Few games can boast as tumultuous a development period as Final Fantasy XV. Originally envisioned as Final Fantasy Versus XIII for the PS3 back in 2006, fans of the series have long awaited this entry. By 2012, however, development was abandoned on Versus XIII, and the project was rebranded as Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Fortunately, unlike other games with a decade-long development cycle (see Duke Nukem Forever), FFXV delivers a package bursting to the seams with content, and one for which the wait was well deserved. Despite the many behind-the-scenes changes during the past ten years, the final product is cohesive and bold, opening a new page for the Final Fantasy franchise, and offering an RPG experience both familiar and wholly unique from the competition.
As the game loads, the message “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First Timers” informs the player of what to expect, and those eight words serve as a thesis of sorts for the title. Veteran fans may lament the loss of such iconic features as turn-based combat and medieval settings, but the fast-paced action combat and contemporary magical-realism setting offer a reason for new players to pick up the title. Perhaps the biggest change is the fact that the game bears more in common with The Witcher and other contemporary Western RPGs than the JRPGs that are the title’s forebears. Yet, in the long run this move is more likely to be a boon rather than a curse for the series. Turn-based combat has its place in both gaming history and the present, but to compete in the modern RPG genre, these changes seem a necessary evil.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine trekking through the world of Eos in the same ways as in previous Final Fantasy worlds, as Square-Enix has created a gorgeous and unique open world. The graphics are breathtaking, to say the least, and when players are first given control of Crown Prince Noctis and his pals pushing a broken car along a deserted highway, something truly magical happens in seeing the world for the first time. The draw distances are amazing—some of the longest and most awe-inspiring sightlines of any game in recent memory—and the sheen of the sun glinting off the group’s trusty vehicle, the Regalia, is a testament to the hard work put into this game. The way the breeze blows the hair on the characters’ heads, the way the group fluidly moves amidst packs of enemies mid-fight, and the overall beauty of the day-and-night cycle make Eos a world players will have no trouble sinking many, many hours into. With world building being such an important pillar to any RPG, the fact that Eos captivates from the first scene and never lets go sets up the rest of the game on a canvas ripe for the taking.
The heart of the game however, is in protagonist Noctis Lucis Caelum and his three traveling companions and best friends: Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. Making up a sort of ego, superego, and id respectively to Noctis’s own personality, the four companions serve as the core of the story which begins as a bachelor party gone bad, and turns into a heartfelt exploration of friendship faced with loss, defeat, and tragedy. Perhaps the reason these characters work so well together is in the endearing banter between the group as they explore the open world, whether it be delving into the deepest dungeon or camping for the night under the stars. Or the car rides players take to get around the world, capturing the road trip trope perfectly while allowing players to listen to the soundtracks of previous Final Fantasy games as the landscapes roll by.
The integration of each character into the gameplay itself via the form of different activities that define them also serves to reinforce the strength of the group. Prompto, the photographer, takes snapshots of the group’s journey and allows players to save their favorites, ostensibly just for fun but later revealed to be much more important. Ignis, the cook, can fashion a variety of stat-boosting meals, the spectacled and reasonable “mother” of the group. And Gladiolus, the stout shield that protects the Crown Prince, is all about survival, picking up items during combat and acting as a sheer force of destruction in any fight. Noctis himself is a fisherman, the relevant mini-game simple to learn but hard to master. At its best, players feel like Jeremy Wade wrestling a leviathan on River Monsters, but there is nothing more frustrating than having a line snap moments before reeling in a prize catch. These activities capture a mundanity to the journey, which is many ways makes the game feel even more realistic, and makes the moments of companionable silence more impactful.
Yet there are also a myriad of side quests for players to engage with, offering experience points and gil to spend. While many of them amount to nothing more than fetch quests, a staple of the series, they provide a narrative, however small, to go to different places in the world and see the many walks of life. Such diversions help to evoke the intriguing setting of Eos, where players drive cars on paved roads, but also fight with magic spells and magic weapons. The sheer number of beasts that inhabit the world make Eos more dangerous, but the design behind them represents the best monsters fantasy has to offer. From griffons and goblins, to unicorns and dragons, many familiar creatures are reimagined to fit the game’s graphic style. Taking on the role of hunters tasked on taking down the deadliest of these beasts, Noctis and his band at times feel like Geralt of Rivia and his fellow Witchers, killing monsters for coin and to protect the common folk. Again, such similarities are necessary to draw in new players more familiar with The Witcher than Final Fantasy, and the sheer joy in taking down some of biggest, baddest beasts is exceedingly rewarding.
The combat system itself, which players use to complete these hunts and all other fights in the game, is simultaneously chaotic and simple. With one button relegated for using a weapon, the real strategy comes in the positioning of the group during these encounters. Noctis has the unique ability to ‘warp-strike’ around the battlefield, hurling his weapon at a foe, teleporting to it, dealing damage, and moving away in the blink of an eye. His companions have Techniques of their own, powerful moves they make in combat both with and without the player’s input. The more devastating of the two are the ones players choose to unleash using a tech bar filled up through combat consisting of three segments. Each companion has several Techniques to choose from, costing from 1 to 3 blocks of the tech bar, increasing with effectiveness the higher the cost. These abilities can save the lives of some companions, as they are effectively invincible when performing them, and they can also turn the tide of a losing fight in an instant.
