Final Fantasy XV has been released to some pretty favorable critical acclaim. Aside from the story issues, reviewers seem to really be enjoying the combat and exploration systems, as well as the relationships between the four heroes. It’s being called innovative and unusual in terms of gameplay – a stand out title. I was unsure how I felt about those descriptions at first, but as I really buckled down and spent some time with the game, I realized that those buzzwords actually had some validity to them. Final Fantasy XV is, in fact, innovative, though not in the way one might expect.
Square Enix didn’t create some new combat system that no one has ever seen before, like Shadows of Mordor’s Nemesis system. They didn’t overhaul a genre that anybody could truly nail down like Minecraft did with sandbox-survival. Nor did they attempt some gimmicky mechanic to design the game around that would become irreverent by the end of it, like Alien: Isolation (though that mechanic was damn good, they just ran the game a bit too long). Square Enix knew that they would be creating a massive game with tons of different systems and ideas, and they knew they would have to make these systems as accessible to the masses as possible in order to get the sales they needed. As a result, instead of any overhauling nonsense, Square Enix focused on giving us a more streamlined game.
To put it simply, no mechanic in Final Fantasy XV is inherently new. For an open world game of this size and scope, that isn’t really a complaint, but rather a blessing. Over the course of FFXV’s ten-year development, the industry saw RPGs like The Witcher 2 and 3, the Dragon Age series, Mass Effect, and more. The standard of role-playing games, and games, in general, had evolved and Square Enix knew that if they wanted their game to succeed, they would have to adhere to that new standard, so they did.
Due to that long development cycle, in addition to their experience developing the previous Final Fantasy games, Square Enix was able to use their expertise to mold FFXV around what those other games did so right and wrong, and then streamline it.
The Witcher 3 is one of the highest critically acclaimed RPGs to come out this generation of consoles. The most attacked aspect of that game? The combat system. Some say it was too hard, too easy, too complex or a lack thereof. Either way, Square Enix decided that a system similar to that would go best with the vision they had for their new Final Fantasy, albeit with a few changes. Their way of thinking is fairly logical, as both games have the player character fighting ridiculous creatures of all sizes as well as humans.
In The Witcher 3’s combat, one must slow down and watch each enemy they encounter in order to learn the correct block timing, or to learn that the enemy cannot be blocked at all, rather dodged. Final Fantasy XV is a more hectic and sped up version of this style, mostly due to the player warping all over either to dodge or attack. As the player moves all over, so does the camera. It is unrealistic to expect the camera to be in an optimal position at all times in order for the player to see when to block.
To get around that, Square Enix simply included a giant block indicator about a second before the attack will land. Therefore, the player always has a chance no matter where their camera is, but because of the time delay in-between the prompt and the actual attack, there is still the risk of the player missing. The combat loses a layer of complexity by streamlining blocking, however, this was a necessary reduction in order to allow for the system that Square Enix had envisioned.
The offensive side of combat got this exact same treatment. The Witcher 3 has players using either strong or weak attacks when it comes to swordplay, and they have a special sword for each occasion. The newest Final Fantasy decided to minimize swordplay to just one button, and then using the left stick to switch between different attacks with the weapon of choice. Again, this choice to streamline mostly comes down to the unpredictable craziness of the combat and allows the player to focus on the fun of the gameplay rather than take a step back and be choosy about weapons.
Remember playing the original Mass Effect and dealing with the awful Mako controls? So does Square Enix. Now, to be fair, the Mako was a good idea but a bad execution of one. Having your own badass vehicle to explore a crazy unknown world has to be near the top of every gamer’s experience wishlist. The Regalia given to our royal prince in Final Fantasy XV is sort of in the middle. It is quite badass, though in a stylish way rather than in a weaponized way. It allows players to explore a crazy unknown world, but it doesn’t allow them to drive rampant in it.
Unlike most RPGs that feature them, this vehicle exists purely to show players the gorgeous world, and not to run over everything. By limiting the player’s driving only to roads, it allowed Square to keep certain mechanics and atmospheres separate. Players learn to associate the car with relaxation, conversation, beautiful views, and of course some of the best video game music out there. Had they not limited players driving, a majority of the time spent would be riding over the terrain in a straight shot directly to the objective, as well as limited Square Enix in world design, as they would have had to accommodate for the damn thing. The rough terrain is saved for combat and on foot (or chocobo) exploration and only that.
Speaking of spending time in the Regalia, how great are the conversations between the four characters? They constantly gang up on one another, help each other out, discuss random goings-on and even slow down and have emotional talks that really pull at your heartstrings. This level of detail between the group of four would not have been possible if Final Fantasy XV had not limited the party to these four main characters. This is a change it had made from its own franchise roots, rather than tweaked from another successful RPG.
When it was first announced that FFXV would feature a group of four teenage boys instead of the usual huge, multi-gender group of all ages and sizes, there was some outcry. This was not without reason either, as franchise fans felt betrayed and confused as to why this choice was being made. Fast-forward to the release of the game, and it turns out that the group of four boys initially so despised is actually the most praised feature of the game.
A focus on strong relationships in role-playing games is nothing new, but Square Enix’s take on this familiar trope is one of the most charming and unique because it happens naturally with the game instead of needing the player to go out of their way to initiate. The player needs to use the Regalia to get to new places. During that time, our group is interacting and bonding, and we have no choice but to watch and helplessly start falling in love with the mechanic. Combat has both natural and player-triggered moments between the four, and what better way to bond with someone than kicking some Empire ass back-to-back with them? Sleeping is required to level up your characters, and sometimes events will trigger that will have one character share an emotional moment with Noctis, such as breaking down emotionally, asking him to help make breakfast, or even something as simple as going on a morning run. The player starts to learn the likes and dislikes, the skills and inabilities, the fears and dreams, of Noctis, Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignus. Eventually, you can’t help but grow a soft spot for them as more time is spent in-game.
Now, this could have been accomplished with a whole group of switchable party members, but it would never have gotten to this level of resonance. In limiting themselves, Square Enix was able to create the entire game around these four personalities. They each have a personalized reaction to everything, and they truly make the game worth experiencing – even if just for observing the four grow together.
Final Fantasy XV is a divisive title, no doubt. It is very difficult to make everyone happy, even more so when it comes to a franchise as diverse and long-lived as this one. However, it is hard to deny that Square Enix achieved a unique sort of innovation with this title. They took a bunch of familiar RPG tropes and tweaked each of them a little bit in order to make them feel simple, yet fresh. This may have resulted in them being a bit more limiting, but it is those limitations themselves that contributed to the unique feeling of Final Fantasy XV, and that allowed Square Enix to make the game they had truly envisioned. It turns out that making a ton of little innovations here and there can lead to a fresh overall feeling of innovation, and pulling that sort of thing off results in an experience that truly is special.