Originally announced as “Final Fantasy Versus XIII” back in May of 2006, Square Enix’s latest entry in their flagship RPG series has been a long time coming—but taken as a singular gaming experience, it doesn’t really feel like it, and that’s a shame. To an extent, there is a sense of expectation versus reality at play here; but even in tempering these expectations, I still wanted more.
An attempt to accurately summarize “Final Fantasy XV’s” story (which is spread across 15 chapters of varying length) would be an exercise in futility, seeing as how the game’s sparse exposition makes “Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV and Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV”— two prequels (a movie and an anime, respectively) that attempt to set the stage and establish plot points prior to the the events of the game—all but mandatory viewing. And even after watching them both, I still found myself confused at certain points within the game.
What I can reliably tell you is that it puts players in the shoes of Noctis Lucis Caelum, crown prince to the kingdom of Lucis (“Noct” for short), and starts you off on a road trip alongside your best friends in the world; Gladiolus, the typical strong, gruff, honorbound guy; Ignis, the quieter, presumably wise, spectacle-wearing fellow who cooks for everyone; and Prompto, who I believe is supposed to be the comic relief. He also takes pictures of everyone that can be saved throughout the game and shared via social media.
One of my biggest gripes with the game’s narrative arc is in its handling of the core relationship between these characters; since the game begins at a point when all four of them have long been friends, we as players are “told” what to feel rather than shown for ourselves at numerous instances. It’s an issue that left me feeling fairly detached to the group as a whole.
The battle system present within the game breaks down into button-mashing and single-button quicktime events; while not unenjoyable, I experienced little to no meaningful variation in gameplay for about 50 hours of gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay—as a game, FFXV is just too easy on normal difficulty levels. I was not met with a game over screen once, nor did I ever feel a genuine sense of danger or challenge. Fortunately, players are given the option to change difficulty levels at any point, which, to a degree, addresses this in part.
“Final Fantasy XV” features a fairly large, open, beautiful world — one that I took time away from the main narrative arc to explore quite thoroughly — yet a lack of interesting things to encounter within this world makes it feel somewhat sparse. To be fair, there’s no shortage of side quests to undertake that thrust players out into the world, if one finds themselves lacking motivation to explore of their own accord. That being said, the side quests almost entirely boil down to simple, formulaic fetch quests, by-the-numbers dungeon-crawls, and ‘hunt’ missions that have the player running off to a set location to kill a specific monster(s) before reporting back for their requisite reward.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of that, but after the completion of just over 40 side quests undertaken in my own playthrough, neither is there anything particularly original or rewarding. I was ultimately more disappointed by how unfinished the world felt after exploring its nooks and crannies for hours on end. Even the most beautiful empty spaces are still, at the end of the day, empty spaces. In that respect, the decision to incorporate an open world design seems not only arbitrary and unnecessary, but also underwhelming. Outside of some initial “wow” moments, I never truly felt a sense of wonderment. Exploration began to feel more like something done out of obligation in the hopes of finding something that evoked that feeling rather than an organic, inspired process.
In a similar vein, travelling from one destination to the next via the Regalia is a gameplay mechanic that inevitably becomes more mundane and annoying than anything else. If you’re a fan of the series, this may be somewhat alleviated by the option to cycle through the soundtracks to previous titles in the series. It’s a small touch that may not mean much to those unfamiliar with or new to the series, but as far as fanservice is concerned, it’s a nice addition to have; cruising around to some of my personal favorite tracks from the series, it simultaneously appealed to my sense of nostalgia while lending the game an arguably more “legitimate” feeling of “Final Fantasy”-ness.
From getting right to the heart of that classic feeling of exploration with “Final Fantasy IX’s” overworld theme, “Over The Hills”, jamming out to “Final Fantasy XIII’s” “The Archylte Steppe” while zooming past lush scenery, or easing into “Final Fantasy X’s” emotional “A Fleeting Dream”—one of my favorite pieces of music, video game or otherwise—I can honestly say that merely having the option made a difference. Riding in the Regalia would have otherwise been unbearably boring. While there is the occasional interaction with party members during long rides in the car to break up the monotony, these interactions in and of themselves ultimately boil down to rehashed talking points and don’t offer anything in the way of interesting conversation or meaningful character development outside from a couple instances of scripted, plot-related conversations scripted to play at certain moments.
The game is a tour de force of raw spectacle; from breathtaking scenery and design to some of the most jaw-droppingly gargantuan boss encounters in video game history, “Final Fantasy XV” excels in visual splendor—but by that same token, its visual shortcomings are all the more pronounced. Most noticeably, interactions with non-player characters outside of your immediate party members frequently fall prey to jarringly stiff, recycled animations and generally less-than-stellar lip syncing. In a similar vein, the stark contrast between the main characters and the rest of the world from a design aesthetic, while not entirely surprising, can be distracting.
In the end, despite everything I’ve said, I did at least like “Final Fantasy XV.” For all its flaws, when it shines, it shines bright. But after ten years of waiting, I wanted to love it.