Final Fantasy XV

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Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV's decade-long maelstrom of doubt, chaos, and suspense has somehow wrought an effective tale from the bonds of brotherhood and an engaging game from coordinated monster obliteration. The embroiled project is not sacrosanct; an incongruous plot, mechanical quest lines, and a haphazard world constitute a jet impacting the ground at dangerous speed. Pieces are everywhere, but Final Fantasy XV ultimately survives its crash landing through an impressive force of will.

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Final Fantasy XV’s decade-long maelstrom of doubt, chaos, and suspense has somehow wrought an effective tale from the bonds of brotherhood and an engaging game from coordinated monster obliteration.

It is difficult to understate the measure of confusion and turbulence Final Fantasy XV endured along its path to fruition. Announced in 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a vaguely related companion piece to the also-just-announced Final Fantasy XIII, it produced sporadic but impressive trailers and gameplay clips over the next seven years. At E3 2013, the project was rebooted and rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, with only a vestigial influence from the original Versus concepts lingering on. The question now is the same as it was ten years ago; what is this game?

With its brisk opening, Final Fantasy XV declares its intentions immediately. Gone is a twenty year traditional elongated cut-scenes and CG fanfare. In its place? A three minute premise and then a quick cut to the player character, Noctis, and this three friends Promto, Gladiolus, and Ignis pushing a busted car down a desert highway. Stand by Me, as covered by Florence + the Machine, plays in the background. It’s with humility that Final Fantasy XV positions its literal prince and its figurative principles behind a broken down vehicle. It’s not as much of a glorious mission as it is a team building exercise, and this relationship extends directly to the player. This will not be like any Final Fantasy you may have known or expected.

To be fair, this is the thesis that authors each numbered entry of Final Fantasy. Outside of shared nomenclature, no two are alike. Final Fantasy XV really goes for it, however, by positioning the player in a modern open world and then setting them off on a journey of their choosing. This mostly unfolds in line with a Western open-world role playing game; main quests will heave the narrative and the game forward, while extraneous quests from scattered NPC’s help build the world and pad the stats of your characters.

Noctis and his friends are objectively on a road trip to the city of Altissa, where Noctis will apparently marry someone named Lunafreya. The motive and haste behind this marriage is intended to be political, the world of Eos is on the tipping point of chaos, and these nuptials will mend the terse relationship between Noctis’ kingdom of Lucis and the aggressive empire of Niflheim. I guess. I have no idea; most of the backstory was fleshed out in a CG movie, Kingsglaive, which I didn’t watch because it seemed insane to have to digest a two hour movie in order to understand the basic plot of a videogame.

I would also leverage that the bulk of Final Fantasy XV’s core story does not matter. Tertiary characters appear and disappear, never to be seen again, at an alarming frequency. Every side character feels expendable. At one point Gladio sits out an entire chapter, returns in a sequence that was obviously intended to be a greater focal point for the game, and then never explains his absence. I can only presume I will be asked to by the DLC that explains this sometime later. The beginning and the end of Final Fantasy XV are very sweet and resonant, but the implied narrative that composes the center is a scrambled together assembly of plot concepts and vague ideas of characters. It’s as if certain pieces had to be in place, but the writing team couldn’t find a way (or didn’t have enough time) to string it all together properly.

Take, for example, the impetus to outfit Noctis with an array of special weapons. As the crown prince of Lucis, he’s entitled to recovering the arms of his ancestors and wielding them as he pleases. Final Fantasy XV ensures this process begins by filtering Noctis into a one-off dungeon and then it completely abandons this idea. The rest are there, apparently, but they sporadically appear as sidequests with no presumed importance. It’s as if there was a ton of content in the can, but no reasonable place to fit it into the open world of Eos. You can still retrieve these weapons, but their place in the plot sputters and stalls until Final Fantasy XV remembers it again very late in the game.

