“I admire your willingness to put artistic integrity over marketability.”
-Hobbes, Calvin & Hobbes
It should probably be said that this review contains spoilers for a fairly new game. If that sort of thing bothers you, please be aware that I’ll discuss the minutiae of the storyline in the Narrative section of this post and I’ll only talk about the base premise of the game in other sections, including the body of text below.
Final Fantasy XV is the fifteenth installment in the acclaimed franchise that obviously peaked in its single digits. Anticipation reached an insane pitch for this game. Why not? It was under development for eight years. Everyone was expecting great things, more or less, but after all of the multimedia tie-ins and Platinum Demo, does Final Fantasy XV hold up as the paramount RPG we all wanted?
Everything you’ve come to love and respect about Final Fantasy is here, like patronizingly easy quick time events, a tiny storyline with missing details, billions of boring fetch quests, unending loading screens, unresponsive NPCs, zero character development, a bloated open-world setting, a stamina bar, a painstakingly linear third act, and stealth mode. I’m being sarcastic, of course. Nobody expects these things from a Final Fantasy game. Nobody asked for these things from a Final Fantasy game. But my apprehension is that this is going to increasingly define this series as it continues on into the future.
Now of course it is true that any work should be judged on its own merits and not on the basis of its peers or its franchise context. That could be argued and I can agree with that to an extent, but this is one of the longest running and most beloved RPG series of all time so it’s easy to see why this fifteenth mainline title would be so often contrasted against the hits of the past.
The game opens with four friends travelling through the desert. It seems their car, the Regalia, has broken down so they’re forced to get out and push it. There’s a bit of banter between them to give us an idea of their personalities. The screen pans up as a cover of “Stand by Me” plays through the hot air and the title of the game crystallizes the fears in my heart: Final Fantasy XV. I remember saying “Please don’t let slowly pushing a car down the road be characteristic of this entire game!”
Yet I think that’s the perfect way to explain this visually beautiful but cumbersome and disjointed game. How silly is that, anyway? Their home city was still in sight. They could’ve went back for gas. Send Prompto. He runs fast. Or better yet, they have cellphones. Why not call for AAA? Heck the very next outpost has its own resident tow service…
The angle of its story is focused on a road-trip style adventure with your best buds. However, even though they’re friends, they’v got a job to do. Noctis Lucis Caelum, prince of the Crown City of Insomnia, is betrothed to Lady Lunafreya Nox Fleuret of Tenebrae and he is journeying to wed her at Altissia. Their union is to be a symbol of political unification between the Niflheim Empire and Insomnia.
I’d hesitate to call the four friends a royal procession, as four dudes in black leather listening to rock music in a convertible is pretty low key. Noctis is accompanied by three friends and guardians, Gladiolus Amicitia, Ignis Scientia, and Prompto Argentum. Gladio is a beefy macho man wielding a greatsword. Ignis is a watchful father figure with some bomb cooking skills. Prompto is an energetic youth with an eye for photography.
Before the four lies a vast Americana world of deserts, mountains, hillsides, and shorelines. It seems absolutely massive right at the beginning. I’d admit that I felt a little disappointed that I was transported to a place right at the beginning of the game which looks exactly like the place where I live. That desert perfectly resembles a few towns nearby my own here in Southern California. Travelling through the game, I was like “well that’s Mojave and that’s Big Bear and that’s Temecula…”.
This huge open-world is filled with outposts where you can rest up, purchase some items, take on sidequests, and eat some food. There are also campsites scattered through the wilderness to cook up a meal and get some sleep. Time passes through the world from night to day so resting will take you to the next morning.
The world is so huge that you’ll need to really rely on riding the Regalia. There are also Chocobos! It’s a Final Fantasy game after all!
Beyond these safe havens are fields and forests full of monsters. One of the elements in Final Fantasy XV which really shines is the battle system. It is action-packed yet simple to learn. Not everything in it is perfect. Sometimes you can literally just hold down a single button to win a fight and the magic system is lackluster (more on that below) but I played for many hours and the battles didn’t become totally uninteresting. Upon winning a fight you’ll be graded for things like speed and finesse, so there’s that measure of trying to do your best to mix things up.
