Dragon Quest has been my favorite JRPG franchise for years, mostly because of its unwavering consistency. I know just what to expect from any entry in the series, and I appreciate that. That’s why I often refer to Dragon Quest as gaming comfort food.
Final Fantasy is a much different story. As much as I count on Dragon Quest to remain blissfully familiar, I look to Final Fantasy to be fresh and iconoclastic. However, striving to constantly innovate is risky, and not every risk results in success. I picked up Final Fantasy XV with a certainty that it would continue the tradition of breaking tradition.
But did the risks that Square Enix took on this game pay off?
There is quite a bit to love about Final Fantasy XV. It certainly makes a wonderful first impression with it’s stunning visual production and beautifully understated musical score. The game revolves around a cast of young men: Prince Noctis and his three retainers Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. As the game opens, the party has just begun a road trip to a neighboring kingdom where the prince will marry Lunafreya, heiress of the royal family of Tenebrae. But shortly after they depart, Noct’s homeland is invaded by the Niflheim Empire, and the party goes into hiding.
Interestingly enough, this fairytale-esque conflict manages to have emotional gravitas. This is because the game does a commendable job of balancing micro-narrative and macro-narrative—two terms that I devised in the absence of anything more widely accepted. The micro-narrative compels the us to care about the protagonist and his friends. We want Noct to survive and be reunited with his beloved. Meanwhile, the macro-narrative keeps the stakes high with a good vs. evil struggle that we’d expect from a high-fantasy story.
For me, Final Fantasy XV lives and dies by its balance. From a storytelling perspective, the game is at best when the micro and macro-narratives coexist with one another, but FFXV didn’t maintain that narative balance over the entirety of the dozens of hours that I spent playing it.
This is where Final Fantasy’s tradition of breaking tradition comes into play. In the middle chapters of the game, the game leans heavily on the open world. Noct and crew can’t return home, so they drive around the picturesque Lucian countryside in an expensive car, doing odd jobs for money and searching for the magical weapons that belonged to Noct’s ancestors.
And at this point, Final Fantasy XV begins to show its flaws. The battle system is impressive at first but is ultimately unremarkable. The majority of the quests never amount to more than a series of fetch quests:
- find 3 rare herbs for the cook at the diner
- take a picture of a smoking mountain for the magazine editor
- kill 5 of this kind of monster for the Hunters
- deliver repair kits to the 10 randos who’s cars have broken down
While these meaningless tasks don’t do anything to advance the story (and might even be a source ludonarrative dissonance), they do add to the game’s strong sense of place. The world feels real… which is an extraordinary feat given that this whimsical road trip is happening in place where futuristic humanoid combat robots exist side-by-side with giant grazing dinosaurs that will smash you in an instant. This speaks to the care that appears to have been put into the subtle combination of seemingly disparate genre elements .
If the world feels real, the journey feels authentic, and it’s very easy to overlook the fact that the so many of the quests and battles are nonsense. And while Ignus is chauffeuring the crew from one side of the map to the other (while the soundtracks from previous Final Fantasy games are playing on the car radio), the guys are quipping about each other or the scenery or the crazy fight they just had. The characters display a charming degree of humanity.
At one point after a “long” day of running other people’s errands, the party was resting in a rented room at a roadside diner, and Prompto pulled Noctis aside for a private conversation. Prompto reflected on the origin of their unlikely friendship. I’ll spare the details, but it was a touching moment of humanity for a character who is otherwise an archetypal jokester. With one interaction, the character now had depth and dimension and history. I wanted to know more about their relationship, and I wanted to know about how Noctis became friends with the other characters. Unfortunately, there was never another scene like that in the game… and if there was, I missed it.
In it’s final chapters, Final Fantasy XV takes some pretty wild twists and turns. The macro-narrative gets more intense and some terrible events befall both the kingdoms of the world and the characters themselves. This made the micro-narrative feel all the more rich for some reasons that I won’t spoil. The climactic moments at the end of the game are actually quite emotional, perhaps all the more so because I spent so many hours questing in open world.
I ended up walking away from Final Fantasy XV feeling very satisfied. While the game is far from perfect, the overall experience is heartfelt in a way that few games with this degree of production are. If you’re looking for a reason to own a PlayStation 4 (or XBox, I guess 😏), this is it. Now, you’ll have to excuse me while I spend the next several hours on Noct’s fishing mini-game.