A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy XV (PlayStation 4)

A QUICK note: This took me too long to write, and there are spoilers ahead.

Let’s cut to the chase for a moment: Final Fantasy XV is a deeply compromised experience. It is the only logical result of a decade’s worth of scattered direction, corporate mismanagement and unchecked ambition. It is a game that feels helplessly adrift in the confines of modernity; a relic from a bygone generation still tethered to an outmoded design philosophy, with an engine that struggles to support its gargantuan graphical demands. It is a deeply flawed but, more importantly, a deeply fascinating piece of art, surrounded as it is by a vast multitude of minor catastrophes beyond its immediate control.

To cut away from the chase, and you may already know this: Final Fantasy XV was never originally intended to be the fifteenth mainline instalment of its namesake series. Its original incarnation came in the form of Final Fantasy Versus XIII, which was announced during E3 2006 alongside Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII, all part of the infamously botched Fabula Nova Crystallis. Designed as a “ground-breaking new take on entertainment”, this sub-series was poised to launch the company – and the series as a whole – into a multimedia stratosphere that would make the controversial Compilation of Final Fantasy VII seem trivial by comparison, complete with its own multi-layered mythos and a veritable dream team of proven talent.

While Final Fantasy XIII inevitably grabbed the most headlines with a stunning, kaleidoscopic array of particle effects and Lightning acrobatics, Versus XIII’s announcement trailer was a more sombre affair, with a black-garbed anime swordsman – later named Noctis – slicing through nondescript armoured foes in a modern city to the baleful tones of an aria. Director Tetsuya Nomura, fresh off the stunning success of Kingdom Hearts and its superlative sequel, spoke at length about his plans to imbue Versus XIII with “extreme action spectacle”, emotional complexity and darker themes than had been seen in the series proper, while simultaneously admitting that not a single word had been committed to the actual scenario.

If this concept was to be believed, Versus XIII seemed destined to represent something different for the then-20-year-old series. Modern trappings had been toyed with in FFVII and FFVIII, but never had they been this overtly recognisable. With this aesthetic at its back, the game would centre around “current-world events” and shy away from JRPG narrative convention: “A fantasy based on reality,” as that initial trailer so boldly declared.

But then Final Fantasy XIII happened. Or, more accurately, it wasn’t happening. The Crystal Tools engine that had been specifically designed for both games was proving to be an unwieldy monstrosity, and by late 2008 FFXIII director Motomu Toriyama requested that his game, as the mainline entry, needed prioritisation if it wanted to be made in a timely fashion. Given that the last six years of the series had been defined by developmental nightmares, Square Enix obliged, and Nomura was forced to admit that Versus was “waiting on XIII before any substantial progress could be made.

After FFXIII’s belated 2010 release – four years out from the announcement of both games – the Versus XIII team realised that Crystal Tools was incapable of handling the open-world environments they had planned, rendering months of work unusable. Nomura and his team were back to the drawing board, just in time for FFXIV to die on arrival. It was clear that Versus XIII had grown too large for Crystal Tools to contain; so, in yet another dazzling display of latter-day Square Enix financial efficiency, the Luminous Engine was commissioned and implemented into the game’s development. Not long after, the PlayStation Four and Xbox One were unveiled, causing the originally PS3-exclusive Versus to shift gears yet again.

The game had become so enormous that, by mid-2012, Square Enix, itself in the midst of an enormous corporate overhaul, decided to formally abandon the Fabula Nova Crystallis albatross and had it internally re-christened as a mainline Final Fantasy title. Around the same time, Hajime Tabata and his Final Fantasy Type-0 (formerly Agito XIII) team joined the Versus debacle in order to salvage the perpetually stalling project. Tabata, known internally as a Mr. Fix It for his adherence to deadlines, soon joined Nomura in the director’s chair. From such a vantage point, he quickly realised that the game was barely 25% complete. After six years. They, along with the now-300-odd staff under their direction, were effectively starting from scratch.

Again.

And so, at E3 2013, Versus XIII was officially rebranded as Final Fantasy XV – but not before Nomura, in a characteristically Icarian flight of fancy, had burst into the Square Enix office and demanded the game become a full-on musical. From there, development for the game could progress smoothly… until Nomura was forcibly removed from the director’s chair in late 2014. (If you’ve played Kingdom Hearts III, you can probably work out how he felt about this.)

