So it’s the beginning of August right now, and Final Fantasy 15 is due out on September 30th. In other words? Oh God. It’s almost time for another Final Fantasy game.
Right, then. So let’s do the sensible thing and talk about Star Ocean.
I spent about three hours with Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness the other day. It was against my better judgment, considering that that was time better spent with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Xenoblade Chronicles X, or Tales of Zestiria. But as someone who put more than two hundred hours into Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (to unsuccessfully try and clear Sphere 211), and as someone who…uh…played The Last Hope, I figured I owed the game a fair shot. Plus, my brother’s ominous declaration one day -- unprompted, and spoken mere seconds after making his entrance -- gave me the push to start my investigation. What did he say?
“Star Ocean sucks!” I guess that’ll teach him not to preorder things based solely on name recognition from here on, or at least wait until reviews. That is, until he does a blind preorder again exactly 8.65 seconds from now.
Reckless purchase aside, though? It’s too early for me to give an ironclad judgment, but yeah. I’m inclined to agree with him; Star Ocean does kind of suck. It’s functional, for sure, and not without merit. There’s a story element in there that the devs can (or should) take all the way to the limit, which will help the game in the long run. Based on the first three hours, however, the fifth Star Ocean entry is not good. It’s not fun. I came within seconds of falling asleep in the middle of playing, and spent the rest of the session slumped in my chair like a broken puppet.
Again, the game is functional; as far as I can tell, there’s nothing grievously wrong with it. It doesn’t self-destruct within the first thirty minutes, it’s not riddled with game-breaking bugs, and the gameplay itself is solid (if a little too simplistic at the outset). But there’s nothing about it that sticks out -- no style, no panache. JRPGs are notorious for slow starts that test the player’s patience, but they can still provide compelling reasons to forge on. Star Ocean 5 doesn’t.
I went in expecting the worst, i.e. the game would break down into cookie-cutter anime tropes turned up a few thousand notches. But I didn’t even get that. Main character Fidel is just kind of there, being serious and focused and hating his dad for some reason. His childhood friend Miki is also kind of there, doing childhood friend things. You end up running through five separate party members (six if you count a brief cameo) in that three-hour span, but it all comes off as cold and dry. And rushed. Not even the characters look like they want to be in the game.
I suspect that the game is trying to expedite the process -- the opening hours -- to get to “the good stuff”, but those efforts aren’t really appreciable. Not for me. SO5 is sorely lacking a hook, and for all their faults, SO3 AND SO4 managed that. How? The former showed off the marvels of its universe’s technology, coupled with a glimpse at alien worlds, machines, and (eventually) invaders. The latter pretty much started with a space expedition, necessitated by a desire to seek out new, habitable worlds -- and said expedition was quickly punctuated by an alien attack.
To its credit, SO5 does have a spaceship flying in its opening demo (albeit without context), and you do get to see a ship touch down after a while. And on top of that, I can’t fully knock points just because the game doesn’t start with space exploration/interaction from the get-go. As far as I can tell, the franchise is about the interaction between future/space tech and underdeveloped, quasi-medieval worlds -- BUT I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an extreme skew towards the latter.
That’s where my hope for the game comes in; SO3 and SO4 put the player in close proximity to advanced technology, and had a decent chunk of its cast suss out how to use their tech and knowledge in lieu of the underdeveloped alien worlds they visit. Simply put, it’s a matter working within (or outside) the bounds of the Prime Directive. SO5 has painted itself as a reversal of that; Fidel, Miki, and several others are the underdeveloped masses looking to the stars, only to watch a living impossibility transpire before their eyes.
So why is the game so boring despite the explosive power at your fingertips?
It feels like SO5 is rushing, but going nowhere fast. The first problem is that even if things are moving at a fast pace, it still has to run through all the stupid tropes -- like it’s afraid that failure to check off every item on the list means the death penalty. Childhood friend? Check. Sleepy village that ends up coming under attack? Check. Evil kingdom/empire? Check. Improbably-dressed sexy party member? Check. Amnesia? Check. Youth with a mysterious power? Check. Cute little girl that worms her way into the party and/or plot? Check-a-roonie.
It’s not as if tropes and clichés are an immediate failure state (see: the Tales games). But over the course of three hours, I don’t feel like there was any building upon them. There was nothing to gussy up the standard operating procedure, or anything to distract me from the fact that I’d seen all that stuff before (and done better, arguably). Why? Well, I’m inclined to believe that SO5’s attempts to become modern -- to create a seamless experience, and put full control in the player’s hands -- cripples this game worse than Moe with a crowbar.
It was a mistake to frontload the opening with exposition about the nearby towns’ state of affairs, because I was personally counting down the seconds until we got to go to space. But what’s different about SO5 compared to its predecessors -- and the much bigger mistake -- is that the strictly-controlled and framed cutscenes you’d expect from a JRPG are almost entirely stripped out. You can move around freely in an area while people are jabbering on, and goof off without them raising a complaint. I spent more time making Fidel’s walk animation flip out and having his model clip into the others’ than I did pay attention to the knightly Victor explaining the situation, or Miki playing caregiver to Little Girl with a Mysterious Power #619.
