Final Fantasy XV, previously known as Final Fantasy XIII: Versus for those who tracked it’s development cycle from 2006, has faced its fair share of praise and criticism. From a cast that unexpectedly captured hearts to the strangely linear final chapters, it is a compelling ride that tugged at the heartstrings and allowed for a new generation of Final Fantasy fans to join the old. It’s also the first–and only–Final Fantasy game I’ve personally played all the way through. I’ll take you through a few of my favorite, and least favorite, parts of FFXV, in honor of JRPG Fest.
FFXV’s plot revolves around Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum and his Kingsguard entourage: Prompto Argentum, Gladiolus Amicitia, and Ignis Scientia. Initially headed to meet his intended betrothed, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, Noct and his friends receive news of King Regis’s death and the fall of their home country after the supposed peace talks turned into an invasion. It’s a relatively standard Final Fantasy plotline, complete with magic, old gods in the form of summons, and complex leveling system, but with new twists that made the game feel fresh and unique.
The open world was a first for the franchise, leaving it up to the player regarding how quickly to progress through the story missions and how many sidequests to complete. Each mission is given a corresponding level recommendation, which makes them easy to navigate (or put off, as needed). The Regalia is also a much appreciated addition, as it made traversing the world more interesting, with character beats and conversations that would not happen elsewhere, while also providing a convenient mode of travel. The Regalia also allowed for fast travel to locations one already visited, which streamlined navigating across the map and reduced some of the transit monotony that clogs up open world games. They made the world broad, but didn’t force the player to find every little corner if they didn’t wish to, which made it approachable for players who wanted either the expansive exploration, and/or something more linear.
Noctis and his friends were also a welcome surprise, as many thought the all-male cast would be two-dimensional with another Cloud-esque knockoff at their head. This proved to not be the case, as each of the boys has unique traits that make them relatable, and you come to care for their well being. From Noct’s unexpected love of fishing, to Gladio’s big-brother mentality, Prompto’s insecurities, and Ignis’ no-nonsense mothering of the group, the player learns more and watches the boys grow together over the course of the game. There are some brilliant character moments–like Noct’s comfort offered in a moment of insecurity for Prompto, and the reconciliation between Gladio and Noct after a fight that bring both the characters together–that draw the player in while expanding on each character’s motivations and personality. The player watches them progress, and you find yourself rooting for them all along the way.
The narrative was engaging, overall, even in its flaws. The character writing carries the plot, and drives the player to see their goals completed, even when the overall plot struggles. The supporting cast also carry a life of their own, providing empathetic asides and meaningful moments for the player through Noctis and his friends while reminding them of everything they stand to lose. Though the ending feels slapdash in the context of the wider game, the final boss fights are satisfying and challenging, and the narrative resolution is powerful, pulling at the heart as the cast looks forward to the challenges to come.
FFXV had been in development for 10 years by the time it hit release on the Playstation 4, and had that many years worth of hopes and reservations tied to it. In some ways, the game delivered, in other ways it did not. My biggest complaint is the narrative shift from a relatively flexible, open-world road trip to a highly linear, limited world grind (complete with a Resident Evil style sneaking section).
The first chapters of FFXV are wide open and players are able to progress through the main story missions as they please. They are able to wander the world, complete hunts and other tasks, and check back in on the story as desired. This changes, however, in Chapter 9, as the team progresses to Altissia to finally reunite Noctis and his betrothed, Lunefreya. Altissa is somewhat open, provided the player can navigate the canal system and spends enough time tracking down the available side missions. The further the player progresses beyond this point, the less flexibility the player has to search and explore, as the narrative is reduced to solely story missions.
This culminates in the ever-controversial Chapter 13, which–as a human who pointedly does not play horror games–feels like a bad attempt at a horror game. (For context, I’ve not played the recent Chapter 13 update, so I’m not sure how much has changed as I write this.) Noctis winds up isolated from his team, trapped in a factory that he has to find a way out of to get back to his friends. The factory has multiple levels, which require multiple key cards to progress through. Noctis is also cut off from his magic, leaving his only means of self-defense at the option of hiding, and a ring that draws on his mana and health to power it. The level has limited exploration options, is full of jump scares, and combat is nigh impossible in Noct’s weakened state. It’s an unfortunate shift from what had been a delightfully flexible, open narrative, and it slogs on for longer than one would hope.
Ultimately, the narrative gets muddled after the events in Altissa. Niflhime falls, at some point, the demons Noct and friends fought all game had once been people, and the how of it all is lost in the rush to return to Insomnia to beat Ardyn Izunia (formerly a part of the Niflhime leadership, but who’s had questionable allegiances all game), who is actually an old immortal keen on doing battle with the “True King”. It feels like a chunk of lore and history is missing, as much of this information is dumped on the player in the back half of the game and is never clearly explained. The care developed for the characters smooths over some of these holes, but leaves a lot of confusion in its wake, ultimately muddying what is, otherwise, a satisfying resolution.
Final Fantasy XV is full of many redeeming qualities which make it both worthwhile and satisfying to play, in spite of its narrative and level design shortcomings. Players fall in love with the cast, cheer for their successes, cry with their losses, and only find resolution in finishing the main story arc. Though there are plot holes aplenty, the lore is fascinating overall, and the empathy shared for the cast carries the player through to the end. Even the side quests are enjoyable and the flexibility to engage as much, or as little as the player wants is a nice change from the old level grinding days. FFXV hit a nice balance in the first half of their gameplay, and I would recommend picking it up and playing it through, even with all of its flaws.