This is a follow up to the Final Fantasy XV review I co-wrote a little while back, only with plot details and spoilers all the way down. This is your warning: if you haven’t finished the game, do not read this. I will be critiquing and analysing absolutely everything, and by the end, you’ll know the plot and its flaws inside out.
I’d also like to add a disclaimer or two: I am not saying people cannot enjoy this game. I’m not doing this to blindly hate on a popular franchise, and yes, I do know what I’m talking about, because Creative Writing was my degree subject. And no, I’m not a game dev, I’ve been a writer for the past eight years, and I’ve picked up a few things. Anyway, onwards.
This is a hard, sad article for me to write. Prior to this game’s release, I was FFXV’s loud and vocal champion. I had every faith that the devs were going to deliver and deliver hard. The marketing was so enthusiastic, and every time an Active Time Report (ATR) or promotional video came up, you could see just how much love there was for this project. I was so, so sure this game was going to be the GOTY for years and years to come.
In many respects, FFXV is, at its core, a good game. You can’t fault the gameplay or the battle system, because they’re fluid and they work wonderfully. What I can fault is a plot so rushed and half-finished, I’d be sorely disappointed with it from a tiny studio’s first venture, let alone a game people have been waiting a decade for. So with a heavy heart, I present to you just how sad the story made me, and how I’d fix it.
Tone: This was one of the most jarring thing about Final Fantasy XV. Someone once said that you have approximately the first paragraph of a book to grab a reader’s attention. That roughly translates to one page in a screenplay, and I’ll be generous and give a game’s opening five minutes, like how you can gauge how good an episode of Supernatural will be in the first five minutes.
Basically, your opening is very important. You need something spectacular and interesting to reel in your fans and keep them there, or you lose them completely. So, let’s recap the last four games:
FF XIII? Murder-death-train that ends in a bloody revolution and thousands of people die.
FF XIII-2? Caius Ballad making his debut in a brutal fight against Lightning.
Lightning Returns? Party like it’s the end of the world, and Snow gets kicked through a wall.
FF Type-0? You know what, I’m just going to let the video speak for itself:
(skip to 4:45 and you’ll see what I mean)
All of those are solid openings because you have something loud, flashy, and more than a little disturbing going on. You’re establishing a scene, and it’s incredibly important; this is the first thing your fans are going to see, so you’d better prepare them. XV had a few great, exciting things they could have opened with: Regis’ death. The invasion of Insomnia. That scene at the start of Kingsglaive with the meeting being invaded and Luna staying behind? Great one to go with.
What do we get? The guys pushing a car down a road, having a bit of banter.
When put into context, this is really weird. For one thing, it totally kills any urgency the game has going on, especially if you’ve already seen the movie. You know full well that there’s an invasion going on and that the Regis who waved Noctis off is long dead, and the characters have no idea. And yeah, that can work. Dramatic irony is totally a thing when used properly.
But the road trip goes on and on and on and then uh oh, imperials, and Cor finally shows up and tells them they need to go on a magical sword fetch quest and btw your father’s dead. Okay, game, this would have been great five hours ago but I can work with that. Maybe the whole point of dicking about on hunts was just to show the heartbreaking juxtaposition. So now they have to race to Lestallum because there’s another sword there, and also Iris is there.
Iris is approximately fifteen years old. She’s been evacuated out of the city that has been stomped into paste as of Kingsglaive. Her dad is also dead, and she’s alone in a strange town miles and miles away from home. Gladio? He ain’t even remotely concerned that his little sister could be the next target for the empire – she isn’t even bought up aside from an occasional “Oh yeah we need to get to Lestallum because she’s there, guys.”
This would have been a great opportunity for drama. Where’s the frantic phone call from the over protective older brother we saw in Brotherhood? If they’d cut the majority of the road trip down to about an hour, then hit us with the invasion? Oh. Oh shit. Their families are in that city, was that the palace that just went up in flames, why is my sister not answering her phone?! And then they book it to Lestallum.
Basically, this game can’t decide what it wants. The concept was a tragic, yakuza brawling match between two lovers. The trailers promise a grand, high fantasy adventure about a king coming of age. The actual game seems to promote a drunken frat boy road trip that lacks the depth to be amusing or compelling.
