Game Ramblings #27 – Final Fantasy XV

More Info from Square Enix

  • Genre: ARPG/JRPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Xbox One

This is a very special game.  It may not be the kind of Final Fantasy a lot of people would have wanted, but as usual Square Enix has put in all the effort typical of their top effort titles.  While some performance and balance issues show the scars of its long development cycle, the game they have created is easily one of, if not the best RPG I’ve played this year.

It’s been a long time since I universally liked the story and characters of a Final Fantasy game.  There have been high points in most of the recent games, but the last few sets of FF characters have always had at least a couple people that just annoyed the hell out of me the entire time, even when the stories weren’t complete nonsense.  In FF XV’s case, this is the exact opposite.  Right from the very beginning you start off with the entire effective party, and the growth of the group as a team, and the interactions between them as they go on their adventure are fantastic.  I so wish I could spoil things here, because there were moments that surpassed the death of FF7’s Aerith for me in their emotional impact.  Also of note, the use of the song Stand By Me as both the intro and credits scene could not have been a more perfect choice to end the misadventure of this crew.

Now that said, the battle system is definitely rubbing a lot of people the wrong way.  It’s been since FF9 that we have seen the same battle system used twice in a row.  That game was the end of the long-used ATB system.  FF10 used a more traditional turn-based system.  FF11 and 14 were MMOs, with 12 using a very much MMO-styled real-time system.  13 then followed those all up with an ATB-like system, with some key changes in how it queued up events.

15 has thrown all that away, going for easily the most action-focused battle system they’ve ever done in a mainline title.  Gone are menus, gone are spells, gone are waiting times between turns.  In this one you have an attack button, a pseudo-dodge button, a warp button, and a jump button.  The combination of those actions, and the ability to switch between weapons and a handful of element-based attacks gives you your entire range of functionality.  You only control one character, with the other three members of the party being AI-based, mostly ending up being support characters by the end of the game.  Rather than the skill of the game being asset management, this brings timing to the forefront as the main skill to the game.  The primary dodge and attack buttons are both hold to execute, so attack chains don’t require button spamming, and dodge can be held to automatically avoid a lot of simple attacks.  In the end, the flow of battle is dictated more by which button you are holding down, rather than the more frantic button combo systems that a lot of ARPG games use.  The closest comparison I can really give is the Tales of series, but even then I don’t think it’s an adequate comparison to the system in place here.

FF XV has also shown quite a lot of western influence, particularly with the Elder Scrolls series, in the design of the overall gameplay flow.  If you were to just rush the story, I suspect this game could be easily completed in 15 hours or less.  However, the overarching story is that the group is on a road trip, and the game definitely plays to that.  Rather than fast travelling around the world, the group initially drives around the world, radio blaring, going from town to town.  Each town and rest stop typically acts as a quest hub, giving a number of general side quests, as well as typically more challenging creature hunts.  There are also fishing areas scattered around the world, and a number of hidden dungeons to explore for extra treasure.  In doing this, you can easily spend the bulk of your time playing this game just hopping around the world doing absolutely everything but the main story, giving lots of longevity to the game outside of the typical story loop.

So, in the end, this game and its universe are easily something I would recommend.  There is also some good additional content that will help give light to some of the world’s backstory in the Kingsglaive movie and Brotherhood anime.  That said, the core of the universe is definitely the game, and it’s a good one.  It’s likely to go down as one of the most controversial games in the Final Fantasy series, simply due to its departure from the style of the past, but I think Square has made a good decision here in reestablishing that Final Fantasy are at their core extraordinarily well produced games of any style at their core, and not just RPGs that have stick to a set of conventions to get by.

Shelved It #2 – Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors

More Info from the Dragon Quest Wiki

  • Genre: On-Rails Action / RPG
  • Platform: Wii
  • Shelved At: End of Chapter 5 of 8
  • Reason for Shelving: JRPG grind without the JRPG gameplay

This is actually a fairly curious game.  It’s absolutely a Dragon Quest game through and through.  All your standard enemies are there, the character design is very obviously tied to the series, and the world itself is the fairly standard fantasy-based setting typical of the series.  However, rather than being a JRPG, it’s effectively styled as an on-rails shooter, but with sword swinging instead of guns.

Going into the game, I was kind of suspicious the gameplay would work at all.  However, they were fairly smart with the design of the game to take advantage of the Wii controls.  Everything input-related uses the Wii Remote to activate actions.  Swingingthe Remote activates sword swipes, while jabbing it will stab directly at enemies.  Holding the B button activates a shield that can be moved around with the pointer functionality of the Remote.  Movement is on the D-Pad, and setting a swipe focus point is on the A button.  Overall it’s a very intuitive control scheme, and works fairly well.  The main downfall is the swipe functionality itself.  Since this game predates the release of the Wii MotionPlus and subsequent Wii Remote Plus, the actual accuracy of your swipes is fairly low, leading to some frustration in points where you need to be fairly specific with the angle of your swipes.

