Final Fantasy XV and Modern Japanese RPGs

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I was able to take a bit of time out to play the first few hours of Final Fantasy XV, and I’m a bit surprised at how much tries to feel like modern big-budget role playing games while preserving many of the common tenets of traditional Japanese RPGs. I don’t know if this game has had a polarized reception, but overall I like the direction of what I’ve seen so far. I just don’t really know how it lands the execution of its ideas compared to similar games.

If you haven’t played it yet, the first two chapters of FFXV basically introduce players to a game structure not unlike Dragon Age or The Witcher, or really a lot of western RPGs. You take a party through large open-ended zones performing a list of quests. Combat is real-time but you can pause to make decisions, and there’s no separation between exploration and combat. At the same time though, FFXV manages to work in some of the game flow from older JRPGs, the ones that were about traveling across a world map from town to town, dungeon to dungeon. You stop at inns or campgrounds to recharge, and the game really runs with the whole road trip feeling developer Square Enix advertised. I think basing transportation and exploration around a car was a good idea because it contributes to the feeling of a long journey. Making the world in the game big enough to support cars gives it a nice sense of scale. Driving up to a gas station to stock up and take a rest is a great way to make old JRPG tropes feel new.

What really matters to me though is playing a game with Final Fantasy‘s presentation style that lets me freely explore and fight without having to transition back and forth from combat. That feeling of seamlessness is one of the things that really sells an open-world game for me. It’s what I liked the most about Final Fantasy XII when it did away with combat transitions a decade ago. The first Xenoblade game (I haven’t played the second) feels nice because of this too, along with its own impressive sense of scale.

This kind of change alleviates a lot of the problems some people have had with JRPGs in recent years. The way many of them still rely on random battles, turn-based battles, distant camera angles, and copious amounts of non-interactive cut scenes, lacks a certain sense of immersion western games have traditionally pushed towards. Thus, traditional JRPGs end up feeling less like living worlds and more like novels or TV shows spliced with board games.

I can understand however why some traditionalists don’t like big 3D open-worlds or real-time combat in an RPG where you manage a whole party of characters. Traditional console controllers weren’t designed for handling four characters in real time, and games that try to make players do that have struggled to design solutions. FFXV, like most games that try, compromises by making only the main character fully playable while the rest of the party runs on AI, and traditionalists don’t like that loss of full party control. They want to micromanage every decision the team makes. I still think Dragon Age and FFXII do well with their pause-and-play menus, but Dragon Age certainly controls better with a mouse and it can be argued FFXII would control better with a mouse.

Also, I think when it comes to big budget games that are trying to sell multiple millions of copies to the mainstream console audience, turn-based combat is dead. It’s fine in a game like Persona 5 or Etrian Odyssey that’s only trying to make a profit off of maybe 1 million copies sold. I just did a post about how niche most JRPGs really are. I just don’t think mainline numbered FF games can ever go back to turn-based if they want to stay in the increasingly western-dominated big budget console market. Maybe if future games pull a Dragon Quest XI with a reach for the Japanese handheld market.

The anxiety some express over open-world scale simply comes down to quality of content. FFXV puts you in the middle of big maps where there’s a lot of extra stuff to do. A lot of open-world games these days come under fire for having an excess of tasks and items that amount to little more than busywork. That’s a matter of execution though, it doesn’t make open-world games inherently bad. The Witcher 3 didn’t get old because while most of its quests involved a similar sequence of gameplay tasks, each one had a story just unique and interesting enough that I wanted to know what happened next. I guess pacing is the real big issue open-world RPGs haven’t really figured out yet. I hear chapter 3 of FFXV offers more than enough experience points through all its side quests to overlevel players for the remainder of the main quest.

So yes, FFXV isn’t immune to some of the pitfalls of western game design. I still think that was worth how seamless and expansive it feels compared to, say, Final Fantasy XIII.

FFXV actually seems to be adding to a trend of historically big Japanese game franchises becoming structurally more western with surprisingly smooth results. Metal Gear Solid V has probably been the most successful case. Kojima productions completely changed the control system and the style of level design from what players saw in Metal Gear Solid 3 into something simultaneously more streamlined and open-ended. I think it did Far Cry better than Far Cry. The upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is also casting aside linearity in favor of a game based on survival mechanics, more emergent gameplay, and total freedom for players while keeping the series’ focus on puzzles and exploration. So far fans are receiving it quite positively. The upcoming Resident Evil 7 is simultaneously returning to the small scale of the original Resident Evil and transforming into a first person shooter. It seems to be reinterpreting the franchise’s old adventure elements into the adventure elements of games like Amnesia. I don’t know about you, but these are exactly the kinds of changes I’ve wanted to see some of these games make for a while.

I think I’ll wait for the PC version of FFXV that Square Enix hasn’t announced as of this writing but will probably release at some point.

BULLETS:

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