I'll start this review by admitting straight up that I haven't yet completed Final Fantasy XV, the long-awaited fifteenth title in the main series of the legendary Final Fantasy franchise. Unlike some of the Square-Enix superfans in Japan who completed the entire game in one sitting over the course of 24 hours, I'm taking my time with FFXV, pondering over every sidequest and fishing hole at my own leisure with no sense of urgency to propel me forward. It's a slow pace that was mirrored in the game's legendary development cycle, which took over ten years to complete and which evolved the game through a variety of incarnations since its announcement as Final Fantasy Versus XIII for the Playstation 3 back in 2006. After such a long wait time between announcement and release, it's safe to say that fan expectations were high, especially given the massive PR campaign that the game developers based around the title, which included a film, an anime series, a prologue novelisation, a huge soundtrack album and three songs recorded by Florence + The Machine.
Which is why it pains me to say that after all of Square Enix's hard work at hyping up the title, the game sadly came as somewhat of disappointment to me. When I ran to the stores on release day to grab my copy, it was in hopes of playing the first truly open world Final Fantasy game, a unique and unexplored mashup of classic FF elements and themes with the freedom and limitlessness of one of the Bethesda-styled games that have become popular in recent years. Instead, what I got was a jumbled and inconsistent collection of gameplay mechanics based around a limp and muddled plot with jarring holes where previously promised content had been replaced or removed completely. When Final Fantasy XV excels, it provides a fun slice of escapism following four best buddies with witty banter and truly beautiful scenery; but when it fails, it does so quite spectacularly. Here's a list of five areas of improvement that were sorely needed for the game to live up to expectation.
1. The plots seem insignificant and muddled
Before the release of FFXV, we had little clue as to what the plot was about other than a short synopsis that had been released regarding the games opening scenes - in short, a statement that detailed the importance of the crystal to the Kingdom of Lucis (and, thus, our hero Noctis who is the prince of said kingdom), and a brief sentence about the Nilfheim Empire's overthrowing of the Kingdom and the resistance lead against them by the kings-guard. In a social media landscape rife with oversharing, the sparseness of information relating to the games plot was actually quite riveting, and I was excited to see how plot points would unravel with little idea of what to expect. Little did I know that plot summaries were kept deliberately vague not in an effort to provide surprises for players, but to mask the fact that the plot itself is a complete muddle of ideas which never quite seem to take off.
Let's fast forward a little bit to chapter six which I've just completed. So far, we've got several ongoing plots which all seem very important but which have not been explained in the slightest. We're slowly making our way across the world to Noctis' beau and the mysterious oracle Lunafreya in order to keep her safe, although the amount of pitstops we're taking suggests that there's no real rush in getting there; we're trying to find some ancient weapons belonging to past kings which grant us magical power but whose actual importance to the plot is kept extremely vague; we're meeting up with some gods here and there who also grant magical powers as instructed by a messenger of the divine, but there's little information given as to why this is necessary; we're trying to mount some kind of resistance against the Empire that's just invaded our city (according to the plot synopsis above), but there's no actual planning that occurs to tell us how to do this; and we're headed to a mysterious quay to board a mysterious ship that will take us to a mysterious place we know absolutely nothing about.
So naturally, it's time to take a break and seek some revenge for a character we've met a grand total of twice and have very little affinity for: an old man by the name of Jared who was somehow killed in an invasion on Lestallium we never actually saw happen, or saw any consequences of. The party heads to a nearby military base to "seek vengeance", but while we're there we find a commander from the Nilfheim Empire who we decide to take hostage - because why not? An entirely new mechanic of sneaking is introduced to take this commander under our guidance and care, and when we finally do our trusted friend Ignis leaves us behind to destroy the base while he escorts the commander to safety. But when our objective is complete and the military base is alight, Ignis returns to say he's travelled halfway across the continent to put the commander in someone else's capable hands, only to have him escape their custody - in the less than five minutes it took for us to complete our part of the bargain. As we leave the base, we notice several guards chasing after us, suggesting that there has been no vengeance sought and no commander held hostage - only to continue on our original path to the mysterious quay which we don't know anything about. Do you get the gist yet?
