Glixel contributors and 'Final Fantasy' fans Sidney Fussell and James Mielke discuss what a decade of delay brought to the table.
Glixel contributors and 'Final Fantasy' fans Sidney Fussell and James Mielke discuss what a decade of delay brought to the table.
10 years is a long time to wait for anything. We waited for Fumito Ueda’s The Last Guardian for a little over a decade, partly because we had no choice, but also because his games are usually worth waiting for. By comparison, the game that would eventually become Final Fantasy XV – Final Fantasy Versus XIII – wasn’t even the main numerical entry in the series; it was something like the fourth spinoff in the XIII "project." But now, here it is, in a completely upgraded and revamped form as the official 15th game in the series.
XV finds the Lucian prince Noctis and his band of brothers on an epic road trip unlike anything Square Enix has ever done with Final Fantasy, mixing open-world dynamics with a classic RPG formula. But the real question is: does it work? Glixel’s reviewer Michael Sylvain calls the whole thing “a weird, epic mess,” while others have embraced its open-world and erratic pacing. To dive even deeper into the experience, Glixel contributors Sidney Fussell and James Mielke – both longtime fans of the series – met over chat to discuss what a decade of delay brought to the table.
Sidney Fussell: Final Fantasy XV's development feels almost as long and storied as the Final Fantasy series proper, with just as many weird and incomprehensible twists as the games themselves. But for me, the game deferred too heavily to its many, muddled inspirations: Testuya Nomura’s noir, emo-chic stylings, the open world landscapes of Bethesda games, the flashy combat of the Devil May Cry or Bayonetta games, etc. I felt like I was playing lots of games, none of them Final Fantasy.
James Mielke: Sidney, I’m just going to put this out there and preface this by saying that I was turned off by all of the splintered Final Fantasy XIII "hype" and pre-destined sequels and spin-offs (lesson learned from Advent Children, clearly). I had basically zero anticipation for Final Fantasy Versus XIII, nor was I affected any of the delay drama that followed it. So, for me, there’s zero baggage associated with the game, which is probably for the better.
Sidney: I can’t help myself – I love seeing the PR machine churn. I certainly wasn’t willing to chase after every pre-release anime, exclusive trailer, full length feature, and sidewalk chalk mural that came along with XV’s release, but I at least wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were building something big. But scope is the one and only thing Final Fantasy XV seems to have successfully achieved. That, and pushing women to the sidelines. The women are daughters, sisters, fiances, etc. Everyone wanted to call this Square Enix's take on N’SYNC or Backstreet Boys, but maybe this was actually Square Enix Does Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party.
James: Interesting point. I get why some folks might be annoyed by the dude-centric bro party portrayed here, with XV’s primary female lead, Cindy (not Freya) functioning in a barely-clad, super-limited support role. But at the same time, it doesn’t really bother me because Square Enix already gave us the Charlie’s Angel’s treatment with Final Fantasy X-2. Sure, it didn’t have the same icky glaze of exploitation present that XV has, but I think the bro-road trip is a pretty cool concept. The thing I really love about XV is how it doesn’t really feel like anything that came before it in the series, and that’s fresh. After three XIII games, I really needed a change of pace.
...having had my enthusiasm for the series suppressed by half a decade of 'XIII,' I’ve really been enjoying 'XV' a lot more than I thought I would.
Sidney: You may accidentally activated my trap card here, James. I unabashedly loved Final Fantasy X-2. Was it gaze-y? Absolutely. But X-2 was willing to subvert itself in a way XV, with its complete, ponderous fealty to all things “next gen” refuses. X-2 was silly and aimed low, but it was quirky, bizarre, and unfailingly uptempo. It took risks. When I play XV, it doesn’t feel like any risks are being taken. It’s doing what Final Fantasy has always done well. It’s a technical marvel, gorgeous to look at, tells a huge story, but what does it do that’s weird or unexpected? What does XV do that pushes against what we expect from a Final Fantasy game?
