You can support our writing on Patreon and PayPal! Follow us for not-so-breaking news on Twitter and Facebook. Final Fantasy XV is the story of a chosen one. His mission? To save his kingdom—and ultimately, the world. It's been done before and honestly, anyone purchasing a Final Fantasy entry should expect some variation of this theme to drive the story. XIII's kingdom was a floating city-state and an evil pope; VII's kingdom was the city of Midgar and the product of a corporation abusing science for war. The trope has been a staple all the way back to the first Final Fantasy in 1987, where four heroes save the world from a possessed knight and his engineered time loop.
The variation this time around is how the chosen one became chosen. Our star character, Noctis, is the prince of Lucis. Ancient tradition passes the power of world-saving through each new king, and kings are chosen by a mystical crystal.
In this way, the chosen one's chosenness differs from some of the prior entires. Lightning and her crew in XIII weren't "chosen" so much as a series of mishaps and machinations resulted in a sleeping god giving them tattoos. A major story arc concerns a child having received this same mark despite clearly having no capability to fulfill the god's wishes. Or consider VIII, where chosenness can seemingly all be traced back to which orphans ended up at which orphanage.
By deeming chosen status as more or less inherited, XV builds a story around reclaiming the power of one's lineage
Most of your central tasks will concern raiding the tombs of past kings (and one tomb where the standard statue representing the kings is noted as belonging to a queen) as you gain their incorporeal weapons to confront an empire and gods. These weapons are massively powerful, meaning they come at the expense of your life gauge draining when used. The story progresses and you'll gain a new way to wreak righteous fury against enemies of all sizes by deploying every weapon at once. For most of the game, the Royal Arms are an effective way of dispatching a lot of the big uglies you encounter.
Which should be great! Except the weapons don't seem to fit into any of the trait or elemental categories key to exploiting enemy weaknesses. A big sword won't qualify as a big sword for big sword weaknesses, and a sword that increased defense against elemental light—mentioning light in its description, even—didn't deal out light damage. You're likely to end up using whatever weapon has the highest base attack stat because the fun of experimentation is lost when standard battles become wars of attrition.
Complementing the confusing usage of Royal Arms is a rather disappointing offering of non-legendary weapons. The plus side is every weapon you can buy or pick up as treasure will have a unique effect tied to it; the five different spears I can recall ranged from dealing fire damage to increasing likelihood of crippling an enemy's body part. The downside is you'll probably spend 20+ hours using the same weapon because you haven't found a shop carrying a new one, meaning your damage level isn't likely to increase as you spar off with tougher enemies.
Overall, however, the Royal Arms are pretty nifty. It's rather satisfying to wipe out a herd of bombs by witnessing Noctis unleash a dozen different weapons in a series of brutal strikes.
Their role in the story signifies the main problem with the game
The Royal Arms are hyped as a key to saving the world. So it's a bit strange you can beat the game after having obtained less than half of the 13 total weapons. Each one is unique to a past Lucian king, and I couldn't tell you a single thing about any of those kings except one used a giant shuriken. Similarly, I can't entirely explain why the weapons were important beyond a vague explanation of Noctis needing the strength of his ancestors.
Another thing I can't explain is the importance of the ring. Not long after starting the game, this ring of legend is referenced as hugely important to world saving; it's passed down by the chosen kings of Lucis as a gift from ancient gods. Together, the ring and the crystal will purge darkness from the world of Eos. Throughout the story? The ring gets a couple minutes of screen time and becomes a mildly useful weapon for one section of the game. You can use it as a weapon after that part, yet all but one of its attacks will not affect any enemies at or above your level.
And then there's the gods. Again, these gods are a central part to many story events. You'll fight several of them before they grant you their power, wherein they can be summoned in battles. You don't actually get to pick when to summon them, though; randomly during some battles, the music will change and a prompt to hold L2 will appear. They are definitely more magnificent than any summon from any other game in the entire series, even outdoing the magnificent summons of Final Fantasy XIII!
It's just that, well...why were you fighting the gods? Not all of them are fought, as some lend their power without confrontation. The empire which serves as your antagonist wants to also kill the gods, which you try to stop by killing them yourself. Their motivation is given zero explanation, while your own can mostly just be guessed from context. Some of the lore and mythology behind the role gods played in the rise of humanity will be found in excerpts from a book called Cosmogony. These excerpts show up in random outposts you'll visit, with no order or structure, and they're not saved in an reviewable format despite the menu having a section called Archives. No, the archives are only there for fish, recipes, and photographs your team has gathered.
Who the hell was Daryl?
