When Vapourware Condenses: Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian

Too Human. Aliens: Colonial Marines. Duke Nukem Forever. All are famous for their promise, their hellishly delayed development times, and ultimately, their disappointment. This isn’t just endemic to games, either; just look at Chinese Democracy and Alien vs. Predator. The culmination of years of held breath, of stolen glimpses punctuating the overwhelming silence as teams worked hard behind closed doors. Each project fell into myth, almost; a growing, creeping sense of disbelief that the promised game would ever make its way to your expectant disk tray.

The allure of these games, the hope and the fear, overgrows and strangles our perceptions of the subject. “Surely they’re not still working on it”, we think. “When that thing was announced, so and so was president”. “I’ll believe that release date when it’s right there on the shelf next to all the season passes and worthless preowned copies of Battleborn.”

And yet, despite the signs of troubled formation, there’s always that hope, right? You can’t have greatness without ambition, and for a team of people to dedicate a decade of their careers to something, you’d certainly hope it was worth the time of every hand that touched it. Sadly that’s not often the case; consider the three key examples of Too Human, Colonial Marines, and DNF. One was widely regarded mediocre at very best, while the other two were so reviled that many questioned the sanity of Gearbox in pushing their tired, broken corpses up to the finish line.

From company so often bound for failure, two high-profile releases managed to break free of the cycle of delay and rub their elbows with the very greatest games of 2016… with a handful of asterisks each. Both long-awaited instalments of beloved Japanese series, both nudged back with a final apologetic delay for spit-and-polish, and both fully capable of taking your breath away. 2016 was something of a shitstorm, but at least the demoralisation was softened by the one-two punch of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian.

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Final Fantasy XV began life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006, and surprisingly little of the game’s spine (at least the core narrative and play themes) seems to have altered since its reveal trailer in 2008.

Final Fantasy XV’s vast and beautiful world is a spellbinding place to inhabit, brimming with side quests, treasures, and monsters to hunt. Truly impressive, though, is its handling of its main cast – Prince Noctis and his companions Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis – as they sweep across the Americana-tinged countryside of Lucis. Every detail and mechanic surrounding the group’s dynamic successfully compounds and deepens their relationship. The incidental dialogue highlighted the companionship well – for some reason I find it especially memorable that Ignis turned to Prompto as we approached a waiting active volcano and checked that his beloved camera would be alright in the heat.

Beyond this, though, lies a wealth of mechanics to further carve and mould these relationships beyond the script. Camping together, choosing meals from Ignis’ repertoire, and leafing through the pictures Prompto has snapped during the day while your companions critique the shots; every time I set a campfire I relished not just the stream of experience from the day’s activities but the easy companionship of these friends around the fire.

Combat is a fresh cocktail of the old and new; the base is a grand departure in the form of explosively balletic action with hints of Final Fantasy’s familiar juggling of weapons, abilities, and status effects. You could be forgiven for laying eyes on Final Fantasy XV and initially confusing it for a straight-up action game, but the strategic elements elevate the experience from one that tests the reflexes to one that engages your mind, too. And even in the heat of the action, Final Fantasy XV emphasises the bond between you and your teammates: cooperative Link Strikes and Parries trigger when you attack enemies whilst yourself and an ally are in a certain position, and your friends are prone to lending you their advice as you approach a difficult encounter, which you can follow for valuable skill points.

In nearly every conceivable part of the game, Final Fantasy XV succeeds in exploring and examining platonic male relationships with a depth and deftness rarely seen in a medium whose primary preoccupation with the theme is limited to gruff banter and no-homo-brohugs. There’s a real affection between the men you guide through Lucis, and that emotional core is the game’s biggest achievement underlying its mechanical triumphs.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my recommendation of Final Fantasy XV be marked with some pretty big caveats. Firstly, despite the game’s fantastic underlying narrative of the developing relationship between the protagonists, the actual plotted story is obtuse, impenetrable through its incompletion, and tiresomely unoriginal.

