By Neil Merrett
“If Final Fantasy XV doesn’t do well, perhaps there’s not much of a future for console games. It kind of really depends on how that goes” – Final Fantasy 15 co-director Hajime Tabata on the Japanese gaming market in May 2014
Ten years can be a long, seemingly endless passage of time, yet it passes nonetheless, often in unpredictable ways.
And so, a game seen by some as a moment of reckoning for the multi-billion dollar Japanese gaming industry is here. Something that once appeared very likely to never actually be realised is not just tangible, but a commercial product available right now on the shelf of your local Tesco.
The significant resources spent on the game – both in terms of cost and time – was not lost on Forbes’ coverage of the release today, some 120 months since it was first unveiled as an ambitious Playstation 3 title called Final Fantasy Versus 13.
“Final Fantasy 15 entered into production when George W. Bush was president of the United States and today, it finally hits store shelves. It advertises itself as an experience geared towards newcomers and old fans alike, and it looks terribly pretty in what we’ve all seen so far,” wrote Dave Thier.
“Early reviews have been positive: people report some unwieldiness and missed opportunities, but overall people are saying that this is a big, beautiful game with heart and ambition.”
Yet is ‘positive’ likely to be enough of a response for a gaming series that is has the pedigree.
Among the gaming community is seen as a sort of Godfather-like saga that reached its critical and commercial peak around its sixth and seventh, rather than a second, instalment – yet it some ways has limped on ever since on the strength of past glories.
Are we there yet?
Writing for Ars Technica, Sam Machkovech summed up his early impressions on the game, finding an interesting take on real-time combat, not tried before in the normally turn-based, menu heavy systems of previous games, and a much less interesting, infuriating plot.
Describing himself as a “lapsed fan” of the Final Fantasy series, Machkovech sought to decide over the first ten hours of the game whether he would actually want to try and complete the thing.
From a combat perspective, leading a team of four friends, all computer controlled outside of the main player, while managing their strengths and well being with weapons, magic and a “warping ability” was seen as fun, almost to the writer’s surprise.
Yet this switchover to a more western arcade-style of combat was not the only change to the series’ well-trodden staples.
“Final Fantasy games have always used simple, repeating mechanics to keep players hooked and nudge them along through a story, however silly or convoluted it might be. You stick around for 40 to 60 hours, and you see some wonderful story scenes and conversations play out as a result. That’s the FF value proposition I remember,” said Machkovech.
“The major problem I found in my ten hours with FFXV is its inability to connect me to its plot. For starters, if I hadn’t seen the weird prequel film Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, I would have no real idea what’s going on.”
In summing up the ambitious scope of the road movie-like plot of FF15, Machkovec suggested its opening 10 hours were akin to taking a long car ride and finding yourself asking, “are we there yet?”
A sense of intimacy
Andrew Webster for The Verge found his own playthrough of the title to be a more intimate, personal travelogue than an ambitious monster hunting button masher.
“Final Fantasy XV’s world is a fantastical place filled with magic-powered robots, flying cars, towering monsters, and powerful weapons locked away in ancient tombs. But it’s also a game where you can sit by a campfire and slurp some instant ramen with your buddies,” he wrote.
“For all its grand ambitions and epic narrative threads, at its core Final Fantasy XV is about people and the tiny, intimate moments they share. And it really drives this home through two key aspects: photography and food.” The eye of the beholder strikes again.
Writing in Polygon, Philip Kollar noted finding a spectacle in Final Fantasy 15 that he had not experienced from the series in the decade since the latest game started development.
In short he liked it.
“An incredible journey that’s ambitious in ways most games never try, even if it’s not always successful in that ambition,” Kollar said in his own review.
“Final Fantasy 15 is bombastic, strange, surprising and, often, brilliant. It is voluminous; it is cacophonous. It’s the only type of result that would feel fitting for a game with such a lengthy and tumultuous history.”
Ultimately, the release represents a much treasured brand that is seen as having lost its way and perhaps vision, trying to merge a traditional epic scale, while borrowing and perhaps putting its own spin on many popular gaming tropes of recent years.
But there is significance to the title’s success, most specifically in the series’ native Japan, where the traditional concept of videogames and the ubiquity of consoles is being reshaped beyond recognition by an increasingly mobile and on the move populace.
Interviewed by Kotaku two years ago, Final Fantasy 15 co-director Hajime Tabata argued that the Japanese videogame market at the time was shifting towards use of handheld and smartphone devices.
He argued that the sheer amount of people commuting and using transport for long train rides and bus rides had made mobile gaming much more of a way of life for individuals than the traditional idea of a bedroom or living room gamer.
“There’s this kind of trend to being more accessible. But since I was very young, I’ve played games for long hours, I spent long amounts of time in front of the TV, delving into the games. So I enjoy those types of games, and I naturally want to create those types of games for the current generation and the next generations to come,” said Tabata.
“So in terms of whether console games will be received moving forward, it’s not to say that I don’t have any concerns at all, but I believe that it’ll really depend on how Final Fantasy XV does. Because I really want more people to enjoy games in the living room, on a big screen. If Final Fantasy XV doesn’t do well, perhaps there’s not much of a future for console games. It kind of really depends on how that goes.”
A bold claim then, especially for a gaming series never short on melodrama.
But in the ten years that has passed, has gaming as a culture, and pastime, changed even more than our not insignificant technological advances?
In the end, will Final Fantasy 15 be universally adored as its predecessors such as Final Fantasy 7, which brought a popular, albeit cult gaming genre into the not always kind light of mainstream recognition?
The gaming industry and audience in an almost permanently connected online world are now much more savvy and better served by so many more genres and types of games and consoles. As such Final Fantasy will be finding its feet in a very different world, meaning relying on impressive technical specs alone may not be enough to cover.
It will likely sell big, but the broad, road-movie like world envisaged and refined by Square Enix over the last ten years is far from unique in the current gaming climate and could well be seen as harking back to a previous generation view of world building and digital entertainment.
While seasoned gamers will likely lap up the significant number of quests and sub characters hidden throughout the land, others, notably in stand-up comedian, popular quiz show host and former ’the Simpsons’ writer Conan O’Brien see instead as “aggressive time wasting” and pointlessness.
The mainstream can be cruel, but it’s a vital platform if you want to be iconic, whether good or bad.
In such a broad video game market, a new generation of players may be about to fall in love with a gaming experience that was once seen as the pinnacle of epic, cinematic interactive adventure.
Alternatively, they could just be about to play another ‘open world’ game in an ever growing market of “epic” experiences, time can be cruel to once much-loved things.
Yet if the last ten years have been anything to go by, it will be folly trying to predict where gaming goes.