The Never-Ending Fantasy

I finished Final Fantasy XV last week, and I have some thoughts. Obviously this post will contain spoilers for FFXV. OBVIOUSLY. So don’t stick around if you haven’t finished it/don’t want to know major plot points.

Some Background

My introduction to the Final Fantasy franchise was, as it is for many people my age, Final Fantasy VII. I was captivated by the scope of the world, its Star Wars nods, its constant genre-bending but most of all, the fact that the characters’ relationships with one another changed over time. Despite Barrett’s weird, somewhat racist Mr T stylings, and Tifa’s monstrous boobs, and Aeris’ unrelenting insipidness, I grew to know and like them all. (Almost all. Cait Sith – what a dick.) I never managed to defeat Sephiroth’s final form despite spending an entire Summer breeding chocobos and hunting down the Knights of the Round. But it didn’t matter – I was hooked.

I managed to get my hands on FFVI, and when VIII came out, I played that too. I played the VII spinoff Dirge of Cerberus, starring my alltime hero Vincent Valentine (and it was one of my favourites in the series until someone pointed out the creepy paedophilia aspect to the subplot. Not involving Vince, I hasten to add). I played X and its sequel, X2 and I think I was the only person apart from Dragon Age 2‘s designer who enjoyed XII.  (XI was an online MMORPG, and I don’t do MMORPGs.) And then XIII came along and ruined it all. A listless protagonist, lacklustre companions, an (even by FF‘s standards) utterly incomprehensible story and SO MUCH GRINDING. I don’t mind the odd bit of grind now and again for a tough boss, but good grief. It put me off so utterly that even glowing reports of the sequel failed to win me back.

Type-0 helped ease me back into things by proving itself to be… serviceable, but I still felt a little trepidation at the launch of FFXV. It was an all-male cast, presented with an ‘essential story of brotherhood’ disclaimer that left me with unpleasant memories of GTAV‘s pathetic excuses for their male-centric story which turned out to be inexcusable. I enjoyed the demo, but still. Demos don’t necessarily mean anything. I hated the demo for Mass Effect 2, then loved the game. What if this was the same in reverse?

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Those fellas in the sky turn out to be Noctis’ ancestors, so apparently there’s an ‘extra eyes’ gene somewhere in that family

Fortunately, it wasn’t. In fact, FFXV has had a greater effect on me than any game I’ve played in quite some time. The more I think about it, the more it impresses me. Which isn’t to say it’s not flawed, but Heavy Rain is one of my favourite games, so that gives you an indication of how accepting I am of flaws. I’ll try to explain just a few of the things I love, most of which could come under the broad heading of ‘Gameplay/Narrative Integration’ if you wanted to be fancy.

Ignis & His Cooking Ability

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Ignis deciding what to cook

All the characters have extra abilities that emphasise and build on elements of their personalities (sort of – Gladio & Noctis’ are somewhat arbitrary) but its Ignis’ that provide real emotional punch to the story. Ignis is the Egon Spengler-esque character of the group, bespectacled, precise, a little prissy but incredibly intelligent.

Throughout the game, Ignis cooks for the rest of the group. These meals provide buffs which aid the Kingsguard in battle, but also have a metagame aspect in terms of collecting ingredients and inspiring Ignis to learn new recipes by eating in restaurants. As you progress theough the game, you begin to take Ignis’ culinary skill for granted. You see his meals as a means to an end (boosted strength to beat that tough boss, increased HP to withstand whatever a hunt throws at you) rather than the wonderful, varied, exquisite luxury they are. And then it happens. Going into the latter third of the game, Ignis is blinded during the attack on  Altissia.

The next mission sends you off to a swamp where Ignis follows at a frustratingly slow pace, struggling along with his cane, stumbling frequently and you’re forced to wait for him repeatedly or face angry rebuke from Gladio and Prompto. By the time you reach camp, your sympathy for his blindness is probably less than it should be. And then it happens. Your mealtime options. A cold tin of beans, or, if you remembered to buy some,  cup noodles. That’s it. Because Ignis is blind now and without him, you useless bunch of oafs can’t manage to make a damn thing from the pile of ingredients you’ve collected. I don’t think I’ve ever felt sad about my choice of buff options before – not because of how it impacted my gameplay, but because of what it meant.

Noctis’ Time Travel Ability

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Everyone in this game is so hip, even the dog wears a wrist bandana

Shortly after leaving Eos’ main landmass, Lucis,  for the isle of Altissia, Noctis is granted the ability to timetravel by his childhood guardian, the magic dog-deity, Umbra (it is a Final Fantasy game, after all). At first, this struck me as odd. Why not let me roam around the open world like every other FF game? Why frame it as timetravel? Why a magic interdimensional dog and not an airship? I put it down to the usual FF penchant for inexplicable strangeness.

