I put a good twenty-three hours into Final Fantasy XV before I booted up it’s older — and undeniably iconic — sibling. I hadn’t played Final Fantasy VII since its release in 1997 and I was genuinely wondering whether the game would feel as engrossing as it had when I was 15 years old. Graphically, there’s no doubt that the classic has taken a beating. Despite some sharpened up character models, its hand-drawn backgrounds and 3D cutscenes look pixelated and anachronistic. Some wonderfully modern features have been integrated to compensate: you can accelerate the game by 300% for as long as you want and easily toggle off the random encounters. This makes for a much more pleasant experience when you’re revisiting a game you’ve already played for dozens of hours.
“Amazingly, Final Fantasy VII feels as rebellious as ever in 2016.”
Details aside, what stood out the most was how narratively, tonally, and structurally cohesive Final Fantasy VII felt during its first half hour. I immediately understood the kind of world I was in, the different factions at play, and the stakes of the operation I was thrown into headfirst. Amazingly, Final Fantasy VII feels as rebellious as ever in 2016. As
Fox McCloud Cloude Strife you are being paid by an eco-terrorist resistance group named AVALANCHE to help them blow up one of the earth-energy-sucking reactors that keeps the city of Midgar running. Shinra, the corporation that owns the whole damn thing, is greedily polluting the earth and deepening wealth inequality — all in the name of profit. Cloud was once in SOLDIER, some sort of paramilitary group, and his childhood buddy Tifa has connected him with AVALANCHE, which he’s apparently only using to make some cash. After blowing up the reactor, he buys a flower from a mysterious girl in the street (Aerith) which, as a player, you’re quite curious about (she’s front-and-center in the game’s first cutscene). The art direction, music, atmosphere, and dialogue all contribute to building Final Fantasy VII’s universe. The game is undoubtedly a well-crafted narrative: its facts are sturdy, its mysteries designed to generate intrigue.
“The game, early on, feels a bit like a revenge story curbed by a lack of character motivation.”
Let’s compare this with my experience 30 minutes into Final Fantasy XV. You play as Noctis Lucis, the son of a king you don’t seem to respect much, and you are being married off to Lunafreya, a girl from another kingdom with whom your people are about to sign a peace agreement. You seem ok with the arranged marriage because you’ve been friends with Lunafreya since you were both kids. The story begins with your dad immediately saying goodbye as you’re escorted away in a sweet vehicle by 3 other guys, who seem to be your friends. It’s not clear how you met them, why they’re so down with you, and what they’re looking to accomplish other than be of assistance to you. Very quickly you learn — by reading a fucking newspaper — that the peace talks got fucked up, your dad is dead, and maybe Lunafreya is too. The game, early on, feels a bit like a revenge story curbed by a lack of character motivation. Noctis doesn’t seem to want to be king or fight The Empire at all, and even the death of his father isn’t really addressed poignantly: within a few minutes of finding out he’s passed, you’re back to doing fetch quests, fishing, and camping. It’s unclear whether anybody else is passionate about the fight either.
Having protagonists who don’t really care about The Struggle isn’t something new to the series. Cloud doesn’t seem sure he wants to join the fight against Shinra either, but at least that fight, its stakes, and those passionate about it are well-defined. At its core, Final Fantasy XV is the opposite of rebellious: you play as a bratty young Prince tasked with taking back his kingdom. Restoring your monarchy is apparently necessary to restore peace because… well, you’re the good kingdom so peace is your status quo. By 30 minutes into the game you’ve heard epic classical music, Stand By Me, and EDM. Your dad seems pretty fantasy, the places you visit are sorta country western, and The Empire has a distinct sci-fi flavor. To call the game tonally diverse would be putting it very mildly.
“After 23 hours of Final Fantasy XV, I’m more confused than ever.
To cut Final Fantasy XV some slack, there are plenty of other titles out there with opaque and incomprehensible beginnings. Many of them take a few hours to properly set up the universe they’re set in, and that’s fine. But after 23 hours with Final Fantasy XV, I’m more confused than ever. The people who killed your dad seem closely related to your bride-to-be, you’ve hung out several times with the chancellor of The Empire — who’s been helping you out for no apparent reason — and there’s a bunch of Gods and Demons somehow tied up into the whole mess. I stopped playing the game when I reached the very Venetian city of Altissia, which, although beautiful, introduced even more political factions and added another layer of confusion to the plot. And this is the game that Heather Alexandra over at Kotaku says “falls apart in the third act”, which I’m assuming means things do not get better from here on out. Also, keep in mind that I did a bit of extra legwork by watching the Brotherhood anime on youtube, which does a good job at actually setting up the different characters in the game, so I’m probably more informed than the average player.
“I don’t dislike Final Fantasy XV. I just think it’s a narrative mess of epic proportions.”
The amount of confusing, open-ended, incomprehensible narrative threads in Final Fantasy XV obscure any potentially well-crafted mysteries the game has to offer. I played 23 hours despite the plot. I played 23 hours because I liked the four main characters, but this was mostly due to the anime I watched on youtube. I played 23 hours of Final Fantasy XV because I do think it has introduced an innovative framework for the series, and I do believe it holds potential for future titles in the series, if only Square Enix would iterate on the game’s systems and pair them with a coherent narrative through-line with more tonal consistency (FFVII, for example, feels bizarre and fantastic without being disjointed). I even put the game in my top titles of 2016. I don’t dislike Final Fantasy XV. I just think it’s a narrative mess of epic proportions, and that’s a real shame. Don’t agree with me? That’s fine. But when you’re done with XV, boot up VII and play it for a bit. The contrast is clear.