Final Fantasy XV has been out for a while now, and I only just recently got around to playing it. The game is open-world, and while that is hardly a new concept for Final Fantasy, the current technology and graphics allowed for some really impressive visuals, as well as a large number of fun side quests and optional dungeons. And… that consists of the good things I have to say about this game. Final Fantasy XV was in production for a long time—I remember first seeing videos and articles for it back in 2009–10. In the past decade, the story definitely went through a number of weird changes, and it sure as hell shows. I was aware of some shitty things about FFXV even before it was released. The game writers decided not to include playable female characters because they thought having them would change the dynamic of the male characters as they take a road trip across the world. Literally every Final Fantasy game is about a bunch of characters traveling the world, but this time, there’s a car involved, so I guess it must be different.
But the problems in Final Fantasy XV go well beyond blatant sexism—although there’s plenty of that to go around too. I hardly thought the story would be perfect, but this game was a decade in production. I expected it to at least have some solid characterization and worldbuilding, but even that seems to be too much for FFXV to handle.
Spoilers up ahead.
This is always the part of the review where I summarize the plot, but the worldbuilding is so poor that it’s hard to figure out what’s happening half the time. There’s a movie that goes with this game, and it’s my understanding that the movie delves more deeply into the world to create some much-needed backstory. However, I have not watched it, and as the game is easily 30+ hours long on its own, I’m of the firm belief that I shouldn’t have to in order to understand what’s happening.
But here’s the plot as I understand it: the Kingdom of Lucis is ruled by a chosen family that has awesome magical powers because the gods like them for some reason. There’s also the Oracle, descended from another gifted bloodline, and she has the power to commune with the gods and speak to them on the behalf of humans. Because this game is a bit sexist, the Oracle is always a woman and the chosen ruler of Lucis is always a man. At least, that’s what I’m assuming. The game isn’t very clear on this one way or the other. Their world is also overrun with powerful daemons that appear at night and murder people. And all of these things are related to each other somehow.
The story starts when Prince Noctis of Lucis and his three friends take a road trip to go meet up with Noctis’s betrothed, the Oracle Lady Lunafreya, often called Luna. Unfortunately, right after setting out, Lucis is attacked by Niflheim, another empire that they’ve had some shaky ties with in the past. Noctis’s father is killed and his lands taken over. Now burdened with needing to save his kingdom and restore his place on the throne, Noctis goes on a quest to obtain the powers of previous kings, meet up with Luna, and go to Gralea, Niflheim’s capital, to put an end to their tyranny. Unfortunately, Luna is murdered and daemons take over the world. In order to banish the daemons, Noctis does something with his magic, and in the process, dies himself.
Story-wise, Final Fantasy XV has a lot to work with and a ton of potential. The world is intriguing and the plot could have been super compelling, but the game is littered with bad storytelling decisions, odd characterization, and an inability to show instead of tell. It is so bad that there is no possible way to fit everything wrong with it into one post, but here’s a condensed summary of my three main problems.
1. The Main Characters
Our four main characters are Noctis, his best friend Prompto, and the royal retainers Gladio and Ignis. They all wear black leather and drive around in a fancy car, and we never really get to know them all that much. That’s not to say that no effort went into their characters at all—Prompto, for example, has a photography hobby and self-image issues. As a child, he was overweight and now he constantly worries he’s not good enough for Noctis. Unfortunately, his other hobby is eating, and Ignis always shames him about the possibility of putting on weight. As for Noctis, he struggles with his responsibilities and coming to terms with everything that’s going on. This could have been an awesome way to get to know his character better, but every time he displays moments of self-doubt or takes the time to mourn for all the people he’s lost, Gladio is right there yelling at him to “man up” and “stop being so selfish”. Ignis is supposed to be the smart character, and his main gig is that he cooks a lot, but there’s so little characterization that I cannot tell if he actually enjoys cooking, or if he just does it because the powers that be wanted a character to cook. Near the end of the game, Ignis is blinded and ends up needing a walking stick, but this felt less like a genuine desire to represent people with disabilities and more like a means to give everyone manpain. With very little effort, Ignis is still able to cook, he’s still able to fight, and I don’t know what the point of his injury was.
All four of these characters could have been interesting and well rounded, but the game is too concerned with shoving all of them into some neat little box of typical masculine traits to allow any of them to grow. Noctis’s flaw is that he experiences emotions, Prompto is the comic relief who wants to fuck every girl he meets, Gladio is the super manly guy with a mullet, and Ignis runs around in a black suit and wears glasses because smart people wear glasses.
2. The Worldbuilding
The reason why nothing in the story makes sense is because its worldbuilding is subpar and we never learn about what’s happening or why we should care until well after the fact. The game never explicitly states why Noctis is the Chosen One, outside of having royal blood, nor does it ever really go into who the Oracle is. While playing the game, the characters talk about harnessing the powers of previous kings, and then spontaneously, it turns out that there’s also a magical ring and crystal that are connected to the royal family and important for reasons—and no, I can’t tell you anything about them, because even though I played this game for 50+ hours, I still don’t know what they do. This made me long for the days of Final Fantasy XIII’s built-in dictionary, because even though that was a lazy means of worldbuilding, at least I knew what was going on.
