FFXV was so Close to being Good
Contributed by DJMMT
I know I’m really late to the party, but I finally got around to playing Final Fantasy XV. Final Fantasy is an interesting IP because it’s one of the only existing game franchises that is both extremely popular, and has been for decades, and has such a wide variety of gameplay mechanics and design changes from game to game, while having started as a game franchise. Having myself played games in the franchise going all the way back to 1997 (FFVII), I can honestly say that I feel like I’ve played at least four different genres of games within the franchise. And that’s not including spin-off titles like FFXIII-2, Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon, and Chocobo Racing. I’m just referring to the main line titles. For the sake of clarity, I’ve played FFVII, FFX, FFXII, FFXIII, and most recently FFXV. I will mostly likely play FFXVI eventually as well. What I find very peculiar but also not surprising, is that the more they change FF games, the more I seem to dislike them.
My favorite Final Fantasy game is FFX. I played the original version on the PS2. It’s the only FF title I’ve beaten multiple times. It’s one of the only JRPGs I’ve beaten multiple times. Interestingly enough, the other JRPGs I’ve beaten more than once were also published by Square Enix. I rarely replay any games, for the record. Every FF I’ve played since FFX has been an overall worse experience. Note that I am not saying that all the games past FFX are bad games. I actually really like FFXII. But not as much as FFX. Each time they make a new FF, they change things that ultimately lead to me having a worse overall experience with the game. I thought this wouldn’t be the case with FFXV, as it had the core combat foundation I had always wanted for a FF. Real-time action combat was a dream I had for this franchise that I wasn’t sure would even really happen. While the combat system is by no means perfect, it’s actually really good. I was very happy with the demo I tried months before it released. It wasn’t even in English and I could barely figure out the controls, but I could see that the core combat was going to be really engaging and fun for me, and it was. The problem is that they changed so many other parts of the formula that it ultimately ruined what should have been a FF game that I liked playing more than FFX.
I have no problem with video game franchises and companies changing their formulas, when the changes ultimately make products better. In fact, I love to see it. When a game is flawed and those flaws are clear, making changes in the next installment to ultimately make for a better experience should be the basic philosophy of modern game development. It’s not, but it should be. Change with the goal of improvement is always a good thing. But change for the sake of change is the absolute worse thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There’s nothing I find more irritating than a franchise I like making drastic changes for no reason and ultimately delivering games that are less enjoyable simply because they wanted to be able to say they did something different. Change with no defined purpose or problem to solve is always a bad thing. It’s for this reason that I now consider FFXV the worst FF I’ve ever played.
I hate FFXIII. I originally played it on XBOX 360. For years, I touted it as my least favorite FF. I hated the writing, the combat system, and the Eidolons. Everything about that game irritated me. But you know what that game did not have a problem with? Pacing and basic JRPG plot structure. I don’t think the story was good in FFXIII. I dislike most of the characters, the plot is way more convoluted than it needs to be, and the resolution at the end was just disappointing. But the game follows the basic “rules” of FF storytelling. It sets up a problem, tells you the solution to that problem, sends you on a quest to implement the solution to that problem, helps you become proficient at meeting the gameplay demands to complete the quest to implement the solution to solve that problem, eventually lets you wander around the world until you’re finally ready to complete the quest to implement the solution to solve that problem, and then the game is over. Sometimes there’s one twist towards the end. Just one, because no more than one is needed. It’s how these games work. It’s how they have always worked and it’s how they’re supposed to work. The formula is tried and tested. It works. FFXV is my least favorite FF because it broke the formula for no reason other than just to do it and the game was worse than its predecessors because of it.
You don’t throw a child into the deep end of a pool. You take them into the shallow end, introduce them to the water, help them learn to swim and build their confidence, and then allow them to enter the deep end when they’re ready. This is how open world JRPGs work. This is how open world games in general work. Even GTAV works this way. FFXV doesn’t work this way. There’s no lead up. No building to the moment of freedom. No early hand holding. The game just throws you into a fully realized open world with almost no guidance and an optional combat tutorial that barely scratches the surface of what you can do in the game. Not only did this make for a worse starting experience at the early stages of the game, but it also completely threw off the pacing of the story.
It took me about 75 hours to beat FFXV. I spent more than 50 of those hours unsure of the importance of what I was even doing. The game has a list of quests and differentiates them by type. But many of them seem really important, even when they’re not the main story quests. FFXV never feels like you’re wasting your time, which ultimately makes the entire game feel like a non-stop waste of time. There are no dumb casual missions in FFXV. Everything is a job, with many of the missions being actual jobs. It took me hours to get strong enough to deal with the rampant balance issues. This wouldn’t have happened if they followed the standard formula and helped train the player, both figuratively and literally, a bit first.
The writing is terribly paced and unclear as well. I wasn’t even sure what the game was actually about until I was nearing the end. But I didn’t realize I was nearing the end because the story is so badly paced and unfocused. And it was all unnecessary. They didn’t have to make the game this way. These were intentional choices to change the structure of an FF game for no reason other than to do it. They very easily could have followed the basic formula. There was no reason to just drop the player into an open world at the start. There was no reason to keep changing the actual plot of the game for a totally unfocused narrative that ended up being little more than a young king having a sword fight with an angry guy with a god complex after taking a long road trip to nowhere specific. That game could easily have been reworked into a traditional JRPG plot structure and would be better for it.
The irritating thing is that there was no reason for these changes. No one ever complained about FF games suffering from bad plot structure and pacing. Bad characters, sure. Bad gameplay after moving away from traditional turn-based combat, absolutely. But bad pacing and story structure were never on the list of problems with FF games. They changed a winning formula simply to change it and created a worse gameplay experience as a result. Which is made even more depressing by the fact that the game looks great, has mostly great combat, and solid character designs. I can’t understand how they got so close to making something great and totally ruining it by changing the one thing they had absolutely no reason to change.
I don’t even know what to expect going into FFXVI now. The setting looks fine. A classic medieval themed fantasy story is perfect for FF. The graphics that have been shown so far look great, as expected. One can never tell with gameplay anymore, because they keep changing it rather than committing to a specific model and working to craft that to perfection over several iterations, like pretty much any other game franchise. But my biggest worry is the story. More specifically the presentation of that story. Will they go back to the working formula or do another totally untethered dump of vague concepts with improper to even non-existent pacing and throw most of the storytelling into character development without worrying about making the player actually care about whatever it is they’re actually supposed to be doing? Only time will tell. But knowing Square Enix in the last decade, I fully expect them to screw it up.