The last game I played to completion in the flagship Final Fantasy series was VII, and of those that came after, I skipped most of them entirely. FFXV‘s reinvention of the wheel draws some obvious parallels to what Breath of the Wild accomplished for Zelda, and even more than ten years ago, it was plainly apparent that these series were getting stale. But for these two long-standing, conservative pillar franchises of the industry, it took a long time to push past “readily obvious” to actually doing something about it. For either series, it was easy to be skeptical about a shift to “open-world” gameplay: vast free-roaming gameplay is, at its worst, already long stale; a buzzword that means little on its own. So how did they fare? Zelda took the meaning of “open world” more to heart than I ever expected, while FFXV set a linear story within one, but both are undeniably good games. No matter what else, you’re bound to see some interesting things happen when an old and legendary IP gives you a whole world to explore, bringing cactuars (or octoroks) and limit breaks (or heart containers) with them.
The “open world”
In truth, FFXV is not so open. You don’t drive a car wherever you want so much as choose which lane to be in, and where to turn. Even the flying car — unlocked in postgame — ridiculously throws up a “game over” screen if you attempt to land in an open field instead of directly on an authorized road. There are chocobos to take to the fields, but you tend to only take them the rest of the way from the road to the point you’re trying to reach, rather than circumventing the paths laid out by the roads entirely: there are just too many obstacles in the form of insurmountable cliffs and impenetrable thickets of trees and even invisible walls. A later update to the game added a fully-manual offroad monster truck, kind of the car and chocobo in one, and to its credit, it feels more fun to drive than the standard car, if just by virtue of being able to crash into things. But it suffers the same problem: the map is unchanged, lacks shortcuts, and doesn’t accommodate the joy of stubbornly declaring, “I don’t want to take the road, for it bends several times before getting to where I want to be, and I just don’t feel like bending today.” Here in FFXV, you are not God. The Road is God.
I’m not sure why they tried to patch in the truck as an answer to player’s cries for freedom in the first place, frankly. The designers, bless their strange Japanese hearts, showed rare authorial intent instead of inadvertently designing the next Just Cause game by committee. The car is not meant to go wherever you want for the same reason why the game opens with you pushing your busted-ass car down the road: they wanted to evoke a kind of laconic Americana road trip, complete with diners and gas stations in the middle of nowhere. These road trips don’t typically feature jetbikes. I’m not entirely defending it; it might have been a misguided creative direction. But sitting in the passenger seat, listening to music on the car stereo, watching trees and guard rails recede and raindrops slide down the windshield… I feel like I can understand what they were going for. And the strange juxtaposition of realistically filling up the tank at the gas station and then pulling over a few minutes later to fight a tonberry in the middle of a highway is kind of beautiful. It was at least unique, and they might have done better in sticking to their guns, rather than awkwardly trying to do both with their post-release patches.
Perhaps if Square were able to back time to create this game again from the beginning, keeping in mind all the player feedback they got, they would have just revised their original vision to be more about doing sick nitro rocket league jumps over big chasms between quest hubs. But I think you can do laconic, strange, and free and satisfying at the same time. Changing the map would have been the best place to start: Let me drive through the occasional cornfield. Have city environments to break things up, keeping the driving slow, like LA Noire and its clunky antique automobiles. The rules of traffic are what make a driving experience complex and satisfying, and there are almost no rules on an empty stretch of highway. For the record, there’s no city driving in FFXV at all: the couple of cities accessible in the world of Eos are like those old European ones with roads too narrow for cars, where it’s confusing as all hell to get from point A to point B because nobody was willing to bother flattening a hill or building along a grid.
The open-endedness of the combat works a little better than the exploration itself: You can be in the middle of a tough fight with a pack of beasts only to have magitek troopers drop down from an airship flying overhead, causing further chaos, which speaks to a dynamism which was the exact sort of thing lacking from the Final Fantasy series in many of its stale and skippable incarnations. In the earlier parts of the game, I was running into (and obviously away from) creatures that had 60 levels on me. That’s very thrilling. So is a day-night cycle that a player is actually forced to work around, because giant demons venture out onto the roads themselves when it gets dark. You can’t even quick-travel at night, at least at first — it becomes disappointingly less scary after hitting level 30 or so, when your party member Ignis decides he’s okay with driving at any hour, thereby opening up quick-travel at all times. This comes far too early and easily, and makes the world feel that much smaller afterwards, but there are great ideas here nonetheless.
