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Final Fantasy XV - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Occasionally feels like a road / camping trip
  • Open world that incorporates logistical planning
  • Gamifies non-combat time and activities
  • Impressive landscapes and animation

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Hard to tell what's happening in combat
  • Obnoxious, un-developed characters
  • Excessive fetch quests
  • Severely tonally inconsistent story
  • Becomes a corridor-crawl in the second half
  • Fan service and product-placement
  • No bestiary?
  • A million little annoyances

Overall Impression : D+ / C-
Could have been good if ...

Final Fantasy XV - cover

Developer:
Square-Enix

Publisher:
Square-Enix

Platforms:
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).

Original release date:
November 29, 2016

Genre:
Open world action role-playing

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
language, mild blood, violence, partial nudity

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
finalfantasyxv.com

I really don't know what to make of Final Fantasy XV. On the one hand, the game is trying to do something new and kind of interesting with the long-stale open world formula. I desperately want to be able to celebrate the game for these new ideas. That being said, the game just completely blunders so much of its fundamental design, and it tramples on many of these promising new ideas by falling back on too many of the very same tropes that have killed so many other open world games.

The obvious common criticism of the game is that it's got too much of the player just sitting in the car waiting. You don't even have to drive the damned thing, as you can set one of the NPCs in your entourage to do all the driving for you. And even if you do decide to take the wheel, the car drives itself. You just press the gas, and the car automatically steers itself to stay on the road. You can't even turn off of the road even if you want to.

You know what? I'm actually OK with that.

Final Fantasy XV - reading in the car
I actually don't mind the long drives, as I can catch up on some reading along with Gladiolus

A nostalgic road trip adventure

You see, having such restrictive travel mechanics actually forces the player to think more about how you're going to navigate the world. While in the car, you are confined to the game's roads and highways. You can't just point the car directly at your objective marker and drive off-road in a straight line to get there. You're also limited to traveling during the daylight hours, and you have to make sure that you budget the time and money to stop for gas and lodgings. There's a genuine amount of logistical planning required for accomplishing virtually any task in this game. You have to think about traversing this world in the same manner that the characters would have to think about it! This is a role-playing game, after all, isn't it? So these travel mechanics are actually pretty clever ways of putting the player in a role-playing mindset and giving you a game to play when you're outside of combat.

I get the feeling that Square-Enix wanted Final Fantasy XV to emulate being on a road trip. You spend large chunks of time sitting in the car driving across the countryside, passing rest stops, scenic overlooks, and roadside diners. You stop every so often to admire the view, take a walk through nature, or chat with the locals. When the sun sets, you are pressured to find a motel to bunk in, or to set up a camp site if you happen to be on foot.

For brief periods of time, this game hits a very serene high in which you start to feel like you're really in this world and with these people, as they sit bored in the car, or eat dinner over a campfire while going over the photos that they took of the day's adventure. It's the same sort of feeling that No Man's Sky hits in its early hours, when you're still awestruck by the sheer size and scope of the new planets you set foot on. Having been someone who used to take annual road trips with my family to visit national parks around the country, seeing a video game try to simulate and systemize that activity (and the human bonding that it engenders) is genuinely endearing and makes me more than a little bit nostalgic.

Final Fantasy XV - camping
This game makes me nostalgic for the summer camping trips of my youth.

Mundane video game adventure

But then, much like No Man's Sky, Final Fantasy XV shatters that experience by forcing you back into "video game land". It isn't the long stretches of non-interactive driving through a video game vacation that bothers me. Instead, I'm bothered by the sheer tediousness of the mundane fetch quests and busy-work that the game throws at you. You see, a road trip -- and an adventure in general -- only really works if you're always traveling towards a destination. This is a feeling that Final Fantasy X completely nailed! But Final Fnatasy XV's map isn't quite large enough to support that, so instead, you're constantly being asked to drive back and forth, picking up groceries for local merchants and performing other non-sensically mundane delivery tasks in order to pad game length and keep the player loaded down with idle busy work (none of which has any stakes or consequences).

I'd actually like the game a lot more if the designers had spread out the map a bit more, and put even more distance between points of interest. One character has an idle animation of pulling out a book and reading in the car. That's a good idea! I wouldn't mind using the gaps of time spent driving to catch up on some reading. But with only a couple minutes between destinations, there isn't really enough time for me to do something else while I wait. If I was regularly given 10 minutes or more, then I could spend that time reading, making a sandwhich, playing for a couple minutes with the kid, do some push-ups, or even playing a couple turns of Civ on my laptop.

