Sunday, 28 August 2016

Movie Review: Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV (2016)



This is going to be a different kind of review than I am used to writing for this blog. See, for the most part, I rather obviously view and critique films from the perspective of a film-goer: Is it entertaining, is it smart, is it using the visual medium properly, etc. However, because this film is ingrained in something that is a rather prominent part of my childhood and indeed my identity as a video gamer, I will be looking at this film from that perspective. From watching my uncle play Final Fantasy IX to playing the PS2-era titles in the franchise to rediscovering emulators to purchasing the X/X-2 HD Remaster, this franchise has formed a rather large part of my tastes when it comes to games. However, even with it containing some of my all-time favourites in the form of IX, X and XII, it has fallen extremely far in recent times. Between the mockery that was Final Fantasy XIII to the wrong-headed idea to turn it into a trilogy to both attempts to make XIV’s MMO work, with Square-Enix apologizing profusely for the latter, it genuinely seems like the glory days of the series with its iconic characters, locales, combat and even musical cues are far behind them. So, when it was announced the latest installment in the series was getting a companion film made and released, I… was rather hesitant. I mean, outside of working as a film in its own right, this film has to prove to me that this is a game universe worth investing in again, and after the travesty of Lightning and the Annoying Bunch, that is a tough ask. This is Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV.


The plot: Two warring empires, Lucis and Niflheim, are on the brink of signing a peace treaty which will finally put an end to their conflict. As the respective leaders assemble to sign, Nyx (Aaron Paul) discovers a plot concerning the Niflheim princess Lunafreya (Lena Headey) that could spell trouble for any talk of union between the empires. It is up to Nyx and the rest of the Kingsglaive, the soldiers of Lucis whom possess the king’s magical powers, to keep the peace before it becomes too late.

The acting here, both vocally and with the motion capture, is well done and manages to get past some of the main-character-in-an-RPG blandness in their characterization. Paul is almost unrecognizable in the lead, by which I mean that he shows a level of confidence and actual action-hero presence that would have been greatly appreciated back in the last video game-related film he was in. Sean Bean is old hat when it comes to characters in fantasy settings, and he certainly shows that with the very regal and dignified air he gives King Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII. Long name is long, for fantasy’s sake. Headey is a little bland, but at the same time her performance isn’t enough to be distracting bland; there are plenty of other things about this film that are distracting, but we’ll get into that later. Liam Mulvey probably comes across the best performance-wise, as he brings a certain Auron-like quality to this very braggish but ultimately good-willed character in Libertus. Darin De Paul as the Niflheim chancellor Ardyn, quite frankly, makes me excited about the game this is setting up because he is insanely fun to watch. He’s like a less poncy Seymour from FFX in terms of scene-stealing awesome. Also, David Gant as the Niflheim emperor is about as Saruman as a character is likely to get nowadays; I approve.

We’re well and truly in the PS4/Xbox One era of video game graphics, creating some almost-insane levels of gorgeous pre-rendered animation. Thankfully, unlike most of the launch titles for those respective systems, this doesn’t have the burden of shite gameplay to hold back the visuals because this is amazing to watch, especially on the big screen. The setting of Insomnia, which annoys me slightly on the name (It’s the city that never sleeps; get it?), shows Square-Enix’s standard for world-building as it manages to balance a whole heap of different architectural ideas (modern city block, gothic cathedral, futuristic technology) without it looking like someone just stapled several different cities to each other. It may be a little too domesticated for a Final Fantasy title, something not helped by the ungodly irritating product placement for Audi and Beats By Dre, but it works in that it looks like a world I wouldn’t mind pushing a character around in myself. The action scenes carry what is kind of standard quality control when it comes to cinematics for games these days, but once again, the cinematics are the entire point of the thing so they work really nicely. They basically comprise of two very hefty action beats that sandwich the film together, but these are some pretty cool fight scenes. One of the production companies who worked on this film is Digic Pictures, whom also did the graphics for the Assassin’s Creed series, and you can definitely see that in the agile stealth shown by the titular Kingsglaive. Man, I really hope the knife-teleportation is featured in the actual game. As for the character modelling… okay, it mostly works, but I can’t help but feel like the people working on the audio syncing gave up at a certain point. Specifically, when it came to lip-synching the character Crowe (Alexa Kahn), where it devolves into sub-Godzilla movie bad dubbing. This is seriously odd, because the lip-synching is pretty top-notch everywhere else.

