Final Fantasy XV: Start to Finish

Previously I savaged the game’s mechanics. I said I would probably have a few positive things to say about the game’s plot, which is an easy promise to keep because the game starts reasonably strong.

Final Fantasy XV tells the story of Prince Noctis. His kingdom is a society with modern conveniences like cell phones but also decent amounts of magic. Despite living very near an Empire that could easily conquer them militarily, the kingdom stays relatively independent due to a magical force field maintained by the royal family. It’s also relatively sparsely populated, possibly in part due to the demons that pop out any time it gets dark (this is represented in the game by stronger-than-usual enemy encounters that come up if the player stays outside too late at night)

Noctis is accompanied by his entourage: Gladio, a melee-focused bodyguard; Prompto, ranged fighter; and Ignis, the mage and cook. The game starts with this exact party and will stay that way for nearly the entire game. These guys are overall likeable, which is a refreshing change of pace from FF games where you have jerk party members or even have to play a jerk yourself (VIII and XIII come to mind)

Our party bros are pretty straightforward adventure archetypes. Noctis is somewhat pampered without being a brat about it. Gladiolus is the headstrong big guy. Ignis is the cultured, level-headed one. Prompto is a somewhat endearing kid brother who avoids ever becoming the kind of burden that can annoy a player tasked with rescuing useless teammates. The opening of the game has their car break down so they can trade banter while pushing it to the nearest mechanic, with a remake of Stand By Me just in case you didn’t figure out on your own that this is a story about some best buds.

The conflict starts out similarly simple: There is an Empire taking over large swaths of the world, but the Kingdom of Lucis remains independent because of a forcefield maintained by the royal family using the power of gods. Noctis sets off on a road trip with his party to marry a neighboring princess (Lady Lunafreya) to whom he’s been betrothed since childhood. Of course, it’s obvious (to the player) that the forcefield is going to go down and the Empire will invade. What’s less obvious is that this will all happen before you even get on the boat to head for your fiancée. Both royal cities are attacked and Noctis’ father and Lunafreya are both pronounced dead (as is Noctis himself, cluing in the player that the news reports may not be entirely accurate).

This actually provides a decent setup for the impending sidequesting. I’m one of those people who gets really annoyed when, say, a game literally calls its main quest Race Against Time while having no time limit and practically expects me to wander off doing things my character would have no reason to waste their time doing. At this point in the game, the worst the Empire could do has already happened and you’re expected to marshal resources and protect the locals while occasionally making guerilla attacks on new Empire fortifications. In particular, there are “royal arms” in hidden tombs throughout the land that Noctis is expected to visit so he can inherit magic powers from his ancestors. Seriously, this part is Final Fantasy at its best. In case it’s not obvious how you’re supposed to play this, the third chapter is even called The Open World.

Eventually the player will get far enough to find themselves accosted by Ardyn. Ardyn is a weirdo who shows up briefly in the first chapter and intermittently after. He’s actually the game’s main villain, but the game doesn’t want you to know that yet so he just comes off as this extraneous creepy guy. The problem is that in his first appearances they wanted him to be “villainous” but didn’t really have anything for him to do so it feels less like foreshadowing and more like being accosted by a homeless person. His outfit is even a bit raggy looking.

Anyway, Ardyn takes the party to their first god. The gods in this game are all summon monsters from the previous games. Meeting Titan might have been cool, except the game doesn’t tell you that the gods all speak gibberish unless you turn on subtitles in the options menu (this “feature” may or may not be intentional) I figured this out at some point between Titan and Leviathan. Anyway, the Empire attacks while the party is fighting Titan. The heroes barely manage to win Titan’s favor while fending off the Empire, but lose their car in the process. They’re back to hiding, this time on foot.

At this point we’re back to looking for gods and royal tombs. I’d be tempted to skip over this part but this is where we start interacting with Gentiana, who adds just enough weirdness to the proceedings to keep it interesting. She starts randomly appearing in Prompto’s photos, teleports in and out of scenes at will, and tends to talk with her eyes closed unless she has a specific reason to be emoting for the people she’s talking to, underscoring her whole “I’m a spirit and don’t actually need these organs like you fleshy humans” vibe. She’s seriously my favorite character in the game.