James: You’re right about that. X-2 was playing off all the seriousness (and that terrible “laughing” scene) of FFX, which is what made it so cool. They weren’t afraid to make fun of the previously established lore. XV does a pretty decent job balancing the tone so it’s not too heavy in its seriousness or comical nature. I really enjoy how relaxed it feels. I almost never drive anywhere, partly because the Regalia doesn't feel great to drive, but also because I don’t want to do the work. I’m the prince, dammit, and I’m going to let Ignis drive while I kick back. Having had zero expectations for this game, and having had my enthusiasm for the series suppressed by half a decade of XIII, I’ve really been enjoying XV a lot more than I thought I would.
Sidney: That’s fair. A great game of any scale is made by its quiet moments. Maybe I was too caught up in the size of the world or the ludicrous nature of everyone's’ hair (another FF staple) to just feel the breeze. So let’s talk about driving. Fun? Not really. I mostly wanted to fast-travel Witcher 3-style and get on with the next mission. But I think, in your observation, maybe you’ve stumbled on the way the game is subtly encouraging a slower pace and a more lived-in approach to a Final Fantasy game. I initially read it as a distraction (I just can’t get excited about photography or fishing), but maybe that was their way of balancing out an overwrought, mythologically-dense narrative. What was this game about again? Fate and crystals?
James: Yeah, I don’t know what it is with Japanese developers and fishing games, to be honest. And this may something about me and games, but I don’t get too wrapped up in the lore of things unless the fiction really speaks to me. I’m usually more caught up in the character design – which, as long as you like Tetsuya Nomura, is something Final Fantasy games do pretty well – and the game mechanics.
XV is interesting in how it offers something in between the series’ active time-battle system and a proper action-RPG. I say “interesting” because some 15-20 hours into the game I still haven’t really come to grips with all the battle system's controls and features. I mean, there are two pause menus for crying out loud! XV’s user experience suffers from excess, in my opinion. Crafting your own consumable spells to use is a byzantine process, and I’m certain I don’t know what I’m doing yet. So I feel like I’m missing out on half the game. Either that or that using the weapons I’ve acquired are good for 90% of the game and no one’s telling me. That’s what I get for being a filthy casual. Anyway, do you think they nailed the open world thing? XV is still pretty linear. You move from cluster to cluster of things to do, but despite heading back for upgrades to your car, and getting the occasional quest from Cindy or Cid in Hammerhead, you still advance in a fairly steady pace.
Sidney: I generally don’t mind linear. It feeds that beast in me that says I have to always be grinding or managing equipment or checking off quests in RPGs. But, if a game is building an open world, I want to be tricked into feeling like all this fetching, collecting and hunting is more than just padding. I don’t know how gracefully XV does that. It’s a neat little trick to bank EXP then expend it while resting, but the way it quantifies every little distraction sets up a meter in my head: I’m not willing to just live in the world, I want to gamify everything for bonuses. If Skyrim did anything correct, it was combining an incredibly rich soundtrack with dumb, numberless moments. I remember catching a butterfly in Skyrim and being tricked into thinking it was somehow profound because of how artful the music and spontaneous the moment was. XV rides the fence. It feels like an open world, but one without the spontaneity that tricks us into reading life into a game.
James: Given the game’s troubled history, the idea of making XV an open world game was probably a well-intentioned move, but the team’s relative lack of experience shows. It’s less a proper open world game than merely a big game, spread out over a vast area in which you need a car to get around. It’s basically Los Angeles: The RPG.
That said, I’m not too demanding when it comes to open world design. I don’t have the patience to play most open world games any more. Grand Theft Auto (too deep), Skyrim (too ugly) just wear out their welcome. I also feel like I’ll never finish them, so I give up early. Conversely, I feel like XV might be the one for me because I’ll get to fight some really cool-looking things, and drive around with my homies.
