When I wrote about Final Fantasy XV before its release, I knew I was going in as a pessimist. The blatant erasure of women in favor of telling a story about bro friendship didn’t sit well with me, especially when one of the two women we saw in promo was scantily clad to the point of ridiculousness. The company’s attitude didn’t assuage that pessimism, either.
But I’ve been a longtime fan of the Final Fantasy series, and in the past I’ve overlooked egregious elements and still enjoyed a game (see: Grand Theft Auto V). And there were elements of XV that looked genuinely intriguing: a new game engine; a primarily open-world landscape; new battle mechanics; and above all there is a legacy of engaging games that came before it. I could handle erasure if the storyline was good enough, or the gaming experience was immersive enough to distract me. And who knew—maybe I’d fall in love with the characters despite my reservations?
Then I started playing, my expectations cautiously low, and XV let me know right out the gate that I was in for a bumpy (and monotonous) ride.
Warning: some gameplay spoilers for Final Fantasy XV (but not story spoilers)
What I Did Enjoy
Final Fantasy XV is beautiful, and I make no bones about that. The environments are stunning and no detail is overlooked, from the painstakingly executed textures of grass and dirt, sunlight glinting on water’s surface, or even just the rain animation. There were a lot of vistas to gawk at.
- Chocobo rental. Look, I love chocobos, and being able to customize my own and ride it around took some of the monotony out of the game’s incessant travel.
- Aranea Highwind, my favorite female character in the game. A mercenary with an affinity for aerial combat, she’s competent, hot, and ambiguous, which basically makes her the epitome of my type—and also engaging, especially for a minor character.
- I liked the ability to command your party members to perform certain attacks. It frequently got me out of a tight spot.
- The Ability Points system allowed me to spec Noctis and his crew out the way I wanted to. I’m always here for tactical control, and the AP options (and limitations) had me thinking creatively about how I wanted to play.
- The food you can make or buy for your party looked really delicious sometimes.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
What Killed It For Me
The travel system
The Regalia. Oh my God, the Regalia. Just give me a Moogle or a crystal to teleport to, for crying out loud. I realize the game was marketed as a road trip, but I spent so much time waiting. Waiting for the loading screen to finish, waiting for the car to get to a given destination (anywhere from one minute to ten, typically), waiting for cut scenes of Noctis or Cindy refueling the car to end. After an hour, the novelty of watching the scenery wears thin. Who thought a virtual road trip was a selling point, anyway?
You can fast travel to areas you’ve been before, and driving manually offers a bit more immersion (though not much; if you just hold the bumper to accelerate you’ll get there just fine), but that doesn’t do you any good when you need to explore new areas. I got up and made lunch during a sequence where we traveled by boat. Then I put in a load of laundry.
It’s a clunky system. Walking takes ages, but at least when you walk you encounter enemies and can discover loot or other points of interest on the map. Same with riding your chocobo. But by car, the most you can do is pull over and let Prompto take yet another picture.
The seemingly endless travel time is part of why the pacing dragged, but not all of it. Frankly, the endless side quests add up to so much time, and they don’t impact the plot. It’s the worst kind of grinding because it’s so transparent.
I was ten hours or more into the game and wondering if I’d just be stuck in car-and-side-quest purgatory forever when I heard the game got more linear as it went along. And that’s true, but then it had the reverse effect on the pacing: everything went way too fast. While it had previously taken me hours to get through a chapter, suddenly I was clipping through them in a half hour or so. Characters joined and left my party so suddenly I had no time to process or react. In some locations, even if you wanted to prolong the experience with side quests, there wasn’t really an option to.
By chapter ten (of fifteen), it felt like a much different game. Even though I did enjoy not spending quite so much time grinding away at side quests or staring at the Regalia, the breakneck speed of the plot wasn’t much better. Not enough time—quality time, I should say—was spent with the characters to grow attached to them, and as the stakes rose, my interest and anticipation failed to rise with them.