The leather-clad quartet do not get far on their journey before bad news reaches them. The events of Kingsglaive occur and the city of Insomnia is overthrown by the Empire and Noctis’ father King Regis is killed. This is a turning point in the direction of the game. Or at least it ought to be.
Yes, there is a general sense of gravity which invades the pampered, self-centered and carefree world of Noctis and his pals after his father’s death. However, what the game does next is indicative of its many problems. Because of the nature of its open-world and quest-heavy gameplay, any narrative tension and drive of the plot is removed as you find yourself irresistibly drawn to exploring, fishing, catching frogs, finding dogtags, gathering herbs, and bounty hunting. So rather than get a real reaction from Noctis over his loss, the game sidelines you into driving around aimlessly.
One of the things which does maintain a semblance of focus through the game is the hunting for the royal arms. These are ancient weapons used by the kings of the past which Noctis alone can use. He’ll need all the strength he can get to take back his kingdom as the true and righteous heir and take his vengeance against the Empire.
The premise isn’t bad. It’s the execution of this story (which is surprisingly short) where the problem lies. In a recent interview, director Hajime Tabata had this to say in defense of his game:
“It was for the players to experience the story through Noctis’ eyes.The world and the events that Noctis sees are merely things that are seen through his eyes. We didn’t want to create a comprehensive and perfectly balanced story in this game. Instead, we placed importance on the main characters and for the player and Noctis to share the same experience when we tell the story. It’s not that we decreased the role of the side characters. Focusing on many characters in the game means that the allocation given to the main characters will decrease. Instead of creating a comprehensive and perfectly balanced story, we placed greater importance on the four main characters and strived to depict a world seen from their perspective.
Based on calculations that the development time and cost would double if the latter half of the game was to be an open-world environment as well, we had already planned to make the latter half more of a journey by vehicle. The structure of this title – to create memories while traveling in the open-world environment during the first half of the game, then have the story move forward linearly using the train in the latter half of the game – was designed and intended to be that way.”
With all due respect… that’s a bunch of BS (Bologna Sausage). Not only has Square consistently released games through the decades that did not sacrifice main character development for the inclusion of minor or supporting characters, so that’s a fantasy, but on top of that they had ten years to develop this game. Yeah, FFXV began development for the PS3 as a spin-off called Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Is a decade not long enough to craft a good story and characters, even for open-world?
Fact is, the developers at Square used to know how to make good games. Not ones which were too linear or too open-world, but a balance. They used to make games that had a huge cast that didn’t take away from their main characters. The trouble is here they say they didn’t go for a balanced comprehensive storyline so they could focus on the main characters, but what do we even get for the main characters?
Noctis shows one of two emotions the whole game: angry or sad. Oh, there’s whiny, too. Is that an emotion? He barely reacts to his father’s death because of the demands of the gameplay structure. I’ve heard it said that Final Fantasy XV is about friendship, but what do we even get from running around with this group of friends? One liners, puns and snarky remarks with a tiny Trump-sized handful of scenes where they have any meaningful interaction with each other.
Noctis admission of affection for his friends is, get this, a post-credits scene. Someone could say Noct has suffered so much he puts up this facade or whatever it is you want to do to excuse his blandness, but he’s just a flat character and he came off to me as a spoiled brat the entire game until the last two minutes.
Also, Gladio disappears from the party for no explicable reason. Do I search the DLC or the multimedia to find out what happened? And Ignis is such a Mary Sue they had to blind him to give him a fault, unless we’re to think of him as a three-dimensional character because he nags and babies Noctis all the time. Prompto is just there for what, comedic relief? It’s not like things were ever terribly heavy in this game, anyway. There is one scene early on where Prompto has a heart to heart with Noctis but it’s painfully worded and interrupted by Noct’s player-selected responses, and is ultimately forgettable because Prompto never acts like he’s grown any closer to Noctis than he was before their “get this off my chest” chat.
