Welcome to our ongoing Game In Progress review of Final Fantasy XV, where Gameological contributor Patrick Lee is playing through Square Enix’s long-awaited RPG and writing about it as he goes. In this second of three installments, Patrick’s journey has taken him up through Chapter 13, a major turning point in the game’s structure and story. You can find every part of Patrick’s review here.
There’s been some confusion about what Final Fantasy XV actually is, some of it perpetuated by myself as recently as last week. The game has been commonly described as a road trip, and after 10 hours, that’s what it seemed like. A further 20 hours reveals that it’s not really a road-trip game after all. A road trip takes a group of pals from one place to another and sometimes back again. It’s a journey with an identifiable start and end. A road trip is not simply driving forward, backward, and around the same 10 or 15 miles of highway, running odd jobs for mechanics and tabloid writers. Noctis and his entourage aren’t really on a road trip, they’re just living out of their car.
When last we left Noctis and his merry band, they were on a sacred quest to reclaim magical weapons tied to the prince’s royal bloodline, which were to be vital tools in the boys’ plot to reclaim their homeland and overthrow an invading warmongering empire. Almost instantly, they got bored of this plan. The quest for the ancient doohickeys has since been demoted to an optional pastime, with the lads’ immediate objective switching constantly, from goals as lofty as currying favor with local deities, to chores as mundane as repairing a single boat. They’ve got no attention span, these boys, and the game itself does little to force one onto them. The result is deeply harmful to any sense of pacing or clarity in the story. The main characters rarely make any major decisions about their next strategic move for themselves, instead being told what to do by supporting characters and changing their minds on a dime.
The only constant in all this, and the only course of action the boys really choose for themselves, is to run menial errands and side quests for the game’s circus of supporting characters. The folks with whom you have chummy relationships are not above asking the heir to the throne and his retainers to do chores as mundane as grocery shopping or pest extermination, and this busywork often requires the gang to drive halfway across the map and back. In aggregate, these side quests will have you wearing a groove into the country’s highways as you travel and re-travel the same roads, earning a bit of money but going nowhere. This is where the misconception that the game is a road trip truly dissipates like the mirage it always was. You aren’t really on a lengthy car journey with a beginning permanently behind you and an ending waiting for you over the horizon—you’re essentially just doing donuts.
That slowly dawning realization takes some of the bloom off of Final Fantasy XV’s rose, so at about the halfway point of the story, it opts to abandon even the pretense of road tripping. After crossing a certain threshold, Noctis and his crew leave open roads and relative freedom behind them and the game becomes far more linear and less interesting. The systems and rhythms that make up the majority of the game’s superior front half—traveling by car and adventuring by day, noshing and chilling by night—all get abandoned, replaced by a total focus on the threadbare evil empire plot. To its credit, this half of the game introduces some harrowing in-group conflict and permanent changes among Noctis’ homies, and since these homies are the only thing worth emotionally investing in, some of these moments feel appropriately heavy. Overall, though, the increased plot focus of the game’s back end has not been worth what was sacrificed in order to bring it forward.
That sacrifice would be a bummer even if the story was gripping and well told, but the pacing in this second half has been unbelievably poor. Chapters have become short and bereft of stuff to do. Massive paradigm-shifting developments are given no room to breathe and the characters are given hardly any time to respond to them before the next one comes up. Noctis and pals have ceased to be characters on a quest and have become action figures who are scooped up and plopped down onto new play sets once every few hours. The most egregious moment so far came in one of the game’s latter chapters, in which Noctis was informed through dialogue that an earth-shaking moment of vital plot importance had just happened—off screen, and before he arrived. The second half of the game hasn’t had plot beats so much as bullet points, and it seems hell-bent on doing only the bare minimum amount of storytelling necessary to see the game to its conclusion.
It’s almost inconceivable to have to say this about a game that spent a full decade in production, but Final Fantasy XV is either nakedly unfinished or fatally compromised. Throughout the breakneck, ridiculous second half, there are constant glimpses of what was clearly intended, at some point, to be a far more robust experience. Gorgeous cities are explored temporarily, or glanced at a distance, then discarded permanently. Rolling landscapes can be seen through windows and from observatories, teasing snow-capped Alaskan mountains and sweltering Oklahoman canyons, but you’ll only be permitted to explore their single dungeon or train platform that’s been roped off for you. Up to its 13th chapter, Final Fantasy XV is a hero’s journey with the journey part violently carved out, a just-the-facts epic quest that reads like a CliffsNotes version of itself. From here, it looks like the game’s only hope is to stick the landing so hard that its hurried, weightless storytelling is retroactively redeemed.