I've played a lot of video games, and over all these years, I've played a pretty decent variety of them. And as of the year 2019, there weren't many big names in the realm of video games that I'd never touched at all. But, there was at least one, one huge presence that I'd never had any direct contact with. At least not unless you count a certain movie I saw in the theater back in 2001 (I was ten), now better known for being a flop than anything else. And even as someone who saw it, now I think of it more through that one bit in Life is Strange than anything else.
I'm of course talking about Final Fantasy. I'd never played any of them, but something about XV had caught my eye, ever since it was rebranded from "Versus XIII" to XV back in 2013. But, I heard a lot of mixed things when it released in 2016, so I didn't play it, but for whatever reason, every once in a while I'd think about playing it, and finally, a chance impulse to pick up a copy I saw in a store resulted in me finally playing a Final Fantasy. And...
Before I get into the meat of this, because I have a lot to say, I need to say three things about this game.
1. The combat was much more enjoyable than I expected, and helped me through a lot of the rougher parts of the game.
2. This game is, even in the "Royal Edition," and its various changes and additions, still kind of a ramshackle mess. Not necessarily technically, it ran fine and I didn't run into any major issues on that front, more, well, kind of in every aspect of the game's design, from its open world, to the core story, just has some amount of issues. But I'll get to that later, because-
3. For all this game's many faults, by the time the credits were rolling...I was tearing up. I had become so emotionally attached to the main characters, to wayward prince turned king Noctis, to the ever cheery Prompto, to steadfast Ignis, and even the stoic Gladio...that I felt it all welling up, and spilling out of me. That puts this game in rare company for me, to elicit such a strong reaction in that way.
So in other words, I have complicated feelings about the game as a whole.
But let me start from the start. Just know that at some point I'm going to get into spoilers, but I'll mark them.
I became, more or less, aware of this game when it was rebranded, but by all accounts, it'd been in some form of development for years prior to that, and even in the time after, from what little I've read, it sounds like FFXV had a rocky development, to put it lightly. And it shows in the game itself, because FFXV often feels like it doesn't know what it wants to be. Even in the opening minutes of the game, there's three scenes feel at odds with each other. A flash forward to the end, with the main four going against some demon looking guy, then a scene with Noctis and friends speaking briefly with the king (Noct's dad) before setting out, and finally a sequence where their car has broken down, and they have to push it along the highway while a cover of "Stand By Me" plays.
These three scenes perfectly encapsulate my feelings on the story. The first, a confusing mess that the game never explains as well as it should, the second is close to working, and the third is almost pitch perfect. A group of close friends, albeit with some differences and tensions, put into a rough situation, but still staying upbeat and joking along as they work together to push that car to a mechanic.
THAT'S the heart of this game, and the part that works. There's nothing especially original, or groundbreaking here. You could, if you were cynical enough, break down each one of them into their respective tropes and clichés, but I instead chose to tag along with them, and this story resonated with me. For me, characters are almost always the thing when it comes to stories. You could have the most amazing plot, full of twists and turns, and keep the audience guessing the whole way through, but if none of the characters are likable, or "good unlikable," or whatever, then it's not going to stick with me. But in this case, the opposite is true, and a strong cast kept me going through to the end.
Because it definitely wasn't the story about the war between the Kingdom of Lucis and the Empire of Niflheim that did it. The game doesn't even do a good job of explaining that there even was a war, I assume because someone had the bright idea to create a feature length animated movie to accompany the release of FFXV. I went and watched Kingsglaive, but not until I was very far into FFXV the game, and it's amazing how much extra context opening with a quick bit of a narration explaining the state of the world can give. Granted, by that point I'd already managed to piece together most of the state of the world through the game, but I just don't understand the thought process that leads to including that narration in the movie, but not the game!
And the other thing is that, even if Kingsglaive was included with the game, and thus it was guaranteed that everyone had access to it, I don't think it even works as something to watch prior to the game, because there's multiple plot things that are treated as surprising or shocking in the game, that were shown in the movie. Specifically (early game spoilers, I guess) the destruction of the city of Insomnia (good name for a city, also the game didn't explain that Insomnia was the name of the city and I got confused at first), and Ardyn (the game's main antagonist) being imperial chancellor. Never mind the fact that two characters in Kingsglaive (King Regis and Lunafreya) are voiced by famous actors (Sean Bean and Lena Headey, respectively), which in turn makes it a jarring shift from the game, at least for Luna, who has more appearances of the two.
These sorts of problems persist throughout the game, too. Aspects of the story that aren't fully explained (I'm still not sure why that demon guy from the intro was where he was), and even when I have all the pieces, it's just not that great. An evil empire trying to conquer the world, and along with it (I guess more spoilers) a vengeful immortal trying to bring about eternal darkness upon the world. Literally. It's, to be frank, typical JRPG stuff, which is fair given this series' roots, but I never got all that invested in it.
