The Strange, Engrossing Weirdness of 'Final Fantasy XV'
Three Waypoint editors sit down to discuss 'Final Fantasy XV', a game that's weird, interesting, and one of 2016's most pleasant surprises.
Even though a million games have come out recently, three members of Waypoint—Austin Walker, Mike Diver, and myself—are deep into Final Fantasy XV. For the past week, it's basically all we've been pouring our free time into. Given how much we were already talking about the game to one another, it made sense to do another letter series, diving into our thoughts on Square Enix's latest. If you missed it, Austin recently participated in another back-and-forth on how Watch Dogs 2 handles race. We'll be back with more thoughts on Final Fantasy XV later this week, too. Stay tuned.
Hey Mike, Austin,
I want to be clear up front: Final Fantasy VIII is better than Final Fantasy VII. Before we talk any further about Final Fantasy, I just want to make sure my cards are on the table, okay?
It used to be the release of a new Final Fantasy was an event. In the years after I discovered the series with Final Fantasy VI—aka Final Fantasy III in the US and the best Final Fantasy—nothing cleared my schedule (or got my homework done) faster than Final Fantasy. Not only did I spend countless hours breeding chocobos in Final Fantasy VII to unlock knights of the round table, but it's the only game where I maxed out the in-game clock at 99 hours, 99 minutes, and 99 seconds. You could do stuff like that when you had three months off school.
But more importantly, Final Fantasy is where I fell in love with games as a storytelling medium. The characters I remember most from my childhood were pixelated adventurers trying to save the world from darkness, and by holding the controller, I fought alongside them. My dozens of hours in each Final Fantasy were not empty gaming calories but an investment in their journey.
I started drifting from the series with the MMO-inspired Final Fantasy XII, whose combat so totally threw me off that I didn't make it more than a few hours in before walking away. And when Final Fantasy XIII arrived three years later, my gaming habits had drifted; Western RPGs like Fallout and Mass Effect were now my jam. It seemed like I was over JRPGs. (The mixed reviews, which suggested the game didn't get interesting for 30 hours, didn't help.)
For all these reasons, I'd mostly ignored anything and everything about FFXV. What reason was there to think this latest entry, developed over the course of 10 years, would be any different? If anything, it suggested Square Enix didn't know what it was doing with it.
And yet, even I couldn't avoid the hype machine, and my curiosity eventually got the better of me. The reason I keep watching television shows that jump the narrative shark—I'm looking at you, Prison Break—or joyfully watch the eighth entry in a horror series, the one where they must eventually head to space, is because I can't help but experience trainwrecks for myself.
FFXV is a mess, one that shows a development team straining to figure out what Final Fantasy means in 2016, but it's certainly not a trainwreck. I don't know what's happening in the story, but that hasn't diminished the 15 hours I've spent exploring the world, one that's surprisingly vibrant, and most importantly, full of character. There's a naked, nervous exploration that's apparent in every corner of the game, where the game's simultaneously trying to honor the nearly 30-year history of Final Fantasy without turning it into a crutch. The passion and energy from the developers, a desire to do right by history, is apparent. That's not to suggest other games, or even past Final Fantasy games, weren't made by passionate teams with similar aims, but in FFXV, you can feel it. They're diehard fans.
Hey Patrick, Austin,
Playing Final Fantasy IX at the same time as FFXV, as I am, is really interesting, to see how the two games—separated by several years and console generations—approach their early hours. Final Fantasy XV is keen to promote visual spectacle, with the wide vistas and sumptuous cutscenes (although the ones taken from Kingsglaive feel out of place), and generally revel in the aesthetics made possible by the hardware. The older game piles in on story. Honestly, the latter approach has grabbed me a lot quicker—I'm more invested in what's happening in that tale of warring states than the slower-unfolding events of FFXV, after about the same play time. It just feels like there's so much more at stake, even when you're not playing as a character with all that much personally, obviously, on the line. And Dagger's just a more endearing character than Noctis is.
It's fascinating to me how the older game better harnesses what's available to it, on the platform of the time (the original PlayStation), to best tell the story it wants to. FFXV, in contrast, really makes us work to care for the fate of Insomnia.
I'm all of ten hours into FFXV. I've played longer than that, technically—four hours at private Square Enix event for the press, plus the two demos that preceded this full release. (I stuck a lot of time into Duscae). But in terms of this playthrough, it's just the 10, which means I'm a long way from seeing the full picture that Square Enix has painted here. My next main objective is to check out a waterfall and the weapon that might be behind it, to give you an idea of where I am, story wise.