If you don't want to wait, there's always the option to fast travel, but you'll have to pay in-game money to do it. That's a fine tradeoff, and game series like Grand Theft Auto have already successfully implemented such systems.

Final Fantasy XV - fetch quests
Your road trip is interrupted by constantly driving back and forth to do mundane fetch quests.

The problem here isn't that there's too much time spent driving. The problem is that it's just enough time to get boring, but not quite long enough to deter driving back and forth on a whim. Having longer travel times would have forced the designers to populate the game with more interesting and involved quests to do at each point of interest (like the quest designs of The Witcher III), rather than falling back on the trope of running back and forth doing fetch quests. Think about how the lack of a fast travel forced the designers of Dark Souls to create an intricately-interconnected world. With longer travel times, the designers should have focused on keeping the player at a given location, and reducing the frequency of car trips. The car trips would be longer, but you wouldn't have to make as many of them.

Alternatively, Final Fantasy XV wouldn't be so bad if the game gave you something meaningful to do during your car trips. Maybe that time spent driving could have been used to level up your characters, equip gear, prepare magic, or do other in-game book-keeping tasks. If you spent that time planning your next outing and committing to a loadout, then the time wouldn't feel quite so wasteful. This would require that the game provide you with some foreknowledge of where you're going, what you're going to be doing, and what potential threats may lie there -- which is all perfectly reasonable, since the characters live in this world and are at least somewhat familiar with it. The developers also could have thrown in some idle chatter between the characters, or included a radio station with some procedural news about the world as a whole, which could have provided some useful exposition and character development during otherwise wasted time.

Final Fantasy XV - map while driving
The map screen does not pause the game,
but the character menu does pause.

But no. Aside from the occasional scripted dialogue that occurs on the way to (or on the way from) a key story mission, the characters just sit silent in the car for the majority of a ride. And if you try to go into the character menu while driving, the game pauses, so that any time spent managing your characters and loadouts must be paid back in additional time driving. The game lets you go into the map screen without pausing the game; but not the character menu. But there's nothing constructive for you to do in the map screen. Aargh!

Fan service, pandering, and poorly thought-out mechanics

I would probably be willing to tolerate the uneventful car rides and (admittedly optional) fetch side quests, if not for the fact that the rest of the game suffers from poor design and is just loaded to the brim with a million little annoyances. Let's start with the big ones: combat and the game's story.

If you thought that the driving was boring, just wait until you get a hold of the combat mechanics. Square just can't seem to figure out a way to make compelling, party-based combat since they started abandoning the turn-based systems of the SNES, PS1, and PS2-era games. Perhaps the best system that they've come up with was Final Fantasy X-2's active time system, but that wasn't fully real-time, and it was still broken out into random battles completely separated from the overworld exploration.

Final Fantasy XV - combat
Hold the attack button until the enemy is dead.

At the most basic level, Final Fantasy XV's combat system involves simply holding the attack button to have your character automatically attack until the target is dead. You can also hold the "defend" button to automatically dodge or block incoming attacks, and you can press the analog stick in different directions to maneuver around your target as you attack or defend. You also have the ability to throw your weapon and then teleport to its destination. This allows you to basically teleport to an enemy to get a surprise strike (or just to keep yourself in the action), or to quickly escape the battle to rest and recover HP. You can also use the directional buttons to toggle between different weapons to create different combos or try to exploit an enemy's weaknesses.

But all of this doesn't add up to a more engaging combat system. The old active-time battle systems of the classic games, and the purely turn-based system of Final Fantasy X remain far more satisfying. Heck, I even prefer the real-time system of Final Fantasy XII, with its ability to switch characters to use each of their special abilities and unique combat mechanics. Maybe this system is deep and compelling for those who are really invested in learning its intricacies, but I just don't enjoy it enough to want to master it.

Final Fantasy XV - obscured camera
Camera problems make it almost impossible to keep track of what's happening.

In general, combat is very fast and frantic. Again, this would be fine if I could actually tell what's going on. Enemies and characters move around rapidly, making it almost impossible to have a real sense of where everyone is at any given time. Obstacles such as trees and bushes also frequently get in the way of the camera, completely obscuring your view. The "Block" prompt also frequently fails to work. It flashes on the screen, I press the button, but either the attack missed anyway, or I get hit anyway (not even knowing what, if anything, I did wrong). Your NPC companions don't even seem to bother blocking or dodging -- even against obvious AoE attacks that I can run half a mile away from by the time it charges up. Because of this, I'm constantly spoon-feeding potions to everybody (including Noctis), and I burn through a ridiculous amount of consumables.

