So, after hours and hours of exploring the world of FFXV...
...fighting gods, spelunking through dungeons, slaying demons, fishing for trophies, racing chocobos, going on tours, cruising the countryside, wrangling frogs, completing hunts, finding dog tags, taking photos, and, of course, discovering new recipes...
...I have earned the game's official certificate of completion. While I haven't finished EVERYTHING the game has to offer, I have completed nearly every side quest and beaten the main story mode. And now, here are my overall thoughts.
I am going to try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but I will bring up very broad plot points and narrative style. I will not explicitly discuss specific plot developments, character moments, or twists.
That being said, if you don't want to risk any of the game's story spoiled for you in any way shape or form, I'd advise you stop here.
Final Fantasy XV's strongest point is its characters--specifically, and perhaps exclusively, its main party, consisting of the chef and strategist Ignis, the bodyguard and survivalist Gladio, the jester and photographer Prompto, and the fish-crazy-would-be-king Noctis. Mind you, this is not to claim that any individual member of the main party is particularly interesting or expertly fleshed-out and developed. On the contrary, Noctis and his friends exhibit totally cliched anime boy band personalities. Ignis is the polite, thoughtful, and serious one. Gladio is the brutish, tough, crude one. Prompto is the fun-loving jokester. Noctis is the dull, emo-y teen with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Individually, while they do have some indication of history and personal struggles, they remain largely under-developed throughout much of the story.
What makes the characters the strongest point of the game is just the way that the developers have breathed life into them, and how they, by proxy, breathe life into much of the game. The world of Final Fantasy is beautiful, but it's also pretty empty. There aren't dozens of dungeons around every corner to explore or myriads of treasures to unearth or carefully crafted side quests to make the world feel populated and riddled with intriguing stories. In fact, most of the time spent traversing this world will be spent passively riding in a car as you watch the scenery go by, fast travelling, or taking to a chocobo to cross broad spans of basically empty landscape.
The thing that keeps much of your journey interesting is not the tasks or the narrative it presents to you, but the company you keep. Much of Final Fantasy XV is framed as a road trip with friends, and that's exactly where it's strongest. While you play the game, your travelling companions will make snide remarks to each other, have playful banter, shout out to one another during combat, make observations about their environment, pal around in the car and at camp, support each other in battle, and congratulate each other on a job well done when the fighting is over. Prompto will take pictures of your adventures together and your party will comment on them at the end of the day, Ignis will come up with new recipes and make meals for you all to share, and Gladio will help you hone your combat skills.
The biggest reason Persona 4 is one of my favorite games is how the game makes you really feel like you have a connection with the people in your party. In P4, you help your friends through troubled times, converse with them, hang out with them, console them, and watch them grow as people overtime. P4 accomplishes a sense of comradery through its storytelling outside of the action-adventure portions of the game. FFXV is sort of like the reverse. It's the moments you have fighting monsters together, pursuing quest objectives, and exploring dungeons that your team feels the most alive, and it's through not wholly scripted experiences but personally crafted ones that you develop a sense of a bond with them. Your party never really sees the level of character development you might find in other games/rpgs, but they are brimming with personality and nuance, which, to me, more than makes up for it.
The game is flawed, but really the characters are what will help you look past them. The monotony and repetitiveness you can find in most RPGs is mitigated and sometimes even eliminated simply because it's just so darn fun travelling and fighting with Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladio. They're really likable characters and every day you share with them feels like an adventure, if I can phrase that in the corniest of ways, from the moment you wake up in the morning to when you decide what to make for dinner--or stay at a hotel. They feel real because of just how much nuance the reactions and conversations they share impart upon them, not during cutscenes but while you play the game. You take on a pack of bugs in the wild and hear Prompto talk about how he hates bugs. You go near a fishing hole and hear Noctis remark how he's itching to catch a big one. You come upon a pit stop and hear Ignis advise that you stock up on potions. The little details that this game offers in its characters are where some of the biggest overall enjoyment you'll have in it will come from.
