Since Final Fantasy Versus XIII was announced in 2006 the world has gone into, and come out of, a once in a generation financial crisis. The Middle East has been reshaped by the Arab Spring to varying results. We’ve seen NASA send probes to Mars, Saturn, and Pluto. Fallout 3, New Vegas and 4 came out. The entire Mass Effect trilogy came out. Every single Assassin’s Creed game came out. From Software released every single Souls game and became a household name. We’ve seen the indie explosion and the Kickstarter fueled resurgence of genres people though were dead. I mention all this because I want to bring perspective to the question I want to ask next: With all this in mind, how does Final Fantasy XV manage to feel so rushed and unfinished?
Final Fantasy XV tells the story of Prince Noctis, who is on his way to meet Lady Lunafreya, his fiance and the Oracle of the world, along with his three body guards. During the trip, a peace signing ceremony involving a long running war within his kingdom, Lucis, goes wrong. Noctis’ father is assassinated, and his country occupied. Now, with no access to his funds, and only the support of some hardcore loyalists, Noctis and his retinue must try to take back their kingdom while at the same time managing to survive without the privileges afforded to royalty. To compound this, there are some more metaphysical obligations the king has, as his duty literally involves keeping darkness from the world. Noctis and his friends must also look to receive the blessings of the Gods, and to collect the weapons and powers of past kings to prepare Noctis to ascend to his rightful place on the throne and take care of his duties, both governing and supernatural.
The world of Final Fantasy XV is a strange mixture of modern day and fantasy world that works incredibly well. There are roads, and video games. Characters often use cell phones to communicate. They use Coleman camping gear. They stop at rest areas that have humble diners with quaint stores (cleverly used to sell potions, weapons and armor) and crappy photo op mascots. It recreates really well the feeling of being on a road trip with friends. Except if you drive at night you are vulnerable to being attacked by demons, and in order to raise money you become a monster hunter. I cannot overstate how well this works. It is an interesting, compelling world with a level of detail only seen in the top open world games such as the Witcher 3 and GTA V. It is rendered beautifully, and despite being somewhat empty, invites exploration. The game world itself is beautiful with a clear history, and clever use of the magical nature of the world that makes it really feel like the world you are playing in is the world that other RPG’s are set in a couple of hundred years in the future.
This is all aided by the fact that the four main characters in the game are surprisingly endearing and earnest. Yes, the group can be ambiguously gay at times, but there is a purity and a sincerity to their characterization that makes it fun. This is enhanced by the excellent animation they have on their facial expression. Their bond as friends is also one of the few things that remains as a lot of the game falls apart. The truth is that besides all of its flaws the open world and the earnest characters go a long way towards making Final Fantasy XV fun and endearing in a way that almost makes up for its numerous flaws, and had the development team figured out how to translate this part of the game towards the whole, this would probably be getting a higher score.
Unfortunately at its core Final Fantasy XV is a deeply flawed title. Let’s start with the most obvious thing: The combat system. You will only control Noctis during combat. Your team members are controlled by the AI and they have more or less set roles. Gladiolous can equip great swords and shields and serves the role of tank. Ignus can use daggers and spears to be sort of a DPS option, while Prompto uses machinery and guns. Noctis can equip any type of weapon and all the party members can equip magic. Noctis has four slots for weapons, which he can change on the fly during battle. He also has the ability to dodge most incoming damage by holding square. This consumes MP, but it recharges fairly quickly. If he is in a bind, Noctis can also warp, often able to use this ability to take a breather. He can also perform warp strikes, which allows him to get in close with enemies fast, and also to move between them quickly. There also some combination techniques and link strikes that trigger when you attack enemies simultaneously.
If all of this sounds like a deep fighting system, don’t be fooled. It is really very simple. Most encounters involve holding square, and then wailing on enemies before you press square again. In addition to this, you can bring back your party members that are low on HP by getting close to them and pressing square, it’s a mechanic that works a lot like the method used to revive someone in a Gears of War coop session. In addition to this, once you unlock summons, things get even easier. Summons come in randomly, but the truth is that I noticed them being available to be summoned once a fight has gone on for too long, or it is not going your way they will appear, and they are overwhelmingly powerful. They usually kill all the enemies, making them automatic wins.
