Before I get too far into this post, I must do the decent thing and let you know that there will be spoilers. So if that kind of thing really burns your bacon, read no further. If you don’t mind, or you’ve already played it, carry on.
FFXV has drifted through my consciousness for years now like a memory that I couldn’t quite remember if it was a dream or something that really happened. Over several years, news, gameplay footage, and trailers appeared, but the game itself failed to materialize. Noctis, the raven-haired brooding prince slumped on his throne, sword in hand, had been a central figure in all of it.
Something about him and his story excited fans—years before the game existed, there were cosplayers. All of it sounded interesting, but after a few years, I wasn’t alone in thinking that the game might never come to be. But 2016 arrived and with it, the release of FFXV.
Simply put, FFXV is tremendous. Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum serves as the core of the story, a young man who leaves his father to meet his betrothed bride, Lady Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, just before the turn of the tide against their country. To say the least, he is not as serious as we might have been led to believe from the previous teasers.
His three companions and bodyguards soon become his only family when they receive the news that Lucis’ long-time enemy has killed the king and taken over. Gladiolus Amicitia is Noctis’ shield, the brawn and tough guy of the group.
Ignis Scientia serves as the brains of the outfit as tactician, driver, and gourmet chef.
I had a harder time figuring out why Prompto Argentum is included, functionally speaking, on the quest, but he is their pistol-wielding photographer, resident chocobo-lover (well, they all love chocobos), and the one most likely to do something crazy.
Noctis, in the company of these guys, is developed as quite likeable prince who, though he often sleeps late and hates vegetables, works through the difficult task of stepping up to take his father’s crown.
Like any good critic, I have to start with praise. I also want to start with the best because I need to make it clear that FFXV is hugely enjoyable, charming, engaging, beautifully designed, and intricately detailed. It’s not perfect, and I’ll get to that, but it is many wonderful things.
The first part of the game is a marvelously open world. In between plot missions, Noctis is free to fish to his heart’s content, feed stray cats, and hunt down car wax for the Regalia, their sleek ride, without any sense that they’re dawdling or drawing close to a deadline even though they ostensibly left to get Noctis to his own wedding. Surprisingly, the side quests are often charming, filled with small chats among the guys, long car rides of them amusing themselves or chocobo races, and loads of puns when they can manage it. The locations are beautifully detailed, and the world feels enormous.
The scale of the story, too, feels enormous when Noctis is forced to interact with the higher beings of their world, Astrals, or deities. Titan, a colossal figure who carries a meteor upon his back, summons Noctis to the crater to bestow his power upon the prince if he can prove himself worthy. This encounter is stunning from a gameplay perspective because until this point, nothing had even come close to the magnitude of the creature you’re dealing with. It’s impossible to see all of Titan at once, and deflecting his blows seems equally impossible. The sense that the scale of the world is much larger than you ever realized is inescapable.
Noctis must gain the favor of all six of the Astrals and the King’s Arms, the spirit weapons of past Lucian kings, in order to ascend the throne and defeat the Empire. Each of these encounters is amazingly designed for overwhelming scale and impact, not to mention dozens of other fascinating visuals such as the blizzard in the train compartments or catching a sunrise at the top of a volcanic mountain.
I won’t detail the plot here because it takes hours to play and pages to summarize (trust me, I tried). But the part that I want to focus my critique on is the very end, the only part of the game that felt incomplete and distant.
The story builds to a climax that takes Noctis and his friends to Insomnia, the Empire’s capital that is overrun with demons. Ardyn, the powerful nemesis that has been bizarrely helpful throughout the journey, awaits them there, luring them to the crystal that gives Noctis his powers and can help them defeat demons. Instead of granting the prince power, the crystal absorbs him, however. Before Noctis disappears, Ardyn explains that he wished Noctis to gain the power of the crystal and become king so that when he was defeated, Ardyn would be destroying not only the royal line but the crystal as well. Inside the crystal, Noctis learns that his destiny, while it is still true that he will be king, requires his death to save the land.
The story that follows is where I feel that a much earlier draft of the story was either shoe-horned in or simply left with little tweaking done to it. Noctis reappears in a prison on a remote island ten years later. The game does nothing to explain how he got there, why
he’s in a prison that he can simply walk out of, or why ten years had to pass other than an arbitrary sense that it took that long to fuse with the power of crystal. Physically, Noctis also looks completely different. With shaggy hair and a sparse beard, he appears to quite a bit older. From his looks, demeanor,
and even altered movement, everything seems to be saying that
this is a totally new character—which is not what a player wants after nearly reaching the
end of the game.
By extreme luck, Noctis runs into a boy he knows (now grown up) who offers him a lift so he doesn’t have to run more than two miles back to the place where his friends are supposed to be. He fills Noctis in on some details, most of which are super depressing from a narrative perspective. Sunlight has completely vanished from the world and demons have forced almost everyone to live in the one city with a powerplant. Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto have gone their separate ways and apparently have done very little in ten years. There is no indication that they knew what happened to Noctis or knew if he would reappear. Their reunion in Hammerhead is painfully low key and understated. For Noctis, it would make sense. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of how much time has gone by, so for him, it would seem like he just saw his friends hours ago. For them, however, it has been ten years, and they treat him almost like a stranger. The conversation is brief and emotionally shallow. The conversation you want them to have happens as a flashback during one of the breaks in the game’s end credits, and is also the most painful, awkward thing ever.
