Hands-on with Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV faces a difficult task. There is no easy way to to calm the storm that’s been created around a game 10+ years in the making. It’s hard to go into any demo and distance myself from that bitterness of the wait, yet the game’s delay comes at a relief.

My feelings on FF15 are some of the most conflicted I’ve had on a game in a long time. I loved what I experienced with the characters, the story’s beginning, and the stage it was setting. However, it looked and performed terribly. FF15 certainly did not feel like a September 2016 game, or maybe even a 2016 title. The latest entry to the Final Fantasy series seems like it has an amazing story to tell, on par with some of my series favorites. Yet its appearance, performance, and even gameplay feel out of place in a series that pioneered my standards for RPGs.

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I had 45 minutes with FF15. The demo was showing off the beginning of the game, which starts us off with a much older Noctis and co. somewhere later in the story. They’re struggling to make it through a fight, and everything looks like it’s headed for disaster. Noctis bears a striking resemblance to his father, and this parallel between the two is probably what I’m most looking forward to in FF15

As I get older, the stories about parents and their children seem a little more special to me. Final Fantasy IX in particular tries to scratch that itch with the complex relationship between Princess Garnet and Queen Brahne, but it falls a little short of showing us any meaningful moments between the two prior to Queen Brahne’s resolve. Final Fantasy X and VIII do much of the same thing. While I love all of those games, it seems FF15 is already doing a better job of telling me that sort of paternal story I’m looking for.

FF15 quickly switches to a younger Noctis acting like a typical, ornery teenager. His father is calm, caring, and obviously concerned. It’s clear the king knows something his son doesn’t, and there’s already a somberness to their final conversation before the prince departs. This, juxtaposed with the fight in the beginning, was my favorite moment of the demo. 

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After that, my relationship with the demo became a little more troubled. Shortly after the opening cutscene, I thought my game had locked up on the loading screen. I had time to ask a Square rep for help, but the game really was just loading. It felt like I spent several, unreasonable amounts of time just waiting on the game to begin. Perhaps it’s because I was acutely aware that I had limited time with the demo, but my fear of the demo locking up turned out to be justified anyway.

I had been playing for just a few minutes before the FF15 began to stutter. The game’s southern belle mechanic, Cindy, sent me off on a quest to make some gil. Any time multiple enemies began to stack, I noticed massive drops in the frame rate and some bizarre pauses. If we were talking traditional turn-based Final Fantasy, maybe that wouldn’t matter, but FF15 is action based.

It’s more frustrating because of the type of system FF15 now sports. Every second counts when several beastly creatures are charging you and your party. Before, I felt like I could attribute some of my difficulties with the combat to being new to the system, but I’m not. I’ve played every demo, multiple times. I’ve dealt with the same, cumbersome camera multiple times. It’s just difficult to deal with severe frames drops and stuttering in more intense combat.

The camera always felt like an extra enemy.  There are combat situations where Noctis must teleport, but that’s difficult to do when I can’t angle the camera towards the area I intend to take Noctis. In this sense, FF15 certainly takes me back to Kingdom Hearts, where I fought the camera harder than any enemy.

Yet, unlike Kingdom Hearts, the AI at least felt intelligent this time around. I approached death several times, but never saw a game over screen thanks to my party members. I don’t expect that to remain the case further into the game as things become progressively harder, but an extension on development time has me hopeful that the performance of FF15 won’t impact difficult.

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Even with my struggles in combat, there’s so much about FF15 that I found endearing. After Noctis leaves his father to set out on his expedition, we get the other side of the prince that feels far removed from his role in a future ruler. The friends escorting him for the trip all feel as different as night and day, and their personalities tend to cater to the different needs of such a friend group

That was another part of FF15 I adored. The banter between Noctis, Ignis, Gladioulus, and Prompto at the start of their journey has the cliched, goofy humor I’ve loved in older FF but taken a little further. It’s like there’s not a moment when the cast could appear serious, but we also know that’s not the case from the beginning. The utter cheesiness of Prompto’s over exaggerated whining and Ignis’ constant scolding was a plus for me. FF15 may have some elements working against it, but choosing to take the narrative in reverse chronology was a solid choice. Again, the juxtaposition of older Noctis and Co. versus a younger, less concerned bunch kept me eager to find out how it all sours.

And while I did love the character interactions, odd texture quality differences in some cutscenes were distracting. There was one moment in particular as the guys were all gathered around speaking that I could not get over how out of place Ignis looked. Not because he doesn’t fit in as a character, but because his shirt and jacket kept going completely black. From certain angles, it happened to a few other characters as well. Whatever base color the clothing was, suddenly took over and all of the clothing depth would be lost. It’s jarring and distracting to watch as everyone’s wardrobe randomly takes a dive in quality.

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Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only place where FF15’s quality would take a nosedive. As much as I do love the art direction within the game, the implementation of it doesn’t always do it justice. Every character looked like I put it through my favorite childhood photoshop process, which involved seeing how much I could sharpen something. This is consistent throughout the game, so I have little hope that what I play in November will curb the effect.

I ended my time with the demo fully understanding why they chose to delay it, and a little more thankful for that decision. It’s a game of tug of war, as FF15 gives and takes so much from important parts of the experience. I want to love it, but it’s difficult to right now. It’s clear it needs work, and that’s at least been acknowledged. What keeps me hopeful is that the structure of the opening, the setting of the stage, and characters all fell into place.

When we’re talking about my relationship with Final Fantasy, it’s always story first, everything else second. The ingredients are all there, but poorly implemented. FF15 just needs a heavy coat of polish to really deliver. It all seems like something that’s fixable, but only November will tell if I’ll remember the game more for the story or struggling performance.

Editor's Note: This impressions piece is on the Gamescom 2016 demo.

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