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Despite the great group dynamic, Noctis is an unlikeable shit, his *ugh, whatever* affectation varying in minute degrees no matter how you choose to have him react to others. Aside from that, it irks me that all his boons were received by birthright: his powers, his friends, his fiancé, and of course his kingdom. He shows few redeeming features besides determination and a begrudging sense of duty until late in the game, when his preceding presence has already grated away any sympathy you may have otherwise held for his plight.

Finally, and perhaps most vexingly, the last few hours of story missions do away with everything about the game that charmed us with for the first 25 hours (if you’ve followed the story pretty doggedly). The inventively snappy combat, the breadth of the world, interaction with your squad, even colour itself; all gradually pruned and filed and clipped away for the last few chapters of the story. I realise it could be argued that there’s a certain narrative purpose behind these decisions given the progressing graveness of the story. However arguments for this being a collection of conscious creative decisions are undermined by game director Hajime Tabata’s pledge to “patch in more story” and “fix” (read: make bearable) the most offensive chapter.

I’ve got to wonder about Final Fantasy XV’s development in relation to these glaring issues of storytelling and late-game woes that should by all rights have been ironed out by playtesting and common sense somewhere along its decade-long gestation. I would posit that vast parts of the game’s structure and story must have been scrapped and reworked, leaving little time to work on its lacking portions. I guess they didn’t want to disappoint everyone with yet another delay.

With the complexity of Final Fantasy XV, it’s relatively easy to explain both its long development and its shortcomings. The Last Guardian, however, is a much more streamlined and linear experience; which makes sense, considering Team Ico’s past work and Fumito Ueda’s well known design philosophy of “design through subtraction” that sees the removal of any superfluous elements in order to distil a desired feeling. The Last Guardian aims to be a single dish designed to please your taste buds in a specific way, while Final Fantasy XV offers a sprawling multi-course banquet. Even when you take the relatively diminutive team size into consideration, the scale of the project certainly doesn’t mesh with the time it took to produce the thing.

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The Last Guardian is a linear action-adventure game following an unnamed boy and gigantic feathered creature Trico as they attempt to escape a hauntingly quiet valley of treacherous crumbling architectural beauty. The player’s focus might be to escape, but in a much wider sense, the game’s focus is to develop and convey the relationship between Boy and beast, and that’s the real story of the game.

The game’s core mechanics lend themselves well to the central theme. Boy and Trico are brought and held together by the need for survival, and their reliance upon each other is constantly reinforced. The Boy’s physical weakness is compensated for by Trico’s brute strength, while Trico’s overwhelming size and animal intelligence is complemented by Boy’s nimble slightness and human intellect.

Underlying this vital reliance is the highly tactile nature of the game, grounding you in the world’s mystery and Trico’s presence. There’s a very real sense of physical presence and you clamber, grasp, and manhandle your way through The Last Guardian. This, of course, extends to Trico itself – a prominent mechanic involves riding and petting the beast at different positions on his body to encourage different behaviours.

Such effort to cement you so tangibly in the world wouldn’t do much good if it wasn’t an appealing place to inhabit, but Team Ico has crafted an achingly beautiful place; a blank enigma for you to unwrap and examine as you traverse its abandoned majesty. The sense of awe and beauty is at once unique and recognisable to anyone that’s sunk into Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Teetering tower-like structures punch up towards the sky like solemn sentinels to the silent place, while inside their walls you’ll want to run your fingers over long-eroded glyphs that adorn the walls and explore outer courtyards in the slow process of reclamation by nature. The Last Guardian’s valley is a beguiling, brooding masterpiece of danger and contemplation. The faceless, possessed suits of armour that make up the game’s primary antagonists feel like the personification of that implied threat, dispassionate and deadly in their resistance to your trespass.

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Sound design is not to be underestimated, either, with a rich auditory landscape laid over the physical one. Your footsteps slap and echo through yawning halls, ancient mechanisms screech from untold ages of disuse, and omnipresent wind whistles through the bricks of the high towers.

