TL; DR(eview) - Final Fantasy XV is the beginning of an interesting game and a decent enough new approach for the series. There are some good ideas and the combat feels like the kind Square Enix has visually wanted to produce since Advent Children, with characters flying and fighting effortlessly midair. Unfortunately, the game is also a laughably unfinished product when it comes to story and character development with terrible pacing and direction that is usually boring but also just downright terrible at times. The world is ten times bigger than it needs to be. The sound mix often frustratingly gets in its own way (with entire sequences of lines being half cut off and/or drowned out by the music). It proudly tries to pay homage to some of the best games in the series without bothering to examine what made those games special. And (if you want to feel remotely invested in the characters or world lore) the side content of Kingsglaive and Brotherhood are required reading, not just added flavor like something like Advent Children or Crisis Core for Final Fantasy VII.
Ok, now that that's out of my system, let’s break this down piece by piece. Warning: I will delve into some spoilers.
Normally, I wouldn’t necessarily devote a part of a review to the historical context of the product, choosing to let the end result speak for itself. But I think the troubled history of this game is so intertwined with so many of my gripes about the game that I can’t help but discuss it.
Obviously, this game has had one of the most high-profile and troubled development cycles in the history of the medium. First presented a decade ago as part of a series of games in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series under its original title Final Fantasy Versus XIII, alongside Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII (later released as Type-0), these games were intended to tell unique stories but share universal lore and mythology.
The size and scope of those early years led to the game being discussed as a mainline Final Fantasy entry. Additionally, with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the horizon, Square Enix moved away from their Crystal Tools engine (which was utilized for Final Fantasy XIII and the relatively quick turnaround of its two sequels) in favor of a new Luminous Studio game engine.
When the game was relaunched officially as Final Fantasy XV, Hajime Tabata ultimately took over the project from Tetsuya Nomura (though the two served a time as co-directors) and basically restarted, with elements of the original idea being carried forward. Much like Final Fantasy XII before it, Final Fantasy XV is at its core multiple games competing with one another inside a singular package with different voices trying to wrestle control for narrative and tonal dominance.
And at some point in these last few months of development, it would seem that getting the game in a state where it could be playable with a passing semblance of story in 2016 took financial precedence over actually finishing the product. This sentiment has been rumored and the almost immediate response from Tabata detailing some of the plans to expand the game’s content with, among other things, added scenes suggest to me that Square Enix just needed to prioritize getting the game in people’s hands so the money could start flowing in and they could try and patch in the rest of the content later (with likely a future “Director’s Cut” edition of the game sold on shelves, with not only the Season Pass DLC but even these “deleted scenes” restored on the disc).
I look forward to reading about the long, troubled development of this game in the years to come when people eventually come forward to speak on the record about it because it is likely among the most fascinating stories in gaming.
Rewatching the Final Fantasy XV re-reveal trailer from E3 2013 paints an interesting picture of the game they intended to make at that time compared to the game that is playable today. You’ll find simple things like scenes that were ultimately sent to Kingsglaive or a complete redesign of Noctis’ father King Regis and his army (which have a bit more of a Yakuza vibe in the original with everyone in suits instead of the robes and armor shown in Kingsglaive). Two gameplay sequences showcase what seem to be a much more extended version of the game's Leviathan battle and a battle during the Fall of Insomnia.
In the final game, you are confusingly told to choose three people to aid with the evacuation efforts. Since that’s everyone else in your party, that pretty much all happens off screen while you, as Noctis, go face off against a couple waves of soldiers en route to fight Leviathan. The three-year-old trailer shows Noctis and two other party members (so...three people total) fighting a mix of soldiers and jets of water through some Altissia-flavored buildings.
The other sequence seems to narratively tie-in with the idea that Noctis and friends were originally intended to be present for the Fall of Insomnia, at least in part. In the final game, this happens entire off screen (in the Kingsglaive movie) at the tail end of the game’s first chapter. With fight scenes in the courtyard in front of the royal cathedral, I can easily see a version of this story where Noctis and his guard were fighting on the steps of the cathedral while Regis fights inside before Noctis is ultimately whisked away from the battle. Personally, this would have been a much better kick-off to the adventure than what we wound up with.
Instead, we start off, as was the case in my PAX West Preview of the game, with an older Noctis and party in a fight against Ifrit at some nondescript point in the future before the game fades to a cutscene of Noctis and his guard leaving his father and the Kingdom of Insomnia on their quest to collect Noctis’ betrothed: the Lady Lunafreya. This scene, in turn, cuts to gameplay of the car broken down, requiring the party to slowly “Push R2” while Florence and the Machine sings “Stand By Me” and the guys push the broken down car and banter.