Nowhere does the substantial lack of story exposition become more apparent than the game's biggest reveal. Daryl is just a stand-in name I'm using to prevent spoilers, but I'm pretty sure nothing would be ruined if I laid out the whole plot anyway.
Daryl is, to me, reminiscent of Ultimecia from Final Fantasy VIII. See, in VIII, the game spends a majority of its time exploring a geopolitical struggle driven by the whims of an evil sorceress. Sometime around the third disc of the game, you find out the true man-behind-the-curtain has been a sorceress from the future named Ultimecia. One of the central characters has actually been collecting intel about her for decades, yet shrugs when asked who she is or why she's causing all this trouble. For the final act of the game, all the political intrigue is abandoned as you try to stop her plan to compress all time—again, for reasons nobody knows.
In XV, Daryl is the true name of a character who's been around since the first few hours. Why is their true name important? Dunno. Why should this be shocking? Dunno. Why did they want to bring the apocalypse? Dunno. All the political intrigue promised in the first few chapters is cast away rather quickly and you find yourself tracking down Daryl for a final, spectacular battle with the assistance of the weapons and gods you collected.
Similarly, everything Daryl does throughout the story has little explanation, nor do any of the things apparently important for Noctis to complete that Daryl interrupts. And while Daryl is given a lot of screen time, there are several characters introduced who get their own actors, names, and character models who are never heard from again after that one cutscene. One of those characters even first appears with Daryl and happens to show up in a few cutscenes! Then they're forgotten about until used for a late-game boss battle and mercy killing.
There are several reveals like this which should've been important but came out of left field in a bad way. However, we're about to get into the good stuff.
The big draw should be everything that isn't the story
XV's story is interesting yet vague. While Square-Enix has announced they'll be releasing free updates for the game that include more cutscenes and better exposition for the story, I wouldn't tell you to come into this game expecting any new ground to be broken in the plot.
But what I would tell you is I've put almost 120 hours into this game because everything else is just so grand.
Eos is a living, breathing world. I mean this in most senses of the word. To be sure, don't expect a world where you can kill random civilians or drive your car through trees; your car can only travel on designated roads until you finish the game and can unlock a flying car, and you'll get a game over if you crash your flying car. Civilians function as they have in any other Final Fantasy game, there to add atmosphere, conversation, and hand out quests. Nor is this a world with choices and impacts; places where you have choices to make affect only your main characters (outside of one quest), with the world itself only making a few massive changes due to story progression.
Instead, think of this as a living, breathing world because it really feels like an ecosystem exists. In the image above, you'll see animals crossing the road. This can happen randomly while driving around, and you will actually stop to let the animals pass. They might run off to the horizon, or they might cross the road to graze and take a nap. A minor detail such as random animal crossings is what the world of Eos thrives upon.
Time constantly changes, too. Watching the night sky, you'll see stars actually moving, rather than a static image as is standard in most games. Some creatures only appear in the darkness, while fishing will result in different catches depending on the time of day. Certain areas are inaccessible until sunset as well.
Other details include realistic rain, which your characters will complain about messing up their hair. You can counteract the damage to their do by purchasing a water-phobic gel at one of the outposts. Should you take up camp in the rain, your characters will spend their time inside of a tent. In better weather, they gather around a campfire to dine on one of Ignis' delicious recipes, sometimes with Chocobos in tow who munch away on greens.
Food becomes artistic in its own right. Below is one of dozens of recipes Ignis can concoct with items gathered from foliage, creatures, and farmers' markets.
Recipes are everywhere. You might purchase one at an outpost, record one after eating at a restaurant, create one from a cryptic poem, or randomly come up with one after collecting a new ingredient. Once camped out, you can browse Ignis' recipes for your team to chow down and receive various boosts that will last for most of the next day. Chocobos, meanwhile, will gain boosts to a specific stat based on which green you feed them at camp. And nothing is more heartwarming than watching your crew and your chocobos enjoying the outdoors!
Characters are everything
One feature of the game involves Prompto, a punk-esque royal bodyguard who seemingly couldn't live without a camera in his hand. Every time you rest, you'll get to look through photos he took since the last time you rested. To be completely honest, half of my game time was spent trying to find the perfect photos. The design of the photo system gives them as realistic a look as I've seen in any game I've ever played. Mid-battle photos made everything feel like this was my adventure being documented, in the woods behind my house or the old rock quarry outside town, where creatures of my imagination took form in frightening or hilarious ways.
Prompto's photos were actually his documentation of his adventure. Because, despite the story having some disjointed beats, everything we did between story missions gave the characters personality. For Prompto, this meant diving beneath his punk rock exterior and becoming so intimate with his fears, struggles, and favs that any separation or confrontation between Noctis and him felt personal to me.
