for someone who's not real comfortable with video game combat. Buuuut, this mechanic also makes for a bizarre "UN-learning curve" for more experienced gamers like me. Holding down a button to attack sounds way too easy, and when you first start out, it feels unnatural. It was actually pretty hard for me to get used to holding down a button when I wanted to push it just before the enemy attacked--and then I'd get punished for it!

I'm not sure if this is connected, but boss battles have also been pretty difficult for me so far. I'm not sure if that's due to my lack of skill or the un-learning curve. Later on you can purchase a skill that rewards you for timing your blocks, so maybe that will help my boss battle performance? It's certainly something to entice the seasoned gamers.

That said, combat doesn't feel dumbed-down. In fact, I love that it lets you jump in and do some awesome-looking (and awesome-feeling) moves right off the bat. It's easy to look cool while fighting in this game. And for the veteran gamer, there's lots of elements that add nuances, challenges, and rewards to combat.

One of those elements is your three best friends who fight with you.

I admit, I was really worried about the companions. Fighting AI has plenty of frustrating moments in video game history. Some games are notorious for healers that won't heal you or for companions so lousy you constantly need to babysit them to keep them from dying.

Final Fantasy XV isn't usually one of those games. Basically, get your guys good gear and they shouldn't constantly be dying on you. And they're generally pretty good about keeping you alive.

But the best part about fighting with your companions is the awesome, flashy tag-team attacks they'll do with you. All it takes is to stand near one of them and attack a nearby enemy. It looks awesome, and sometimes even the characters will comment on it.

That said, it'd be great to have more commands for your companions. Wide-range magic attacks are a thing in this game, and your companions can and will get hurt if they're caught in your cross-fire. I'd love to be able to tell them to stay back while throwing down a giant lighting strike, but no dice. It's especially frustrating since there's already a command system built into the game, as you can tell your individual companions to use their special attacks.

Complaints

I mean, it's pretty clear from aesthetics and gameplay alone that this isn't the same game that was advertised in 2006. Rather than driving around a rainy palatial city built in the Renaissance and ruled by kings in pinstripe suits, you're more often going to be watching the protagonist, Prince Noctis, dozing off in his convertible as his three friends goof off in the seats surrounding him. Maybe the aesthetics from the original trailer just have yet to rear their head. I'll have to wait and see.

Aesthetics aside, I've got a lot of minor complaints about this game.

Like the fact that there are a lot of random encounters. Now, this is a mixed bag. I like having lots of random encounters to spice up traveling from place to place... depending on what I'm doing. But when I just want to take a quick car trip to the next town to complete this last quest of the day, the last thing I want is for the game to pull the car over and demand I fight this millionth batch of enemies that drop out of the literal sky--and the game does exactly that. My brother found himself getting ambushed every third time he got in the car as he was going back and forth doing side quests. That's too many disruptive random encounters. That's frustrating. Now, most of the random encounters will happen while you're on foot, which allows you to run away. But since many happen while you're in the car--and since driving around in the car is a key, frequent feature of the game--and since these random encounters almost always STOP your car (and some even prevent you from driving any further)... it'd be nice to have a work-around. Something that allowed you to tell the game "I want to travel around without interruptions right now." It's not new to have an item in a Final Fantasy that wards off enemies.

But maybe that absurd encounter rate is just a glitch. I've experienced a few glitches, mostly graphical ones (seeing inside some models upon zooming in, NPCs getting stuck on your party members when trying to run away, a sound glitch that abruptly stopped music when you hauled in a fish), but most have been negligible and none have affected my gameplay.

Speaking of fishing, fishing is fun, but only once you know how to do it. And, as with the tutorial, the game sucks at explaining things. You mostly have to trial and error your first twenty or thirty fish and hope you're actually understanding how it works.

One of the worst offenders though is the user interface (UI). Everything on the screen, from your health and magic bars to the text and minimap, is tiny and very hard to see. And did I mention there is absolutely no way to adjust it? I don't have a large television to begin with, but once while fishing, I got so frustrated with the tiny minimap that I had to stand up, walk across the living room, and stand two feet away from the screen just to see if I was casting near a fish.

Annnnd the menu system of FFXV could be organized better. I have no trouble finding essentials like my gear, the map, or the skill tree, but other additions like the in-game photos are a nightmare to try and find.

But... 

...Everything else about this game is amazing.

They must have poured years of labor into developing this world, because despite its combined elements of fantasy and reality, this world feels real and completely cohesive. There isn't just one or two paths to get somewhere; there's a system of highways and dirt roads to drive down and lots of places to hoof it and explore on foot. There are tons of little one-gas-station towns, and at the point I'm at, there's the hope of bigger cities yet to come. In fact, the full map was designed to look like a satellite image, and it just subtly adds to the realism. Whether driving or walking, the landscapes are beautiful and interesting to look at while you're traveling. NPCs--including your own friends--worry about going out at night, and the game quickly shows you why they're so scared of it!

I'm looking forward to leveling up to the point where I no longer have to camp for the night and can just run around killing monsters as infinitum. It gives you something to look forward to. But camping is also fun and brings its own rewards, so it doesn't feel inhibiting.

The soundtrack is wonderful. There are beautiful songs for wandering through lush landscapes and epic, inspiring electric guitar tunes when you're fighting enemies. And did I mention the theme song? Both the [main title theme] as well as its [lyric counterpart] are haunting and lovely.

And you even get in-game mementos of the day's events; one of your friends is a photographer, and the computer will take pictures of key places and cool combat moments. It doesn't always capture the best angles, but it's fun going through the pictures each time your characters settle down for the night, and sometimes you may even end up with some pretty cool shots to save or share online.

Speaking of your friends and their hi-jinks, the characters are by far the best part of this game. The dialogue and the way they interact makes them feel so organic and real. Randomly got a rainy, dreary day? The characters may comment on the bad weather. Walking around in the early morning? Someone might comment how cold they are if you didn't equip them with their warmer outfit. They reference previous random conversations, like when Noctis nearly loses a button on his shirt and one of his pals chastises him for forgetting to mend it. They tease each other in that ferocious, warm way that only guy friends can. Sometimes they'll go off on a string of quest-related puns, which always gets me giggling like a little kid. And in one fight my brother encountered, he issued one of the characters an order... and the protagonist said the wrong name before correcting himself! The fact that they recorded this kind of dialogue, which fits so naturally into the game, makes these characters feel like they're friends sitting on the couch commenting on your playthrough.

Conclusion

Even if you take out the flashy fighting animations, the gorgeous soundtrack, the lovely vistas, the complex combat, and the clever writing and the impressive intertwining of gameplay with character interactions, there's still one trump card Final Fantasy XV has to offer:
 
This game is just plain fun.

I have had more fun running around doing side quests than I remember having with another game in a very long time.

There's just so many details of this game that scream what a labor of love it was. I think it's these details that make this game as pure fun as it is.

When you open the Day One version of this game, you'll find an insert that simply says, "Thank you for your support"--and covered with the development team's signatures.

I'm so glad that was one of the first things I saw as I started Final Fantasy XV. I think that's a great picture of what this game is.

It was a big venture, a huge one. It was a labor of intimate detail and love that took lots of time and people to pull off. And that's what makes it such a great game.

From Him, To Him

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