Game * Square Enix * Daemon Apocalypse * 2016
What a confusing, convoluted, fragmented, disappointing, weird, beautiful, mess of a game. You’ll note that most of those adjectives are negative, but please don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my 60 hours with Final Fantasy XV, and I think I might get in there some more. This is because I am more than willing to overlook glaring, audacious flaws while still engaging with the core experience. Also I like weird things. And Final Fantasy XV is the weirdest game I played all last year. Most importantly, though, the game has an off-kilter charm to it which I am still kind of in love with. I like being in that world, doing nothing in particular. The best parts of Final Fantasy XV are when you stop worrying about the narrative.
This is because the story, as presented by the game, doesn’t make any sense. The initial set-up is intriguing. Your character is Noctis. He is a prince! That’s pretty cool, I guess. Anyway, he’s a tousle-haired young man with an angsty vibe to him, probably because he’s coming of age and responsibility is about to come crashing down on him. This takes the form of being shipped off to another country to take part in an arranged marriage with some blonde girl. However, before he takes the first step toward a long, dull adulthood full of royal responsibility, Noctis decides to take advantage of his last summer of freedom by going on a meandering roadtrip with his four best bros (who also make up his Kingsguard). These dudes are with you pretty much the entire time, so you get to know them pretty well. They consist of Gladiolus (the buff one), Ignis (the brainy one), and Prompto (the obnoxious one). Together, you look like the flyest Japanese boy band, circa 2001.
Perhaps the scene that resonates most in this game is the first one, in which you and your bros are pushing your big-ass car down a deserted stretch of desert road. The royal ride has broken down, and three of you are pushing while Ignis steers, and everyone is bickering and complaining. Then Florence + The Machine kicks in with a cover of “Stand By Me,” and the title card hits, and it’s like, okay game, I feel you. Then the game starts proper, and it is by turns charming and confusing throughout its entirety. The opening does such a fantastic job of setting a lighthearted tone of adventure, that the extreme tonal shifts that occur almost right away are supremely jarring.
The game eases you into its big open world by introducing you to the Regalia, which is your broke-ass ride. Obviously, you’re a prince so you can get this fixed. The game begins properly at a dusty, lonesome gas station in the middle of nowhere. The garage is operated by a girl with a thick Southern accent who really wants you to get a load of her cans. Her name is Cindy, and her character design is embarrassing, but whatever. Meanwhile nice, relaxing music is playing, and you’re essentially free to roam a bastardized version of the American West. One of the main draws of the world is that it straddles the line between fantasy and modernity in an odd, original way. On the one hand, you drive a car. Or rather, you chill in the backseat of your car while Ignis drives and old Final Fantasy tunes crank on the radio. You’ve got a cell phone. There are power substations everywhere, and you can stay in caravans and motels. On the other hand, the world is infested with monsters and daemons and you have an array of magic and magical weapons at your disposal. Oh, and the gods of this world are real and manifest and are scary.
Before I start openly talking about the story, there are a few other things to note about this wonderful mess. Final Fantasy XV is two distinct games poorly duct-taped together. Most of the game is a big open world filled with dull, fetch-quest side missions (which, I will say, I enjoyed for their ability to grant XP and items while cruising around listening to podcasts), optional dungeons and monster hunts (which are more engaging), and other random weirdness. You get to run around on Chocobos, and the music that plays while doing so is delightful. As I’ve repeatedly said, the atmosphere is charming and gratifying and I love it. The other game is a linear, narrative-driven experience which makes no sense and fails to resonate at all and is supremely disappointing. Luckily, that aspect of the game is fairly short, and doesn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of the open world aspect of the game.
The story, though. It’s disappointing mostly because there was so much squandered opportunity to tell an interesting tale with engaging characters and it just doesn’t work at all. Look, I know why, to a point. This game has been in development for like ten years, and has undergone top-level personnel changes and vast portions of the experience have been scrapped, or reworked, or added and grafted together. The end result is a game that is clearly four other games stitched together. And that’s fine, it makes for a super weird experience that I enjoyed. Unfortunately, the narrative was the aspect of the game that suffered the most.
Shortly after the nice, pleasant opening, the tone of Final Fantasy XV changes abruptly. One minute, you’re on the road with your bros, having the kind of idiot adventure only dudes in their early-20s can get up to (you know, camping, fishing, and slaying horrible monsters for money, riding multi-colored chicken-horses, collecting frogs for weirdos and gems from New Jersey taxi drivers, normal stuff like that). The next your dad is dead, your hometown is a smoking ruin, and you’re target number one of the super powerful Empire that just wrecked all your shit. The game takes a moment to acknowledge how fucked up all this is, but then kicks you back out into your car with your bros and everything is cool again.
