A little background on myself first: I really like Final Fantasy. I’ve beaten basically every entry and they’re all close to my heart in one way or another. I played both XI and XIV for multiple years each. A new FF is something I don’t miss out on. I can be critical of some of them but am mostly complimentary. My favorites are XII (read my review!), VII, and IX and I think both MMOs are excellent in their own ways. The NES and SNES games are classics, so I WILL PROBABLY COMPARE XV TO PAST GAMES IN THE SERIES. I THINK THAT’S APPROPRIATE. I’M SORRY IF YOU DON’T. Eventually I will spend many hours writing down my thoughts about all of them and not just because I’m nostalgic but because they are great games.
But this fucking thing has been a fucking chore to write. Kinda like playing the game itself! I didn’t like Final Fantasy XV one bit and I really (really) wanted to. It is an enormous disappointment to me on multiple levels. I feel beat down and tired, not just from playing but from the exhausting narrative churned over and over for the last six years about this games development. I don’t get off on
compelling boring details of a scorned director moving on from his masterpiece spin-off that spun-off for far too long without progress. I do care that a NEW director who’s magnum opus is the unbelievably mediocre Type-0 was given the keys to the kingdom and immediately set his phasers to kill anything unique about what he inherited with Versus XIII. But they did it…right???? It’s a miracle the game even released!!! We should be thankful!!!
When Final Fantasy XV opens, you’re treated to about two seconds of a cutscene and then you’re dropped absolute-zero cold into the open world. Where’s the introduction area? Where’s the slow build, tutorial-laden and foundation-placing first few hours that is a hallmark of this series? Remember Midgar? Remember Balamb garden and the Ifrit cave? Remember Zidane and crew’s elaborate stage play hoax to capture a princess? Remember Zanarkand? Tabata doesn’t! There’s absolutely no introduction to any of these characters or anything that’s happening in the world and no history of any of the events that led us seemingly halfway into a conflict before you even boot up the title screen. Don’t say Kingsglaive either. That garbage doesn’t count here. None of the multimedia shit does because those aren’t this. They’re cash grabs and promotional hype machines that someone thought we were all dumb enough to buy into. There is literally no reason whatsoever that Kingsglaive shouldn’t be the opening of this game (oh wait…apparently it used to be!). It is profoundly important to the overall narrative and it’s simply unacceptable that it was maneuvered into becoming a feature film with a separate cast of characters. The implication that a person needs to watch Kingsglaive before ever booting up FFXV is an insult to the people who spent money on it.
Out of the gate, nothing about Noctis’ crew or world was stimulating to me. Nothing felt iconic or unique. Midgar, for instance, is unbelievably memorable in Final Fantasy 7. FFXV has no Midgar. And perhaps much of that has to do with the setting itself and where the narrative takes the characters on their journey (spoiler alert: NOWHERE). The game opens as the bros are broke down in the desert and have to walk to the nearest gas station. Simply Iconic. The desert… is… a desert and the gas station is………….. a gas station. I know this is a fantasy based on reality or whatever but no reasonable human in history can sit around and expect ME, a die-hard FF BOBO, to be blown away by the realistic ‘reinvention’ of my FANTASY series into something that closely mirrors the most boring, unoriginal locales in actual real life. In fact, I have a Super America just a couple blocks down from me. In FF7, Midgar was a place people lived and died. I walked the slums, met the people and heard about their lives. I witnessed first-hand the depression Shinra’s presence had flooded everything with. There were ugly places and pretty places. There were giant magical mako reactors spewing neon colors out into the air and an evil headquarters that ominously lorded over everything from the center of it all. I spent the first many hours of the game exploring, fighting battles, doing mini-games and learning about the world as it methodically introduced me to key elements that would set everything else in motion. In FFXV I walked to a Super America and immediately started taking fetch quests from a mechanic in pink lingerie and booty shorts. So I wandered off into the boring ass desert for about 10 hours finding shiny knickknacks for random people that have zero consequence because the game seemed to want me to.