Then Altissia fell into the sea, and it made sense. But something else made sense too, and once again, I was impressed by the synergy of game mechanic and character development. Throughout the game, Noctis is incredibly downcast. His companions spend much of their time attempting to cheer him up and get little but sullen grunts in return. Initially this seems to arise from several things – Noct is a spoilt teenager unused to hard work and long days on the road, and he’s also a troubled young man who recently lost his father. I found it difficult to empathise with him at times due to his churlish, noncommittal responses to much of what his companions say to him, but took this to be the writers simultaneously conveying a cold, aloof boy and accounting for the fact that the companion AI might churn out any of a number of rote sayings. A lack of response is better than an incorrect one in narrative coherence terms.

However, after the fall of Altissia and the death of Lunafreya, I was forced to reassess Noctis’ melancholia. Since it is only Noctis who travels back in time with Umbra, it is only Noctis who has knowledge of the future. When Prompto chirpily tells him things will go back to normal once they complete their mission, or Gladio teases him about his impending marriage to Luna, he is the only one who knows already that those things will never come to pass. His ‘Uh-huhs’ and ‘Whatevers’ suddenly seem less like the utterances of a rude emo and more like someone trying to protect those he loves from knowledge that will hurt them. Whether this is clever design or a happy accident, I’m not sure and I’m not sure it matters.

Chapter Thirteen

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Ambushed by some shadowy arsehole. Again.

Prior to playing Chapter Thirteen, I read a lot of spoiler-free articles about it. How it was crazy, how it was a mistake, how it was frustrating and badly-made and terrible. After playing it, I agreed wholeheartedly with some of those points, and disagreed vehemently with others. While I was playing, I keenly felt the teeth-gnashing frustration of HOURS spent traipsing through dark mazes with no weapons and no companions frequently ambushed by enemies I would have beaten in seconds previously. In my weakened state, I was forced to enter into a dance of dodging, running and hiding, biding my time for my own pitiful ambush before starting the whole cycle again. I cursed it as a misjudged section that shouldn’t be there, like the Fade in Dragon Age: Origins, or all that shit with the Scarecrow in most of the Arkham games.

But when I completed the chapter and looked back on what it had done, on what it had forced me to do, I instead felt only awe for such commitment to ludonarrative game design, at a time when developers are routinely discouraged from anything which might alienate players. I’m in total agreement with Julie Muncy that to patch it would be to rob players of something important. Firstly, my relief on being reunited with Prompto, Gladio and Ignis was palpable. As with Ignis’ cooking, this was not just because of the advantages their skills afforded me, but because I was genuinely glad to see them. The place we were in was dark and terrible, but being there together made it slightly less so. Secondly, I fought some tough enemies with significantly reduced abilities. I developed new tactics, and they were not the ones the game had taught me, because those were no longer available to me. Like Noctis, I was forced to be resourceful and inventive to survive.

The Passage of Time

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Talcott all growed-up

As you might have gathered from the time-travel section, time and its inexorable passage is a central theme in FFXV. As with the other mechanics mentioned, time not only affects gameplay, but story. The further you progress in FFXV, the shorter the days are. Not only does this hamper your progress in real terms (more powerful monsters come out at night, and the longer the nights, the more likely you’re going to run into them) it brings home to you the kind of future the people of Eos face. If you’re a huge coward like me, you plan your journeys around daylight hours, ensuring you can wait out the night in well lit rest stops and outposts. When it gets to evening, you ensure you don’t stray too far from camp, so you can sprint back to the light and safety in the event something nasty pops out.

In the final stages of the game, Noctis returns from a ten year abscence living inside a supernatural crystal (because Final Fantasy) to find Lucis in permanent darkness. The arrival of young boy Talcott, now an adult, is yet another significant moment of relief. Talcott represents family, safety, familiarity and it’s a joy to see him after stumbling along a pitch black, monster-lined highway for twenty minutes.

Post-Credits Thoughts

When I finished Final Fantasy XV I sobbed for a good twenty minutes. Part of this may have been I played until one am to get it done and was feeling somewhat sleep-deprived and fragile. Part of it was the cruel use of Stand By Me which is sure to get me every time, both for its own sake and for its associations with the book and the movie. But mainly it was because it hurt. It hurt to lose these characters I’d spent so much time with and grown to care about, and it hurt that they had to suffer so much after such hardship. I don’t feel inclined to play the hunts I didn’t finish, or the sidequests I missed, not because FFXV is a bad game, but because, like Noctis, I already know how it turns out for everyone involved.

And that thing about the need for the characters to be male? In this instance, I pretty much buy it. There was something moving and interesting about seeing a group of young men who openly expressed their love for one another and cried together for what they had lost and still stood to lose. Would I have liked for Lunafreya and Aranea to be better developed? Of course. Both were cool characters in different ways and it would have been great to see more of them. Would I have liked Cindy to have less ludicrous breasts? Definitely. But at least Gladio’s pecs were around to even the score. And ultimately, this really is a story about brotherhood, just as X2 was a story about sisterhood.

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