These weird story moments pop up through the open world aspect of the game, but if you play like me they’re isolated from the majority of your time, which is spent interacting with your three buddies. As a result, the only characters you ever really engage with are your three boy band companions. And even then, their motivations and personalities are on the thin side. Sometimes things happen to them, and no explanation is given. There’s a point where Gladiolus the beefcake just fucks off for a while. Later, for no reason, he comes back. Why? I guess it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a thing that happens. At least his sister is cute, I guess? Actually, Iris (the sister) is another case of the game’s fractured story-telling. You see, you actually spend some time with this character. There’s a nice little scene where Iris takes Noctis around one of the larger towns, and introduces him to the sights and the market and whatnot. She’s a rather typical, upbeat anime girl, but whatever, at least she has a personality. She has a girlish crush on Noctis, and is adorable. Later on, she joins the party for a bit. After this, you leave her and some other characters behind as you move forward to complete your mission, and it’s one of the few times I actually felt something during this game.
This is because these small moments with minor characters are the exception to the rule, which for this game is to present a rough outline for a story and call it good. Probably the most glaring example of this is how the game treats your presumed love interest, Lady Lunafreya, your betrothed. She gets roughly 30 seconds of screen time, and the game expects you to feel things about her. You spend the entire game in preparation for marrying her. There are a couple scenes that feature Luna and Noctis in childhood, which is apparently the only time they’ve ever met. Supposedly they’re still into each other, despite living in different countries and only communicating through dog-delivered notebooks, which is deeply confusing. Like, y’all got phones. You use them all the time. Anyway, she’s an Oracle, whatever that is, and helps out the common folk? That’s all we get. Meanwhile, the main villain is just as vague. He’s a goofy, theater-nerd guy with a dumb hat and flourishes all the time. You know, like that obnoxious motherfucker in high school who always insisted on wearing dumb outfits and affecting stupid accents? Anyway, this guy is like that. He’s ambiguous at first, but then is immortal and hates you? I just don’t know, and that’s a huge problem.
The pieces are all here, it’s just that no one took to the time to properly put them together. Instead, everything is just haphazardly thrown in a pile, and vital things were cast aside. Major events happen off-screen. Ignis is blinded at a certain point, it’s not shown, and while it’s a bummer the event is still undermined by not being given the spotlight for even a second. It’s weird. There are revelations that are declared out of nowhere and are subsequently dismissed. Like, toward the end we learn that Prompto started life as a weird clone/robot thing (??) because he just blurts out “I’m just like them!” like I’m supposed to care, because this is the first I’ve ever heard about it, and Noctis is like “whatevs” and that’s it. You have to take the time to build this stuff up!
Case in point, Lady Lunafreya and the entire ending of the game. So, part of being king is absorbing all your ancestral magic, I think. Also, you have to earn the blessing of the world’s deities, who are mostly elemental in nature. First you fight them, and it’s a big spectacle set-piece. Well, as you’re fighting this fish-monster to prove your worth, your betrothed shows up to give you some magic ring which you need because. Meanwhile, the Empire shows up because they want to kill all the gods, also because. So Luna is here and she’s helping you out but then the main baddie sneaks up on her and shanks her. The game expects you to be sad, but whatever! I know nothing about her, and even if Noctis is bummed out, we’re never given any reason to care.
The ending suffers in the same way. The penultimate episode of the game has you getting sucked into your ancestral power-crystal. You lose ten years. When you’re dumped back out into the world, it has been consumed by darkness and daemons. It is everlasting night. This is actually affecting, because I spent so much time in the vibrant, charming world and it sucks seeing it all ruined by the daemon apocalypse. You don’t spend much time here, though. The game whisks you off to meet your bros, and you’re off to meet your adversary knowing that eventually Noctis must sacrifice himself to save the world. Your bros know this as well, so this is all very somber business. Once you succeed, your ghost-dad shows up with your spirit ancestors, and they murder you in order to restore peace and tranquility to the world. At the end, you’re shown in the spirt afterworld with your lovely bride sleeping in your death-throne. I guess. I wanted to feel something so badly here, but there was just nothing.
They didn’t do their story homework. That’s all it is. Flesh out the characters, smooth out the exposition so I know what’s happening, and all of this can work. There was a twinge of emotion at the very end, because the game ends as it begins, flashing back to the first scene. And 60 hours later, most of which was spent cruising around in that car, chilling with my homies, it was affecting to hear that Florence + The Machine song and reminisce about the opening of the game and the promise of adventure it conveyed. This works because it hearkens back to what you spend time doing. Likewise that final camping scene works because you spend so much time camping, when it’s charming and fun and lighthearted, and that last time is so dark and sad because you know it’s the last time these four will be together.
So yes, Final Fantasy XV is a mess of a game. Unless you’re an easy story-lay, it probably won’t move you much. The narrative isn’t really that important, however. The experience as a whole was, at least for me, well worth my time. Despite the uneven tone of the story, most of the game is lighthearted, charming, and relaxing. It’s exactly what I was looking for. In other words, I love my stupid Japanese boy-band game.