Show, Don’t Tell:
This game was supposed to be dark and gritty. It was supposed to be sad and make fans cry, but also an open world game about bros on a bachelor party road trip. Until you get to Altissia, most of the bad stuff happens off screen. We shouldn’t need a whole separate movie just to learn the capital city was invaded, because that’s something interesting. That should be far more important than finding some cat food and catching the odd fish.
Anyone remember Jared, the old guy that turns up in Brotherhood for a few seconds, then proceeds to die somewhere around Chapter 4 or 5, and the game tries to make a big deal out of how sad it is and how evil the empire are? This is a great idea in theory. You’re killing a lovable, innocent old man who has a cute grandkid, totally a recipe for sad players. But after you come back from finding the magical sword, we just hear a few rumours, and then see Talcott crying because his grandad’s dead. Shit.
Except not really. You have to work to make us care about these characters, because if you’re killing off NPCs, they all tend to blur into one. You can’t even call Jared a minor character, because I genuinely didn’t remember who he was. Cindy? Yeah, she’s a minor character. If they’d offed her, or, I don’t know, Cor, I might have been a bit more broken up, but Jared? Nah. You want to make me sad, you kill off Iris. She’d been around long enough to make an impact, had a whole episode of Brotherhood with her in it, and was showing more personality than most of the main characters. That’s how you make me sad.
This is somewhat my problem with the main four, too. You’re told they have this great friendship, but never actually act like anything beyond what we already know. You need to show me how much they care for each other, rather than blindly insisting they’re friends and the odd bit of jokey dialogue – there needs to be more than that. I’ll say the same about Noctis and Luna – Noctis is genuinely devastated at losing her. Too bad she doesn’t actually share a scene with him as an adult until she dies.
Character development, or lack thereof:
Take a look at the main characters, if you please. We have the somewhat awkward, shy prince who doesn’t really know how to deal with the responsibility of being royalty, and how to handle his dad sacrificing himself for the kingdom. We’ve got your meathead bodyguard who has the baby sister he’s incredibly overprotective of. Then there’s the smart one who for some inexplicable reason has an incredibly overdone British accent despite Prompto being the foreign one, who cooks and rolls his eyes at all the shenanigans. Finally, you’ve got Prompto as the bad influence who’s slightly rough around the edges and doesn’t fit in.
If they sound familiar, that’s because they’re lazy stock characters. I’m going to be generous and exempt Noctis (because I find that in most media, the shy, awkward guy doesn’t tend to show up as much – it’s usually a girl) and Luna from that list, as Luna has a wonderful amount of agency, as little as she gets to use it. Now, remember how XIII worked with a bunch of archetypes too? The stoic, brooding hero, the overly cheerful squeaky girl, the teenager hellbent on revenge, the perpetually optimistic hero, and so on? XIII flipped those stereotypes on their heads. The angsty hero is an angry woman who gets all the traits the male characters usually get. The cheerful girl is afraid and alone and harbouring earth shattering secrets, and Snow Villiers is the worse excuse for a hero I’ve ever seen. XV never goes beyond those stereotypes.
Seriously, can you name any other character traits Ignis, Gladiolus, or Prompto have? They each have their stock skill, Prompto’s maybe the only one I’ll give some credit for originality to. They get about one emotion each – Prompto is happy/carefree, Ignis is stern and smart, and Gladio is tough and angry all the time. That’s it. No one even has character arcs! Aside from being companions for Noctis, you could cut all three of the guys from the main story and not lose anything, and that’s never a thing you want when your game is being sold as a “brotherhood.”
The sad thing is, you can see where those character arcs would have gone. The optional motel scene with Prompto would have been great world-building, too, because how does Lucis treat refugees, I wonder? Judging the treatment Nyx got, I doubt it was anything nice. We could have seen the scummier side of Lucian society, maybe show how the war is affecting people who aren’t lucky enough to live in palaces, and gradually build Prompto up to be an honorary royal. Ignis losing his eyesight is about as close to an arc as we got with him, but even then, he doesn’t struggle with it. Let him be sad, let him be angry, let him learn to cope and work out how to serve his king despite his now disability. And Gladio, I have no idea. Maybe learn to be less of an angry ass with very little empathy?