The same with the romance between the betrothed Noctis and Luna, who the game frequently says are in love with each other (despite them not being in contact aside from quick messages sent via magic dog since they were of middle school age), but get almost no on screen time together. Even when they do, I don't especially feel like there's a ton of chemistry between them. There's more of that between Noctis and Prompto, but that might just be me thinking about the queer ships I'd write into fan-fiction if that was ever a thing I would feel good about dedicating time to (there's no money in it, as opposed to the fiction writing I actually do, which has almost no money in it). Sadly there's no actual queer text or subtext here.
Perhaps part of why the story doesn't exactly work is the general design of the game. I like open worlds, and I really like having spaces to explore, but if a game lets me wander around for hours and hours on end without touching the story, chances are I'll do that, even if I would've been better off not doing that, as getting sidetracked only made the story that much harder to follow.
And the world itself, like a lot of the game, feels like it doesn't know what it wants to be. It's certainly big enough to feel big (even if the actual size in real world units isn't that large), and it's very pretty to watch go by as you drive along the countryside (or more often let Ignis drive you along). But there's not that much to actually do in it. There's enemies to encounter along the way, the occasional items to pick up, and some tiny outposts here and there, but it feels barren at times. I can't tell how much of that is intentional, and how much is just a result of the game's rocky development.
Like, aside from the city of Insomnia (which isn't really a location you can access for the majority of the game), there's only one town (Lestallum) in the game's main/open world landmass, and it left me wondering, where do all the people live? Is it just in Lestallum? There's broken down barns and other odd abandoned buildings rarely in the world, but mostly it's just wilderness. The outposts aren't big enough for anyone to really live in most of them. People drive around the world, but I never got the impression that they were real people driving to real places, just filler cars so the roads wouldn't be completely empty.
And it's a shame, because I actually like the world's aesthetic a lot. The mix of weirdo sci-fi Final Fantasy trappings with modern American dilapidated western is strange in a way that I love. I truly love the image of these Tetsuya Nomura designed JRPG goofballs walking into roadside diners and cramped convenience stores. It's like seeing images from conventions of the people in cosplay off site from the convention, doing stuff in regular areas, but done without that meta layer in the game. I love the mix of the ultra-fancy Regalia and rustic American cars. In a game that was more focused, or maybe had a less rough development, there could be something really interesting to say about the state of the world, about the crown city of Insomnia, which has been walled off for decades, and the outside areas. This is something the game starts to dig into, but it never goes very deep, and I would have loved it to go deeper.
A game where the sheltered Noctis and friends have to contend with the reality that life may have been good for them, but not so good for the people left to fend for themselves outside the city could have been so much more interesting than the actual main story of this game. Though alternatively I do like that life is still presented as being pretty all right for most people outside, I wouldn't want it to turn into rich people doing misery tourism amongst poor people.
Back to what you do in this world, most of the side quests aren't even that good, or are outright bad! Like, there's one guy who keeps asking Noctis and friends to go do farming for him. But this isn't a case where there's a fun minigame, this involves talking to a guy in the Lestallum market, then driving out to his farm miles away, picking up some glowing dots on the ground (how the game portrays items to pick up), driving back, then repeating a couple times. It's tedious and bad!
But I kept doing it anyway, because it's hard for me not to accept quests when I see a ? on the map, and it's hard for me to not then do the quests when they're in my log. And so I ended up doing a lot of stuff like that, and plenty of more fun hunting quests that aren't necessarily "better" designed, because they just involve going to a spot and fighting enemies, but like I said before, at least the combat is fun.
It's not as deep as something like a Devil May Cry 5, but it's fast paced and fun. The camera isn't great, and combined with Noctis' warping abilities, I can see how it might be a bit too disorienting for some, but I had a lot of fun with it, and expect to continue to have fun, because I've still got plenty of stuff left to do in the game, ranging from more side quests of highly varying quality, to that multiplayer mode that got spun off into its own game (I get why they did that, but having to download a separate executable and take up that extra hard drive space was, a bit irksome).
And like the rest of the game, I think the combat is at its most joyful when the characters are interacting with each other. Noctis doesn't fight alone (usually), and I mean that both in the sense that all four are in your party (unless for story reasons at various points), and that they can do team-up attacks. Hitting enemies in their backs for "Blindside" attacks do extra damage on their own, and if a friend is nearby, they team-up for a special attack. These aren't just the two of them doing an attack at the same time, they're different animations, depending on who the other is, and what weapon Noctis has equipped. Sometimes they'll even high-five or something similar after the attack, and it, like many things, fills the game with so much personality, and that's the thing I love most about the game.