With the emphasis (supposedly) on these main characters, we’re left with a huge game that feels empty for lack of personalities. There’s Gladio’s kawaii sister, the hardened soldier from Insomnia, the rugged old Cid, a set of southern-drawling NPCs, a few high-ranking baddies in the Empire you never see more than once or twice (Seriously, Ravus? Why is he even in this game?), and of course… Cindy, a walking stereotype, scantily-clad sex object, anti-empowering, girl-mechanic cliché. Ugh.
Please don’t say: “Ooh, she’s useful because she fixes cars. That makes her a good character.” Yeah, I’m sure that’s the most memorable thing about her, right? She does absolutely nothing to combat the slander that all females in gaming are terribly over-sexualized. There aren’t enough feminists in the world to denounce Cindy. She currently bears the title of “The Well-Red Mage’s least favorite character in all of Final Fantasy”.
So with flat main characters and sparse supporting ones, I would like this question answered: how were these four characters any more developed or any better fleshed out than previous FF characters, considering the developers apparently sacrificed any solid supporting cast and a linear, unsatisfying conclusion just for them, for chit-chatty, one-liners and clichés?
And my goodness are these four friends chatty. They’re constantly jabbing but never having conversations. It’s bizarre. I mean, at one point one of them even says, “Well I’m all talked out.” That made for a good laugh but the storytelling in FFXV actually undermines the central theme of friendship that’s supposed to resonate with you. This is a road trip? The most enjoyable things about a road trip are spending time with your friends and learning more about them, and having new experiences such as not looking for dogtags the entire time.
This was the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip I was reminded of after completing Final Fantasy XV:
I won’t pretend to know what all goes into gaming development, but I have played a lot of games and I know what works and what doesn’t at the very least for me. I think what happened with FFXV was it was fed to the monster of marketability. Because of how popular some of its predecessors were (you’d be hard pressed to find a gamer who didn’t know who Sephiroth or Cloud are), I believe that FFXV gave itself to the most popular trends of our day, to cash in on multimedia tie-ins, resulting in a DLC “fill in the blanks”, quest-heavy open-world game with “cool factor” characters. Rather than tell the story for the sake of telling a good story, the story serves the marketability.
Calvin said “soulless banality” and that’s a little extreme but not too far from the truth of FFXV. Were we asking for “the torment of existence weighed against the horror of nonbeing”? Well, no. But nobody wanted banality, either.
Now I get that this was an (over)reaction and (over)compensation to FFXIII’s fan backlash. Many like myself thought that FFXIII was too linear yet in retrospect it had a lot better character development than FFXV does. There, you got to see a range of emotions and a story arch that took the characters through those emotional hardships. In this fifteenth game, moments like that were few and far between.
Another comparison could be made between the richness of these worlds. FFXIII had a world I could understand with its mythos of the Fal’Cie and all that, but in FFXV I could barely understand where everything was and who everybody is and what the local legends were. That’s undoubtedly because there are next to zero NPCs that you can interact with and learn info from. Strangely the massive open-world of FFXV seems small and empty because all of the world building occurs either in the multimedia tie ins or from listening to scattered radio broadcasts and reading pamphlets and magazines in the game.
What Final Fantasy XV does well, it does really well. The scenery is gorgeous and the high-pace battles are fun (if a little uninteresting). The gameplay in these terms is fun and I even warmed up to having to drive the Regalia around the world, though being able to teleport to it felt like cheating to me. Oh yeah, and they ruined the airship. How do you ruin one of the most wonderful classic elements of Final Fantasy, the airship? Save before flying it, that’s all I can say.
So while FFXV‘s strengths are excellent, it’s failures are glaring, even blinding. It is, in my estimation a less enchanting, less captivating, and less majestic Final Fantasy than many of its predecessors (beyond merely visually). I’m sorry but it’s almost impossible to make that comparison. Will this latest entry in the acclaimed RPG franchise hold up with the test of time? Can all the DLC in the world finally flesh out a hollow universe? Only time will tell but this writer is dubious of such a claim.