Noctis, as much as I genuinely like him, is completely static. He was a reluctant hero at the start and a reluctant hero at the end. Ardyn is cryptic and jovial, but is hampered by a badly told plot, even though he’s one of the few Final Fantasy villains to actually win. Iris, Cindy, Gentiana, and Aranea are just there. Gentiana is magically Shiva, Cindy is something to be gawped at, Iris is just window dressing, and what’s even the point of Aranea? I like her, but what would the plot lose if they cut her and swapped her out for someone else? Not a whole lot.
This is why people needed to give XIII some credit – they dropped the ball on gameplay, but they knew how to do characters.
The female characters: I’m going to springboard off my last point to bring this up; the way Final Fantasy XV treated its female characters was appalling. I had no problem with an all male cast – Tabata’s reasoning that it would change the dynamic of the group was perfectly sound. I don’t really care they aren’t playable, because unlike a lot of people, a character doesn’t have to be female for me to relate to them.
We have a total of… about seven named female characters in the whole franchise, since I’m including Kingsglaive. Iris, Cindy, Aranea, Luna, Gentiana, Crowe, and Monica, who is one of the Crownsguard and you probably don’t see her unless you do the hunting side quests. Iris is onscreen for a few scenes in the early chapters, then inexplicably left behind in Caem unless you go back and see her. Cindy… look, I’m not going down the slut-shaming route, here, but there’s no real justification for a mechanic to be dressed the way she does, and you’re treated to gratuitous shots of her chest as she leans over the Regalia’s hood to clean it. Aranea is a badass but is ultimately rather pointless – why is a bounty hunter important? Why is she even there?
Genitana rarely speaks outside of vaguely worded prophecies, and exactly what she is, that’s never expanded upon. How and why is she Shiva? Is she Luna’s guardian? Is she even alive? Crowe, well… she gets roughly ten minutes of screen time before she’s brutally murdered, and doesn’t even get to do anything apart from hold up a vague magical barrier. She’s the best example of the “Stuffed into the Fridge,” trope, since her death only serves to motivate Nyx and Libertus.
And then there’s Luna. This is the worst one for me, because if you’ve been following the game for a while, you’ll remember she, along with Gentiana, were marketed as main characters, and Luna is allegedly a key player in the fight for the throne going on in the background. Luna’s scenes are all shown in trailers, aside from the one where she heals that one guy, and a couple with Ravus. There’s nothing else, because she’s put in the fridge alongside Crowe after the end of chapter nine.
From the start, we were promised that Luna was a strong woman who didn’t need no man to save her. Kingsglaive quickly demolished that notion with Nyx doing literally everything, and the main plot quickly saw to the rest. Everything about Luna is calm, composed, and downright fierce – her facial expressions and body language show she’s someone not to be messed with, and the fact she stared down Leviathan and tried to get the creature to listen to her, completely unafraid, speaks volumes. Even as a child, the scene of her deliberately choosing to stay behind, says a lot about her character.
She’s also supposed to be the love of Noctis’ life. Childhood betrothal, tragically separated, blah blah blah, never mind the fact she could just pick up a sodding phone. Yet we never see any evidence of this. They communicate via notebook, but if they’ve only seen each other as children, why are they so in love? They barely know each other. Maybe if they’d changed the road trip as a forbidden excursion (and one of many) so Noctis could sneak out to see Luna, I would buy it. But as it stands now, Noctis is torn to pieces by the death of a stranger, and a damn interesting stranger at that. What a waste.
The plot dodges around anything remotely emotional like it’s poisonous:
So, as we have established, this was a game that was supposed to make us sad. This was supposed to be a big dramatic game with big dramatic loss and I was going to be a puddle of tears at the end of it. But alas, that title goes to Crisis Core (Editor’s note: FFX made me flood my room!), and XV failed at this rather spectacularly, and this too is very, very weird. You can’t have drama without impact, or it’s just cheap at best and has no impact at worst.
