Final Fantasy XV tells a story we can all relate to.
Yesterday, at about 4pm, I finally finished Final Fantasy XV. It's a game that's been languishing on my pile of shame for far longer than I ever thought it would. I wrote this piece all the way back in January 2019(!) mentioning that it was something I wanted to finish... and now I have actually done it. My experience of it has been spread across 2018, 2019 and 2020 - and there aren't many games that sit unfinished for me for that long and actually end up being finished off.
A lot has been said about the game - hardly surprising really, given it came out three years ago after a development cycle that lasted a decade - some of it positive and some of it negative. Going through and having a quick read of the internet while putting my thoughts in order around it, it became apparent that whether people loved it or hated it had a lot to do with the exposure to the franchise previously... and of those that had past form, which entries they liked or disliked also seemed to be a factor. I guess that's not surprising either; the history of the Final Fantasy franchise goes all the way back to when I was kid - with the most hardcore of its fans having been with it from the beginning.
My take on it is somewhere in the middle. I was aware of Final Fantasy as a kid, but I never played it. Turn based combat and menu management didn't do it for me. The first one I picked up was Final Fantasy VII, when it launched on the original PlayStation. I eventually finished it, but to be honest I was never invested in it enough to pay that much attention to what was going on. Final Fantasy VIII came out while I was at university - and that was the game I got utterly lost in. I don't attach the importance to the franchise that some do, but am aware that it's generally considered to be A Good Thing. So, I wandered into Final Fantasy XV curious more than anything else.
I'm gonna preface the below with the following statement. I loved this game. Yes, it has some problems. Yes, the infamous Chapter 13 is a train wreck. Yes, some of the boss fights are obnoxious. Yes, some of the characters are annoying. Yes, the fetch quests are grindy and pointless. And yet, at its heart this game has a story that pretty much anyone of a certain age will be able to relate to.
The open world is incredibly beautiful, with open spaces and mountains, oceans and crashed meteorites, cities and lakes and forests. It's a world that feels steeped in its own history and its own politics. The places you come across hint at lost civilisations, wars won and lost, knowledge gained and forgotten. It feels old, and fully realised - pieced together with a phenomenal level of care and attention. Unfortunately, it's populated with little for you to do other than fetch quests - a lot of them of the most tedious, generic bullshit that you can imagine. I lost count of the number of times a chef tasked me with finding ingredients, or a journalist tasked me with taking photographs - just the most uninspired videogame "go here, do the thing" crap a developer could come up with. These are most prevalent at the beginning of the game - which makes me wonder if they're actually an attempt at a narrative device to show you just how happy and carefree the little emo band of characters are at the start of the story, especially in the context of the darker and more serious beats that the story eventually hits.
Speaking of your buddies, your relationship with them will change as the story progresses. At the beginning, there's the surly one (Gladio), the cheeky one (Prompto) and the smart one (Ignis). They behave exactly as you'd expect them to. As the story progresses though, you get to learn some history and see just how seriously they take their role as Kingsglaive (basically bodyguards) as they sacrifice more and more to help our protagonist Prince Noctis to fulfil his destiny and claim his throne.
So, it's a road trip, right? Well, it starts as one. It's all light hearted banter between buds as they drive from one place to the next, fighting monsters and liberating crap for NPC's along the way. As it progresses though, the scope of the game narrows to become something far more linear than I was expecting. At a little past the halfway point of the game, you reach a point of no return. The story tightens up, the war approaches, and the world gets (literally) darker. To demonstrate the point, the game smashes up your car (I was gutted - I loved the Regalia) and separates you from your little gang and has you, as Noctis, wander through endless, faceless corridors. Is there an argument for this being a narrative device, illustrating the narrowing of options as an inevitable consequence of coming closer to one's destiny? Maybe. As a gameplay device though, the effect was jarring - I suddenly felt as though I was playing a very different game to the one I signed up for. For a while, I waited and expected the game to open back up. That never happened; it wasn't until I got near to the final stage of the game that I realised that I was now on a one-way track. While it's possible to revisit the open world in these later stages (you can "visit memories") it's not something I actually personally did - I was worried that it would break the entire flow of the narrative, as at this point of the game it's flying along at a serious pace.
By the time I got to the end of the game though, none of the issues seemed to matter. You're left with a tale of sacrifice. A tale of accepting and embracing a future. A tale of fond memories, cherished long into the future. A tale of how a group of friends can hold together through thick and thin, and love one another in spite of everything. It's a tale that I think most people can relate to - looking back over the carefree years of our youth and being able to (in hindsight) pinpoint the moments that caused the circumstances to change and bring us to the positions of responsibility that we come to occupy as adults. I don't think I've ever played a game before that carried such a sense with it.
The Japanese actually have a phrase: mono no aware. It means 'an awareness of the impernance of things, and a transient gentle sadness or wistfulness at their passing.' More than anything else, that was the vibe that I got from the final third of Final Fantasy XV, with it being so acute at the end that it left the hair on my arms standing on end. I don't know whether it constitutes a good Final Fantasy game - and honestly, I don't much care. What I do know is that it's a game that I enjoyed enormously, and that will stay with me for a very long time indeed.