Each of the characters felt this way, even the muscle head-styled Gladiolus. Whatever the story lacked in substance was made up for in your team of four. They have their tropes, but their banter in the middle of a dungeon, talks in the car, and intimate moments alone with Noctis made them as human to me as Ellie and Joel from The Last of Us. I put so much time into this game because it really, truly felt like an adventure with friends I'd known my whole life.
There's not much I can say about their interactions without spoiling all the fun, to be honest. Every moment brought new surprises, from everyone commenting on Noctis' propensity with a pole ("Talk about backseat fishing!"), to hilarious moments crawling through creepy dungeons, to touching late-night conversations sitting on a roof. You truly feel these characters care about each other, and the voice actors do incredibly well at communicating moments of tension and joy with maximum believability.
Representation is about par for the course
Everyone your team interacts with varies from unique to apparent clones. The major non-playable characters definitely have personalities all their own, for better or worse. Cid, he's your retired grandpa who hates being retired and always wants to help. Cor, he's the loner with a legend inspiring awe when you first meet. Sania, she's a nerdy professor studying evolution (which means there's a frog catching mission). Nobody's super complicated, and they all have their quirks.
Except for Cindy. At first glance, she's clearly designed to please people expecting a heavily-sexualized, imaginary woman from their media. This holds true at second and third glance, too. Her attire is made up of short shorts, a bikini top, a grimy yellow jacket, and a trucker cap. Refueling your Regalia at her station will result in a short cutscene clearly emulating music videos of sexy women cleaning cars, with the down-cleavage camera angle to boot.
Two things are surprising about Cindy:
First, she's somewhat of a step back from the more tasteful handling of women in Final Fantasy XIII. XIII-2 itself took a minor step back, as the Chocogirl was merely a woman with a few feathers covering her, which was followed by Lightning Returns throwing its title character into outfits which would barely qualify as bikinis. While Cindy is at least wearing attire fitting a semi-desert climate, the over-the-top car washing is unnecessary fan service.
Second, she's clearly not interested in any of the men from your troupe. Prompto longs to take her on a date, interpreting anything she says to you as proof she's interested, but only in banter while traveling. Cindy herself is focused solely on managing her garage, improving your car, and protecting people from demons. She's not made "badass" through violence; she's content just helping in her area of expertise.
Women throughout the game never mimic Cindy's presentation. The closest would be a mercenary whose armor accommodates cleavage but is otherwise appropriately functional for a dragoon-esque knight, or the women of a city who wear short shorts with the grimy work overalls when they're off duty from the power plant. Body sizes and ages vary, as does clothing. Really, the whole of the game's sexualization begins and ends with Cindy.
Color, however, is greatly lacking. There are a couple black people you'll be required to meet through the story, but both will be relegated to handing out side quests after one or two cutscenes. Professor Sania, a black woman, will probably be the person of color you'll interact with most as you become her unwilling lab assistant in the field. I tried to take a screenshot whenever I saw a character who wasn't white, and the total came up to around six in the entire world of Eos.
The strongest subversion of typical gaming and character tropes comes in the four main characters. While each somewhat fulfills a male power fantasy of some sort, they take no shame in being emotional or shedding tears. The power fantasy even gets stripped at a couple points, one in a manner that handles a disability rather respectfully. You're still four dudes saving the world in a sweet car, just with the Duke Nukem aspects toned down quite a bit.
The semi-perfect adventure
On a technical level, the game is breathtakingly vivid. The only major bug I experienced came around 100 hours in when completing a tough side quest boss didn't trigger the cutscene and completion, meaning I had to warp back to the beginning of the dungeon and redo a somewhat monotonous puzzle. Other aspects, such as not being able to save in the middle of dungeons that can sometimes last for hours, might be somewhat frustrating but didn't really damper my experience thanks to the PS4's rest mode. Clipping occurs with weapons and monsters from time to time, while there were a few times one of my team would take a minute to stop walking into a wall.
It was still an experience I can't imagine missing. The after-game content alone feels like an entire extra game has been added on, with the greatest thus far being a monster-free dungeon exclusively for Noctis which contains sadistic architecture-based puzzles that will break your mind for at least four hours. There are probably a dozen secret bosses I've yet to tackle, a mountain-sized turtle, and some time-travel to tackle another continent's worth of content.
With Square-Enix promising a New Game+ feature sometime this month and additions to exposition, I'm ready to dive right back into this game and relive every moment I can. Hopefully you'll find a road trip with four friends that opens and closes with a beautiful rendition of Stand By Me to be worth the hiccups along the way.