Each of the four has a special interest of theirs, which can be leveled up. For Noctis, it's fishing, and I found myself fishing a lot. Both for what you can get from the fishing, but mainly because it's a fun minigame. I don't like fishing in real life (I think it's pretty cruel, even if you let the fish go (please don't @ me I don't want to get into an argument/fishing is fine if you need to for food)) nor do I have any interest in games dedicated to fishing, but when it's a part of a larger whole? I'll race down to the nearest spot and make my fishing gear appear in midair like Noctis!!
But, what to do with all these dozens of fish I've caught? Well, cook them, of course! And Ignis, the most responsible and orderly of the group, also happens to be a master chef, and more than happy to cook up five star meals whilst the group is camping out in the wilderness. In the mood for cheese pizza? No problem! Gourmet sauté sea bass? Done! Karlabos Cream Croquettes? I'm not entirely sure what all of those words mean, but cooked it shall be! The absurdity of what Ignis can prepare in the wilderness (even with branded Coleman camping gear) and the stunning detail of every dish is funny on its own, but the various foods provide stat buffs, which can mean the difference between success and failure in some cases.
Gladio's interest, perhaps reflecting my feelings on him as a whole, seems a bit underdeveloped compared to the others. His is...survival? Which I think comes down to him just finding more useful items after fights, which is nice, but it would've been nicer if he'd been a bit more fleshed out. But I've got other issues with Gladio, and how he can be kinda mean, especially toward Prompto, though perhaps that's just a reflection of friend groups as a whole. There's often that one that, you still like, you just like a bit less than everyone else. I just wish the game had given me a chance to tell him to be nicer to Prompto, and stop saying things like "quit bitching" that definitely are way over the "playful teasing" line that Noctis and Ignis never cross.
But Prompto, his interest is very well...developed, because he loves photography! Get it? Developed? Does that not play in the era of digital photography? No, who am I kidding, no kids read this.
Anyway, Prompto takes pictures throughout the journey, and every time the group stops to rest, whether at a campsite, motel, or wherever, they all relax, and take a gander at the photos (or at least they're presented to the player and sometimes you hear dialog from the others about them), and you can save however many, or few as you want. The quality of the pictures can vary a lot, from clearly scripted ones that everyone gets, to ones that are a bit procedural, like selfies with Noctis or the others. These have a variety of differences in the poses, and can show up anywhere, including in spots where the lighting makes it look kinda bad, or someone's face might be partially obscured by someone else's hair, or in at least one case I saw, someone's arm getting in the way. And, Prompto will take pictures during fights (he even has a command you can give him to take a photo during fights, which I'm pretty sure does zero damage and serves no other purpose, aside from leveling his photography skill faster), and those can range from looking really cool, to garbled messes.
I'll be honest, there being crappy photos in there too makes it that much more endearing to me. No, I didn't save them all, just because I couldn't. There's a hard limit of 200 photos, which might sound like a lot, but it's not when you spend 60 hours playing, and need to rest frequently because nights are scary at first/resting is the only way to tally XP and level up. Several times throughout the game, I had to go and delete a bunch to make more space (thankfully I thought to hit the Share button to save some record of them, even if that resulted in borders around the pictures that I could've removed, but that would've been a lot of work for this many).
And those photos, they're such a simple thing at first. In the beginning, I'd just look at them and laugh, save the ones I liked, and move on. But the further in I got, and as the story was getting more serious (both in the larger "war" plot line, and in the interactions between the characters I cared about), the photos started taking on a different meaning. They weren't just funny poses, or that one time Prompto actually captured a glitch with airborne shrubberies, they became a reminder of everything we'd been through. The fun adventures, the death-defying escapes from dungeons I was way under-leveled for, the quiet moments, the Chocobos (I love them), interactions with other characters, everything.
And it turns out, if you spend enough time with people, even if they're characters in a game, you can get pretty attached to them. That's one thing when it's Prompto complaining about Noctis continuing to fish even after saying the previous one was the "last one," or when it's Ignis shouting about devising a new recipe, but it's another thing entirely when the game pulls the metaphorical trigger and things get serious.
Which is when SERIOUS SPOILER MODE activates. Right after this image:
The main thrust of the first "half" of the game (it's actually much more than half of the total game, but whatever) is about Noctis meeting up with Luna, initially because their marriage will bring about an end to the war, but eventually just because they love each other (again supposedly). But, in typical fashion, Luna gets killed really just to drive Noctis' emotional state (fridged, if you will), and along with her the beautiful seaside city of Altissia is destroyed, and Ignis...is blinded.