That is not to say there is still no danger, or no learning curve. It takes times to master the correct timings to dodge attacks, as well as when to use potions to heal or otherwise enhance the party. Phoenix Downs, a staple of the series, are back, used to revive teammates in combat, and necessary to save Noctis should he falter or else the game will end. There is a window to save each other, as when one’s health is depleted, they enter a state of danger where they cannot fight but only limp away until they are healed or take a potion, adding another layer of tactics to the combat. At times, the camera angles can render any strategy useless as players are lost amidst their enemies, but it works impressively well for the most part. A Wait Mode for the combat is also included, which pauses the combat when the player is not moving. This mode allows a necessary reprieve at times, allowing overwhelmed players to catch their breath and plot the next attack. Encounters with one group of enemies can bleed into others, as random encounters come in the form of ambushes from Imperial dropships and packs of beasts roaming the plains. These battles are the most chaotic, but also the most stimulating. Boss fights are also another monster, however, relying more on tactical precision against a big foe where one false step can spell certain doom.
Yet it is possible for players to severely over-level if they do many side quests before moving on with the story, at times being double the recommended level for a certain quest. While being this powerful certainly has its benefits, it makes the random encounters more deadly, and players can find themselves outnumbered by lower level foes and still struggle. The grinding of previous Final Fantasy games is replaced with more organic XP gain from side quests, and players are not forced to level any more than they want to. It is rewarding to see combat become easier, however, and to see one’s combat prowess increase, to see enemies that once left Noctis limping now the ones being cowed. As such an integral part of the gameplay, the combat fills its role quite nicely, and though it may be hard to master, it still captures a distinct choreography unlike any other series offers.
In order to better prepare for combat, players can outfit the party with better weapons and trinkets that boost different stats or have special effects. Furthermore, the customization system incorporates ability nodes that can be activated through AP points, accrued while leveling and through other activities such as driving or fishing, if players choose to upgrade those nodes. From increasing the effectiveness of linked strikes to unlocking deadly new abilities for Noctis and the party, these options add further depth and allow players to pick a build which suits their playstyle. Players must make camp to level up and receive some AP, while also choosing a meal to cook and peruse Prompto’s photos. During these downtimes, a kind of companion quest can be initiated, where one of the Crownsguard will take Noctis away from camp for some one-on-one training. With the addition of New Game +, players can become even stronger the second time around.
Yet for all the differences from the rest of the series, FFXV still has some hallmarks of the titles that came before it. The iconic Chocobos, for instance, return, allowing players to traverse the land on the back of the lovable feathered steeds. They too can level up, and even aid in combat, looking as gorgeous as ever and providing a strong connection to the rest of the series. There are also a myriad of dungeons and high level bosses for players to take on, as well as some hidden bosses and other secrets only available after completing the main story. In this structure of mystery and exploration, the sense of wonder the series captures so well remains intact. In addition, the story itself strikes some familiar notes common throughout the other narratives within the series, while also elevating the franchise with stronger characters and a tighter story.
As a series, Final Fantasy has always had strong characters but has suffered from often convoluted or unnecessarily complicated plots. The premise here, however, is simple: Prince Noctis is heading to the city of Altissa to marry his betrothed, Lunafreya. His three Crownsguards and friends are escorting him there, and all seems to be going well at first. Unfortunately, things go south very fast, but players are not given the full story. Instead, to fully understand what happens, they must watch the CGI movie Kingsglaive which explains an incident that occurs at the beginning of the game and effectively changes the world forever. The series is no stranger to such CGI films, but to have one be so integral to understanding the story told inside the game seems a mistake. Square-Enix has also released a five-episode animated series entitled Brotherhood which gives more background on Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus. While not as integral to understanding the plot as Kingsglaive, it offers some information that helps inform who these characters are and makes the player appreciate their group dynamic even more. Still, even without knowing the full details players learn enough to understand why the party’s plans must change, even if it is not a satisfactory explanation.
From there the story opens the world to the player, and allows them to choose to either continue with it forthwith, or do side quests and explore the world. The main goal remains the same in reuniting with Lunafreya, but the quest becomes increasingly complicated as demons and the Imperial army dog the party’s steps. There is a rich lore and strong ideas floated, but as a whole, the story could have been a little less vague and more fully fleshed out at points to clarify plot twists or explain the motivations of certain characters. Still, the English voice acting is surprisingly solid and helps lend an emotional authenticity to scenes that might otherwise fall flat on plot relevance alone.
This story is more straightforward than others in the series, filled with many low points of darkness and defeat, but also instances of hope and love. The other locations (besides the open world of Lucis) that players see, however briefly, remain breathtaking in their own right, even though players may find themselves wishing they could spend more time in them. Though some plot points may not be entirely clear by the ending, there is nonetheless a strong conclusion to a story which has its own missteps, but ultimately finds its strength in the relationship between Noctis and his friends, and the tests put to those bonds over the many chapters and hours. In telling this linear story, players are not given any choices that may change what happens, offering a tighter narrative on one hand, but also removing story choice which is so important to RPGs today. Though dialogue choices are occasionally incorporated into the plotlines, they amount to nothing more than XP or AP given to the whole party or only certain members.
Final Fantasy XV is an impressive title despite some narrative flaws, massive in scope and ambition, and technically impressive. From the awe-inspiring graphics and lovable protagonists, to the unique, visceral world and the fluid, action-packed combat, fans both old and new will find something to hold their interest. While the series seems to be adapting to the contemporary Western RPG, and it stands to reason a sequel would continue in this direction, at its core, it is still Final Fantasy. No other series can be so well known and have such a cultural impact, nor capture such a unique style of character and storytelling, while also remaining a giant in a constantly changing industry. There is more than enough bang for buck with this one, and then some. The message at the load screen does seem to hold true. “A Final Fantasy for fans and first timers.” All are welcome. And with more DLC to come, both free and paid, an already full package will go on to bursting.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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