Tabata, now sole director, was to free to concentrate on getting the damn game finished. With an enormous team at his beck and call, and company executives presumably breathing down his neck, he was laser-focused on a worldwide Autumn 2016 release date. Living on three hours of sleep a day and working beneath insane corporate and fan expectations, Tabata made a judgement call: cut corners, and fast. After one final delay from September to November of 2016 – and a relatively modest Day One patchFinal Fantasy XV was released to the public. Ten years and the conclusion of two console generations later.

Part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to write about Final Fantasy XV – and thus complete this near-three-year project – is because there’s just so much to discuss. Condensing all the insanity of the decade-long development hell that engulfed Square Enix and the Versus XIII team into a palatable article had become an overwhelming prospect. For over a year, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I stared at blank pages, sometimes with the game on in the background, and I struggled to convey exactly how I felt about the whole damn thing.

Perhaps I was afraid to finish it. Perhaps I’d finally bitten off more than I could chew. Perhaps I’d simply had enough; or, perhaps more worryingly, there really wasn’t all that much to say about the finished product. The sad reality of Final Fantasy XV is that, for all the hoopla and corporate intrigue surrounding its ballyhooed release, the game itself is far less interesting than the controversy surrounding it.

And yet its opening is fascinating. After a blitzkrieg inferno in a dream that may or may not be the future, and a strained farewell from some King named Regis, we find ourselves (after a lengthy loading screen) on an endless country road in what looks like the furthest reaches of the Nevada desert. There, four young men sweat in the baking sun beside a broken-down car and, after exchanging some friendly banter, they all begin to push it down the road. Florence Welch’s cover of ‘Stand By Me’ begins to play. The logo appears as the camera pans up toward the sky, and the message is clear: the world is your oyster and the sky is, indeed, the limit.

Because Final Fantasy XV is an open-world game. Despite the litany of side-quests and optional locations that peppered previous games, the series had never been unabashedly exploratory outside of the MMO entries. The world maps of the 2D and early 3D games were carefully constructed illusions of freedom, since the player was always funnelled toward one specific location or another. Later entries – FFX and FFXIII in particular – eschewed any form of openness until their post-games, preferring near-total linearity to tell their stories.

Conversely, the world of Final Fantasy XV – named Eos, for convenience’s sake – is open to the player within the first 20 minutes, leaving them free to explore with limited encumbrance. Characteristic of the series, Eos’ sheer beauty begs the player to wander into the vast embrace of its wilderness, and the first few story-centric quests encourage you to do just that. The game wants you to drive around in the boys’ personal Batmobile, the Regalia, and immerse yourself in a living, breathing world. This is wonderful in theory: Isamu Kamikokuryo and his team’s art design is, as ever, astounding, and the boys’ light-hearted commentary on the sights and sounds they drive past is deeply endearing, but the theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The reality is that Eos is yet another vast and empty open world like the myriad of other vast, empty open worlds that plagued the industry in the mid-2010s. Compared to something like the Hyrule of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it proves to be desperately inadequate, more closely resembling the beautiful barrenness of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, with interminably long stretches of travelling from spot to spot to hunt X amounts of fauna or gather X amounts of flora. There are exactly three proper settlements on the continent, none of which have the sprawl or distinct identity of, say, Los Santos from Grand Theft Auto V, or even the Imperial City of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (which, incidentally, was released in 2006). The rest is taken up almost exclusively by nondescript ‘terrain’.

Not helping matters is the uniform banality of the NPCs. The modern aesthetic that the game strives toward isn’t especially conducive to memorable NPC design in the first place, but it’s rare to see such a lifeless collection of quest dispensers. Hilariously, the only one that springs to mind is the first one you find, and that’s because his name is Dave. A character called Dave in a Final Fantasy game is bizarre on a number of levels, but it’s a grim indictment of FFXV’s lack of engaging side characters when even Lightning Returns offers both memorable NPCs and, even more shockingly, a more coherent world for them to inhabit.

The combat system is similarly slapdash. The early trailers for Versus XIII promised dynamic, on-the-fly battles that were closer to Kingdom Hearts than the more traditional turn-based systems of the past. The final release’s Active Cross Battle is decidedly not that. While battles occur in real-time and the ‘Warp’ feature that showed Noctis zipping around the battlefield is still present, combat ultimately devolves into holding down a button to swing a sword, pressing another button to dodge, and repeating that process ‘til everything dies.

Despite having a full party of four, the player exclusively controls Noctis. His AI companions certainly function more effectively in battle than the blinking doormats of FFXIII, but in longer battles I found myself constantly spamming Potions on them as they slumped to their knees for the fifteenth time. This ability to spam healing items extends to when Noctis is defeated; with an inexpensive Phoenix Down, he’s right back up as if nothing had happened, crippling any difficulty the game may have had. What amounts to strategy in combat revolves around attacking enemies from the side or from behind, sometimes allowing Noctis to initiate powerful “Link Strike” attacks with the crew.