At the point where I ended up shelving the game, I had just gotten through a boss fight where I was fighting a constant refreshed party of 6 minions and the boss itself.  Individually they weren’t a huge issue, but taking out the minions efficiently to concentrate on the boss required much more precision with the swipe mechanic than I could reasonably achieve.  My closest comparison is really something along the lines of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, where swipe direction was also important, but was easy to manage throughout.

While in general this wasn’t a huge issue, boss fights became a bigger issue.  In most on-rails games, I tend to expect that increases in player skill are the driving factor in the difficulty curve of the game.   I would typically be getting better at the game to chase new high scores, or play at higher difficulties, but the NPC strength is relatively fixed. However, in this case, the player is also leveling in a fashion typical of JRPGs, as well as buying and upgrading your typical set of gear.  All that being said, it felt like the game was pushing me to grind in order to progress, rather than simply being better at the game.  The last boss I faced was effectively a health wall, and the damage I was doing was barely lowering his health for the amount of hits I was having to do.  While the high score system typical of these games was there, the scores necessary for the highest rewards were easily eclipsed via new gear or higher levels, which is pretty atypical of the genre.

Overall this is at least a curious experiment for Square to have pulled off.  While it definitely has its problems, it’s an entertaining side note in the Dragon Quest series, and one of the more curious uses of on-rail mechanics that I’ve seen.  While it’s probably not going to necessarily satisfy either JRPG or rail shooter fans, at the right price, it’s the type of game you can keep coming back to for short rounds, if for no other reason than to chase that illusive high score again.

Game Ramblings #26 – Pokemon Sun & Moon

More info from Nintendo/Game Freak

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: 3DS

So one of the things that was continually talked about pre-release for these games was how much the 7th generation was going to change up the formula for Pokemon.  Having now finished the game, I’m not that convinced they really changed much at all, and in a lot of ways they seem to have stripped out features to get to a simplified base to start the generation.  While I’m pretty comfortable saying that as usual, this was a fantastic game and is the best Pokemon entry that’s been released, it feels like another iterative step in the series, and not at all a big change to the formula.

So, I guess to start, let’s look at what actually is new.  We’re in a new region, Alola, this time taking place on a bunch of islands.  The theme of a lot of the new 80 or so Pokemon in the Gen 7 Pokedex revolves around this, particularly in the large amount of legendaries available in the post-game content.  In addition, there’s a handful of Gen 1 Pokemon in new Alola forms, such as the Dark/Normal Rattata or Ice/Steel Sandshrew.  In all you’re talking about 100 or so new entries into your overall strategy.  There’s also a replacement to Gen 6’s Mega Evolutions called Z-Moves, super powered moves tied to type- or Pokemon-specific Z-Crystals that are found throughout the main story.

So all that is well and good, but is largely comprised of expected changes.  From there we have to get into the kinda sort asterisk changes that were really claimed as the big steps forward, as well as some features that were removed from Gen 6 games that are definitely to be missed.

The big one here is the change associated with gyms.  Gyms are gone! You aren’t collecting badges! …kind of.  Gyms were effectively replaced by a new captain challenge system.  Each captain challenge is a special area on each island in which you take on a type-specific challenge.  As an example, in one you are tasked with researching a series of disturbances in a lake, culminating in a series of water Pokemon fights, with the reward being a water Z-Crystal.  Long story short, they technically aren’t gyms, and technically aren’t badges, the functionality is effectively the same, going from area to area to fight type-restricted fights.  Alongside the gym changes, there’s also some big asterisks associated with changes to the Pokemon League that are effectively covered in the story.

As far as removals go, Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby extended the gameplay of Gen 6’s post-game in some smart ways that no longer exist.   The first big one of these is the Soar feature, where you could fly on the back of Latios or Latias over the Hoenn region, giving you access to both battles against flying Pokemon, as well as a larger number of Soar-exclusive legendary Pokemon areas, and post game content.  In addition, the DexNav feature is completely removed.  This has two important consequences.  First, the per-route visual indicator of what Pokemon are available is gone.  Second, the entire hidden Pokemon feature is gone.  In general the second-screen experience is effectively only restricted to combat inputs and an always-on Town Map, which fairly heavily simplified the count of non-essential mechanics available to the player.  In addition, the removal of Mega Evolutions is at the very least curious given the amount of marketing push it received throughout the entirety of Gen 6.

All that being said, overall I still think the game is a step forward.  In shedding some of the old mechanics, they have definitely simplified the game back to a much cleaner slate, giving them a good base to start with looking forward to the probable move to the upcoming Switch.  It also provides some questions as to how they are going to handle the assumed Gen 4 remakes when they’re ready to move in that direction.  The team at this point seems to have caught up to a lot of the type mechanics added within the last couple of generations, with a lot of the new Pokemon adopting dual-type combos never seen before.  The addition of region-specific forms also gave us curious new type combinations, lending a bit of mystery to what kind of Pokemon is coming up next when you’re told that you will be facing a Sandslash.  If they really run with some of these features through the rest of Gen 7, we could be set for a huge jump in the quality of the Pokemon games from this point forward.