There also isn't enough time to look at your scan results to see what a given enemy's weaknesses are -- heck, I haven't even had time to look at the scan results long enough to even know what all the different icons mean! And for some unfathomable reason, there also isn't a beastiary, so you can't even go into the menu and look up a given monster's weaknesses after the fact. So, to me, combat feels a lot like just flailing your arms wildly in the hopes that you'll hit something.

The designers also astutely recognized that the pace of battle doesn't really allow for navigating through a lot of long lists and nested menus. So your weapons are mapped to the direction buttons, and only three character / party commands are available at any given time (one for each NPC character in the party). And that includes spells! So I usually wander around with two weapons equipped, a shield, and a single spell. There's no separate weapon wheel for spells to give you access to a decent amount of your arsenal.

Final Fantasy XV - spell collateral damage
Spells deal AoE collateral damage to your party, often being more dangerous to you than to your opponents.

Granted spells are powerful, and so you shouldn't be spamming them. But the power of spells actually opens up whole other problems: they deal AoE collateral damage. This would be fine, if the player could control the positioning of the other characters. But since they all operate autonomously (and aggressively), lobbing a spell -- especially as an act of desperation against a powerful foe or group of foes -- can often result in you wiping your own party.

Picard facepalm

Maybe, when you hold the button to start aiming the spell, Noctis should yell "incoming", and the others would get out of the way. Surely such a skill must be in the Teamwork skill tree! Right? Let me check... Nope.

Everyone deals with grief in their own way...

Worse than the combat is the terrible tonal inconsistency of the game's narrative, and the complete obnoxiousness of the characters.

Within an hour of starting the game, while on your way to get married, an enemy army sacks your characters' home, kills your father, and supposedly kills your bride-to-be. But then as soon as the cutscene is over, the game goes back to sandbox shenanigans, asinine fetch-quests, and cheerful JRPG music. Noctis is perfectly content to drive down to the beach to buy a single tomato for a diner chef, take an entire fishing trip to feed a single alley cat, or to track down a can of car wax for Tits-McGee the mechanic.

Meanwhile, the other characters go on as if nothing had happened, and Prompto even squees like a little fan-girl at the mere sight or mention of a chocobo. Seriously, Prompto is just an absolutely unbearably pandering character to be stuck with. "Can we go to the chocobo forest? Can we - can we - please?" Let me re-iterate: the protagonist's dad was just killed, his kingdom has just been put under enemy occupation, and he and his associates are all renegade fugitives, but he is still given (and is willing to do) mundane fetch-quests for random people (including taking his companion to the chocobo ranch -- and no, that's not a euphemism for a brothel). Shouldn't he be going straight to a resistance camp to meet with generals and start planning the expulsion of the empire and reinstatement of his sovereignty? Or at the very least, maybe don't wander around the countryside solving everyone's problems and drawing attention to yourself? So not only are these side quests pulling me out of the sense of being on a road trip, they also completely pull me out of the story as a whole.

Some of these characters are just unbearable with the way they pander.

Perhaps I've been spoiled by the exceptional quest design and world-building of The Witcher III, but overall, Final Fantasy XV is just very bad at world-building. Lucis itself is fairly well-realized, detailed, and seems fairly functional (other than highways closing at night due to monsters), but the place does not feel like a war-torn country.

It's even harder to take any of the dialogue seriously when the voice actors insist on filling every moment of silence with awkward grunts, pants, and other ridiculous utterances. This sort of thing might have made sense as a way of conveying a character's emotional responses back in the early days of 3-d graphics, when facial animation was non-existent. But nowadays it just sounds silly.

Death by a million papercuts

This game is also just loaded with little nagging annoyances. Here's a little anecdote from my early play-time:

The game doesn't tell you in advance if there are any restrictions or requirements for a quest. Heck, the quest log doesn't even tell you what your next quest objective is! It only labels the destination on your map. So in one case, I was supposed to take a picture of some meteor, but I arrived at the location at sunset. The characters wouldn't take the photo because it was too dark. But there wasn't a camp ground nearby. So I had come all that way for nothing because the game couldn't be bothered to warn me in advance that I couldn't complete the objective at night.

Final Fantasy XV - can't take photo at night
The game never bothered to warn me that I couldn't complete this quest at night.

