Hands up: How many of you played Final Fantasy XV and thought, at any point, "Gosh, this would make a great multiplayer experience?"
Yeah, that's what I thought.
I'm not morally opposed to the idea of a multiplayer Final Fantasy experience outside of Final Fantasy XI and XIV. I think it's possible to retrofit satisfying multiplayer options into games that weren't initially designed for them; Stardew Valley's multiplayer feature looks like it's coming along nicely, for instance. But when I heard about the Final Fantasy XV "Comrades" expansion that lets up to four players tackle challenges together, my reaction was basically, "Huh. OK."
Now that I've played the Comrades beta with Kat, my reaction is holding steady at "Huh. OK" levels.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. There's not a lot wrong with Comrades (not that it's flawless; more on that in a bit), but it's not riveting, either. It's not nearly as deep as Final Fantasy XIV, and there's little exploration to be had. The million gil question is, "Who is DLC for, exactly?"
I believe it's for people like Kat and myself – people who are down with playing a frankly mindless multiplayer experience for an hour while chatting about irrelevant things. After all, the DLC is free, but it'll almost certainly have in-app purchases. I can see people becoming invested in Comrades long enough to make a cool avatar, do a few missions, and buy a funny shirt for 99 cents. Even if the novelty wears off quickly thereafter, Square-Enix still makes a few bucks off a new mode built with pre-existing assets.
That probably sounds more cynical than I'd like. I enjoyed my time with Comrades, and I don't begrudge its existence. It's odd to think of a triple-A multimillion dollar game as an underdog, but Final Fantasy XV's charming characters despite its troubled development cycle makes me instinctively root for it. Square-Enix needs to do what it can to recoup the game's losses. At any rate, Comrades is a better free-to-play experience than Final Fantasy XV's mobile Clash of Clans rip off. At least the former lets you dress up your avatar as a rest stop store clerk.
All that said, don't mistake Final Fantasy XV's Comrades DLC for anything on the level of World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, Call of Duty, or any other online experience that's been built from the ground-up. The combat in Comrades is extremely hacky-slashy, and the beta provides little opportunity for strategical fighting. Put simply, you and up to four friends use Final Fantasy XV's weapon-summoning mechanic to bash at enemies with a variety of weapons, and / or skewer them with warp-strikes.
That's right; weapon-summoning. Even though Final Fantasy XV established weapon-summoning as a power exclusive to the Caelum bloodline, everyone can summon weapons in Comrades. You get weapon-summoning powers! And you get weapon-summoning powers! Everyone is Noctis in Comrades!
The dissolution of Final Fantasy XV's story canon in this instance doesn't bother me as much as the fact all your titular comrades possess the same set of abilities. Square-Enix may shake things up for the official release, but in the beta, there's not a lot of room for strategy. As things stand now, there's no way for one character to specialize in tanking while a swifter, more MP-capable character becomes the party's magic-user, and so on.
Consequently, Kat and I did very little planning when we took on each of the beta's three missions. We just executed Final Fantasy XV's commands while gabbing about hockey, soccer, and ham (you had to be there). It might not have hurt to do a little more planning, since we did indeed die a couple of times. Really, though, Comrades' fights don't offer a lot of opportunities for strategy. They're essentially boss-rushes sprinkled with direct commands from time to time ("Protect the pylon!" / "Protect the truck!"), and Kat and I couldn't have possibly saved each other from death except maybe to point out, "I dunno, I guess you should've done a warp-strike up on top of that big rock and recovered your MP there."
Final Fantasy XV's Comrades DLC doesn't try to be Final Fantasy XIV, and that's fine. It's just a cheap, easy way for you to get together with a few pals (or some AI-controlled puppets, if you're unpopular) and beat up some of the monsters indigenous to the Insomnia landscape. And I'd be happy to sign off on this examination with a definite "Sure, give it a try once it comes out" if not for one problem: The game's match-making sucks.
The Comrades beta has at least two servers. You and your friends can fight together if one of you makes a password-protected lobby (referred to as a "camp" in the game) – but everyone must be on the same server to play together. When you start up the game, however, there's no option to join a specific server. There's no way to pull in friends from your friend lists, either. Kat and I kept having to shut off and re-join the game in hopes of being united on the same server. If Square-Enix doesn't streamline lobbies and hook-ups for the final release, Bahamut help anyone who wants to play with four friends.
The beta for Final Fantasy XV: Comrades shows off the bones of an OK multiplayer experience. Yeah, it's as shallow as a mud-puddle, but sometimes puddles are fun to splosh through. If Square-Enix overhauls the match-making system and adds in lots of fun goodies for making cool avatars, I believe Final Fantasy XV's multiplayer feature will keep fans engaged for a couple of pleasant afternoons.
If you have PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold and a Season Pass for Final Fantasy XV, you can give the Comrades closed beta a try for yourself from today through August 8.