The world feels unfinished, especially as you move into later parts of the story. Your party only flirts with the idea of ocean travel for a few scant minutes, and then literally goes on rails, riding a train to each of the later chapters, each consisting of small linear areas that are entirely isolated from the open world. I’m almost certain this evinces what was a rapidly diminishing budget, but the full vision the developers had for FFXV will probably never be realized, even with DLC filling the occasional gap.
Narrative and story
The narrative structure of FFXV seems simple enough — at any point in the game, you’re either trying to find royal arms, or summons, or a magic ring, or a crystal — but these games invariably get more convoluted than they have to, and I often had no idea what was going on, or didn’t care. Bizarrely, I was expected to watch a feature film before playing the game, called “Kingsglaive“. I did not. I always try to follow what’s going on, but I don’t play these sorts of games expecting a capably-told story, so I was uninterested in watching more of it in a pure-story form, at least not when said film has a 13% score on Rotten Tomatoes. This film is technically optional, but from a brief synopsis I know it explains who many characters are, and more importantly also introduces the Ring of the Lucii: an important item, frequently mentioned, which meant nothing to me until late in the story, well after the hero Noctis obtained it.
I also failed to memorize the names of countries and cities, and I often lacked any real understanding of where I was, even as the game fed me details about the political struggles of these places. Several non-party characters got killed over the course of the game, and at many of those times I would think, “I barely even know who this guy is.” Characters would appear in cutscenes but would barely amount to anything, and I’d only later learn that their roles wouldn’t be resolved until DLC side-episodes. My theory, once again, is that production ran into a deadline, and that much of this content was originally supposed to be in the base game, but was reworked later when development ran up against a production deadline.
What actually does work effectively is what’s communicated outside of cutscenes, including getting to know the four members of the party just by coexisting with them for hours. Yes, it can be heavy-handed. Prompto takes Noctis aside to tell you, rather than show you, that he’s got insecurities deep down inside, and that he’s more than just a fun and wacky comic relief character. But the simple things — like bickering about how much leg room they have in the car, or heckling Prompto for taking selfies — are what bring these people to life, and give weight to their later emotional punches. The central villain, Ardyn, is also a lot of fun, though he’s essentially just a madman, with an awful lot of confidence for someone whose master plan seemed to consist of making Noctis insanely strong and then winning a fight against him anyway somehow. The rest of the cast aren’t worth much thought, including the few women, pleasant as their company may be. Lunafreya’s cutscenes were gorgeously rendered with wonderful art direction, but I can’t say I was emotionally invested in any of it.
Elsewhere, though, there’s some very effective ludonarrative interplay — it was better in this respect than I was prepared for, with some caveats: in one chapter, there’s a dialogue option to bring an injured party member along instead of having them stay behind at a diner for a while, which I did. As his injury came to affect the party’s performance, I found myself thinking I’d made a stupid and dangerous choice and not even really knowing whether I thought I was making it for his sake or to assuage the feelings of the rest of the party’s, and my own. As it turns out, you can’t even leave him behind even if you choose the other option, so as far as your choices directly influencing the story, there’s absolutely nothing. But the feelings were true.
The narrative is also creatively expressed by gameplay, or changes in gameplay: making camp is as routine as it gets, but when things have been going wrong and the four are tense and angry with each other, it absolutely drives the point home when you go through the ordinary mechanic of making camp, as the party eats cup noodles in graveyard silence instead of the usual cheery tallying of experience points. Story progression also makes subtle, creative use of the day-night cycle, too, which took me far too long to notice. And the simple act of selecting Prompto’s best photographs each night — ostensibly just to curate what the AI has thoughtlessly saved to exercise your own creative tastes — keeps you from taking the things you’ve done for granted, I think, and eventually becomes an honestly powerful experience, as you look through the photos at the end of the game — or even a hilarious one, depending on the photos you kept.
