Review: Final Fantasy XV

Square Enix continues their 'Day One Edition' box art series with this emotastic display of narcissism. Luckily, the artwork is reversible to provide the owner with the more aesthetically pleasing Japanese box art.

Final Fantasy XV Box Art

Usually, a lacklustre demo is a deathblow for an unreleased title–all the more so when the demo is not merely lacklustre, but is instead stunningly bad. And yet, following the release of Episode Duscae, so strong was the interest in Final Fantasy XV that excitement and anticipation remained high. And thus it continued to remain, even as the news about Final Fantasy XV went from bad to worse–even as the developers made increasingly ominous comments about the content, direction, and overall philosophy of the game itself. When a new, still-underwhelming demo was released, excited gamers were not to be deterred. And, when a resolutely ordinary anime, Brotherhood, saw release, the excitement was undiminished. Even the debut of a genuinely terrible movie–Kingsglaive–could not deter Final Fantasy fans eager for the satiatiation of a decade’s-length hunger.

But fate has a funny way with the satisfaction of wishes, and fans who clamoured for a more action-based, more modern game in the Final Fantasy series might rue the day that they typed their ill-formed reckons into the Square Enix fan survey, for–as the saying goes–one should be careful about for what one wishes, lest one ends by getting it. So it has proven with Final Fantasy XV–a game which takes every individual modern appurtenance recently shoehorned into an RPG and then crams them all into a single massive mechanics melange. The result is a game that does not know what it is, made by people who did not know what they were doing, for gamers who do not know what they want.

Experience retro-style loading times with FINAL FANTASY XV.

No longer are loading times merely a relic of the PS1 era. Everything old is new again!

Turning on the game, players immediately encounter loading times: a large patch must be loaded. Rest has a loading time. Fast travel from point to point has a loading time. Chapter breaks have a loading time. Waits of two minutes are not unusual and loading times of three minutes have been observed. If one is ‘returning to vehicle’ the wait could be as short as fifteen to twenty seconds. But these transportation-related shortcuts are employed frequently, and thus a substantial amount of time is spent viewing loading screens.

The loading screens are necessary due to the interminably slow methods of transport available to the player. Travel across the vast distances on foot–even at a sprint–would result in a travel time of hours. In the car, these can be reduced to minutes, although travel times in excess of ten minutes are quite ordinary (especially prior to the acquisition of the supercharger, which increases automobile speed). And chocobos, coming several chapters into the game, are not quite as good as the car.

As a new father, I appreciated that the car rides frequently allowed me sufficient time to do an armload of chores with plenty of time to spare.

Experience the unmitigated joy of really long family car rides.

Prior to the release of Final Fantasy XV the developers declared that the car was ‘a character’ in its own right. But if it is a character, it must not be a very important one: access to the car is suspended for an entire early chapter and, before the midway point of the game, it is taken away entirely and never seen again except for during a brief sequence at the end of the story. The car is not the only poorly-developed character–indeed, plot on the whole is underdone.

The writers, looking back at the emotional high points of the Final Fantasy series, clearly sought out the most affecting moments, and then–as with the game’s mechanics–those plot points were shoehorned into the game without any of the substantial development needed to make them emotionally viable. Even the main characters themselves never really matter. Their friendship for each other, already formed before the start of the game, is something which the player must simply accept, not experience.

Honestly, it's not much better even when the action is visible.

Combat is a hot mess, no matter what the camera setting.

Therein lies Final Fantasy XV‘s most colossal failure: the basic and elementary need of a storyteller to show rather than tell. As a case in point, the player’s investment in the relationship between Noctis and Lunafreya is minimal: the latter is only seen in a half-dozen cutscenes, speaking lines of cryptic dialogue which allude to these or those really meaningful (but never shown!) events. And, although Lunafreya’s welfare is one of Noctis’ chief concerns, the game’s design so overwhelms the player with other issues that Lunafreya’s importance dwindles into nigh-trivial insignificance: “Lunafreya’s life is in danger! We must hurry to help her–but first, let us collect a handful of peas for this small child in a far-away town. And then, we will buy a portable MP3 player from the car. Oh, and also go on a search for some new metallic green paint. We should also finish a few hunts for people in the village. Oh! And, whilst we are at it, we can buy a cookbook and learn how to make a tasty omelette. Wait guys, I’ve got it–let’s go camping!”

