All Heart, Little Thought – My Time With Final Fantasy XV

In November 2016…well, a lot was going on.

One of those things, however, was the release of Final Fantasy XV. Fashionably late to the (then) new-generation consoles, 3 years old at that point, Final Fantasy XV was supposed to be the debut and jumping off point for Square’s venerable franchise, arguably their lifeblood. However, something interesting happened – it was deemed bad. Reviews put it squarely in the middle of the scale, there was a lot of criticism over systems, world design, core gameplay, and even the story – all had misses in some regard.

My experience with the game mirrored a lot of the feedback – I locked down a Premium Edition copy for PS4 for launch day, sauntered over to Best Buy after work, grabbed it, played a bit, and maybe about 4-5 hours in, I gave up. There are a lot of reasons for that, and this post will dig into those, but it isn’t the whole story.

Now, in June 2021, a lot more has been going on, and I decided to take a WoW detox week and play some backlogged games. One of those titles was the Royal Edition of Final Fantasy XV, now on PC, which I had also started and stopped in 2019 after getting my Ryzen 9 3900x, right around the same point as my prior effort on PS4. This time, however, I started a brand new save and I was determined to finish it. As I write this post, I have – well, the base game. There’s still post-game content and the whole slate of DLC, which I intend to start on once this post is finished.

I have interesting opinions (so I’d like to think) about the game, and what better place to share them than here. I’ll save those for the end though, because in the style of an autopsy, I’d like first to tell the story of just what happened to Final Fantasy XV, as it is one of gaming’s more interesting recent tales.

So, just what did happen, anyways?

Versus XIII and Versus Expectations

Final Fantasy XV was originally a wholly different title. Announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006, the game was intended to be part of a universe of games known as Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy XIII, a trio of loosely-interconnected games Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Agito XIII, and Versus XIII. Instead, things changed pretty rapidly, with Final Fantasy XIII becoming a trilogy in its own right, with a XIII-2 and Lightning Returns released within 5 years of the original. Agito XIII went on to become Type-0, a mobile game in Japan that eventually was HD remastered and finally released in the West in 2015 for the Xbox One, PS4, and PC.

Versus XIII was the one that never left the runway, as the team struggled to get off the ground, and instead, concepts from the title including character designs, world design, and some elements of the story, were folded into a new project. At E3 2013, Square Enix announced that the game previously known as Versus XIII had been retooled into Final Fantasy XV, with development moving to next-generation platforms. Development took another 3 years past this point, rounding over a decade, however, most reports indicate that the work that became FFXV was a crunch nightmare that unfolded in the final 3 years of development, scrapping a lot of what had been done and retooling it drastically. The project also switched leadership, from Tetsuya Nomura to Hajime Tabata, and under his hand was most of the work to shape Versus XIII into FFXV undertaken.

The game finally launched in November 2016, and well…the rest is history.

What’s Different About Final Fantasy XV?

FFXV was designed to be a modern imagining of the venerated franchise. Instead of overworld maps, high fantasy, and the like, FFXV was designed to be modern – a party of bros driving a car through a landscape that feels distinctly like the highways of the US, with towns and outposts adding their own unique flourishes, and then a variety of landmarks to bring the fantasy element in. The landscape of Eos is a large open world players can explore, with enemies on the map and fought in action-styled combat directly without loading screens. Random encounters are sort-of present in spirit, as the forces of the Niflheim Empire fly overhead and will sometimes air-drop enemies on the party to fight. The game has a pile of side-quests and quest chains not directly related to the main story, and the progression system is neutered compared to previous games, down to a small set of grids called “Ascension” that offer small power boosts, accompanying a leveling system that boosts base attributes and the familiar non-MMO FF gearing system comprised of just weapons and a small number of accessories.

The game addressed a core critique of the linear nature of its predecessor in the single-player FF saga by opening up the world relatively early, using a series of blockades that are removed relatively early on to allow players to explore the world. You can deviate from the main story to do side-quests or Hunts, and the game sprinkles the landscape of Eos with collectibles, ingredients, and landmarks to encourage you to do so. If you just follow the story, you’ll miss about half of the things you can do in the world – although the game has post-ending progression to allow you to revisit and do the quests you missed along the way.

The combat in the game has shifted from systems like ATB or even the Gambits of FFXII for a fully real-time action combat, complete with combo hit counts, counters and dodges, parries, and a mix in of series regulars like magic and summoning (well, sort-of…).

The story starts with a full cast already, as the full group is assembled right at the outset for you to play with. However, at set story progression points, the party will lose a member at a time – we’ll discuss why that is later.

