Best When Mundane
"Hey Noct, check this out," Gladiolus says. An icon appears in the game world. I slowly walk over and inspect it. It's a poster advertising a fake, in-universe brand of root beer. "I could go for one of those right now."
"So buy one, then," Noctis, the player character, replies.
"Hell yeah I will!" Gladiolus barks back. "Later, though. We've got stuff to do."
This is the end of the conversation. As far as I can tell, it's impossible to buy root beer in Final Fantasy XV. At no point does Gladiolous make good on his desire to drink root beer. He just wanted Noctis, and by extension the player, know that he wants one.
In most ways you cut it, Final Fantasy XV is a pretty bad game. The combat is pretty bad. The controls are pretty bad. The story is pretty bad. The open world is empty and full of inane fetch quests. But as a 50+ hour long video game tribute to the 'cherry pez' scene from Stand By Me, it's unparallelled and will likely remain that way for some time. That may sound like insincere praise, but there's something to it. Just like the Rob Reiner film from which it takes clear inspiration, FFXV's use of mundanity makes for a pleasurable meditation on The Nature of Being. Yes, there are gods and kings and monsters and magical crystals, but more than that there's shitty diner food and a self-serve gas station down the road from the petting zoo. That's the star of the show here, and I have no choice but to respect it.
Please keep that in mind. I'm going to trash all of this game's systems, but I feel that they're all far less important than Gladiolous saying he wants to drink root beer.
First off, combat is a bit of a mess. It's a realtime action "hack n' slash" combat system in which you are made to hold down the attack and dodge buttons rather than press them with any sort of timing. It functions, but it isn't fun at all. The lock-on targeting is unreliable; it rarely selects the enemy you're hoping for when you initially press the button and switching targets is either cumbersome or outright doesn't work, depending. Most egregiously, the camera goes apeshit during combat and rarely gives you a good view of what's going on. Environmental objects such as trees are not occluded when they get in the way of the action, so they tend to block your vision. It's not a good scene.
The controls are overall poor. All three gamepad layouts were seemingly designed by crazy people. Over the course of 50 hours you'll get used to it, of course, but having to 'get used to' the control scheme for a JRPG is not ideal. What I never managed to get used to is the overall clunkiness of maneuvering Noctis. He's oftentimes slow in terms of movement speed and responsiveness. "Press A to Interact" prompts are extremely touchy, being positioned slightly wrong with just have Noctis hop in place over and over as you mash the damn A button.
The overall structure of FFXV goes for a 'road trip' vibe. This initially excited me, as I've always wanted a video game based around that concept. However, the entire open world is only about 5 miles across. Sure, that's pretty big for a video game (it's bigger than Skyrim, at least) but it's also not exactly Route 66. Furthermore, completing lots of sidequests will have you cris-crossing back and forth from one side of the world to the other. Combined with the errandlike nature of these sidequests, it starts to feel more like going to K Mart for butt medicine over and over again than Thelma & Louise. The sidequest content in this game is best done in low, low doses. Almost all of them are fetch quests or "go here, kill that" hunts straight out of your least favorite MMO. I advise that if you play FFXV, you do a handful of sidequests, but by no means should you come close to trying to do them all. Don't make the same mistake I did. About 2/3 of the way through the game, at Chapter 8 or so, the open world goes away and the game becomes very linear. I don't have a huge opinion on this shift in style, but some might and should be aware of that fact. I will say, though, that the last stretch of the game is kind of a slog any way you cut it.
There are dungeons dotted around the open world that lead to 'royal tombs.' These unlock special weapons that are not explicitly more powerful than your regular gear, but also take away your health when you use them. I don't know why one would want to get them, even though I got all of them. I'd like to let everyone know that these are some of the worst dungeons I've seen in an RPG for some time. Of special note is the sewer maze dungeon. I know the phrase, "sewer maze dungeon," sounds super awesome, but they drop the ball with a tedious nightmare that might be a candidate for Worst RPG Dungeon of All Time.
I've seen it claimed that the story of Final Fantasy 15 is incomprehensible. I wouldn't go that far, but you can see where holes have been punched out of the plot in order to be sold separately as DLC and OVAs. These holes are wallpapered over with awkwardly integrated flashbacks, and the choices made when Square decided on these cuts are baffling. The story's entire inciting incident, the fall of Noctis's kingdom and the death of his father, is portrayed in a brief, dialogue-free FMV that's directed like a music video. Lady Lunafreya, the game's deuteragonist and Noctis's fiancee, is given no room to establish herself as anything but a cardboard plot contrivance, and even that is handled with awkwardly placed flashbacks long after she's no longer immediately relevant to the story. The bad guys here are the "Niflheim Empire," and their MO is to transparently rip off Midgar from FF7 as much as possible, and also to have their activities told to the player instead of shown onscreen.