The lack of relationship depth
I thought with all of the discussion about this being a story about boys being boys, how any girl in the mix would change the dynamic, that I would see a nitty-gritty, in-depth story about male friendship.
While we do spend hours with the party, much of it is filled with canned dialog and repetitive cut scenes (I never want to see Ignis talk about discovering a recipe ever again). We learn about Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus in bits and pieces, and a lot of what we know about them is inferred from their character design: Ignis is the smart one (he wears glasses), Gladiolus is the bodyguard (he’s the big one), etcetera. Noctis gets a bit more depth as he’s the POV character, but even Noctis felt bland. His father is dead, and he’s trying desperately to reclaim his kingdom and save his fiancée, yet beyond the odd nightmare, I saw little emotion in him.
Frankly, I was bored. The repetitive dialog and lack of party control (which I’ll get into later) did not endear me to them. I found Ignis occasionally insufferable, Prompto grating (what was with all the fat shaming re: his character, anyway?), and Gladiolus was all right but I couldn’t tell you much about him other than he’s got a sister and he’s closest with Noctis. But they never really showed me that. XV simply assumed you’d understand that this is a merry band of brothers and didn’t bother to fill in the lines.
I wasn’t expecting XV to be Band of Brothers, but they could have worked harder to sell me on this important friendship. When Iris temporarily joined the group, it didn’t shake up the dynamic in any measurable way (although they did take more breaks, presumably for her comfort). I expected, I don’t know, male bonding. Openness a woman’s presence would negate. Even crude bro-ness. I didn’t get any of that.
The character design
They all look like they shop at Hot Topic circa 2002. It’s odd, and impractical considering the conditions they’re in.
The lack of party control
This one is probably just me. I enjoy the turn-based combat of previous FF installments, and so the change to real-time was pretty meh for me. It meant I had less control over exactly what my party was doing, and who in the party was doing what. The party is controlled by AI, although you do get a chance to command them into unique attacks when the meter fills up.
A lot of what endears me to party members is seeing their strengths and weaknesses in battle. When I have control of them, I learn what they can do firsthand, and I feel like they’re trying their hardest (because I certainly am). When they’re AI controlled, all I can do is watch their HP drop and sporadically command a special attack. Player control helps them feel more real to me, and without that I felt even more distant from the non-Noctis party members.
The unimaginative misogyny
Women were present so infrequently, and when they were, they were either eye candy (Cindy), imperiled (Lunafreya), or they were so minor they appeared once or twice.
In a game where two women are rarely on screen at the same time, let alone share a conversation, every instance of gratuity stuck out all the more. I would expect this level of misogyny from a series with a less inclusive history, or maybe if it were made a decade ago. Now? It’s inexcusable to relegate your few female characters to eye candy or distressed damsel.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I found that about as satisfying as you probably imagine. The game as a whole was so oddly paced and monotonous, and with such flimsily written characters, that the ending feels like just another disappointment heaped on all the rest.
It seems as though Square Enix is well aware of some of the game’s missteps: they plan to patch in new cut scenes to delve into character motivation, among other planned additions and changes. I’ll be interested to see how much they can really achieve within their existing framework, and I don’t know that I’d want to replay the game just to see if they explained Ravus’ motives or Noctis’ relationships. That isn’t enough of a carrot for me to bite.
In my first article, I was of the opinion that Final Fantasy XV was a regression, as it was a story told about men at the expense of female characters and gamers. Now, after playing it, I maintain that it is a regression, and one I hope Square Enix remedies with future games.
But I’m also left as baffled as I am frustrated. XV was framed as an exploration of male friendship—a premise I am not unfamiliar with and not immune to—but it was milquetoast and one-dimensional.
Are male gamers keyed into a secret depth, a hidden language, that when deciphered imbues clunky cut scenes with meaning? Is this the best story Hajime Tabata could conceive of?
This game wasn’t for me, that is demonstrably clear, but was it for anyone at all?