Final Fantasy XV’s myriad of basic and side missions suffer a similar fate. You conduct a raid on a boring, brown enemy base and kill everyone on the premises up to three times. A guy who looks exactly like Hurley from Lost wants to you take pictures of increasingly out-of-the way photo spots for his newspaper. Some hunter wants you to go to obscure locations and pick up dog tags. A biologist demands you collect special frogs or fireflies in remote dungeons. These are the building blocks of MMO style quests, and it’s the near entirety of Final Fantasy XV’s side options. As a counterpoint, this is a great way to get to know the world of Eos, but it also feels like a contrived excuse to burn time and shuffle the player around the map. There’s no variety to any of it, just an escalating series of quests with no tangible connection to Noctis’ other obstacles.

Hunts, introduced to wondrous effect in Final Fantasy XII, appear as another gaunt offering. Outposts, usually consisting of gas stations and diners, dot the map, and each food-stop therein contains a handful of monster contracts. There’s a bit of formless backstory about why these monsters are a nuisance, but it mostly amounts to slaughtering assigned hordes of existing monsters in specific times and places. You’re rewarded with experience and occasionally some decent gil or items, but there’s nothing to it that basic combat doesn’t already offer. You encounter plenty of monsters on the world map already; hunts are just another way to burn off hours by tasking the player with droning all over the map.

These issues with Final Fantasy XV harm the entire package, but they do not squander an otherwise noble undertaking. Eos, as it’s presented, is huge. I would have expected more than two towns, but the variety of environments and landscapes are both visually and aesthetically satisfying. It’s a great world to be in, even and especially because of how remote and detached its outpost hubs and quest locations all seem to be. In both day and night, every location looks pleasing and well-tended.

It’s my foolish but also serious idea that the Regalia, the car that Noctis and his friends put around in, is the actual main character of Final Fantasy XV. Before its open world disappears and disjointed linearity dominates the game’s second half, the Regalia is your vessel and your best friend. It’s where everything good happens on the way to something else. It’s possible to pay a small fee and fast travel around set points on the map, but it’s more satisfying to let Ignis drive the crew around while you absorb the sights and sounds of Eos.

Events both scripted and spontaneous dominate trips in the Regalia. Wildlife occasionally runs across the road like a scene pulled from Jurassic Park (although your crew marveling at these beasts is slightly odd considering you will or will have massacred hundreds). Prompto always finds spaces to snap scenic pictures. Numerous conversations between the boys range from abstract plot musings to idle banter, further pushing the idea that this is less of a plot-driven machine and more of a, well, Stand By Me exploration of friendship. It’s as if the team charged with forming Final Fantasy XV into a coherent product knew the plot was a mess and erected these moments in the periphery to compensate. It’s these times in the Regalia, not Final Fantasy XV’s overarching plot, that will endure in my own memory.

The Regalia also summons a nostalgic cheat with its radio. Available for purchase at each outpost, you can play selections of soundtracks from every numbered Final Fantasy game. On a personal level, hearing these songs again transported me back to different points in my life from the last twenty years. The value of hearing Blue Fields, A Fleeting Dream, and Crazy Motorcycle Chase could not be underestimated. These moments may have come at the cost of Final Fantasy XV’s own identity—they’re artificial at best and disruptive at worst—but they ensured that my trips in the Regalia would never be wasted.

Prompto’s fondness for photography is introduced as a gimmick but quickly becomes intrinsic to Final Fantasy XV’s character. Every time you rest at a hotel or make camp in the wilderness, you’re treated to a selection of snaps Prompto took since the last time you rested. These range from aesthetically pleasing actions shots to candid poses from Noctis and his friends, and as the game progresses they expand with a bunch of Instagram-ready filters. It’s a neat way to chronicle your road trip, but it also pulls double duty by filling in otherwise assumed narrative gaps. One, for example, had Gladio pulling some luggage into the hotel I was staying at. Like of course these guys have bags on their infinitely long journey, but I would have never considered that facet if not for those pictures. If anything, Prompto’s shots humanize the characters in ways Final Fantasy XV’s plot never achieves.

Camping out is another one of Final Fantasy XV’s unexpected strengths. Every bit of experience earned, either by slaying monsters out in the field of completing quests, is collected and banked until you go to sleep. You’re encouraged to rest at night because more powerful monsters (which almost always Iron Knights) dominate the dark. Sleeping at a campsite allows Ignis to cook a rapidly expanding series of meals that provide Noctis’ crew with an attractive set of buffs during the next morning. Spending some money and sleeping at an inn (ranging from a shoddy trailer to a fancy hotel) adds a multiplier to all of your experience points. Personally, I opted for the experience bonus, but either method is an effective way at creating bookends for a day of work. The early chapters of Final Fantasy XV, like Hajime Tabata’s work in The Third Birthday and Final Fantasy Type-0, operates best as a segmented experience. Best of all, you can fight and drive through the night, essentially choosing how long your day will be.

