Well folks, it’s finally here; the game we’ve all been waiting for nigh on a decade now…or was it longer? Though understanding regarding the development processes of a video game vary, I think everybody can agree that they are simply happy that this period of waiting is now over. Of course, that means that everybody can now play the XV (nee Versus XIII) adventure they have so longed for, finally, and perhaps contentiously, putting that one burning question to rest; Is it as good as we’ve hoped?
The Hype Train, as it has so been dubbed, is a rather perilous facet of pop culture. With passengers pinning their hopes and dreams on a station not yet reached, joy can turn to malice in an instant depending on how well their dreams and ideas mesh with the reality presented to them. Of course, this effect is only intensified by a particularly lengthy journey and with more than a decade of trailers, concepts and plans behind them, Square Enix lay bound to the tracks before this aforementioned train. So, did XV find itself rescued at the last moment like oh so many damsels or was it the unfortunate victim of a much more gruesome fate? Perhaps time will aid in telling, but for now all we have is the word of the fans and the word of the fans is…pretty good actually. That being said, I’m not sure it was the flawless gem Square was hoping for, for a number of reasons. The most glaring of these, in my eyes at least, is the story of XV itself and the manner in which it unfolds. So hold onto your hats people, this is gonna get spoilery.
Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum is just your everyday, run of the mill royalty who happens to possess tremendous powers, a preordained destiny and overall visage that edgy teenagers the world over think that they already have. Y’know, a real average dude. However, rather than dealing with the politics of his birthright, XV takes us away from the Crown City of Insomnia (not who named that) and onto the ol’ dusty trail…in a kickass car. Joined by his three bodyguards/friends/symbolic brothers (Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto), Noctis makes tracks towards Altissia, a peaceful super Venice wherein his betrothed has found herself. There’s this whole marriage thing you see, Noctis marries the lovely Lunafreya and the clearly pure evil Nifflheim Empire agrees to not destroy Insomnia. Unfortunately for our heroes, Nifflheim had their fingers crossed behind their backs and destroy Insomnia anyway in a glorious cutscene that is taken directly from the Kingsglaive film…where the event was actually shown. In game, not so much. Now I’m all for an expanded universe, but XV relegates perhaps it most important story driving force to an amalgam of snippets pulled from a separate production, making it feel as if the game was missing something. I can admit that a certain fear could be elicited from not seeing any of Insomnia’s fall, capturing Noctis’ own experience and channeling the horror of the unknown, but the game decided to rest in the No Man’s Land of exposition. Simply show or don’t, those were the two strongest options and the game chose neither. And this is only the beginning of the less than perfect choices made throughout the game’s plot.
As it has been lauded since development immemorial, XV was to be a journey of friendship. With Noct and his buddies driving the open road, they were to learn about each other, grow closer, generally chill as a bunch of guys on a road trip are want to do. Unfortunately, whilst this idea was indeed held true, its execution left much to be desired. My main issue lies with the dialogue of this game, its lack thereof in certain places and the overall speed with which events unfold. As a wise scientist once figured out, people need to breathe. It’s a simple fact. A writer then took this idea and came to the conclusion that stories, too, need the same. XV did not follow these notions. Rather than naturally flowing from one encounter to the next, XV jumps and stumbles. From Insomnia being destroyed, we jump to Cor (somebody I think we’re supposed to know) informing us about Royal Arms, weapons that will aid in Noct’s journey. Neat. Then Cor leaves and the Royal Arms pretty much become an optional side quest, which really puts a dampener on their plot relevance, barring three that make the jump to storywise acquisition. Then the gang fights Titan, a giant who took a leaf out of Atlas’ book and lies holding a meteor that once threatened the world, as to why he never put it down I have no idea, a concept that is made especially clear when he is destroyed an said meteor has no ill effects on the planet. I honestly feel bad for the guy, missed all his favourite shows for eons. Gonna take some serious binge watching to catch up. Regardless, we then jump to a Metal Gear Solid infiltration of an Imperial base, then a fetch quest, then a boat trip, a sweet battle, another boat trip, a train ride, a kidnapping, another infiltration, another sweet battle and an ending…with little in between. To put my frustrations simply; It’s just so weird. For a game that specifically gives you a car to travel in, never once is it used as a device to build tension, or a method to reflect on events recently occurred, instead it it simply used to travel from one objective to the next in a scenic way…although you’ll probably just pay the 10 gil to fast travel after a while. In the one predetermined drive of intrigue, the group treats it with the same flippancy they do their daily trip. Nevermind being led to the site of a god by a citizen of the Empire, let’s casually discuss how Noct isn’t that great of a driver. Look, I appreciate the friendly banter, but it was not necessary in certain situations and the overall lack of meaningful conversation really did not help me find sympathy for these guys.
