Now that I’ve had some free time, I’ve finally dusted off Final Fantasy 15 and given it a fair shake. It’s not very good. As Conan O’Brien laid out when he first reviewed the game on his show, the game is egregiously disrespectful of the player’s time. The story is so heavily padded with uninteresting fetch quests, long uneventful drives and pointless plot digressions that it’s hard to even unpack how much meat is really there. This might be the only game I’ve ever played where I feel it’s absolutely, 100% necessary to play another game or have a book to read while I sit through its frequent 10+ minute long, unavoidable periods of absolutely nothing happening.
If you ever wanted to play a game that simulated all the most tedious aspects of real life and partnered them with all the worst offenders of video game tedium, Final Fantasy 15 is the game for you.
The most impressive thing about Final Fantasy 15 is, perhaps, the incredibly successful marketing strategy that Square Enix employed to give the game a strong push out the gate. It was launched alongside a movie, glowing reviews from friendly media outlets, teased expertly at multiple events, and even came with its own tie-in indie game in Final Fantasy 15: A King’s Tale.
As a huge fan of jRPGs, I feel like this is a plodding entry to a dying breed of epic, story based games that I grew up loving. I want to give a fair judgment to Final Fantasy 15 on all the aspects I think are important to the jRPG format.
The story is drab. Partially it’s because the pacing is ungodly slow, and partially because except for a few standout moments, it’s just bland. Compared to other Final Fantasies, it doesn’t have the bizarre, cool intrigue of Final Fantasy 7, the optimistic heroism of Final Fantasy 6, the weird, colorful personality of Final Fantasy 10, or the Game of Thrones political gamesmanship of Final Fantasy Tactics. The story follows Prince Noctis on his quest to get revenge against the empire that ousted him, peppered with slow revelations about the astrals, the history in the world and Noctis’s place in all of it. It picks up later as the mysteries start to get explained but you have to sit through hours and hours of monotony to get to that point.
The narrative design is not good, either. Where many RPGs engage interesting story delivery systems like Suikoden 3’s POV selection, Deus Ex’s persuasion mechanic or Bioshock’s environmental storytelling, Final Fantasy 15 is perfectly happy with sticking to the standard dungeon, cutscene, town, dungeon, cutscene loop. There was a lot of praise heaped on the game about the road trip banter between the friends — in truth, they deliver one minutes worth of boring interaction that moves no relationship forward in any way for every 20 real time minutes of driving. In other words, it does engage in some banter, but executes it worse than Baldur’s Gate 2 circa 2000.
The style is excellent. The graphics are cool and the characters are quite well designed. The world itself has a compelling mixture of magic, technology and a world similar to a modern version of Red Dead Redemption. Still, it has a few things that I dislike. A cast of characters who almost exclusively dress in all black being the main one. My main complaint is that this appears to be what they spent literally all ten years of this game on, and, honestly, Persona 5 looks way better despite the lower polygon count. I wonder what suffered in the holistic package of FF15’s player experience in order to produce the graphical beauty of the game.
The battle system, modeled in large part after the Kingdom Hearts system, is a let down. It tries hard to be an action oriented RPG, but fails to deliver a battle system that’s satisfying to either RPG or action fans. It lacks the strategic decision making of a typical RPG battle system, but also lacks the twitch reaction combo choices of a game like Devil May Cry or even Dynasty Warriors. Although there are opportunities to do some nice, tricky things, the battle system, in large part, is comprised of hitting circle repeatedly while holding the right trigger to lock on. Although Final Fantasy 13 wasn’t the best RPG, its battle system was a step in the right direction. To eschew that in favor of this, I think was a mistake. Magic is seriously underdeveloped as well — there are only 3 different spells with 4 levels of power.
The main upgrade system is the Ascension board. It’s not good. It doesn’t provide the same kind of satisfaction of WoW’s talent trees, FFX’s license board, or even FF8’s junction system. The selections are plagued with laying neatly into a dichotomy of choices that are effectual, but boring, such as static upgrades to baseline stats, and selections which are ineffectual and minimally satisfying, like unlocking situational damage reduction skills. You don’t unlock anything that provides a feeling of excitement. A menu that should feel like a candy store that you have to be selective in, where you try to make a difficult decision between attractive options, feels like a chore where you have to find a way to spend your points on the least unattractive option. It also lacks customization. At the end of the day, your Noctis will be exactly the same as everyone else’s.
I remember a time when side quests in an RPG were possibly the most exciting part. They were few and far between, often secret, fun and granted enormously satisfying rewards. Things like the Fairy Village or fishing in Breath of Fire 3, the Iron Chef minigame in Suikoden 2, or the hidden characters in Final Fantasy 7. FF15 is 90% side quests, which are all mindblowingly tedious. They follow predictable, tedious formulas, the worst of which is ‘go to a location and find 5 tiny objects hidden on the ground in a huge area’.
The music is alright. No complaints. It’s not especially memorable like Xenogears, Chrono Cross or even some of the other Final Fantasies, but it’s not noticeably worse than anything else.
With the Final Fantasy 7 remake on the horizon, I can only hope the developers don’t conflate the success of FF15’s marketing with the reception of the game itself. They made a number of decisions for this game which are bad: namely, taking the main entry FF battle system from the direction of FF13, FF10 and even FF12 and replacing it with Kingdom Hearts and filling the game with a plethora of time wasting side quests.
Now that Final Fantasy 15 appears on my list of favorite Final Fantasies, here’s the revised list from best to worst:
Final Fantasy 7
Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy 10
Final Fantasy 6
Final Fantasy 4: The After Years
Final Fantasy 12
Final Fantasy 8
Final Fantasy: Dimensions
Final Fantasy 14
Final Fantasy 1
Final Fantasy 5
Final Fantasy 4
Final Fantasy 15
Final Fantasy 13
Final Fantasy 3
Final Fantasy 2
It doesn’t even crack into my top 10 Final Fantasies, let alone my top 10 jRPGs, which only includes a handful of Final Fantasies. Playing FF15 is like dating a beautiful girl who works as a model, but has no substance. You really want to like it. But there’s just no ‘there’ there.
I’m still looking forward to the Final Fantasy 7 remake, but Final Fantasy 15 gives me a lot of concerns. I hope they get it right.