Final Fantasy XV: A Flawed Gem
So I finished Final Fantasy XV, and by finished I mean I got to level 99, I ran through every dungeon, and I got every trophy. I FINISHED it. And like every Final Fantasy game I’ve played before, I had fun. But the question is how much fun did I have? Well, let’s break it down shall we?
The story of Final Fantasy XV is deceptively simple. By that I mean, the only reason it seems to be complex is the method by which its told rather the actual complexity of the events. For instance, the actual purpose behind the majority of the actions in the majority of the game isn’t revealed until the end of Chapter 13 out of a total 14 chapters. It’s not uncommon for a Final Fantasy game. Lightning Returns and Final Fantasy X both tried to do something similar to varying levels of success. However, here it feels the deception is almost malicious in its intent. When we meet the heroes, Noctis is on his way to get married and enjoying a bachelor party-ish road trip along the way with his closest friends and confidantes. Once we break through the games pseudo-prologue and the first twist happens (not much of a twist if you saw Kingsglaive first) where the city of Insomnia falls to Imperial betrayal, the road trip turns dark as the group swears on vengeance and begins to build power via Noctis’ birthright to command the weapons of former kings followed by forging pacts with literal gods.
We are given context to all of these events solely through the vantage point of Noctis himself. Hence we discover the true reveal along with him. We see the confusing messages that he struggles to interpret with him. And we are forced to face the consequences of his actions with him as well. It is a powerful way to tell the story, if your tale is simple enough to manage such a narrow point of view. Final Fantasy XIII tried something similar as I have mentioned before and it bogged down into tons of extra reading or be very confused. XV does succeed in the endeavor a bit more though there still are some confusing moments that feel like slapdash plot hole filling. Where this approach suffers the most is in the development of characters that are not directly encountered by our protagonist: Ravus, the Empire, King Regis, and sadly especially Lunafreya. You only get glimpses of these characters who are such major players in this story because our field of vision is limited to what Noctis sees and interacts with. You don’t meet up with Lunafreya until three-fourths of the way through the game. Before that you only get Noctis’ flashbacks with her, their two sentences dog-texts (They both own reality warping dogs that deliver messages for them. Yes, there is an explanation. No, it’s not a great one.), and the brief visions given by the Gods. This is all you get to figure out why these two who haven’t seen each other in years are supposedly “in love” (although Kingsglaive does explain the marriage idea was part of treaty.) And yet, because we’ve seen Noctis interact with so many people that when he acts so out of character when he finally sees Luna, you get this feeling of knowing how much she means to him.
And that’s what the game does so very well with the story. You may not know what’s going on, but you feel like you identify with the tale. The story isn’t laid out in the most narratively pleasant order but it does a DAMN fine job of getting you emotionally invested in these characters.
Our protagonist is Crown Prince Noctis Lucis Caellum, the sole surviving member of the Lucis Caellum line and a wanted fugitive of the Niflheim Empire.
I said before how a lot of the surrounding characters don’t get a ton of development and that is sadly true. Lunafreya is shown to be a powerfully determined woman on a mission that won’t even make sense until the end of the game, but she is also one of the more kind hearted characters shown as well. Her brother Ravus, despite building him up to be a big antagonist, gets next to nothing. He is a character of many seeming contradiction tried together out of an extreme loyalty to family that comes from who knows where. His story is mostly only told through journal pages you find late in game. I can kind of see why they want to revisit Ravus’ story in a patch or something.
The main ‘Warriors of Light’ (Yes, that IS what the four are meant to represent if you missed the blatantly call back to the original Final Fantasy at the start of the game) are on the opposite spectrum. You spend nearly ALL your time with your companions occasionally departing for a mission or two of the story before returning. Ignis, the attendant of our prince protagonist and the caretaker of the group in charge of repairing damaged clothing, cooking meals, and driving the car most of the time. Gladiolus is Noctis’ bodyguard and trainer who comes from a long line of Kingsguards. Finally there’s Prompto the seemingly fun loving commoner that became friends with Noctis in high school. The game does an amazing job making these three feel like they are your best friends. You feel for them on an emotional level. Which is important as the game progresses and starts using that affection and attachment against you. Oh there will be drama. Oh yes, there will be drama.