The 8-bit Review
Should we expect any less? The day the newest numerical Final Fantasy installment fails to visually mesmerize is the day that Meteor comes down and smashes our hurtling ball of space rock to bits. So no worries. Doomsday has been averted. Final Fantasy XV is every bit as glorious to the eye as the trailers, the demo, and the movie made it out to be.
We have not yet reached the event horizon where cutscene graphics and in-game graphics are identical, but FFXV takes us pretty close. Where this distinction is almost indistinguishable is in the backgrounds. They were one of the things prior to the release of the final game which won me over, ever since I first watched that environment trailer. I’d be picking nits to point out that some of the tiled textures are fairly obvious because everything else about the backgrounds are phenomenally presented. There’s a great degree of variation in the landscape as well with ruins, cities, chasms, forests, mountains, volcanoes. Pretty much any natural formation you can think of you can probably seek out somewhere in this lush and detailed world.
This game is a screenshooting paradise. Prompto’s photography (though sometimes awkward) plays right into this. You can tell that the developers were really pushing for this open-world to be a major feature in this game and Prompto is constantly snapping pics of everything, which you can then view when resting for the night. The constant shift of the natural lightning is pretty great, too. It almost makes up for Prompto sounding like Chuck E. Cheese when he says “Love the lighting!”
Milquetoast characters may be the only lacking visual in the game. Noctis and his friends may look cool dressed in black but it’s somewhat boring. Many scenes feature some great lip-syncing with the dialogue but there are scenes interspersed which are terrible in this department and the contrast is jarring.
All in all, though, no one could complain about the graphics of FFXV.
Music was one area where I didn’t have high hopes, certainly not as high as I did for the graphics. After Nobuo Uematsu’s departure from the series, I’ve watched the quality and memorability of the franchise’s music slowly decline, in my opinion. Things took a turn for the noise-y and atmospheric in Final Fantasy XII, then cut a sharp left toward J-rock and punk riffs in Final Fantasy XIII, so that by the time we get to FFXV we’ve got an unfortunate tradition of uncharacteristic music established.
When I first heard the title screen music, “Somnus”, I thought I might be in for something special. It’s somewhat meandering and certainly less melodic than past Final Fantasy themes, but it would work, so far as I was concerned. It was emotional, moody, and classical influenced so it won my heart.
They even managed to arrange a few of the traditional melodies like “Prelude”, which has been around since the very first game. It’s not in your face but it’s a nice homage none the less, played over the main menu screen.
So imagine my… well I was going to say “horror” but that’s too strong of a word. “Disappointment” is probably better. The very first outpost you reach is a trucker’s gas station slash American diner slash seven-eleven slash slut garage, and this warbling organ music strikes you as immediately different. Yet, this track grew on me. I could actually recall its melody to mind. I was like “Okay, what else you got, XV?” The answer was: “Not much else.”
To be clear, I think this track “Valse di Fantastica” is beautiful. It feels like a Final Fantasy song. Unfortunately, you’ll hear it so often because in this game where you could easily spend over a hundred hours running around the wilderness, there are only a few tracks that play in that wilderness and this is one of them. So while it’s beautiful and memorable, its brief tune will get really repetitive. Note that that track is only one minute and some change. That’s little more than a jangle. I would’ve loved to see this “Valse” theme develop and mature as the game goes on, rather than become an enchanting bore.
And then there’s the bossa nova elevator music. You know, the kind you hear stuck on repeat at your favorite internet café. This and the gravelly rock music dominate the rest of this game’s musical atmosphere. That’s unfortunate because it is really very forgettable, placing style over content. Camp is meant to be relaxing so here’s a style of music that’s relaxing, rather than here’s a song which evokes relaxation which just so happens to play during camping. They got it backward.
This last track I’m sharing with you is probably the best example of a non-melodic noise that’s simply meant to fill up space rather than… do anything else? I mean it sounds like it never ends. It never reaches a crescendo or builds toward anything. It’s like it is just meant to be heard indefinitely, which it is since as soon as you leave the area it morphs into the next ambient track. For such a massive game there isn’t really much variety musically, either.