And in this place called Super America I felt my first pang of something I would later come to realize was anger. This wasn’t going to be Versus XIII. Okay, that’s fine. We didn’t actually know a whole lot of concrete shit about that game anyway. And I’m not a Versus XIII/Nomura mouth-breathing idiot so that’s not my agenda here. At this point in my experience I was secretly still apologizing for the game and hoping I could find something arguable to latch onto so that I could feel like I did’t get duped (again) by Square Enix. Well that ‘something’ never really showed up, as hard and as long as I looked for it. What the problem is, and it’s very very early on in Final Fantasy XV, is that it feels as though so much was re-arranged and cut that nobody was able to assemble the pieces they wanted to keep back into something that was fun or made sense or respected the player. A vision of a wildly innovative and ambitious AAA console game that we certainly got glimpses of was robotically taken apart and released as something the new devs knew how to make, a handheld quality game. The cutscene direction is an abomination, characters literally standing around yapping at each other back and forth, camera set almost exclusively from the waist up. The combat never really requires you to learn much over time or evolve strategies/characters, as holding ‘attack’ and ‘defend’ is basically enough to get to the credits. The atmosphere that I think we’re supposed to feel as the player (looming catastrophic war/danger/takeover, sadness at the loss of the main characters HOME TOWN AND FATHER) is a million percent absent in the game and honestly never really explained in earnest. And those criticisms can’t be as easily lobbed at a handheld effort because, well, there are limitations and we all understand that. Unfortunately for FFXV, it’s supposed to be the marquee title for the next generation of a franchise and company that basically INVENTED THE FUCKING MODERN RPG. Nomura seemed to understand that because he took 1000 years to create some super-game that was never, ever, ever, ever going to work. He finally got his shot at directing a mainline FF and the weight of the series history and future expectations combined with the freedom he somehow earned caused him to get x-zoned to the void.
So, dink around at the gas pumps for as long as you fucking want because the game is devoid of any pacing or structure. OR start following the story scenario and pound through about 15 chapters in an hour. You decide! It’s open world! You choose how to play! According to HowLongToBeat FFXV takes an average of 27 hours to complete, which I’m betting is generous if you mainpath like a mofo. So that’s embarrassing. I’m currently 54 hours into Persona 5 and all in-game signs seem to be telling me I’m about 40% through it. Just sayin’.
So I did hang out in the first couple chapters for really fucking long. I was exploring and taking hunts, trying to find the substance. See what this game was all about. I was still bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Slowly I came to realize that the ‘hunts’ are just groups of regular monsters that NPCs are being hassled by, and the Head Chef at the diner??? posts the bills. This isn’t my beloved FFXII system of hunts (a shame to even comparing the two). Those were all unique, mid-boss level super-mobs that were harder than your average fare. Until you got to the later ones, which actually weaved themselves into the story and world and enriched the game itself. Hunts in FFXII were hard and worth doing, and rewarded you with actual useful things beyond rewarding you with interesting side-stories and fleshed out lore. The exploration is basically one giant area consisting of about three biomes (being generous). Traveling by foot is impossibly slow, traveling by car is on the rails, calling for a chocobo 1. costs money and 2. controls unbelievably bad and 3. isn’t that much faster than running and 4. adds basically nothing to the game other than “Look, chocobos! It’s Final Fantasy!”. Fast travel is the only way to travel effectively in FFXV, which actually isn’t a shame because you’re not missing out on anything except maybe casually listening to iconic FF themes on the car radio and hearing underwhelming banter between the bros. And it’s not even that effective because of the 3 minute loading screens when you do it.
Speaking of the size of the world and the ‘open’ aspect and MMO nature of the structure, this game definitely doesn’t innovate. The world design suffers from a very common trope that seems to have plagued this generation of open world games. It has never before been so evident that the world was built first and the characters and story were pasted onto that. It is SO big, yet somehow small and limiting. They didn’t even pretend to achieve the “See that mountain? You can go there!” bullshit. It’s just all kinds of invisible walls, unreachable scenery and missed potential. But hey, it’s fuckhuge so I guess there’s that. Should I mail SE a ruler so they can just get the size comparisons out of the way before anything else stupid happens?
My problems with the narrative of Final Fantasy XV are numerous. So numerous that I’m going to have a hard time expressing them all. When I start playing a video game where characters, less than 30 minutes in, are talking to each other in a manner which indicates they have long been friends and are already in the middle of an adventure I expect to be fucking included somehow. There are numerous ways this could be accomplished. Flashbacks! Character specific side-quests! CUTSCENES! Look, I’m not stupid. I understand that the bros have been bros for a while and are going on a road trip. Great! How did they become bros? Who’s who? Are they royalty like Noctis? What’s their relationship to Regis, servants? Do they know Luna? Does Noctis know Luna? Is this an arranged marriage? Is he excited about it? Are there political ramifications of this marriage? Are these really Noctis’ friends or are they bodyguards? Are they the Kingsglaive? I never felt included or even educated on the context of the situation. Also, almost none of these questions are answered fully and the ones that are, just barely are. Which is incredibly alarming when the mantra of your entire video game universe is a road trip, a thing that universally lends itself to unbelievable opportunities for narrative embellishment.
