Final Fantasy XV

(There are going to be some Final Fantasy 15 spoilers in this)

I don’t know that I actually expected to enjoy Final Fantasy 15. I was aware of the troubles of its long development cycle. How it started as Final Fantasy Versus 13, before disappearing for years, only to reappear, reimaging and rebranded as the fifteenth main entry in this series. The legacy of the Fabula Nova Crystallis is not a great one, hampered by development delays and other conceptual problems. But Final Fantasy 15 is the best game to come out of that ambitious project.

I don’t have a lot to say about the gameplay here. The battle system is functional and intuitive, but I would be lying if I said I ever fully grasped the nuances of it. I mostly just let it happen, and tried my best to use the skills the game gave me. It works, but I can’t say I ever developed anything like a strategy with it. But that is not too different from most games in the series. Outside of some outliers with the job system, the series often tends to the easy side.

I was definitely not prepared for how much this game takes from Final Fantasy 6. In my experience, that SNES classic is considered one the best games in the series. However, it does not tend to be one of the more influential or referenced games in the series. The modern series is built on the image of FF7, and throwbacks tend to look to the first five games. FF6 is more of a transitional game. Still 2d like its predecessors, but with sensibilities that are closer in line with the next few games in the series. FF15, though, brings back many elements from FF6, often recontextualizing them.

The big one is FF6’s signature twist. Throughout the first half of the game, the player has built a party to combat an Empire bent on conquering the world through the use of magically enhanced soldiers. The empire has largely acted through two of its leaders; the fierce but honorable General Leo and the devious clown Kefka. When the Empire raises a floating continent from which the Emperor plans to rule on high, it appears to be setting up the endgame, only for Kefka to turn on his master, usurping his power to destroy the world as the player knows it. The player is put back at square one, having to rebuild their party and put the new world to right.

Final Fantasy 6 is likely not the first game to do this, and Final Fantasy 15 is not the first to copy it, but it seems to share the most direct elements with its predecessor. The big twist comes later overall in the game, and the revelation of the big bad guy and his plan is a little less of a swerve, but it still follows a similar structure. Near the end of the game, the bad guy wins, and the player has to fight through a destroyed world to achieve a somewhat hollow feeling victory.

There are more concrete connections between the two games as well. The existence of Magitech, for example. The game has both magically enhanced soldiers, like FF6’s Celes, and the magic shooting mechs. The summons are imagined as characters in similar fashion to the espers from FF6. FF6’s tools, probably its longest lasting contribution to the series, are here as well. For a game that has long felt somewhat lost in the legacy of this series, Final Fantasy 15’s connections to Final Fantasy 6 are greatly appreciated by a big fan of that game. That is not to say that FF6 is the only previous game in the series that 15 echoes. For starters, even though it is no longer Final Fantasy Versus 13, the game did not completely exercise its feeling of connection with that game. Many of the gameplay systems feel reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12, from its open world aspirations to its monster hunts to its freeform feeling battle system. Also, the brief glimpses the game gives of the empire and its machinations feel reminiscent of FF12 as well.

Final Fantasy 15 manages to stake its own claim to originality in this, a big part of which is from a somewhat controversial design decision: limiting the party to just the four (male) main characters. It is a choice that does not feel in keeping with the series’ history. Plus, there are plenty of characters that feel like they belong in the party. Iris, Lunafreya, and even Cidney would be obvious choices to add as permanent party members. That is leaving out temporary party member Aranea. Excluding those characters from the party limits the impact they can have on the story. They are each limited to small interactions with the main party and end up feeling kind of inconsequential. That said, the four person party ends up being one of this game’s biggest strengths. The first two thirds of the game are all about this foursome cruising around the continent in their sports car. The game does an excellent job building the camaraderie between them, as well as showing the cracks that crop up in the later part of the game. Noctis is the somewhat spoiled prince; he means well and tries hard, but at the start of the game is not ready for the burden he must take on. Gladio is his dedicated bodyguard; he is generally pretty laid back, but his patience for Noctis’s floundering is limited. Ignis is his counsel; he is the calm and collected member of the group that keeps things together even as it all falls apart. Finally, Prompto is simply Noctis’s friend; he is comic relief and the instigator of many interactions.

Where Final Fantasy 15 really succeeds is in the first section of the game, where the player builds a connection to these four characters and they build connections with each other. The game gives the player a fairly open-ended quest, finding the tombs of the previous kings and earning their magical blessings, that lets the player just explore the continent to their heart’s extent. Then the game switches gears and things get more serious. The larger elements of the plot (more on that later) start to come into focus and Noctis gets closer to his long awaited meeting with his betrothed Lunafreya. The game then has the player leave the continent and cross the ocean, and the open world aspect of the game falls away.

