The Legend of Final Fantasy XV: A Post-Mortem
So with the recent announcement of 75% of the “Season 2” DLC being canceled, and Tabata’s departure from Square Enix, I feel that it’s time to finally put a cap on the somewhat infamous entry in the Final Fantasy series. From its somewhat rocky and overly long development, to its reception and the follow up patches and DLC, it’s been a heck of a ride for Noctis and the boys. One that I personally have enjoyed but has also generating an overwhelming amount of spite and anger in the fan base as well. Maybe not as much as Final Fantasy XIII did, but it would not be wrong to call XV a base breaker.
This probably has a lot more to do with how the game was developed than what it actually ended up being. Announced in 2006 as a side game to Final Fantasy XIII titled “Final Fantasy Versus XIII” (Along with Final Fantasy Agito XIII which eventually became Type-0), the project was set up to be developed by the Kingdom Hearts team and headed by Tetsuya Nomura – a figure of near legendary status in the Square Enix pantheon to some, and a bit of a hack to others… my personal opinion of the man’s work lies somewhere in the middle to be honest. The game would be an action rpg in the style of Kingdom Hearts, and would feature a myriad of weapons, the ability to comandeer and control vehicles, and a plot line revolving around Noctis and then Stella’s ability to see the dead leaving this world. This would all be wrapped up in parts of the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology – mostly the aspect of Etro who was repeatedly a major figure in the teasers and the logo art.
News of Versus XIII’s development for the next seven years would be scattering bits here and there. Even as XIII-2 and Lightning Returns were delivered, word on Versus was sparse. Heck, while the game was announced in 2006, not a single video or screenshot of actually gameplay would be shown until 2009’s Tokyo Game Show. This was immediately followed by the next year, four years post announcement, that the team was starting from scratch because the game Nomura wished to develop could no longer work within the constraints of the Crystal Engine developed for the Fabula Nova Crystallis – they would develop their own game engine for Versus XIII dubbed “Luminous Studio”.
In 2012, Square Enix appointed Hajime Tabata and his team that developed Type-0 to start working on a prototype of the next mainline game in the Final Fantasy series (XV) for next generation hardware. During this time and troubled by the lack of smooth development on Versus XIII after six years, Square Enix president Yoichi Wada contacted Tabata and asked him what his thoughts on Versus XIII and whether the project could be salvaged or just canceled. Tabata stated it could be salvaged, but the development could not be continued in the same way it had been up to that point. Square Enix then appointed Tabata and his team from Type-0 to help finish Versus XIII, a decision that most of Tabata’s team was resistant to at first (reports stated that 90% of the team was against the idea at first). This brought the Versus XIII to over 200 people, made Tabata the co-director on the game, and began the work of folding the already done work on Versus XIII into the next mainline Final Fantasy.
Tabata stated in interviews that at the time he and his team had joined the project, after six years of work and many promised concepts from Nomura, the game was only 25% complete. As part of the reworking to finish the project, many of the concepts that Nomura had planned from the initial concept pitch and announcement back in 2006 such as the character Stella and character switching in combat were axed to help streamline the development, the story was altered to follow closer to the original scenario written back in 2006 by Kazushige Nojima – the original creator of the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology and former Square Enix scenario writer (including VII, VIII, X, and X-2) – which would focus on the themes of “Journey” and “Comradery”. Even with all these changes, Square Enix did state that their intent was to try and preserve what work had been done thus far, and Tabata and Nomura would work together to maintain the games direction and principal characters like Noctis would remain true to what Nomura wanted to achieve.
In 2013, it was formally announced that Versus XIII was set to become the new Final Fantasy XV. In December of that year, Nomura would depart the project to go work on Kingdom Hearts III and leave Tabata as the sole director of the game. Reports of a lot of internal struggle in the studio followed, with Tabata drastically rearranging the teams and the leadership on the project. However, reports from inside Square Enix that despite initial struggles, most of the changes and streamlining reinvigorated the team, and by the next year Tabata was reporting that the game was nearing 50%-60% completion.
From 2014 to 2016, the game released more and more in-game footage, put out two separate demos that showed off the scope and capabilities of the Luminous Studio engine, and announced the expanded “Final Fantasy XV Universe” project that would include a film, an animated series, mobile games and a spin-off VR game (eventually revealed to be a fishing simulator).
Finally, in November of 2016 – Final Fantasy XV was released. The reaction was a resounding “Eeeeh. It’s okay?”
It’s hard to say exactly what generated that reaction. It was probably a myriad of reasons across the fan base. From the long development cycle generating expectations, to the staff shake ups leading to conspiracy theories about good the game would have been if Tabata hadn’t “stolen” it from Nomura (Ignoring the fact that in all likeliness, Wada would have just canceled the game had Tabata not stepped in to get things back on track). If you look up complaint threads across the internet, you’ll find endless different reasons why people didn’t enjoy the game.