It’s certain, though, that for every success of subtlety, there are a few instances of the game locking you down because it doesn’t want you doing something absurd — like trying to play a game, for example — while it’s trying to make you experience what it has in mind. I enjoyed taking Iris along for a ride in one chapter, for example, making little pit stops I wouldn’t ordinarily make, but not only must Ignis drive while this is happening, but you don’t even get your usual ability to backseat-drive by commanding him to slam the breaks or do a U-turn with no warning. Alas.
Performance and feel
FFXV is the debut of the Luminous Studio engine, and it’s pretty to look at, but it pushes my PC nearly to its limits on relatively low graphics settings, which hardly seems necessary. I had a few crashes to desktop, and fell through the ground a couple times as well, but generally the game didn’t give the impression of being “buggy” at all, though controls for warping around and interacting with objects in the environment often felt finicky. For some of these issues, it may be that they had to hack things together in an update, as with using warp on the field to quickly traverse a short horizontal distance, which I was shocked to read was only added with the so-called “Crown Update”, released on the game’s launch date, but ostensibly not programmed in until after the game had gone gold. I noticed that I could sometimes warp several times in midair without landing, and sometimes only once, and I never figured out why. The warp was also often arbitrarily taken away entirely, including within dungeons that require you to jump across platforms, which is only makes sense when viewed as a late design problem: they must have arranged the dungeons before deciding to give players a tool that would allow them to potentially break them. The lack of point-warping outside of combat, also arbitrary and bizarrely inconsistent, probably came about in a similar way.
The button used to jump is also the interaction button, used for opening doors or climbing onto a chocobo or picking up loot, which usually means doing fifty accidental hops every time you want to do anything else outside of killing. I’ve seen that in other games and I always hate it, but what bothers me more is how Noctis can be positioned such that the interaction prompt appears on screen, yet may still jump instead of interacting. I don’t know if this was an issue with how they built the engine or what, but it’s something I take for granted when done right, and terribly frustrating when not.
The basic controls are thankfully more reliable elsewhere — I feel qualified to say this having cleared the jumping puzzle dungeon Pitioss, as well as having a jolly time sparring with Arenea at camp, or with Cor in Episode Gladio — but I often wouldn’t get blindside attacks when I expected them, which required some whim on the game’s part in determining whether I was actually “behind” an enemy. Sure, Dark Souls has dodgy backstabs too, and it may be that if I put a million more hours into FFXV, I would have become the Mozart of blindside attacks like I am in Dark Souls, but I doubt it. I inexplicably missed a lot of counters during the Noctis sparring battle in Episode Ignis as well, and it could be that I needed more time directly controlling the character to get used to it — or that the developers needed more time working out the kinks — but I eventually managed to win the fight, with a score of A+ to boot, so it can’t be that bad.
The general layout of the control scheme posed its own problems. The shoulder button mapping in particular is a nightmare, constantly put to differing purposes as they piled new mechanics on through updates. (It can be an ordeal for newer players like myself to figure out which features weren’t always a part of the game.) The left bumper places a targeting icon for ally techniques that is independent of the actual targeting system used with the right bumper, and they also try to fit character-switching and the armiger ability in there; they would have been better off with some kind of radial menu for switching weapons, especially when you keep wanting to take spells off your D-pad to equip some kind of passive stat-boosting royal arm (which probably shouldn’t have been a thing). Summons waste the entire left trigger but are rarely available, and could have been used from the menu like a potion when they were. There are also differing effects from holding and tapping a button, which took me a while to wrap my head around, particularly in regard to dodge-warps, context-sensitive point-warps, and targeted warp-strikes. But as confusing as it is, these can at least be reliably executed after learning them.