The camera ensures that even things that happen on camera actually still happen off camera (although Ignis allowing a key villain to escape whilst briefly off-camera must surely take the cake as one of the laziest plot development decisions in video game history).

Camera woes are not limited to combat.

The player only knows that Noctis cares about Lunafreya because the script has him saying so. But these are characters whose affection for each other is almost entirely pre-game and off-camera. Cloud and Aerith, and Tidus and Yuna, are tragic and believeable because the player is with them through their relationship–it is a relationship formed with the player-as-Cloud/Aerith and Tidus/Yuna. But in Final Fantasy XV, the relationship is already formed. It is in action only as a theoretical abstract, in that it impacts various aspects of the plot. And on this rock founders the writers’ attempts to leverage that relationship as a means of eliciting an emotional reaction from players. Players are told what to feel; they are not encouraged to feel that way. Consequently, they feel nothing. The game’s ‘Aha!’ moment, then, does not result in an emotional climax, but rather anger at the incompetent way in which the story is being handled.

In fact, none of the voice actors were particularly well-selected. None of the voices seem natural for the characters; except, perhaps, for Cid.

Cindy is one of the more attractive propositions in the game, although her voice acting does not fit her appearance.

But this is not the last indignity–even the ham-handed approach to emotional investment pales in comparison to the game design from Chapter 6 to the story’s end at Chapter 14. Some reviewers have accused this portion of being awful due to its ‘linearity’–a term which is usually understood to mean a lack of branching options–something which need not be a downside. What is actually the case is that Final Fantasy XV–a game in development for a decade, involving thousands of people and with a budget to match–has Xenogears syndrome. RPG fans will remember that the second disc of Xenogears is infamous for long dialogue scenes interrupted only by boss fights before a long final dungeon. Final Fantasy XV, from Chapter 6 onward, is dialogue scenes interrupted by brief dungeons sometimes ending in boss fights. And, to be clear, these dungeons are not connected geographically or temporally: there is a cutscene, a short dungeon, and a boss fight; then the chapter ends, followed by the words “several days later…” and the process repeats with a new cutscene, dungeon, fight. Notably, the entirety of Chapter 9 is a small donut-shaped room with ten goblins in it, and no boss fight.

It looks beautiful! But you cannot eat it, for it is by definition insubstantial. And thus the player is left hungry for something of substance.

Perhaps the food in Final Fantasy XV is a metaphor for the game itself.

And there is the rub, for nothing short of a perfectly-executed story could save the mess that is Final Fantasy XV. On ‘Normal’ mode, the combat is conspicuously challenge-free, so that the skill progression system–shallow as it is–is rendered utterly pointless. And, with a modest supply of potions and elixirs–cheaply obtained–even a grossly underleveled party is effectively invincible. Combat itself, in action, is a mess of targetting, relying on a camera that always manages to find something to hide behind. Although the game is very pretty, and its musical selections are appealing (in the few places where there is music), these aesthetic issues cannot hold up the sagging whole. And all of this leaves out mention of bugs which plague boss fights (my encounter with the Malboro did not prompt the hook needed to win the fight, so I fought it for an hour, killing it fifty times), cutscenes (characters wander aimlessly, occluding the camera), and quest design (e.g. the quest to check the power pylons sends the player to the wrong pylons).

With a fifteen-minute initial install, a 12Gb launch patch, and a forty minute forced install from the main menu screen, players are likely already to be disgruntled before they discover that Final Fantasy XV is a disorganised and poorly-executed heap of ideas and concepts dressed up in the tinsel of stunning graphics and a small selection of attractive-but-infrequent music. And yet, this shambling production seems the appropriate output of a company which long ago made a conscious and public decision to prioritise graphics above all else. Final Fantasy XV is the ultimate terminus of that design pathway: a game which excels in graphical presentation but in nothing else. It will surely appeal to the most modern gamers who do not care if a game is an incoherent mess as long as the characters are very ‘now’ and the system is very ‘fast’ and there is no challenge to get in the way of a constant and unremitting sense of unearned accomplishment. Millennial gamers rejoice, your Final Fantasy is at hand! But for those of us of a more discerning bent, and with the forthcoming release of more SquareEnix Final Fantasy titles, the letter grade below is certainly only the beginning of our Frustration.