Now, aside from the game not being at all subtle with doing this to the character who wears glasses and has the metaphorical "vision" of the group, by this point I was 40-50 hours into the game. I was well beyond the point of being attached to the characters, and now they were as much my friends in game as a character in a Mass Effect, or any other similar game would be after this much time spent. I felt terrible for him, and terrible because I (Noctis) hadn't been there with him when it happened (later playing the Episode Ignis DLC to learn how this happened, I only feel worse for him because of how much he was willing to sacrifice for Noctis, and again, how I (Noctis) was powerless to help). I wanted to help him, but he, of course, played it like it was nothing, and seemed to be doing well enough. Acting like it was just a matter of time before it'd heal, and he'd be back to how he was before.
But that doesn't happen, not exactly. This is a world of fantasy, a world of great sci-fi technology and literal magic, so I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if his eyes had been repaired, or replaced with robot eyes or something, but instead there's a section of the game where tensions are at their worst between the characters.
Gladio's patience is gone, and replaced with more mean words, but unlike his "bitching" comments at Prompto, these don't feel completely out of place. I can't blame him for chastising Noctis (me) for rushing ahead while Ignis is moving along so much more slowly, as he's feeling his way around with a cane now. Meanwhile Noctis is just continuing to be torn up at the death of Luna, and the four of them are just moving along, now gone from the free-wheeling car and in a train down a linear path to the end of the game (unless you take some time via magic dog to relive the past (which really is just an excuse to keep doing side stuff, and contrived though it is, I'm glad it exists)).
Eventually, after the group struggles to keep working together, with Ignis barely keeping up, and stumbling his way through fights (aside from his tactician side providing the trick to defeat a boss), he admits the truth to the rest. His eyes aren't going to heal (even as his combat prowess eventually returns), but he doesn't want that to break the friends apart forever. And so, the team steels their resolve, and learns to work together again, as they move forward toward the end of the game.
And I wish the rest of the game was more like those moments than what we get. Not literally, I'd be devastated if the ending hours of the game were just sequence after sequence of them being badly injured again and again like that. What I mean is more focused on their relationships, with each other and the other characters who are basically forgotten, than on the war, and Ardyn's nefarious plans.
END OF SERIOUS SPOILER ZONE.
What I really want is a game that's entirely focused on them, and on the road trip. Just a group of friends going through adventures and hijinks, slaying monsters, and getting up to some fun as they travel along, and all grow alongside each other. If that was the game we got, this might be an all time favorite game of mine. Not number one, but close to the top ten, if not in it.
Instead, what we've got is kind of a mess. A mess that resonated with me more than most games I've ever played. But it's still a mess, and a mess with a dozen other baffling things I could go on and on about. Like, why is the Cup Noodle product placement quest with intentionally hammy dialog (at least in English) in the game forever, but stuff like the Moogle Chocobo Festival the Assassin's Creed crossover quest are just...gone? Yeah, it's marketing BS, and a friend told me it was, "the worst DLC I've ever played in my life," but I like Assassin's Creed and it's the type of marketing BS I'd eat up (certainly more so than Cup Noodles).
Why is there a level 50 dungeon (populated almost entirely by low level enemies except for the level 53 samurai boss at the end that killed me (level 7 at the time) in one hit, and I lost all progress in the dungeon) in the beginning area, but multiple level 30 dungeons on the opposite side of the map? Why do I have to go through an involved quest to unlock the ability to use Chocobos, and then still have to rent them by the day for prices so low I might as well just have permanent access to them? Why are the crossover quests for a mobile game (still in there despite the Assassin's Creed one being gone!) and FFXIV more developed and interesting than the majority of the regular side quests in the game?
Final Fantasy XV is a strange game. But, as time goes on, I know these complaints will fade away, and I'll be left with the good memories. Watching the countryside roll by as Ignis drove us along. Talking with Prompto late into the night at that motel, and hell, even Gladio's ridiculous love of Cup Noodles. Traveling down the coast with Gladio's sister Iris (who deserved more screen time than she got), pulling into the garage at Hammerhead to put have Cindy some more ridiculous decals on the Regalia. Running into the mercenary of ever changing allegiances Aranea. Poking around at the Chocobo ranch, just having fun with bigh birds.
These bonds of friendship, even if they're with fictional characters, are going to be what sticks with me. For all the rest of the faults, this is still a game I deeply love, and I'm so, so glad I played it.
I'll always remember that moment, right before the final boss, when they all stopped to go through the photos, and reminisce about the good old days. Because that was the moment, the moment where it all welled up inside me, and I realized just how much this game, how much Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladio really mean to me.
I'll miss them.