Ignoring FFXV’s place in a thematic saga that ties it to XIII, and really, being associated with that colossal misstep is something I think everyone would like to ignore, how does this film work as an introduction to the game’s universe? Honestly, after the immense headache concerning time-traveller souls in the body of baby chocobos that we got last time (or I think we got last time; it’s that convoluted that I can barely tell nor do I care to look it up), this is actually rather promising. I’ve been following XV’s development on-and-off for a while now, starting back when it was gonna be called Versus XIII, and I remember being rather hopeful about the title based on the titbits about its combat system. This compounds that because, if nothing else, it shows that the studio as a whole is moving away from the Trilogy-That-Nobody-Asked-For. Specifically, they seem to be reverting to the Final Fantasy XII imperial rebellion side of things, while retaining certain theological elements of XIII as well as its approach to notions of fate. However, it avoids the whole “We’re on a mission from God, we think, but we have literally no idea what it is” angle in place of a more reasonable portrayal of personal motivation and unease. The characters may be a little bland overall, particularly Nyx who only gets to show what his character actually is during the climax, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t work. Honestly, more so than Nyx, it’s Libertus who ends up carrying quite a lot of this film, as the struggle between his morals and his attitude towards the kingdom of Lucis give him a pretty well-developed character arc throughout the film. Then again, it’s pretty much tradition to remember ally characters better than the main character in most Final Fantasy games; why be Tidus when you can be Auron or Kimahri, right? As for Nyx, his turn near the end shows this powder-keg of determination and willingness to fight to the bitter end if it means saving the people that, frankly, already makes him better than Lightning ever was.

But what about as a film in its own right? Well, as I said before, the animation has a few niggly spots but holds up surprisingly well overall and the sound design is cinema-quality. Director Takeshi Nozue has worked on the cinematics on several Final Fantasy titles, as well as the first two Kingdom Hearts games, and he definitely brings this film to a certain grade above regular game cut-scenes. In fact, I’m fairly certain that some of the shots in this film exist solely to flex some traditional cinematic muscle and make this film’s case as a standalone production, toying with perspective and mirror reflections and the like. As for the story, while it does work within the standard three-act structure bookended by earth-shattering action beats, you can definitely tell that this is meant to be a prologue to a much larger story even without the Final Fantasy XV subtitle attached to it. The theology concerning the crystal at the heart of the kingdom of Lucis, its power and how the king and in turn the Kingsglaive use that power, is alluded to enough to fill in certain gaps but it still seems a little too thick for this two-hour film to slice through for common consumption. Not that takes away from a weirdly funny and kind of clever scene involving Lunafreya, an enemy and him wanting an item of ultimate power, mind you. I’d mark this down to being one for the fans overall, except that would show a pretty heavy misunderstanding of what Final Fantasy is. It’s an anthology, not this strictly adhered-to saga with a continuing plotline. There are reoccurring motifs like character names and music cues, but each installment should stand on its own and this film manages to do that well enough. Besides, the issues that this film has when it comes to exposition is more a problem with storytelling as a whole, not that it’s too inclusive that only franchise fans will understand it.

All in all, while a bit jagged around the edges production-wise, this managed to fulfill the expectations I had for it as a pretty major fan of the Final Fantasy series. It sets up an interesting world, a conflict that works within the film’s runtime as well as serving as a companion to the game itself, and it gave enough hope that we won’t have to deal with XIII-4: Lightning Goes To The Mall or whatever fresh hell they’d come up with if that sub-series continues. As a film, it’s a somewhat mindless but still entertaining action romp that I am glad that I managed to see on the one date that it got over here. It’s better than The BFG, purely because it managed to meet expectations; then again, I didn’t really have expectations for that film to begin with. However, I still have to tip my hat to Bad Neighbours 2, where the soundtrack use alone gives it the edge over this title.

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