In 1992, as many North American gamers experienced their first taste of the Japanese role-playing game Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo, economist Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. In his book, Fukuyama claimed the fall of the Berlin Wall signified an endpoint to the evolution of social organizations in humanity, and argued 20th century neoliberal democracies are the most advanced form of human civilization, thus the 21st century would see an unprecedented time of peace.
Final Fantasy XV tries desperately to grapple with the future when its longevity and popularity has its biggest fans clamoring for the past. As its release was quickly overshadowed by two of its predecessors, the increasingly popular MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV as well as the damn-good Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Final Fantasy XV looked like the last iteration of the series in its truest form for a while. It is, by some measures, the end of history for Final Fantasy. Even with the recently announced Final Fantasy XVI, the series has officially moved on from any input from the original Square team, and also takes place in a far distant fantasy past compared to XV’s wasteland future.
Final Fantasy XV notoriously took ten years to reach the market and despite ranking among the best-selling Final Fantasy titles, critics and players generally agreed that, while an improvement on Final Fantasy XIII, it did not live up to the hype. With numerous teasers, trailers, short anime series, and even a full length film (Kingsglaive) Final Fantasy XV is certainly not lacking in quantity of content, and yet large parts of the plot are absent and even iconic moments appearing in trailers failed to make it to the finished game. So much extra-curricular material is required to digest the complete story that the final product is an experience encapsulating every contradiction of late-stage capitalism as every impressive moment of sincere awe is undermined by empty disappointment, speckled with product placement from Vivienne Westwood to Cup of Noodles.
Of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall was not the end of history, as Fukuyama claimed, just as Final Fantasy XV is not the end of a beloved franchise. Like all things worth preserving, it only requires a little bit of a radical imagination, but it is also important to examine the bleak landscapes that surround us in order to understand exactly how we got here.
The Final Fantasy
According to legend, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi intended his 8-bit table-top role-playing simulation game to be his farewell to the gaming industry. Thus, he named the project Final Fantasy, but instead Final Fantasy was a massive success and spawned increasingly ironic sequels over the next couple decades, establishing its creative forces as industry gods capable of bringing new worlds into existence.
Released in 2016 on PS4 and Xbox, then again for PC in 2018, Final Fantasy XV brings the fantasy series a dramatic tone of realism. Instead of the traditional overworld with random battles, this adventure takes place mostly in a moving car, stopping for camp and stocking up at gas stations along deserted highways, as inspired by Arthurian legend as it is James Dean.
Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum begins the journey from his home in the city Insomnia to Altissia where he is destined to marry Lady Lunafreya Nox Fleuret (voiced by The Return’s Amy Shiels) while his father stays behind to negotiate a peace treaty between the kingdom and the hostile Niflheim Empire.
Noctis is joined by his royal entourage and together they make up your party of heroes; Gladiolus, the survivalist member of the Kingsglaive, the crown’s personal army of bodyguards; Ignis, the party’s mage and Noctis’ personal chef and butler; and Prompto, the youngest, who is more like Noctis’ pauper classmate and fulfills Final Fantasy’s contract for a spiky-haired blonde. Things go bad with the treaty, the Empire invades Noctis’ home and kills his father, and Noctis himself is mistakenly reported dead. From there, you’re given a task to visit the tombs of the ancient kings to claim the Armiger weapons to add to your arsenal of badass magic swords that Noctis conjures from thin air. This is, undoubtedly, the coolest part of Final Fantasy XV’s design.
Noctis must then convene with each of the six Astrals, the godlike summons known from previous games, such as Titan, Ifrit, Shiva, and Bahamut. The first is Titan, who is found in a giant pit in the center of the map, holding a shard of a fallen meteor on his back. The set piece is gargantuan, and utilizies the game’s engine to establish a profound sense of scale is where Final Fantasy XV really pushes itself beyond expectations. The showdown with Leviathan in the second half of the game is the kind of show-stopping insanity that only Final Fantasy can manage, but the gameplay never quite manages to regain that momentum.