If music like this is the direction this series is taking, then I’m just about checked out.
A couple things I want to touch on here to flesh out what makes Final Fantasy XV tick. Battles play out like a simplified version of the action-RPG sensibilities of Final Fantasy XII. You control Noctis and only Noctis. Your three friends are AI-controlled and will constantly get themselves killed or get in the way. There’s no means of commanding them such as with gambits other than issuing them direct orders for a special attack. Occasionally they will execute a link-strike with Noctis for additional damage.
You do have a slight bit of customization available to you in the form of the Ascension grid, which is very much like the Sphere Grid from FFX and the License Board from FFXII. You can spend AP, which is earned through various means, to purchase new combat, teamwork, and environmental abilities as well as statistical upgrades and character enhancements. Purchasing these is crucial to keeping the game from boiling down into a slugfest. Customize your friends’ special attacks for better strategy and fuel some of Noctis’ maneuverability and his armiger (think omnislash but longer and interactive).
Noctis can equip up to four weapons (including spells) at once and there are a variety to choose from. Not only are there greatswords, guns, spears, swords, and machinery you can equip but there are also the royal arms, unique armaments gathered from the royal Lucian tombs across the world. These are often the most powerful weapons you can find but they drain Noctis’ health when connecting with an enemy.
Noctis also has his characteristic warp strike, giving you a lot of agility to play around with. Personally, I think the warp strike is something which makes these battles feel unique and fast paced.
Fighting gigantic monsters may seem like fun but a lot of the enemy hit boxes are so out of place, they might as well not exist. That’s hyperbole, by the way.
The magic system is clumsy, at best. I hated the idea of lobbing spells like grenades in the Platinum Demo and I still hate it here. It slows down the whole flow of the battle to have to stand still and aim where you want to throw your spell. You could just press the button to toss it quickly but its a risk you could accidentally hurl it at an enemy you didn’t exactly wish to target.
Then there’s the way in which you gain your spells. You have to absorb the magical energy from nodes on the world map, usually surrounding campsites. You can also gather some of the same energy from slaying enemies with your absorption-specific weaponry. Then, once you’ve got enough energy, you have to manually combine it, with the option of mixing in items, to craft a set of spells that you can then equip to your characters. Seeing as there are only three elemental nodes in the game, you have to use some rare items to unlock things like Healcast or Stopcast, or even Flare, otherwise you’re just stuck with the variations of Fire, Ice, and Lightning. Where’s Protect and Wall? Where’s Meteo, Ultima, Water, Aero, Quake, Demi, Haste, Slow, not to mention Blue Magic? The system is tedious at best and limited at worst, like several other things in the game, boring. At least you can craft some overpowered AOE spells quite early on.
This game is heavy on the quests. Sidequests occupy, what? Like 80% of what this game has to offer. Of the sidequests, monster hunting is my favorite. Most everything else is “go to this farm and get me my beans” or “go take a picture of this rock” or “go high five some dude on the other side of the world map, even though you were just there”. The sheer wealth of sidequests is alone impressive. If you’re looking for a game with tons of stuff to do, look no further, but I could wish that most of the sidequests weren’t such mundane errands.
Anyway, monster hunting. You sign up for these hunts at outposts and then venture off into the wild to find these destructive creatures. They provide some real challenge. Heck, a handful of them are definitely harder than the last boss! Also, what a fun opportunity to sneak in some classic Final Fantasy baddies like Cactuar, Tonberry and Behemoth, here rendered in all of their classic glory.
Oh and we can’t forget about the summons! Encountering the Astrals, the Six, occupies the middle of the story for some reason until the narrative decides to forget about them. However, once you face these colossal deities you can summon them in battle. All four of them. Yay. Summoning looks a lot like it did in the early games in the franchise, where the thing comes out and does its magic then splits, only now there are certain criteria which must be met before you can perform the summon. This just makes it unreliable. But man, those attack animations are sick!