Gaining experience and a host of other activities breed Ascension Points (AP). These are collected and used to flesh out a dozen or so different skill trees for Noctis and his buddies. Each tree focuses on a different aspect; combat, magic, Noctis’ warp ability, stat building, and general team work functions help flesh out Final Fantasy XV idea of character building and performance. In getting Noctis to level 56 through my 50 hours with the game, I earned a ton of AP, but I still don’t feel like I made a dent in all of its skill trees. Whichever way you want to push your Noctis and his friends, Final Fantasy XV feels equipped to take them there.

Combat in Final Fantasy XV is fast, weird, and potent. One of the more lingering facets of the original Versus XIII project, the player controls Noctis exclusively as he combats enemies in real time. In my experience, Noctis seemed to deliver 80% of the offense while sporadic attacks from his friends covered the remaining percentage. With one attack button, an ATB gauge governing commands for your friends to execute special techniques, and limited use of magic, Final Fantasy XV has more in common with Normura’s Kingdom Hearts series than any previous Final Fantasy. If Final Fantasy XIII focused on management and efficiency, Final Fantasy XV is about raw power and rudimentary timing.

Final Fantasy XV’s combat gimmick is Noctis’ vast array of available weapons. Swords, lances, guns, magic, and a host of other offensive options can be assigned to one of four slots. Picking between them essentially change Noctis’ class on the fly, including in the middle of present combos. When you switch weapons they all appear in a holographic blue light in a virtual merchant-of-death rolodex, a visual flourish I’m only mentioning because it persists in looking cool throughout the entirety of Final Fantasy XV. Slow and plodding weapons like axes and great swords obviously deal damage differently than quick and paltry daggers, but there’s plenty of room for nuance in-between. Noctis’ ancestral weapons, for example, draw their power from his health bar in a myriad of different ways.

Health is a funny thing in Final Fantasy XV. It is almost impossible to die. If Noctis’ (or anyone else’s) health hits zero, he enters a sort of daze state where he can’t attack. Friends can bail him out, but it’s easier to simply pop a potion and/or deploy Ignis’ group-heal technique. If your second, grey health bar depletes in your dazed state, you can actually die and game over, but even that can be mended with a quick phoenix down. Basic potions are incredibly cheap, health regenerates after battles, and elixirs seem to be found everywhere you look on the world map. Certain foes require a bit of planning and strategy to fight effectively, but generally hard-nosed persistence and a shit-load of potions in your inventory should be enough to power anyone through Final Fantasy XV.

Another of Final Fantasy XV’s quirks comes from Noctis’ warp ability. Locking onto an enemy, which is often more cumbersome than it should be, grants Noctis the ability to teleport across the field and issue a warp strike immediately. Noctis can also warp to predetermined places on the map the to escape danger and recharge health. Toward the end of Final Fantasy XV I was using the warp ability religiously, going as far as saving my entire meter up and then unloading the thing like a glorified teleport combo. It looks awesome, and it seemed monstrously effective toward some of the end-game opponents.

Dodging and parrying also draw from the same meter Noctis uses to warp. Holding down the square button causes Noctis to turn away and seamlessly evade any oncoming attack. Bashing the circle button immediately afterward, always prompted by the game’s user interface, can issue a swift parry. These abilities may lead you to believe Final Fantasy XV has the precision and power to function like Bayonetta, but in practice dodging and parrying is more of a lucky convenience than a reliable mode of defense. Especially in battles with more than one enemy, Final Fantasy XV isn’t tuned tightly enough to perform like an all-out action game.