That being said, I think this ranks pretty high in terms of latter-day Final Fantasy stories just by virtue of not being as stupid as the X or XIII series. I even found it to be a pleasant throwback in a few ways. Put some of the operatic melodrama on display here into a blue textbox and it wouldn't be too out of place in FF4. The character writing, when the characters actually appear, is decently strong.
I guess you could say that Final Fantasy XV is a bad game. Almost all of the individual pieces of it are bad. But it's also got some stuff you won't find anywhere else, and I appreciate its... worldview? I guess? It's hard to put into words when a game doesn't amount to the sum of its parts. At the very least, the first 1/3 of Final Fantasy XV should be experienced.
Final Fantasy XV is bad in most ways you would think are important, but it creates such a strong identity for itself that it has merit.
BONUS CONTENT! DLC Mini-reviews.
Episode Gladiolus completely ditches the health system from the base game. The regenerating health is gone, and you're left with a very traditional HP system. Unlike the base game, the number of potions and phoenix downs you have are very finite, so there's more of an incentive to play well. This episode is based around blocking and riposting. It's more involved than the combat in the base FF15 but it also doesn't play well with the camera and the controls. Enemies are hard to track, don't seem to become less active when off-screen (a trick most character action games pull), and enemy attacks are really not well telegraphed. I found myself caught off guard by enemies just flying in from off-screen and hitting me. The timing for the parry is hard to pin down and it's not always accessible for whatever reason. You seemingly cannot cancel into your block while in the middle of an attack animation like in, say, Metal Gear Revengeance. The story is nothing special. Gladiolus wants to be strong, so he goes into a cave to fight the most hella strong guy passed down in legends. It lasted less than an hour.
Episode Prompto stars a character who uses firearms, so it replaces the combat system with third-person shooter mechanics. Being that this is made by the Final Fantasy team at Square Enix, you'd be right in assuming that it plays like a PSP game. For some reason, the aim and shoot buttons are on the bumpers of the Xbox pad instead of the triggers. I guess this works out if you're using a PS4 pad or the mouse, but it felt weird to me. You have a crappy pistol with infinite ammo and a useless knife, but most of the time you'll be using disposable weapons that you have to scavenge. It's not especially bad, but it's not especially great either. About halfway through there's a small open-world section where you use a snowmobile to travel about. You can complete side missions here to upgrade the snowmobile, which is a big help if you ever want a pointlessly upgraded snowmobile. The story involves Prompto, in his darkest hour, reminiscing on his childhood as a fat, insecure kid. He also finds out that he's a genetic supersoldier DNA experiment. To me it seems like those two things don't go together. The end boss is a giant robot baboon, followed by a turret sequence.
Episode Ignis's campaign has the most potential, but it's squandered. Ignis's combat style is stance-based, and you can swap between these stances at any time with the D-Pad. There's a "Fire" stance for one-on-one, a "Lightning" stance for zipping between targets, and an "Ice" stance for clusters of enemies (I put them in quotations because the elements themselves have no bearing). Unfortunately, his controls are sloppy feeling. Ignis doesn't like to close the distance between himself and his targets and he also likes to get stuck in his combo strings even when you've stopped holding the attack button and his target has died. And yeah, the crummy camera during combat makes it difficult to tell where enemies are and which stance you should be in to best take them out
Ignis also has his own version of defense. Where Noctis dodges when the defensive button is held down and Gladiolus is meant to parry moves at the last moment, Ignis's defense is reactive. Once he's been hit, you have a second to press the button to negate the damage and perform a counter-attack. This is a unique enough way to handle it, but the only tell you have for performing the defensive action is a small button prompt in the bottom center of the screen and it disappears quickly. Ignis does play a hurt animation, but it's hard to notice... especially when the camera isn't cooperating. Putting everything aside, I found that I was either taking no damage whatsoever or being sent to my near-death state in an instant, so I don't know how much utility this defensive move even has.
The context of the DLC is that Ignis is navigating a city in the middle of a giant battle. Instead of a map he has to use a grappling hook to get up onto rooftops to scout the landscape, and as he makes his way through the town he can liberate neighborhoods by killing all the enemies in them. I say that's all the case, but the segment is about 15 minutes long there are only three neighborhoods to liberate, and they're pretty much all situated in a straight line. It's a decent enough idea, but it's just underdeveloped and buggy. Fighting on the rooftops is a huge pain in the ass. Ignis's attacks have him zipping all over the place, so he'll fall off of the roofs of his own accord over and over again.
Episode Ignis is all potential and no payoff. None of the three teammate DLCs are particularly great, but this one is easily the worst of them. I'd also caution that they're all extremely short, so unless they came with your copy of the game I would not recommend paying more than 99 cents apiece for them.