Without getting into the long history of Final Fantasy XV and the middling decade the series has weathered since the game’s announcement as Final Fantasy Versus XIII back in 2006, I’ll succinctly say I kept my expectations in check. Square Enix finally released it last November and it immediately supplanted Pokémon Sun, which released the week prior, as the game I was focused on playing. It took a few sessions for me to grasp the combat and character progression but once I did, I couldn’t wait to get home from work, ignore my responsibilities, and spend inordinate amounts of time with it. On the flip side, I was letdown by the barebones narrative and practical absence of exposition. After eighty hours and a platinum trophy to show for my time, I’m certain I’ve never had such mixed emotions regarding a game.
The game opened with Regis, the King of Lucis, bidding the crown prince Noctis and his protective entourage farewell as they left to rendezvous with Lunafreya, Noct’s fiancée and the Oracle and former princess of Tenebrae, a neighboring country. Their marriage was the primary condition of an armistice between Lucis and Niflheim, a domineering country that utilized their technologically impressive Magitek army in a way that drew much scorn and mistrust. Before reaching the rendezvous point, Noct and his buddies got word that Nihlheim assassinated his father and removed the magic crystal that granted the royal dynasty special powers and protected Lucis from Daemons and the might of the empire. The group’s recourse was to see that Noct collected the weapons of the Lucian kings, stole back the crystal, and reclaim the throne.
At this point, the game really opened up, showing the vastness and variety of its open world. I’d go long stretches of time without advancing the main story, working to complete every sidequest before seeing what befell Noct and company. It was just as well. After the initial calamity, the narrative was uneventful and vague for a major portion of the game. At a time when I wanted a deeper understanding of the background events and the individual characters and their motivations I was left with fetch quests. So, I fetched and hunted and leveled until I could no more and eventually, excitement and intrigue returned to the narrative. Once it did, it flew by. At a certain point, the open-world was no longer available and the narrative concluded in a linear, concise manner.
In a sense, the conclusion was satisfying. The group’s goal was achieved and good triumphed over evil, rah, rah, rah! The implications of success had been foreshadowed throughout the narrative so it wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t find Noctis completely redeemed as a protagonist. In fact, the epilogue, while touching, caused me to burst out in laughter, which presumably wasn’t the intended effect. What I’m getting at, is my belief that Noct is one of the least interesting characters in this game. In many ways, he’s a silent protagonist, and given the developer’s inspirations and the game’s muddled development, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was his purpose at one point. He’s almost entirely devoid of personality, which thankfully was offset by his partners.
Already longtime friends at the onset, the camaraderie exhibited between Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto over the course of their journey was a highpoint. The trio accompanying Noctis were thoroughly fleshed out. My understanding of their backgrounds, interests, and personalities evolved over time to a degree that stands in stark contrast to the relative emptiness and limited character development of Noctis. Long trips in the Regalia, wandering through dungeons, fishing, everything we did was livened up by their never-ending banter. It could grow annoying at times (YES, I KNOW MY FISHING LINE NEEDS TO BE REPLACED GUYS!), but I never grew annoyed of them. The constant push and pull of their friendship during trials and tribulations heightened the emotional resonance of the game, something I could rarely attribute to Noct’s portrayal.
I will say that unfortunately, a lot of what I was wanting in regards to background information was present in Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV. This is the CG movie Square Enix produced as a companion piece to the game. I think it’s a shame that to have a solid understanding of the relationship between the countries and the background of the armistice, one needs to buy another product. I’m all for supplemental entertainment, but I’d love for the source material to not feel lacking. I have yet to watch Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV, the anime similarly providing backstory on the foursome’s origins, although any strong negative reaction of mine may be tamed considering their exemplary portrayals in-game. For what it’s worth, I found the movie and exciting and appreciated the additional information I gleaned from it.
With the core entries in the Final Fantasy series, Square Enix tends to innovate, looking to advance the Japanese role-playing genre while avoiding a degree of stagnation that’s common amongst their peers. This entry was no different and it’s quite apparent they looked towards Western game design, specifically open-world games, as a source of inspiration. It’s evident in the emphasis on sidequests, as well as the exploration and traversal mechanics. Additionally, in a continuing trend away from turn-based battles, the combat was fast-paced and active, akin to character action games like Bayonetta. Unfortunately, character progression felt soulless in a way that’s at odds with the genre.
I touched upon the fact that the entirety of the game doesn’t take place in an open-world environment, although the majority of my time was spent wandering around it. For reference, I completed chapters 9-14 in a single, albeit lengthier than usual, session. A stark contrast to the dozens of hours I spent poring over the open-world and inching the story along in the first eight chapters. I was thoroughly consumed by a desire to complete sidequests before advancing the story. They were given to the party by tertiary characters that had bit parts in the overarching narrative and were complemented by brief cutscenes and exposition.