It is there that it all falls apart, but in the narrative and as a narrative. Things go awry for the party, and it strains those relationships built in the first part of the game. They end up maimed and separated, fighting desperately to finish a quest that feels increasingly quixotic. When an angry Gladio lashes out at a sullen Noctis, it makes sense. You might not agree with Gladio; the player has seen recent events through Noctis’s eyes, but you have to admit he has a point. But the greater problems with the game crop up there. The open world falls away, leading to some very limited areas and an extended solo/stealth dungeon that is sure to test players’ patience. Also, the general lack of story starts to become apparent.

The long development cycle of Final Fantasy 15 is felt in how the story pulls the player one way and another in the plot without ever really giving the player a clear idea of what everything means or who the pieces fit together. Some of it is how the game sticks to Noctis’s POV; if he doesn’t have access to the information, then the player does not. But much of it feels like it was left on the cutting room floor. I am not talking about stuff that is reserved for DLC; that stuff is clear and I will eventually buy it and experience it. Other parts feel like they were excised in order to get the game finished, and added back in as a data log or a radio broadcast. Just so much of the story of the game does not appear to be in the game. It is frustrating, especially in an otherwise very enjoyable experience.

Final Fantasy 15 feels a lot like the last few entries in this series. It is largely an incredibly enjoyable, innovative experience that feels compromised in some way. I consider it absolutely essential playing, a more than worthy entry in the series, but one that has noticeable flaws. I still need to play the DLC and to watch the movie, things I intend to do, but I do not expect them to fix the larger flaws with the game.

Crash and Spyro

Caught up in a bout of nostalgia and suddenly having a bit of spending money, I decided to buy Spyro Reignited, the PS4 remasters of the original Spyro the Dragon games from the PSX. I remember really enjoying those games, or at least the first one and a demos of the other two, and haven’t really touched them in almost twenty years. Going on Amazon to buy it, I discovered that at that moment it was actually cheaper to buy the Spyro remasters bundled with the Crash Bandicoot remasters than it was to buy them on their own. I played less of Crash Bandicoot back in the day; I borrowed Crash 2 from a friend for a while and had a Crash 3 demo, but I while I remember enjoying them they didn’t leave much of an impression on me. But I still went the route of buying both, and I’m glad I did.

I’m not glad because it turned out the Crash Bandicoot games are better than I expected. I’m glad I did because it was simply fun to relive some teenage experiences. Honestly, I think the PSX/N64 generation gets short shrift. For the most part, the games don’t seem to hold the same nostalgic charm as their 2D predecessors and the limitations of the consoles make it hard to go back to them at times. There are exceptions. The idea that Super Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time are all-time greats is etched in stone. A lot of PS1 RPGs are still well regarded. Every system has classics; what I am looking at are the also rans. Sure, people love Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man 2 on the NES, but you’ll also find people who love games like Shadow of the Ninja or Power Blade. People seem to have a lot of time for mid-list 8-bit and 16-bit games and I don’t see that same affection for early 3D titles. No one is singing the praises of Syphon Filter or Tenchu: Stealth Assassins.

Honestly, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon fall closer to the classics than the also rans in people’s memories, at least in my circle. But they also don’t get a lot of mention. There is a gap. I am guessing a lot of this is my subjective experience, if people really didn’t remember Crash or Spyro, why did their games get remasters? They were kings in the late zenith of the mascot platformer. Sonic ushered that age in, and 16-bit systems are littered with colorful animals having adventures. They didn’t really go away until well into the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox days. I remember Microsoft trying desperately to find such a mascot, attempts like Blinx the Time Sweeper, before realizing it was unnecessary. For four or five years, while the PSX ruled the gaming world, Crash and Spyro were on top, facing off against Mario and Banjo from Nintendo.

I remember those days fondly. I was definitely a Nintendo kid, though I did eventually have both a PSX and a N64. I was adamant that my mascot games were better than those on the other system. I told myself that while salivating over all the jrpgs that were hitting the PSX. Sure, they have Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms, but I’ve got Banjo-Kazooie. It was nonsense, and it really only lasted until I got my own PSX and could play those games. By that time I was a little late for the early action adventure games, but I still played them some and was familiar with them from studious reading of EGM.

