Final Fantasy 15's ambitious, enjoyable, unprecedented multi-hour tribute to Assassin's Creed was only ever meant to be temporary. That's a shame, because it's surprisingly good.
The game's Assassin's Festival was announced last winter and became available from the FF15's main menu on August 31. I'd ignored it, because it sounded like a trifle. If I want to experience Assassin's Creed, I figured, I'd stick to the Assassin's Creed games. Mistake!
Noctis runs through a crowd of people dressed like Assassin's Creed protagonists. Except for the person in the Chocobo outfit, of course.
The Assassin's Festival is a full-on expansion to FF15, basically a bonus chapter that fits in after the seventh chapter of the main story. It ostensibly promotes October's Assassin's Creed Origins, what with the game's four male leads getting to run around in the main outfit worn by that game's protagonist Bayek.
However, it plays more like a throwback to the very first Assassin's Creed, confined to a special version of the game's city Lestallum. Slowly, over the course of several main quests and some side objectives, it introduces basic Assassin's Creed gameplay elements: Our hero Noctis learns to run across rooftops, stalk enemies from above, hide from enemy guards in crowds, and stab unsuspecting bad guys. He also learns to hide in carts full of hay while luring enemies to him with a whistle. There's even a chance to do that most Assassin's Creed 1 of actions: Sit on a bench.
It doesn't get any more Assassin's Creed than this.
The Final Fantasy Assassin's Festival has a counterpart over in Ubisoft's AC Origins: A December addition to Origins added a barely-interactive mission that culminated in a cutscene which briefly brought the antagonist of FF15 into ancient Egypt. Origins players could unlock some Final Fantasy-themed items, including Noctis' signature sword, as well as a bunch of FF Easter eggs that were added to the game's modern day setting. It was slick but slight. FF15's Assassin's Festival is rougher, but also far more expansive and impressive.
"When we asked ourselves how we can incorporate Assassin's Creed into the world of FF15 as something that is believable, we felt that creating a piece of content that has an introduction, development, turn and conclusion was the most appropriate way," the Festival's director, Prasert "Sun" Prasertvithyakarn, told me over email. The festival kicks off with an in medias res sequence from the midpoint of the story. Players assume the role of Noctis as he stands atop a tower, ready to do a signature Assassin's Creed leap of faith and hunt down an assassination target. Then the whole thing backs up to the beginning and, amazingly, unfolds as a perfectly logical extension to FF15's bonkers story.
We cut to Noctis and his buddies Ignis, Galdiolus and Prompto all packed into the Regalia, FF15's signature car, speeding toward the city of Lestallum. Players can visit Lestallum throughout the main adventure of FF15. It's a hub full of quests and shops and standard RPG stuff. In the Assassin's Festival mode, most of the shops are shut down and the town is focused on all things Assassin's Creed. Noctis and Prompto are psyched. In the fiction of FF15, which intersects fantasy tropes with modern technology and Cup Noodles product placement, Assassin's Creed is a playable video game and two of our four heroes are fans.
"Oooh, Oooh, look at all these posters!" Prompto exclaims from the back seat of the Regalia as they drive under banners for the festival.
"It's happening," Noctis enthuses. "It's really happening."
"What's gotten these two so excited all of a sudden?" Gladiolus grumbles from the front seat.
"The two of them happen to be rather fond of the Assassin's Creed series," Ignis explains.
"You would be too, if you played it," Notis says.
Once they arrive in town, they find a bunch of people dressed in Assassin's Creed outfits. Some women are wearing their Edward Kenway, some guys their Altair or Ezio. A man does a leap of faith from a tower. Others gingerly walk across a pipe connecting two rooftops.
At first, I assumed the new set-dressing would be the entirety of the event. Non-player characters banter about Assassin's Creed. "You don't get it," one says. "The hood is a symbol! It's what makes the costume great. You're not an assassin without it."
It's all well and good, if a bit weird. Then they hit you with a splash screen that perfectly matches the style of the one that's appeared in so many Assassin's Creed games. This is no trifling homage. They're serious about this.
The more I played, the more curious I became about how such a wonderfully bizarre crossover comes to pass. People at Ubisoft and Square Enix trace the origins of the festival expansion to Tokyo Game Show in September 2014, two years prior to the release of Final Fantasy 15, three prior to the release of Assassin's Creed Origins. (In AC terms, we're talking prior to the disastrous launch of Assassin's Creed Unity, which set up the franchise's eventual comeback.)
"The start of this collaboration goes back to TGS 2014, during a meeting with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot," FF15's director, Hajime Tabata, told me over email. He said it was an "ask" from himself and the game's producer, Shinji Hashimoto. "Our goal was to give even more depth to Noctis and the other main characters by making them fans of an existing game. The reason we chose Assassin's Creed is because it best matched the types of movements and actions that Noctis and crew carry out."