From there, at least, the world more or less opens up. The party is given some introductory tutorial quests to fulfill in exchange for fixing up the car. But it becomes pretty clear early on that “story” is not exactly the focus of the game. In fact, throughout the course of my 70 hours with the game, I’d say less than 5 hours of that is tied to the main “narrative.” Most of the time was instead spent on tangential side quests or monster hunts (and the travel to and from all of those objectives).
And the story itself is almost all focused on the last few chapters. Apart from the aforementioned initial thrust at the end of Chapter 1 (which seemingly would have been a 90-minute cut scene were it not split aside for Kingsglaive), there is almost no direct through-line outside of “Noctis and his friends against the Empire” again until the end of Chapter 8.
In those first Chapters you basically get told Luna is in Altissia but the port is closed so you can’t get there. In order to fight the Empire and save the realm, he’ll need the help of the weapons of his forefathers (the past Kings of Lucis) and the power of the Gods. And also a mini-Resistance of people loyal to the crown have a boat that just needs some spare parts I guess.
Once you’re ready to move on to Chapter 9, you’ll be given a warning that you will be leaving the open world for a while. And you certainly do. The game chooses this moment to finally bring the story back into the forefront by delivering exposition upon exposition in the fifteen-minute boat ride as you travel across the ocean in real time to Altissia, a Venice-inspired locale complete with gondola-laden canals. If, like me the first time, you go straight through the main quest in Altissia, you might not be there more than 30 minutes to an hour. In fact, I was so amazed at how quickly I was whisked away from the location that I loaded up an earlier save just to explore some of the side quests more before moving on.*
*NOTE: You’re gain the ability here to “travel back in time” in order to return to doing side quests in the open map of Lucis from the first half of the game or to this point of Altissia moving forward. You can do so for most of the rest of the game when sleeping at a rest area or camping. I didn’t quite grasp this at first because the game only informs you in a quick easy-to-miss text prompt.
Altissia pretty much seems to be a ghost of what it once was based on the previously mentioned trailer regarding Leviathan. In addition to the significantly pared down battle, the story itself seems to allude to potentially cut content. For example, one of the characters makes it a point to identify that you’ve brought the Regalia with you but you never use it. And one of the game’s biggest side diversions in the form of a Monster Arena where you can place wagers on what monster will be victorious is completely missable here.
From there, the story continues to barrel on ahead mostly at full speed until screeching to a halt for two hours in the much maligned Chapter 13, where the game decides to completely switch from being a action-oriented RPG to a poor impersonation of a survival horror game as Noctis is separated from his friends and needs to slowly wander back and forth through overly long corridors filled with the occasional jump scare-prone zombie-esque soldiers.
I could (and may) write an entirely separate article about this misfire but suffice it to say, I hated Chapter 13 and universally despised this section of the game for many reasons; the least of which were all of the new story elements that it just introduced out of thin air, from an antagonist’s flip-flopping aggression toward you, to never-before-mentioned character traits suddenly becoming integral to the plot, to the complete and utter waste of characters that were obviously at some point in development much more important. But eventually, and mercifully, Chapter 13 ends.**
**Here’s where I’m going to get real spoilery about the end of the game so if you are worried about that, skip ahead to the section on Gameplay or come back after you’ve played it yourself.
So Chapter 13 ends with Noctis imprisoned in the very Crystal he set out to reclaim from the Empire (oh yeah, at some point that became his objective...with the game providing just about as much time devoted to explaining that as I just did). In the crystal, he converses with the God Bahamut, who explains in order to defeat Ardyn - the Niflheim Chancellor who has secretly been an immortal cursed being now set on filling the world with daemons - Noctis will have to sacrifice his own life. Presumably, it takes him ten years to come to terms with that or something because Chapter 14 opens in the “World of Ruin” with the older Noctis seen in the Ifrit battle at the onset of the game some 65 hours ago (by my clock). Noctis has been locked away on some island prison apparently, but now he has a boat and returns to Lucis...because...reasons…
It seriously feels like they were attempting to recreate the magic of Final Fantasy VI’s mid-game twist where the world ends and Celes awakes after a year coma on an almost deserted island before discovering the raft that gets her back to her friends to start rebuilding the party. But then the realities of production came rearing their ugly head and said, “um, great, except we’re not giving you another second to make this game so wrap it all up now.”