So while I didn’t play a lot of the games, I remembered Crash Bandicoot fondly. Here’s the thing: speaking only as to the first game in the series because I haven’t gotten to the others yet, Crash Bandicoot isn’t very good. Or at least, the remaster is not. It is colorful and charming and intermittently fun, but it is also sloppy, imprecise and limited. I am not sure the sloppy controls were part of the original game, but it feels like they were. When in the console wars trenches, I would poo-poo Crash Bandicoot for not really being 3D. Honestly, that is one of the games strengths. When everyone else was trying, and mostly failing, to be Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot carved out a smaller, more manageable niche. It puts everything in a tunnel and while still polygonal, does away with any sense of exploration. That is fine. I actually really like that about the game. It is the closest to being a classic platformer done in 3D around. The problem is that the game isn’t actually all that good. It is hard, especially when jumping in and out of the screen, to tell where you are going to land. Also, it is hard to tell how the game is going to interpret how you are going to land. Sometimes, you bounce on the turtle, sometimes you land directly in front of the turtle and are immediately killed. I gave up on the game at the Road to Nowhere level. The game is just not equipped to deal with the precise jumping that level requires, which means tons and tons of frustrating deaths and I don’t have time for that. I might go back to Crash Bandicoot eventually, but not until after I finish the other five games in this collection. I still have some fondness for Crash Bandicoot, but sometimes the past belongs in the past.

Counter to that is the first Spyro the Dragon. I know it is a game that came along a little later than Crash Bandicoot, but Spyro is a classic worthy of canonization. It is clearly taking a lot of cues from Super Mario 64, but also not just trying to be Super Mario 64. The quadrupedal, winged protagonist is one way the game has its own feel. Spyro holds up, largely I think thanks to its simplicity. While it Spyro the Dragon is clearly following in the footsteps of Mario 64. Spyro has an effective but not particularly expansive moveset. He can breathe fire and he can charge. Those two skills set up the bulk of his options when dealing with obstacles. Some enemies must be burned, some must be rammed, others can be dealt with by either. The game slowly starts layering these together, with rooms filled with a mix of enemies, some that need to be dealt with one way and some the other. It adds in enemies that change form. It really taxes the player’s ability to recognize the threat and deal with it.

The only other skill in Spryo’s arsenal is the ability to glide. A second press of the jump button allows the little winged dragon to glide around, greatly expanding his mobility. This is where a lot of Spyro’s tricky platforming comes in, with much being tied to his ability to get somewhere high up and float to a place he could not reach before. There are also supercharge lanes, which propel Spyro to ridiculous speeds with his charge, and using those to launch him to distant, otherwise unreachable hidden areas. That is essentially the one expert technique in the game. The rest of them are just the moves that you have at the start continuing on.

Wisely, the game makes almost none of the difficult sections of the game mandatory to getting through it. That is in contrast to the strictly linear nature of Crash Bandicoot. In Crash, you have one level in front of you and the ability to replay the levels you’ve previously beaten. In Spyro, new stages unlock as you cross completion barriers. Sometimes you can’t go on until you rescue 50 dragons, sometimes it takes a certain number of found gems. It effectively gates the player without ever forcing the player to bash their heads against a particularly tough challenge until the player decides to walk away from the game instead.

With both Crash and Spyro, the remasters look great. They do that excellent trick of looking like you remember the games looked rather than actually looking like the games did look. Because your memories are not accurate. Nintendo did this with their 3DS Zelda remakes; they still look like N64 games without actually looking like N64 games.

The PSX/N64 generation was a time of great experimentation, as everyone struggled to understand how to make polygonal games. Some took to it like a duck to water, others struggled themselves out of existence. The great disparity in quality of games I think has lead people to discount a lot of games from that era. The small handful that are recognized as classics still get love, but most of the rest are ignored and forgotten. Spyro and Crash are right on the edge; I don’t see people sing their praises with the Ocarina of Times or the Metal Gear Solids, but they aren’t really forgotten; they did get modern remasters. But if games that were as popular as these were are as little thought of as they are, it does not bode well for the mid-tier stuff behind them. I’m done with Spyro the Dragon (and got my first platinum trophy with it) and probably done with Crash Bandicoot. I’ve got two more of each. After a few weeks off I’ll revisit Spyro 2: Ripto’s Revenge and Crash 2: The Wrath of Cortex to see how these two series evolved after their first outings.

Yakuza 6 The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 was conceived and sold as the end of the Kazuma Kiryu story. And it is that; it is supposed to be the last time we see the Dragon of Dojima in a starring role in the series and it really does close out his story. I have some spoilery thoughts about how it does that which will be at the end of this post, but it is an ending. The Song of Life is a strange game for the send of the series iconic hero, as it removes him from nearly every character he has built up a relationship with over the course of the series.

Before I dig into the story, a few words about the gameplay, which is solid. I first experienced this new Yakuza engine with Kiwami 2, and this feels much the same way. The game is a little more fluid than it was before, moving more seamlessly into and out of fights with roving bands of thugs that accost Kiryu in the streets.

