Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition – An incomplete road trip – Review

Gare – Thursday, July 19, 2018 2:16 PM
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I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that Final Fantasy XV is a game with a troubled past. Originally announced all the way back in 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII and then rebranded as Final Fantasy XV in 2013, the game underwent a number of changes over the years, including a change of directors, with Hajime Tabata of Final Fantasy Type-0 fame replacing Tetsuya Nomura. Final Fantasy XV was released on consoles in 2016 and launched for PC this year with all the additional content updates that had been developed during that two-year period, but is this now a finished, definitive edition of the title? Well, the short answer is no. No, it’s not. For the long answer, keep on reading.

Torn-out pages

Final Fantasy XV starts off with Prince Noctis on his way to marry a woman called Lunafreya, who also happens to be his childhood friend. Needless to say, not everything goes according to plan, and the game does start out in a really promising way… and then it’s over before you know it. I don’t feel like I came to know any of the main characters all that well – the majority of them, even the most important ones, barely get any screen time – and I wasn’t particularly invested in what was going on in the world because of how little of it is shown between those long hours of doing side quest upon side quest in the open world. Just when I thought we were done setting up the plot and it was finally about to start for real, I found out that I was already in the final stretch and would be staring at the credits very soon – what I naively thought to be merely the initial stage of the narrative was, in fact, the majority of it. As a result, the game’s otherwise powerful themes of loyalty and camaraderie rang somewhat hollow and didn’t pack the emotional punch they could have, had more care been taken to flesh out the characters and their circumstances. And if that wasn’t enough, the game even drops the pretense of trying to be an open world JRPG and awkwardly railroads you into a linear sequence of events in its second half as its scrambles to push some semblance of a plot out the door and in front of the audience. But it’s too little, too late. Indeed, Final Fantasy XV’s story ends before it ever has a chance to properly begin, and to say that it feels incomplete would be a colossal understatement – it’s more like 70% of the actual plot is just outright missing from the game, like a narrative phantom limb of sorts. Which is an ironic comparison to make, all things considered, as FFXV’s state heavily reminds me of 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a game that was often fun to play but turned out to be severely lacking in the storyline department.

I imagine FFXV’s storyline being drawn up on a whiteboard with several post-it notes labeled “insert story scenes and characterization here” – the problem is that said story scenes and characterization seemed to have never made it past the post-it note state, and while there are some truly spectacular set pieces here and there, they seemingly came at the cost of… well, everything else. Imagine trying to read a book, only to find out that a good chunk of its pages had been torn out – that is more or less what it feels like to experience Final Fantasy XV. The situation was apparently even more frustrating in the case of the original release, as the Windows/Royal Edition now includes three character-centric DLC episodes that focus on your companions during a time when they were temporarily absent from the main plot. But in the original version? They leave your party for a while and then show up a bit later without ever explaining what happened to them in the interim. If you don’t play those extra DLC episodes, you’ll never know – and even said DLC episodes are more like band-aids for an amputee. So yes, on a narrative level, Final Fantasy XV is one baffling decision after an another: it’s a visually stunning open world game with a disappointingly miniscule amount of plot, its sorry state reminding me of someone spreading a tiny spoonful of strawberry jam across the world’s largest slice of bread. What’s more, Square Enix still isn’t done trying to pump more life into the game, as four more DLC episodes have already been announced and are scheduled to launch next year, but whether or not they will be meaningful additions or another spoonful of strawberry jam is anybody’s guess. We’ll know for sure next summer.

So why, you might rightfully ask, would you want to play Final Fantasy XV, and why am I staring at my save file with a good 70 hours clocked on it? Well, it’s an open world game with tons of side activities and some genuinely atmospheric locations to explore. So there’s that. Some of these activities are even fun, like the ones that take you to optional dungeons or have you fight ridiculously powerful unique monsters. Others, unfortunately, feel more like tedious busywork. Go check if the pipes work properly. Go inspect some equipment. Go to this place and pick up an item. I could go on. There’s no intricate storyline to most of them and there are no choices or optional paths to take, either – it’s just a grind, serving as an excuse for you to go and sightsee in an otherwise empty world. There’s even a gorgeous-looking, Venice-inspired metropolis seemingly full of life and potential activities, but when you actually get there, you realize that there’s barely anything to do, which serves as the perfect metaphor for everything Final Fantasy XV is. Compare that to, say, The Witcher 3’s bustling Novigrad or the wealth of opportunities offered by an Elder Scrolls title and you start to wonder what went wrong during FFXV’s development. The game seemingly attempted to imitate the large, open world adventures of western RPGs without realizing that size alone isn’t enough – you need to fill your landmass with worthwhile things to do.

