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Final Fantasy XV review: it’s not really a Final Fantasy game

I’ve played over 100 hours of Final Fantasy XV and it took me at least the first 50 hours to figure out exactly what bothers me about the game. That’s good, right? I mean, obviously the game isn’t LITERALLY UNPLAYABLE, or I wouldn’t have survived more than 40 hours. And I’m not going to say that the game is bad, because it’s not a bad game. But it is a fundamentally flawed game. I’m reminded of one reviewer who humorously gave it “9.75 out of 10: disappointing and underwhelming,” because there’s a lot of truth to that. This game may be doing relatively well on Metacritic, but from the reactions I’ve seen from the game’s audience, it seems like a different experience could have pushed it even higher.

So here is my unnecessarily long-winded “review” of Final Fantasy XV, which has undergone several revisions over the last six months, and thus may not be as coherent as I’d like, but the next 3,000 or so words should nonetheless be at least moderately entertaining. You’ve been warned.

This game is weird

I’ve played every Final Fantasy game except XI. Every entry in the series takes place in a different universe (or at least in a different era, if you want to be “that fanboy” and make the Final Fantasy X / Final Fantasy VII connection) with its own mythos, but maintains many connecting elements: names of spells and status ailments, many types of monsters, mini-games of varying entertainment value, and a story that focuses on a ragtag group of heroes who overcome their differences to fell a mighty villain, generally an evil empire and/or supernatural end-boss set on destroying humanity and/or existence.

In this game, you play as Noctis, a prince of a kingdom that you immediately leave and are unable to return to at any point in the game. Your father sends you off in a car called the “Regalia” with your three bodyguards or friends or something, who are either sworn or born to protect you, and they’re your friends but they kind of work for you, and the only thing really made clear is that they all enjoy witty banter. My God, the witty banter.

So anyway, you’re given a car and sent on a road trip to marry your betrothed, and the car IMMEDIATELY breaks down literally within the first 60 seconds of playing the game. Then you—the prince of a mighty kingdom, and some sort of “chosen one” with magical abilities—have to push your broken-down piece of shit car to the nearest gas station, where a senile old man and his outrageously dressed daughter fix up your car. They also charge you for it, because royalty apparently doesn’t mean anything anywhere in your kingdom except for in the capital city (which you can’t return to). I could write a whole article about her fashion choices, but won’t because I don’t care.

And right here is where I wonder what the hell happened to Final Fantasy.

First off, I’m not going to say that this game has raped my childhood or that I “have a sense of ownership of the series because I’m a lifelong fan” or any of that. Even I’m not that pretentious. But I will say that from the minute you first enter any other Final Fantasy game, you feel a sense of magic and wonder. FFIV opens with a fleet of airships raiding a town for its magical crystal. FFVI opens with troops in Magitek Armor investigating a mysterious magical artifact. FFVIII’s legendary opening features a badass battle scene accompanied by an orchestra and choir singing in Latin. Even FFXII, which I thought had an incredibly stupid and incoherent plot, had an exciting mystical opening. FFXV, meanwhile, opens with your father sending you on a road trip with a car that breaks, at which point you meet two mechanics with over-the-top southern accents, and you look around and see:

  • Cars from the 1920s and 1960s
  • A sprawling desert
  • A 1950s diner
  • Gas pumps
  • An auto body shop.

This isn’t Final Fantasy. This is Easy Rider.

So then what happens? Well, I get the car fixed, because Final Fantasy XV: Jiffy Lube Simulator requires it before I can move along. Once done, I go to catch a ferry to head over to my betrothed, but oops, the ferry is broken or something (?). I honestly can’t remember, because at that point, the world opens. I guess you could call it… an OPEN WORLD. In fact, that’s exactly what the developers did: Chapter 3 of the game is literally called “The Open World.” The following section of this post will be titled “The Open World” in honor of this game’s lack of subtlety.

The Open World

I can’t tell you more details about what happened prior to this, because “The Open World” became me spending 30 hours doing side quests.

The gameplay was fun enough to sustain 30 hours of side quests, so the game can’t be that bad, right? Well, here’s the thing: I didn’t learn ANYTHING about the world/setting of Final Fantasy XV: Industrial Wasteland during that time. I met some woman who studies frogs, and I caught some stuff for her. I went fishing, which apparently Noctis likes doing, but doesn’t know if his father ever did. I collected a bunch of dog tags for some dude whose history and motives are completely unknown. I heard a bunch of radio bulletins (because there are radios in all of the 1950s diners, which is apparently the only type of restaurant that exists in this universe) that don’t really tell me anything about what’s going on in my home kingdom or in The Empire (more on that soon), or why my kingdom (which I THINK is called Insomnia, but I don’t even remember because you can’t even visit it in the game) is fighting The Empire, or what “The Empire” is. And I went on a bunch of hunts. So many hunts. ALL THE HUNTS.

More than half of the side quests in the game consist entirely of embarking on random hunts posted at “cafes” in Final Fantasy XV: Twin Peaks Without the Character Development. No background or story on any of them; you just kill monsters wanted for “habitat destruction.”