After getting back the car, and picking up a new god, our heroes decide it’s time to take a boat to the other continent so we can finally get to our destination from the beginning of the game. We need Mythril to repair the boat. Gladiolus asks to leave the party for awhile. It’s as abrupt in the game as it was in this paragraph. You can ask him why but he won’t tell you and you’ll be railroaded into letting him do it anyway. It turns out this is an excuse to put Aranea, a minor character that honestly isn’t interesting enough to talk about further, into your party for the next dungeon. This is easily the weakest excuse to shuffle party members around I’ve ever seen in a Final Fantasy game, and I’m counting things like Final Fantasy IV’s “your teammates are eaten by a previously-unmentioned sea monster” and Final Fantasy XIII’s “the protagonist throws a temper tantrum and storms off” in that statement.

Final Fantasy XV reportedly languished in development hell for a long time. It feels like more than one game sewn together, and this is one of the earliest and most flagrant seams. After finishing the dungeon, Aranea offers you a ride back to town. She drops you off in view of the local power plant. The chapter ends, fade to black. Fade back in, and you’re now standing in the power plant, wearing a protective suit, with an NPC telling you something along the lines of “It sure is great you agreed to clear the demons out of this power plant!” So I agreed to this off-screen? During that period between when I was looking at the power plant and when I ended up in it? I think to myself, “Could this editing be any more obvious?” After heading into the power plant, I meet a big guy, labeled “Hunter”, wearing the same clothes, speaking in Gladiolus’s voice. It turns out that…”surprise”…he’s Gladiolus. Noctis makes a comment about how unsurprising it is that Gladiolus “ran ahead of the other hunters”, hunters which were never depicted or even mentioned at any point prior and must have been offscreen where “I” “agreed” to this mission. When I wondered if the editing could be more obvious, that wasn’t a challenge, game.

With our boat fixed, we head to the city of Altissia. But first, an NPC hands me a flask and tells me to remember that there’s magic in this game and I can use it. Why he’s telling me this in Chapter 9 of 15, I have no idea. What follows is a “cutscene” which is just our entire party sitting in a boat talking. We can rotate the camera around but it’s zoomed out to the point where we can’t actually look at anyone. The conversation is like, ten minutes long. Then you get to the town and you get a dialog option in which you’re not given any clue which one you should choose, but choosing the wrong one costs you thousands of Gil. On the bright side, the city itself is gorgeous. Which is good because it’s also such a rat maze that I spent literally an entire in-game day/night cycle trying to find the restaurant I’m supposed to be going to until I finally gave up and looked up a guide on the Internet. The thing that first made me consult a walkthrough was walking to a restaurant in a town.

We’re now firmly in the “second game” and it really looks like it could have been something decent had they been able to finish it. You get to meet a head-of-state who reasonably looks and behaves like a politician (including her age). The negotiation with her probably accounts for half the player-controlled dialogue in the game. This is where you start seeing effort put into things other than “MMO-style sidequesting” and “follow the plot to the magical MacGuffin”.

Sadly this is where Ardyn reveals himself as the main villain. While Lunafreya summons Leviathan, he just kind of walks up and stabs her to death. He still hasn’t really shown any personality to this point; before he was a creepy jerk who inexplicably helped you and now he’s a creepy jerk who inexplicably hurt you.

Oh, and Ignis is injured in battle and rendered permanently blind. Offscreen. It’s as abrupt in the game as it was in this paragraph.

After this the plot is mostly on rails. Literally, you ride a train through the next several chapters into the endgame. Noctis is understandably depressed at having lost a war, a marriage, and now his close friend’s sight. Gladiolus gets mad at Noctis for not living up to his duty as king; I wanted Noctis to ask him about that time he buggered off for no reason, but the game isn’t going to mention that ever again. At the first train stop we have the awful Malboro fight and Ignis starts to believe in himself again.

On the next leg of the journey, Noctis sees “Ardyn” on the train. Noctis freaks out on “Ardyn” and starts a fight with him on the train. Ardyn gives some dialog indicating he’s confused at Noctis’ sudden hostility and I actually said, out loud, “I bet this is some illusion magic and that’s actually Prompto.” On the one hand, it says good things about this game’s writers (and localizers) that I could have that strong an opinion which character’s words I was hearing and be right. On the other hand, that makes it all the more irritating when Noctis falls for this trick multiple times, culminating in knocking fake-Ardyn-really-Prompto off the train. Even this might be fine except Ardyn continues to pull this exact trick for two more chapters and Noctis continues to always fall for it. You can’t always fall for it!

As the train continues, our characters notice that the weather is getting colder and nights are getting longer (the longer nights aren’t an “approaching the arctic north” thing but implied to be a magical happening based on all these high-profile magical royalty members getting killed). At some point the train is just our party and the people driving it, until Ardyn shows up somehow. At this point Gentiana appears, freezes Ardyn and reveals herself to be Shiva, giving us another god to work with. Best character in the game.