In fact, the battle system is the best designed the series has seen in years, a culmination of experimenting with systems beyond the active timed battle. Noctis’ warp ability is absolutely necessary across the large open battle spaces, but of course the best moments in battle come from cooperating with the AI of your teammates. Looking back at this game from the socially distanced 2020, after playing through Final Fantasy VII: Remake, it’s clear how the ideas perfected in the Remake were present in the development of XV. This hindsight, while certainly emphasizing some of FFXVs flaws, actually benefits the game altogether. But it also underscores that while its original creators saw the series as a never-ending series of new worlds, as technology allowed for more complexity, these worlds required more depth.
Hardcore Final Fantasy fans don’t like to think of them as a direct linear continuity, however. Instead they build on themes and similar archetypal imagery that repeats in each new installment, but each individual entry is its own contained story. Therefore, Final Fantasy XV is the logical conclusion of a concept that insists on reinventing itself. Even as the series continues, this serves as a tribute to the work of the artists and programmers that built the series into what it was, while also offering a rather bleak view of the series’ future. As the original creators retired, Sakaguchi prior to Final Fantasy XIII, and several other longtime collaborators during the development of XV. Meanwhile, the younger generation of developers, like Kingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura or Yasumi Matsuno, the designer behind the Final Fantasy XIV and the world of Ivalice, understandably wanted to return to the worlds and characters they created and fans fell in love with. It’s no surprise why the world of Final Fantasy XIV flourishes while FFXV is left in despair; Ivalice is meant to be a living world, while Final Fantasy XV was always destined to be abandoned.
A World In Ruin
Final Fantasy XV’s Eos is a realm in decline. The world is huge and yet suffers from an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, literally fractured by the studio’s profit motive. Square-Enix’s pivot to blowing up every new entry in the series into megaprojects means leaving an incomplete narrative while flooding the market with a supply of a cross-platform, multimedia content when the demand is only ever for the best possible complete experience. And yet the resulting disconnect perfectly mirrors the protagonists’ alienation from his own crumbling world.
The countryside bears the hallmarks of post-apocalyptic wastelands, and even though it eventually opens up into some lush forest and seaside vistas, there are quite a lot of treks through deserts with abandoned factories and hostile volcanic terrain. There is also a creeping darkness taking over the world, drawing out daemons at night. There are numerous places throughout the game to read up on the lore and what it means, but the darkness, or “Starscourge” is still somewhat nebulous, an afterthought that nevertheless becomes overwhelming by the final chapter.
The overall effect of blending elements from previous games, like the Magitek soldiers and Empire from VI, the contemporary realism of VII, the mystical crystal politics of the early games, is a world that feels somehow beyond or outside of time, not unlike Sorceress Ultimecia’s goal of “time compression” from Final Fantasy VIII. The civilization that once gave this world its magic has faded. It’s true, this world is not Ivalice, or Gaia from VII. It also reminds me of Stephen King’s Mid-World from The Dark Tower series, a world that has “moved on.” I’m sure this is only enhanced by the choice to open the game not with a lush fanfare, but Florence & The Machine covering “Stand By Me.”
All of this serves a story purpose as well, as the war between the Niflheim Empire and the Lucis wages in the background, our hero Noctis must accept his fate as the king of a fallen kingdom. It can be interpreted both as a retelling of the first Final Fantasy story with some creative license, or it could very well set the stage for a new civilization to rise up from its ashes.
A substantial amount of criticism of Final Fantasy XV focuses on how the extraneous content is required to fully understand all of the ins and outs of the plot, who certain characters are or why they matter, or anything about the villain, who abruptly introduces himself into the story. And while these are certainly not highlights of the story, the distant narrative plays a part in placing us in Noctis’ head. Our hero is reluctant to answer every call to adventure, sometimes pleading with his comrades to head back to camp and play video games.