Similar “hunt” type quests are plentiful in FFXIV, which is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), but they are always accompanied with so much dialogue and back story that I sometimes skip it when I’m in a hurry to fight stuff. But they’re all fleshed out. They all add to the story. They help with immersion and tell you about the world of the game. So why couldn’t they do those things in FFXV?

The other thing about the open world that doesn’t work is the trees. There are trees everywhere. Dead, ugly trees that nobody ever needs to see, some of which you can move through, and some of which have gigantic invisible bubbles around them that you can’t enter (and it’s never, ever clear which movement mechanic you’ll experience as you weave your way through these egregious camera-blocking obstructions). Several other game mechanics just don’t work, such as inexplicably forcing you to “rent” chocobos, meaning you have to pay money at arbitrary locations at regular intervals, and is about as fun as feeding your cat in real life. If you want to hear the nitty gritty of the clunky game mechanics, you can hear me rant about it in a long podcast, but suffice to say, this is not a well-made open world experience.

After about 30 hours of “enjoying” Final Fantasy XV: Not Really A Main Series Entry but knowing literally nothing about the plot, the world, or the characters’ relationship with one another (other than endless witty banter and small talk), I decided to advance the story. A few minor spoilers will follow here, so skip the list of bullet points if you want to avoid them.

The “plot”

Okay, you’ve been warned. Are you ready? Here is what happened after “The Open World.” SPOILERS FOLLOW:

  • The chancellor of The Empire led my party to a giant Titan, whose origins / significance / importance are completely unknown
  • This Titan is holding up a giant fallen meteor for some reason (like Atlas), but only needs one arm, and uses the other arm to attack my party
  • The Empire attacks the Titan and I also fight it, but it’s trying to tell Noctis something, so I can’t tell if it’s good or bad, and wait why am I suddenly helping The Empire (or are they helping me? I have no idea)
  • The chancellor of The Empire—The Empire which invaded Noctis’ kingdom, murdered his father, and is now occupying Insomnia, which I learned thanks to one 30-second cut scene—gives Noctis and his friends a ride to safety and then leaves them alone completely with no closure or explanation
  • Noctis and his friends decide to invade an imperial base to get their car back (because a prince obviously can’t afford a new car)
  • The party accidentally invades the wrong base or something and decides to go on a sting mission to capture an Imperial General or something
  • They capture the general and then, off-screen, he escapes from your party member Ignis, who by all rights should be a double agent or villain purely based on his nefarious British accent
  • The fallout from your captive escaping is: nothing. There is no consequence. Everyone just kind of goes “oh well!” and you go back to invading heavily-guarded Imperial bases to get your fucking car back
  • At some point in here we obtain the powers of Ramuh, which I don’t know why was suddenly important or relevant, and he is an Archaeon like Titan, but I guess this one is on my side when Titan wasn’t (?), and I don’t understand why because I don’t know what an Archaeon is and nothing is remotely explained
  • The Empire’s chancellor again somehow leads you to a dungeon and provides you with an escort to enter the dungeon to obtain Mythril, a rare and valuable alloy, so you can fix a boat (this is the leader of an Evil Empire whose bases you just invaded several times, but I guess you’re friends now, because ???)
    • Side note: the escort is a mercenary whose last name is “Highwind,” presumably just to piss me off, because there is no reason to name anyone Highwind unless it’s a foul-mouthed cigarette smoking lunatic who builds spaceships
  • Throughout the entire dungeon, the mercenary talks about how much she hates The Empire even though she’s working directly for the chancellor, and once you’re done with the dungeon, she leaves and the chancellor is gone and you can now buy supplies from two Imperial troops just outside the dungeon entrance

Are you lost yet? Because I sure as hell was.

I’d like to note that while you’re traveling around Final Fantasy XV: The Open World of Being Open and Full of Openness, you sometimes run across monsters and you can fight them, just like in any other game in the series. But while you’re going anywhere, a party member will occasionally yell “Imperials above us!” and a giant flying fortress spaceship thing will appear and drop like 30 Imperial troopers to attack you. This happens at all points in the game (even post-ending). Even though the chancellor of The Empire is helping you progress in your quest. He could have easily killed you multiple times. So why is he sending soldiers to try to kill you?! Why do you get to haphazardly murder hundreds of his soldiers and still get his help doing stuff?! Why is this never explained?!

Also: I capitalize “The Empire” but I have no idea what it’s called. Final Fantasy VI is the only game to call the villains “The Empire,” and that was in the mid-90s. Noctis’ kingdom is called Insomnia and it’s at war with “The Empire.” I don’t even know what it’s called. Actually, nevermind: I just looked on Wikipedia and it’s called Nifleheim. I had to look on Wikipedia to find the name of the bad guys in the game I’ve been playing for 40 hours. Good.

