A game with a lot of beautiful art and interesting ideas, all hobbled together into a complete mess
Final Fantasy XV is a game of severe contrasts, lackluster combat and poor narrative pacing. The game features an open world and yet also features a staggering long set of linear corridors. The game features a diverse and large set of interesting characters, but you barely get a chance to learn about them. The game also features action combat that can get remarkably complicated, but the game never challenges players. The game boots up each time by boldly claiming to be a “Final Fantasy for fans and first timers”. As a Final Fantasy fan who loved Final Fantasy VI, VII, IX and X, I completely disagree.
The game’s opening minutes already soured my experience. It shows the protagonist Noctis and his three friends fighting what looks to be a late game boss and then does a flashback to the actual beginning of this game. This whole sequence ruined any suspense the game would try to build later on because I was confident that Noctis and his three friends would all make it to the end. Aside from that odd intro sequence, the opening premise is very strong. Noctis has to marry his childhood friend Lunafreya. The marriage is purely political and is done to ease the tensions between their two kingdoms. Joining Noctis on his bachelor trip, is his best friend Prompto, his advisor Ignis and his bodyguard Gladiolus. The crew runs into trouble when their car runs out of gas and they push the car to the nearest gas station while a cover of “Stand by Me” is performed by Florence and the Machine. It’s a perfect scene that encapsulates the main theme of Final Fantasy XV about brotherhood.
My brief warm fuzzy feelings listening to “Stand by Me” dissipates once our heroes meet Cindy at the gas station, Hammerhead. Cindy is the mechanic who helps maintain and repair your car. Cindy also seems to believe that the best way to fix a car is to wear as little clothes as possible. The game could have made a dark turn, maybe Cindy has a side job because she isn’t earning enough money fixing cars. But no, everyone in this world plays it straight and accepts Cindy’s outrageous attire. Everytime I look at Cindy, all I imagine is a stripper roleplaying as a mechanic. Her character design does not make sense in this game.
In order for Noctis and friends to make it to Lunafreya, they need Gil (money in every Final Fantasy game) as their own local currency is not accepted. Cindy recommends Noctis go on side quests such as hunting for monsters or helping with people’s requests to make money. This is a great and sensible plot device to introduce the open world and give a reasonable excuse so that Noctis can take his time before meeting his bride. Unfortunately you’ll soon realize that most of these side quests are menial and repetitive. They are your typical MMO quests to kill X monsters or fetch Y items. It’s great if you want to check off some boxes, terrible if you want to learn about the world or its characters. The crazy thing is... the way you learn about what’s happening is through codex entries randomly scattered around each town and on the loading screens. There are names and terms that you only discover through these means and it is insulting that most of the world building in the game is written in those entries.
It has taken four paragraphs to talk about the gameplay and for good reason: it is lackluster. The game is an action game, a first in the core Final Fantasy series. The player only has control of Noctis while his three companions are all AI controlled. Noctis attacks by holding the attack button, dodge by holding the dodge button and can warp around as an escape mechanism or as a devastating long range attack. Noctis can also command his AI companions to do techniques when the technique gauge is filled. In a pinch, he can also use items or throw balls of charged fire/ice/thunder at his enemies. Nothing feels skillful or deliberate in the combat. You could add some finesse by switching weapons mid combat or performing warp strike aerial maneuvers but the game never requires the player to ever accomplish these feats. Holding attack and dodge is good enough and will get you through mostly everything. Unless you are severely underleveled, almost all encounters can be won through attrition by chugging very inexpensive potions. Outside of combat, you will be mostly traveling by car. Unfortunately there isn’t much freedom when driving and you are forced to stay on the road until you complete a series of side quests to upgrade your car. I quickly became bored of manually driving so I used the auto drive feature for the rest of the game. Lastly, the game has a tendency to have Noctis jump instead of interacting with an item. It’s funny at first seeing Noctis stupidly jump in front of something he was supposed to pick up, but quickly becomes old and evident that the controls could have been better.
There is more to the plot other than marrying Lunafreya and this is where there will be spoilers. I will try to keep the story beats as broad as possible. Turns out while Noctis and friends spend time hunting monsters, completing fetch quests and camping in the wilderness.The political marriage was a sham and the emperor of Niflheim used the opportunity to take over the kingdom of Lucis without Noctis or Lunafreya knowing. In order for Noctis to take back his kingdom, he needs to power up by collecting the weapons of his ancestors. How a single person collecting all these ancient weapons will somehow turn the tides against the empire is completely left to the player’s imagination.
After collecting a few of the royal arms, the game suddenly becomes indecisive about where the plot is going and changes the main objective. At the start of Chapter 4, our heroes are now focused on receiving the blessings from the Astrals, gods of the world that can grant power to the king of Lucis. Lunafreya also plays a part in this because she is the Oracle, but her role is never explained except in the loading screens. The whole objective of collecting the royal weapons becomes an afterthought. After numerous run-ins with the Astrals, things take yet another turn. Noctis and friends learn that Lunafreya is in possession of the Ring of Lucii, something the game never explains but everyone knows its significance. So in addition to receiving the blessings from the Astrals, Noctis needs to retrieve the Ring of Lucii before the empire does.
Fast forward a couple chapters later, Noctis finally has the Ring of Lucii, blessings from several Astrals and possesses the royal arms. So this means Noctis can finally reclaim his kingdom right? Nope, the game takes another turn and the new objective is to invade the kingdom of Niflheim instead. The reason is because the empire has stolen the Crystal from Insomnia (the capital of Lucis). What the Crystal is and what it does is never explained earlier in the game and now everyone says it’s important because it is used to banish the Darkness. The Darkness and its effects on the world are also never explained until this point. The constantly shifting goals in an effort to complicate the plot, feels cheap and undeserved. It doesn’t help that between most chapters there is a time skip, be it several days, months or even years. It’s a narrative device employed so often that the plot essentially resets itself.
The good news is that the open world is impressive. It is reminiscent of southwest America, full of desert and wooded landscapes. Side quests often lead you to areas with optional dungeons and caves to spelunk. When you want to take a break from exploration and combat, you can cook delicious meals, go fishing, take photos of beautiful vistas and partake in Chocobo races. The banter between Noctis and his companions feels natural and adapts to what they are doing. I admittedly spent longer than expected just exploring the world because I enjoyed the road trip with my brothers in arms. It is with great disappointment to report that the open world is only the first half of the game. The second half of the game is a series of linear corridors with very few side quests, tons of narrative exposition and limited battle mechanics.
Other than Noctis, you only get to learn surface level details about the other named characters. Some characters like Iris and Aranea are introduced only to be forgotten in later chapters. A huge revelation about one of your companions is quickly waived off as if it were nothing. Even Lunafreya, for as much importance as being the Oracle, is assigned a very minor role in the game. The only way to learn more about these characters and the world is to play the DLC, see the Kingsglaive movie and watch the Brotherhood anime. It’s disappointing that substantial character development and backstory is relegated to external content.
I can’t recommend Final Fantasy XV. The plot in the main game feels hobbled together with shifting objectives and poor character development. The open world chapters are a brief enjoyable delight followed by a horrible aftertaste in the second half of the game. The only way to truly understand this game is by spending additional hours watching and playing side content. This is not the worst Final Fantasy Square Enix has released, but there’s nothing magical or memorable about it.