Final Fantasy XV and the 'Empty Paradise' Problem
It may have taken 10 years, two directors and an outrageous amount of money, but Final Fantasy XV is now a game that you can actually buy and play. In fact, many people already have: after its release at the tail-end of last year, the most recent NPD sales charts confirm that the game had the most successful launch in the history of the franchise and became one of the best-selling titles of 2016.
On the one hand, this is a great sign for the viability of Final Fantasy in today's market. On the other hand, this might signal to Square Enix that we simply want more of the same in the future. Now that we're largely removed from the immediate hype of Final Fantasy XV's release, it's a good time to look back at the game, consider its problems, and think about how future Final Fantasy titles can build on its new foundation.
The Empty Paradise
Square Enix gave FFXV a sprawling, gorgeously detailed open world with an impressive variety of locations and cities where stories are just waiting to be told… or at least that's how it seems at first glance. The more you play the game, the more you realize that FFXV's big, beautiful, and varied world is just a pretty face that hides bland and repetitive quests, uninteresting NPCs, and incomplete stories and lore. The underlying game design doesn't do justice to the time and effort that went into crafting its world, and the basic pleasure of driving around and seeing it with your buddies can only last so long.
In fact, driving is one of the only things that FFXV allows you to do in its open world. On-foot exploration and chocobo riding are mostly limited to the continent of Lucis, which is just the first half of the game. Even when you do go out running around with your party, there is very little to find and exploration is needlessly obstructed. Without any emergent events or new information to uncover, the populated settlements and abandoned ruins that litter the landscape are devoid of context or relevance. There's not even a series of contrived collectibles to gather around the world, and the stamina system, convoluted fast travel, and ever-looming threat of nighttime monsters discourage you from staying out for long anyway.
The populated settlements and abandoned ruins that litter the landscape are devoid of context or relevance.
However, FFXV really drops the ball during its second half. The vast cities and important landmarks of the planet Eos become nothing more than setpieces on Noctis's protracted journey to reach the end of the game. Altissia, Tenebrae, Niflheim and Insomnia are all stunning and intriguing places, except they're all relegated to the background as the game's plot becomes more and more threadbare leading up to its conclusion. Not only does this strip the world of any character that it already had, but it makes the entire game feel rushed and undercooked.
These same mistakes pop up in other contemporary open world games as well. Gravity Rush and Mad Max, for example, provide the player with meticulously-created worlds to explore, but fail to provide any interesting goals to accomplish within them. Gravity Rush's city of Hekseville is split into vibrant districts that are a joy to fly through, but they're mostly punctuated by empty buildings, faceless people and thoughtless mission structures like "fly to the marker to defeat the same enemies again" or "fly around the area until you find an item or person." Yet these missions are your only method of pleasing the city's generic inhabitants and advance the ultimately unfinished story.
Mad Max, meanwhile, sees you traversing its vast, picturesque Wasteland in a customizable battle-car (which goes a hell of a lot faster than FFXV's Regalia), but the Wasteland itself is about as boring as its name. The predictable, checklist-style open world objectives, downright bad retrieval errands, and slow upgrade system leave you with little to focus on besides the main missions, which suffer from cringeworthy characters that aren't much more than quest-givers.
Final Fantasy XV's open world has plenty of obvious similarities to games like these, but that doesn't mean that we should expect future Final Fantasy games to repeat its mistakes. FFXV made a genuine and mostly effective attempt to reintroduce the series by establishing a believable "fantasy based on reality," changing the JRPG party dynamic, and most importantly, listening to fan feedback during development. If nothing else, this is a solid base that the next game in the main series could build on, and there are a number of other series that got their ambitious open worlds wrong before getting them right.
The Search for Life
Grand Theft Auto IV took place in a big fictionalized version of New York, which was supposed to be "filled with opportunities." As it turned out, almost all of those opportunities were some small variation on the game's two central mechanics: shooting or driving. It was always one of the dozens of gang hits that ended the same way or chauffeuring yet another character using the slippery driving controls, and it didn't help that Rockstar inserted too many arbitrary, meaningless collectibles (like those pigeons).
But by the time Grand Theft Auto V came out, the studio had clearly taken a considered look at their last game and learned from it. GTAV's Los Santos included such a myriad of side missions, diversions and emergent events that it was hard not to be entertained by something at all times. The realistic setting, RPG-esque progression system, and eccentric, satirical characters that accompanied these missions made the world feel alive and authentic.
Xenoblade Chronicles X imbued a real feeling of being stranded on a foreign world.
The original Xenoblade Chronicles also featured a giant, stunningly beautiful world that seemed to stretch on forever. Unfortunately, it was mostly populated with resized or recolored monsters that were just placed there so your party could grind for EXP. Even the settlements that dotted the Bionis and the Mechonis only gave you monster-hunting/item-collecting quests before sending you further down the game's surprisingly linear plotline.
Xenoblade Chronicles X still contained a lot of the same bad MMO-style quest structure, but planet Mira was a playspace that took advantage of the unknown. It was entirely nonlinear and imbued a real feeling of being stranded on a foreign world, where your job was to survive. Surviving meant exploring and mapping the world with beacons, finding steady resources to get new items, and rescuing fellow pioneers from deadly and ever-changing creatures. Monolith Soft stated that they had finally created the open world they always envisioned with X, and it certainly showed in the game's unobstructed exploration, diverse environments and genuine sense of danger.
On the Horizon
These are merely a few of the examples that Square Enix could look at when making the next Final Fantasy, especially in an age where open world games are the industry-wide trend. They wouldn't have to stop there, either -- many other games have really nailed their open worlds and have plenty to teach about making them. The character-driven, believable and brilliantly subversive lands of The Witcher III and Red Dead Redemption. The open-ended, player-focused and intricate settings of Metal Gear Solid V and Far Cry. The empowering abilities and fluid movement systems of InFamous and Crackdown.
Final Fantasy XV shouldn't be a misstep for Square Enix; it should be the first stride into the genre that is shaping modern games.