Example 1: Regis. Regis is totally winning Dad of the Year award in this franchise, because let’s face it, he doesn’t exactly have a lot of competition. He’s a damn good king and goes through hell to protect his son, and he dies. Bloodily. All while Noctis is off gallivanting round the country like a spoiled rich boy. Do you hear that? it’s the sound of angst and drama screaming in like a runway jet.
Now. I know this isn’t an angsty fan-fiction AU (Alternate Universe) and Noctis does have better things to do than cry himself into a coma for a couple of weeks, but things like this don’t just go away. The Platinum Demo makes a point to tell us that Noctis and Regis are close since Noctis’ mother died, and Regis feels guilty about his duties interfering with bringing up his son. So why do we get one scene af Noctis getting pissed and yelling at Cor, only for nobody aside from Cid mentioning “Reggie,” ever again?
This incidentally happens to Gladio and Iris’ dad, whom they don’t even acknowledge is dead. And Luna, pretty much, after we get past Chapter 10 and Gladio inexplicably telling Noctis to “grow up and get over,” his fiancee and father dying, weeks apart. Seriously, go and watch that scene again and explain the justification of that to me, because I must really be missing it. Noctis, to my knowledge, was sitting quietly, alone in that train car, and yes he was crying, but not making a scene of it. So… toughen up? Characters are allowed to express emotion. Characters are allowed to grieve. One of the reasons the ending of Crisis Core is so good is because you can see how utterly wrecked Cloud is by Zack’s death. It adds to his character by showing us just how terribly he copes with all of this.
At the risk of sounding like a tumblrina, I’m going to blame two things for this – the concept of toxic masculinity, and the backlash against FF XIII. Specifically, remember how every hates Hope Estheim? Even more specifically, remember how everyone hates Hope Estheim because he cried after his mother died, acted afraid, and generally like a brat because he’s 14 years old and been cursed by God herself? Yeah, fans didn’t like that. Accusations of “whiny,” “mopey,” “pathetic,” and “I stopped playing because I couldn’t stand Hope,” still ring true on pretty much any GameFAQs topic you happen to stumble across.
Consider what we have here: a massively open world game that doesn’t have its characters react to anything, versus an extremely linear game where we couldn’t go one chapter without someone having an argument. Dead fathers, dead fiancées, losing their city, learning your friend is the enemy, the other one going blind – nothing. No one screams, no one cries, and if they do, it lasts for one scene and then they toughen up, because feelings ain’t manly. Gamers don’t care about characters having all those nasty emotions, they want to go kill shit with a sword. Only I kind of do, because the idea that guys can’t cry because they have to be “tough,” is ludicrous and kind of offensive. Let’s get rid of this idea, stat, please. Incidentally, that goodbye scene at the end was so hilariously masculine, it could have been transplanted straight out of Supernatural. “You guys are the best.” That’s it? So Noct can’t say “I love you,” to anything but an empty throne room? Sigh.
Plot threads that are picked up and then never mentioned again:
With a relevant screencap this time! I now present to you a sample of the several million plot ideas FFXV produces, and then never mentions again:
- Anything vaguely related to royal family politics after Regis dies and that one cool Altissia mission with the Prime Minister.
- The Kingsglaive
- Every character who was in Kingsglaive.
- The refugees from Nifelheim or wherever the hell Nyx and the others were supposedly from
- What the Oracle actually is and how one becomes one
- Noctis’ mother
- Prompto’s parentage and how the hell he managed to get into Lucis as a child
- Gentiana’s entire existance
- Genitana being Shiva
- Anything remotely substantial involving Ravus. His motivations change with the weather.
- Why the Crownsguard and the Kingsglaive aren’t actually protecting the crown prince on said road trip – even if this is mentioned in the prologue book, there’s no excuse for it being in the game.
