Final Fantasy XV is currently available for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
Sidestepping the divisive highs and lows of the concept direction, narrative choices, and distribution model of Final Fantasy XV, there’s one dungeon in particular that sticks out from all the others for how it showcases the game’s uniqueness. As a brief one-off, I’d like to delve into that level in particular on a point-by-point basis.
(As a quick aside, this content is only accessible after viewing the game’s credits but doesn’t constitute any plot content, so consider this the point to jump ship if that constitutes more than you’d like to know.)
So, Pitioss Ruins. It’s one of the last new areas to open up in the game, and it operates differently to just about anything else, to the point of constituting a surprise shift in the game’s genre. You see, all supporting party members are prohibited from entering the ruins, and nothing in the dungeon will initiate the combat that otherwise serves as the game’s primary source of action. Rather, Pitioss Ruins suddenly plucks the player out of a role-playing context and drops them instead into a platforming level.
Which is something that this game in particular is just not equipped to handle.
There are a half-dozen elements that normally serve the game quite well, but for this one dungeon instead act against what would be fluid play. First and foremost among these is the lack of lighting that prevents the player from seeing what’s in front of them (critical in a situation requiring split-second navigation). Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, since the only dungeons outside of Pitioss where the player really has to consider the landscape more than fifteen feet in either direction will provide a map for navigating relatively un-perilous paths (or will be pointedly straightforward regardless) and a dark environment even adds to the atmosphere of the caverns and abandoned structures in which other levels are set.
But for platform-hopping play, poor visibility directly and persistently impairs the player in a way that’s more frustrating than challenging. As most of the level is made of the same grey stone, it can be tricky to discern the exact boundary between a “safe spot” and a surface that the player will slide right off. In some of the deeper, further underground sections with sparser flooring, the modicum of light afforded to the player occasionally won’t even cover the whole distance the player needs to jump (or drop) to reach the next standing space, resulting in a forced trial-and-error approach that simply doesn’t feel satisfying.
The camera itself antagonizes the player in this space in particular, being trained to pull in close to the protagonist outside of battle (which Pitioss has none of) to better show off incidental animations and detail in the environment. It doubles down on this closeness while exploring tight spaces, especially where it doesn’t have the freedom to rotate fully, meaning in certain areas the player can’t see the entirety of the situation before them – again, something that most dedicated platforming games recognize to be crucial at any given moment, and a reason why most levels in that genre are set in wide-open spaces.
Further, much of the signposting in this level is unclear (again compounded by the aforementioned poor visibility). In particular, there’s a section slightly over halfway through requiring the player to jump off a bridge onto a statue, despite the far side of the bridge (falsely) appearing to have a perfectly serviceable path forward and the statue having no clear horizontal surface on which to land. Criss-crossing beams and unfortunately-placed and shallow platforms elsewhere repeat the issue, making it an unnecessary challenge to determine where you’re even intended to go at times. Fine in an open world, but very very bad for a level with an intended structure.
Speaking of which, before you can even enter Pitioss Ruins, there’s a requirement that the player can only enter the level after sundown in-game. This isn’t communicated to them in any way (the very location of the dungeon entrance is barely hinted at by a minute marking on the map’s topography) or relevant to level that takes place completely underground anyway, potentially leading players to believe that they haven’t met some other subquest requirement to enter and turning them away entirely.
Lacking a sense of direction isn’t exactly helped by the fact that some sections stretch over and under each other, which in theory maximizes how the level uses the limited space in a closed-in structure, but in practice further muddies the layout, especially when everything is made of the same dim, grey stone and metal. And with this level’s higher emphasis on movement, Pitioss removes certain guardrails present in similarly-structured areas, allowing the player to fall to a previously-explored path and be irritatingly propelled to a much earlier checkpoint.
Pitioss Ruins isn’t exactly a short level, at that – while checkpoints are frequent, they’re also numerous, with the dungeon taking several hours to complete from square one. Especially for something outside of the game’s usual mode of operations, that’s simply too long to be stuck in the same backdrop doing the same unbroken activity without it feeling grating and oppressive.
But possibly the worst aspect of Pitioss Ruins hearkens back to Final Fantasy XV’s actual area of expertise, which is how it presents its characters. Noctis (the player character) has an array of smaller, incidental animations which, while they don’t matter when navigating fields and even add some visual flavor to how he moves across the world, instead generate extra movement beyond what the player intends.
For instance, instead of simply turning on his heel when the player taps the opposite direction to re-orient themselves, Noctis will take a step and a half forward, push off his foot, and get a jogging start in the direction the player actually intended, a sequence that could easily send you tumbling off one of the smaller platforms you’re meant to negotiate. Noctis has an excessive landing, as well, taking one to three steps forward when landing at a lower point than he jumped from; those few steps regularly from a safe position off a ledge in front of them regardless of how the player resists. There is an option to force Noctis to “walk”, which takes the edge off a select few aspects of the gratuitous movement, but that’s either tied to on fiddly analog sensitivity or activated by the same button as “dodge” (which is tantamount to an “instant failure” button in this level).
To be fair, Pitioss Ruins does get one thing right, and that’s its time-to-retry. For many games, the most frustrating part of having to retry a sequence over and over isn’t so much in failing as it is in waiting for the visual indication to play out, the level to reload, possibly for the player to confirm their intent to retry, and the scene to reset. For the ruins in particular, Final Fantasy XV uses an established in-game mechanic (Noctis’ teleportation) as a device to reset play to last checkpoint within a fraction of a second, and rarely further back than sixty seconds’ worth of play-time. This reducing of failure to a slap on the wrist is a salve for other frustrations, and possibly the only reason I didn’t give up on the level entirely.
None of these aforementioned gripes are things that you’ll normally see in platforming-focused games – these titles gravitate toward cartoonish mascots for what are clearly functional reasons considering Pitioss’ complications. For Noctis to rotate in place, he has to adjust his footing for the movement to look at all natural, but for the already-inhuman Crash Bandicoot it hardly matters if he move his feet or not when pulling an about-face. Motion capture and other semi-realistic motion is already impractical for not fitting a strictly human model, so going in the opposite direction with forgiving, “stretchy” animations serves a dual purpose of adding visual flair and allowing the character to stick a landing by “squashing” down on the landing point. Abstract mascots can be given regular, predictable movements that the player doesn’t even have to consider adjusting for during regular play. And what’s more, they lend themselves to bright, colorful settings, which are visually distinct and perfectly unambiguous in how they communicate of objects and boundaries.
I generally don’t like harping on a game for the sake of it – even in my article griping on how Blue Reflection flubbed its messaging, there’s still praise to be had for what the game does to service its concept. To reiterate, almost all of these decisions feed into what Final Fantasy XV is trying to do the other 98% of the time. The dark lighting and contiguous level layout enhance a sense of place and atmosphere and the extra motion makes these characters feel more alive, both of which do a lot to get the audience to buy into a story.
The Pitioss Ruins serve example after example of the right mechanics applied in the wrong place, which makes it an excellent reflection of how different games require different priorities in their design.
You can hardly play flamenco dance on a tuba, after all.
(Actually, hold that thought…)