For at least a year, I’ve expected Final Fantasy XV to be a disaster. After the popular series spent an entire console generation disappointing fans with the XIII trilogy, the developers stated their intention to reclaim popularity by appealing to western audiences. Final Fantasy XV (formerly a PS3 titled called Final Fantasy Versus XIII) would eschew the elements of previous Final Fantasy games that had become unpopular in recent years. Menu-based combat, relatively linear designs, complex stat-based RPG systems…all would be traded for an open-world, real-time approximation of western RPGs.
But every time Square Enix would show something from Final Fantasy XV, it was clear that they had no idea what western audiences actually wanted. Footage from the game screamed Japan, from the black leather costumes, to the anime-like banter between the protagonists, to the incomprehensible story centered around crystals and kingdoms and daemons.
To top it all off, Square released the Platinum Demo, which served as many Americans’ introduction to the game and/or series. This demo is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen released for a major triple-A title. You play as a child version of the game’s protagonist in a scenario that doesn’t exist in the actual game, while being guided by a stuffed animal who communicates through smartphone emojis. Aside from a couple extremely simple fights, you spend your time arbitrarily changing the weather and transforming into fantasy beasts and miniature trucks. The idea that a company willfully targeting a western demographic released such a bizarre and unrepresentative demo as the only way for the uninitiated to try out the game did not give me a lot of hope for the final product.
Early impressions from critics were equally worrying. While some talked about being pleasantly surprised by the combat, others warned of frequent glitches and strange design decisions, such as forcing the player watch the characters drive from town-to-town rather than including a fast-travel option. These were written based on a preview version of the game’s first few hours, but seemed to back up my biggest fears: that Square Enix had spent the last decade building a mess of a game, designed for an audience that they completely misunderstood.
And in a lot of ways, I was right. Final Fantasy XV is a truly bizarre game, extraordinarily Japanese in presentation and full of questionable game design choices. It features a number of unfortunate glitches, and feels like a patchwork product stitched together from the pieces of a whole decade of iterations. It leans heavily on some of the weakest elements of western RPGs, like filling the map with boring, repetitive, half-assed side quests, and ditches much of the strategy that made earlier Final Fantasy games so great. Almost everything you’ve heard about its shortcomings is probably true.
And yet, I really like Final Fantasy XV. You might even say I love it.
I’m not sure I can thoroughly explain why, but I’ll try. Final Fantasy XV is a game that is much more than the sum of its parts. What it does better than almost any other game is instill a sense of joy, wonder, and camaraderie. While it fails on so many traditional levels, many of its biggest shortcomings actually contribute toward its strengths by giving the game focus. At its center, Final Fantasy XV is about exploring exotic locations with your friends. It’s like a never-ending road trip with people you care about, with no real destination necessary and no obligation to get back to your everyday life.
This element would fail miserably if the game’s central brotherhood failed to click. But somehow, even in spite of (or one might argue, because of) some extraordinarily cheesy dialogue and broad, anime-inspired characterizations, the relationship between these characters shines. While each member of your posse can be described as a particular “type,” the game smartly makes good use of them by giving them defined roles in the gameplay loop. Ignis is the group’s driver, chef, and caretaker, Gladiolus is the combat and survival expert, and Prompto is the heart and soul of the group, memorializing your adventure in his photo album.
Without them, Noctis’ bevy of side quests would be an absolute chore. Instead, they are an excuse to sit back and enjoy the game’s charm, methodically making your way over the game’s expansive map, exploring towns, and camping out in the wilderness. It’s easy to get lost in this portion of the game, like a long summer vacation away from real duty and responsibility. It’s plenty effective on its own, and even more-so when given context by the game’s second half.
Once you commit to the story and leave the kingdom of Lucis, the game’s structure undergoes an overwhelming shift. Side quests become a thing of the past, and the player is rushed along from one location to another, watching the status quo of the world and the characters deteriorate. It’s essentially the opposite of Final Fantasy XIII’s structure: instead of a linear experience that expands at the end, it’s an expansive game that becomes extraordinarily linear in the back half.
On its own, it’s a glum, trying part of the game, but it is given real weight by what has come before. Your hours and hours of careless adventuring become a source of nostalgia, with your photos serving as a window into a more innocent time. The game even allows you to, essentially, time travel back to this period to complete more goals, knowing that your actions will not prevent the unfortunate events that mark the game’s midpoint.
This may not have been the original intention of the developers, as data-minters and glitchers have found enormous environments in the game’s second half that were completely unused in the actual story. It’s possible that the open-world design of the game’s first half was meant to define the second as well, but intentional or not, the darker tone and (literal) railroading of the second half ends up elevating the experience to a different level. Noctis’ sense of obligation and responsibility is felt by the player, as well, and I’m not quire sure I felt the full impact of what Square Enix had done until a particularly powerful mid-credits scene. In a raw emotional moment, Noctis bares his feelings to his friends, and the player feels the full impact of the past, present, and future all at once.
Somehow, despite a woefully under-developed story (even with the help of a CGI movie and anime miniseries to help fill in the gaps), Final Fantasy XV makes you care. It doesn’t ultimately matter if the game occasionally glitches, or fills its world with unnecessary quests, or forces you to spend a little too much time watching your digital entourage drive from place-to-place. Final Fantasy games are often defined by the way that they make you feel in the moment, from the end of the world in Final Fantasy VI to the death of Aeris in VII to the ending of X. If we are to judge Final Fantasy XV on how well it holds to this standard, it is a genuine success.