It’s been said that XV is something like an offline Final Fantasy MMO, and if you’re going to look at it in those terms, I think Final Fantasy XII does a better job of it as a whole. That game is the best, and I’ll buy the HD remaster faster than anyone. Watch me.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is how everything in the Final Fantasy series these days is designed as a total cross-media package, from the ground up. It’s like "game design by marketing" and it’s a terribly calculated strategy. You don’t really see Square Enix do this with Dragon Quest. I mean, they threw that huge event to announce Kingsglaive, with all of the mismatched voice actors (which were different to the voice actors used in-game), and all of the peripheral game-related products. If it’s a good game, sure, I want there to be more things for me to enjoy. But I was really lukewarm on Kingsglaive (and I wasn’t the only one), and although it certainly helps to have seen it prior to playing XV, I feel like they could've just contextualized things on the whole by sticking a few extra cutscenes in the game. You?
Sidney: Kingsglaive was exactly what I expected it to be: pretty. Not compelling, not coherent, just pretty. Lena Headey (who voiced Lunafreya for Kingsglaive, but not XV proper) must have thought the same. She’s ferocious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, but she mostly mumbles contritely in Kingsglaive as Lunafreya’s story – being a sidekick to some other brooding hero – unfolds. But, again, if XV’s story is so damn big it requires all these cross-media sidestories, maybe it needs to be sized down. The weird fishing game obsession is one peculiar tic of Japanese developers, but there's another: enormously complex mythic stories with pathetically one-note characters. Kingsglaive was essentially a celebration of my least favorite aspect of the series. And for all its bombast, it barely merits more than a nod in XV. Audiences agreed, apparently.
it’s not so much that the game has adapted or changed in a way I don’t recognize, it’s that I recognize the tricks and I’m bored with them.
James: The other thing that seems to affect JRPG developers is that they take themselves very seriously. I remember being at a media event in Japan for the Final Fantasy XIII unveiling, and when I dared to ask what the main character’s name was, this PR manager comes running over making the big "X" sign with her arms, informing me that this was yet to be revealed. Of course when they did unveil this most precious of secrets, the name of the character turned out to be “Lightning,” which was just all sorts of hilarious. By contrast, this is one of the things that makes playing Capcom’s Breath Of Fire series, or Atlus’s Persona series so gratifying: they’re much humbler, thematically, and they don’t try to make every PR beat seem like it’s the most profound revelation. To be fair, I think XV is pretty good, and doesn’t suffer from these qualities I’ve mentioned. I’m super grateful that it’s accessible from the outset and doesn’t take 20 hours to “get good.” What’s your overall takeaway, Sidney?
Sidney: I think XV’s creators did a good job of crafting impressive set pieces, then guiding players towards them. It’s fine if the biggest moments of a game are scripted, but those won’t the best. I think the real test of whether XV was worth the wait won’t be whether players can get the A+ rank while downing a huge boss or unlock the secret of every tomb, it’ll be if they just zone out to the radio, become inured to Prompto’s nervous jabbering, or find some camaraderie and intimacy on camping trips. The previous Final Fantasies did a much better job of getting me to lower my guard and just believe in their stories, but the tricks for doing that aren’t what they used to be. Maybe that’s why I’m throwing a temper tantrum here – it’s not so much that the game has adapted or changed in a way I don’t recognize, it’s that I recognize the tricks and I’m bored with them.
James: I always seem to get A+ in every combat category except finesse, which I score a C or D every time. I’m just mediocre at this game, but it doesn’t judge me, and I appreciate that. As long as I get to see the ending, I’m fine with it.
Do you think this is a good place for people new to the series to dip their toes into the world of Final Fantasy? Personally, it’s so vast that it makes me yearn for an all-new, original 8- or 16-bit RPG. Hironobu Sakaguchi has said if he were asked to make a new Final Fantasy, that he’d make it using pixel art. That sounds pretty good to me. Not for retro reasons, but just because going back to basics sounds like a good thing. XV wouldn’t have taken 10 years to make if they’d just gone back to basics.
Sidney: If Square Enix wanted to shock me, they’d end the Fabula Nova Crystallis series and move on to XVI. I’d be astonished. But it won’t happen. Square Enix loves to milk its franchise leads – we’re still gearing up for yet another FFVII re-release/re-master/re-purchase, after all. But, I came away from my time in XV still believing in their ability to create a world that’s a technical and aesthetic marvel – maybe next time, I’ll actually want to stay in it.