The sad part about this is that all of these plots on their own could be easily developed into something that came across as entirely consequential and even earth-shattering if they had been handled properly. If the game was explicit about the fact that we were trying to fight the Empire, gaining the power of past kings and gods would be an obvious plan of attack, and could set out a nice structure to the game a la Ocarina of Time. Even seeking out Lady Lunafreya across the land, only to continually miss her by days, would be a noble cause if we were invested in the relationship between her and Noctis. But due to the lack of plot development, and the absence of key scenes - the game frequently gives us a caption of "Three days later..." to avoid explaining what happens in particular moments, such as (weirdly) when we're captured by an enemy commander who was disguised as a friend and then abruptly let go with no explanation - all of these plots appear completely inconsequential and unimportant. It's possible that some of these side characters, and indeed even some of the plots, are fleshed out more in some of the companion media - so far, an entire film entitled Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV and an anime series called Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV have been released to moderate success in Japan - but even if that's the case, the importance of the games secondary titles was never made clear to western gamers, and thus their viewings should not be a pre-requisite to enjoying the game itself.
2. The open world is much too closed
One of the saddest parts about FFXV is the fact that for a game promised to be open world, the entire setting is actually quite closed. The map itself is quite large, and impressively seems to feature no loading screens at all, which definitely adds to the sense of limitless possibility that a gamer may feel when travelling through it; but much of it is closed off due to high mountain ranges, highways and industrial structures, all of which seem to have been inserted simply to save the map developers time in crafting new locations. Most annoyingly, there's high fences blocking much of your path throughout the game which characters should easily be able to jump over with the aid of their chocobo steeds but which instead force you to take overly long routes around them only to end up on the other side. In a strange twist of fate, even the absence of explorable locations probably isn't a bad thing, because despite the sheer volume of world to explore there's very little to actually do once you get there. Stumbling across an abandoned hut seems exciting at first, until you realise that it's simply a recycled version of another shack you saw five minutes ago, with no key items, non-playable characters, or sidequests to encounter therein at all. These said sidequests and item locations are marked on your mini-map, so there's really no need to explore the world around you too much at all, and even if you do go off-road there's very little to find apart from a limited set of beasts to fight. The side quests themselves are tolerable but repetitive, forsaking the fun and uniqueness of games like Grand Theft Auto for a repeated set of quest proprietors who will continuously pop up around your map to ask for help achieving key items, defeating beasts or taking photos. It's not a completely dreadful mechanic, but the fact that you can, at the touch of a button, know exactly who will be asking you for help in exactly what area combines with the closed off setting in limiting your sense of curiosity as an explorer.
3. The transport mechanics are too simple
Much was made of FFXV's car mechanic pre-release, with some reviewers even going so far as to characterise the entire game as a "road trip buddy adventure". Indeed, the choice to include a car for the first time in a major role since Final Fantasy VII was an inspired one, and should have added an entirely new level of gameplay that previous games in the series hadn't yet achieved. Sadly, despite major influences from the aforementioned title GTA, the car mechanic in FFXV is severely limited. Players can choose to let their fast-travelling Ignis drive the car automatically or do so manually by playing as Noctis; but even when Noct takes the lead the mechanics consist mainly of holding down R2 to accelerate and turning a joystick to move around corners while the game guides you in the direction you need to head in automatically. Swerving in front of an oncoming vehicle will elicit not road rage or any damage to your ride, but instead will simply cause the drivers wheeling towards you to stop in the middle of the road and wait for you to make room for them; and there's no ability to run over any NPCs or fight a beast from the comfort of your backseat, meaning that there's really not much to do except to watch the scenery go by. There are some fun elements to your vehicle, such as the CD player which blasts old Final Fantasy soundtracks (and, weirdly, a singular Afrojack song) at your leisure, as well as decals which can be utilised to customise your ride. But in comparison to chocobo riding, which in this game at least requires the use of four controller buttons, the car totally pales; which, given how often its used and its importance to the plot, is a real shame.