All that work goes a decent way towards achieving the exact atmosphere that Team Ico want to achieve, but that effort is hobbled by fundamental missteps in the core game design. Chief amongst these issues is Trico itself. Despite the fantastic work evident in its characterisation through animation and lovable design, his responsiveness will test the limits of even the most patient players. This is an understandable decision, at least in the The Last Guardian’s opening chapters; Trico is a wild animal, and you’ve got to earn each other’s trust. Its unruly streak does go some way towards building Trico up as a believable creature with agency rather than a simple AI minion under your Beast Master-esque control. A more “realistic” Trico should lead to a more meaningful relationship, right? But the frustrations of such ponderous response times ultimately take you right out of the game and plant a kernel of resentment for the idiot animal, which runs in direct opposition to the game’s intent. Trico does steadily become more responsive for the first half of the game, but the long periods of bellowing at it to “please just fucking jump over there” never go away, right up to the last portions of the game.

Another fundamental issue – and one that may be far more embarrassing for Team Ico – is that the Boy controls like a dizzy infant on whatever drugs the kids are into these days. Movement feels enduringly imprecise and clumsy, past the point that would have appropriately conveyed the Boy’s inexperience and fragility. The camera is stiffly unhelpful, often preferring to take a firm interest in Trico’s (immaculately rendered) arsehole rather than providing a helpful view of the level. These issues could be forgiven in Shadow of the Colossus, where gaping landscapes and vast enemies required only broad strokes to wrangle successful accuracy from Wander’s movements. In the narrower, dense, more platform-heavy environments of The Last Guardian, those gripes stick out like a sore thumb and rudely overshadow your immersion.

There’s no question to me as to which game was more deserving of the wait; Final Fantasy XV might be marred by myriad shortcomings, but I get the overwhelming feeling that its issues are more a product of ambition than anything else. The Last Guardian, meanwhile, feels like it’s fallen by the wayside through a certain blinkering effect; stagnant portions of the game’s design allowed to seep into and impair the experience against better judgement. It would seem that the wider market reflects my lopsided opinion of these games, too; whilst Final Fantasy XV happily announces DLC plans and ongoing support, The Last Guardian recently endured a permanent price drop of $20.  All caveats aside Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian are unquestionably worthwhile experiences that sit amongst the best games of 2016. They’re certainly more worthy additions to the world than Duke Nukem Forever an Aliens: Colonial Marines. But they both represent the pitfalls of long-term development in ways both shared and distinct.

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The Top 10 Games of 2015, According To Me

2015 was an unquestionably strong year for video games. We’ve been ridiculously, surprisingly spoiled, to the point that several of the following games would have easily earned a top spot on almost anyone’s list any other year. But even in the midst of such quality, for me these games have risen above the rest. Here are my personal top 10 games of 2015.

10- Rise of the Tomb Raider

Most sequels are content to simply grasp dangling plot threads from the previous game and run the same gauntlet again in new locations with a handful of new abilities, but not Rise of the Tomb Raider. Rise is the rare game that’s been created with all of the issues of its predecessor clearly in mind. Lara is now a somewhat seasoned survivalist, and is far more believable in both her willingness and ability to murder threats to her life. The eponymous tombs have returned, this time fully optional and providing the series’ pedigree environment puzzles that were conspicuously light in the last game. And the semi-open environments of the first game have evolved into a more expansive affair, offering more interesting optional diversions than before. The core game itself is just as well written, and action is just as solid, and the characters and environments are just as beautifully realised aesthetically now as in its predecessor, but Rise of the Tomb Raider has made big improvements where it counts, and deserves a spot among the best games of the year.

10- Rise of the Tomb Raider

9- Rocket League

It turns out that to reinvigorate interest in sports and racing games in an industry tired with both, all you need is a little rocket fuel. Rocket League is a physics-driven football game with teams of rocket-enhanced cars. It’s as beautifully simple as that. The first time you intercept the ball with a rocket- assisted bash and watch it sail between those goalposts, you’ll be hard-pressed to restrain your elation. Instantly fun, easy to comprehend and packed with nuance as you learn how to play more effectively, Rocket League is pure, effortless fun. What’s not to love when you can drive your enemies up the wall this literally?