With this in mind, it is not hard at all to steam roll through the game, and even easily defeat enemies that are of a much higher level than you. This will take a while, of course, and it will probably have you chugging potions and other curative items, but the threshold seems to be whether the enemy just hits so hard it can one shot the entire team while being too strong to resist attacks. Usually I avoid enemies that are around 30 levels over my party. Considering that I was in the 40’s when I finished the game, you can see why this is a bad situation. I normally give credit to games that let take advantage of its systems with clever use of player skills and the the systems themselves. However that usually takes a great amount of skill, or an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. This is largely mindless, and it it just leaves the player unfulfilled.
This lack of depth transfers to other systems. Magic has all but been removed from the game. There is a magic system where you use magical energy you absorb from magic crystals around the world to craft spells. There are three basic types of energy: fire, ice, and lightning. Combining different types of energy can make spells with different properties, and even dual or triple cast spells, and combining these recipes with items can make them more powerful or generate more charges for them. These spells are grenades, and they work as such. They deal massive amounts of damage to pretty much every enemy, even those that are resistant to them. They also deal damage to your team, but it seems to be rather minimal in comparison to how much they can damage enemies. Energy is easy to find, and I just found my amount of magic limited by the storage I had. It is possible that if it used in most battles you will experience some scarcity, but the truth is the game is easy enough that you will probably only use it during boss battles, or against enemies who are far higher level than you.
There are no skill trees or much control over your characters save for buying them stronger equipment. There is a skill tree of sorts, called the ascension menu, but what it really does is mostly provide passive buffs and the occasional modifier to an ability. It can be easily forgotten. It seems that Square-Enix had plans for a deeper system, but they lowered their importance in order to lower the barrier of entry for this game. After all, the first thing you see when you turn on the game is “A Final Fantasy for fans and new comers alike” which is a really weird billing. But it seems that in their effort to make the game accessible, they made it too easy. The RPG systems are not the only ones that suffer from this. Driving consists mostly of stepping on the accelerator and occasionally choosing where to stop and where to turn. The car will stick to the road no matter what, and you have to try to crash, so forget about any ideas of taking the regalia to do some sick jumps or some doughnuts in the desert.
The reality is that this is a bad game that is elevated by its wonderfully realized and constructed world and by the strength of its characters and light-hearted tone. At least for the first half. At a point the game just falls apart completely. The tone shifts dramatically and gets much darker, and for a game that shined on its fun bro-camping adventures, this becomes a huge problem. The game becomes linear, ferrying you to separate continents over huge swaths of time you don’t get to play. It is a structure very similar to what you would expect from Uncharted or the Last of Us, but with writing of a far lower quality and not paced anywhere nearly as well. The story, which was already boring and hard to understand without seeing the companion anime, becomes a total mess. Characters die off screen, hell some characters the game doesn’t even bother to kill. They just disappear never to be heard from again. Things happen with seemingly no explanation. Plot threads that were built up just don’t materialize.
This is all well and good. The story wasn’t good to begin with, but the problem is that at that juncture, the game also stops being fun. The open world is gone, and the story kind of abandons the main motivation Noctis had for doing what he was doing. It just kind of feels like he is doing it just because he has to. There is no levity what so ever as well, and the truth is that Final Fantasy XV just doesn’t do dark and dramatic very well. In fact there are a couple of heartfelt scenes that are wonderfully animated and expertly voice acted that because of the pacing, structure, and down right monotony of the second half, are completely wasted. It feels like the writing team just chose a few emotional beats they wanted to touch and then just cut anything between these beats to the bare minimum. It feels rushed, and it all but killed any enjoyment I had for the game.
Final Fantasy XV could have been a deeply flawed, but enjoyable game like Xenoblade Chronicles X was last year, or Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was this year. But the truth is that to get those enjoyable bits you have to put up with a lot of bad design, empty world, and brutal loading times. And after about half way through the story mode, anything that is enjoyable about the game is gone, replaced by a second half so horrendous, I think the (justifiably) maligned Final Fantasy XIII comes out looking better in comparison. Square knows this too. They allow you to go back to the open world at any time during this second half with the excuse of “traveling to the past” which makes no sense, but its better having this feature than not, so I won’t harp about it. They have also announced that they will release patches through 2017 to add story chapters, fill out some of what missing, and smooth over some of the roughest edges of the game. I don’t recommend picking this game up at all. But if you do want to pick it up, I urge you to wait until all these patches are out. The truth is that even when they are out, I probably will never play the story mode of this game again, and if you are going to spend your money on this, you may as well wait until the better version is finally out. You’ve already waited ten years, what is a few more months to make sure its finished?