The AAA gaming space has become a mess of cynical focus-testing and homogenization in recent years. This is a drum I’ve beaten in other reviews, and one I’ll keep banging away on until something changes – if it ever does. Perhaps most egregious is the shoehorning of open worlds into too many titles. It seems to me that most big games have this tedious fascination with open spaces filled with chicanery – meaningless side-missions, monotonous collectibles, and hollow “stuff” to do just to kill time. The once-enticing prospect of a vast world to explore became another rote standard, yet another box to check. Tie that together with worn narratives and tropes lathered over uniform mechanics, and you’ve got things like Mafia III and No Man’s Sky – hollow, soulless titles without much in the way of originality or presentation. Thank God then for Final Fantasy XV – the antithesis to everything I hate about big-budget development.
Make no mistake, Square Enix’s long-gestating installment of its most popular franchise is very much a big-budget game. There are vast worlds to get lost in, lush picturesque visuals, and great swathes of content to absorb. It rips pages straight from several modern design playbooks, but what it does with those pages, and the way its modern influences play out in the overall package, puts so many other products to shame. By mixing the familiar with a dash of quirky weirdness and classic JRPG design choices, Square Enix struck a sweet spot between the familiar and the innovative, the comfortable and the bizarre.
It could be said that Final Fantasy XV’s plot even fits this description. From the outset, it offers people accustomed to generic big-box games something comfortable – a road trip between four men out to save the world, complete with a love story and banter about women. Yet as it continues, the narrative reveals itself to be anything but typical. Each chapter lays on twists and turns that push the seemingly beat “four bros on a road trip” plot into unforeseen territory. This includes cataclysmic encounters with deities, a sudden forcing of protagonist Noctis into responsibility, a late-game twist that reframes the entire narrative where the game starts, and the extremes it eventually finds itself going to are so radically different that it genuinely shocked me. At first, I thought I knew what I was getting into, even guessing major plot beats that I was certain would occur. Every step of the way, my preconceived notions were proven wrong. Looking back on it, Final Fantasy XV’s narrative surprised me more than almost any other game this year, solely because of that constant sensation of being proven wrong.
The most crucial part of this subversion of expectations is rooted in the primary cast. Noctis, Gladiolus, Prompto and Ignis are anything but typical male protagonists in gaming – those expecting a “brothers-in-arms” vibe similar to something like Gears of War, or even the banter-happy male empowerment fantasy of something like Uncharted, are going to walk away disappointed. These four men aren’t grunting, chain-smoking murder men, or smarmy rogues with a penchant for mayhem – they’re a charmingly ragtag family with different personalities, motivations, and world views. They’re a challenge to the types of masculinity gaming usually presents us with – the type that would have us believe men can’t have feelings beyond anger, vengeance, or playful malice. Men who cook and sew, or who take selfies and sing out loud aren’t shamed for their behavior in this game – they’re embraced and encouraged to be themselves. In Final Fantasy XV, masculinity isn’t a performative trope, or even much of an issue. The main characters are accepted by each other for who they are, and when they clash, it’s never because of them being “too girly” or “not manly” – it’s for actual narrative reasons and not dull, harmful tropes.
Final Fantasy XV not only has a phenomenal narrative, but it has hands-down, the least toxic portrayal of men I’ve ever encountered in a AAA game. You can quote me on that. Any game that tells boys and men they don’t have to be soulless murder machines or billowing factories of man pain is a winner in my book.
It helps that Final Fantasy XV succeeds not only at telling a rich, compelling narrative with mold-breaking characters, but manages to stylishly outdo every modern ARPG with both tight, nuanced gameplay and an interesting series of vast areas to explore. Precise, combo-based, dodge-heavy combat is seamlessly woven into a predominantly open world, and the results are sublime. Being able to wade through marshlands, ride a chocobo across a vast field, or climb across a sweltering desert landscape, then find myself in combat rivaling titles like Devil May Cry is indescribably satisfying. Nothing is lost in translation when blending open-world role-playing and this tight, polished hack and slash. Throw in some bombastic set pieces, like summoning a lightning deity to rain hell down on a military base, and the simple, soothing sensation of driving from one point to another, and players have got a rich, balanced experience on the gameplay front.