Noctis is not a silent hero, he has a personality and a story. I’m nothing like him because I’m a 32 year old married guy with a kid living in Minnesota. He also doesn’t embody some kind of interesting fantasy for a person like me anymore either. I’m not 16, I’m not fucking emo and going on a journey to fucking discover myself for 18 millionth time is about the most boring thing I can imagine. Therefore I stupidly expected that the developers would cast me into something akin to a 5th bro, like I was along for the ride. Nope! Noctis is the point of view character. He’s clearly the only character the game gives two shits about and whom literally everything revolves around. Because of this not only did I, as the player, feel like I was just watching something happen instead of making it happen, I found it really hard to get invested in him or any of the bros. This is a subtle thing that I think gets lost in a lot of games. If you build your game around a silent hero the insinuation is that they’re devoid of just the right amount of personality so you feel like you are that character. If a game has a voiced character with a personality, I tend to feel that the best approach is to make his/her story NOT a stereotype so even though the player is an observer, they’re at least observing something maybe unique to other things they’ve played. Chrono Cross is a superb example. Serge has a name, a home, a family. People in his village have known him since he was a child. They speak to him with familiarity right from the get-go. You wake up in the morning, bang around Arni Village for a bit and talk to anyone and everyone you want to. He doesn’t say a word, though, and because of that you feel personally involved. You spend an hour or more seeing these villagers talk to him (me) about their lives and wish him well and whatever else. You can recruit your first party member, the village dog. By the time you’re ready to take off you have obtained a feeling of, okay, let’s go out there and start this adventure together. You, AS THE PLAYER/SERGE, are invested in it all. As a 32 year old etc etc, that’s a much more compelling scenario for me. A good example of the opposite would be Squall from FF8, who isn’t silent. He’s moody, hard to get close to, generally unlikable. But because of an interesting game design choice we are able to observe his thoughts and feeling privately from every other character in the game. The thought bubbles that express Squalls thoughts in between dialogue bubbles are a genius implementation of an idea strictly created to get the player invested in in him. It works really well. You may hate him, you may not desire to be like him of live the fantasy in his place but god damn is it compelling to hear a characters thoughts. Instead of that, FFXV decides to go with a camera on the trunk approach and you kinda just sit around and watch as these four dudes do mundane shit out in the desert.
Fuck this, here’s a few quick statements about other things that were disappointing. The music was average, bummer. Couple of good songs but very little of what I’ve come to expect from Yoko Shimomura. The combat is a complete mess. Attack and dodge, attack and dodge, perform CRAZY COOL TEAM SKILL, attack and dodge, attack and dodge. The flashiness is a fresh coat of paint covering up a boring battle system. Not into it at all. I can’t believe FFXII was WRECKED for being “AUTOMATIC” but this game is somehow mildly heralded as some renaissance for RPG combat (when it has QTE boss fights (((((((final boss fight)))))))). It’s maybe the easiest game in the series, and absolutely the most mindless. Having no other party members works great if you focus every attention on the four you have, but alas, you don’t get any other party members AND there’s ZERO focus on anyone but Noctis. Character story side-quests as paid DLC? Come on. You can’t have Gladio disappear for a while, come back with scars and just never EVER talk about it once. I find that to be really shameful and obvious. Ruined world scenario after Noctis sleeps for ten years is a, gasp, GREAT IDEA, but then you can’t go anywhere or do anything or see anyone, including story NPCs that are STILL ALIVE AND PRESENT…WHY NOT???? The most interesting thing that could possibly happen in this game and you are literally forced to go straight to the final area without any single option to do anything else. I guess Tabata never played any of the old games where bad guys actually destroy the world and it’s like a whole new game, that you get to play! Chapter 13, you all know. Hot garbage, worst segment of a game I’ve played that I can honestly remember.
There were a couple things I thought were kinda cool too. Dungeons just being out in the world that you can stumble across were awesome. The dungeons themselves are designed much better than the rest of the game for some reason. They’re unique and have platforming and puzzles that are absent from everywhere else in the world. The graphics were at times stunning. I actually like the train ride second half. The game felt much more focused and story driven. The pace was better and it actually felt like there was a structured ramp-up to the final moments. The linearity provided the game with something that until that moment I didn’t know it needed. I like that you could change outfits and they were like, dressed up or down versions of their regular outfits.
So, you know how in reviews sometimes a writer will say something like “the game has flaws but they don’t mar the overall experience “? I’m going the opposite with this one. This game sucks. There are some nice touches, a couple good ideas here and there but I kinda feel like some of what I enjoyed was carried over from the original vision. The good things in this game do nothing to improve the absolutely awful everything else. They get lost or obscured and it’s not even sad really because that would be admitting there is something here to salvage or build on. I say move on entirely and start fresh with a new team and a new attitude. Which they won’t do because the game was a commercial success and a mild critical success, somehow. I’m gonna go ahead and say that Final Fantasy XV is the worst game in the series to me, a placement I thought XIII had an iron death-grip on.
-LIST UPDATE: FINAL FANTASY XV-
2. Chrono Cross
10. Mass Effect
13. Brutal Legend
14. Paper Mario
15. Radiata Stories
16. Kingdom Hearts
20. Final Fantasy XV
21. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2