It was a decade ago that Square Enix first revealed the game that would ultimately become Final Fantasy XV—a Kingdom Hearts-inspired spinoff called Final Fantasy Versus XIII.
Nobody could have imagined that Final Fantasy Versus XIII would fall into development hell, going through multiple iterations before finally being saved as a numbered entry for the PlayStation 4. Nor could they have imagined the changes the series, the genre, and indeed the medium itself would undergo in the ensuing decade. Final Fantasy XV, like Final Fantasy XIII before it, wound up sucking the entire franchise into a decade-long black hole, and pretty much everyone is ready for Square Enix to finally, finally, put the last vestiges of the cursed Fabula Nova Crystallis series behind them once and for all.
Amid all this drama, it's sometimes easy to forget that there's an actual game in there somewhere. But now that it's here, we can finally judge it on its own merits and ask whether if in some small measure it was all worth it. At a guess, it will prove as controversial after release as it was before it, with some loving it and others loathing it. This has always been the case with Final Fantasy, but it feels especially true with this version. To be honest, I'm still not sure what to make of it, even after playing it for 35 hours and watching the credits roll.
But I will say this: I kind of like it.
On the road to destiny
In mulling my feelings for Final Fantasy XV, the one aspect that I keep going back to is its open world. It's a world that manages to feel dense and interesting but also empty, mixing rural American landscapes with MMORPG-like gathering and dungeon-diving. Everytime I look at this world, I think, "There's not actually much here, is there?" And yet, I never seem to want for something to do.
The first half of Final Fantasy XV's story is set here, opening with Noxis, Prompto, Gladio, and Ignis—a prince and his three bodyguards—pushing their fancy car into a gas station, and continuing through multiple dungeons and as many fetchquests as you can stomach. Oh yes, there are definitely fetchquests in Final Fantasy XV. You think Dragon Age: Inquisition had a lot of fetchquests? Wait til you start exploring Lucis. Most of the sidequests involve finding some item and returning it to the quest giver, giving it an old-school open-world RPG feel. They feel a lot like the randomly-generated quests from Skyrim, which isn't really a compliment. Square Enix would have done well to borrow from the rather elaborate sidestories and quest chains found in the likes of the Witcher 3, which encourage you to explore far and wide.
By conventional open-world RPG standards, Lucis is also pretty small, featuring only one major landmass dotted with gas stations and cafes. These outposts serve as the jumping-off point for your forays into the wilderness, which will typically find you gathering ingredients, hunting treasure, or battling monsters. If you're looking for a change of pace, you can rent and race chocobos, your reward being treasure and increased customization options for your birds. A little later, you can take on high-level hunts and optional dungeons, which you can uncover by talking to local proprietors. Final Fantasy XV's world is open pretty much from the start, and you can easily waste 20 hours or more just tooling around taking on sidequests and exploring.
Your best friend in all this is the Regalia—the crew's royal sports car, which you can repaint and load up with decals if you so desire. The Regalia is your primary mode of transportation, carrying you from one town to another and generally giving you the sense that you're on a long roadtrip. It's possible to drive the Regalia, but I mostly left that to Ignis, preferring instead to put a classic Final Fantasy soundtrack on the car radio and just enjoy the scenery. Other times, I used it to fast-travel across the map. However you choose to use it, you'll never be far from the Regalia, making it the unofficial fifth member of your party. My personal favorite memories of Final Fantasy XV are riding around in the Regalia, taking on hunts, and just enjoying the world, which is gorgeous. Driving around in the car has the interesting effect of making Lucis feel bigger than it actually is, particularly with the story focusing on a few set areas to start. Distance is a bit wonky in Final Fantasy XV—it takes forever just to drive three miles in the Regalia—but it's nevertheless an effective illusion.
Final Fantasy XV also does a good job of keeping your quest log filled without feeling overwhelming, leaving you with the sense that there's always something to do. Most of the time, I would roll into a local outpost, check on the gathering points and hunts, then wander until dark. Once the sun goes down, you can either stay in a lodge or put up camp to refresh your hitpoints and tally up experience. If you decide to camp, Ignis will use the ingredients you find to cook a meal, which offers temporary stat buffs over the course of the following day. The overall flow ends up feeling very natural, and it's one of the things that I like best about Final Fantasy XV.
