I know most of my reviews are dedicated to comics or films, while insights or opinion pieces are kept to things like essays and interviews, but every so often, I feel like just talking ceaselessly about something I’m really into, both in the sense of constructive criticism but also just gushing my feeeeeeeliiiiings. I don’t want it to be a totally disorganized train of thought however, because not only would I never shut up, I’d also miss the points I’m trying to make and I’d lose the attention of anyone I’m trying to convince!
That being said, welcome to Deep Dive Reviews, the one place I am going to ramble for a good long while about something I think is really neat (to put it lightly). I hope a few of you who like that sort of thing will take a swim with me, in this case, summarizing my recent obsession with the latest addition to the Final Fantasy franchise: Final Fantasy XV.
Most people within the gaming community know the horror-story of this game’s production, but for those who don’t and those who are curious, Final Fantasy XV had a decade long stay in development hell. From being a successor to Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XV eventually–slowly–became its own entity with an original story and new characters and worlds, and while that worked to its benefit in the end, it also turned a lot of fans away from ever hoping that this game would be completed. It created doubt of the quality of the finished product amid delays and reconstruction, and I will be frank: the original release of this game undoubtedly suffered from those things.
Keeping in mind that I purchased and played through the entirety of the game within an early week of this year’s month of January, the original release of the game was back in 2016, and the game was convincingly incomplete. By the time I’d made my way around to it, countless game patches had been added, DLC episodes were available for download featuring the primary cast, and the blu-ray released of FFXV: Brotherhood, a collection of anime shorts related to the game, as well as for Kingsglaive, a full length feature film chronicling the politics and the fateful invasion of a country that directly ties into (and really should have been IN the game) the main plot of Final Fantasy XV.
After a bit of research on what was and was not in the original release of this game, I can’t help but side with the frustration of early-purchasers and pre-orders. The story would have made little sense without the inclusion of the additional product, and in fact would have completely disjointed the experience of playing the game. Some die-hards might argue against that, but it’s a debate for the comments.
With those criticisms aside, I can only share the experience that I had personally with this game, essentially upon its near-completion (as Square Enix has announced further content to be released all throughout 2018), and for what that’s worth, it’s been a wild, emotional roller-coaster.
At its forefront, Final Fantasy XV is a game about family, and no, I don’t just mean having parents or siblings, though that category can certainly be included for the totality of the game and the relationships within it. While the central character of the game and the story’s perspective is from that of Noctis, a prince of the fictional country of Insomnia, the core cast is actually four characters, who all share equal screen and script time with him. These are his retinue, guardians, friends, and really, his brothers.
First, Noctis. Destined to be a reigning king, he is also fated from childhood to be a sacrifice to save the world of Eos from its end-time-catastrophe, known as the Starscourge. In this world, horrific creatures of the daemon species grow more powerful and predatory during the night, and so the Starscourge is an event that literally hides the sun away and plunges all landscapes into eternal darkness. Hardly a fun place to live in, if you can imagine a world without sunlight ever. So already, we have established that our main character we control in the game is a tragedy meant to happen, and while there are a lot of moments that he plays the part, there’s also facets of his character that convince you that no one can entirely blame him. I’d be pretty pissed about a fate like that, too. Through the course of the game, there’s a really magical transformation of Noctis’ character, a pretty amazing tale that parallels the epic narrative of the total story they’ve told, which includes flashbacks to his childhood and mentions of his teenage years spent working with local businesses and volunteering among the community of his future people, to his forced ascension to a throne he actually doesn’t have in his grasp, and a struggle to keep the people he cares about from harm because of being hunted for who he is. His embrace of the position takes the toll and time that it SHOULD and creates and incredibly effective narrative that you can’t help but grow attached to his turmoil, where in other characters it might remain an irritant. You share the triumph of his victories and the punch of every terrible thing that gets laid on his shoulders above the weight of being a gods-chosen martyr, but I think just as much of the credit of your connection to Noctis is owed to the next few characters as well.
Next is Ignis, right hand advisor and the prince’s oldest friend, sworn to his side from the young age of seven. The ‘Brotherhood’ episode dedicated to him gives some much needed insight to Ignis’ position as part of Noctis’ party, but where his purpose shines beyond a doubt is in the DLC Episode dedicated to his character. Ignis is the most prepared, put-together character of the group, who often takes the fall and the pain of his friend’s missteps and misfortune, and yet he often disguises that fate with impressive charisma. Professional, self-sacrificing, witty, and calculating, Ignis is perhaps the most overlooked character of the group, an unfortunate fate considering how paramount his role in the party is. There is one point I will be fair in offering to the fandom and their few views of him, though: he’s created some of the greatest in-house memes that I simply don’t have time to list the entirety of. Just as it feeds the crackpot silliness of Final Fantasy XV’s art and writing community, it seems to me that it also actually serves as the perfect example of the humanity that fans grow attached to when characters are so well crafted.
