I really wanted to love Final Fantasy 15. I really did.
I haven’t loved a Final Fantasy title since FFX. Few have managed to worm their way in to my heart and stick me right in the feels the way only a Final Fantasy game can. Most would agree the series had quite a long way to go in order to win back the hearts of minds of gamers. Final Fantasy 15 makes an admirable and certainly gorgeous attempt, but in the end, this is a tale more of tragedy than triumph.
The Final Fantasy series had quite a long way to go in order to win back the hearts of minds of gamers
The game opens by plunking you down on the side of the road with the protagonist, Noctis, already a few hours in to the titular bro-trip that has been advertised as the centerpiece of the game. And right away we come face to face with one of the main issues with the game.
Initially, and on the surface, Noctis and his merry band of Luis Viton models give the appearance of fully fleshed out characters. We imagine they have various unique motivations and backgrounds that inform their behavior, the intricacies and nuances of which will be slowly revealed to us naturally over the course of the game. Except that they don’t and they’re not.
All the classic archetype tropes make an appearance; there’s the young one, the smart one, the strong one and of course our hero, the absurdly attractive yet deeply tormented- for-no-reason-that’s-ever-explained one. Only the barest suggestion of a personality is made for each member of the entourage.
This is not to say they’re not believable characters, only that the ambition behind their design doesn’t quite come across because of the execution. Ignis cooking for everyone at the end of the day is intended to be a grounding moment, where you reflect on the day’s events and bro-out with your boys.
I may have done that four times total, throughout the entire game.
Most of my in-game “days” ended in fast-traveling to the nearest rest-stop so I could level up and heal. Noctis’ boy band coterie never has their motivations explained; only that apparently their job is to be the protagonist’s best friends.
While Noctis and company are believable characters, the ambition behind their design isn’t backed up by the execution
Without getting too spoiler-y, there are parts of the plot that literally don’t even happen on screen, and some characters who’s importance has been built up over the first half of the game, end up spending less than 5 minutes actually in it.
The characters and plot all have nice set dressing, but in the end, it feels like there’s no one behind the curtain. At one point, I had to go to the game’s Wiki article to find out what was actually happening because the game did such a poor job of explaining it, even though the story is about as complicated as a Kevin Kostner movie, circa 1999.
To its credit, the world is indeed sprawling and enormous, and visually the game is a fucking genius level achievement. As huge as the game is, it ultimately feels small.
As huge a game as it is, Final Fantasy 15 ultimately feels small.
My first play through took me barely 30 hours. Any proper roleplaying game should be a minimum of 40 hours, at the very least. In fairness, I did more or less just power through the story, without doing much else. It’s worth stating that it wasn’t for lack of things to do, quite the contrary. There was a veritable fuckton of stuff to do. Your world map is increasingly bukkaked with little icons begging you to go investigate them, akin to GTA , Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry Whatever. The problem is that there’s nothing motivating you to go do those things. You’re never short of funds, gear or resources and the side quests never offer anything resembling compelling gameplay.
This over saturation of locales and items on your map actually ends up working against the game, as you can quickly feel like the sheer number of things to do is more intimidating than enthralling, and end up avoiding most of it altogether. In my play through, I did a total of five to ten side quests before I realized they had no real impact on the game or my characters progression, after which I ignored them for the remainder of the game.
The true genius of an open world game is its sense of transparent guidance, the unseen hand gently nudging you off the beaten path
The true genius of a successfully executed open world game, like Skyrim, for example, is not its map, covered in things to do. Skyrim is brilliant because of how it leads you to the side quests. You organically stumble upon things happening, events in progress or scenarios you can take part in. And once they’ve got your attention, they reward it with interesting stuff to do and storylines with outcomes you can affect, which in turn encourages you to continue the gameplay behavior that lead you to discover them in the first place. It’s that sort of transparent guidance, the unseen hand gently nudging you off the beaten path that is essential for a good side quest system.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy 15 does not manage to pull this off. After pulling up to the 10th rest stop, I don’t want to put the story quest or my need to resupply consumables on hold so I can go talk to the diner owner and ask if he needs me to drive halfway across the map to deliver a McGuffin to some other NPC. That takes me out of the story and is unfulfilling. As a result, you end up being motivated to just power thru the story missions to advance the plot.
You get the sense that you’re in a large world, but there’s nothing compelling you to go out and see it
After 30 hours with Final Fantasy 15, I felt like the time we had together flew by. The game certainly made it clear that its intention was for me to feel as though it had been with me for much longer, however. It does that a lot, actually. Final Fantasy 15 is constantly telling me “this is a big huge world” “there are very epic matters of life and death occurring” “these guys are your life long pals” “you love this chick” “your dad and your kingdom are awesome and worth saving” and you want to believe what its saying, but aside from stunning set pieces, it doesn’t really do a lot to convince.
In contrast, I remember the first time I finished FFX. I literally felt as though I had lived inside of that game for almost a year. When Chrono Cross was released, it defined my girlfriend and I’s entire life for at least four months. Final Fantasy 15, on the other hand, despite being objectively larger than both those games by a sizable margin, was over in about three days.
The combat, when you’re not fighting the camera, is effective and visually awesome
The combat, when you’re not fighting the camera, is as functional as it is flashy, though it doesn’t try to do much more than that. After a little while, I easily picked up how to warp around and dodge/parry attacks. To its credit, the system looks great and functions well. Given the style of the game, I definitely think this was the right way to go in terms of crafting a battle system; however, I’d be lying if I said part of me didn’t wish I had the precise control that a standard ATB system offers.
As an example, you can barely control your party members, and for some reason, spells are area of effect, with friendly fire, so the game actually encourages you to not equip your party members with magic because if you do, they toss spells around with a complete disregard for the tactical situation and usually ended up setting me on fire.
Gear also plays a huge role in how effective you can be in combat. I made the mistake of not consistently buying new gear as often as I should have, and I was getting positively crushed. Another thing I can’t stress enough is how important it is to spend your AP on healing spells/abilities. The only way to heal in combat that you have direct control over is using potions. Noctis doesn’t get a stock heal ability so spend your AP on Regroup/First Aid as soon as possible.
Final Fantasy 15 is a victim of the series success. It’s precisely because of how much it has to live up to that I demand it fully earn every bit of praise. It’s a decent game, certainly fun, and a fairly strong JRPG in its own right, but the truth is it just didn’t consume me the way previous entries and other RPG’s have, and ultimately, that’s the standard I need to hold it to. It’s absolutely a step in the right direction for the series, and I’m excited as hell to see where Squareenix takes Final Fantasy from here. But for all the open world flexing and fancy hairdos, the world and characters still didn’t come close to feeling as real to me as Spira in FFX, or Balamb Garden in FFVIII. I really wanted to love Final Fantasy 15, truly, but as it turns out, I only like it. As a friend.