I do love the overall shape of the combat. It brings to mind the dramatic aerial-dashing combat of the Dissidia games, while being a little less tedious, and opting for a balance between cinematic style and giving the player a high level of manual control over what they’re doing. Some of it is inscrutable, but I was impressed by the complexity and variety. This came most notably in the form of the character-switching ability, where each other party member had their own combat system distinct from how Noctis worked when manually controlled. As I later found out, these individual sets of mechanics were released over the course of a full year as each character’s personal DLC episode was released, but getting them all at once as a new player in the main campaign, I was shocked by how distinct and interesting each of them were, and how much there was to learn.
I would have preferred more control over certain abilities. Cross-chains are technically performed after warp-striking a prone foe, but this makes it sound like you have control over when you get to do one, when it really only happens when the game decides to give you the opportunity. Summons are more or less in the same category, somewhere between random and when conditions are met. The fights are obviously fun either way, but without that reliability, there’s less for the player to improve upon in terms of their own performance, and from the bigger picture, I think that makes it less satisfying.
I wasn’t very pleased with the magic system, which has to be drawn from points on the map and upgraded with consumable items. As designed, it’s overkill for annihilating enemies, while requiring too much upkeep to be brought out in casual encounters. I used it a lot more in the early-game, when I had a tougher time without it, but looking at the bigger picture, I would have preferred if magic were always available, like any other weapon: weaker, but faster and using up nothing but MP, with perhaps a limit of 3 or 4 spells to be built at camp by applying the effects of monster drops, ideally without even consuming those drops as resources.
The sidequests are, mechanically speaking, the kind of garbage you’d expect to find in Borderlands games. Go to a point on your map, kill something, and return. I thought I was being clever with my time by skipping most of the monster hunts, but I still found myself sent on this kind of quest more than I liked by fully-voiced NPCs who asked for my help with one thing or another, without any Witcher-esque charm. Worse than monster hunts are the ones where you have to find interaction points within a circle on your map. One quest told me to gather 5 red frogs. I turned it in, and the questgiver said, “Okay, now do the same thing again, on a different point on your map, and this time, the frogs are yellow.” That felt like an insult.
There’s also no effort made to reconcile the open-world sidequesting with the difficulty curve of the main storyline, as if they had no idea that there would be a need for such a thing. Typically you would reward very little EXP from sidequests, but have some cool item rewards or bonus story content. You would also dish it pretty carefully, so you don’t have ten sidequests in a row from the same NPC before advancing even one more step in the main questline. FFXV doesn’t bother with any of that, though, and I found myself at level 76 while my next main quest had a level recommendation of around 30. I didn’t do any grinding in the process, but I often saved up experience points and doubled or tripled them by sleeping in expensive hotels, a mechanic that’s just asking for players to overlevel themselves.
The game also pulls you away from what works about its core gameplay mechanics at times to do something that isn’t really fleshed out and doesn’t work at all. One part in the main quest has you hunt a Behemoth, and forces you to sneak through an area beforehand. I assumed that the fight would be harder if I failed the stealth segment, but instead, it was an instant game over. Talk about terrible gameplay practices from a former era. The fight against Leviathan is another example of what an AAA game shouldn’t do: you fly through the air the whole time with none of your usual abilities, essentially holding down the attack button with no real risk of losing, but moderate risk of having to do QTEs, even though the regular combat system usually manages to look cool and cinematic enough without making you do them.
The dungeons are a little too simplistic, mostly a question of killing monsters. However, with some of them stretching pretty deep down, and the inability to save inside, players can catch a glimpse of a somewhat more hardcore game within them. It’s not necessarily bad to rely on the strengths of the combat: Costlemark had a puzzle of sorts, but I found it annoying and obtuse, and Crestholm was mostly combat, but I was somewhat underleveled for it and wound up enjoying myself more due to the risks I was taking. Still, the infamous Pitioss was the most cleverly designed by far, and while it stressed me out (mostly fearing the slight risk of a crash that would make me lose hours of progress), I was glad to see something so different for once.