Beside him is Gladio, literally and figuratively the shield to the prince. He’s the brawn of the party, and is meant to protect Noctis from injury in all its forms. No pressure. For being the potential meat-head of the retinue, there’s actually quite a bit more that shows through in his scenes, the lines he’s given both in the core script and also just while running around in Eos. Part of the charm of Gladio’s character is not just in his love of Cup-Noodles (yes, the brand and the product, this game has a lot of fucking sponsors), but in the conflict of his occupation. He has to protect a man, a friend of his, who is ultimately meant to die. That’s not just irony, that’s setting him up for failure. So you see the rough exterior and the quick temper, but you also get to see the pride that Gladio takes in what he has to do; even though he knows he’s going to fail in the end, he’s going to go out in a blaze of glory the whole rest of the way. My only complaint? Gladio is a fucking back-seat fisher.
Finally, we have Prompto, Noctis’ friend from school, the only member of the group who never lived with the intent to be the prince’s bodyguard or advisor, really, to be anything other than just his friend. The adventure the game takes you on obviously changes that drastically, but there’s even further mystery surrounding his character that both the main game and his DLC episode explore that give some serious depth to his comic relief. Prompto also acts as the chronicler of the story, as he takes photos of the road-trip-with-his-bro’s adventure, which can seem a little cheesy at first, but lord, by the end of this game, you’re enamored with the option. Seeing the world of gods and automaton armies and death and politics from the perspective of, essentially, a kid that just graduated high school, keeps all of the grandeur of the story grounded in a believable way; there are a lot of characters in this game that never asked to be involved in the affairs of royal families or celestial beings, and yet, it’s thrust upon them. Prompto is your constant reminder of that.
Beyond the main cast, you have quite a line of other fantastic characters, though for the scale of the game and what it offers, some of these people are SORELY overlooked and barely fleshed out, despite their necessity to further the narrative of the game. To go over all of them would probably crash this page, but I’ll at least try to touch on some of the most important of the secondary cast. There’s Regis, the late King of Insomnia, who is established in multiple pieces of Final Fantasy XV media to have one of the most heart-wrenchingly real, tender relationships with his son, both as king and prince, but also just as a man who is stuck in sorrow for what his boy has to go through because some fate deemed it so. He definitely gets as much screen time as he’s meant to (enough to get me weeping anyway), but where the game falls tragically short is with Lunafreya, the oracle of Eos and lifelong friend of Noctis who is meant to be wed to him. She is a powerful young woman, with the ability to heal citizens effected by the slow bleed of the Starscourge into the land, as well as her communion with the gods of Eos, the Astrals, to further Noctis’ quest and ultimately save the world from darkness. With all those huge points that should make her character really stand out, and even with multiple post-release patches into the game, Luna is perhaps in 5-10% of the total game play-through, and her fate is mostly a wasted one. It’s incredibly disheartening to see that Square’s downfall in this game would be by a lack of strong, well developed and represented female characters, as they’ve proven in previous games and other franchises that they CAN create them, many women even being their leads. The Final Fantasy XV community almost unanimously loves Lunafreya as a character, so I sincerely hope they make up for lost time and care in creating a custom DLC episode for her. Even then, it wouldn’t be enough apology, but it’d be at least a recognition of the mistake and the start of fixing the initial error.
The last character I’ll discuss is the main antagonist of the game, Ardyn. I remember prior to my first play through of the game, I felt very strongly that Ardyn was a totally ineffectual villain without much fear factor or reason to be doing what he was against the protagonists, and boy, how wrong I was. Ardyn initially suffered the same fate as Lunafreya, in that his story was not completely told and fleshed out in the first-release version of the game other than very quick, shoddy lore references, but the difference following those in-game patches was him being given not only a striking amount of additional content, he also had some absolutely necessary back-story that was injected in perfect ways to fit and parallel the story. Because this review is meant to be as spoiler-free as possible, I won’t reveal his reasons for what he does, but his initial introduction in the game might be such a crafty disguise if only not for his very obvious ‘outfit and crazy hair color to signify relevance’. When he finally is revealed as the front-line bad guy, Ardyn quickly turns from mild nuisance and creepily quirky to venomous and hostile and downright sinister in his move and word. His character can be summed in the whole ‘some men just want to watch the world burn’ quote, except he has an underlying purpose behind his attempts to foil the party’s plan to meet Noctis’ destiny.