Altogether, there were about a half-dozen quest givers with an exhaustible list of tasks. Reductively, they all boiled down to “go here, fetch this” or “go here, kill this, fetch that.” Even the rewards for their completion were lackluster, the only real benefit was the experience gained. Nonetheless, I completed each and every one. The means of completion or the item requested differed based on who the quest giver was. Navyth, for example, was an adept fisherman who wanted Noctis to make specific catches, whereas Vyv was the editor of a resistance newspaper and desired eye-catching photos. The quest givers were quite flamboyant, and I couldn’t help but grouse whenever I interacted with Cindy or Dino. The former was the scantily clad, southern fried mechanic who seems designed for little more than sexual fantasy while the latter had the most garish Brooklyn accent. I swear, every time I spoke with him he spouted off at least one “hey, youse guys.”
Much of the time spent I spent exploring was in the Regalia, Noct’s one-of-a-kind sedan. Driving the Regalia was perplexingly limited; I couldn’t leave the designated roadways, for instance, so I always charged Ignis with driving. Early on, I unlocked a few perks that caused experience and Ability Points to accrue while driving. In a way, this incentivized “dead time” getting from point A to B over quick travel, but I generally opted for it due to these benefits. In hindsight, this bloated my playtime and didn’t produce an equitable return on investment. I did get to listen to selected tracks from previous Final Fantasy games and spend time reading books or playing Pokémon, however, so maybe not a total waste of time.
The inclusion of classic tunes from previous entries was noteworthy, but Yoko Shimomura’s original score is why the soundtrack truly shines. I’m not familiar with her complete work, but every soundtrack of hers I hear, I wind up finding a bounty of songs I need to download. I was often reminded of her Radiant Historia score during aggressive songs as many tracks featured familiar vignettes or orchestrations. Also composing tracks for the game were Tetsuya Shibata, Yoshino Aoki, and Yoshitaka Suzuki. Tetsuya Shibata in particular composed many of my favorites, easily distinguishable by his homey arrangements. As a group, they produced a varied soundtrack that helped to define people, places, and events. So evocative some tracks were that I’m immediately transported back to Hammerhead, or a campsite when I hear them now.
At first blush, combat was simple. Holding the circle button would cause Noctis to attack while holding the square button would cause him to defend. Hailing from a lineage with special powers, he was able to throw his weapon and warp to it. Weapons had varying rates of attack and enemies were susceptible or resistant to different weapon types. Four were always at the ready, immediately switchable via the d-pad. I was in full control of Noct as I warped him around battles at lightning speed. The other party members acted independently, although I could trigger their special attacks when meters were full or heal them when needed. Despite the combat seeming basic initially, its depth was revealed as more special attacks and abilities were unlocked. Honestly, combat was a fast-paced, confusing jumble. I had issues with the lock-on feature “losing” my target, or party members acting stupidly, but all things considered, it was fun.
Weapon variety was impressive but there wasn’t a lot of diversity within the weapon types; I rarely found new weapons, for instance. Likewise, defensive gear wasn’t a concern. The types of equippable gear were rather narrow, essentially streamlined to weapons and accessories. Magic was a non-issue for me as I loathed its implementation. Spells were consumable, area-of-effect attacks that also hurt party members. Now, this was logical but from a gameplay perspective, wasn’t fun. Since I rarely dabbled in it, the ability to craft magic outside of the core elements was foreign to me for an embarrassingly lengthy period of time. Summons went equally unused. There were only a few, which also quantifies how often I used them because of the inane criteria that had to be met to summon them. It was astonishing to see their devastating power, but discounting a few story-based events, I only ever summoned the same one.
Character progression was similarly streamlined. The only improvements a character saw when leveling, was increases in their health, magic, attack, and defense. And, rather than immediately leveling once the required experience had been gained, characters “banked” the gained experience, earning it after resting. I made my own fun with this mechanic, holding off on resting until earning a massive amount of experience. It was only during these massive gains that I noticed the stat increases had any impact in combat. That is, increasing one or two levels provided an unnoticeable benefit whereas jumping ten, the improvement was obvious. Furthering the character’s abilities and stats was primarily done through the Ascension. Representative of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, the License Board from Final Fantasy XII, or the Crystarium from Final Fantasy XIII, earned ability points were spent here on a wide variety of enhancements. I enjoyed strategizing on what to unlock next, but was letdown by the relative simplicity of the Ascension.
The fact that after a decade of on-again/off-again development, Square Enix was able to release Final Fantasy XV is impressive. The fact that it’s not terrible is incredible. Considering the genre’s notoriety for, if not quality narrative, a lot of narrative, it’s ridiculous to think that this area is the game’s weakest aspect. Noct’s detached portrayal and the dearth of background information belong in entries from thirty years ago. The sole saving grace is the depiction of friendship, unmatched by its peers. Regarding game design, the fusion of Eastern intricacy and Western philosophy resulted in a homogenous product: yet another open-world game with RPG-like character progression. That I can boil a core Final Fantasy down as such is depressing but they did implement an invigorating and fun battle system. For every praiseworthy aspect, I encountered as many minor annoyances – enough to spawn a cathartic podcast devoted to bitching about them. In spite of all the negatives, I happily sunk eighty hours into it, looking forward to playing it every chance I could. Rationally, there’s so much to tear down, but I was absolutely obsessed with it – the most apt love/hate relationship I’ve had with a game.