Watching the development of Final Fantasy XV over the last few years has been fascinating. Every screenshot and trailer seemed to promise a JRPG like no other, “a fantasy based in reality” as the tagline goes. I was certainly a little perplexed when first confronted with Noctis and his J-pop retinue, driving around a fantastical world in a modern car. Earlier entries in the franchise may have dabbled with mixing old and new – magic with machinery – but none have doubled-down on the concept quite as much as XV. The ambition from Square Enix is admirable and in a lot of ways Final Fantasy XV manages to deliver on its pledge of originality, but it arrives, perhaps inevitably, weighed down by all the baggage that comes with a rocky ten years of development. There is without a doubt something special to be found at the heart of Final Fantasy XV, but how well is it hidden?
You first take control of Crown Prince Noctis as he and his best friends push their broken-down car along a desert highway. They bicker and quip at each other as Florence and the Machine’s cover of Stand by Me plays softly in the background. Cue title screen. This is how Final Fantasy XV starts and it’s largely indicative of the games storytelling as a whole: jarring, bewildering and lacking any semblance of cohesion. Simply put this game lacks an opening. I mean sure the game starts, but the time it spends setting up the plot, world and characters is so brief and confusing that it may as well not exist at all. You’re dumped into this world with these characters with nothing to go on, so you spend the first few hours playing catch up. It’s like falling asleep on a bus and waking up in the middle of a marathon. How did I get here? Who are all these people? Why is that mechanic’s thong visible above her shorts? There is of course the CGI feature film Kingsglaive and an anime series that allegedly goes into the history of this world and some of the characters, but I am of the opinion that any video game that relies on two external pieces of media to set up its story is not doing its job right.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Final Fantasy XV’s opening that suffers from storytelling issues. The narrative beats throughout the adventure continue to be confusing and abrupt. Noctis’ objective changes with little-to-no fanfare, character reveals fall flat due to a complete lack of buildup and a large number of the most emotional scenes have zero impact thanks to a combination of a mediocre script and/or localisation, and voice acting. Pivotal events will often transpire while you’re off doing something else. You’ll return from a dungeon only to find the Empire has struck at your safe house, killing a compatriot in the process. My reaction was not “Oh my god this innocent person has died because of me”, it was more “oh that old dude died, who- who was he again?” Noctis and his friends are clearly upset by his death, meanwhile I’m sitting there with complete disconnect struggling to remember the old guy’s name.
The overarching machinations of this world are perpetually obfuscated by bizarre production decisions and exhausting pacing. Any potential intrigue the main narrative has to offer is utterly squandered. The empire and its troubled history with the kingdom of Lucis, Noctis and his mysterious relationship with his betrothed, his mysterious relationship with his father, or hell even his mysterious relationship with his three best friends, none of it is ever given enough focus to be engaging. There are entire cities, seemingly integral to the plot, that are eaten up by the script before you’ve even had a chance to properly set foot in them. The same can be said for several main characters, especially those among Noctis’ enemies. Toward the start of the game you’re introduced to the evil Emperor and his underlings and it seems clear that at some point there will be an epic confrontation where Noctis will finally have his revenge for what was done to his homeland… but no. I think I fought the Emperor at some point but I’m honestly not sure. The others either never meet Noctis face-to-face, or change allegiances so casually that it was hard to be surprised or interested. The pacing of the main story, while never being worthy of praise, really falls apart in the latter third of the game. I would use some analogy about the admittedly great open world turning into a tame theme park ride by the end but I don’t have to: it’s literally what happens.
So what’s special about this game? What could possibly be worth wading through all the awkward dialogue and general tedium? It may seem like I hated every moment I spent with Final Fantasy XV, but this is not the case. The game’s narrative may be less cohesive than a quantum physics class taught by a levitating cat, but Final Fantasy XV does manage to do something right, and that’s how it handles what is arguably its main theme: going on a road trip with friends. There are a lot of simple but clever things that all add to this dynamic tapestry of Noctis, his companions and their journey. It’s everything that happens between story missions that allowed me to form that much-needed emotional bond. The game really shines when you’re just out in the world mucking around, exploring, going for a drive, going fishing, racing Chocobos or uncovering secret dungeons. Despite starting the game completely disconnected from the four young men, I couldn’t help but become fond of them as time went on.
Prompto will take photos taken directly from your gameplay sessions, Ignis will cook amazing-looking meals when you camp and learn new recipes as you go. As you drive around Gladiolus might whip out a book and spend some time reading, or perhaps you’ll take some time out fishing with Noctis. It’s these little things that allowed me to connect with these characters and immerse myself in their world. And what a world it is. Not only is it vast, it’s also surprisingly realistic. Roads and towns, farms and rivers, it all looks just as you’d expect it to, with a slight fantasy twist. When you’re free to explore this strange land at your own pace, watching in awe as enormous creatures stride past, taking some time out to go fishing or snap touristy photos, this is when Final Fantasy XV truly shines. When the story is dictated, not by a jarring script and confusing direction, but by your own interactions with the world, the game is fantastic.
It can’t be overstated how far the graphics and performance have come since my preview back in August of 2016. Playing on my PS4 Pro with HDR enabled, I was blown away by how well the game runs and the vibrancy of the colours. I used the “lite” mode on the Playstation Pro as the “high” mode still has some issues with frame pacing, but even when not running the Pro’s checkerboard rendering, the game looks great. With another patch or two to sort out the remaining issues, Final Fantasy XV will be one of the better looking and performing games on consoles.
Final Fantasy XV is as imperfect as you might expect given its development history. It certainly puts the ‘flawed’ in ‘flawed masterpiece’. However, after spending 40+ hours with this game I can honestly say I’ve come away happy. Final Fantasy XV’s open world, while a little restricting at times, is undoubtedly its strongest asset and will no doubt be a foundation on which future entries in the series build upon. Pivotal characters and locations are introduced and discarded in the same breath, the dialogue is awkward and the voice acting even more so, but it’s not enough to completely tarnish the unique game underneath. I denied myself an analogy earlier so please indulge me the following: playing through Final Fantasy XV is like trying to fall asleep in a luxurious, five-star hotel with silky sheets and soft pillows, but white noise is constantly playing at a volume slightly louder than comfortable.