Finally, there’s the supporting cast. It’s a mixed bag of who you like and don’t like. I found myself being rather fond of Gladio’s teenage sister Iris and her love of Moogles, the mercenary Aranea Highwind and her dry wit was great for a laugh on the mission she joined you, and I kept imagining Cor the Immortal having epic adventures off somewhere without me accompanied by either heavy metal or the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian. I was a bit irked that they changed “Cidney” to “Cindy” for the English release though. I mean, way to kill the joke. She’s still listed as Cidney in the credits along with her Japanese voice actress. There weren’t any characters I downright loathed though. Which is impressive for a big open world game like this.
Finally, we have our villain. What? No. Not the Emperor. No one cares about Emperors. Haven’t you been paying attention since Final Fantasy VI? No. We have High Chancellor Ardyn Izunia. Both pseudo friend and foe through much of the game, the main group immediately doesn’t trust him but also is forced to work with him repeatedly. His goals seem to be at odds at times with his masters in the Empire, but it’s not clear what they are until much later on. I’d go more into Ardyn but you really can’t without spoiling it. I can say that he is easily on my short list for best Final Fantasy villain. He’s so amazingly slimy.
I wanted to touch on this because as I had made mention of in my first reactions post a while back, this was one aspect that constantly surprised and frustrated me. That the world of Eos is built up so amazingly well just using what you see, hear and interact with that very little exposition needs to be given about it. You can tell how much of Lucis the Empire had controlled before the fall of Insomnia by the check points and military bases. You get a feel for the vast gap between the frontier people and the people living inside Insomnia just by comparing the names “Noctis Lucis Caellum” and “Dave.” You discover that pretty much ALL women of working age work in the reactor by seeing them walk around the city in their protective work clothes.
How about the effects of a world where monsters and Gods walk among you? You see the Hunters working to keep people safe, ultra bright UV lights at all points of civilization to help ward off monsters. Duscae’s power infrastructure is based on the giant meteor that Titan holds in the Disc. Altissia has statues and temples built to honoring Leviathan. All of these things and so much more end up coming together to form the world, and none of it is ever explained in depth. It just gives you that feeling again that this world is actually coherent and thought out.
However, that lack of detail also just drove me crazy! I would read tomes upon tomes of the history of the world. All we get is an art gallery at the start and a timeline in the strategy guide. And the timeline only begins maybe 2000 years prior to the start of the game. Everything beyond that is “Ancient Time” with no info. Bah.
I kinda wish I could say more about the music. It kinda of strikes me as similar to other open-world RPGs where the music kind of starts to blend into the background which in this kind of game I always considered a good thing. I’ve had to turn off music or radios that tend to become annoyingly intrusive after a while as I explore (I’m looking at you, Fallout 4.) The music alternates between pleasant and calm and bombastic and epic during the battles and especially the boss battles. The song ‘Apocalypsis Aquarius’ that plays during the battle with Leviathan is one of my favorites. However, other than the titular song ‘Final Fantasy’ (known to some as ‘Main Theme’, ‘Prologue’ or for the very old school fans ‘The Bridge Song’) and some updated renditions of the ‘Prelude’ Crystal theme, there are very few songs in the game I could identify without looking at the track name and even then I probably wouldn’t be able to place them. The music is good – of that there’s no doubt – but I can’t really say there are too many memorable themes or stand out tracks that immediately make you think ‘Ah, this is when X happened’. Even the Leviathan battle song since every major boss battle is just a different arrangement of the same Apocalypsis song. Great soundtrack for just playing in the background though. I bought a couple of tracks I like to listen to while driving.
Of course, if something more iconic is your taste, you can get music collections from older Final Fantasy titles throughout the game that can be played through the car stereo or eventually a portable music player you can purchase. The selection is usually about 5 or 6 songs per collection but some games have more than one “disc” that you can get. For instance, Final Fantasy XI’s music has a separate collection for each expansion the MMO had. There are some omissions though. While multiple Dissidia and Type-0 collections appear, you won’t find many other spin off games or sequels (X-2, XIII-2, Lightning Returns, Revenant Wings, Tactics, or After Years.) Final Fantasy XIV’s music doesn’t appear either sadly, keeping this from even containing tracks from all the main numbered games. Still it offers a huge selection of songs from classic Final Fantasy games, so there is always that to take advantage of.
Though I will mention one thing about the ‘portable music player.’ It does NOT work in combat. The normal combat music will always play and turn off the music player. Big minus there. Would love to beat up monsters while listening to ‘Sunleth Waterscape’.