Now, I know I just got through talking about how the world feels kind of empty and can appear to be bereft of content when compared to the likes of the Witcher or MGSV or GTA--and I still stand by those claims. However, all that aside, the world still manages to be a thoroughly inviting place to explore, and it achieves this with almost nothing other than sheer scale and beauty. The plentiful and diverse scenery of this game is almost overwhelming at times. I mean, seriously, I think this might be my favorite-looking game on the PS4 thus far. I said that you'll spend a lot of your time in the game just passively cruising around in your car, and that sounds boring and dumb, but, really, I have enjoyed many car rides just panning the camera around and contemplating just how good Lucis can look, and knowing that you can, at any time, hop out of your car and just run over to anything you can see, save the distant mountains, trees, and oceans. The world is just plain gorgeous.
The characters and combat look really good, too. Warping from point to point with magical, blue sparkles fluttering in the breeze, giant blasts of fire scorching the earth beneath you, and blades sparking and glimmering through enemies--it's all very sleek and spectacular. Character models are highly detailed, making it totally fine when most of the cutscenes run in real time, and the in-game animations are wonderful. Noctis going from sprinting and hopping over obstacles to running out of breath and slowing down to a light jog as your stamina depletes is all incredibly fluid and natural. The food Ignis prepares at camp looks gorgeous and makes you wish you could actually have some yourself. And while Prompto can take some awkward pictures, some of the angles and lightning he gets in his shots can just look really cool.
All the little atmospheric touches are great, too. The music is great--you have a plethora of soundtracks to choose from when taking long rides in the Regalia, and I love how the theme while riding your chocobos will go from an upbeat flurry on land to a more downplayed, whimsical tune when treading water. When the rain comes down, the sky becomes grey and your characters will all glisten in the precipitation, which is even reflected in the game's menu when you look over their gear. Even after the rain stops, the roads will continue to have reflective puddles strewn about the pavement. Every little diner you stop at has a proprietor with his own personality and speech patterns, and every dungeon in the game feels totally unique and really reels you in with a sense of intrigue.
While I would put this category leagues behind the quality I find in the character and style of the game, it is still pretty enjoyable--so long as you have wait mode turned on. The game has a pretty good balance between strategy and button-mashing, figuring out which enemies to target and how to exploit their weak points while also brutalizing them with your myriads of weapons and explosive spells. While I'm sure there is a lot more depth to the combat that I haven't explored, it can feel a little repetitive at times and it doesn't quite have the same level of game-feel as something like the combat in Kingdom Hearts 2. However, it's fun and frantic and there's room to vary how much brains you put into your fighting methods versus how much brawn.
Bosses feel big, powerful, and intimidating. Enemies are varied and, if you wish to fight effectively and efficiently, require different approaches--unless you just spam recovery items, warp strikes, and skills, which is also totally valid. Fighting was fun enough that coming across new monsters felt exciting, and made me want to rush into seeing how long it would take to beat them into submission, as well as see what sorts of items they'd yield.
Warping is probably the best feature of combat, as it lets you traverse distances in an instant as well as zip out of combat to replenish your health and magic while setting up a long-range warp strike. I actually wish it had been incorporated more into the exploration elements of the game--letting you reach otherwise inaccessible places or treasures by warping, but it's something you'll almost exclusively do in combat. Still, there's nothing like spotting an enemy from a hundred feet away and instantly ramming your sword through their torso.
Now, I'm sure you've heard it before that the story of FFXV is not very good. And while I don't really think it's awful or anything--some of it I can kind of respect and even bring myself to like--it is definitely not one of the better parts of the game.
First off, if you want to play the game, you have to watch the supplementary materials first. That means Brotherhood and Kingsglaive. While the former isn't super necessary in terms of plot, it is necessary to help fortify your understanding of the characters and their relationships, and since those are the bests parts of the game, I'd say it's a necessary watch so that you can get the fullest experience the game has to offer. The latter, while you could technically probably just read a summary of it for the plot stuff, does give you some much needed clarification on some of the characters' motivations, namely Ravus and King Regis. And, yeah, it does kind of explain a lot of stuff that will otherwise be barely explained at all in the game. And while I do think Brotherhood is decent and believe that, while Kingsglaive is a heavily, heavily flawed film it does manage to have some entertaining and dramatic moments, it is kind of ridiculous that SE expects you to watch these things just so you can understand the characters and story of their game.