Speaking of that destiny, why in the world should anyone care about yet another world-ending event? Especially if you read comics and see that nonsense happen daily, especially if you watch sci-fi and fantasy adventure films, apocalyptic TV shows and especially after playing 14 previous Final Fantasy games, many of which deal with world-changing-or-ending circumstances?
The world of Eos is perhaps the most researched and reality-based portion of the creative teams involved in crafting this game, groups who were charged with the task of literally conjuring a ‘fantasy based on reality’. There’s tons of art books and such that chronicle those efforts to a greater extent than I could ever hope to in a blog post, but some of the interviews available to watch on Youtube are particularly telling of the level of detail and dedication these artists and designers aspired to when crafting different countries, cultures, and creatures. The settings of Final Fantasy XV are characters in their own right, and each small town or huge city include particulars that incentivize you to return to them multiple times. Final Fantasy XV is the first open world game of the franchise, and while the main plot is pretty decidedly linear in nature, you are given a few opportunities to get your hiking boots laced and get out there to see it all, especially so in a New Game+ play through, which I’m utterly steeped in myself.
You see the other half of the world by literally driving around in it. Here’s another character in the game: THE CAR. Called the Regalia, and once belonging to Noctis’ father Regis, the car is now yours to use for the road trip to meet up with Lunafreya before the wedding, but in the long run is treated as the ongoing presence of the late king in the world and in Noctis’ life. You get attached to using it when carting around the party through side quests and the main story, you get to customize it until the thing literally reads SEXY AS HELL DANG, but really, without even realizing it, you get attached to it as if it’s a part of Insomnia that Noctis has to fight for. There’s a moment later in the game that I won’t completely spoil, but you lose the ability to use the car ever again and it hurts a lot more than you’d think. The other means of travel available to you, that I might debate the appropriateness of in comparison to the rest of the setting but don’t mind me, is using Umbra, a spirit animal of sorts that can take you through time to bounce between main-game story and the open world, and by riding Chocobos, which are famed characters in nearly all the Final Fantasy franchise. I’m not going to do deep into this, but dangit, they’re cute.
One hugely changed aspect of the expected Final Fantasy formula is turn-based fighting, and Final Fantasy XV almost completely rids itself of that, minus different modes of play that can be unlocked after beating the game. The battle system is very ‘action RPG’, with a few abilities to pause and take a breather from a fight if needed, and while many people worried about this derailment from the old games, I honestly believe it makes the experience of the game so much better. Everything feels incredibly fluid and rowdy, and with practice, you can literally see yourself timing prompts better, utilizing Noctis’ warp function to your benefit, sharing combos with your party as they fight alongside you, and so on. The angle of shots can create some cluster-fuck problems depending on how confined a space you’re in when doing battle with monsters and bad guys, but I’ve also found over time that I’ve learned ways to separate the madness and take down opponents in effective and also RAD-looking ways. The one battle-related thing I struggle with is utilizing the royal arms, mythical weapons that belonged to the old kings of Noctis’ lineage, as they literally drain your life from you as you use them. I’m still on the fence about how good of an idea I think that kind of wrench is. In the game, there are tons of regular ass weapons available to you that don’t hurt your health bar, so why would you ever use the royal arms? The thing is, I want to use them and I think other players should also, because that’s a big part of the game: traveling around collecting them from royal tombs as part of your ascension as king. I have my issues with it, but lately as I’ve improved on my fighting abilities, I look at it as a new challenge to take on, but ONLY because I’ve entered New Game+, and am not worried about keeping a good pace with the amazing story that’s being told to me. That could end up being quite an issue for some players, I bet, dealing with the punishment of using weapons that though not required, play an important role in the lore of the world.
The other side to battle that was once a gimme in other Final Fantasy’s and is now quite changed, is summoning. In previous games, summons could be used after building up a battle engagement meter, or with magic user characters like mages and priestesses, but now, you are literally at the whims of the gods, something that I feel creates just a bit of realism to the absurdity of their presence. The Astrals agree to work with Noctis to stop their world from ending, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to give two shits about you fighting a pack of wildebeest or arguing politics with a stateswoman. There’s some things you have to take care of yourself, and the gods make it pretty clear that they can’t be bothered with every human trifle. This notion in particular was challenged by a lot of classic Final Fantasy fans, but I’d argue it’s one of the regular practices that was done away with good purpose for this particular project.