Noctis returns to Lucis in a world of eternal darkness and daemons and is picked up by an old ally who was only a child the last time they’d met, hammering home the idea that Noctis disappeared ten years ago. On the drive back to the former auto garage turned last beacon of light in a dying world, the boy gives Noctis the super abbreviated Cliff’s Notes of what he missed. Namely: the world died, Ardyn basically just hangs out on Noctis’ throne surrounded by daemons, and Noctis’ friends don’t really fight together much anymore.
But don’t worry, because the game is almost done so they all just suddenly return to your side to face Ardyn in the final battle.
Seriously, I don’t think I can overemphasize just how “barely there” the finale of this game comes across.
And, as with the history of the game, I wouldn’t typically go into story specifics from this late in the game, but as they are among the game’s biggest sins and shortcomings, I’d be remiss not to address them.
The final scenes of the game I will leave unspoken except to say that I am baffled by the inclusion of both a mid-credits and post-credits scene that left me scratching my head as to what they actually indicated. And not in an “oh that’s interesting, I’ll have to discuss with my friends what it all means” kind of way. More in a “what the hell? They really didn’t know how to end this, did they?” kind of way.
2200 words in and I’m finally going to talk about something I actually liked about the game. Despite reservations as far back as the Episode Duscae demo, the combat in this game actually felt really rewarding and fun...for the most part.
This is easily the first (and really probably only) mainline Final Fantasy that has matched the actual combat up with the combat presented in cutscenes. If you’ve ever seen the fight scenes from Advent Children, this is that vision brought to life with characters able to warp around and, at times, seemingly fly through battle.
Final Fantasy XV was, for me, a prime example of a great gameplay hook making up for incredible shortcomings elsewhere. As indicated above, I clearly wasn’t playing this game for it’s mind-blowing story elements. Instead, i was playing because combat felt so rewarding and satisfying.
It still has plenty of issues itself. Camera control and target selection being tied to the same button meant I was often switching to the wrong enemy target just because I was trying to adjust the view and get a better tactical look over the chaos of an overly crowded battlefield. Magic is infuriating since it can do friendly fire damage and there’s virtually no way to prevent your party from being in the line of fire. And I realized looking back that I pretty much stopped upgrading my weapons and armor about halfway through my 70-hour campaign. Not because I wanted to, but because I stopped finding new weapons and armor to increase the power of my arsenal.
But setting those gripes aside, there was a surprising amount of fast-paced strategy needed in these battles. Being aware enough of the battlefield to recognize where my party was and when they needed my help or when I needed them was crucial. Timing blocks in order to trigger a quick and devastating parry attack could turn the tide of a fight. And in this game more than any other Final Fantasy I’ve ever played, I found myself running away from a lot of fights. Either as a result of stumbling upon an overpowered foe or simply being overwhelmed by the number of enemies joining the fray, running away often was the only way to avoid bitter defeat. Even after doing enough side quests and hunts to level myself up 20 or 30 levels past the recommended level for the next story missions, I could still easily become overwhelmed in battle as dropship after dropship might have shown up to unleash more and more magitek soldiers on me. This meant I could never just rest on my laurels and I really appreciated that. It kept me actively engaged in combat the whole way through the game.***
*** Again with the exception of Chapter 13. In addition to the story issues, the gameplay absolutely falls apart there as all of the toys I had been enjoying for the previous 50 hours were stripped away and replaced with excruciatingly slow tedium. I really can’t stress enough how bad the team misread what they had going when they said “and then we’re going to remove all of your friends and weapons and give you this ring that can really slowly drain the life out of these zombie soldiers who are just patrolling this linear path of corridors that will feel like they go on forever.” How it made it past the pitch stage is beyond me? The fact that it, of all of the others things that appear to have been cut from the game for time, survives blows my mind.
Driving the car around the world still feels as heavy and slow as it did in my previous experiences with the Platinum Demo and PAX West demo. A lot of people seem to enjoy what is effectively a very picturesque and usually tranquil loading screen as the world renders around you when Ignis drives you from point A to point B. I was all too happy to pay the extra little bit of gil when I could to fast travel, but you have to have already driven to the parking spot to get that option so some drives were unavoidable. I literally pulled out my PlayStation Vita to play Lara Croft GO during some of these drives. Allowing me the ability to purchase albums of previous Final Fantasy soundtracks for the car rides were a nice touch but I didn’t find the album for my favorite Final Fantasy VI until probably 60 hours in and there were some notable tracks left out (Return to Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X jumps to mind).
I have friends who absolutely adore the dynamic between Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. I am not of that mindset. I will grant that they have occasional nice moments together but there are also a lot of interactions that left me audibly groaning.