Warping, by far the most dynamic and interesting facet of combat, is rendered moot by how easy it is to duck and weave and occasionally dodge roll around enemy attacks. Outside of swarms in imperial bases, Warping wastes the stamina that would otherwise be used for dodging, and is only truly useful for more stylishly-inclined players who’d rather be playing Devil May Cry 5. The option to shift weapons mid-combo is welcome, but there’s little incentive to switch when most weapon-types do the same base damage regardless.

The only instances where Warping becomes essential is during large-scale boss fights, and it’s a critical factor for why these boss fights are some of the worst I’ve ever played. The otherwise reliable camera goes haywire in these spectacle battles, most notably in the much-hyped Leviathan fight. Noctis is swooping around like a Dragon Ball Z character, immaterial and glorious, as Yoko Shimomura’s suitably cataclysmic ‘Apocalypsis Aquarius’ roars in the background, and it’s trying so hard to be the most earth-shatteringly epic thing you’ve ever seen… but the camera insists on shoving itself right up Leviathan’s numerous armpits while Noctis ineffectually flails at the bottom and it’s all a blur of blue and black and even that disaster pales in comparison to the execrable, hours-long Adamantoise super-boss in the post-game.

You may not be surprised to learn that the plot is also a bit of a mess, to put it mildly. The camaraderie between Noctis and his coterie – rambunctious Prompto; gruff and buff Gladiolus; scientific Ignis – is endearing, but it isn’t enough to sustain a by-the-numbers narrative that’s crippled by its fundamental lack of context and consequences. Here’s the gist: Noctis is the prince of Lucis, the last kingdom to withstand the might of the Niflheim Empire. Together with his aforementioned companions, he is sent away from the capital of Insomnia by his father, King Regis, for his own protection (and also to consummate his arranged marriage to sort-of childhood sweetheart Lunafreya). When Niflheim invades Insomnia, captures their precious Crystal(!) and assassinates Regis, Noctis embarks on a quest to reclaim his kingdom and the Crystal.

The first eight of the game’s 15 chapters are located on the Lucian mainland, where Noctis and co. are relegated to tracking down Royal Arms – legendary weapons of previous Lucian kings – and occasionally encountering underdeveloped side characters. Little of consequence happens, save for a few moments of interference by the most compelling aspect of FFXV’s limited plot, Ardyn Izunia, until the final chapters railroad the player down linear hallways that give FFXIII’s tube a run for its money. This culminates in the (appropriately) excruciating Chapter 13, where the game decides to include an hours-long stealth section while simultaneously stripping the player of the ability to run. It is every bit as awful as it sounds.

Or, at least, it was when the game was initially released. It has since been patched. Most of the game has been extensively patched; so much so, in fact, that the Final Fantasy XV that abounds on retailer shelves at the end of the decade is almost unrecognisable from the Final Fantasy XV that released at the end of 2016. (You can play as the other party members, for one thing). As commendable as it is for Square Enix to support a single-player game like this, it also says something else: upon release, Final Fantasy XV was an incomplete, somewhat broken, narratively-crippled trainwreck. Tabata and Square Enix must have realised this, because they resurrected the ghost of the Fabula Nova Crystallis and built for FFXV its own self-contained, multimedia universe.

There are two viable explanations for this decision. The generous explanation was to expand the lore and world of FFXV in ways that may not have been possible within the game itself. The cynical explanation, and probably the most accurate, is that Square Enix had pumped god knows how much cash into this money pit of a game and they were going to recoup every last penny, come hell or high water. The following is (I think) the complete list of Final Fantasy XV Universe products:

A star-studded feature-length film; an anime mini-series; a lore-crucial demo; a mobile game based on a mini-game within the actual game, and a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up. Bear in mind that all this came before the actual game was released. When it did arrive, it was succeeded by: A mobile strategy MMO; four DLC Episodes with vital plot details; a chibi-fied “Pocket Edition”, and a VR fishing game.

Every single one of these add-ons, at least to some extent, attempts to fill in the cracks of FFXV’s crumbling narrative. When I said that the opening was fascinating, it was because I’d actually made an effort to watch the (awful) film, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV beforehand and knew, at least to some extent, what was going on. The anime series, Brotherhood, is available in its entirety on YouTube and fills in critical elements of each party member’s backstory. The so-called Platinum Demo reveals key aspects of Noctis’ childhood. It bears repeating: none of this is in the vanilla release. None of it is even referenced. In most cases, you have to pay to find out.

