It was a long time coming and it wasn't easy, but lo - FF15 is actually rather good.
At this point I think of Final Fantasy 15 director Hajime Tabata as much as a surgeon as a game developer. In 2013 he was handed a near-impossible task: rescuing a project that'd for one reason or another struggled to gain traction over seven years. He had to take the component parts of Final Fantasy Versus 13 and turn it into a new game - and one worthy of being a numbered FF title. Yowzer.
That's why I imagine him as a surgeon. Game development scalpel in hand he had to carve something new out of a piece of vaporware with a monolithic reputation. On the line is the soul of Final Fantasy in general, and as the rescue mission proceeds deep scars are left behind. Then he's not just operating to revive the project, but also to try to cover up the scars. It's an impossibly difficult task.
"The life-saving operation on Final Fantasy 15 was a stunning success, but the plastic surgery to hide the scars wasn't quite so successful."
It's ultimately a game development like no other, thus the clunky analogy. The efforts of Tabata's team succeed in some ways and fall flat in others. Final Fantasy 13 was a game with generally mediocre ideas that mostly executed on those ideas well. FF15 is a game awash with brilliant ideas that's hit-and-miss as to how much and how often those ideas work out.
Or, to indulge my dubious analogy again: the life-saving operation on Final Fantasy 15 was a stunning success, but the plastic surgery to hide the scars wasn't quite so successful.
Let's start with the most prominent aspect of FF15's marketing: the open world. Much has been made of it, but the fascinating truth is that it's only the first half of the game. As the game stretches into its second act it grows more linear, the world narrowing for protagonist Noctis and his band of cohorts as the situation grows more dire.
The story earns the narrowing, though it's also obvious that this is for development reasons as much as anything else. The first six chapters or so consist of free-wheeling open world action not entirely dissimilar to the Elder Scrolls. There's an engaging gameplay loop of travelling somewhere and discovering new pieces of intrigue to check out along the way, but if you ever grow tired of that the next main story beat is never too far away.
It's possible to spend many hours tooling around in those first few chapters, but the back half of the game is a different beast entirely. Act 2 is essentially several much smaller blobs of world connected by story sequences and linear one-way travel. Act 3 is a corridor to the finish. In a weird way this is FF13 in reverse, though FF15's open world is a proper living, breathing sandbox of sorts.
Lessons have been learned from the rise of the Western RPG, with the primary gain beyond the open world itself an enjoyable action RPG combat system. Noctis can equip up to four weapons at once and switch between them on the fly and though attack is essentially mapped to one button FF15's combat has a finesse to it that's incredibly satisfying. Rather than combo execution battles are about parrying, enemy weaknesses, and the assist abilities of your buddies. In the one-button combat approach one can see the compromise made to ensure turn-based fans aren't pushed away and I think it works out rather well. The simplicity deftly isn't at the detriment of the combat from an action fan's perspective.
There's a sense of chaos to FF15's best encounters, with enemies everywhere and allies dashing about erratically. The chaos is fun except for when one of FF15's major issues rears its head - the camera sucks. It's just uncooperative - whenever you want to line up a lock on or point warp it feels like it fights against you. FF15 features some of the best claustrophobic underground dungeons ever to grace a Japanese RPG but in these cramped, unwelcoming spaces the camera becomes even more of a frustration.
Magic is also a bit rubbish. It's hugely powerful but the manner in which you craft it is tedious and its usage cumbersome. It was a staple of my play-style when things got dicey, but I have to confess I never really liked using it, whereas popping Noctis' incredible Armiger ability or stringing together combos would consistently bring a smile to my face. More satisfying is the well-designed skill tree and the breadth of weapons available to equip, and I generally favor those over magic.
Battling enemies is augmented by a number of other mechanics. One of your friends is a cook, so when you make camp at night he can cook meals that'll give you buffs. Meals require ingredients, and that encourages you to forage or battle the wildlife. You also have to bank experience to level up and you do this by camping. These systems interlock in ways that become cyclical, each cleverly encouraging you to interact with another.
FF15's achievement list boasts 80 total side quests, though some of these are a bit cheeky - one 'sidequest' that counted towards that number consisted of a single optional cutscene. Other marked quests lack in interesting design beyond fetch quests, but the best side content actually goes unmarked. Go hunting deep in optional tombs and you'll find one-off optional bosses and the like that are brilliant, and this is the heart of FF15's optional play. These dungeons are also those that require the most preparation, encouraging you to interface with all of the myriad mechanics from camping to magic crafting. It's no surprise they're also the best.
