When looking at things like combat, world and story separately you can find some really fun gameplay ideas, standout moments and magnificent set pieces in Final Fantasy XV. The moment all of these are brought together, however, is when it starts falling apart. The game feels like a collection of different ideas melded together rather forcefully instead of gracefully and while some of the additional version updates and the on-going DLCs do their best to address these shortcomings, I feel that there would have been some things that should have been part of the core game which I will delve into in this article.
Mind you, the development of the game had a lot of issues and even though it took 10 years for it to come out, the version of the game that exists today was made in only about 2 years. Thus, the reason for the messy flow might, and probably was, simply that there was just no time to include any of the things I list below even if the developers would have wanted to. Regardless, it’s a fun thought exercise to think of what could have been. Also, perhaps some of the things I mention were actually covered in the game and I somehow missed them – in that case, do let me know in the comments!
NATURALLY, SPOILERS FOLLOW
State of the World
- Causality. Once the city of Insomnia is seized by the Empire of Niflheim this should have clear consequences in the surrounding world. Sure, these areas were not under the control of the Kingdom of Lucis (as far as I know they only had Insomnia left at that point), but considering the city’s luxurious life and the impoverished state the surrounding areas were in, you would think there’d be strong reactions to the fall of the city – many probably rejoicing even and perhaps unwilling to aid surviving Insomnians. But instead, life continues as normal even after the event. It is a bit of a waste of something that could have potentially been an interesting political climate if treated correctly. What if the people were not willing to help Noctis out? What if this made him realize that his kingdom wasn’t as great as he grew up believing? If he became King, could he do something about this?
- Sense of danger. Sure, Noctis is momentarily upset about his father’s demise, but other than that things don’t really change for him and his friends after the city’s fall. Their driving around the lush environments is the same as it was before, barring a few pesky Empire airships dropping troops on their head once in a while. It doesn’t feel like the Empire is really concerned with finding the heir of the throne who could possibly rise against them, nor that Noctis is a “fugitive” on the run. It would have made sense if he and his friends had at least tried to conceal the fact that they were royalty with his royal guard (Regalia is a pretty big giveaway). Hell, that would even explain why literally everyone send them on fetch quests!
Portrayal of Lunafreya
- Emotional connection. Lunafreya is portrayed as an important character, both for being the Oracle and the sort of love interest of Noctis. However, we see very little of her (the most being in the Kingsglaive movie) so once it is time for her big scene and death she is not important to us on a personal level. We understand that it is a big deal in the story the game is trying to tell (and for some this might be enough), but the emotional connection is not there. It is kind of strange that the game falls short on this, as it has been done successfully numerous times by Square Enix previously (Cloud and Aerith were given the time to hangout before shit gets real, a whole game with Tidus and Yuna before he disappears, Sora and Kairi hanging out before she’s snatched away… you get the point). Luna, for some reason, does not get this treatment. This was probably explained with Luna and Noct not seeing each other after childhood, but you could bypass this with playable flashbacks. Just give the player a chance to know her, to care. Show that there really is a deep relationship between the two regardless of all the years they’ve spent apart. The few cutscenes of their childhood are not enough – it is not enough for Noct and Luna to have a connection, but rather, the connection has to be between the player and Luna.
- More emphasis on her duty as the Oracle. The Kingsglaive movie and what we see of Luna in the game go to great lengths for us to understand that she would do anything for Noct, even sacrifice herself if she had to (which she does). This is due to her firm belief that Noct is the “True King of Prophecy”, but this is not very clearly explained in the game making Luna’s focus on Noct seem nearly as an unhealthy obsession. It would have been good to clearly present this Prophecy as her main motivation – that would have let players understand that her main focus was on her duty as the Oracle (stopping the Starscourge) and saving the people and it was that duty specifically that made her work so hard to get Noct to fulfill his destiny.
- A gradual, but clearer character arc. There are basically three different Nocts we see in the game: 1) the spoiled prince who whines a lot, 2) the emotional and frustrated cutscene Noct and 3) the more mature Noct who has accepted his destiny as King. Before and after the cutscenes, he reverts back to “the spoiled prince who whines a lot” until the very end when he finds the resolve to do his duty. His growth should be a more continuous process, shaped by the trials and tribulations he goes through with his bros along the way. It is especially jarring that there is no change in him and his behavior after the fall of Insomnia (apart from cutscenes) and it makes the whole event seem like a no big deal.