The time has come, the red mage said, to talk of other things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of spoilers and Lucian kings! Yep, that’s all you get. Take it as a SPOILER warning. If you want to avoid them, Ctrl+F Accessibility, because I plan to dig deep here, bro.
Here’s what worked for me and here’s what didn’t. Unfortunately the former is seriously outnumbered by the latter.
Clearly one of the big themes of the game is friendship and there are some moments where they pulled off a real sense of camaraderie. Ignis losing his sight, Prompto being lost, Gladio chewing Noctis out… these were all dramatic moments that made the characters feel real. They all happen pretty much at the end of the game, but they’re there nonetheless.
However they really dropped the ball when Noctis has this emotional resurrection after being absent for ten years (at least the music and setting made it feel emotional) and all he can say is “Hey”. Yeah, there’s a powerful after credits scene and right there I get he’s that kind of a character who doesn’t express their feelings all the time and comes off as muted and emotionless like Cloud or Squall, but there’s no emotional reunion at all after ten years? Dropped ball.
If you wanted to show me the bond between these dudes, then show it to me. Don’t just force me to watch them whittle snarky comments at each other and waste time.
An element which worked for me was Ardyn Izunia, the main antagonist of the story. It’s obvious he’s the main villain as the game consistently throws away all of the tough-looking imperial characters, one after another.
As it turns out, Ardyn’s immortal and has a long history with the kings of Lucis. He explains his entire background in a single paragraph late-game. He orchestrates pretty much everything in the game, which is totally and delectably contradicted by his aloof and sleazy demeanor. He’s easy to dismiss early in the story until it becomes clear that he’s playing Noctis the whole time. However, his act of revenge would’ve been much more potent if there had been more time to take in his whole master plan to power up Noct to crush a true king and everything he had done to throw the world into ruin. As it stands, the ending came abruptly rather than steadily and the joy of victory isn’t fully earned. There’s no gravity.
I can sum this up in a single scene when Noctis and friends confront Ardyn in the Insomnian throne room, right at the end. The sicko has got the bodies of Noctis’ father, of Luna and Ravus her brother hung up around the throne by chains. How gruesome to see your own father and your betrothed’s corpses so mistreated, and yet there isn’t any acknowledgement from anyone about it. Not from the good guys or the bad guy. They’re just there and then they disappear.
In short, Ardyn was a cool concept for a FF villain. An immortal, vindictive, charming, smooth sin-eater who fell from grace and was ostracized but he could’ve stood to be much more fleshed out like everybody else in this game. It would have been great to discover more about his backstory through exploring this world rather than just being told his tale in 30-seconds out of the mouth of the man himself. He had enough charisma to be a special and unique FF villain but he was thrown away. Even his final duel with Noctis was a let down. It amounted to me just holding down the attack button and watching the two men fly around the city. Why not just make the final fight a cutscene and save me the energy of holding the controller?
And no final form? What is this, Square?!
Speaking of fleshing things out, it was not a good idea to trust the storyline, more specifically the world-building, to so much multimedia tie-ins beyond the game itself. I’ll go further than that and say it was a mistake to set up the game this way. I happened to see Kingsglaive but I didn’t see, and don’t plan to see, the anime, the trading cards, the blog entry, the press conference, or where ever else Square Enix tucked narrative away beyond the scope of the game.
Playing Final Fantasy XV felt like the season finale for a TV series I’d only seen a few minutes of.
Here are two moments in the story which I think demonstrate how the tie-ins philosophy is catastrophically detrimental. King Regis’ and Luna’s deaths are two moments where the story hits an emotional pressure point but neither the king nor the lady are in the game much at all. Regis is there at the very beginning of the game in the opening cutscenes, and then Lady Lunafreya is seen throughout flashbacks and cutscenes as the story progresses. However it was only because I saw Kingsglaive that King Regis’ death was meaningful and tragic to me. It struck Noctis and his friends hard and it made for a sober moment. If I hadn’t seen the movie tie-in, I would’ve only known Regis from a single conversation with his son. He would’ve been nothing more than an inciting incident.