As for the story itself, it's not that it's conceptually bad. You can understand the choices they make and where it's all going and why things happen the way they do. You can kind of see the intention behind it and the sort of journey they're trying to craft, and the meaning behind it. And sometimes that even pays off, if not as strongly as they probably would've liked. The problems lie within the execution. One of the major driving forces behind the game's story is Noctis and Luna's romantic relationship--if it can be called that. Luna is such an important character in the plot and integral to Noctis's character arc in the game, and so it's really, really disappointing just how uninteresting she is. They give her almost nothing to do other than preach about peace and understanding, ramble about her responsibilities and the good of the people, and struggle with the unbearable weight of duty resting on her shoulders. And unlike your party members with whom you share numerous experiences together, you get a couple flashbacks with her and Noctis as children, and that's about it. You basically have to take it on faith (and because the writers tell you to) that they so very, very much love each other. And that really brings down the storytelling potential of the main quest line.
And even beyond Luna, pretty much all of the characters sewn into the storyline are fairly boring. A very small handful of them might be able to get by on charm alone, but that's about it. It really highlights the vast fissure between the player's self-directed experiences in the game, and the ones the game lays out for you to walk through. The game allows you to develop a strong sense of comradery and friendship with your main party, but it leaves the other chess pieces in its narrative begging for more development and action. The story is most engaging when it creates conflict between Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladio, as these are characters that the game has actually given you time and reason to care about. But when another character dies or does something unexpected or kills someone, it just feels like stuff happening, because there's no leeway for emotional investment. The other characters kind of just give exposition, explicitly talk about their emotions, lecture you, or do crazy stuff. It's kind of like the Original Trilogy vs. the Prequels in Star Wars, with the side stuff being like the former while the main stuff is like the latter. Outside the main story, you're having an adventure with likable, fun characters brimming with personality, while inside the story you're trudging through overly complicated, political melodrama.
The game's story will also throw (sometimes confusing and bewildering) plot twists at you out of nowhere, suffer from pacing issues from time to time, and, without spoiling any details, the ending sort of feels like it would raise controversy not because of the very nature of it, but because of how it's delivered and how they handled the story leading up to it. Imagine The Last Of Us with the ending that it had, except it didn't feel deserved because everything that led up to it wasn't executed well enough. I mean, it's not exactly like that, but I think you can get the general idea. Overall, the story has a strong foundation and all the right pieces and ideas are there. It just doesn't play out the best that it could've.
So, let's forget everything I said about how great the characters are and how they breathe life into the game, how beautiful the world is and how it invitingly it wants to be explored--because I'm going to have to do that in order to talk as objectively as I can about this. The bulk of the tasks the game gives you--the stuff you're going to be spending the majority of your time on if you want to totally complete this game and level up properly and experience most of what the game has to offer--is dumb.
The side quests this game gives you are practically the definition of lazy, bare-bones side quests. They almost all literally follow the format of "Talk to guy. Go to marked place. Get thing/kill thing. Go back to guy. Get reward." That's it. There are no complex, intertwining narratives, no quirky but intriguing characters with backgrounds and conflicts you unravel and work through, no spectacular set pieces (with a few rare exceptions) to make all your grinding and running about worthwhile. It's all just basic, trivial running around to gather or kill stuff and then reporting back to the task-giver.