- Luna’s entire character arc
- Ignis’ blindness
- Cor’s entire existence
- Noctis’ headaches
- All the stuff in early trailers that vanished from the final cut – the mansion scene and swimming out to Leviathan, Luna and Noctis having the Eyes of Etro and then it changing to seeing the souls of the dead – this was in a Gamescom leaflet two or three years ago, the scenes of Luna being attacked as a child, Regis holding child!Noctis with the Regalia…? Even the Omens trailer was reduced to a nightmare, with no actual context. A shout out to Versus with that epic fight, or…
There’s probably more, but the worst ones are most definitely Cor and Ravus. For a start, you can’t call someone “Cor the Immortal,” and never use him. That’s not fair on your fans, because I’m firmly of the opinion that Cor is a badass and should have been doing something useful rather than off helping the hunters. Ravus’ character is all over the place and makes no sense, though apparently they had scenes taken out of Chapter 13 to add back in, that will flesh him out a bit? The refugee subplot is long gone, and would have made massive sense when Prompto is apparently a Nifelheim lab rat baby, that’s brought up in one scene and never mentioned again.
How it’s handled is even worse. I saw a comment somewhere that said the gang reacted to Prompto being an MT like he’d just come out as gay to them, and if that were the context, I’d roll with it. “Oh hey bro I don’t care who you sleep with,” versus “I’m a demon lab rat clone baby from the empire that’s invaded your country,” that doesn’t even get a reaction. That should have been a big deal. Hell, you want Gladio being an asshole, have him flip out at Prompto for being one of the enemy – FFX managed it just fine.
The game skips over long periods of time, to the point where anything worth being fleshed out is just discarded and forgotten about. It’s a crying shame, because not only does it make the story incoherent, it pisses your fans off. This is not the game I waited ten years for. This is not a Final Fantasy anyone waited ten years for, unless they’re really that obsessed with gameplay over story.
So what would I do to fix it?
Well, for a start, cut the road trip down to the quick. You spend a few hours doing royal stuff, learning how Insomnia, the royal family, and the refugee sub plot happens. Noctis sneaks off, picks up Luna in Tenebrae. They go off and do some couple-y romance stuff, they amble on back to Insomnia, and then they get a frantic call from Prompto that Nifelheim have invaded and it’s time to run. They book it back to the city, and are attempted to be escorted back to the relative safety of the palace by Nyx and co, only for them to all get slaughtered.
They get to the palace, meet the gang, Regis dies, and they all have to drag Noctis out of the city, kicking and screaming, with Iris for good measure. They’re now stranded in the middle of Duscae, broke and with nothing but the clothes on their backs. See how much more intense and worrying this all sounds? That’s because there are actual stakes now. They rendezvous with Cor over the phone, who tells them to find the magic swords and keep the king alive. Then you can have everything progress as before, except you flesh it out – Ignis is still the motherly one, but is the bodyguard. Gladio’s the advisor, Prompto can be the medic, and Luna can function as the second bodyguard and the smooth talker that gets them all out of trouble. Then the big bad empire shows up at Lestallum, and kills Iris, on screen, instead of Jared, and the Starscourge/daemons/Nifelheim thing gets more screentime. Ardyn and Ravus actually get fleshed out as villains.
So Altissia happens, and Luna dies, only we actually see it this time, and Ignis loses an arm or a leg, not his sight, because it’s stupid and quite frankly insulting to use the Disability Superpower trope. Yes, I know blind people can adapt to their condition pretty well, but that takes years and actually requires effort, unlike the instantaneous approach they give to Ignis. Add in a few more scenes of Noctis coping horribly with Luna’s death and the group fragmenting. We can keep the Aranea chapters because why the hell not, and cut the one with rescuing the car, because that’s stupid, too. Then they board the train and Prompto gets kidnapped, then keep Chapter 13 in, but drastically shortened and much more intense.
They find Prompto, tortured, and have to get him out of the factory and to a hospital, because he’s bleeding out very, very fast. We can have a nice, long, tortured sequence of driving through a snowy mountain, and Prompto dies in the back seat. Bloodily. And I shall cry. Then the rest happens, they head to Insomnia, switch out Ifrit for Ardyn, and then have Noctis sucked into the crystal, wake up ten years later, walk outside, and sees hell. Boom.
Got any other suggestions? I’ll gladly hear them in the comments, and maybe we can all write a very long, detailed fanfic together.