Final Fantasy XV: Royal Pain

This year proved to be sort of the final straw for me and Final Fantasy. The series has been in decline for some time, but I figured that if Final Fantasy XIII didn’t make me actively mad, then I could probably continue to tolerate the mainline games no matter how bad they got. I was wrong. I already wrote at length about one of the lowest points of the game. For posterity, here’s a broad-strokes view of the game’s mechanics before I purge the memory for sanity’s sake.

Final Fantasy XV is an “open-world” game, which means the best way to play the game is to get so distracted by sidequest nonsense that you don’t actually follow the plot. This means learning how to track sidequests. This means discovering that Final Fantasy XV’s map is so bad that people have written negative reviews of it. The map, that is. Not even the entire game. The “best” part is highlighting a spot on the map, trying to select it, and realizing that “confirm” means “confirm you want to jump to the last place where you made camp and snap the map to that location, losing the spot you were looking at”. There are two different versions of the quest list, one that you access from your car, and one that you access from the Menu. They are just similar enough to be confusing yet just different enough that using one makes you miss features from the other.

The game’s concept of fast travel is complete nonsense, made all the more frustrating by the fact that they were clearly trying to do something legitimately good with it. I really hate non-diagetic fast travel, which means in principle I liked the car and chocobos. I don’t see the point of playing an “open-world” game and then making that world feel small by teleporting around everywhere and turning the world map into an elaborate level select screen. Having a car (with one of your party members willing to chauffeur!) and rented mounts is a really great way around this problem; you’re still travelling through the world in a way that makes it still feel like a world, but much of it is fast and/or automated to mitigate any negatives of excessive travel time.

Then they include unexplained teleporting anyway. They don’t even try to handwave it with some kind of magic or fancy technology, something that would be nearly effortless in this setting. But if you use it, you often have to pay in-game currency for it. And anytime it’s allowed you use it by default; you have to opt out of teleporting every single time. Even worse, they often make the teleport far more accessible than doing what you would actually want to do with or without the teleport option. There’s no “find the nearest campsite or hotel from my current location” option, but there sure is a “teleport instantly to the last place I slept” option. I suspect the latter was far easier to program and is probably explained by this game’s extended period in development hell.

The most disappointing part of this is that the early game really does sell the idea that this is a dangerous world where adventurers should travel carefully. Between the large amounts of uninhabited space full of monsters and demons the game could plausibly sell the idea that you’re deep in dangerous territory. It could add some tension having to plan your travel routes and timing around these intermittent hazards, except when the sun goes down someone says “Let’s go to bed” and saying yes means you teleport to the last place you slept without issue. And then pay chump change to teleport right back in the morning. They took all these cool ideas and still turned it into Skyrim with extra steps.

Then again, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t force the player to navigate the map too much. At one point I was driving the car when the game forgot to load part of the road, then loaded it while my car was where the road was supposed to be. The collision detection flung my car and totaled it, giving me my first literal crashing bug.

People have praised this game’s combat. It seems to be the only thing people consistently like about this game, to the point where Kingdom Hearts III and the Final Fantasy VII remake are apparently using a variant of it. I’m not seeing it. The game has about 15 minutes of tutorials that it suggests you take before even starting the game. Then, when you actually play it, the party of 4 combined with the malicious bastard camera makes it hard to tell what’s going on. The way health works is unnecessarily complicated; I actually got to the final chapter without fully understanding it. You take too much damage and you get into Danger mode, where you can still take damage but it lowers your max HP instead of your current HP. Some items cure max HP and some cure current HP. It’s actually easy to forget which item does what and drink a potion that won’t help, or accidentally spend an unnecessary Elixir. There’s a block button that is crucial except sometimes it doesn’t work, in which case you need to dodge attacks except when you mysteriously can’t. There’s a button to take cover but it’s so wonky that I never managed to accomplish anything with it. The game will actually give you QTE-style prompts to block attacks only for those attacks to be unblockable. There’s a part of me that wants to believe I just suck at the game, but then I remember that even people who like this game have trouble opening doors and think maybe I just don’t know how to deal with this much jank.

(There is something called Wait Mode, but I honestly forgot about it until I made this write-up. In my defense, in the part of the tutorial that mentions Wait Mode, it’s turned off. Even if you try to go to the menu to turn it on, you find the Options menu is disabled, which means you can’t even try it out until well after the tutorial mentioning that it exists!)

Sometimes I’ll go to use a tech. It will be greyed out and I don’t know why. Sometimes I was counting on that tech for temporary invincibility or even healing. Sometimes I’ll go to use an item. It will be greyed out and I don’t know why. Sometimes I’ll try to rotate the camera so I can see what enemies are doing. I’m cornered, so the camera focuses on me and the corner I’m in, even as I’m trying to rotate it so I can’t see the rest of the room. Is it too much to ask to have a camera that lets me look at what my character is looking at? Oh, I failed to block again. I’ll just use every item in my inventory until one of them works, I guess.

Final Fantasy XV uses an action-based combat system. But it still wanted to preserve the Final Fantasy feeling of distinct, overworld encounters. So all enemies have an encounter zone. This isn’t a radius around the enemy’s current location, but an area on the map where the enemy must be fought. If you ever run out of the zone, the fight immediately ends and the monster heals to full health. If a monster knocks you out of the zone, the fight immediately ends and the monster heals to full health. If the monster’s AI causes it to wander out of the zone and you follow it, the fight immediately ends and the monster heals to full health. In all these cases, you keep any damage you took during the fight.

At one point a fight starts and I instinctively duck behind the nearest pillar to avoid the enemy’s ranged attacks. Behind the pillar is not in the encounter zone. The game is literally forcing me to get shot if I want to engage in combat, which is required since this encounter zone is the only route through the dungeon. I step forward again. Prompto says “Oh no, not again!” Right there with you, buddy.

I already complained about the Malboro fight in my previous post. But that’s not the worst part; the worst part is that this is a preview of what nearly all the end-game boss fights are like. You have to trigger a cutscene through circumstances that are far from obvious and the game doesn’t let you win the “normal” way. Even worse, the final dungeon is an entire gauntlet of bosses that follow a pattern where you deplete their health once, then the boss’s health bar refills without explanation and you have to fight them again but finishing them off with a different cutscene gimmick.

This endgame boss gauntlet marks the point where I turned on Easy Mode and stopped even trying to play the game legitimately. This is apparently one of the things patched into the “Royal Edition” that I played. It turns out that one heavily-requested element added in DLC was the ability to switch party members. But since the game largely wasn’t designed around that, they made it so that you only get this ability if you level up enough and choose the character-switching ability in the levelling system. But then these DLC bosses all require you to finish them off with a specific character, so if you get to this point without the ability to switch to that character it just gives you that ability. So I get one of the bosses down to low health, and it force-switches me to Gladiolus, then gives me a tutorial on playing Gladiolus. The next bosses do something similar with Prompto and Ignis. I figured if this game was giving me new tutorials in the final dungeon then I could definitively say that this pacing is the worst I’ve ever seen in a game, ever.

I’ll have a few things to say about the plot later. Some of them are even nice.

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