9- Rocket League

8- Splatoon

The first new Nintendo IP in what feels like forever, Splatoon is a fresh and exciting take on competitive online play. In reply to the landscape of grim and gritty military shooters, Nintendo has delivered a game where you literally brighten up the world to win in a paintball battle to cover the map in your team’s colours. Ablaze with bright and cheerful colour, Splatoon’s presentation doubles up as a clever visual indicator of how well you team is doing, and where you’re needed most. See a big patch of enemy ink in a quiet part of the map? Hose the place with your ink to score lots of points for you and your team! The flow of the match is even tied to your coverage of the map, since you can only effectively move about as kid and squid in areas covered in your team’s ink, while enemy ink slows and damaged you. Awash with a grand variety of weapons from fast- firing paintball guns to far reaching paint rifles and even big paint rollers to spread your team’s ink and dispatch enemies, Splatoon allows for a variety of playstyles. It’s also one of the more viable multiplayer-focused titles released this year due to continuing support in the form of a steady stream of new maps and modes to keep players interested, making Splatoon a shining example of games-as-service.

8- Splatoon

7- Undertale

Undertale is the rare example of a completely unknown entity rocketing to complete success, riding a wave of praise from fans bordering on fanatical. I’m still baffled that a small release blending old school, Earthbound-style JRPG with bursts of combat using bullet hell mechanics can attain such widespread acclaim. Nevertheless, Undertale is all heart. Undertale’s selling point is that you don’t have to kill a single being on your journey through the world of monsters. Each new opponent is a little puzzle exercise, and it’s here that the game really shines (if you don’t fall in love with the game when you’ve experienced Lesser Dog, you don’t have a heart). Every new and bizarre character is a singular delight to experience, and if you haven’t played Undertale then I don’t want to spoil a single detail. Wonderfully expressive with its bright, retro art style and punctuated with perhaps the best soundtrack of the year, Undertale is a pack of wonderful surprises. 

7- Undertale

6- Life Is Strange

Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic game, Life Is Strange, is the first of two Telltale Games- style adventure games on this list. The gameplay itself is almost identical to the Telltale Games’ tried- and- tested formula, with the important distinction that the protagonist, Max, can rewind time. This is both paired with dialogue challenges where you must rewind some conversations with future knowledge to bring about what you think is the most favourable option. Where Life Is Strange excels, though, is in its exploration of player agency and choice. At many points in the game, I was presented with a choice between two different actions. I could see the immediate repercussions of each decision, but I could only guess at the farther-reaching consequences. This left me indecisive for several minutes, on several occasions, terrified that I might make a choice I might regret. Of course, none of this would be effective without a compelling cast of characters, and Life Is Strange knocks it out of the park with a delightful band of personalities (Chloe might be my favourite character this year). Wrap this up with an ending that feels both earned and appropriate based on the game’s emphasis on player agency, and we have ourselves a belter of a game.

6- Life Is Strange

5- Until Dawn

Quantic Dream and Telltale Games redefined adventure games for the modern era of gaming with a purer focus on great storytelling, and Supermassive Games has achieved perhaps the biggest sleeper hit of the year with their run at that formula. Until Dawn sets itself up in the most cliche of horror trappings- teenagers partying in a cabin in the woods on the anniversary of a horrible disaster. It’s jour job to guide your characters through the story as events jackknife between lots of horror archetypes, keeping the player on their toes and constantly guessing what’s going on until the whole story wraps together in a very satisfying way. It’s mighty good fun to replay the game several times, feeling out ways to direct the events to shape the characters’ lives, and it can be surprising how differently any two different playthroughs can play out (each of the game’s characters may die or survive until the end). The game excels in driving the player through curiosity and tension to keep as many characters as possible alive… until dawn. (I’m so sorry)

5- Until Dawn

4- Fallout 4

For better or for worse, Fallout 4 is yet another Bethesda Open World Game, with all of the joys and trappings that come with the pedigree. It seems to be the price of worlds with such depth and scope; Fallout 4 is plagued by a multitude of bugs both harmless and serious, and the choice to feature a fully voiced lead character has forced a more streamlined dialogue system that actually serves to limit and cheapen the NPC interaction that the series is so loved for. With such glaring and serious issues as these, how is the game so high up on my list? Because no one else makes worlds like Bethesda. Yes, the game is hampered by technical issues and limitations, but there’s still something so magical about Bethesda’s nothing-nailed-down worlds, and Fallout 4’s Commonwealth is packed with memorable locations, characters, stories and that special Fallout brand of quirky humour. Fallout 4 is a flawed diamond.

