I’m not what you’d call a massive Final Fantasy fan. I’ve only played 1-4, then 8 and then 13 of the main series, although I’ve spent more time with spin offs like Tactics Advance and Crystal Chronicles. Final Fantasy XIII was one of the worst games I’ve ever played; I hated its linearity, its lack of respect for the player and its bland protagonist. I was therefore quite intrigued by Final Fantasy XV, which looked set to reverse all of these problems; a big open world, more challenging quests and a group of loveable boy band protagonists. Final Fantasy XV has all of those things and I frequently loved it, but it shows too many scars from its troubled development to be a classic.
Final Fantasy XV follows Prince Noctis of Lucis, a land which is one of the last hold outs of independence from the conquering Niflheim Empire. The city is protected by the magic of the King, Noctis’ father Regis, who maintains a great shield protecting the capital city of Insomnia. An ambassador from Niflheim has come to offer peace and end a war that has blighted the world for years and King Regis agrees. A condition is that Noctis is to be married to his childhood sweetheart Lady Lunafreya of Tenebrae (a protectorate of Niflheim), as a political union. Noctis, alongside his friends Gladiolous, Ignis and Prompto set forth on a roadtrip to the relatively neutral city of Altissia for the wedding. It is not long before events are complicated and Noctis is plunged into a conflict which threatens the entire world of Eos.
The story for Final Fantasy XV is, unfortunately, an incoherent mess. If you thought the second half of Metal Gear Solid V (a game FFXV shares a lot in common with) shit the bed, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The immediate problem is that it is almost impossible to work out what is going on if you haven’t watched the spin off movie Kingsglaive, which takes place parallel with the opening chapters of the game. For some reason FFXV seems entirely unwilling to give the player backstory; I guess it’s trying to avoid classic exposition dumps, but anything would have been better than this. I dutifully watched Kingsglaive (not an experience I can recommend) which did finally explain what was going on, but I shouldn’t have had to in the first place. Things only get worse as it goes on, with new characters introduced and abandoned with no explanation, shockingly underdeveloped villains with impenetrably bizarre motivations and sudden, disorienting lurches in time and place. Some of these characters are likeable and I’d have loved to see more of them, but there just isn’t enough story here. By the end I had almost no clue what was happening, with major plot twists announced and then never spoken of again. There are some interesting ideas here, particularly in the intriguing and charming main villain, but pretty much every element is shockingly underdeveloped.
The thing is, for all these flaws, there is one element of the story which the developers absolutely nailed and that is the relationship between your four party members. Where Final Fantasy games have tended to have sprawling parties made up of members which join throughout the journey, in FFXV you start and finish with the same core four, outside of a couple of brief guest appearances. I was surprised to see an all male party in this day and age, but after playing the game it feels like a legitimate creative choice. The lovely boys of FFXV are pretty much the least toxically masculine bunch of lads I’ve seen. They clearly love and support each other throughout the entire story, to the point that any tiff is a bit hard to watch. It’s hard not to get attached to this lot, even though they can’t be called complex characters by any means. The tough guy with a heart of gold Gladiolus, the wise-cracking but insecure Prompto and the responsible and fastidious Ignis are characters I became really fond of by the end, with the best moments of writing to be found in their little joke-y asides to each other as they adventure around Eos. One of the most charming details are the passive skills each party member has, distinct from combat. Noctis can fish, Gladiolus can scavenge, Ignis can cook and, best of all, Prompto can take photographs, which was displayed at the end of each day. These skills develop over time, so watching Prompto’s photos get better and better is really charming stuff. The lighter, road trip stuff works really well, but does feel completely at odds with the oppressive ‘evil empire’ narrative looming over everything. FFXV has an interesting approach to open world design mechanically, but it’s story is not built for an open world at all. That said, few open world games do pull this off, with only The Witcher 3 coming to mind as one that does.
FFXV ditches the turn based battles entirely for something much more engaging. All battles are in real time. Holding one button attacks, whilst holding another allows you to dodge. Noctis is the only playable character and can equip four different weapons at once, which can be switched on the fly. Different enemies are weak to different weapons. Noctis also has the ability to warp around the area, sometimes to strike directly into foes and sometimes to reach high ground which speeds up health and MP regeneration. Alongside this, Noctis can also activate techniques to be used by one of his three bros. Positioning is key, as back attacks (as well as parries) can trigger link strikes where Noctis double teams an enemy alongside one of the team. All these elements combine into a system which is fast, frantic and really engaging. It looks hack and slash-y at first, but that will get you obliterated later on and you have to play more defensively and intelligently. Constant motion is key, with magic functioning like a grenade. There are a lot of complex mechanics at play, but they all feel valuable and build towards a genuinely unique and engaging battle system. One flaw is that it perhaps isn’t quite visceral enough, with strikes having that weightlessness which usually comes with MMOs. More visual and audio feedback to make the strikes more satisfying would be icing on the cake, but the cake is still delicious. Delicious FFXV combat cake. Unfortunately, the camera really suffers in indoor locations like buildings and caves and is really made for wide open spaces where you can zip all over the place. Precise placing becomes pretty much impossible and in a lot of these encounters all I could do was spam potions to stay alive.