With Lunafreya, the opposite seemed the case: her death was meaningless and not tragic at all. Through the whole game, I had only seen Noctis and Luna interact in a handful of flashbacks, as children nonetheless, and then they shared an understanding nod across the distance of a crowd in Altissia. No confession of love. No kiss. No embrace. No poetry. No conversation between the two. Luna was in Kingsglaive, yeah, but she was the equivalent of a plot device. She was the object everyone was protecting. Here, the same thing seemed to be the case.
After summoning Leviathan, she gets stabbed by Ardyn specifically to enrage Noctis. I couldn’t exactly mourn for her character because I barely knew anything about her. I had no idea how to empathize with Noctis’ tears over her death because I had no idea what they would’ve been like as characters interacting in the present. I didn’t know if they even loved each other, I remember thinking. How then was I supposed to be sad over her death? How then could I empathize with Noctis’ “cutscene of grief”?
Or here’s an even more horrible way to phrase it: I know more about that garage skank Cindy than I do about Lunafreya the Oracle. It wasn’t even clear to me what the Oracle does or why she was even in this game. At least Cindy had a definable job: fixing cars. When Luna died, I was just in disbelief. I thought she’d just come back. Should’ve used a phoenix down.
Now I assume that the multimedia tie-ins flesh out the world and the events and the characters and cultures much more, when taken all together, but I’m not made of money Square. You really can’t expect me to hunt down a handful of movies and crap just so I get the full story for a game I already paid $60 for. That’s sloppy storytelling but I think it stems from the modern mentality and obsession with DLC. Can a narrative take on the form of downloadable content, where so-called “extras” fill in gaps and plot holes and characters? I guess that FFXV is what that would look like.
In the past, world-building took place when talking with NPCs. Towns and cities were veritable hubs of local information. Not so here. Here, you can’t talk with hardly any NPCs that aren’t vendors. You can listen in to some canned conversation and that’s about it. This makes the few actual, non-truck stop cities in FFXV seem empty even though they’re filled with people.
So unfortunately, this approach infected a lot of the game’s narrative for me. I heard myself asking: why do I need to build a boat to sail across the sea? Why are we headed into the Empire’s territory? Why does Gladio excuse himself from protecting the prince and then come back with scars? Why is Ignis blinded, like specifically? Why not show that scene? What’s with the night-themed names like Lunafreya, Noctis, Somnus and Insomia? Did they just think the names sounded cool or is there a nighttime theme in the game somewhere? Why build up Ravus as this antagonist when I don’t even get to fight him until after he’s been executed and turned into a mindless demon? Why even have the Emperor Iodelas as a character if there’s no ultimate confrontation with him, again beyond a forgettable skirmish in the tower? Iodelas could’ve been portrayed as a false antagonist right up until the very end before Ardyn reveals his true intentions. At least then there could’ve been some use for him.
And why bring in this sudden concept of the world turning dark and people turning into demons right at the final stretch of the main story? This is something that should’ve been building the entire time. When there’s no build up, no suspense and no foresight to the story, you can really feel it. At first I thought the game was about reaching Luna to marry her. Inciting incident occurs and yeah we have to save Insomnia, or something. After that it’s about hunting down the royal arms. Then it’s about talking to the first of the Six. Then it’s about finding the Six. Then it’s about building a boat, and so on. I spent the majority of the first three quarters of the story hunting down people to talk to (the journalist, Noctis’ sister, the Archaean) for reasons that were unclear to me or conversely for reasons that weren’t significant beyond a character’s mere whim. Gladio says that we should go check on his sister but I’m wondering why.
If they’d focused the whole main story on three things: gaining the weapons of the dead kings, earning the powers of the Six gods, and ultimately confronting the Empire with an actual plan then things might have been a lot more straightforward and driven. As it was, there was no drive in the story at all. Things just seemed to happen until you find yourself climbing some tower aimlessly only to loose ten years of Noctis’ life.
