Video Game Review: Final Fantasy XV

I’ve been a fan of the Final Fantasy series from the time I first played Final Fantasy VII as a teenager. Since that time, I’ve played through all of the main series games from I to XV, and have replayed most of the games several times over.

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A note to the player at the beginning of Final Fantasy XV declares that this is “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers.” Since I definitely fall in the fan category, I’ll be looking at how the game measures up to the other Final Fantasy games.

The Story

Final Fantasy XV tells the tale of Noctis, heir to the throne of Insomnia. His father’s kingdom has been at war with the oppressive Imperial army when the game opens, and in the early moments Noctis sets out on a lighthearted roadtrip with his friends to attend his wedding to Lunafreya, a union that will bring peace to the world.

As far as the story goes it is very solid, and full of final fantasy tropes, but plays it pretty safe. My favorite Final Fantasies are the ones with complex and bizarre plots. It gets there at the end, but overall, the story is very tight and is one of the only Final Fantasy plots I understood on the first playthrough. I think part of that was due to the tight story (which only takes about 25 hours of gameplay to complete), but also in large part due to the fact that the second half of the game doesn’t allow you to get lost or get distracted by sidequests. You stay focused on the story, which I found perplexing at first, but ultimately I really liked it because it let me experience the story in a way I rarely do with video games, because I wanted to see what would happen next more than I wanted to get to the next level or fight the next boss.

The game is basically on rails for the second half of the story missions. It’s weird, but it works. And it’s not as limiting as it sounds, because you can go back to the overworld after completing the main story. It’s really the best of both worlds. Solid storytelling and open world freedom—just not always at the same time.

The World

The world itself and the graphics in general are beautiful, as we’ve come to expect from all Final Fantasy games. And as you’d expect from the latest entry in the series, it has some of the best graphics of any game to date.

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I’ll get into this more later, but the open world was one of the things the game bragged about the most. Launching on the heels of the poorly-received FFXIII, which was criticized for being on rails, FFXV makes a point of letting you traverse an open world. But while the world is open, you are on the rails of the Regalia, Noctis’ car. The vehicle is used for transportaion, but you can’t actually drive, so you loose the magic of earlier Final Fantasy games. The world felt truly open and epic in those games because you could fly to any point you wanted at any time in an airship, and you got a view of the larger world and how its locales were connected.

While FFXV does feature multiple continents, and the cultures on other continents feels authentically foreign, these other continents are only accessible at certain times in the story, and not accessible by car, i.e., not part of the limited open world. Think about it–how restricted would you feel in real life if you could never go anywhere you couldn’t drive? That’s what it feels like in the game. There is plenty to do and see, but you know you’re missing something across the sea.

Gameplay and Combat

Combat in FFXV is really fun. As heir to the throne, Noctis is favored by the gods and essentially gets super powers. He is able to wield super strong weapons that his ancestors once fought with, and he has an awesome warping ability which lets him teleport out of—or into—danger. Magic is pretty bad in this game, even when the skill is developed, because it’s a limited resource. This was disappointing for me as I’m a black mage at heart and always choose the mage/wizard in any RPG when given the option. But Noctis has his own powers which are very magical and awesome, especially in the later fights. You get put in positions where his warping ability has an opportunity to shine. If I had it to do over, I would focus on the warping ability from the start as it was my favorite part of combat.

In addition to Noctis’ abilities, he also relies on his three companions to perform teamwork abilities that are stronger than the characters’ individual attacks. I neglected these abilities at first, but as I got farther in the game, these attacks became essential.

The Car

imagesA huge theme of this game is “friends on a road trip.” This means that a lot of time is spent in the car. And this brings me to one of the things that really bothered me about this game. You can’t actually drive the car. That’s right. There’s an auto mode that makes you wait as you watch the car drive for several minutes through the countryside. It’s an obvious ploy to make you appreciate the scenery, which is a great idea, but is frustratingly boring after the second car trip. There’s also a manual mode, but the manual part is that you control the accelerator and brakes, except you max out at a low top speed and auto-break and steer when you approach the edge of the road or any obstacle. So the car is essentially on rails at all times. I would be fine with this if it only happened once in a while, but it happens all the time, and I am still finding myself stuck in the car even as I clean up sidequests after completing the main story.

And this leads me to my number one most frustrating experience with Final Fantasy XV…

I was cruising down the road on a long drive headed for a level 25 story mission. About halfway to the destination I was super bored and the characters suggested we stop for a break to do a side mission. I was sick of driving so I agreed to stop the car. This involved doing a U-turn and driving farther away from the distant story mission. When we got to the sidequest, we were instantly swarmed by level 47 soldiers and level 30+ creatures. I ended up wasting items I needed for the story mission just trying to run back to the car. Then when I reached the car, so much time had passed that the sun had set. At night in this world overpowered demons take over, so I then got swarmed by said overpowered demons. The idea is to camp at night to avoid getting massacred, but at this point I was so off track that I didn’t care about what I was supposed to do, I just wanted to get to the $#%@ story mission. There were no camps within walking distance, and the car was blocked by a demon, so after dying and reloading, and eventually waiting til morning, I finally got back on the road and the characters immediately asked to stop again to take a photo. I understand the road trip idea, but driving on rails and camping just slows the game down without adding anything valuable to the experience.