Far be it from me to ask for a more “cinematic” experience, but it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation. Part of what helps breathe life into Tales of Zestiria and its cast is that when it animates its characters through in-game cutscenes, they go all-out. You get a deeper understanding and appreciation of them by seeing them emote, fight, react, and occasionally get clobbered for bringing up ghosts. In SO5, you get the luxury of -- wait for it -- swiveling a camera around people as they dryly talk about situations and plans. They just stand there, really; no glimpses of their faces, no notable tics in their motions, nothing. I mean, I guess they’ll shift in place and walk off-screen at some junctures, but if the plan was to sell me on how cool Victor is -- besides his costume, which is just as needlessly-ornate as the other characters’ -- then I’m not sold. Sorry, Crispin Freeman. You do good work, but even you can only do so much to save a game.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that even if SO5 is fine as a game, it’s not something I’m in any rush to ever play again. I feel absolutely nothing for it besides a sense of disappointment. I can’t even rage at it, because much like leading man Fidel, it’s just kind of there -- being nothing, and doing nothing. And yes, I understand that it’s the opening hours; I know that it can get dramatically better if I give it a chance. But if we’re talking strictly about first impressions, SO5 doesn’t hold even a single drop of wax -- let alone a candle -- to SO3 and SO4. Like, it’s not hard to surpass those games, but somehow Fidel and his game at large feel miles behind Fayt and Edge.
We live in a world where JRPGs are vast and varied -- and more than capable of offering up something worthwhile. Xenoblade Chronicles X has a massive world ripe for exploration, along with a tone and plot that feels more mature -- professional, even. Tales of Zestiria has energy and charm to it that makes it impossible to resist, alongside the typical action-packed gameplay and a story full of possibilities. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is an audiovisual delight, mixed with combat that simple enough to grasp yet already showing complexity -- and requiring a fair bit of strategy, in true SMT fashion. Those are just three examples, but they illustrate my point: JRPGs take a lot of heat (and rightly so), but they have more than enough potential to delight. To entertain. To grab you and never let go.
So here’s the question I have: what’s FF15’s hook supposed to be, besides the name? Because as it stands, one of my biggest fears is that it’ll be the same vat of nothing as SO5.
Let me be frank: nothing would make me happier than declaring with a smile that FF15 is actually good -- a standout in the genre, a return to form, whatever. And let’s not pretend that it’s totally impossible; maybe the troubled development over the past decade has helped refine the game into its ultimate state, free from the baggage, excess, and absurdity that plagued past titles. Hope springs eternal, after all -- even with the common claims and outcries that “Final Fantasy is dead”.
But I’m realistic as well as optimistic, and I have some serious doubts about the quality of the game. I wasn’t too keen on the Episode Duscae release; somehow, the Platinum Demo felt like a step backward. The samples we’ve gotten have left me worried about the gameplay, to the point where I’m bracing for the worst. That’s setting aside the story, which has consistently been a letdown for the past half-decade or so of Squeenix output, let alone FF. I’m not going to accuse them of poisoning Star Ocean with their mere presence (as a co-developer in some cases, as a publisher in others), but…well, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel better. Relatively speaking.
The assumption, I’d bet, is that FF15 is going to be a saving grace for the series by virtue of not being about Lightning and/or The Lightning Saga (HRRGHK). And yes, dumping her and that saga helps deal with some lingering issues, or at least offers relief for droves of weary gamers. Likewise, I’d also bet that people are happy because Motomu Toriyama -- the man who spearheaded The Lightning Saga (HRRGHK) won’t be involved so intimately. Many core duties fall to Hajime Tabata, so…hey, the game will be good now, right?
I wonder about that. As eager as I am to declare Tabata as a lord and savior, I can’t overlook the fact that he played a key role in making Final Fantasy Type-0, which is about as far from salvation as you can get. Also, I’m under the impression that he was brought in later to help shuttle FF15 out the door, so who knows how good of a job he and the team did? Will we gamers be able to see the tree rings embedded into the disc? Will it be so plainly obvious that it’s a hack job that the glue will ooze out from the case? Is the gameplay going to be good? Is the story going to be good? Is anything going to be good? I honestly don’t know, and it leaves me gnawing my fingers into nubs.
I mean…I guess it’ll look pretty and all. So there’s that, maybe?
I don’t know what’ll be worse: FF15 being bland, or being unthinkably awful. Granted the two can overlap, but the latter implies an interesting kind of awful, at the very least -- the sort of thing an insane person with a deep, meaningless grudge and a head like an oversized Chia Pet might write a novella’s worth of complaints over. Who wants to talk about how a game in an esteemed franchise is merely hitting par, which in itself is made possible by just doing what everyone else is doing? Or has done, in some cases?