There are also minigames, namely fishing, as they have to fill the sandbox with something (other than sand). The fishing is complex, and I quite enjoyed it, at least once I figured out how to do it properly. I was uninterested in completing my fishing collection; there are like a million of them, there’s a significant luck element as some fish only show up in the rain at a certain time of day, it can be a real hassle getting to some spots while the conditions are right, and I wouldn’t want to sit there for 30 minutes hoping for the rain to start up again and not stop before 5AM (or whichever hour) rolls around. Luck and/or extreme patience is sort of what I expect real fishing to be about, and I’m not terribly interested in real fishing either, but it’s surely one of the better fishing minigames I’ve seen anyway.
Apart from curating Prompto’s photos, you can take your own by looking through a camera in-game, but the game does nothing with them, and I much preferred messing around with the Nvidia Ansel mode, which allows the player to position the camera to take screenshots while messing with depth-of-field, HDR, and other photo-ruining filter effects everyone knows and loves from a childhood of playing with Photoshop. I must have spent hours just framing these screenshots for my own amusement. Between this and the compendium photos I obsessed over for no reason in Breath of the Wild, it should be obvious that photography as a game mechanic is woefully underutilized, something with fun and complexity on par with pointing guns at people’s heads. Even if the game doesn’t have the slightest clue what separates a bad photograph from a good one, there are answers to this problem. Some games could use online connectivity and have other players judge your photos, but as with Breath of the Wild, it’s sufficient just having a bad photo stick around long enough to make me judge myself.
There’s one more interesting photography thing here I want to bring up: You can assign a photo technique to Prompto in combat instead of having him use one that deals damage, if, say, you want photos of a specific type of monster in Prompto’s gallery for some reason. If he crits while using this technique, he takes a selfie with the enemy. It’s exactly the sort of charming feature that makes me love a game, and I wished there were more like it.
The Windows Edition release already came with over a year’s worth of paid console DLC baked in, and this means they put a bunch of balance-breaking gear in your inventory from the start, whether you want it or not. The gifted weapons aren’t very good, but I’d say differently about a free recipe which players can cook at camp with zero ingredients, or the infinite-use 50% discount coupon on all hotels, which can amount to absurd savings of hundreds of thousands of gil. Craziest of all is the presence of an armor suit that literally makes you invincible for a limited time — certainly long enough to beat any boss — before needing to recharge. This is basically sticking a cheat code right in the player’s inventory, although it doesn’t work for all the DLC content, and the main story is easy enough already. (I didn’t use it anywhere cool myself, but I sometimes put it on when I was getting bored.) Some of the other content proved to clumsily integrated as well, such as the “alternate Chapter 13”, which is fine in terms of the new story content it adds, but never should have been accessible to first-time players during the main story.
The bonus character episodes were well worth the time. Each DLC episode proved to be willing to try new things. Gladio’s was more of a linear brawler, while Prompto went exploring on a snowmobile and doing over-the-shoulder shooting combat. Ignis was given a hookshot and tasked with taking control of city districts by defeating soldiers in groups on its map, and he could even do a classic dragoon spear-jump onto rooftops, landing on enemies, which was awesome to see. While none of these were quite sophisticated enough to stand apart as their own games, they certainly warranted an hour or two each, especially with the optional one-on-one fights in each episode, which were the most challenging and rewarding trials of combat in the whole game, requiring mastery of their respective techniques, and only doable with the items provided, resulting in a more interesting challenge than some hours-long raid boss with 99 phoenix downs saved up.
I had assumed that, by now, there was surely no more content coming, only to check while writing this review to learn that more DLC episodes are planned for release through 2019. This seems a little crazy, but they’ve been worth it so far.
I’ve seen the main story estimated to be around 30 hours, which is by no means dragging on too long by the standards of a JRPG. If anything, I feel that it should have been expanded, incorporating more of the content from the film into itself — though ideally not in the form of an hours-long cutscene. The great combat system does provide a starting foundation for a full-length game, but with its content stretching from 60 to 100 hours — perhaps 150 or more for a true completionist — it’s somewhat barren. Livelier sidequests, in the manner of The Witcher 3, would have kept things fresh a little longer, but the absence that is most strongly felt here is an absence of more dynamic systems. Apart from my self-directed time with photography, I didn’t see a lot of freedom to experiment.