Oh boy, this is a big one. FFXV suffers immensely from its complete lack of build up of anything. You are told about everything important that happened in retrospect without any inkling that these things were going to happen, making most of them feel like cheap surprises put there just to squeeze some emotion out of the player.
- Empire of Niflheim. For most of the game the Empire is the big bad, until it suddenly disappears completely. How can a huge Empire of folks who have conquered all the land suddenly just not exist at all? I mean, that could happen sure, but then it has to be presented well instead of confusing the player. Before Chapter 13, they should have already be gone so profoundly, yet without fanfare, that the players themselves gradually notice the lack of their presence. No chance to feel “what’s going on?” “why aren’t they showing up?” is given nor any creeping sense of something being terribly wrong – instead you are just told off-handedly by Aranea Highwind that well, this happened. A whole nation turning into daemons could be rather chillingly cruel, so you should really build it up so it has the impact it deserves!
- Prompto. Some of this is dealt with and amended through his DLC, but considering the reveal of him being one of the clones is part of the core game, again, some foreshadowing and allowing the player to suspect something like that would have made it more impactful. It really wouldn’t have needed much more than having a scene in the main storyline where after fighting some Empire MTs, the group would have seen the face of one of them and then have Prompto looking pale and upset because of the perceived similarity between them and him (but not explain what shook him). Not knowing where he came from should have been also presented as a big influence on him feeling insecure and trying so hard to be the happy-go-lucky one when having his heart to heart with Noct.
- Ravus. His arc also received some clarification in the Chapter 13 update through the added choice of following Gladiolus and Ignis instead of Noct. While it was a great addition, it still doesn’t solve the underlying problem: the player can still just go as Noctis and miss this arc completely. Now, I am all for branching narratives and replayability, but for that to feel truly rewarding both choices need to feel fleshed out and important on their own. Putting something relevant to understanding the story in just one branch is simply not good design. Playing as Noct through the level only serves to confuse the player in regards to why is Ravus dead now. As a rule of thumb, you should have something important and different in both branches – don’t just split up one important plot element that can’t be understood when only playing one branch. Ravus seems to show up in Ignis’ DLC so maybe his character will get more meat on the bones then, but that is a completely separate thing from the notorious Chapter 13.
- Ignis. His blindness ends up being one of those many “oh by the way” cheap feeling shock moments in the plot. While I assume we get to witness how he heroically came to be blinded in his DLC, it still deserved to at least be hinted at in the core game. All it would have taken is a brief glimpse of him during the Leviathan fight seemingly in a really big bind and Noct telling himself he just needs to trust Ignis to take care of himself while he sorts things out with Leviathan and Luna and then ta-dah, blinded friend. It could have even built nicely into Noct (in other words, the player) feeling guilt for choosing to let his friend deal with it alone and make him realize he is responsible for a bunch of people as the King’s heir.
- Ardyn. He had potential to be a great antagonist with a bit of a “split personality” between the one who helps Noct and the one who makes Noct suffer. This isn’t built up very well either and feels more like he does a clear switch to “evil” after killing Luna… yet not really. It serves more to confuse than to pique interest. Noctis and his bros, while having their suspicions, still seem too trusting of him during the first half of the game. His origins should have also been hinted at throughout the game, maybe through NPC hearsay and old legends.
- Prophecy. Well, this was already discussed in the Lunafreya segment, but yeah, the prophecy plot device is sorely in need of better build up as well.
There will be some kind of free story update to the core game again soon, so who knows what that will end up covering. All in all it is a shame that such a huge project had to be rushed and a lot of the storyline that could have been intriguing ended up confusing instead. Also, I really don’t mind the DLC model that many games go for these days, but you really ought to have a core game that feels whole before you go asking your players for more money. DLC should always add on top of the experience and not feel like something that should have just been in the game to begin with. Hopefully, this will be something that the team will be careful to avoid once they start pushing for FFXVI, though that may take quite a long time as FFXV is a gift that just keeps on giving – even when it probably shouldn’t.