As yet another part of feeling IN this different world, each of your main cast have particular skills that you develop alongside your typical XP grind and leveling up, which is about as usual as it’s ever been (you fight, complete tasks, and take on side quests, you get experience points and those add up until you achieve new levels). Noctis fishes, Ignis cooks, Prompto photographs and Gladio…survives? No really, it’s a thing.
I will forewarn anyone who has any interest in playing this game for themselves, the fishing is STUPIDLY addicting, and I’m so sorry, welcome to hell, I’m sitting right there with you. As you fish with Noctis, you obtain stronger fishing line, more effective lures and equipment, but you’re also able to catch bigger and bigger fish until your bros are literally jumping in the lake to drag out trophies for you. It’s nuts, but damn, it’s FUN nuts, and every region of Eos has different kinds and sizes of fish you can catch to eat or sell. This skill has the least effect on the larger plot, but it’s such an enjoyable pastime within the greater goal of saving the world; sometimes you just need to take a break and catch the LIEGE OF THE LAAAAAKE.
I’d say 99% of the memes surrounding Ignis’ character are to be blamed on his cooking abilities. “THAT’S IT, I’VE COME UP WITH A NEW RECIPHEH,” has become the staple statement to represent almost all of the Final Fantasy XV fandom, and no, if you’ve not played this game, you’re not going to understand that. Anyway, the game uses an interesting mechanic that allows you to camp each night, and if you decide to use it, Ignis cooks for the party, and man, talk about sexy renderings again, because the food looks incredible (and yes, still has a function). When you visit new places, eat at their restaurants, pick wild ingredients and defeat the monsters in the area, Ignis will keep notes and come up with new things to cook, with dishes that each character can and will favor, though the choice is the player’s on what everybody eats. These food have stat-boosting properties that last throughout the course of the following day, which can be enormously helpful when it comes to specific side quest battles and earning multiples of experience points.
Photography is kind of self explanatory for Prompto, but there are some really clever, charming ways that the game makes it a necessity, whether for side-quests or to relive the most ambitious moments of the story, or other emotional surprises. Down the line you get to customize this with different filters, and also the ability to take photos yourself. Control of the camera is limited compared to a LOT of other modern games with a similar mechanic, but where they make up for this more often than not, is the sheer breadth of detail that goes into EVERYTHING, from the fabric of clothing to pores on character’s skin, to landscape textures and architectural design. There’s a lot you WANT to take a closer look at, and that’s where the option to do so yourself through the lens of Prompto’s camera is really a valuable asset. The graphics of the game and the efforts that continue to get poured into them are worthy and deserving of a discerning eye.
For Gladio, I do feel he got the short end of a stick with his special ability, because Survival and leveling up this skill set is literally just about walking around. The more you explore the world, the more you camp out, the more you fight monsters, the more his skill improves, which results in his picking up more efficient items the party can use, like curatives and treasures to sell for higher returns. But….well, that’s it. They make quite a stink about his ability as a fighter, and in his DLC episode you get peeks at this as well as all the tutorial material, but largely, his skill doesn’t serve quite as integral or entertaining a purpose as the other party members, which sucks. Sorry Gladdy-Daddy. At least you’re considered the best looking?
Listen, this game is fucking beautiful. It’s an impressive specimen for the Final Fantasy franchise, no doubt, but even among countless other current-release video games, Final Fantasy XV stands out in ways that leave my mind boggled as I simply STARE at what’s in front of me. It isn’t perfect, just as no one video game has perfected every particle of every shot of every location and character and asset of their game, but damn, it it something. I could add another wall of text about all of this, but instead, I’m going to just show you what I’m talking about. Click on each image for higher resolution.
THE BONUS CONTENT
Final Fantasy XV both suffers and is made better by it’s additional media, from the DLC related to the core game, to the film Kingsglaive, to the radio mini-series, and so on. The statement I continue to offer is that this game should have been released in 2019, with all the created content weaved into the main game to create a complete dynamic experience. Don’t get me wrong, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with this game and its experience regardless, in ways I could have never imagined even WITH the problems of the initial release. These attachments just breathe a lot more life into it all.