And with that said, it's actually kind of surprising retrospectively how sparsely populated the world is. You're encouraged to explore the land, but you won't really find much. The vast majority of quests you get will be found at key locations and pit stops you have to visit anyway, either because of the story or because it's directly on your road trip's path. You will rarely ever be just wandering through some woods you found and come across a guy who stops you to tell you that his sister has been kidnapped or something and begs you to find her in the northern end of the dark forest to seek the legendary black dragon. Mostly all of your quests will be predictably placed at outposts, in town, or at shops and diners. And while this isn't a terrible sin, the fact that the content of these quests are so bland and lacking really doesn't help make the game's open world feel like a real open world, so much as a series of broad areas for you to run into when you need to get someone a certain ingredient or kill a specific beast.
There are a few exceptions, like the dungeons are always great and fun to explore, but on the whole, if you remove the supplementary gaming quality lent by your party and by the spectacle of the world itself, much of the direction the game provides you outside of the main storyline is actually pretty insubstantial.
This is just a discussion of issues that are more minor and while I don't think they totally bring down the game as a whole, they can be responsible for some of the game's less-than-endearing experiences.
First of all, there are parts of the game--not many, but some--that just feel like other, not-as-good games that've been tacked on. The least-spoilery example is that there are a few instances in the game where you will be invited to take down an imperial base. The developers of this game decided that these portions of the game should be played as stealth missions. And, okay, that could work, but it doesn't. The stealth-based gameplay is boring and feels clumsily designed. It just involves moving behind stuff and then warp-killing enemies at a very dull pace (oh, and make sure you don't stand in certain spots that the game doesn't indicate to you are bad places to stand in by any clear or intuitive means, or else your cover will be blown).
It's odd to me, because it feels like doing stealth in FFXV could've actually been really fun and engaging. Imagine using Noctis to warp from point to point strategically past guards and through open areas, timing your warps to evade detection and strategically take out enemies and equipment unnoticed. But instead, you just basically move really slowly in a straight line. Now, it could be argued that this would take a lot of time and effort to add what would essentially be a mini game into an already massively huge and expensive undertaking. And while I can agree with that, I can't agree that it justifies putting half-assed stealth elements into an otherwise decently designed action game. Either do it competently or don't do it at all.
There's another part of the main story mode where the game switches gears from an action-adventure to some kind of stealth-horror-survival title. While conceptually I can see what they were going for and why they wanted it to be a part of the game and the story, it's another instance to me of the ideas being there, but the execution faltering. And it's a very long stretch of the story mode. It's the first time I think in the story mode where I was just thinking "Okay. I'm kind of getting bored and frustrated. Can we just advance the plot already." It was tedious, repetitive, and involved a lot of backtracking (except, unlike the side quests, it didn't involve playful banter, fun combat, or getting rewards at regular intervals).
Another issue I have with the game is how it encourages freely exploring the world, but doing so costs the main campaign quite a bit. Because of how lackluster the main story is and how fun it was to just run around Eos with party in tow, I mainly just played side quests and explored dungeons while hardly tackling the mains story quests. And while I feel like it is the best way to play the game in a sense (since that's where most of the game's enjoyment comes from anyway), doing all that side stuff will seriously push you wayyyy over the recommended level for the story missions. And that then causes all the big, story fights to become a breeze. Bosses that should feel powerful and intimidating kind of just go down with barely any kind of a fight, and what should be taxing, engaging rushes of combat are sort of just casual and effortless poundings through waves of enemies.
Now, you could argue to me "Well why didn't you just do a better job of pacing out the side quests with the story ones so that wouldn't happen?" And that's totally reasonable and fair. But, I would argue that the problem originates with the game, for making its linear campaign and open world so disparately engaging and inviting. If they weren't going to make the main story more appealing than the world around it, they could have at least made it so that the main story scaled in difficulty to some degree with the player, so that the big bosses could still retain some sense of tension and danger. That's my thought, anyway.