18 Comments

  1. Lusipurr
    Posted 2016.12.12 at 00:35 | Permalink

    Just a note on playtimes, which I omitted to mention in the review above:

    • I spent around 15 hours over three days doing Chs. 1-6, including lots of hunts and sidequests.
    • I spent about 6 hours in a single evening doing Chapter 6-14.
    • I estimate that the main story is ~10-12 hours long.

    These times are estimates because I spent many, many hours with the game paused (the timer still runs when paused), and I am trying to factor out a bunch of extra time spent messing around with sidequests during a playsession near the end of the game (before I realised I could go back and do sidequests after the denouement at the end of Ch. 13).

    There are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of things I wanted to say about FFXV in more detail, but the review was already very long. So, please tune into next week’s TSM 407 where I will have my FFXV ‘addendum’ during my entertainment moment.

  2. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2016.12.12 at 09:28 | Permalink

    No longer are loading times merely a relic of the PS1 era. Everything old is new again!

    I don’t know what you mean by that. Load times have been getting worse, not better since the PS1 era. Possibly the PS2 [and certainly the GameCube] had faster loading than PS1, but then during the next two generations things have become much worse.

    Actually, FFXV load times remind me the most of the Xbox port of Morrowind!

  3. Lusipurr
    Posted 2016.12.12 at 10:40 | Permalink

    @SN: First, well done picking a snarky joke line in a caption and then trying to take it apart like it was an evidentiary claim. If I were to adopt the same critical approach towards your news posts, I’d never be able to stop writing! :p

    All snark aside, in my experience the amount of time spent loading overall has decreased more or less constantly since the PS1 era. Digital releases and installs have helped this along. In the PS3 era, yes, there were games where loading times returned–FFXIII is a perfect example–but the loading times there were spaced out by map or chapter divisions, becoming less frequent, whereas XV has more or less constant use of loading times based on its design.

    Consider for example the quick travel options on Pulse in XIII: the yellow teleport stones which move you from place to place. There is virtually no loading time to use these, even when they cross vast distances or move players to other maps entirely. But in XV, simply teleporting back to the car, 50 yards away, results in ~15s of looking at a loading screen.

    So I am not suggesting that no other games have load times, but I play a *lot* of games–more than you by a comfortable margin, I’d wager–and my experience is that loading times have been far better handled than in the past, with the exception of necessary, initial launch loading times. FFXV feels like a huge step backward, with loading times associated with a whole raft of perfectly ordinary tasks. I mean, there’s a loading screen when you rest over-night, so you can’t just press X to hurry through the dialogues! Come on! This is not ‘normal’ by any measure!

    In short, FFXV’s loading times are both
    – more frequent; and,
    – longer
    than has been the case in many other modern games. And, where modern games *have* had some longer loading times than in the PS1 era, the *overall* time spent loading has decreased because of a trend towards fewer loading operations, or super-fast loading for very common load occurances (i.e. battles). XV bucks this trend with a vengeance.

    Can you tell I did not like this game?

  4. Wolfe
    Posted 2016.12.12 at 23:53 | Permalink

    A fine review. I still intend it to try it for myself someday, though certainly not at a 60 dollar pricepoint, and certainly not in its current incarnation.

  5. Adeki
    Posted 2016.12.13 at 00:05 | Permalink

    To think that this got the same score as Mighty No. 9, impressive.

  6. Gyme
    Posted 2016.12.13 at 01:57 | Permalink

    “A Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike”
    This pretty much sums up exactly what is wrong with FFXV. The problem is that it is damn near impossible to please both sets of audiences without angering at least one side in some aspect of the game. This is most blatant in the combat system, which seems almost exclusively designed to please action/fps gamers (aka the newcomers): it’s fast-paced, mindless, and without any challenge. Hell, you even regain HP while fighting, just like in CoD.

  7. Lusipurr
    Posted 2016.12.13 at 01:59 | Permalink

    @Gyme: LOL! I had no idea that people autoheal in CoD. What a shithole that franchise is!

  8. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2016.12.13 at 06:05 | Permalink

    A Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike

    That message should be replaced with: “Prease buy our shitty game!

    First, well done picking a snarky joke line in a caption and then trying to take it apart like it was an evidentiary claim.