The story is focused on your player character, Prince Noctis of Insomnia, as he sets out on a journey that ends with him ascending to the throne of Lucis, the kingdom much of the world of Eos is comprised of, and to take the hand of the Oracle, Lady Lunafreya, in an arranged marriage. However, things stay on course for a tiny portion of the story, as the Empire begins a plan to take over the world for at-first unknown reasons. The story documents Noctis and his band of friends – Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis – as they grow through the story, meet the challenges on Noctis’ road to ascension, and ultimately hope to arrive at the day where he is King.

What Went Wrong?

Well, a lot.

To start with, the development of the game was quite hurried, which is a shock given the game took 10 years and change in total, and that’s only counting from the announcement to the public forward! However, once the game was retooled as Final Fantasy XV, it had a mad dash over that 3 year span to take what had caught the public’s eye from the Versus XIII materials, abandoning all else and replacing those elements with a new story, new characters, redesigned characters, and updated assets even when work had already been done for Versus XIII, as the higher graphical fidelity of the PS4 and Xbox One required these updates to keep the game sharp. Square Enix insisted on using an internal engine, called Luminous Studio, which was in-development alongside the game, meaning that the team was often getting updates to the engine to allow them to work in a sort of just-in-time fashion.

In planning downloadable content for the game, the decision was made to focus on the team members alongside Noctis, using their breaks in the story as the entry points for each DLC chapter. What this functionally means is that if you just play the main story, you see a character leave, come back with some growth or new knowledge, and little explanation is given in the main story for what happened or why. If you play the DLC, however, you get that knowledge, but even if you have all of the DLC, the game doesn’t really let you play it smoothly within the main game – you have to save, exit, then launch the DLC separately.

Lastly on the DLC front, the game had a pretty large planned DLC schedule through 2019, but most of it was scuttled with the departure of Hajime Tabata from both the project and Square Enix. This canned 3 additional DLC adventures that had been planned, with only Episode: Ardyn releasing, a story focused on the main villain of the game. DLC adventures for Lunafreya, Aranea (a mercenary character who makes sparing appearances in the game) and Noctis himself all were planned for release but will not see the light of day, sadly.

The game itself was victim of being pillaged to create a multimedia universe within the setting of Eos and the game’s main story. Most of the world building of Insomnia as the Crown City of Lucis happens in the film Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, while the story of how the four friends meet and grow in their friendship happens in the companion anime series Brotherhood. This leads to a lot of missing story in the main game – not just as though you’ve joined in media res, but like you’re just expected to know the interpersonal dynamics when the game does an admittedly poor job of showing it to you.

Finally, it can not be avoided, but for longtime fans who followed the whole saga of Versus XIII, the game had to live up to an ungodly amount of hype it had no way of meeting, especially with how the development went and was handled. No single Final Fantasy game has had that long in the oven, being shown at press events, with new trailers and hype doled out fairly regularly over that decade of public awareness about the title. It was fighting an uphill battle before the first discs were stamped, and the nature of the other issues discussed here touch on why that was only exacerbating a problem the title would already have.

So Why’d You Play?

I…kind of, sort of…liked Final Fantasy XV.

First, let me say this – it is a broken mess of a game in many ways, and I think I need to tell my personal story with the game first.

In 2016, when it launched, I was eager to chew through the content in the game. However, the story just wasn’t hitting in those first few hours, and the game ran like ass on the base PS4 console. A 30 FPS cap is fine enough, but it had lots of stutters and hitches that came along from improper frame-pacing and kept it looking kind of bad. Couple that with dynamic resolution scaling and a temporal anti-aliasing solution that can make the output look smudgy and weird, and the visuals, striking though they could be, were not up to snuff. However, that isn’t what pushed me away. Mostly, I got stuck on the story in the early parts, as it was just not living up to my expectations. On the technical side, the issue that really drove that home was the long loading screens. Because FFXV is an open world, they were minimal, but they exist on loading a save, progressing between chapters, fast traveling, and at certain other breakpoints, and on PS4 at launch, those loading screens took something like 3 minutes each. Because they happened at chapter transitions, it gave me a lot of time to think about the story and to feel sort of turned away by it, and thus, I just gave up on the game. The biggest problem is that the story as presented at the start is almost unidentifiable by the midway point, as the fleshing out actually changes the spirit of the story in a lot of crucial ways, which do improve it, but also make that starting slog especially challenging.

When I tried again in 2019, Shadowbringers was out, so Final Fantasy XIV won. Sorry!

This time, why’d I stick it out?