It’s a safe bet that the game’s opening up its borders to create something very close to an open-world game, complete with sidequests to wrap up. Duscae and various trailers have implied that there are going to be plenty of cinematic moments, and the seamless transition elements -- like SO5 before it -- suggest that there’s an effort to expedite the process. To cut off the fat that’s plagued the JRPG for years, or at least earned plenty of ridicule. It’s in the service of making a modern game with mass appeal, inasmuch as (name aside) a JRPG can have mass appeal.
But I wonder if FF15 will be able to maintain that sense of specialness. Admittedly that begs the question of what makes FF special, which would take another post to even try and address; still, any given game can offer up its quintessence for players, and I expect that those that want recognition had better put in the work. So what’s FF15’s quintessence going to be? What’s its hook? What’s its takeaway? Don’t get me wrong; the idea of going on a road trip with four tightly-knit bros is an interesting one with a ton of possibilities, but that depends heavily on the charisma they have. Likewise, there's no telling how much longevity the relationship will have; it could carry the whole game, or it could wear out the novelty in a matter of hours. Time will tell how that plays out -- though as of right now I’ll gladly declare that Prompto’s my favorite of the four so far. He’s got spunk.
As critical as good gameplay is, the best way to “save” FF is to pack in a good story. And yes, there is potential here; if the game goes all in with developing a relationship between its characters -- the four boys, natch, but also Noctis and dear old dad Regis -- then it’ll be in good shape. On the other hand, it could fall prey to conventions that have long since worn out their welcome. It looks like DA EVIL EMPIRE is already making its presence felt. Noctis may or may not have a “destiny” that needs fulfilling. And I’m concerned that they’re setting up the main girl (or girls) as waifs to take the fall vis a vis the plot. And/or emotional manipulation. Because Aerith.
And once more, the FF baggage could flare up at any point throughout the game. This was originally supposed to have strong ties to FF13, which meant that they would share similar concepts and mythology. So I’ll be blunt: if this game has anything to do with the l’Cie/fal’Cie bullshit throughout 13, 13-2, and Type-0, then it’s basically dead on arrival. Squeenix hasn’t proven at any point since introducing the concept -- that stupid, stupid, stupid concept -- that they have any idea how to use it effectively. Rules have been broken, obfuscated, and rewritten on a whim throughout these games, which leads me to believe that if the system showed up in 15, it would see another revision. And I doubt it would help. I'm a firm believer in the idea that characters create opportunities, but they can also demolish a forty-hour game in an instant.
It was a system produced almost exclusively to wring drama out of the plot, or just keep said plot (such as it was) going. Like…okay, I get it. Drama is an important pillar of storytelling, and you can get some good stuff out of it. You can use it to tell a story that’s genuinely dark, genuinely impactful, and even genuinely tragic. But previous (recent) FF games have tried to reach for drama without creating the proper foundation to stand on. The characters are infuriating, the plots are twisted, and everything is in service of making sure that players understand how SERIOUS and POWERFUL the story is.
They didn’t earn it. They forced it. They may have had to break each individual game over its knee to make that happen, but by God they succeeded. So much drama, and so much seriousness, and so much weight -- and all they had to do was squeeze out the fun and charm. Will FF15 meet the same fate? Will it also use stupidity and poor decisions (in-universe and out of it) to try and create drama, but only succeed in giving birth to a shifting, towering blob of melodrama?
I don’t know. But the fact that you get to see Noctis and crew marking out over a pinball machine gives me hope.
There are too many unknowns about FF15 right now, and it’s frustrating. I want to know if it’s good, right now, and I’d prefer not to suffer through another 40 hours to confirm or deny it. I’d say I can count on reviews to show me the way, but I remember 13 getting 9s across the board, and 13-2 getting its share of high marks as well. Unless the game really shits the bed, we’re probably not going to get any major complaints until years down the line, as a retroactive way of saying “Well, now that I think about it, maybe the game wasn’t that great.” So I guess it’ll be up to me to decide for myself if it’s any good.
Likewise, I guess that means I’ll be venturing once more into the breach (because I’m working under the assumption that my brother’s already preordered it). I’m concerned that I’m slotting myself into the role of “the Final Fantasy guy”, but whatever. If you guys want to see what I think of it, then I’ll provide something down the line. Hopefully it’ll be good news. Hopefully we won’t have a tragedy on our hands. I really hope so. If FF15 goes south, then we won’t get to see what “the future of Final Fantasy” is all about for a good while; the FF7 remake is presumably next in line, after all. To quote Guilty Gear’s Ramlethal (removed of all context and horribly reinterpreted), the future of humanity is the past.
Speaking of which, Xrd Revelator’s out. Man, I’d better start learning how to use Kum Haehyun.