As much as this game is a technological leap forward, it might have the most overtly basic video-game style main quest; collect the magic weapons from the dungeons. Even the fact that there are distinct locations referred to as dungeons here gives it a uniquely esoteric quality. But while they aren’t exactly anywhere on the level of a Zelda dungeon, they are driven by the dialogue between the characters, often turning into dramatic vignettes of their own.
The One True King
At the lowest point of Noctis’ journey he reaches the crystal, stolen by the Empire and leaving him powerless. But instead of returning his powers, it sucks him into the void, where he meets the final Astral, Bahamut. He emerges ten years later to find the world covered in total darkness. After reuniting with his friends and defeating Ardyn, Noctis climbs the steps to the throne he was set to inherit. When he finally sits, the ghosts of the ancient kings of Lucis appear and one by one attack him. Noctis dies, reuniting with his bride, and the game ends.
In a way, this story isn’t really about the big event that reshapes the world, it’s just about some bros going on a road trip. It answers the question I always had playing the classics: what are these characters talking about between the scenes? These were games that were always narratively full, and yet, because of the mechanics of transitioning between towns, battles, and the overworld, felt like the characters were spending a lot more time with each other than we were with them, and our view into their adventure was in fast forward. XV really slows down and zooms in on those moments in particular, treating us with playful character montages during each camp. Time is spent choosing a meal for Ignis to cook, and the meals themselves look like they comprise a third of the development budget.
It’s here during the downtime, over a meal with his friends, that Noctis levels up, adding up the experience points gathered throughout the day. They look over photos that Prompto took of the gang’s various journeys throughout the day. It seems like this process would grow wearisome as the game goes on, but honestly, it is uniquely charming each time. Final Fantasy XV may feel incomplete, but the chemistry between the four main characters is always satisfying. Not only is their loyalty and trust tested, but they are even forced at several points to reexamine the bonds between them. And in the end, they drift apart, reunite, only to say goodbye again.
This is where the lengthy development of Final Fantasy XV gets intriguing, and though I’m speculating with my interpretations, I always felt that Noctis represented Tetsuya Nomura both stylistically as well as in his reluctance to see the series forward. Nomura infamously left the project to focus on Kingdom Hearts before returning to the franchise to direct Final Fantasy VII: Remake. I’m left wondering if the abandoned setting of Eos and Noctis’ disappearance for a decade before his final showdown with Ardyn are intentional metaphors for the development. Alternatively, the emotional weight given to the goodbyes at the end also left me speculating if it was a reluctance to give these characters a real goodbye. With their friendship so perfectly developed throughout the story despite its many disconnects, they’ve become more real than many characters previously. But at its core, Final Fantasy XV is a tragedy bearing the truth that even the best relationships can succumb to atrophy and reach an endpoint.
I played this game during a dark time, isolated and battling depression. In fact, I had no desire to play Final Fantasy XV even when I bought it for myself as a birthday gift. It was on sale. I was not looking forward to it, despite loving the series dearly. It was perfect for what I was dealing with at the time.
Back then I appreciated a story that acknowledged finality. The incoherent exposition, or lack thereof, is actually brutally realistic. Noctis does not have the emotional capacity to process the entirety of the context of his situation, nor does any individual who is grappling with the weight of their own journey against the tides of a world in decay. Final Fantasy XV was never going to be able to fully connect with the scale of its world when it was so exponentially wider than its narrative focus. It is a hauntingly beautiful game at times, a glorious opportunity to marvel at what could have been, wonder where they could have gone with certain elements if time and money was indeed infinite.
It may not be the last chapter in the series, but it proves a useful counterpoint to the idea that we are plagued with mindless reboots. Sometimes the future is just impossible to imagine. Just as Noctis bore the responsibility of carrying forward a legacy that was bigger than himself, Final Fantasy XV was meant to carry the series forward when its creative forces were divided between retirement and personal projects. But now, five years later, having reinvested their energy into both XIV and the FFVII: Remake, there is indeed a new Final Fantasy on the horizon. King Noctis can rest soundly knowing his legacy is in good hands.