Well, my PC helped a fair amount with it. Using the PC version on a Ryzen 9 5900x with 64 GB of RAM and an RTX 3080 graphics card, with the game loaded on a PCIE Gen 4 NVME SSD meant that loading times were nil (the in-game performance metrics showed the game sprinting up to 500 MB/s of read performance in loading screens, which meant they were thankfully about 3 seconds instead of 3 minutes! The other aspects of my system meant the game played at a smooth locked 60 FPS with no temporal AA or DRS – a smooth, consistent experience with no bouts of smudginess or blurring, and with full distance LOD. It impresses and horrifies me that a game made for consoles with 8 GB of RAM total can and does often eat up far more on PC – at its most voracious, the game would gobble up 28 GB of main RAM and another 8 GB of VRAM, which is…potentially illuminating about the possibility of a PS5/Xbox Series backwards compatibility patch!

But more than that, I wanted to know. A video I’ve watched a fair number of times from Super Eyepatch Wolf summed up the game as a “mediocre disappointment” and I felt like I needed to know if that held true for me.

In short, his criticisms mostly held true for me.

To detail, he makes excellent points about a lot of issues the game faces not with the technical aptitude on display, but the way in which everything is assembled.

The world of Eos is supposed to be dangerous at night, with demons wandering the roads freely, yet no town or NPC has any measure of defense against this supposed threat. The world is large and impressive, but doesn’t feel like it has a lived-in continuity, compounded by the rampant reuse of assets, like how the Crow’s Nest diners are copied and pasted, artwork and all, across the landscape, and NPCs wander into frame showing how limited the game’s pool of random NPC artwork is. The combat has an interesting action idea to it, but is marred by simplicity, namely the fact that you can simply mash the attack button and then use a potion to heal if you fail to get back into the fight immediately, so there is no incentive to learn or grow in the combat mechanics of the game. Its magic system is needlessly complicated for no real return, and summons are reduced to scripted events that happen so rarely that they cannot be used strategically or in any sort of planned way.

Lastly, and most importantly, the story is a fucking mess, which has a kernel of something great in it, but does a lot of backtracking to tell us something cool or interesting happened instead of meaningfully integrating those events into the actual gameplay, so players feel a lack of connection with the plot. This is especially pronounced for the DLC moments I mentioned above, where the game drops a character momentarily and has them come back changed for an experience that happened off-camera, and sure, you can go play that in the DLC and see what happened yourself, but it breaks the main continuity of the game in a huge way. It also leans hard on the supplemental materials, meaning that someone who hasn’t watched Kingsglaive or Brotherhood gets a truncated experience that feels kind of bad. Lastly, at launch, the story’s closing moments were pretty bad, such that the game got story patches designed to smooth out the last part of the game, which is a real treat now if you read a launch walkthrough and it’s missing about 3 fights from the final boss sequence that, apparently…weren’t there before?

Why’d You Finish The Main Game?

This is where I actually dive into my opinion and analysis!

So…FFXV isn’t a great game, but it isn’t a bad game either. On Twitter, I mentioned that I felt like it hit about 60% of what it could have done, in my opinion – not a high hit rate, but high enough that I kept going once I got into the groove of things. I can see a lot of things I like, a lot of things I liked about it, and yet I can also see where I wanted more.

To start with, Final Fantasy is the template for a “light-choice” RPG. You’re not doling out stats and making micro-adjustments to each character in the party to ensure perfect strategies and execution – you’re making macro changes to adjust an overall direction, but the game does not demand that you really push hard on progression, to the point that even the level of your characters is only sort of relevant in most cases. However, progression has never felt less pointless in Final Fantasy than it did in FFXV, and that stems from the combat design. I did almost every fight in the game by mashing B and chugging potions, and I’m not proud of it, but it worked. I finished the game, and I only ever backtracked to farm and do sidequests once – when one of the patch-added final bosses kicked my ass and ran me out of consumables, at which point I did sidequests, hunts, and built up XP and gil until I could restock fully on curatives, leveled up 10 levels in a single rest, and then went back and finished the fights and got the ending. Yet, in a strange way, I liked that about the game. What simple, mindless combat meant to me is that I could marathon through it without having to learn or grow, without having to farm AP to buy new skills and complete character progression. I just pushed a smidge over the level 45 recommendation for the final boss set, and then I burned about 30 potions, 10 high potions, 25 elixirs, 4 megalixirs, a Mega Phoenix, and 4 Phoenix Downs to push through the last boss gauntlet.