One thing that is absolutely disappointing with Yakuza 6 is how little the series usual cast has to do. Yes, it stars Kiryu and nearly every game in the series has introduced a full new cast to spend time with. But the series has built up quite the stable of regulars and most of them are MIA for the bulk of the game. If you played Yakuza 0 and love Majima, this is not the game for you. I don’t know that he even speaks a line. The same goes for Saejima, a co-protagonist of Yakuza 4 and 5. He appears briefly at the end and does nothing. Daigo Dojima is absent as well. Haruka Sawamura, who is vital to the plot of the game, is barely there outside of some bookend scenes. Kiryu’s detective friend Date makes the occasional appearance, and Akiyama at least gets to show up occasionally, but they are tertiary here, at best. Maybe it’s just me, but I expected a game that is saying farewell to its hero to let him interact a little more with all of the allies he’s built up over the course of the previous six games.

Still, the game fills in with some really good new characters. I have long been a defender of Yakuza 3, and one of the things I loved about it was Kiryu meeting a yakuza family that initially knew nothing about him, only to win the group over just by being awesome. Yakuza 6 does the same thing, and I think does it a little better. Instead of a family of just three, this one is a little larger and feels a little more fully formed. Plus, they are led by Beat Takeshi. Kiryu shows up in Onomichi looking for clues about what happened to Haruka. AMong the first people he encounters is the abrasive Nagumo. Soon, he meets, and fights, all four of the underlings of the Hirose family; Nagumo, Matsunaga, Tagashira and Yuta. Nagumo and Yuta quickly become close allies. It follows a familiar set up, with first they fight Kiryu, then they grow to respect him, then almost worship him. By the time you get to the end and a former foe is agreeing to go on what is essentially a suicide mission with Kiryu, it all feels just perfect. Which is what makes the ending such a downer.

Here is my big problem with the ending: it is not the ending to the game that preceded it. It is a perfectly understandable ending, and fits with Kiryu’s characters, but it flies in the face of the lessons he supposedly learned during the preceding 40 or so hours of game. It is also clumsy and occasionally aggravating. I am going to have to really spoil things to explicate this, so consider yourself warned. Yakuza 6 ends with the apparent death of Kiryu. This is a fine ending, though a little disappointing given the perpetrator. Still, Kazuma Kiryu shot down while protecting his Haruka is a perfect way for him to go out. After 20 minutes or so of ending, the other shoe drops. Kiryu is not dead. He survived the gunshots. Instead, he took a deal from the government to cover up certain revelations during the last act of the game and has to disappear forever. So he does, leaving his family behind. And that is where the game loses me. Kiryu deciding or discovering that his family is safer without him around and then leaving to keep them safe is a very Kiryu thing to do. But the game just spent it whole story showing why that is a bad idea. Again, the relationships between fathers and children is the heart of the game. And the game shows a multitude of ways in which they work and they don’t, and one big thing, outlined by Kiryu in a letter to Daigo at the end, is that a father needs to be there for his family. The game opens with Kiryu, in order to be with Haruka and the kids from the orphanage, going to jail for his Yakuza past. The idea is that he’ll serve his time and be allowed to be with them as himself. When this attempt to deflect attention fails and people are paying attention to Haruka, she leaves the orphanage as well, because the girl with the adopted yakuza dad draws too much negative attention. She doesn’t tell Kiryu this, so when he gets out and find her gone he sets off looking for her, and finds her in a coma, the victim of a hit and run, and mother of a small child. The father of that child is revealed to be a low level yakuza member, though like Kiryu a good guy.

Along with several other plot threads, the clear message here, to me at least, is that Kiryu going to jail to protect Haruka didn’t work. He wanted her out of the yakuza or yakuza adjacent life, but she ended up in it anyway. Again, the most important thing about being a father, according to Kiryu, is being there for your kids. He shows this by not being there for his kids. If the lesson of the game was that Kiryu’s yakuza past will always catch up to him and the only way to keep Haruka safe is to leave her, then okay. She’s grown by this point anyway. But the game teaches the exact opposite lesson, that bad things are coming no matter what and he needs to be there. Plus, Haruka takes over the orphanage with her (ex?) yakuza beau, so everything is right back where it started. The whole thing just didn’t work for me. That missed note at the end kind of soured me on what was otherwise an excellent game.

I’ll still play Yakuza games going forward, and am interested to see who will take over has the protagonist. Will it focus on Saejima and Majima? Akiyama? Those are good options who have been playable in the past, but they are all also kind of old. Maybe Yuta will take over, but if so, why get rid of Kiryu. I know the next game set in Kamurocho is this summer’s Judgment, which is about a detective. I’m not sure if any Yakuza characters show up.