The four musketeers

Thankfully, one thing that made FFXV a mildly fun experience for me was the battle system. Easy to learn but hard to master, combat in Final Fantasy XV is flashy, fast-paced, and very action RPG-y – when it works, it works really well and looks delightfully fluid, with Noctis and co. performing daring somersaults or giving each other quick fist bumps after a successful combo while maneuvering between a dozen enemy soldiers, almost like they were on the set of a martial arts movie. What’s more, you’re not just limited to controlling Noctis – your three companions can also be unlocked as playable characters and come with their own distinct play styles and abilities, so there’s plenty of room for variety. Oh, and without spoiling anything, performing your first summoning will likely make your jaw drop, regardless of whether or not you’re a newcomer to the franchise. Things don’t always work out, though, and I can safely point at the camera as the main culprit: try to do battle in a tight corridor against building-sized enemies, or out in the wilderness with several bushes around, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Nonetheless, the combat never quite bored me during my many hours with the game, and I even enjoyed the way magic was implemented – not as fixed spells using mana, but rather as very limited consumable items that need to be crafted and can even be customized with various additional effects. You can think of it as alchemy: you first pick the elemental base (fire, lightning, or ice), then optionally choose an item to enhance the spell with an extra effect like poison, healing, and so on. The result is essentially a custom-tailored elemental grenade you can hurl at your enemies – sort of like bombs in The Witcher 3.

The relationship between the four male leads – Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto – is also handled reasonably well, especially if you do your homework and watch the animated supplementary material, although, like most other things in the game, it does lack in depth and doesn’t offer much more than some mid-exploration banter and a handful of genuinely funny moments. The game clearly aimed for a “laidback road trip with friends” sort of feel as its mission statement, and when it’s doing that and not trying to make you care about its grossly underdeveloped plot, Final Fantasy XV is actually quite a nice experience. Whether you choose to go fishing, explore one of the game’s dungeons or set up camp in the middle of the night while you sift through the photos Prompto took during the day, your party members will often chime in and make comments about stuff that’s going on around you. It makes you feel more like you’re actually traveling with three friends instead of three silent NPC followers, and while the novelty doesn’t last forever and you’ll soon notice your companions repeating the same old quips for the 27th time, FFXV’s attempt at making party members more than just amalgamations of stats and gear is nonetheless admirable.

Lukewarm feelings

So where exactly do I stand when it comes to rating Final Fantasy XV? Well, it’s a difficult issue, because it’s been a while since I’ve had such lukewarm feelings toward a video game. I don’t dislike it. In fact, I had a decent bit of fun with it for the most part. The core mechanics are quite polished, and it’s easy to tell how much passion the team poured into the game. But it is, on the whole, disappointing, and the lasting injuries of the development hell it so miraculously survived become more than visible after the first few hours: Final Fantasy XV is indeed a very appetizing-looking cake of a JRPG at first glance, but its lack of substance becomes apparent after the first few bites, revealing a hollow cavity where the rest of the cake should be. It sadly falls into the same trap many other open world games fell victim to: namely, preferring quantity over quality, and failing to realize that a handful of well-written side missions are far more valuable than a hundred or so generic fetch quests. And with the storyline being as rushed and incomplete as it is, the game’s primary strengths lie in how much you enjoy messing around with side quests and exploration in an admittedly very pretty open world with three chatty and decently likable chaps at your side. Because that really does make up the bulk of the experience. Still, even after pouring 70 hours into my save file and doing a decent chunk of the post-game activities on offer, I can see myself going back to the game in short bursts whenever the road trip mood hits me, which, I suppose, is proof that despite its glaring flaws, there’s a certain magic to the whole experience that tends to pull you in. Approach it with heavily tempered expectations and you might get some enjoyment out of it, but make no mistake: this is by no means a glorious return to form for the series that I – and likely many others – have been waiting for since the PS1/PS2 era.

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