Final Fantasy 15 Is Still A Disappointment Five Years Later

The reveal of Final Fantasy 15 at E3 2013 remains burned into my memory. After years of languishing through development hell, Final Fantasy Versus 13 was rebranded into a mainline entry with many of its characters, locations, and themes making the jump alongside this unexpected change in title. The spin-off clearly wasn’t working out, so why not take what you’ve managed to cobble together thus far and create something new?

Square Enix did exactly that, and the finished product was an experience that many fans adored, but others despised it. It was fundamentally flawed, the storyline a fractured mess of disparate world building and character motivations that made little sense, all while the emotional hook of Noctis reuniting with Lunafreya and saving his kingdom from turmoil fell flat. It all comes together in the end, but the journey doesn’t do nearly enough to justify its eventual destination. Even a fantastical road trip with your homies couldn’t salvage things.

Despite all of this, I still admire Final Fantasy 15. It strived to meet impossible expectations and fell short at every single turn, but all these years later it’s a fascinating product to look back on, defining the past, present, and future of the franchise in a way that few games have. It’s an achievement of scope and experimentation, pulling Final Fantasy into a new direction that would be curated upon with future games that would take its exploration and combat and make them far less mediocre.

Before I delve into things further, pop onto YouTube and watch the E3 2013 re-reveal trailer for Final Fantasy 15. There’s no rush, I’ll wait. You back? Groovy, let’s get this Chocobo caravan moving. If you’ve played the game in its entirety, you’ll notice that almost 99 percent of that trailer isn’t in the finished game. It’s smoke and mirrors, with only a handful of CG scenes making the cut. The leviathan encounter is a truncated mess of a fight in the finished game, while a number of other key moments and cutscenes are either pulled straight from older pieces of gameplay footage or don’t represent what Final Fantasy 15 would eventually evolve into. I understand that games change during development, this one more than most, but there’s an element of hoodwinkery at play here that didn’t help Square Enix’s reputation. This game was finally coming out, but at what cost to its original vision?

I replayed the opening hours of Final Fantasy 15 recently for this very article and it remains such an unusual experience. It opens with Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus pushing their broken down car to a nearby garage, the scorching desert sun beating down upon them. Their introductory banter fades away as we begin to push the car, Florence and the Machine’s wonderful rendition of ‘Stand By Me’ erupting onto the scene as the camera pans outward and the titlecard splashes onto the screen. It’s a serene moment of brilliance, encapsulating the camaraderie that makes this game so special when it wants to be. Yet the second we pull up to the garage and Cindy greets us with a smile, the monotony sinks its teeth in. I hope you like driving on rails and sprinting through bland environments, because we’ve got 20 hours of that coming up.

The opening hours have you repairing the car, hunting down monsters, and travelling to badly designed locales that are a tiresome chore to explore. Galdin Quay is awful, with players being required to sprint across its laborious deck and talk with boring characters to advance the main quest again and again and again until the story decides to push itself forward. Plot revelations emerge and your party reacts in unrealistic ways to major events that would carry weight if they were developed properly, but they aren’t so we just don’t care.

Final Fantasy 15 never escapes this omission, even with Square Enix patching the game several times and striving to pad the game out with additional expansions and features. It wasn’t enough, even if the act of exploring its world and fighting monsters remains a delight when you knowingly distance it from the wider tale. Pretend it’s a road trip and your kingdom isn’t in peril – your enjoyment will be heightened for it. But this is Final Fantasy, we shouldn’t have to accept that the narrative sucks and the world is boring so we just need to enjoy what little value there is. This series has made a name for deep, otherworldly adventures that are different in so many ways. Final Fantasy 15 just feels boring.

The quartet of main characters are all excellent, yet everything that surrounds them feels half baked. Your quests to uncover a number of ancient weapons spread across the land boils down to finding a selection of generic dungeons with copy and pasted enemy encounters and labyrinthine level designs that don't lend themselves to the game’s movement or combat at all. It feels like disparate pieces were thrown together to give this world some level of cohesion, yet the moment you begin searching for cracks it all falls apart.

I’m being harsh, and rightfully so, but people love this game because of its main characters and how their chemistry and friendship is able to elevate a JRPG that otherwise flounders in its own inadequacy. Hopping inside the Regalia and throwing on some iconic music brings with it the illusion of freedom, an unexpected aura of peace as idle conversation makes the crumbling empire you’re fighting to save a thing of the past. All that matters is this single moment, and Final Fantasy 15 is filled with instances like this that make it out to be a much better game than it really is. I wish it was the game Tetsuya Nomura intended it to be all those years ago, but five years later it remains a disappointment I can’t help but mourn.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake learned from its mistakes and created something far better, even if the boring side quests and soulless NPCs that held back its predecessor remain. Final Fantasy 16 feels like it could be a similar evolution, using the guidance of Naoki Yoshida and a keen acknowledgement of the series’ past failures to create something special. We’ll see what happens, and my respect for Final Fantasy 15 remains extensive, yet I can’t in good conscience recognise it as something that belongs alongside the greats that preceded it.

It’s still worth playing to analyse how it came to be, and I’ll always respect those who adore it, but I will always wish it was the game I saw in trailers all those years ago and not a mere shadow of what it could have been. Maybe one day we’ll see that vision come to fruition.

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