First, the premiere of the Final Fantasy XV: Brotherhood anime series in March kicked off people’s interest and investment in the characters of the game. The anime gave you a peek into the childhood of your main characters, what they had to go through to become the men they are, and how the group became as close as they can be now. It’s a terribly sweet and pretty well animated collection, each episode lasting only about ten minutes, so if you’re looking to give this game a go, I would highly recommend you check those shorts out to get even further emotionally wrecked by what happens in the main story. Following up that release with with the Platinum Demo, you’re given not only a look into Noctis’ childhood, but you’re also able to test out at least some of the ‘near-finished’ product’s game mechanics.
Then, in the summer of the same year, Kingsglaive released in theaters nationwide, shockingly cg-animated, cast, and directed for the purpose and viewing of a Western audience with voice talents like Sean Bean, Aaron Paul and Lena Headey, as opposed to a Japanese audience first. The film was meant to reach out to Final Fantasy fans who felt long since estranged from the franchise due to all the delays and re-workings of the next game. I personally played the game with the preference for the Japanese audio with English subtitles, though that’s not for everyone. However, if you do play with the English version, be aware that the characters that appear in both Kingsglaive and the main game, will be voiced by entirely different people, and in fact won’t even sound all that familiar in one versus the other. My assumption is that budget and scheduling didn’t allow the film’s voice talents over into the main game for the English version, but I couldn’t say I know for certain.
So the game comes out, sells nearly seven million copies, and then even MORE content is released. There are three DLC episodes currently released, with promises of more to come. The initial plan was to release Episode Gladio, Episode Prompto and Episode Ignis, perhaps as a means to finally finish, well, unfinished content and fund the project for future additional content (like FFXV: Pocket Edition or more DLC Episodes), but in the end, these DLC and their stories should rightfully be included in the main game. They serve as huge expansions upon the party that we care so much about, and showcase individual abilities that are diversified appropriately per character while also extending the narrative of why the prince is so important to them. Maybe not quite to the same extent that the anime shorts do, but still really quality stuff. The weakest of the DLC Episodes might be Gladio’s because of its narrow-minded initial focus on simply ‘improving fighting techniques’, but there’s just a little exploring into how it effects him emotionally as a friend, not just a fighter. Episode Prompto is a pretty big look into the character’s origins, and I’m stunned it wasn’t in the main game, and really, I could argue the same for Episode Ignis, beyond some of the alternate reality it offers as some quality fan service.
Where this content fails some is that it actually soured the experience of many fans who were early supporters of the game. It’s easy for me to say how much I love this game as it is now, but I can attest to a small fraction of that feeling of sourness because right after I purchased the game and played through it, they announced the Royal Edition coming in March, which is the full cost of the original game, but includes ALL of the additional content that’s come out so far, plus tons of new patches and so on. It’s a shitty feeling to know I’m going to be throwing my money at them AGAIN, but damn it, I really will be doing just that.
Not everyone has the scratch to toss out for the same game twice, so my very strong recommendation is that if after reading through this, you have serious interest in playing this game, PLEASE do yourself a huge favor and wait until the Royal Edition releases on March 6th. This version will be perhaps the greatest experience to date that you can achieve from this game, because not only does it included all the patched material and DLC episodes, but it also gives you new modes of gameplay, the multiplayer expansion to create a customized character for an additional battling game, tons of unlocked DLC items like weapons, camera filters, skins and color changes for the car, control of new vehicles like the royal yacht, new areas and dungeons to explore, as well as new bosses AND new patched in content that seems to largely appear towards the end of the game, where the story is heaviest and most impactful. It’s looking to be the most definitive, true version of the game possible, with more bonus content to come down the line that will be flavor text rather than necessary information to the main game.
Over five thousand words later, I hope that this rambling offered some sort of insight to the pros and cons of the game, but really, I hope it shared that I feel very strongly that this game should be held to some degree of consideration. It’s a worthy addition to the legacy of Final Fantasy, and I daresay it may have created quite a revival of the franchise that was dangerously close to stagnating. Final Fantasy XV is a fun game that can easily be played in just twenty hours, or upwards into the hundreds if you really enjoy it that much, but it’s a game with so much heart in its story. Everything about the game that creates a downfall is worked at and fixed until it’s good enough to FAR outweigh the bad, which is why anyone looking to play it for the first time is lucky to feel so inclined right now. The goal of the creative team behind the game was to make a game of fantasy that was based in reality, and in countless ways they’ve achieved that to a level I’ve never seen accomplished before.
Final Fantasy XV is currently available, but via my previous recommendation, I direct you to Final Fantasy XV: The Royal Edition, which is available for pre-order at the Square Enix Shop.