As is usually the case with these games, the core gameplay mechanic is the combat, but FFXV offers a first for the series in their first truly seamless open world. The world is vast and beautiful and isn’t bound by traditional Western fantasy tropes. In fact, the setting is bizarrely modern for the most part, with mobile phones and cars and advanced technology. I’m a real fan of this sort of science-fantasy setting and wish we saw it more often in games. As strange as it all is, it works in practice and Eos is a genuine pleasure to explore. The landscapes vary from desert to lush plains to rocky volcano, with a good variety of scenery. The game reminded me a bit of Earthbound, in that it evokes 1950s Americana without really understanding it, a style of world building I find oddly endearing. You’ll be exploring on foot, on a chocobo or by your fancy car. The diving is extremely limited, you can’t go off road so generally it’s better to just let your buddy Ignis drive and take in the scenery, all whilst listening to your friends babble away to each other or classic Final Fantasy tunes through the CD player. I quite enjoyed the long drives for the scenery, but if this sort of thing would bore you it could be a turn off. When you’ve been somewhere once you can fast travel, which is somewhat hindered by lengthy load times. Night is dangerous in Eos, so you can stay at motels or caravans or camp in the wilderness, where Ignis can cook you a nice meal (if you have the right ingredients) which offer significant buffs for the following day. There’s a unique rhythm to FFXV that I haven’t seen in other open world games and it evokes the feeling of a road trip with friends very well.
Alongside the lengthy main quest, there are a plethora of side quests, most of which are unfortunately quite bad. The Witcher 3 spoiled me for good quests, but even Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition had better side missions than this. They’re generally repetitive ‘go here – kill this’ or ‘go here- collect this’ affairs. I actually don’t always mind this if it’s wrapped up in an interesting side story, but FFXV’s side missions are so mundane it’s almost funny. There’s a very lengthy quest chain about acquiring vegetables for example. Sometimes these quests will lead you to optional dungeons, which are actually really cool. This is frustrating as there’s no way of knowing which quest chains will eventually become worthwhile and which will stay boring forever. I’m sure I missed some decent content because I couldn’t bear to do another fetch quest. I actually preferred the straight up bounty hunter mission, which simply send Noctis and crew to go kill some monster then come back. The monsters encountered are often rare and these provided some of the more memorable encounters, whilst containing no story at all. I did a fair few side missions because I liked the world and wanted to spend plenty of time in it, but after I finished the main story I couldn’t quite bear to do any more. FFXV has an open world, but in many ways it isn’t designed as an open world game and this is typified through the side missions.
FFXV has the opposite structure to FFXIII. Where FFXIII was linear for the first half and then apparently opens up in the second (I never could make it that far myself), FFXV tears you from the open world in the second half of the story. You can return through hilariously convoluted means, but from a story perspective you’re out and the rest of the game is pretty much linear. It is here that the game falls apart to a spectacular degree. Other games have done this before; Metal Gear Solid V also had a strong first half that fell apart in the second, but at least the core mechanics remained fun even if it was repetitive. Since the second half of the game is mostly set in closed, cramped locations, the previously mentioned camera issues come to the fore making almost no combat encounters in the second half as fun as those in the first. FFXV throws you into some bafflingly awful moments, compounded by the fact that the story utterly collapses at this point too. A truly dreadful boss encounter and a stunningly ill-advised stab at survival horror stand out as memorably awful, but the whole thing isn’t good. The actual final hour is pretty cool, with a great boss fight and a cool location, but overall the whole second half is disastrous. Where the first half is a flawed but loveable diamond in the rough, the second loses everything that makes the core flaws of the game bearable.
Similarly, to The Last Guardian, FFXV shows its age in some places and it’s clear that this is a game originally intended for the PS3. The character models for less important NPCs are pretty poor and a lot of the animations very stiff and awkward. The environment is gorgeous with a genuinely unique setting, but significant texture pop in and an overall fuzziness to the visuals don’t allow it to shine as well as it should. I actually love the visual design for this game and these flaws don’t really hold it back from being a spectacular game to take in at times, but some of the visual impact is undeniably robbed. The voice acting is good for the core four boys and much of the supporting cast, but some of the NPC voice acting is hilariously bad. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between how characters look and how they speak. Although the setting itself feels like a well thought out and plausible, the characters in it really don’t. This would be fine if, instead of believable characters, we had grandiose and silly characters instead, but we don’t get that either. There’s a bizarre sense of lavish attention to detail in things that don’t really matter, such as the wonderfully rendered and believable food, but ignoring things that really do. The music is lovely, obviously, although the excellent main theme isn’t quite heard enough. It would only kick in sometimes whilst in the field and is interrupted with every combat encounter, meaning that it’s impact is robbed by the less memorable battle theme.
FFXV is a frustrating and disappointing game with an undeniable charm. I’ve made the comparison a few times, but FFXV made me think of Metal Gear Solid V a lot. Both were heavily delayed entries in a long running, beloved series. Both were awaited with rabid anticipation. Both are known for convoluted storytelling and melodrama. Both released essentially unfinished, with clear scars from where content was cut. The thing is, I still maintain that for its flaws Metal Gear Solid V is a genuinely great game, even a masterpiece. I can’t quite say the same for Final Fantasy XV. I’ve enjoyed my time with it and I don’t regret it, but this is nowhere near the experience it should be. That said, I love the basic idea of a road trip game and the world itself and I hope they learn lessons from this game and release a sequel. Maybe an all-female team next time?