For example, every single time Ignis discovers a new recipe. He exclaims, “That’s it!” Somebody responds “What, Ignis?” “I’ve discovered a new recipe!” And then somebody offers to taste test it. Every. Damn. Time. This is absolutely a scripting issue more than a character issue per se, but the fact that the 40th time this happens is identical to the first time it happens destroys any illusion that these characters are friends and have been traveling together for days/weeks.
The story elements that have been chopped all to hell during the ten-year development cycle also rear their ugly heads in an overall lack of character development. I haven’t seen the Brotherhood anime, which I know from hearsay provides character-specific context, but I’ve also heard that even watching that content doesn’t excuse the genuine lack of development in-game. Over my 70 hours with the characters, they never elevated above generic character tropes to feel like real people.
Noctis starts as a brooding prince despite everything in life being handed to him. He loses his father and kingdom in the first couple hours of the game but it never really feels like he was invested in them (which is extra disappointing as I think back on previous tone trailers that set up young Noctis looking up to his father that wind up nowhere in this game). Given that this is his story, he certainly gets the most growth, learning to appreciate his friends (though again, the chopped up story leads to even late-game issues where he has gone from trusting them with his life to doubting their faith in him for no reason) and accepting his fate as the protector of Lucis.
Gladiolus probably is the next best-served character but that’s almost exclusively because he’s given a sister in the middle of the game that he is fighting to protect. Aside from that Gladious is the big muscleman who (as shown through Prompto’s picture but never mentioned in-game) also reads a lot in the car. He completely disappears for a chapter for no discernible reason other than to change up the party dynamics. And he becomes a petulant little child late in the game, laying on the most tone-deaf passive aggressive guilt trip imaginable to a grieving Noctis following the Leviathan battle.
Prompto is almost universally defined by his youth, lust for an attractive woman, and photography skills which, because they’re mostly generated by random battle or fake posed moments, ends up with as many terrible or obstructed angles as interesting visual moments. He’s given a late game spotlight in, of course, Chapter 13, that just rings laughably hollow because these seemingly deep, personal revelations about his past come out of nowhere (as in, never mentioned prior to that moment, of if they were, the mention was so fleeting that it did not stick). I thought maybe this was something alluded to in Brotherhood but a friend confirmed that it was not. So this revelation that is clearly supposed to be impactful (based on the lines and deliver) are wasted because absolutely no work was done to set it up and it just comes across as a convenient plot development.
And of the main four, Ignis is given almost nothing to do. He’s the strategist and the wise, slightly older guy of the quartet. And he cooks. And he drives.****
****And minor spoiler, at some point he goes blind. But after a chapter of slowly trying to keep up with the rest of the party, is just as effective as when he could see.
Ancillary characters are barely served at all. King Regis and the Niflheim leader (whose name isn't even worth remembering or looking up for this review) are given far more time in Kingsglaive, which sets them up as power players in this story who are basically forgotten in the game.
Others are fighting you one moment and then suddenly your allies the next with no explanation as to why. For example, Aranea Highwind ("because she's supposed to be a badass dragoon so let's tie her to a character like Kain from Final Fantasy IV") makes her first appearance as a badass boss battle: the embodiment of what I described above where the game’s combat actually feels like the kind of aerial spectacle Square Enix always put into their battle scenes. And then the next moment she’s fighting alongside you and it’s explained away that she was just fighting you in the first place because she led a group of mercenaries (but I completely missed why she stopped leading them).
Ardyn is at least a presence throughout the game. He starts off as a Loki-esque bad guy, helping out the party to further his own agenda before revealing his truer nature. But almost anytime he was onscreen I found myself thinking, “it feels like they’re just trying to make him a new version of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI (echoed by the World of Ruin late game title splash).” But the lack of cohesive story undercuts him as well. When his "true identity" is revealed, given the orchestrations and delivery surrounding it, it was clearly meant to be this big moment and instead lands with an unceremonious thud of “wait...what?”
Finally, an assortment of side quest-laden characters, including the traditional Cid character and the weirdly scantily-clad mechanic Cindy, are given little more in terms of distinguishing character traits than an accent and dialogue to support the occasional fetch quest. Cid has ties to Noctis’ father and occasionally alludes to a falling out with King Regis but most of that backstory seems lost to the cutting room floor as well.
Oh, and Lady Lunafreya is so under-served in this story that I forgot to even mention her until I was re-reading this review. Which is a huge shame, because she's actually probably one of my favorite characters in the all-too-brief time we get to spend with her. She confronts Gods on behalf of Noctis in her own quest to support his mission. She genuinely seems to love Noctis and her role as the Oracle, which is unfortunately ill-defined so I couldn't quite tell you what that means aside from the idea that she can heal people and basically has to persuade the Gods to grant Noctis their power because he is the King of Lucis.