But alas, it doesn't last. The open world fades away around the story's midpoint, gradually narrowing until all you have are cutscenes, dungeons, and setpiece battles. Happily, you can eventually return to the open world with the help of your fiancé's dog, who will send you back into the past so that you can explore to your heart's content. I wouldn't call it a perfect solution—it's a bit weird that you can bring back gear and experience from your "memories"—but it's better than nothing, I guess.
These forays eventually become a welcome respite from the weight of the story, with various party members longingly recalling all the fun times tooling around the countryside. I too came to miss that aspect of that story, and felt relieved whenever I went back. Much as I would have liked for the roadtrips to continue through the entirety of the story, I wonder if it would have been a good idea to sacrifice the nostalgic element that emerges when they're taken away, as it proves to be a surprisingly powerful bit of storytelling. If nothing else, it turns what might have otherwise been a weakness into something positive.
So let's talk some more about the story. Final Fantasy's stories are always controversial, and Final Fantasy XV is unlikely to be any different, focusing as it does on four boys with a penchant for tromping around the wilderness in leather.
It has been billed as a story about brotherhood, and for what it's worth, it does manage to do the necessary legwork to establish a plausible bond between the prince and his retinue. Their personalities are evident from the start: the first shot of Noctis has him leaning wordlessly against the broken-down Regalia as the rest of the group figures out what to do, establishing him as a bit of a brat. Gladio is the father figure, constantly chastising Noctis for his immaturity and trying to get him to be more of a leader. Ignis is the uber-competent cook and driver who is initially boring but who later in the story takes a rather interesting turn. And Prompto... Prompto is the little brother, constantly yapping around the group like a little blonde chihuahua.
They are sent out into the wilderness by the ruler of Crown City, who knows that his kingdom is about to be invaded by the neighboring Empire and wants to protect his heir, Noctis. Thrust into the role of king, Noctis has to grow up fast and lead the effort to recover the kingdom's crystal from the Empire, which holds the key to the fate of the world. I found that I liked Noctis's guardsmen despite myself, their sometimes inane conversations on the road and around the campfire making them seem far more real than the overwrought cardboard cutouts populating Final Fantasy XIII. Together with a handful of side characters, they form the core of a decent little coming-of-age arc centering on Noctis. Admittedly, these tropes are old as time, and god knows we have enough examinations of male friendship in the media; but in the end, there's enough in the way of interesting conflict and character development for it to work.
Of course, it's best if you don't think too much about the fact that Noctis's kingdom seems to consist of about 10 people, or the fact that the newly-anointed king and his royal retinue is tromping around the wilderness while an entire military is trying to hunt them down. It's even better if you don't think about the fact that the group takes on an entire military base at one point to rescue their car, ostensibly because it has sentimental value.
What's important is that the emotional core is there, that the story hums along at a reasonable pace, and that the villains are actually somewhat interesting this time around. Final Fantasy XV peppers its story with a number of antagonists, most of whom work for the Empire. Not all are as they seem, and interestingly, the story goes out of its way to subvert at least one of the franchise's more common villainous tropes (you'll know what I mean when you see it). Of the more ambiguous characters that you meet, the most interesting is Ardyn, a fedora-wearing stranger who is friendly and helpful at the outset but clearly has his own agenda. He ends up playing a pretty big role in the story that unfolds, and while his motives aren't altogether surprising, his sly delivery and unique fashion sense makes him memorable
I'll admit: I liked Final Fantasy XV's story. It's fantasy pulp, but one with enough of an emotional arc that it kept me invested. If it has a weakness, outside of being kind of ridiculous at times, it's Noctis himself, who is sullen, taciturn, and well, kind of boring. He's the archetypal teen who has to put aside his childish things, start getting up early in the morning, and embrace his duty—always a popular theme in Japanese media. His friends basically have to drag him around by the scruff of the neck, which explains why Gladio gets so impatient with him. His strongest relationship is with his fiancé Lunafreya—a character he mostly interacts with through a book delivered by a magical dog. It's not until the latter part of the story that he begins to grow in any meaningful way.
Your mileage will, as always, vary depending upon how down you are with Final Fantasy's very particular mix of advanced technology, overwrought fantasy, and high fashion, which is apt to strike some as silly. But in an era where publishers are more inclined than ever to play it safe, Final Fantasy XV's goofiness pops, and so does its surprisingly touching story of four dudes on the road to destiny.