Speaking of sympathy, Gladio seemingly has none. Relegating himself the member of the group who has an eye on Noctis’ royal goal, due in no small part to his hereditary position as the King’s Shield, Gladio butts heads with Noct more than once on their journey. Of course this tried and true position is nothing new in ensemble casts, as there must always be that one friend who breaks through another’s sadness with a swift kick and a reminder that they have not lost everything. In Gladio’s case however, there is one key difference; he comes off as a jerk. The first time Gladio busts in with the “quit moping” routine, Noctis has just lost his father, possibly lost his bride to be, had his kingdom destroyed and is in the midst of having a god try to speak to him in a manner that is at the very least causing him intense headaches. Really, Gladio? That’s when you choose to butt in? The hypocrisy doesn’t help either, as Gladio’s reminder that Noct is not the only one who lost somebody focuses on his own loss…a father who has zero impact on anything, because Gladio never brings it up again…even when his younger sister turns up…who also never mentions it. The second major time Gladio “helps” occurs when Noctis is understandably sad after the brutal murder of Luna, you know, the girl he hadn’t seen in twelve years and was on his way to marry. Cue the, “You’re supposed to be a king” speech and top it off with a little physical violence and you’ve got…friendship? It also doesn’t help Gladdy’s case that Noct really had nothing else to do. After a “several weeks” time skip, our group is on a train headed for their next destination, somewhat undermining Gladio’s whole argument. What exactly did he want Noctis to do? Stop being sad? He was already physically moving forward, he didn’t divert from their path, he didn’t waste time (as far as we know) and simply wished to stop in the place Luna grew up in…which they were already travelling through anyway…also they did stop there. I honestly don’t get Gladio in these moments. He’s supposed to be Noctis’ stalwart shield, his ally to the end and instead winds up being a mysterious jerk who causes all of the problems he pins on others. Did I mention the part where he leaves your party for a chapter and returns covered in scars? Yeah, that totally happens and has zero explanation. Completely irrelevant to anything in the story…like so many other things.
Loose threads. A simple analogy, but an apt one nonetheless. If utilised properly, a single unanswered question can keep a work alive, sparking theories and discussion amidst a fanbase for years. If utilised improperly however, this unanswered question can invite criticism, claims of an unfinished work and an overall sense of unhappiness. So what happens when a story decides to fray their intricate, sci-fi fantasy rope of a narrative? Well then you pluralise that problem and you have a mess of threads. For all it’s world building, XV took a decidedly mysterious approach and planted the seeds of the unknown throughout its story…but it did not do it well. Amidst the plot proper exist a plethora of hanging statements, unfinished ideas and all around half baked elements. After a sudden and pointless revelation regarding his true origins, Prompto is immediately returned to his former self, zero change. I could explain what his dark secret is, but it honestly doesn’t matter and only makes sense if you really care enough to think about it…which you won’t. Obvious villain Ardyn also drops a number of these bombshells (?) and winds up confusing the plot more than anything else. Honestly, his true intentions appear in chapter 10 or so of a 15 chapter game, his previous appearances doing nothing but show you how weird he is. When he does drop the other shoe, his methods are completely new and not based upon the established world. Matters certainly are not aided by the game’s insistence on relegating important plot points to the one off loading screen before a chapter. Did you know Ardyn can control stitches in time? Well you wouldn’t if you didn’t read the loading screen. Also, what exactly is a stitch in time? Because it certainly isn’t something that’s in the game, nor is it something that ever comes up again. Why? What was the point of it? Why was there one mission that had Noct warp from a dungeon to a power plant, with the reason again existing in a loading screen? Why was the group’s boat trip to Altissia started with a loading screen, only to have the boat be exactly where it was beforehand? Show the boat leaving port, let me control how long Noct looks at the friends he’s leaving behind, let them slowly become smaller in the distance, don’t just plop me into another vehicle ride where Prompto calls out stuff he sees…I’ve already done that enough.
So, 2000 or so words in, why don’t we relax by discussing gameplay, aka the solid part of XV. Forgoing turn based combat for a free flowing style, fighting in XV is fun. With the unique ability to warp around the battlefield, by way of throwing his weapon, Noctis is able to manoeuvre out of harm’s way with great speed and back in equally. Actually targeting an enemy with the ability leads to a Warp Strike, which is just as cool as it sounds and increases in damage the farther the distance travelled. Combine this with specified Warp Points on the battlefield and Noctis can slash a foe, teleport high up on a wall and reappear behind said foe in a matter of seconds. Or simply upgrade the Warp Strike with the Ascension upgrade system and spam that move until you run out of Magic Points, drink and Ether and go for broke again. Outside of this skill, Noctis is also the only character in the party capable of wielding every type of weapon available. In addition to possessing different styles of attacking, these weapons exist in a scissors-paper-rock style relationship with the various creatures of XV, who possess weaknesses and resistances to the various armaments provided Noct and Co. With a quick select of four and the ability to switch at any point during battle, you are encouraged to try different weapons on different foes and find the best matchup. It honestly helps as well. Sure you can spam a poorly matched weapon if your level is high enough but, as the game progresses, those weaknesses become more and more important. You also have to be somewhat more careful with magic in this system, as it is a consumable resource that can only be replenished by absorbing elemental deposits found by campsites. You are also only able to hold a finite amount of spells at a time and must actually craft them yourself. the benefit of this system however, is that magic can be tailor made for specific fights and various other items, such as food and collectibles, may be funneled into the process to create new effects. There’s even a certain mixture that causes a spell to grant extra XP and one that casts both Fira and Blizzara in succession. Be careful though, spells do not distinguish friend from foe and generally cause Prompto to stop, drop and roll, or have Gladio seize up on the ground due to the innumerable volts running through his muscles. I also think I froze Ignis once…I’m not very good at magic.