Other problems I have with the game mainly lie in minor technical issues that can break immersion and engagement at times. Sometimes you have to interact with parts of the environment (marked by a blue light and a button prompt when you get close enough) and it can be frustrating when the prompt won't appear until you're at the exact right distance, position, and angle relative to the marker. Sometimes the camera can be an issue when you're fighting in enclosed spaces or there are lots of trees and rocks around to block your view. The targeting system at times can be frustrating, as Noctis may not face the enemy you've highlighted and, instead of warping to that enemy, he'll warp in the direction he's facing. Sometimes character dialogue playing in real-time will be interrupted by scripted sequences or enemy appearances, and you'll be forced to miss out on some of the characters' commentary (which, as I've noted before, are some of the best parts of the game). Fighting enemies can feel clunky at times, as it can be difficult to judge the timing of their attacks based on the animations alone, and blind-siding enemies can feel a bit frustrating.
The realism and detail of the open world can also work against itself at times, as you'll be forcibly reminded many times that you are, in fact, playing a game. Your character simply can't jump over certain obstacles or climb up certain ledges that clearly, realistically they should have no trouble getting past. Sprinting through the open world can be a pain as you have a stamina bar which, as I see it, should've just been left out altogether. There is a way to work around it as you can hit the sprint button again just before running out of stamina to give Noctis a boost, but as this is something you'll mainly do outside of combat, I feel like you should've just been allowed to sprint indefinitely from the start.
THE SAVING GRACE
Even with all the bad things in the game, on the whole, I think it's still a very worthwhile experience.
While the main story isn't the best, it still has a lot of great moments with great set pieces. The spectacle in this game is not to be dismissed--there are some awesome cutscenes and scripted fight sequences that just look and feel epic. And while the game does become very linear in its latter half/third, after exploring the wide world of Eos for so long, it actually felt like a nice way to head into the endgame, like a deserved change in pace and scenery. Your party members also remain the strongest parts of the game, and when the story derives its drama and heart not from Luna or some boring bad guys but the friends with whom you've traveled, fought, and played for hours on end, it really does feel like a story worth getting emotionally invested in--if only for a handful of scenes.
And while I bad mouth the other characters in the story, even they can have their moments. Really, getting invested in the story will probably boil down to how invested you can get invested into Noctis and his friends. If you can care about them and what they're going through, you'll be able to, at least to some extent, care about what's going on around them, because you'll be able to care about what they care about. You can enjoy the story not on the merit of the plot, but on the merit of how well the game crafts the experiences you share with your four protagonists.
As mentioned before, while the world itself can sometimes feel lacking in points of interest and the side quests can be pretty bland and repetitive, it's how they all fit together as a road trip you share with your party that makes it an experience worth having. After all, the most boring and trivial of tasks can be made better when they're done in the company of the people you like. Both the side quests and the main story cash in on these experiences to maximize their entertainment and their pathos wherever they can.
The old adage "it's the journey, not the destination" really rings true with this game. While it very evidently tries to craft for you a meaningful story and satisfying character arc--and, honestly, it doesn't totally fail at doing so, at least not all the time--it's really all the little moments you enjoy pressing through dungeons, driving across the countryside, and making someone's favorite dish at camp that make the game worthwhile. And the game is aware of that to some extent. While I won't give anything away, the ending is only as strong as it is because it acknowledges and builds upon those little moments and the cumulative journey for dramatic and heartwarming effect.
Ultimately, I think the game is flawed, but it's still fantastic--or at least it was for me. It's filled with joy, intrigue, danger, fun, beauty, and wonder, even if all of it is a bit unevenly spread. This is actually the first Final Fantasy game I've managed to get through from start to finish, and while that may be because it aligns more with my preferences as a gamer, I think it also speaks to just how much care and effort was clearly put into its most essential elements, and how quickly that allows it to draw you in, so long as you know what it is you're getting.
If you're looking for a super-fleshed out narrative adventure with a carefully crafted story, meaningful character development, masterfully executed themes, and thoughtful exploration of its underlying ideas...you won't really quite get that, here. But, if you can get into a fun, expansive adventure with a really likable team of heroes and a story that's filled with spectacular set pieces and sprinkled with some effective drama, that's exactly what you'll get. I can't speak for how good a Final Fantasy game it is, but I can definitely say that it is a good game.
TL;DR Fun game, kinda shitty story, but still good because it has cool main characters and a pretty open world.