To me, it just feels like there wasn’t going to be a “good” solution here. There was no way this game was going to be able to deliver on everything that had been built up over 10 years of teases, and ideas, and concepts. It didn’t help that after the massive backlash to the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, and the small splash Type-0 had on Sony’s dwindling handheld market, that many fans were hailing Versus XIII to be the saving throw of the entire Fabula Nova Crystallis project and when your savior turns out just to be another game… well, I think ‘letdown’ is putting it kindly.
Overall, I personally loved Final Fantasy XV. I enjoyed how the story was deceptively simple by calling back to the original Final Fantasy’s Warriors of Light idea and traveling the world on a quest to gain celestial blessings and power to stop a great evil with a Machiavellian plan. The game honestly felt like it was trying to tie back the modern Final Fantasy games with the old ones in a joining of hands across generations. I loved how you got to know these four characters in and out, and felt emotionally part of the squad as they went through these ordeals. I enjoyed the subtle implied storytelling and world building over the blunt brute force exposition dumps that you had in some of the previous games. The fact that Noctis and his friends really had no clue what their actual destiny was and only Lunafreya and King Regis were playing a big gambit with the whole thing to stop the Darkness.
That being said, it wasn’t a perfect game by any means. There was a lot of bits that felt like they had the right idea but they didn’t do enough with, or certain story elements were confusing (not helped in part of the fact that Noctis & Co. were kept in the dark about what was ACTUALLY going on in the story until the end). I won’t argue that those who complained didn’t have plenty of valid reasons to do so. The game was just simply average at best. Honestly, given the utter development hell that the game went through to get to release, part of me is shocked that it came out to even be average. There are parts to like and dislike and mostly what works and doesn’t is going to come down to personal taste.
Part of me just really wanted to look back at the facts of what happened to create this game because there has been so much speculation and so many armchair developers waxing on the topic that I think that the facts can often get lost. What could have happened instead? Well, Versus XIII would likely have been canceled as Wada seemed to be leaning that way when he spoke to Tabata, Tabata was slated to work on the next mainline game regardless of whether they absorbed Versus XIII or not, and Nomura would have gone back to finish Kingdom Hearts III. Would that have been better? I don’t know! There’s no telling if Tabata starting from scratch instead of trying to salvage Versus XIII would have resulted in a better game.
Following the initial wave of mixed press, Tabata and his team set out to work on fixing a number of issues people had with the game, including technical problems, frustrations with certain areas (This included the either maligned or beloved Chapter XIII which seemed to fall heavily on how much you read into it. Funny now given the applause for realism on how slow and tedious RDR2 can be nowadays.) and further exploring some characters motivations and backstories. This was in addition to the already planned season of DLC that the game was going to have featuring Episodes Gladiolus, Prompto and Ignis that each explored a point in the game where the characters were separated from Noctis in one way or another – clearly planned places for DLC. Any additional content created for the purpose of fixing the story (the revised Chapter 13, new Lunafreya bits, Chapter 13.5 with Gladio and Ignis), and additional Quality of Life fixes (Chapter select) were all released for free so that everyone could enjoy the fixes.
Looking back at how everything went down, I still feel that XV was a solid game at launch. The fixes and DLC certainly clarified and expanded on the core game, but were they vital to experience? I didn’t think so. I mean, I enjoyed it from start to finish and I beat the game within the first few weeks of release before all of the talk of “fixing” it really took off. The infamous Chapter 13 was a pretty cool experience when I played it, and as I mentioned before the plot was deceptively simple. By that I mean, it looked like there was a lot more to it than there actually was. Which is impressive, and does take some skill in my opinion to give that impression.
So with now the whole thing done with the exception of Episode Ardyn due out in March, what is there left to say? Final Fantasy XV was a risky venture no matter how you sliced it. I dunno. In the end it’s just up to each of us whether or not it was worth it. But I wanted to create a look back at what happened not based on speculation or rumor, but everything I could dig up that was reported from interviews, articles, etc. There’s a lot of “Tabata ruined it” or “Nomura couldn’t hack it” talk on the internet and I just wanted to just look at the facts and evaluate what all this was from that.
This was an enjoyable experience. Final Fantasy XV for good and for ill was something I enjoyed playing. I don’t regret the money I spent. I don’t think we were robbed of a different game when the other game was barely even started when all this went down. I don’t think badly of Nomura or Tabata.
It’s just a solemn end to a big extravagant project that left me kinda numb. I wonder if I will feel the same in January when the Kingdom Hearts series finally comes to a close. I guess we will wait and see, won’t we?