This is exactly what I’m talking about: nothing makes sense, and nothing has any consequence. Noctis’ father is brutally murdered and his entire kingdom is taken over? Cool, let’s go on a road trip and put decals on our car since the chancellor of the empire that committed these atrocities is inexplicably helping us out. Let’s go on this huge quest for Mythril, then I stumble across a dungeon a city block away from where I started the game and find Mythril ore literally on the top floor (before I even enter). Let’s have one of my companions ditch my party for a chapter with no explanation and say something vague about “personal stuff” and never follow up or explain it. At some point in the above bullet points, I escorted a character’s little sister to a shack in the middle of the country of Final Fantasy XV: Little House on the Prairie to keep her safe from the empire, and at the conclusion of one quest later, she met my party right in the same town that I had escorted her from just a chapter earlier. She and some little 8-year-old also survived a raid from THE EMPIRE—THE SAME ONE THAT HAS BEEN AIDING ME FOR THE LAST 3 CHAPTERS—but they murdered some old 90 year old dude for ??? reason. I literally don’t even know what he did, or how my characters know him. The murder took place off-screen, by the way.

I need to stop writing soon

If you find this post incoherent, then you may have an understanding of how much sense this game made to me. What baffles me is that this game’s series predecessor, Final Fantasy XIV, is one of the best games in the series, and as an MMORPG, it is “open world” by default. There is no reason why its “open world” successor, Final Fantasy XV: The World’s Worst Game of Telephone, has to contain such clunky game design, poor storytelling, and shallow side quests devoid of any consistency or logic.

Call me crazy, but I just don’t understand why Noctis and his friends banter with the chancellor of an evil empire like an unused Firefly script that Joss Whedon never got around to using, after the chancellor murdered Noctis’ father and took over his kingdom. Noctis doesn’t even have a plan to take his kingdom back or really do literally anything other than “get to his betrothed.” To… to do what? Unify kingdoms? Unify what’s left of kingdoms? 50 hours into the game and there was no clear goal, plot, or end game.

This is Final Fantasy XV: Things Happen. Where things just happen, but they don’t have to relate to anything else, they don’t have to add to the plot or to the world, and they just kinda are there.

Fast-forward to the ending, and it is quite touching… if you have any idea what’s going on. I didn’t. I literally laughed out loud during the ending because none of it made sense to me AT ALL. I had to watch a 19 minute YouTube video explaining it before having ANY clue what was happening. Why couldn’t they have explained any of these plot points in the game?

My stupid conclusion you’ve somehow managed to reach in spite of everything

In spite of my incessant bitching, I need to impress upon you that this game didn’t ruin my life or anything. It was just disappointing. But I feel like I can do something pretty simple to ease my disappointment: I need to stop thinking of this as a main entry in the Final Fantasy series.

Look, it’s no secret that this game was originally a project called Final Fantasy: Versus XIII, set to take place in the Fabula Nova Crystalis universe of Final Fantasy XIII. The Final Fantasy series has enjoyed many reasonably good spin-off games, including FFIV: The After Years, FFVII: Dirge of Cerberus, Crisis Core: FFVII, FFX-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, to name just a few. And those are generally pretty good games. They aren’t “HOLY CRAP IT’S A MAIN SERIES FINAL FANTASY GAME” good, but they’re generally OK games.

And that’s exactly what this game is: it’s a “generally OK game.” Despite a lack of ANY coherent narrative or immersion and a battle system that is subpar at best, there’s something addicting about the game that works well enough to provide a distraction from every day life. Maybe it’s the familiar spell and weapon naming conventions, or the mere presence of chocobos and cactuars and tonberries and everything else that lives in the DNA of the Final Fantasy franchise. It’s hard to say. But I did at least beat it, which does put it a step above Ninja Gaiden 3.

I should also note that the post-game content—meaning, content that you can only access once you’ve completed the “story” and defeated the final boss, which is less a battle than it is an interactive video during which you mash one button repeatedly—is actually pretty fun. There’s an optional dungeon, for example, where you need to jump around and play with camera angles in a gigantic tomb-like structure that seemed to never end (in a good way). It follows different mechanics than the rest of the game and plays more like a platformer than a role-playing game, but is one of the most fun and memorable optional dungeons I’ve ever played in the Final Fantasy series.

Still, I shouldn’t have to play a game for 70 hours just to access interesting content, and other than the dungeon I just mentioned, a lot of the post-game materials are uninspired grinds with little to no inspiration. So really, how much weight can you give the post-game content? Not much, says me.

In conclusion, this isn’t a “main” Final Fantasy game. It’s a decent game, especially if you have no expectations regarding plot, story, coherence, or world-building.

It’s also a great commercial for Cup Noodles.

…did I mention this game is weird?

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About Cody Gough

Cody Gough is a producer and host at WGN Radio in Chicago. In addition to producing the Brian Noonan Show since 2008, Cody co-hosts both Brian's web-exclusive podcasts and his own lifestyle podcast, Game/Life Balance U.S. Cody also moonlights as a commercial actor, video game enthusiast, and professional social media manager for a global firm.

One response to “Final Fantasy XV review: it’s not really a Final Fantasy game”

  1. Casey Drosehn says :

    If only it were Easy Rider…

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