Full spoilers for Final Fantasy XV follow.
I hated Final Fantasy XIII. After years of hearing how great the series was, FFXIII was my first numbered entry in the franchise, but the game was a major letdown. Outside of Lightning, the characters were annoying. The game begins with a twenty hour tutorial. The level design is nothing more than straight corridors, and the battle system basically plays itself. I gave up on the game before I felt like I had even finished the introduction.
After being burned by the series, I was hesitant to pick up Final Fantasy XV especially after hearing so many negative reviews and comments on it. But I still gave the game a try because of the amazing trailer featuring a cover of “Stand By Me” from Florence + The Machine. Epic fantasy games are overdone, but coming of age buddy adventures are less traveled territory in video games. I picked up the Royal Edition in order to give the game a chance.
What I played was definitely a flawed game. Even with the additional content Square Enix has put out since the game’s release, so many areas of this game are lacking. After a decade of development, the game still feels unfinished. In fact, that long development time is probably a huge cause of FFXV‘s disjointed feel because of how often the developers’ vision changed. There is already plenty of discussion online about Final Fantasy XV‘s flaws. I will not bother rehashing those problems in too much detail, but here are some of the game’s biggest mistakes:
- The fall of Insomnia is glossed over. The player watches a short, confusing cutscene with no explanation, and the four main characters discover their hometown has been destroyed through a newspaper article.
- Luna and Noctis get almost zero screen time together except when they are children.
- The parts of the game outside Lucis are both figuratively and literally on rails. I assume the developers at one point had wanted to create a fully-featured second continent but had to vastly reduce the scope due to budget and time restraints.
- Very little backstory is covered between the four main characters. While they clearly like each other, players get little understanding about why these four care about one another.
- While on side quests, the game will often not allow you to fast travel to your objective but will allow you to fast travel to a nearby map location. The developers should have picked a side and let you only do one or the other.
- Like FFXIII before it, the game basically plays itself during fights.
But despite all the game’s flaws, I absolutely loved it; I devoured the game over the course of two and a half days, barely taking a break. Most of FFXV‘s problems can be classified as issues with either the narrative or the gameplay, and while I agree that both those areas have problems, they still get the job done. In some ways, those narrative and thematic limitations have thematic importance. 90% of FFXV‘s gameplay can be described as “Hold O to beat the game.” However, that works because Final Fantasy XV is fundamentally a game about the lack of agency we have in our lives and what we do to overcome that.
Destiny is a recurring theme in the fantasy genre. Final Fantasy XV is no exception; Noctis is the True King who will save the world from darkness. After killing Ardyn, the player is never given the option of whether or not to sacrifice Noctis to defeat Ardyn for good; Noctis just does it because it is his destiny. And ultimately, Noctis has been completely beholden to Ardyn’s plan as the antagonist gets everything he wanted, to end the line of Lucian kings and have his immortality ended. Neither Noctis nor the player have any real control over the outcome.
The trope of the Chosen One seems unrealistic. Nobody is born with a cosmic fate predetermined for them. However, destiny becomes a more relatable concept when you realize it is just a fill-in for the lack of control you have in your own life. So much of our lives has nothing to do with the decisions you make. Were you born with a debilitating handicap? How rich or poor is your family? Did you get shot by a random mugger on your way home one night? We are prisoners to circumstance.
And nowhere are the effects of circumstance more clear than with love. Sometimes you meet a girl you are compatible with, but she is already in a relationship. If you had met her two years ago, she might have ended up being your wife, but now you are stuck watching her get married to someone else. Sometimes you do not even get to meet a future significant other because one night you went to bar A instead of bar B. And sometimes the love of your life dies in your arms with nothing you can do to stop it. This is why Luna’s inclusion in FFXV is still necessary even if she does not play as large of a role as her character was once planned to in earlier versions of the game; her tragic end grounds Noctis’ story in something more relatable to the player. Regardless of whether it is Noctis becoming the True King or losing Luna, both events are out of his hands just like how most of the gameplay is out of the player’s control or how the audience only has so much control over their own lives.
If the destination is out of our control, then all that matters is the journey. Despite all the game’s flaws, the core gameplay of Final Fantasy XV works extraordinarily well. The gameplay loop of driving around in the Regalia, fishing with your buddies, fighting monsters, and then camping in the wilderness is effective and fulfilling. And it is all tied together by the likability of Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto and the camaraderie they have between one another. Almost every RPG has a party of characters going on an adventure, but Final Fantasy XV is the only one that fleshes out that party dynamic.
The most impressively designed moments in the game come after Luna’s death. The party is fractured and stop in a mining town to find another Royal Tomb. Ignis has been blinded and slows down the group. Gladiolus and Noctis argue constantly as the player struggles to balance keeping the group together and pushing forward to their next goal. The conflict and strife between the group feels genuine because by this point the player has put tens of hours into the dynamics of the party. From a narrative standpoint, chapter 10 is not that important, but those moments stick with me just as much as anything else in the game. The journey is more important than the destination.
And that is exactly what Noctis learns as well. Final Fantasy XV basically has three different but simultaneous endings, and each one represents a different aspect of Noctis. First in the central part of the narrative, Noctis sacrifices himself to destroy Ardyn. Second after the credits, Noctis and Luna sit on the throne together in some sort of afterlife scene, and the game’s true logo appears. While the game never gives an explicit explanation, it is arguable Luna and Noctis have ascended to some sort of godhood. But the most emotionally effecting ending is the flashback to the final campground where Noctis tells his friends how much they mean to him.
FFXV is a game that tries to be so much, but its flaws often get in the way. The game is not a great epic fantasy tale or love story, but it is a fantastic buddy adventure. And that excellence is enough to make it one of my favorite games of the current generation despite its flaws. Final Fantasy XV is the story of a king who would sacrifice everything for his people and of a god who wants to be with his love. But most importantly it is the story of a man who wants to sit around a campfire with his friends.