I mean, imagine if this approach was used in a novel. Take your favorite novel, or for example, take one of mine: The Tale of Two Cities. How coherent would that story be if the whole subplot of the French Revolution only showed itself in the last two chapters? Or what if Sydney Carton just appeared at the end to take Charles Darnay’s place at the guillotine, but the author reassured us “Oh you can learn more about Mr. Carton by purchasing this other book, Kingsguillotine“? The final emotional pay off of watching a scoundrel make the highest self-sacrifice would be meaningless since we would hardly know he was a scoundrel, and I fear that’s exactly what is wrong with Final Fantasy XV.
And I am sorry. I’m really sorry to have to savage this game’s story like this but it is the least inspiring and least impressive I’ve encountered in Final Fantasy a while. Too much sidequesting and a weird bottleneck narrative structure sucked all of the suspense and emotion right out of the game.
Though things look complex, this is a very easy game of its kind to pick up. Everything from the battles to crafting to sidequesting is fairly simple to understand. There are nuances and secrets that reward those who master these features and explore them, just as there are many hidden treasures in the dungeons and dells scattered around the world. I think that’s a mark of great accessibility when something is easy to learn but hard to master.
Speaking of “hard”, was this game at all difficult? If we’re talking about the main story quests, the answer is absolutely not. The last boss battle is essentially an interactive cutscene and the battle against the aquatic member of the Six is along those lines, as well. There are some really great fights in the game, but they aren’t truly hard.
This is almost entirely because it’s almost impossible to die in this game. Seriously. Whenever you run out of HP (run out, mind you), you can simply open your quick-menu and use a healing item to restore Noctis back to life. When out of HP, his maximum HP slowly depletes and when that reaches zero then you’ll get a game over. Provided you keep an eye on that and avoid the few enemy attacks that can reduce max HP to zero, you’ll be fine. You can stock up on tons of curatives because there’s nothing else to spend your gil on and thus beat any boss you encounter by outlasting them with potions and elixirs.
Now the hunts and post-game dungeons on the other hand… whew!
Final Fantasy XV introduced several innovations to the series. Many of there are welcome additions: sprawling open world, the Regalia, using four weapons at once. Some of them are not so welcome like regressing to a terrible airship, to name just one example. I’m not sure that FFXV should be used as the launching pad and inspiration for future games in this franchise. It took us in a direction I’m loath to go.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I got the platinum because I had to finish this game. Like it or not, it’s still a Final Fantasy game by name. However, now that I’ve finished off the trophy list, I doubt very much that I’ll peel off the last few “go out into the woods and get me an onion” type quests, or that I’ll ever visit the empty halls of Altissia a second time, or even care very much about the secret dungeon or the future downloadable content. I am very glad I got to play this game but I’m glad that I didn’t buy the season pass.
When I first booted up this game, I read the words explaining that this was a Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike. I think it takes more than a few Cactuar and Firaga references to please fans looking for that old-time substance, though newcomers may be delighted by the action-RPG elements and open-world gameplay. I’m a dedicated fan of the Final Fantasy franchise, obviously, but I think that’s why I may be harder than most on FFXV. I liked this game but God forbid I ignore a game’s flaws because I’m a fan. It killed me when I saw all the big publications and critics giving it a perfect 100/100, 4.5 out of 5, or 9 out of 10. Did they even play the game, or arethey just intoxicated by the hype surrounding triple A titles in general?
I would have loved for the themes of spending time with friends to leapt out at me since that’s what I miss about being younger. In that respect, FFXV is the ultimate male fantasy: cruising around in an expensive car with your best buds and avoiding responsibility. Unfortunately, so much of this game just fell flat, and almost everything that didn’t was simply boring. There are a handful of memorable scenes and much fun to be had exploring, hunting and chilling in Final Fantasy XV, but if you’re looking for the definitive Final Fantasy experience, you’d be better off looking back to the past.
Is it the worst Final Fantasy ever in my estimation? No. But with ten years in the works, it might have lived up to the hype just a little more.
Aggregated Score: 7.4
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!