"Those sorts of sidequests personify this game at its best. When you focus down on combat, your boys and the open world ahead FF15 soars."
Those sorts of sidequests personify this game at its best. When you focus down on combat, your boys and the open world ahead FF15 soars. You drive from outpost to outpost helping locals, battling imperial soldiers and monsters. Occasionally one of your friends might have a quest of their own for you to undertake. It's all pretty great. It's a richly detailed world that you're compelled to spend more time in and explore more deeply backed up by a beautiful musical score that's often used with perhaps a touch too much restraint.
Once the game begins to close up it begins to stumble. While very threadbare in the first half of the game, the story really kicks up a notch in that second half and it's that which will likely keep you going. You'll want to push on because you'll have questions, but this is where FF15 is arguably and surprisingly at its worst: narrative is this FF's weak point. One gets the impression that after building the open world time was short or there was a lack of direction.
Intriguing characters promoted in trailers for the better half of a decade are squandered, with many major events playing out off-screen in a 'Poochie died on the way back to his home planet' sort of way. It's here where efforts to paper over the cracks seem to have been the least successful; villains and allies alike seem to drop off the face of the earth too soon, underwritten and underdeveloped.
What's especially strange about this is that at the core of FF15 sits what might well be the series' most accomplished core cast. Noctis, Prompto, Gladio and Ignis might look like a bunch of boring sods - I've never been partial to the boy band look - but they're magnificently-crafted characters.
Each brings something important to the dynamic, and when one is missing from the group (something which happens to facilitate DLC episodes starring them) it feels wrong. Each has unique abilities and skills that impact on gameplay, too, and it all fits together to make lovely, very accomplished characters. These three in a weird sense deliver more of the promise of Bioshock Infinite's Elizabeth than Elizabeth herself.
The voice work for Noctis in particular is an incredible turn for a localized game, and these four do genuinely feel like friends by the halfway point of the game. Not just friends to each other, but to you as well - the silent partner in their heroic group. That's an accomplishment. Cloud's great, but did anyone ever feel that for him?
"How spectacularly written the boys are serves to underline how under-developed the supporting cast is. In a twist that feels reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 5, major story beats are explained through easily missed radio broadcasts scattered about the world."
How spectacularly written the boys are serves to underline how under-developed the supporting cast is. The main villain is given similar air time, but everybody else is left wanting. One significant character receives a huge growth spurt of development, but in a sense it arrives too late. In a twist that feels reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 5, major story beats are explained through easily missed radio broadcasts scattered about the world.
FF15's development is fascinating - both the Versus years of 2006-2012 and the FF15 period of 2013-2016. A vast number of the scenes depicted in trailers from 2013-15 aren't in the game - even scenes from Gamescom barely over a year ago didn't make it. Cuts happen, of course, but considered alongside with the anemic and vague nature of the story one is left wondering what happened. Square Enix seem to understand the problem, too: the launch patch drops in additional CG scenes sliced out of the FF15 spin-off movie in order to provide context.
For all the weakness of character in the story there's still some incredible moments. The set-piece battles against summon monsters and on a moving train are slickly produced and book-ended with well made story sequences. Every now and then, however, a sequence crops up with flat direction and weird animation that just looks and feels a little unfinished - and that's unfortunate.
So, the story disappoints - but strangely after all that disappointment FF15 still manages to ramp into an incredibly strong finale. Then there's the guys - magnificent, brilliant characters, well-acted and written, each turning an anime archetype into something that feels real and true. This was FF's skill for a while, but one it had lost - with FF15 it succeeds once more. On top of them there's the world itself. Even after deep frustration with the latter areas of the game, when it dropped me back into the open world for post-game content I mellowed: it's still a wonderful place to hang out.
"In many ways it represents a return to form for Final Fantasy, for it rediscovers what the series is supposed to be about."
Because of these incredible strengths Final Fantasy 15 is a good game. That Tabata and his team managed to build it from the ruins of a project that was up there with Duke Nukem Forever in the vaporware stakes is a hell of an achievement. I'm not surprised that the scars of its difficult birth are ultimately visible, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to spend even more time in its beautiful world.
In many ways it represents a return to form for Final Fantasy, for it rediscovers what the series is supposed to be about. It takes nothing for granted, throwing out conventions and trying something bold and new while keeping its head deferentially bowed to the odd tradition. It's been built with love. It shows. It doesn't quite always work, but when it does it's a wonder - and the astonishing thing is that Square Enix had the guts to try at all.