What exactly happened when Niflheim invaded Insomnia? Watch Kingsglaive. Why is Prompto seen as the precocious little brother of the group? Watch Brotherhood. Where on earth does Gladiolus disappear to in Chapter 7? Buy Episode Gladiolus, the DLC package. When did Ignis get blinded and how? Buy Episode Ignis, you dummy! Even Ardyn is (ironically) short-changed by this philosophy, since his enthralling backstory is detailed in, you guessed it, Episode Ardyn – the final DLC released before Square Enix pulled the plug on FFXV development following Tabata’s unceremonious departure from the company. (The canned DLC has since been reconstituted into a novel called Dawn of the Future.)

On a fundamental level, Final Fantasy XV remains unfinished. Despite becoming the fastest-selling instalment in series history, and despite the best intentions of an overworked team’s attempts to salvage years of mismanagement, the game is incomplete. Alongside The Last Guardian, a similarly-beset piece of vapourware that released at the tail-end of 2016, it was the last of a dying breed; the death knell of a design ethos.

Comparing it to other games released in the same time-frame, especially within its own genre, seems cruel; it can’t hope to match the effortless class of Persona 5, or the stunning open worlds of Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, or even the superlative story-telling of NieR: Automata. In a series renowned for its marriage of narrative brilliance and gameplay innovation, FFXV provides neither, watering both down in pursuit of gacha roadmaps and sidequests dedicated to shilling Cup Noodle. (Which is as hilarious as it is pathetic.)

And yet, for all that, I can’t help but like Final Fantasy XV. For all the failings of the bigger picture, it’s the small joys that make the game worth playing. It’s hearing Ignis cry, “That’s it!” for the thousandth time as he comes up with a new reci-pay. It’s feeling your knuckles whiten as you battle with all your might to reel in the Pink Jade Gar on your fishing line. It’s sitting around a campfire in the beautiful wilderness to see your accumulated experience points cascade into higher levels. It’s browsing through Prompto’s camera snapshots, or Warping from pylon to boulder, or listening to classic tracks from throughout the series blare through the Regalia’s speakers.

Above all else, it’s the rapport between the four protagonists that propels FFXV beyond its (often self-inflicted) doldrums. While not especially interesting individually, as a unit they evoke the sense of adventure that the series had largely abandoned up to this point. Their observations and quippy remarks to each other, supported by excellent English voice acting, help characterise their world far better than any multimedia tie-in could ever hope to achieve. Perhaps that’s the reason why, in spite of all the narrative stumbles that had preceded it, the game’s final moments are so impactful.

The set-up is a simple one. Noctis and his friends are enjoying a meal around a campfire; the last one they will have before they storm Insomnia to reclaim their home. Noctis has resigned himself to his fate – to kill Ardyn and purge the darkened world of the Starscourge, sacrificing his life in the process. He struggles to describe how he feels to his friends, knowing that this is the last moment of peace they will share together. Overcome with tears, he finally musters the words to say: “You guys… are the best.” Describing it in such straightforward language doesn’t do it justice, but the power of this moment is amplified by the friendship that the player has witnessed for the past 50 hours or so.

In its own, heart-breaking way, it exemplifies both the flaws and the brilliance of FFXV. On the one hand, it’s a tantalising glimpse at what could have been, if only the full game had retained even a fraction of that scene’s greatness, instead of stumbling at almost every hurdle in its final rush to release. On the other hand, it’s a reminder that the story, for all its misfires and aimlessness, is a fundamentally human one. For all the half-baked mechanics, absent plots and missing content, FFXV is a story about – as hopelessly anime as this will sound – the power of human connection.

So, yes, Final Fantasy XV is a deeply compromised experience. How could it not be? To say otherwise would be to ignore the litany of issues and inconsistencies that plague the game as a whole. It is, however, a captivating experience unique within the series, with as many hits as misses. Even Hironobu Sakaguchi, estranged father of both the series and Square Enix itself, acknowledged that Tabata and his team had channelled his spirit in the making of the game. Who better to give the stamp of approval from the man who started it all?

And it only took them ten years to make.

Next time, for the very last time: we started with a prelude, and we’ll end with a coda. We’ll take a look back at the series as a whole, where it’s going, and whether or not I’ve wasted three years of my life writing a novel’s worth on a famous JRPG series. Stick around.

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