4. The day and night system is tiresome
In another interesting move, FFXV developers decided to implement a unique day and night system to the game. This mechanic encourages players to take a nap at the end of every day in order for their health to be restored and their experience points tallied, meaning that (free) campsites and (expensive) hotels are the only places where characters can actually level up. Resting havens such as these are intended to be spaces to allow the characters of Ignis and Prompto to exhibit their special skills: with the former cooking a meal of your choice using items obtained throughout your travels which can boost set attributes, and the latter giving you a series of photographs taken automatically throughout the day for your perusal which you can save in a photo album or share with friends on social media. When nighttime hits, roads are blocked off by overpowered beasts you must fight through and certain quests can't be completed, effectively forcing players to make camp at their nearest haven. While I actually appreciate the uniqueness of this time change mechanic, as well as its necessity in forcing players to take advantage of the characters skills, its actual implementation comes off as a hinderance to flow in the game. Countless times I've been in the middle of an important mission as momentum builds in the story, only to have to stop whatever I'm doing right as I get into it because dusk has begun to fall. This would be less of a problem if daytimes were longer, but they move by so quickly that often you barely have time to get from one quest location to another before you are forced to go out of your way to set up camp just so that you can continue with the actual story. It's an interesting mechanic for sure, and I appreciate the desire of the developers to do something different with the game, but in this case a poor implementation makes for a frustrating experience.
5. The abilities and items are severely limited
One of my favourite parts of Final Fantasy X (which I should admit I am totally biased for) was it's Sphere Grid system, the levelling up mechanic which allowed players to customise each of their eight playable characters completely uniquely and to suit their own needs. FFXV has a similiar mechanic in its Ascension Grid, but instead of giving characters the chance to delve into whatever weapon, magic or skill they wish to master, the four characters are limited to abilities which are designed specifically for them which no one else can access. It's a problem reflective of a larger overall issue with the game's lack of freedom which prevents players from gaining any real unique abilities past the arbitrary "hit O to attack" mechanic introduced at the start of the adventure. Gone are the days of white, green and red magic, as are standard Final Fantasy abilities such as 'Steal', 'Flee' and 'Poison', in exchange for a limited set of attacks which doesn't even quite reach the level of freedom expressed in the similiarly-styled Kingdom Hearts series. Weapons offer a little more accessibility, with Noctis especially having access to a variety of arms as well as being able to customise his own types of black magic; but the fact that almost all weapons and accessories have to be bought and not found or won makes upgrading your arsenal a tedious and uneventful task. Am I the only one who's waiting for the return of the class system?
With all that said, there's still hope that Final Fantasy XV may improve. At this point, I'm just a little under halfway through the games fifteen chapters, which leaves plenty of time for a late turnaround - although the slow start to the plot would still be a definite flaw. And even if it doesn't quite get there in it's current form, a set of recently announced updates could still do the trick. In a recent press release, Hajime Tabata announced that FFXV was meant to be a game that would be enjoyed for years to come, with planned updates joining DLC to come in the next few months that would add "scenes that will give you insight into character motivations", new playable characters and potentially even customisable avatars, and even a form of real-time multiplayer that would allow you to battle entirely new bosses and limited-time hunts. If Final Fantasy XV's numbered predecessor is anything to go by, these updates may very well be crucial in making an extremely mediocre game extremely fun - Final Fantasy XIV's relaunch as A Realm Reborn was a pleasantly brilliant revival of what was once a pretty woeful title. But it's sad that after waiting ten years, fans will have to wait even longer to receive the game that was promised to them. Here's hoping we won't have to wait as long for FFXVI.