The Assassin's Creed development team never made it out to Tokyo to work on the expansion, but, according to a Ubisoft rep, the Square Enix team headed to AC development HQ in Montreal a few times and also met up at E3 2016 in Los Angeles. "Once the concept was agreed upon, they had weekly calls to review the content and be sure that everything they were doing were in line with AC, as was the case when we were developing the FF15 mission in ACO," the rep said.
The Final Fantasy developers made a big deal out of their end of the crossover. In addition to decking one of their game's cities out with Assassin's Creed accoutrements, they added gameplay systems that emulate the Assassin's Creed experience. After Noctis and his friends arrive in Lestallum and geek out, they meet a local named Holly who gives them Assassin's robes. The Noctis crew check in to a local hotel and awake to learn that FF15's evil empire has crashed the festival and seized the plant where Holly works. The empire also sets up a jammer that disables Noctis' main combat moves and sparks his idea to begin sneaking around, climbing across rooftops and assassinating guards with a hidden blade, just like in his favourite video game series.
This amusingly silly plot development justifies a gameplay transition that ditches FF15's battle system in exchange for the introduction of rudimentary crowd stealth, parkour and assassination systems that are introduced to the player across multiple subsequent quests. At first Noctis can only evade guards, but soon enough he's able to stab them. He can't climb. He still uses FF15's point-warping to beam himself to a high perch, but he otherwise is doing a good, if crude Altair or Ezio impersonation. Animations for the new moves are a bit clunky, but that's largely forgivable given how far outside their comfort zone the FF devs were operating.
How better to celebrate at the Assassin's Festival than to murder a guard from a haystack?
"We designed the Assassin's Festival so that you don't need to be familiar with both FF15 and Assassin's Creed in order to enjoy it," Prasertvithyakarn said. "Even if you aren't familiar with Assassin's Creed, you'd be able to enjoy the drama that unfolds between Noctis's party and the Niflheim Empire." He added: "For Assassin's Creed fans who aren't familiar with FF15, we incorporated some signature features from Assassin's Creed and minimised the role of the FF15 battle system. We made sure a person just starting out in FF15 can enjoy the Assassin's Festival just as much as a player who had reached level 99."
Parkour is one of several Assassin's-style gameplay additions introduced just for this temporary expansion.
I've played all the Assassin's Creed games, and enjoyed most of them. I was surprised how much the Festival in FF15 felt like a throwback to Ubisoft's first game in the series. Sure, there are references to subsequent games. Shopkeepers are dressed like Jacob from AC Syndicate. Some of the music is from AC2. But the focus of the gameplay on city-based parkour, stealth and assassination felt like a throwback to that first Assassin's Creed, a game that is largely dismissed these days as an intriguing but overly repetitive blueprint for more successful sequels. Your missions lead to a single target: The empire bad guy Loqi. You have to track him, try to kill him, and give chase when he flees. It all feels very much like AC1 redux, and I found it to be a surprising reminder of the potency of a purer brew of the AC formula.
Quest-giver guy: "I need you to take down some troopers. As for how you do it, everything is permitted." Noctis: "Seems pretty dangerous if you ask me. Why should I?" Guy: "Nothing is true, so I have no answer. But there's a reward."
Even after the Festival credits roll, there's more to do. There are a batch of collection quests and assassination goals which net you medallions, which can then be traded in for AC-themed goods that can be taken back to the main game. A series of treasure hunts unlocks a weapon that can also be used in FF15, though one of the coolest unlocks - Altair's robes - can only be accessed, if the online Wikis I'm reading are correct, if players obtained an item in the game's Chocobo Festival, which was deactivated many months ago.
Players who think any of this sounds interesting will need to check out the Festival soon. It all goes away after Wednesday, in one of the largest deactivations of content in a major video game that I can recall.
"This collaboration was made possible due to our relationship with Ubisoft," the Festival's producer, Raio Mitsuno, told me. "Under respect and care for each other's intellectual property, it was necessary to set an agreement period. As we are reaching the end of this term, the Assassin's Festival will come to a close on January 31, 2018." (A Ubisoft rep told Kotaku that the FF15 mission in Assassin's Creed Origins is not set to expire.)
Finish the festival's main quest and you can bring this outfit back to the main game.
The Assassin's Festival is not slated to return for March's expanded, definitive "Royal" edition of Final Fantasy 15. If you want to see it, grab a copy of FF15 and dive in. You can access it from the game's main menu and spoilers for the rest of the game's storyline are minuscule. It's worth the jaunt, if only to see this most unusual of inter-company video game crossovers before it goes away.