I still don’t really have a firm grip on how magic works in Final Fantasy XV. Lightning, fire, and ice deposits are found all over Eos, and Noctis can draw and collect up to 99 units of each element. These elements can be combined in an options menu and mixed with different items to create multiple kinds of magic effects. Every time I tried to use anything, however, I set the entire battlefield on fire (or engulfed it in electricity, whatever), which looked neat but also simultaneously harmed my party members. Had I put more time into actually figuring magic out I probably could have learned how to contain its lethality, but ignoring that skill tree and going purely physical/warp proved to be an effective and viable path. Summons, which are tied into the story neatly, are context-specific and rarely a part of general combat.

With knowledge assembled and applied, Final Fantasy XVs combat can be an emphatic and energetic divergence from its traditionally menu-driven interface. Phasing in and out of attacks, warping everywhere, regularly dumping potions on Prompto, linking up with your friends for devastating back attacks — a cacophony of violence and pandemonium are somehow harmonized into a convincing and practical way to deal with menacing hordes of angry creatures. It’s fun to fight.

There are times, however, when Final Fantasy XVs combat engine chokes on too much of its fiery fuel. Any fight near a bush is instantly compromised by a camera that can’t stay under control and always seems to obscure the action with gratuitous shots of vegetation. Holding down the attack button will usually see you through danger, but being (effectively) blind removes your ability to properly issue techniques and orchestrate the flow of battle. Sometimes the camera zooms too far away, sometimes it’s completely overhead, and the only time when it’s just right is when nothing is in your way. I assume this was one of those things that were good enough to ship Final Fantasy XV out the door—and it technically was—but in no way would I consider the camera satisfactory.

For its first seven chapters, Final Fantasy XV hums along a predictable but enjoyable path. It’s an open-world RPG with a fondness for road tripping. Ride around in your car, get out and call your chocobo, and then ride off into the great unknown to find your desired McGuffin. After that, however, your party decides to cross a body of water and the next six chapters are linear descents down an aggressive and genre-shifting series of hallways. Noctis and his friends even bring the Regalia with them, suggesting there were once plans for additional open-world elements, but it’s never seen beyond a cameo inside of a train car. This is a shift in its own parlance from which Final Fantasy XV never quite recovers.

It’s weird for any game to do this, and it continues to reinforce the presumed narrative that Final Fantasy XV consists of cobbled-together pieces, and its grand ambitions were sacrificed to push it out the door in 2016. This happens to many games and, especially after ten years, I can sympathize with Square-Enix’s desire to recoup losses and finally put Final Fantasy XV to bed, but this process doubles as a tragedy to its medium.  Final Fantasy XV was on its way to being something great and instead debuts as a project full of inspiration but seriously deprived of a fitting execution. Patches, which are normal in today’s world but still feel alien in Final Fantasy, could further affect its position.

While playing Final Fantasy XV I couldn’t help but marvel at its deficiencies and take note of every time something insane happened. Now, three days away from rolling credits, I can’t wait to play more of it. A significant number of dungeons and challenges open up post game (again, furthering the narrative that Final Fantasy XV had a ton of content but no idea what to do with it), but, more importantly, after it’s over you have the option of reverting to a previous save and mopping up all of those sidequests (you can actually do this at almost any point, through a plot contrivance, but it only felt appropriate after I concluded Final Fantasy XV’s story).

All I really want to do is muck around in Eos and press through dungeons with Noctis’ friends. The first half of the game serves that need while the last half abandons it completely. Final Fantasy XV is a manic, imposing Frankenstein’s monster of a game, and its failure is almost as interesting as its success. This certainly isn’t a valid reason to plop down $60 for the privilege of experiencing its unbelievable pratfalls, but as someone who has adored the series for over twenty years, Final Fantasy XV represents a chaotic struggle between ambition and pragmatism. It’s as much of a game as it is an interactive cultural curiosity.

Over the last thirty years, Final Fantasy has established a pedigree out of excellence and divisiveness. Some see favor its numbered entries as a perfect bell curve, while other see a 45 degree angle to the top (or bottom). The embroiled Final Fantasy XV is not sacrosanct; an incongruous plot, mechanical quest lines, and a haphazard world constitute a jet impacting the ground at dangerous speed. Pieces are everywhere, but Final Fantasy XV ultimately survives its crash landing through an impressive force of will.

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Eric Layman is available to resolve all perceived conflicts by 1v1'ing in Virtual On through the Sega Saturn's state-of-the-art NetLink modem.