And I probably would have made it by night if the game hadn't previously stopped me dead in the road for random battles. A whole battalion of imperials dropped out of an airship, blocking the highway and forcing me to fight them in order to proceed. They were armed with guns and emptied my health bar almost instantly. I had to hide behind a nearby boulder twice to wait for my health to recharge in order to avoid a total party wipe. I couldn't cast spells on them either because their machine gun fire kept interrupting my casting attempt. So there went half an in-game afternoon right there!

And as if that weren't bad enough, after being prevented from taking the photo to complete the quest, I got killed by another night-time ambush from an Imperial dropship because there weren't any campsites nearby. The game reloaded from a checkpoint when I stopped to get gas, but it reloaded before I had gotten the gas. I didn't notice until I was a mile down the road from the gas station and the car suddenly stalled out on me.

There are also times when the game stops me dead in my tracks for no discernible reason. The car literally just stops and everybody gets out, even though I didn't press a button. Then there's the annoyances with random encounters with over-leveled monsters at night. How does this society function if major highways become inaccessible once the sun goes down? I could understand if roads off the beaten path are dangerous at night, but these are major highways that connect cities. And by the way, fast-traveling to the nearest outpost because its too dangerous to drive at night requires driving at night to the outpost!

Final Fantasy XV - roads are perilous at night
How does this society function when major highways get shut down at night due to monster infestation?

I get it; it's a mechanic to force the player to manage your time. Fine, but there's no point in limiting how much I can get done in an in-game day if I can always just pick up where I left off the next day. The only thing that this does is force the player to level up on a regular basis, and force the player to have to spend 30 gil every night to stay in a motel. This isn't Fallout or Majora's Mask; there's no actual cost to the player for not accomplishing a task in timely manner, and no reason to fret about running out of time in the day. Instead, it just wastes your time by forcing you to needlessly go back to camp.

Why couldn't the days be a little bit longer, with a more gradual transition from day to night? Maybe Ignis' watch could beep at 5pm, and he could say "The sun will be setting soon. We should find a place to camp." That way, you aren't caught off guard because you spent five minutes talking to NPCs and now suddenly an entire in-game afternoon is gone, and you're stranded out in the woods.

Why doesn't the travel menu or progress meter tell you what time of day you'll arrive at a destination, rather than just how long it takes to get there?

Why doesn't Ignis warn you in advance if the sun is going to set before you reach your destination, and advise that you stay in town and avoid having to turn back halfway there?

Why can't you view your quest log while manually driving the car? Like, say, for example when Ignis forces you to drive because he isn't willing to drive at night.

Final Fantasy XV - sneaking around monster
Sneaking requires holding the Square button
and moving the right stick around.

When standing next to a fuel pump, why doesn't the game tell you how much gas you have?

Why do the stealth controls requires holding the Square button? Sneaking past enemies usually also involves rotating the analog stick to track those enemies (either to sneak up on them or avoid them). This requires some annoying finger gymnastics and is the reason that most other games toggle sneak mode by clicking on the left stick.

Why does Noctis keep jumping when I want to pick up loot off the ground or get in the car or hop on my chocobo?

All these little annoyances add up. They combine with the other fundamental issues until even the interesting ideas become intolerably frustrating.

Held back by tradition

I played this game to a point where a story mission gave me an objective to survey an imperial fort (so that we could formulate a plan for infiltrating it). The objective marker was inside the middle of the fort! At that point, I was done. I hadn't even gotten to the point where the open world supposedly gives way to a terrible linear corridor crawl. I couldn't get that far, as I couldn't subject myself to another moment of this miserably incoherent mess.

Square-Enix seems to have genuinely wanted to make Final Fantasy XV's physical space, geography, the passage of time, and the time of day itself actually matter. They seemed to actually want to make each and every trip out into the world feel like a little adventure, complete with having to plan out the logistics of the trip itself. This is something that I wish more open world games would try. I feel like I should be praising Final Fantasy XV for having the guts to try out these risky -- and rather innovative -- concepts. If the rest of the game built around those mechanics were better (and by "better", I mean "meeting a bare minimum level of competence"), then praise is exactly what I'd be heaping upon it. But sadly, Square-Enix couldn't seem to commit to its innovative ideas, and they botched so many elements of the game's design that I just can't bring myself to put up with all the little annoyances.

Final Fantasy XV is a good game when it's focusing on being a systemized road trip. It's a terrible game whenever it stops and tries to be a Final Fantasy.

And to think, I'm playing this game months after release -- after multiple patches and updates have supposedly fixed the major problems. I can't imagine how much of a mess this game must have been at launch...

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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