Speaking of Ignis, let’s dip into food briefly. Existing in a multitude of forms and brought about by a myriad of recipes, food serves as the universal buff in the XV universe. Able to be bought from any number of diners, cafes and stands, this staple of life can boost the party’s health, attack, regeneration, protects them from status ailments and even increase XP gained. OF course, as with the real world, better buffs come with a higher price tag and require you to judge just how much you need that caviar. Luckily for you and your wallet however, Ignis is quite the chef and will make his own special dishes for free, provided you possess the ingredients. Ignis is also capable of learning new recipes from quest events and the simple purchasing of other foods, building his utility as the party’s designated stat buff guy. The trade off for this is that he will only cook at campsites, forcing you to decide whether the free lodgings and food are worth forgoing the XP multiplier gained from more permanent lodgings. Multipliers add up mind you, as characters do not level until they rest for the night, allowing you to build up exorbitant amounts of XP before staying at that expensive x3 hotel in Altissia. Hello level jump.
Stepping back to the surface level, XV really shines in its presentation. Visually speaking, the game is gorgeous. The sprawling landscapes that shift from plains, to desert, to beachfront capture the essence of the road trip the group is undertaking and serve to provide a nice backdrop for the countless side quests you’ll no doubt complete. The appearance of petrol stations and simple automobiles also adds strength to this games aesthetic, somewhat shying away from the more fantastical elements that have proliferated the series as a whole. The ability to let Ignis automatically drive the Regalia (the car) also allows you to simply sit back and enjoy this world should you so choose, without wasting any time. The characters themselves are also designed memorably and, despite my opinions on their personalities thus far, serve their sense of individuality well. This may mostly stem from the fact that, though Final Fantasy in spirit, they are not garbed in overly complex clothing. Although I will not accept that the gang are wearing official king’s garb…because they look like a bunch of regular guys and Regis did not entirely come across as the kind of man who would allow a studded vest and single armoured glove to be “official” outfits. But whatever. These visuals are also supported strongly by the score of the game, combining a number of new tunes with a solid helping of old. Relegated to the moments of import, the XV score is as orchestral as you would expect and unsarcastically adds majesty to most moments. Existing as more of a nostalgia hit however, the ability to buy previous game soundtracks as tracks for the car is a nice touch and the option to buy an MP3 to listen to said soundtracks in the overworld is even nicer. Would that it was free, but 100 gil isn’t too large of a sacrifice. What struck me most however is the redux of the original FF theme over the games third and final ending sequence. Partly because I wasn’t expecting it and partly because it is simply a beautiful tune, I think it simply worked for the moment it was trying to create. how that moment went over, of course, is up to the individual. But standing alone, it worked.
Final Fantasy Xv was, is and will continue to be an interesting case. Doomed to development hell and held aloft by the hopes of a company and its millions of fans, it has been one heck of a journey to this point. Since it bore the name Versus XIII, people have been looking forward to Noctis and his incredible floating armoury, myself included. However, through changing directors, shifting storylines and the loss of a character or two (*cough* Stella *cough*), we may not have received the game we thought we would, but we did receive a game…and it was good. Though I spent a fair deal of my words venting personal frustrations, I wish to make it clear that I did enjoy XV. The gameplay was fun and free flowing, the graphics were great to behold and the overall road trip vibe was pleasant. However, the game really fell apart for me when it came to story execution. Apart from one climactic pre-rendered cutscene, I didn’t necessarily care about the gang. They hit the broad beats of personality, but lacked the personal intricacies that make a character shine. I wanted to see Noctis develop his emotional side, I wanted to see Prompto deal with his apparent insecurities, Gladio his stern personality and Ignis his later incurred injury, but that all happened off screen. Prompto apparently had his revelation whilst Noctis was away, Gladio dealt with himself somewhere in the world and Ignis simply hung in the background for the most part. It simply felt as if we, the player, were being pulled along with no information or consideration. I would understand if the intention was to show Noctis’ lack of control in regards to his destiny, but I don’t feel as if that is what the game was attempting to provide. Combined with sudden, curve ball plot developments, flavourless side characters and gameplay choices that were far from the strongest, XV becomes weaker in moments where it could have truly showed its strength. I feel as if Square was trying to build this epic staircase, one that would lead them to new heights, and instead all of their ideas simply combined into an M.C. Esher painting. Interesting to look at, but not something that necessarily goes anywhere.
Pack your sleeping bag, grab your magical teleporting sword and prepare to Square off with destiny…and oddly gourmet campfire food