For me, Final Fantasy’s mainline franchise entries are about the story and world, and here’s the thing – flaws and all, I liked Eos and the story of FFXV. There are things I didn’t like about both, but the thing is this – the moments of sheer beauty and emotional resonance will stick with me longer than the stuff I didn’t like will. My first visit to Altissia, the ending moments of the game, particularly one of the mid-credit scenes, and the overall aesthetic of the game will stick out to me and were stunning to me. It isn’t the best FF story I’ve played in the last handful of years (sorry, Shadowbringers still wins that handily) but it was pretty good overall. My biggest beef with the story is that a lot of the emotional resonance of moments are backfilled after the fact, and that robs the actual moments of the story of a lot of their possibility. Without getting too much into spoilers, the biggest missed opportunity is the relationship between Noctis and Lunafreya. It’s setup as an arranged marriage, so okay, not great – but there is a bond between the characters, all shown in flashback. There is a major moment of the plot around halfway through the game between these characters that should be a huge emotional moment for you as the player, but it kind of…isn’t. Instead, the stakes are shown to you in flashback after, with the relationship between the characters revisited and expanded upon in multiple sequences for much of the rest of the game. And…cool, it does make that initial moment feel heavier, but at the time it actually happens, none of that weight is there, and that fucking sucks!

The main theme of friendship is a big one that hit heavy for me, and made sure I pulled through the game. Over the last several years, I’ve had friendships that have sort of fluctuated, as both my friends and I have made life choices that have brought us closer or created rifts, and the game does an excellent job of capturing that down to the lowest level details of how long-running friendships can change and evolve with time. I found it compelling personally on that front, because games so rarely explore that kind of theme, and even movies and TV shows don’t often get to quite the depth that FFXV does on that theme. This one is almost in spite of the game and what it offers, though – I liked those themes even without having played the DLC as of yet, so there is more yet to be seen. I also haven’t watched the movie or anime series, so I have little context outside of the main story route.

What I found actually really compelling about the game as a whole is the gameplay integration of that central theme of friendship, or as I came to jokingly call it, the “bro-adtrip.” In order to actually gain your XP from battle and quests, you have to call it a day by striking camp or checking into a lodging. The friends have specific combos and team attacks they use together, and each character has a personality that persists between story and gameplay. Each friend has a unique skill – Gladio levels up Survival from running in the open world, which allows him to scavenge items in battle, while Prompto levels up from taking photos, and offers side quests at designated points on the map to take special photos. Ignis levels up by cooking meals for the party at camp, while Noctis fishes for his skill. Each of these translate into all sorts of things – Gladio loves camping and will always push the party to camp with verbal cues when a campsite is nearby, while Ignis uses a scan ability in combat to reveal weaknesses and concocts recipes from food items picked up from animals fought in battle. Prompto shoots, both with a camera, and with his signature guns in battle. It’s a really cool theming device and one of the elements that I think was consistently well done throughout the game.

The last thing that I took away from the game was a strong sense of what growing up is like. As a theme, it’s well-trodden in all of media, but Final Fantasy XV really does it well. The start of the game has the party acting like teens, trivializing the weight of the burden they bear and learning to move forward as they start this journey, but they end it older, level-headed, with a sense of duty that can be crushing at times. One of the most emotionally resonant moments is a scene near the end of the game, where the characters clearly want things to be like they were, at camp, the four of them just sitting around a fire, but they know what they have to do for the world and what that means, and they have a tearful moment where the pressure clearly gets to them. And like, not to get too personal, but I’ve had moments like that, where the life you thought you’d live and the life you actually have are out of sync, and you just have to…sort of deal with that, and it sucks. It takes the wind out of you.

I think things like that are the value of so-called “bad” media, sometimes. Life is a messy affair, and just like the game team working on Final Fantasy Versus XIII obviously thought they’d make a very different product, what they got is not what they expected, as life itself can also shift and be different than what you expected.

It’s…tough, for me to recommend Final Fantasy XV as a whole product. I think it gets a bad rap, but I think a lot of the criticism of it is deserved. Sometimes the game is too obsessed with its world to build it all the way out, sometimes the story is so obsessed with moments that it forgets to build to them, and the gameplay is so fixated on layers of extra gameplay that don’t stand up in the bigger picture. But beneath all of that, the game has a core theme it does execute well, with moments of deep emotional resonance and a message that I found interesting and relatable even in spite of the problems the game does have.

So I guess in the end, it’s probably worth experiencing if you have a spare 25 hours, a spare $20 or so, and a desire to see.

It is interesting, because I assumed the issue with a AAA title that met with tepid reactions after 10 years of development would be that there’s just no heart there. To the contrary, however, Final Fantasy XV is all heart, and I think that’s what made it so fascinating that I’m here writing this now. All of its flaws and oversights come from a place of positive motivation, a desire to say something interesting such that the mechanics of how that message is delivered are the problem as I see it.

And that is perhaps the best surprise the game could have offered me.

(also yes all these screenshots have the performance metrics on them because I played the game that way because I’m a fucking PC nerd)

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