Supple Think: On the Death of Fantasy

On the Death of Fantasy

by Zen

Posted on Friday, January 6, 2017
Labels: , , ,
Back when Final Fantasy VIII came out it was difficult to know what to make of it.  It was definitely a new direction for the series, and coming after a game like Final Fantasy VII was a legacy that's difficult to live up to.  At first I remember forcing myself to love everything about the game, die-hard series fan and idiot child that I was, but a second playthrough only highlighted its flaws.

In the end I think it's only fair to respect the game's audacity.  It did away with almost every vestige of the original Dungeons & Dragons influence and tried every new idea it could to replace them.  Magic, treasure, equipment, character levels, even the underlying expectations of the setting were twisted into new and creative messes.  The fact that the story was a fever dream of unlikeable characters dashing haphazardly from combat setpiece to romance setpiece with no attention paid to theme or cohesion made these messes hard to appreciate in a series known for doing a lot narratively with even rudimentary tools.  The fact that the best way to help the story make sense is to assume the last two thirds of it are just the random firings of the protagonist's synapses as he dies indicates how rickety the game's creative direction was.

But for all its failures Final Fantasy VIII still manages to impress in hindsight.  This is why I decided to give the latest main-numbered installment, Final Fantasy XV, a fair chance.  At first glance it appeared to be similarly pushing the envelope for the genre in bizarre ways with a focus on open-world exploration (new to the series if hardly to the medium) and automotive and camping mechanics that dwell extensively on the camaraderie and personal tensions facing the protagonists.  A trailer built around these mechanics with a cover of Stand By Me seemed to indicate a new scale for Final Fantasy storytelling that would let the quiet moments do the heaviest lifting.

Nice hood ornament
Despite the interesting first impression I can say without hesitation that they did not succeed.  It's hard to even know where to begin when enumerating its failures; each flows into the others in an endless sewer of bad ideas, shoddy implementation, and the dizzying contortions of ten years of development being shoved just barely tightly enough into the box that they were able to get the lid on at all.  Given that it was the core failure of Final Fantasy VIII, then, it seems appropriate to start by talking about Final Fantasy XV's story.  The nicest thing I can say about it is that the game doesn't force you to sit through very much of it before playing, since the backstory to the game's opening is in the form of a 2-hour CG feature film that costs an extra twenty bucks.  This movie has bad characters, poor pacing, no clear direction or meaning, and some of the most spectacularly beautiful combat sequences I've seen in a film.  Characters teleport, fly, stab, flame, and crash through a gorgeously-rendered city that's like if a kingdom from Final Fantasy IV had turned into near-future London.  Diamond Weapon makes an appearance, as do Ultros and Knights of the Round, so there are even fun throwbacks for longtime fans.  It's the most exquisitely gilded turd since the Star Wars prequels, and for all that it's the only backstory you get I'm afraid it's little help in the end.  None of the actual game's protagonists appear meaningfully in it, and the anti-charismatic lead who is supposed to be a man of massive importance to the game world doesn't seem to even understand a sliver of the two or three things the movie tells you about it.

I wondered why this character was so hideous but it turned out my TV was turned off
The actual game narrative's first steps are demonstrating how privileged and ignorant the heroes are (one of them actually has to ask what money is) before asking you to love them for their selfish antics.  A world plagued by demons and imperial oppression is burning to the ground around them and they spend their time cooking gourmet meals at their impossibly luxurious campground, taking selfies in front of poor people, and lusting after the shameful construct of male gaze that is the game's auto mechanic.  You then spend ten hours driving around in a posh limousine killing monsters for the hoi polloi with your magic royalty powers.

A world full of things you'd think you could climb
By "magic royalty powers", I of course mean literally what those words say.  The royal line to which the hero (I think his name is Noctis) belongs has the ability to summon weapons from thin air, and if he throws a weapon then he can teleport to it at will.  In the film this is one of the flashier effects, with characters using it to board enemy airships and escape flaming wreckage.  The game lets you use it in combat to "warp-strike" enemies or "point-warp" to safe vantage points to catch your breath.  It lets you use this for exactly nothing else outside of some heavily scripted scenes.  When I was in a dungeon and an important bridge crumbled I excitedly tried to teleport across, only to find the game had helpfully disabled this ability so that I could plummet to the bottom.  In an even worse example, one quest had me investigate towers responsible for transferring power around the countryside.  I got into a battle at the base of the tower and teleported to the top so I could get the drop on the enemies below.  Once the battle ended my characters bumbled around the base asking "where's the ladder?" and wishing they could fly to the top.  In the end I had to find another tower that had a ladder and watch the hero spend about twenty seconds climbing up it, then again to climb back down.