What also makes the open world feel less generic is the focus on odd little details which bring everything to life, accompanied by a willingness to let players breathe. A lot of time is given to showing the cast setting up camp, cooking food, or coasting down the highway in their car. There’s a quirkiness to where Final Fantasy XV demands your attention, almost reminiscent of a title by SWERY in its willingness to highlight offbeat details and pace itself deliberately. If other games are a rapid, pounding massage preoccupied with a constant dopamine rush, then Final Fantasy XV is a slow, deliberate shiatsu massage, giving you time space to breathe and time to think.
There are also more traditional RPG elements in here as well, such as dungeon exploration. Dungeons are suitably ominous and challenging, and come complete with branching paths and foreboding boss encounters. JRPGs in recent years have failed miserably at producing dungeons that tickle your desire to explore, with rare exceptions like the Souls franchise, and have relied on the worn idea of “dungeon equals obstacle to progress.” In Final Fantasy XV, that’s not the case – dungeons feel like intimidating risk-reward challenges, and are balancing acts of open exploration and scripted events. What this means is that players will feel like they’re exploring and platforming like they would with Lara Croft or Nathan Drake, followed up with a few tastes of treasure hunting, real-time enemy encounters, and memorable showdowns with bosses, like a disturbing snake with a woman’s head, or a massive jabberwock. It gives players the best of both worlds, much like the rest of the game.
Final Fantasy XV succeeds where other open-world titles falter for a simple reason – focus. The first half of the game is all exploration, complete with side quests, monster hunting, hidden weapons, and other tasks. The second half is a more linear, cinematic experience, with a flair for spectacle and traditional action game progression. Speaking from a purely personal standpoint, I preferred this to a game that was a persistent open world from start to finish. Square Enix manages to nail that delicate balance of a tight campaign and rich exploration simply by making everyone happy – the open world is big enough and filled with enough fun activities to keep you busy for 20-30 hours alone, possibly quite more. But once players hit chapter eight (out of fifteen,) they’re explicitly told they won’t be able to visit the open world “for a while,” then led to the more focused second half. In journalism, this would be called the inverted pyramid technique – start broad and gradually get more focused. In the context of the Final Fantasy series, you could call this an inverted Final Fantasy XIII – start with an open world and work towards a more linear campaign. Here, it works more than it did in that title because it’s truly a half-and-half sort of affair, and the game explicitly states that it’s going to happen from the get-go. The result is a comfortable compromise between Final Fantasy’s penchant for linear storytelling and modern gaming’s fixation on open world mechanics, a prolonged funneling from a broader game into a more compact one.
But whether players are getting lost in forests or rushing through a city towards a massive boss fight, one thing remains persistent throughout Final Fantasy XV – the dumbfoundingly spectacular visuals. Speaking as someone who primarily games on a PC, Final Fantasy XV’s graphics and art direction left me astounded and impressed that the PS4 was capable of delivering such a gorgeous game. Clearly, Square Enix had a budget here (the oddly charming Cup Noodle and Coleman product placement drive that point home) but even big-budget games often falter in some areas. Yet Final Fantasy XV manages to be a consistently beautiful, even awe-inspiring title in the visual department, raising the bar for console games that even games like Uncharted 4 fail to reach.
Speaking as a lifelong Final Fantasy fan, I was worried going into this title. Final Fantasy X is a game that helped me through the worst years of my life and introduced me to JRPGs. Final Fantasy XIII helped me cope with a broken relationship and lack of meaningful friendships. At every point in my life after the age of 10, I can think of which Final Fantasy I was playing at that moment. To say I hold this series close to my heart would be an understatement. The pre-release stuff for Final Fantasy XV left me cold, worried that this franchise had lost its way. Hell, even the first demo I played in September didn’t inspire much confidence. Yet now that it’s here in my hands, I can firmly say it’s my favorite of the bunch. It’s a game that has made me feel better about being myself, filled me with confidence in gaming as an art form, and whisked me away into its world to the point where I don’t want to go back to mine.
In a year where I’ve already awarded two games my highest praise, I almost wish I could give Final Fantasy XV something higher than my highest, as it’s forced me to reevaluate how I feel about practically every game release this year. But because I can’t, I supposed my highest praise and recommendation will have to do.
Final Fantasy XV is one of the very best gaming experiences I’ve ever had, bar none.