Since first stepping out of the tent in the Episode Duscae demo, I've had this earmarked as My Next Witcher: a game to exist in for hours at a time, without it forcing me to press through the core plot. (And if you're rightly thinking, but The Witcher 3 came out after the Duscae demo: I played a significant chunk of Geralt's most excellent adventure several months before its release.) And I'm happy that, despite the Considerable Turmoil back in the Prince and company's home city of Insomnia, and what it means for the wider world of Eos, the game will happily let me fish, catch frogs, pull up onions and ride chocobos to my heart's content. I've been leveling up by taking on work from any Tom, Dave or Harry that I strike up a conversation with.
What the world lacks right now in environmental variety—what a treat it was to reach the town of Lestallum, all street vendors and grimy alleyways, after so many smaller outposts—it makes up for with that feeling of being alive even when you're not looking. That's save for the quest-givers who stand around until provoked, and that couple cursed to playfully splash by the shore of Galdin Quay forever. The roaming wildlife, both passive and predatory, the passing cars, and the gossiping diners—they convey the sense of a game world that'd go about its business happily enough whatever buttons you did or didn't press.
Hey Mike, Patrick,
While The Witcher 3 comparisons will be numerous (and while I wish Final Fantasy XV had some of TW3's ease-of-use—my kingdom for the ability to accept multiple hunts at once), the world of FFXV is comparably a joy to be in. Right now I'm doing a quest about beans, a quest about frogs, and a quest about car parts. I think if I picked up my save of TW3 right now, I'd be right in the middle of a quest about a sad child, a sympathetic cannibal, or a broken marriage (there are several of these, I know).
It's just easier to be in FFXV's world of Eos than it was to stomp through the muck of Velen and the dig through the corruption of Novigrad. With The Witcher 3, even when I was doing little sie quests, I wanted to tune the world out and really inhabit Geralt. As Noctis, though , I'm happy to tune out for a couple of hours and complete quests while listening to podcasts or watching something else out of the corner of my eye. That's not a judgment on which of these games is better--push come to shove, I think I'd rather be playing TW3 right now.
I just rushed to Lestallum—the busy market town that you mentioned in your first letter, Mike, and met who I believe to be Gladio's little sister, Iris. Soon after that, I hope, I'll be seeing more of Lunafreya. I really hope that these women are as rad and charming as the main boys have been. Something to keep an eye on, anyway. (I'm also, frankly, more interested in hearing what women have to say about gender in this game than what we three dudes do, so hey, if you've seen good articles about that, link them to me on Twitter.)
So, yeah, about how I rushed to Lestallum… It was gnawing at me for hours, to be honest.
When you use the fast travel option, you get a loading screen—something you might not know if you've been taking the scenic route, so to speak. But because I haven't been getting too many of those fun driving conversations I keep hearing about, I've been leaning on it to get the most out of FFXV during my limited time with it. And every time I fast travel, there it was: Lestallum.
All those people! The shops! The warm air! The smells! (Please let me have this.) Like Noctis, I'm a city boy at heart, but in real life and in my video games. I love the sensation of virtual life moving to-and-fro. And well, Eos… is a little dead.
Sure, there are diners and motels, the occasional dockside restaurant or Chocobo farm. But even the life around those places is staid. This is a small thing, I know, but seriously: The people in these places stay in place. They're bolted to the ground. The people in Lestallum? They move. Someone on the dev team thought of that, and they're brilliant for it. Lestallum honestly isn't all that great, but it has a feeling of activity not found on the sleepy roadside outposts of the deserts or forests to its east.
"Outposts." That's what those places are called--the diners, the motels, the farms. Noctis and his crew call them "outposts." There's something fascinating there, too, isn't there? They're not rest stops or settlements, let alone villages or towns. They're "outposts." For Noctis, civilian life outside of the shining walls of his home city takes on a militaristic or survivalist bent.
But it's more than that, too: Noctis is from the big city. The center of culture, technology, and power. An "outpost" cannot stand alone, it is attached to some larger organizational body—it's been "posted" "out" in the world by someone or something, after all. So imagine being this prince, looking at a map of where people live, and thinking "ah yeah, outposts."
The dichotomies in FFXV between rural and urban, rich and working class, coastal and interior are striking for me. The old chocobo rancher wonders if "I'm the kid with the fancy camera that he's been hearing about." I've picked up pieces here and there about some big magical/industrial revolution decades ago, and how the bulk of technology out in the world still comes from those places. No manufacturing jobs out in countryside, I guess. The people out here, I'm told, think of the people who live from in the city as "legendary." (I've seen how these characters dress, and I agree.)
When I first started playing, I was afraid this angle wouldn't be addressed. Noctis and co. all look so out of place, but so few people address it. They also haven't really addressed the military invasion, the alleged assassinations of royalty, or the fact that I can summon swords, axes, and fishing rods into my hands from the ether itself. That's all city stuff, I guess. They're out here trying to live their lives.
(If I seem extra interested in this juxtaposition of urban and rural right now, I'll give you one guess as to why.)