The stealth/infiltration sections manage to baffle just as much.  They use the warp-strike well, letting you stealth-kill robot guards and point-warp around surveillance.  This makes it even weirder when you have no choice but to wander on foot through a spotlight that previously meant discovery but now does nothing, a decision you have to make while on a time limit.  At the end I was asked to press L2 to summon Ramuh, an act that would have been satisfying and exciting if they had indicated what they wanted me to do with L2.  I pressed, I mashed, I held, all to no avail.  I had to look up that it took a full five seconds of holding down L2 without getting attacked to summon, which would have been obvious if the game had volunteered any of the different progress gauges that occupy its design layers for the purpose.

For some reason all the photos of the chocobos come out like this
The open-world part of the game is almost fun, with quest design reminiscent of the laziest parts of an MMORPG but more difficult and time-consuming to traverse.  What was at first the most fun part of the game for me (watching the heroes drive around listening to classic Final Fantasy music, a screen saver of which would have been a more satisfying use of sixty dollars) became such a familiar chore that I began skipping it whenever the opportunity presented itself.  The quests are designed to force as much of this travel as possible, like the missions you have to activate one at a time at the end of a long pier (it's three full stamina bars of running, and they won't let you use the car or chocobo to get there) and then repeat the journey to turn them in.  The game mitigates this by letting you teleport to your car, which immediately jettisons all the world-building potential the car has to make the game 5% as playable as it ought to have been, now with more load times.  You ultimately get the opportunity to hear the classic music on foot, but if they hadn't put Yoko Shimomura to criminal waste on the game's soundtrack this wouldn't be necessary.  Riding chocobos feels fun and exciting at first (you can drift them!) until you realize that the shrubberies that walled off your "open-world" exploration on foot do the same to the poor birds.  About all they're good for is crossing water and getting around slightly faster than on foot but far slower than by car, a far cry from the world-opening potential they had in previous titles.

As for the voice acting, the game is scattered with almost as much spoken dialogue as it has grunting.  The characters constantly halt their breath, grunt in pain or frustration, cry out with a yelp, or any other awkward noise you can think of, all at a volume loud enough to drown out anything else that might be happening.  This is mostly the fault of the same terrible voice direction that plagued the English dub of Advent Children, but the voices themselves are a predictable jumble of upbeat boy-band affectations.  The only way I found to mitigate this problem was to switch the game's voices to German, a language versatile enough to sustain this kind of prissy silliness without sounding too jarring.  That's when I had to reckon with the game's illegible text, a problem so easily and regularly solved by better developers that I'm not sure how this happened in 2006 let alone 2016.

This monstrosity costs $82,000!
A lot of the hallmarks of open-world games fall similarly flat.  You can customize the car in myriad ways that almost just about look natural, and one or two that succeed.  Despite this middling effort the characters themselves give you the equally poisonous options of anime dress clothes or designer couture.  I expected to find a lot of outfits over the course of the game, but upon searching it seems there are exactly four (eight if you count the ability to remove your awful jacket).

Final Fantasy XV's biggest selling point is its focus on the friendship of its four main characters: Ignis, the calm one with aristocratic tastes, does all the actual work in the party.  Pronto, the animated idiot, is the game's photographer.  Gladiolus, the sullen buff dude, is the bodyguard.  Noctis, the one you control, has no personality beyond acting stunned by everything and letting his servants do and say everything.  When his rich dad kicks the bucket you get a moment's pathos and awareness of his role, but it's gone 15 seconds later.  I hate everything about him, and anything you can find to like about the other three shatters under the weight of their subservience and loyalty to him.  If the game succeeds in anything it is hardening our hearts to aristocracy of any kind, but even this gives its writing far too much credit.  For all that Final Fantasy XV shows you it's possible to build a game around solicitous friendship and calm adventure it fails to achieve any of these new possibilities.  The Witcher 3 showed us how spectacular writing can make a by-the-numbers game into a work of art; Final Fantasy XV shows us the inverse: atrocious writing and a world whose pieces feel like they don't belong in it together can make even an audacious and ground-breaking idea fail absolutely.

I chose the awful selfie that best summarizes FFXV, and it was a hard decision
Even at its worst the Final Fantasy series has been driven by vision.  The stories, however thin they sometimes were, were told to demonstrate a theme or an idea.  I am maybe halfway through Final Fantasy XV and have hated it perfectly, unable to understand what the developers were even trying to accomplish.  The leavings on the cutting room floor of three awful RPGs have been swept together into a pile of astonishing failure.  I'm told that there is a patch to fix some of the later game by adding cutscenes to help the story make sense, but I already know that the only aid this game can ever receive is subtraction.  Play it only if you want to see one or two clever ideas put to death so that ten years of wasted money can be resurrected in the blood of your time.
Article Permalink



Decide Weapons

[Supple Think]

...and luck

© Supple Think. Powered by Blogger.