    Well, the fact that you spent the time to defend it kind of says it was more than a throw-away joke line.

    That being said, after thinking more deeply on the matter I kind of see where you’re coming from [ I think]. PS3 loading times may be around 15-20 seconds, but they do tend to load up large sections of level, meaning that once they are loaded there tends to be no more loading until the player has advanced sufficiently. PS1 loading times on the other hand may be 1-3 seconds, but the game has to load every time the scene changes, every time there is a random encounter, and sometimes even for menus – so more of the player’s time probably is spent waiting for the game to load than is the case with PS3 games.

    I was just comparing one instance of loading to another instance of loading, without looking at the big picture.

  9. Lusipurr
    Posted 2016.12.13 at 09:42 | Permalink

    @SN: As with every good joke, there is a truth behind it.

    Most young gamers today don’t have to contend with loading times for every single thing like we had back in the PS1 era. Load times for menus and battles were the worst. And, I was going to say, they’ll never have to experience that nonsense themselves–but (and here’s my point) Final Fantasy XV has made it possible to experience myriad loading times once more!

    At least the menu usually loads instantly.

  10. Lane
    Posted 2016.12.13 at 12:16 | Permalink

    The graphics are only impressive for the console. Yes, the HDR looks good (if you have the appropriate 10- or 12-bit panel and appropriate console), but good color gamut alone can’t save a game from lower-resolution textures, lack of good anti-aliasing, and the other graphical gewgaws that an appropriately-equipped PC can produce. Hearing that FFXV was developed on PC, you know that a PC version is coming down the road (when DLC can be packaged in to make it seem like you should spend $50 on a PC version of a year or two old game).

    I found the narrative here to be stronger than FFXIII, if only because of the relative lack of invented terms like falCie and l’Cie, but that’s damning with faint praise. Again, given what FFXIV has become in the years since its bungled release, it is apparent that someone at Square retains a notion of how to write a good narrative, create a beautiful game, and remove frustrating barriers to fun. And, as a FFXIV player, I’m happy that whoever those people are, they’re staying right where they are. FFXV did not benefit from that at all.

  11. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2016.12.14 at 04:06 | Permalink

    @Lusi: With respect to the loading, I think where they really fucked up was requiring the player to return to a motel in order to level up. Plenty of open world games have lengthy loading screens when using fast travel, but importantly they don’t tend to make the the player do a whole lot of frequent unnecessary fast traveling.

    I would estimate that I sleep at a motel once every 30-40 minutes, which requires loading to fast travel there, loading to show the exp gained, and loading to fast travel back to my car. I would estimate that the loading involved takes about four minutes all up – so at absolute best 4 out of every 40 minutes, or 1 out of every 10 minutes is spent watching loading screens – and this is before I add any other fast travel to the equation. All up it is probably 2 out of every ten minutes that I spend in front of a loading screen.

    Honestly, the game should have been zoned like FFXII and Xenoblade rather than a full open world. That way less content would have to load each time. Then again, FFXII would work fine as an open world game because it doesn’t require a very frequent amount of fast traveling.

  12. DefChaos
    Posted 2016.12.14 at 05:45 | Permalink

    I was afraid of this. I’m with Wolfe; eventually I do plan to play it myself, but I feel pretty comfortable waiting until perhaps the loading times get addressed in a patch.

    Thanks for the review!

  13. Cari
    Posted 2016.12.15 at 21:40 | Permalink

    I actually like Final Fantasy 15, it’s not terrible really. It’s not nearly as bad as I first suspected. I mean when you go into it expecting FF13 and get FF15 then you are quite relieved once you start digging in. I am however very disappointed with it as a “Final Fantasy” which it is clearly not. It commits the grave sin of trying to play on the name to carry the series. I don’t play Final Fantasy because I want all the Final Fantasy branding in it. (Carbuncle, Titan, Ramuh, Chocobos, Cactuars, Tonberries.) I play Final Fantasy because I want a game with an ATB or at least strong classic RPG elements like that. This is more westernized than ever and that just doesn’t strike me as a good Final Fantasy. I imagine that was the goal- to make the game as much like western open world RPGs as possible but sadly that is not what I want to play. I want to play a JRPG.