While the game has transitioned heavily into a ‘live combat’ style that feels almost closer to Secret of Mana then what one may associate with the Final Fantasy franchise, the combat system is quite fun. There is a Wait Timer that while takes some getting used to at first, grants access to things like Libra that can be further buffed via the upgrade-able Ascension trees. Speaking of the Ascension trees, they are used like Sphere Grids or the Crystarium in the previous game with the exception that the entire party shares a single set of Ascension trees. Some branches of the trees will unlock or upgrade follower abilities and some will grant new ways to gain Ability Points to spend in the Ascension trees. It offers a good level of choice with nothing feeling ‘Absolutely Mandatory.’ The costs increase exponentially as the branches go further and ultimately culminate in nodes that cost 333 or 999 AP to unlock. Which is a lot when you realize you’ll be averaging about 2-4 AP a battle unless your actively farming it. Luckily, you don’t need to get all of the abilities. Not even in the end game. So it’s kind of just another to work toward to if you want to and there are all manner of AP farming guides out there to help ya.
The one thing to keep in mind is that certain things and areas will take time to unlock. You won’t have the car right away, and then you won’t have chocobos right away (And if your wondering why take a chocobo when you have a car, chocobos can off-road and the car can’t), huge sections of the map are opened a piece at a time and there are a ton of things to do in each of them: Sidequests, Helping fix broken cars, Hunts picked up from food stops, treasure hunting, and dungeons. Dungeons can be incredibly painful early on because while each has a ‘recommended’ level, there will often be monsters deep within (or right inside the door) that are much higher level than that. I did a dungeon that was supposedly a “level 15 dungeon” that also had randomly spawning level 40 monsters that could petrify insta-death you. Don’t be afraid to GTFO and come back more prepared with accessories or weapons to counter the enemies inside. There’s an option on the map screen to warp back to the entrance for a reason. There’s also a few dungeons you won’t be able to complete until the ‘post-game’ just simply because the means of accessing them aren’t available until then such as a specific quest or the flying car. Yes. There’s a flying car in the post-game. And landing that thing is the bane of my existence (you game over on a bad landing or crash.)
Once you reach a certain point – the end of Chapter 8 – the game shifts and the open world more or less leaves the game for a much more linear experience. Altissia in Chapter 9 is a bit open but there’s not a ton of space to explore. Once you reach the train however, the plot is literally and figuratively on rails until the end. Luckily, you don’t get locked into this. At any Inn/Lodging you can call one the previously mentioned reality-warping dogs to take you back to a previous section of the game. So if you want to go level up on hunts, or find a Fire-imbued or Light-imbued weapon you can (The Light-Embued Weapons are at the Megiddo Hunter HQ in the North. Buy them. They deal an extra 50% damage against daemons.)
As for the infamous Chapter 13? I still stand by what I said before. It’s not as bad as people make it out to be. I found it to be quite an experience that made for an intense little bit of gameplay. The only problem would probably be how poorly the story surrounding the ‘boss battles’ was handled. But the mystery, the desperation, the frustration, the fear? All just seem to help propel the story and create empathy with the characters. I LIKED Chapter 13. It was probably the most memorable moment in the game for me.
At its core, Final Fantasy XV is a great game. At no point did I ever stop having fun with it. Heck, I still have fun with it. I logged back in to explore that weird Chocobo Moogle fair that’s going on and just running around was a blast and the humor still gets me. But I won’t lie. There’s some problems with the game. The story truly feels like it suffered from one too many complete tonal changes in direction to the point that parts of it seemed to have become rubbed plain. Assets re-purposed for the new narrative seem out of place and no one was sure what to do or how to handle certain characters. The narrative suffers from being told from a single point of view much like Final Fantasy XIII, but unlike XIII it tries to compensate for that. Honestly, I’d rather them just be willing to cut away to other places and people to progress the story or be willing to drop more exposition early on.
However, what shines in the game beyond the sometimes directionless feeling and the lack of development in the plot is the emotional core of the game. You will find yourself completely enamored with these characters. When bad things happen to them, you will feel sorry for them. You’ll want to give them a hug. And most importantly, probably driving the story more than the actual apocalyptic scenario, you want them to have a happy ending. I can say that I have played many games that have better crafted stories and more finely tuned gameplay than Final Fantasy XV. But I can’t say that they drew me in emotionally the same way.
Walk Tall, My Chocobros.