Some of these things are eventually explained, but it happens all at once right near the very end. We find out where daemons come from, that daylight is disappearing and daemons are about to take over the world because that’s a thing now too, and why the main villain wants to be a villain in the first place. Learning about any of these things an hour before the final credits would have helped drastically. I’m also a bit confused about the ending of the game—did the chosen bloodlines end with Noctis’s and Luna’s deaths? Because if so, that’s a pretty big deal.
But it’s not just the explanations and refusal to explain plot points, it’s also the setting. After Niflheim takes over Lucis, there’s no sense that the world is worse off for it. Sure, Lucis’s capital city is destroyed, but the countryside itself where the characters are traveling experiences no adverse effects. Niflheim’s main fighting force, Magitek Troopers, randomly show up to attack Noctis, but that’s about it. There are outposts all around the countryside, and two whole towns that you get to visit on the entire continent, but there aren’t any Magitek Troopers stationed anywhere, enforcing Imperial law. The one time an NPC gets caught helping Noctis, he’s killed offscreen. Even worse, when you do talk to other NPCs, they’re more concerned about publishing magazines or studying frogs then they are about the fact that their country was just forcibly taken over. Playing this game, it honestly felt as though half the cutscenes were missing.
3. The Misogyny
Since the male characters are shoved into uninteresting gender stereotypes, it should come as no surprise that the female characters are as well. We’ve got Cindy, the auto mechanic who’s always working on Noctis’s car. Personality-wise, she’s probably the best written of all the female characters we get. She’s independent, enjoys her work, and provides valuable assistance to the main team with her skill set, and I am happy to point out that being an auto mechanic is not a stereotypical feminine job. Unfortunately, she’s often relegated to the role of eye-candy—she wears her jacket open far enough to show her bra and washes your car by leaning over the hood in a way specifically designed to show off her breasts. It’s the difference between being sexual and sexualized, and Prompto spends the game attempting to stalk her. At one point, he tries to take her picture without her consent.
When we meet Gladio’s younger sister, Iris, things don’t look much better. Iris also had a lot of potential to be a well-written character, but we never get to know her beyond her unrequited crush on Noctis. While Cindy is noticeably sexualized, Iris is shoved into a slightly different stereotype. She is a minor running around in an outfit uncomfortably similar to a schoolgirl’s, despite the fact that she doesn’t go to school. Sexualization of school girls is a big, normalized problem in Japan, and given the presentation of other female characters, Iris’s lack of life goals outside of Noctis, and Final Fantasy XV only representing women through their interactions with men, Iris’s character design is not okay.
Aranea is probably my favorite female character. She’s a mercenary who changes allegiances from Niflheim to help Noctis out. Occasionally, she even shows up to lend Noctis a hand during random battles and at one point briefly joins the team for a dungeon run. Her entire character is a blatant reminder that there’s no reason this game couldn’t have a permanent female character in the party. Through Aranea, the game somehow managed to create a semi-decent character. Unfortunately, she’s hardly around and Prompto’s also obsessed with her. In her absence, he pines about his chances to get with her, and it is really annoying that the game spends more time acknowledging her “hotness” than it does fully fleshing out her character.
The worst of all this is the Oracle, Lady Lunafreya. Despite the fact that the last time Luna saw Noctis was when they were small children, she’s in love with him, and her only goal is to marry him. We don’t know why either she or Noctis like each other. Their marriage is arranged, and the one time we see a flashback of them hanging out together, their relationship is hardly established. Luna tells Noctis that because he’s going to be the king and she’s the Oracle, her job in life is to support him. Do they have similar interests? Political views? Do they enjoy sitting in each other’s company and just reading? We don’t know. Although they write letters to each other, this is pretty much the only time we see them interact before she’s killed, and yet we’re supposed to be emotionally invested in this relationship.
There’s also Luna’s presentation to take into account. She’s the quintessential innocent, blue-eyed, blonde, soft-spoken female character who’s self-sacrificing because she’s a woman. The visuals pound this into us by only having her wear white and constantly look angelic. At this point, she’s not a character, but a caricature. She even forgives her murderer after he stabs her, and the ending credits are of her ghost and Noctis’s ghost finally being together.
I can’t help but compare Luna’s death to Aerith’s, but as problematic as Aerith’s death was, at least she had a personality. And I also can’t help but compare Luna’s self-sacrificial tendencies to Yuna’s from Final Fantasy X. But FFX also took the time to develop Yuna and establish why she was willing to sacrifice herself for other people. Neither Aerith nor Yuna are the epitome of good feminist writing, but at least they felt like real people.
This is hardly everything that’s wrong, but there were very few moments while playing Final Fantasy XV that I couldn’t name something about it I hated. The game lacked the sense of urgency it wanted to portray, the characters are all unlikeable cardboard cutouts, and the story made no sense. Final Fantasy XV feels like a culmination of tropes from other, better Final Fantasy games, and it didn’t help that numerous dialogues were spent referencing both older games in the series and other, unrelated but popular stories. At one point, Prompto even says, “Help me, Noctis. You’re my only hope.” And all I could think was, “Yes, I would rather be watching Star Wars right about now.” Final Fantasy XV is a boring, tired mess, and you should spend your time on almost literally anything else.