  14. Lusipurr
    Posted 2016.12.15 at 23:56 | Permalink

    @SN: All up it is probably 2 out of every ten minutes that I spend in front of a loading screen.
    That sounds about right. I was estimating 1-3 minutes per 10 minutes played. But, that’s shocking! We’re talking about 20% of our screen time is loading time! D:

    @DefChaos: I was afraid of this. I’m with Wolfe; eventually I do plan to play it myself, but I feel pretty comfortable waiting until perhaps the loading times get addressed in a patch.
    There’s meant to be a patch with a harder difficulty mode available from start. This would likely make the battle system somewhat less pointless, because players would actually have to utilise the correct weaknesses and engage in combat more strategically. If it made it possible to actually die, so much the better! But at the same time, I don’t know that the camera would make that a very pleasant experience. It is so incredibly bad (check out the screenshots above, which bar the last are all from my own playthrough). The camera is a fucking disaster.

    @Cari: it’s not terrible really
    I have to disagree and strenuously. The only reason I gave it a D and not a F is because it has just enough right in terms of music/graphics/base functionality to make it a line-call. I would struggle even to give FFII an F for that reason. But my experience with FFXV was bad. Really bad. I dreaded playing it. And the more I played it, the worse it was, because the novelty of the car and world wore off with time, and then the game really went to shit starting in Chapter 6. I would have been done on the third day, but I had to keep taking days off from playing it–not because I did not have the time, but because I could not bear the idea of sitting in my chair at my desk looking at loading screens and footage of these four fey misfits in their car for unskippable 20-minute intervals. But it does have the virtue of being very short and that means it was a lot easier to get through than a comparably bad game like FFVIII.

  15. Cari
    Posted 2016.12.17 at 11:09 | Permalink

    @Lusipurr: I wasn’t disagreeing, it’s not great, but it’s not bad.
    The loading times and driving would have been impossible to deal with if I didn’t have my computer next to me to watch YouTube Videos. So for me it almost feels like it was designed to be played that way, which is one of the reasons it’s not good. I looked it up and chapter 6 is exactly when the game goes to shit for me too. It highlights exactly why having a female companion is bad for the dynamic. She made the game TOO easy (And it wasn’t that hard to begin with.) and was all around annoying. Almost everything after that chapter is better. From the meeting with the foreign leader to the events when you are alone and like somebody said it was like anti-design. The section when Noct is alone would be horrible if it wasn’t played up to be a horrible experience. It was meant to be bad.

    Still- I was very motivated to complete the game because of the Villain which was done very well. Was I angry because he hurt my friends? No. Was I angry because he invaded my home? No. Was I angry when he killed my girlfriend? Fuck no. When did I get motivated to kill that asshole? When he BLEW UP MY CAR!

    It was on from that moment, so I completely glossed over how bad that section was because I was motivated to kill that taunting motherfucker.

    I also don’t argue grades. My C- might be the same as your D. However if pressed, C- as a game, F as a Final Fantasy.

  16. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2016.12.17 at 11:31 | Permalink

    Why did Square Enix think it was OK to release this?

    The days of FF being something special are certainly long gone. Thank goodness for Atlus!

  17. Cari
    Posted 2016.12.17 at 15:14 | Permalink

    Remember; this is a false king. So to speak. This game was never meant to be a successor to the name Final Fantasy. It was also developed by Division 2 (Known for Crisis Core and others). This game was never meant to hold the title of 15. This should officially mark the end of numbers as far as I am concerned since they don’t mean anything to the company anymore. Single player JRPGs; 10,12,13. MMOs; 11, 14 Action RPG: 15

    So as far as we can tell the numbers mean nothing anymore and haven’t for a while. They did with the Final Fantasy’s genre what they did with the idea of sequels. No two games promise to be the same sort of game or same world at all.

    I have to wonder if the numbers play out these changes in business strategy. In any case I had long given up hope that the Final Fantasy Series would ever return to it’s SNES and PSX era. I think we can at least be happy that we have review sites like this one and others to tell us what’s good and bad so that we may find the gems like Setsuna.

  18. Ferchu
    Posted 2017.01.08 at 18:41 | Permalink

    well… after reading the review and hearing some opinions about FFXV I can only say this:

    Isn’t that special?

    I think I was more excited for super robot wars V than FFXV.

    great review!