One of my long-running concerns of Final Fantasy has been an overemphasis on graphical style and beautiful cutscenes over story. So I was actually quite surprised by just how little CGI there is in the overall presentation of Final Fantasy XV comparatively. Admittedly, there is also the nearly two-hours of Kingsglaive to supplement it but within the game itself, a lot of moments that would have normally been crafted in these CGI scenes are instead presented in-engine.
Now I imagine that comes down to production time more than anything else. I’m sure that if the game hadn’t suffered such a troubled cycle a lot more of those scenes would have been CGI. But it’s also a testament to how nice the engine is that these scenes and the game as a whole is still ridiculously beautiful.
As mentioned above, I definitely think that the slow moving nature of the Regalia is masking the game’s ability to render the world on the fly rather than subject you to loading screen after loading screen. But even flying the Regalia around in the post-game, it’s clear how much work was put into making the game look as beautiful as they could. For all of its other shortcomings, at least the game looks gorgeous.
That said, the world is vastly over-designed. While running around, I would often go minutes without coming across anything of note in the world heading from point A to point B. The problem with designing a fantasy world based on reality is that reality makes for a pterry dull game at times. So being told my objective is a mile away and I have to spent a few minutes running toward it with nothing else happening save passing through an empty, albeit pretty, environment wears thin.
There isn’t nearly enough variety in the open world banter between the characters to justify a 20-hour experience, let alone a 70-hour one. I lost track of the number of times I heard Prompto make a pun about how Noctis “‘Noct’ out another [enemy]” or an exchange where Noctis would say something to the effect of “I may have asked before, but is Ebony (coffee) any good,” and Ignis would reply, “I may have answered before, but yes.” It’s certainly my fault for wanting Bioware-levels of banter but this would have also been a prime opportunity for the game’s much needed character development and instead, we’re just given the same dumb set of puns or meaningless nothing over and over again.
On the topic of side quests, I felt like the game was trying to ape something like Skyrim. Markers would pop up on the map and a character would tell you something inherently vague about going to find something for them. It struck me in the same procedurally-generated vein where the game could just give you a never-ending series of tasks. It would appear that wasn’t really the case however so once again, I was disappointed by my own expectations but also because Final Fantasy XV should have learned from that game and others. The fact that I could only have one Quest active and marked on my map, in a game that gleefully gives you ample quests at any given moment, was incredibly disappointing. As was the fact that you can only have one Hunt active at any given time. I would not be surprised if a full quarter of my playtime was spent just traveling back and forth from a quest-giver to objective out of necessity because I could often only deal with one item at a time.
Finally, as I’ve touched on briefly, the audio mix was noticeable off throughout the adventure. Frequently, at the the games most “dramatic” moments (I know they were dramatic because the music swelled up into a crescendo), the orchestrations would flat out drown out the dialogue and I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying. Fortunately, I had the subtitles on so I was able to follow the typically nonsensical dialogue anyway, but it struck me as uncharacteristically rough sound design, perhaps another victim to the rush to get the game on shelves before 2016.
Similarly, entire sequences would feature choppy dialogue. For example, the opening banter surrounding the broken is called back later in the game. And the subtitles would show the entirety of the lines, but the audio files consistently dropped the first couple words of the line, like a horribly scratched CD skipping through a track (or I don’t know what the more modern equivalent would be, a mis-compressed corrupted mp4 data file?). These issues weren’t present throughout the entire game, but they happened frequently enough to warrant my attention.
Phew. Despite so much of what I absolutely hated above, ultimately I had a significantly better time with Final Fantasy XV than I ever expected I would. In the hierarchy of my Final Fantasy rankings, it at the very least sits above VIII and the XIII trilogy. When I think about games in the series, they tend to be grouped into three buckets: great, middling, and bad. I think it’s straddling the middling to bad line. And almost all of the things that make it lean bad are victims of being an ultimately rushed product that has been so chopped to pieces and “Frankenstein’s monstered” that it’s really more disappointing than bad. Because there was a potentially good game in there. It’s a testament to how satisfying the combat is that with all of my other laundry list of problems, I still enjoyed it enough to pour 70 hours into the experience. I don’t know that I’ll come back for the post-game content like the locked/hidden dungeons or the character-centric DLC packs in the coming months, but I did ultimately enjoy my time with the game in spite of itself. Certainly not a ringing endorsement, but more praise than I ever expected to give it when I think back on how I named the Episode Duscae my worst game of 2015.
Thanks for reading!