4- Fallout 4

3- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

If I judged this list based purely on the merits of gameplay, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain would probably sit on the top spot. It’s a testament to its merits that even with its many problems, MGS5 might have taken that number one spot any other year. Hampered by a story that feels rushed and unfinished and an over reliance on repetitive mission types, the game might well be a casualty of its own ambition. What we do have, though, is core gameplay that’s inimitably outstanding on a molecular level. The vast environments Venom Snake sneaks or storms his way through set the stage for the player to approach objectives with unparalleled freedom. The game offers a simply vast array of lethal and non-lethal ways of carrying out your missions, and each and every potential avenue feels fully developed and fleshed out to perfection. You can get a dog with an eye patch, shoot a rocket fist for a long range punch, and fulton-extract a bear. Any game that lets me knock out a bear before attaching a parachute to it and watching it sail towards the heavens wins both its name as a Metal Gear game, and my heart.

3- MGSV

2- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game defined in the strength of its world. Drawing from and building upon the lore from Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels, the game is CD Projekt Red’s first attempt to bring The Witcher series to an open world, and by God do they surpass the challenge. A keen eye for artistic detail brings the world to life, depicting harsh mountains, swamps and forests punctuated with settlements from tiny villages to grand cities. Populating these environments are an extensive cast of distinct and unforgettable characters, gloriously fleshed out in missions and side missions which provide a level of depth and storytelling ability that’s almost unrivalled. The gameplay itself is solid enough, boasting a satisfying combat system that juggles swordplay and magic to great affect, and matures as the game progresses and you unlock more abilities. This is bolstered with a layer of strategy which requires you to drastically change your approach based on the kind of foe (human or monster) that you face. Make no mistake, though; this is a game of stories, and will leave you with dozens of memories. The cherry on top is the excellent post-release support that CD Projekt Red has given the game, with extensive patches and a slew of free DLC which makes The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt perhaps the best advocate for games-as-service alongside Splatoon.

2- Witcher 3

1- Bloodborne

Bloodborne provides, in my opinion, the best gameplay experience of the year. Mixing up the challenging but fair combat of the Souls games, Bloodborne speeds up the action without sacrificing the careful planning and forethought that From Software’s offerings so often require, resulting in more explosive skirmishes rife with risk and reward. Bloodborne features incredible art design, assaulting the senses with imagery that’s built from both classic Gothic and Lovecraft-esque horror to create its own unique aesthetic in a way only From Software could pull off. This world doesn’t just live, it roils and churns around you as you press forward on your hunt through the city of Yharnam, and the sheer quality of design and variety of the monsters you’ll face is near unprecedented. As the story unfolds, the careful and observant player is rewarded with the fascinating tale of Yharnam as told through subtle details and item descriptions found in the world. All these details add up until you have a game that manages that rare feat of truly immersing you into its fantasy through seamless integration of gameplay, story, and world design. There’s a fair argument for each of the top three games on this list to have the number one spot, but in my eyes Bloodborne wins the top spot.

1- Bloodborne

Image credits- forbes.com, gamersbook.com, gamespot.com, ign.com, lightninggamingnews.com, newgamenetwork.com, nintendo.co.uk, throwingdigitalsheep.com, usgamer.net, vg247.com, venturebeat.com

Quick Update

Hello my lovelies! I’m just posting a quick update about this blog. I’ve been working a full time job for just over a week now, and my contract lasts until the 27th of December. Sadly, the hours of the job aren’t very conducive to keeping a blog as regularly updated as I’d like, since I’m working 12 noon till 8PM and it takes about 40 minutes to an hour to get to and from work, which cuts down my playing, researching and writing time quite considerably.

I’m still going to keep the site updated as often as I can, aiming for at least a couple of posts each week, so fear not- activity will slow but not cease.

I hope y’all had a deliciously spoopy Halloween.

Peace out, friends.