Next we head to the imperial city, to get to the game’s crystal because we’re playing Final Fantasy and they still have those. This part of the game is infamous. Noctis loses most of his abilities and has to solo most of the chapter with a new set of mechanics based on a magical ring that hadn’t mattered to this point. Apparently the original version of this chapter was so hated that they not only overhauled said set of mechanics but also added an option to follow Gladiolus and Ignis instead, effectively opting out of the chapter’s original story. I honestly found the solo mechanics to be a refreshing change of pace, but I only played the patched version.

The bad news is that this is also the chapter where the game shoves in any remaining back story that couldn’t make it into the actual game because the game’s main story is such a patchwork. You find out that the empire has been creating both demons and clones, using a combination of the two to create their military. You also find out that there is some “vanishing disease” causing imperial civilians to become demons (I half-suspect this is so that they don’t have to depict anyone actually living in the Imperial city). I suppose this makes more sense than my head-canon where there isn’t actually an “Empire” and Ardyn has just been cranking out soldiers invading places in the name of a nation that doesn’t exist.

At one point the party needs to pass through a door that actually requires a Magitek soldier to open. Prompto mentions that he found out that he was one of these clones intended to become a Magitek soldier. Offscreen. It’s as abrupt in the game as it was in this paragraph.

Now that I’ve trotted out that sentence three times, here’s the ridiculous thing: there are official statements from Square-Enix people that this game wasn’t cobbled together at the tail end of development hell and the main plot was totally finished before release. If that’s actually true, they’re admitting to malice instead of incomptence. All three of these incidents were gaping holes in the story that I noticed immediately while I was playing the game, and singled out as the most jarring omissions in the story without reading or hearing anyone else’s opinion on the matter. It turns out that these three incidents each have DLC dedicated to them. It beggars belief that someone shipped this and said, “There’s no way the player wants to know how Ignis became blind while Noctis was having a solo boss battle in the same town!” Either they stapled together an unfinished story and patched it with DLC later, or they intentionally chopped up parts of the story to sell DLC. I’m flexible enough to condemn it either way.

Not long after you find yourself in a fight with a monster. Ardyn eggs on the hero to leave his friends and go to the crystal. His friends agree. What follows is the big reveal, which for me cements this story’s status as “so bad it’s good” and not just plain bad. First Noctis touches the crystal and it starts slowly dragging him in. Ardyn comes in to talk for several minutes while the crystal hums in the background, leading to the reveal that you really should have thought to turn on subtitles by now because someone messed up the sound balancing and the crystal humming drowns out all of his lines. Ardyn’s subtitles reveal that his name is “Ardyn Lucis Caelum,” adding “You’ll never guess whose name Izunia was.” If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry; I played the game and I didn’t know what it meant. It’s like if the Empire Strikes Back went something like:

DARTH VADER: (deep modulated Charlie Brown adult noises)
DARTH VADER’S SUBTITLES: Obi-wan never told you what happened to your father.
LUKE: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
VADER’S SUBTITLES: No, Luke. I am Anakin Skywalker!

(and the name “Skywalker” last appeared in the opening crawl…to the previous movie)

The actual intent of this reveal is that Ardyn is a member of the same regal bloodline as Noctis, but he made some kind of pact that made him immortal and also absorb demons to keep them from destroying everything. At some point the immortal demon-magnet went insane and decided to destroy humanity instead, but not before building up Noctis’ power as much as possible and then challenging him to a duel.

Sadly, things go back to being obvious not long after. Noctis is trapped in the crystal for ten years, which means he grows a beard, one kid grows up, and everyone else in the world mostly doesn’t age because who could afford the devtime for that? It’s always nighttime now, meaning the demons are stronger and more plentiful than ever. The party assaults the imperial city, fights something like five or six bosses in a row, then Ardyn fights Noctis one-on-one. After winning the duel, Noctis follows Ardyn into the afterlife, finishes him off and “dies” himself, joining the princess in the afterlife. This is where the player can troll the ending by inserting any arbitrary photograph from an earlier point in the game, giving the perfect send-off to this nonsense.

It’s a shame, really. Not that this story is so thin, disjointed, and clunky, but that this is the part of the game that I liked. I have little doubt that if I liked this game’s mechanics, I’d be New Game Plus-ing it up and grinning through these silly cutscenes again. Maybe someday I’d even understand them. As it stands, I think I’ll probably be seeing the FFXVI cutscenes on YouTube, if at all.

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