Final Fantasy XV is a game of extreme imbalance, the result of a tortuous ten-year development cycle. It is is a game filled with sparks of brilliance, but also the disappointing glare of what could have been. It is a game set apart by its brethren by its road-trip theme and fifth party member, your vehicle, the Regalia, and yet it is also a game that is surprisingly undriven, too content to wallow in the beauty of its world, as if forgetting at times that it can also be telling a story.
It is a “city” of two tales. The first one spins its wheels as Noctis ignores his father’s death and the danger that his fiancée might be in so that he can camp with his friends and go Chocobo Racing or Monster Hunting or Photojournalisting. Clearing out imperial garrisons–the very thing a king might want to do for his people–is given equal weight with fetching ingredients for a chef or reagents for a scientist, and this is largely true even when the stakes are high: Noct, afflicted by crippling headaches that direct him to the Disc of Cauthess, is given ample opportunity to instead keep fishing and foraging without consequence.
Noctis ignores his father’s death and the danger that his fiancée might be in so he can camp with his friends and go Chocobo Racing or Monster Hunting or Photojouralisting.
The game’s second act burns through all that pent-up momentum, peeling out the plot points so quickly that they hardly land. In an inversion of Final Fantasy XIII, the open world gives way to a linear, literally on-rails (you’re on a train) trip to the capital of the evil empire of Niflheim. The beautiful city of Altissia, with its Venician canals and high-fashion storefronts, its political factions and old-moneyed aristocracy, is a pitstain in the rear-view mirror. It’s less important for Noct to pay respects to his dead fiancée in her home of Tenebrae, than to an unnamed former king whose grave is found beneath an abandoned dig site.
Imagine if, instead of visiting tombs that grant no actual insight into the past, you could instead actually interact with meaningful landmarks, like the prison island of Angelgard, where Noct could’ve learned what drove his rival to madness? Imagine if the gang had traveled to Galahd, and seen firsthand how Noct’s father failed the people there when he pulled back the magical Wall that had once protected them, as opposed to relegating this relevant tale of mistreated refugees to a C-plot in Kingsglaive. Imagine if Chapter 14’s “The World of Ruin” were actually evocative of FFVI in more than name, and Noctis, all alone, had to wander through a transformed world, seeking out friends to help him take one final shot at the bad guy, as opposed to just reconnecting with them after ten years as if no time had passed whatsoever. Imagine if Prompto’s discoveries about his origins and the development of Magitek-daemon technology weren’t relegated to a DLC, such that there were actually a reason to explore the various research labs out on the corrupted tundra, gradually cobbling together a snowmobile capable of reaching Shiva’s sleeping body? If the design of such a sequence felt like Final Fantasy XV, instead of a bad riff on Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday, all unwieldy guns and technobabble? The content is there, but it is disconnected from the game–literally so, in the case of the book The Dawn of the Future–and therein lies the problem.
There is nothing wrong with the idea of four close friends traveling the continent by car, strengthening and testing their bonds as they discover the hard day-to-day truths of the people struggling to make a living outside of their spoiled, gated community. Nothing wrong, even, with bringing larger stakes into it, what with Noctis having to react to his homeland’s destruction and his father’s murder. But the game doesn’t adequately react to those gear shifts: it continues to drift in idle. Noct, at the end of Chapter 1, is essentially Hamlet–while he was off in school with his two best friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his kingdom was usurped. The difference is striking: Hamlet returns home immediately to mourn, but Noct . . . just drives around with his chums.
Granted, there is no kingdom for Noct to return to–Insomnia is essentially destroyed–but there are still things he could be doing, and FFXV just seems uninterested in most of them. Cor, the highest-ranking member of the Crownsguard, tells Noct that to be recognized as king, he must visit all thirteen royal tombs, but this is a MacGuffin, given that the game doesn’t actually require this of you. Lunafreya, Noct’s Ophelia, sends him messages about making pacts with the Six, but there’s no urgency to do so, and in truth, Noct only has to seek the first two out: the rest are thrust upon him out of the blue. Hamlet wasted a lot of time, but not because he didn’t know what to do: it was because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it. Noct’s self-doubt is a powerful part of the story, but it isn’t reflected by the narrative, even after Lunafreya’s death. There is no room for self-doubt here; you’ve obviated that by the very act of powering on your console and booting up FFXV. You are, quite literally, game, and anything that suggests otherwise is nonsense. You can put off the main quest for as long as you like; but the game isn’t capable of expressing this. Your comrades don’t sour on you when you camp out at night; they only give you tough love when they’re scripted to do so.
Despite this dissonance between the plot and the open-world and all of the missed opportunities in which the game’s lore and connection to Noct could’ve been expanded, it gives me hope that Final Fantasy VIIR, also long in development, and Final Fantasy XIV, notably rebooted after a failed first launch, both appear to have learned this lesson. Both of those games use the deep, pre-existing lore of their predecessors to ensure that every inch of their maps and dungeons provide meaningful context not just to the characters but to the overall plot. And that’s what I most want from Final Fantasy 16. I hope it keeps the hidden battles and secret dungeons, but finds a way to better utilize most of them so that they’re related more to key plot points than to bland fetch quests. The narrative must ever be working: there’s no need for Noct to just scale the dazzling volcanic cliffside of the Rock of Ravatogh when he could also be having visions of Ifrit, who once dwelt there. The Crestholm Channels are a plausible re-entry point to Insomnia, or perhaps a hideout for some of his people in exile; better to use them for that as opposed to simply being where you pick up a new car part.
The rambling road trip is over. Here’s hoping Final Fantasy 16 has more of an itinerary.