Let’s switch from reviewing LitRPG to reviewing just RPG and see where the story breaks down.
Final Fantasy XV begins with a very long download scene, which reminds me of when I downloaded Metal Gear Solid V on PS3 and bought it at midnight, excited to play. Then I watched Solid Snake smoke enough cigarettes to give himself cancer ten times over and didn’t play it until the next day because of how long it took to download all the garbage.
XV is a bit refreshing from the perspective that it beats the predecessors in the lineup by first, not having a humongous amount of introduction to get through at the beginning. It lets you get rolling pretty quickly. You are a prince, you have a princess waiting to marry you to prevent war between your two nations. Got it.
Then you start off the game by pushing your car, along with your three friends. All of whom are dressed almost identical to you, which causes confusion at some points in the game. For a stark change in the Final Fantasy series post X, the plot is actually understandable. You don’t have to watch forty-five minute cut scenes that try to explain the plot once an hour, you can pretty much guess what’s going on rather quickly.
The main plot is well executed, but Square Enix has a lot to learn from CD Projekt Red. Virtually every side quest in XV is a fetch quest. Go here, pick this up. Go here, slay this monster or monsters. Go here and catch a fish. The Witcher is enhanced via the side quests, it’s what really tells you about the World and its characters. Outside of carefully crafted cut scenes, there is no further plot to be gained from doing side quests. As a result, the side quests are tedious and boring.
After playing it, I can’t tell you what any of them were, because none of them were interesting enough to remember. Since this is where a large chunk of the game time is spent, making the side quests so tedious was a monumental mistake.
Another thing that the game can learn from CD Projekt Red is environment design. XV is pretty, but it’s all the same. There’s very little variety in the monotony of environments, it all feels like the same locations with little differences here and there. This is bad since a lot of the time you spend doing the fetch quests is spent either driving around, running, or riding chocobos, leaving you to look at same-same environments the entire time. After a while, this gets visually tedious as there’s nothing to look forward to except whatever minor loot the game gives for completing a side quest.
The environments only start changing at the very end, and the last eight chapters of the game pretty much fly by. It’s after Chapter Eight where the game becomes what I would call a traditional post-X FF game.
From a story perspective, the plot is as follows.
There was a great War between the Gods, with one of them, Ifrit, who despised humanity, using the Starscourge to turn humans into demons. The other Gods banded together and created a counterbalance. The first is an Oracle that would come from a certain lineage, and the second is a champion, who would come from a separate lineage. The Oracle can talk with the Gods, while the Champion fights on their behalf.
The champion is Ardyn Lucis Caelum, tasked with defeating the Ifrit and ending the Starscourge. The way Ardyn accomplished this is by absorbing Ifrit and the Starscourge into himself. He was promised the ability to ascend into heaven for banishing the starscourge, but because he absorbed it, he was deemed impure and cursed with immortality.
The only way that the curse can be ended is by heralding the One True King and killing the True King after he ascends. To do this, 2000 years later, (why he waits so long is never explained), he convinces the Empire to kidnap their citizens and experiment on them, which allows him to release the starscourge that’s inside him.
Your father is the wielder of a ring that is meant only for the One True King, which he is not. Using the ring, he erects a magical barrier that keeps out the invading armies, but at the cost of prematurely aging him. The Empire offers a term of peace, if you marry their princess, they will stop the war.
You leave to get married, but the Empire invades anyway and kills your father. Then you have to become the One True King.
The female you’re supposed to marry, Luna, is the most tragic backstory. The team removed it due to costs and because they were scared they would upset social justice advocates. Her mother dies and she’s kidnapped by the Empire. It’s implied that she’s been physically abused, and her only joy is in the correspondence she’s had with you over the past twelve years and in fulfilling her duties as Oracle. She looks forward to marrying you because even though she knows you’re fated to die, she hopes she can get some happiness while she’s queen.
Almost none of that shows through in the game because it’s been cut, so she’s just shown being beautific. The downside to this is that they are clearly reaching for the death of Aerith from FFVII, but it has none of the pathos.
Aerith is a major figure in FFVII, not just because she’s playable, serves a vital role as healer, and because she believes in you, but also because Cloud is really a rotten bastard the beginning of FFVII. He’s a man who only believes in money. He’s not a great hero, his best friend is. Aerith is the girlfriend of his best friend. He’s assumed his achievements and honors, and that’s after his best friend died protecting him.
Aerith transforms Cloud and her death is the major catalyst for Cloud to begin carrying about something besides himself. Rather than feeling tragic, Luna’s death feels more like an attempt at melodrama.
The same weakness occurs at the end of the second act when one of your companions is injured, and another companion berates you for not taking it seriously. Except that’s never shown in the game, Noctus, the lead, takes the responsibilities fairly seriously. And the side characters all talk about how they will gladly die if need be in service of you, the king. So it’s completely unearned pathos for the attempt at reconciliation.
Game play wise, the first half is an open-world sandbox with lots of “go fetch” quests, and the latter half is the “story telling” part of the game which features much more linear design and quests.
It reminded me heavily of Dragon’s Dogma in a variety of aspects, and even though the game is good, it’s never elevated to great. It’s not up to legendary games like Skyrim or Witcher 3. It’s a good game, but the lack of world building, uninspired side quests, generic environments, and mediocre side characters prevents the game from rising to where it should, even if the more exciting combat system really helps push it through, hence the reference to Dragon’s Dogma.
Some people complain about the main character, that his abilities are unearned. This is not entirely true, although the story doesn’t showcase it well enough that the father is dying from his powers. The overall theme of the story is that If you want great power, you will have to commit great sacrifices. Everyone who achieves great power in the game pays a tremendous price for obtaining it, including the main character.
I’d rank it a 7 out of 10. Well worth playing, but not a legendary game. For a post X Final Fantasy game though, it’s the strongest of anything Square Enix has put out in a long time.
So, what can an author learn from this RPG?
- Don’t use stock characters for important side characters. Each of the side characters you adventure with, and the main character to a large extent, are stock characters. One is the brains, the other the brawn, the other comic relief. None of them ever rise above that. A stock character is fine for short scenes where you need to quickly establish a character’s attitude and role in the story, but the longer they hang around and never do anything more than act like a stereotype, the more hollow they feel as characters.
- Don’t try to get people invested in characters that they know aren’t important. The game tries to get you invested in a side character’s sister. But you know from the start that nothing is going to happen, so the entire sequence is nothing and never builds up any emotion. If you need an example, pick a good romance movie. There’s generally two people that could be picked and the drama revolves around which one is the “right” one. Audiences have to realistically believe that the “wrong” character could be picked, so they feel for the main character as s/he goes through their courtship.
- Don’t try for unearned Pathos. If you want your readers to care about a character, you have to give them a reason to care. “Someone close to this character died, look at how sad he is!” doesn’t work if the audience doesn’t like the character that died or doesn’t know anything about that character.
- If you’re going to use the “side quest” system for progressing the story, the side quests should add to the lore, mythos, backstory, and motivations of the characters. This is one of my complaints about Way of the Shaman (The Karmadont Chess Set). None of the side quests matter or give us any extra details that we didn’t know already, most of it was filler.
- Get your story in one place. The mythos of the Final Fantasy XV game gets expanded in other places, but no one is going to care if the main story didn’t grip them well enough from the start. I am not going to check out the expanded Universe because I don’t care enough about any of these characters to learn more about them and their World.