The “Open” Road

The road trip theme is cool in theory, but in reality it’s just boring. Stopping at night further breaks the game’s flow and often just made me impatient and frustrated.
A lot of people said they bonded with the characters while camping or on the road, but a majority of the discussions are hollow dialogue about things like whether Prompto has a shot with the scantily clad mechanic, Cindy, who is probably the most prominent and frequently reoccurring female character in the game other than the leading lady Lunafreya, who rarely appears outside of flashbacks. And wow is Cindy scantily clad. She works on cars in a bikini covered by short shorts and a tiny, tiny jacket that allows her “cleavage” (is it called cleavage if most of the girls are visible?) to lean into the windshield when she wipes the car down every time you bring it in for service. This is even more offensive because there are so few female characters in the game. The only male character who shows close to as much skin is Gladio, but his open shirt suits his carefree tough-guy character. The only thing Cindy’s clothing choice confirms is that the fans and first-timers this game is cindyaimed at are clearly intended to be prepubescent boys, which is a huge turnoff to everyone who doesn’t fall into that category.

The Four Warriors

In addition to the car, the lack of diversity in playable characters was a major turn-off for me. As a gay man, I’ve never felt comfortable around boys-will-be-boys locker room talk settings like the one fostered by the leading boys of the game. I don’t expect to see representation of every type of person in every game, but not even seeing a female playable character makes me and and any one else who’s not a heteronormative guy feel weird and even unwelcome on this brotrip.

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Diversity is super important in all media, but it’s especially crucial in fantasy. One of the most prominent fantasy tropes is the team of unlikely heroes of various backgrounds coming together to fight off evil in the world. Elves and dwarves, magic users and mage haters, the list goes on and on. This has been represented in almost all Final Fantasy games as well, with the excitement of meeting new characters along the way and selecting a party you want to travel with. But here we are stuck with these four guys of the same age, background, etc. Maybe I’m just spoiled by games like Dragon Age Inquisition where I was able to have an all queer characters party, but I was disappointed by the lack of diversity and the lack of choice in the characters. Also, the four leading boys wear all black, and this was just one more monotone in a flat character palate. I didn’t know the difference between Ignis and Prompto until the final chapters.

Aren’t RPGs supposed to be about playing out a role, imagining yourself as part of a story? When there are so many barriers to seeing yourself in a story, it’s hard to connect on anything more than a superficial level.

The Bad Guy

The villain is great and reminded me of Kafka from FFVI. He is sick and twisted, and has a great backstory. He gets super creepy in the final chapters, and at one point it feels like you’re trapped in one of the Saw movies. This kind of threw the tone from fantasy to horror for a moment, but it was really only an interlude so I think the variety was actually pretty cool in retrospect. There is a tradition in the series of combining elements of different genres.

Post-Story Content

The First thing I did after I beat the story mode was to hunt down the items needed to update the Regalia into an airship. As soon as it took flight, I was able to finally steer it the way I had wanted to all along. Looking down on the landscape, free from the frustrating monotony of the roads that I couldn’t really drive on, was a great feeling. It was pure joy. Many of the best Final Fantasy games have featured this type of transportation, often as the primary means to get around the world. It’s a great addition to the game and I will be flying the Regalia instead of “driving” it on all the sidequests I have yet to complete. Still, I was disappointed I couldn’t fly through the whole game. This would have turned the often frustrating and boring driving segments into fun, exciting, and nostalgic moments.

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A Place in the Series

In trying to determine how FFXV stacks up to the rest of the series, I reevaluated my own rankings. At first, I made a list of all the games and put them in two categories, “good” and “great.” But then I crossed off those categories and replaced them with “classic” and “unique.” “Classic” being the games about crystals and four warriors of light that recycle and update the classic Final Fantasy story and mechanics, and “unique” was for games that tread into new territory.

Some of these games that tried new things include FFII, which fell flat in my opinion, and more recently, FFXIII, which tried a lot of new things and was not very well received. But it tried. Other games I put in the “unique” category include some of the most beloved entries in the series, like VI and VII, proving that sometimes the risk of straying from the known can lead to the creation of something monumental.

After a lot of thought, I placed FFXV in the “classic” category. There are crystals and four warriors, and even the character progression isn’t really new, using the modern staple of the sphere grid mechanic.

Conclusion

The lack of character choice, and female characters in general, feels like a huge leap backwards for any modern game, dragging down what would otherwise be a perfect modern adaption of a classic series. That lack of inclusivity, in combination with the often frustrating raod trip, hinders what could have been one of the best entries in the franchise. As it stands, Final Fantasy XV is another impressive, yet flawed game in an amazing series.

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