The climax of the game is fairly short, considering how many hours the player can spend in the open world by comparison. Once the guys don their old Kingsglaive uniforms and Noctis puts on the kingly raiment, a sharp business suit with dramatic cape, they seek out Ardyn for the final confrontation. Noctis, for all intents and purposes, has become a version of his father in looks, manner, and gravitas. This rings hollow, because it feels as if the game wants the player to perceive Noctis as more mature and kingly simply because he appears to be. But as they made clear, Noctis was not aware that ten years passed, so he should be exactly as he was when his friends saw him last, changed only in his understanding of what he has to do and his determination to do it. Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto are removed from the fight with Ardyn before it begins, leaving Noctis again on his own. After that fight, the guys join him outside on the palace steps, the same place their journey began. There is a brief moment where they say goodbye to each other, but the way this appears is more like, “Well, it’s been real, guys,” than a serious farewell and conclusion to their brotherhood. They stay behind to fight the demons approaching the palace while Noctis goes inside, alone again, to fully ascend the throne and defeat the darkness. This is a scene with undeniable impact because he is essentially run through by each of the former kings as they give him their power, the last being his father, who hesitates. Nearly killed by this alone, Noctis defeats Ardyn again in the hereafter with all of his allies at his back: his father, Luna, and the guys. After this, he shatters into pieces of light.
Following this is a series of short scenes that seem scattered between the credits. A lovely rendition of “Stand by Me” played during the first credits while the photos I had saved throughout the game appeared in a slideshow. The nostalgia for the first part of the game was nearly overwhelming—and it’s bizarre to have nostalgia for the very game that you have just been playing. But the ending seemed to belong to a different story. The thematic tones were not consistent with the ones that had been emphasized throughout the story, and Noctis seemed to be a stranger rather than the fulfilled hero.
As a writer, I often find myself “rewriting” games or movies that don’t quite come together for me. After finishing FFXV, I couldn’t help but think of what would have brought the story to a wonderful close. Call it my writer’s education, or editor’s training. Here are a few of the ways that I think could have finished the story in the same great way it began.
As even the accompanying anime for FFXV affirms, brotherhood is an enormous theme for this story. It almost smacks you in the face at the beginning of the game. Noctis is their prince and they’d die for him, but the guys feel free to make jokes at his expense, act casual, and have a good time. They constantly spend time with each other, a fact that you can’t get away from. At rest points, they play games or talk around the fire. In Prompto’s photos, they’re photobombing each other and cheesing for the camera. Their role as brothers is tested when Noctis loses Luna and begins to falter at his destiny. Gladio hates it because he thinks that Noctis will give up, and they float the idea of leaving Ignis behind for his safety after he’s blinded. Prompto is constantly at Ignis’ side to help him get around when they are out questing, and during the plot points, either he or Gladio make sure that Ignis is all right. The buddy system is a huge part of keeping the party alive in gameplay, requiring Noctis to run over and give one of the party who’s in danger a pat on the back and something like a terse “Get a grip” (usually for Prompto) or a concerned “Are you all right?” (for Ignis).
The story after the ten-year gap doesn’t fulfill the brotherhood theme. Unlike when Ignis, even blind, watched over Noctis after the devastating fight with Leviathan, no one is waiting for him when he reappears from the crystal. As far as the game tells you, they haven’t been looking for him. They don’t even spend time with each other. They don’t reunite with Noctis like a long-lost brother, even though that would have been a great opportunity to highlight a change in all of them. For him, no time has gone by, so he could have been overwhelmed by their response to getting him back or gratified to realize that their attachment to him was as strong as he felt for them. The important battle of the finale happens without the guys, a narrative choice that also contradicts the brotherhood theme (especially when the villain goes to such lengths multiple times to keep him from being with his friends). Noctis has to do all of the hard things alone. It works spectacularly well for the crisis (not the climax) of the game for Noctis to be on his own—it really is the most difficult thing for him—but not the finale.
Personally, I would not have put in the ten-year gap. It’s a shocking shift right at the end, and ultimately, it doesn’t help the story. Noctis is able to look more mature and kingly, but he should not have become someone else to fulfill his destiny. As a player, I wanted to see the boyish prince finally take the crown that he struggled to earn while his brothers looked on, finally fulfilled in their duty.
Even if it had been a year that passed, it would have been a tighter narrative. Noctis could fight his way back to the others, possibly strengthening a bond between them all that had weakened in his absence— an action that would have echoed with his struggle to rescue Prompto after he’s kidnapped. Their dedication to each other and resolution to bring back the light would be stronger than ever, rather than it feeling like a sequel of the four musketeers after retirement, dusting off their old uniforms to ride once more.
Another major theme of FFXV is protection. As you might expect in a story about a prince, the bodyguards are very important. It was interesting to find that the battle mechanics were geared for tactical retreats for Noctis, being able to warp away or hide to recover health and MP. I was delighted to see that every time Noctis left the fray, at least one of the guys always followed to watch his back (this was usually Ignis, which made me like him right away, even before I knew he could cook). It was a simple thing, but it made the narrative feel much more realistic, that their job really is to protect the prince, not just kill everything in sight. Even better were the moments when one of the guys would push Noctis out of the way to finish off a monster himself or yank him back from running headlong into a fight without a strategy.
In the story, Noctis is constantly being saved. In the prologue that previews some of the ten-year time jump, Noctis is pulled to safety and sheltered from intense flames by his friends. When he is nearly killed by the Astral Leviathan, Luna gathers him into her arms and summons Titan, who rises from the ocean floor to protect the fallen prince. Even summoning the Astrals is shown as a move to protect Noctis, rather than a display of his awesome power (Leviathan clearing the demons off the train, Shiva destroying Ifrit). For example, when Titan appears, he picks up Noctis like a doll and takes him out of the battle. In interactions, Noctis doesn’t often stand up for himself (see the encounter with Ravus), forcing the guys to do it for him. It’s only later that he starts to handle things himself and talk back (see his attitude and sass towards Ardyn when he’s looking for Prompto).
This theme is dropped after the ten-year jump. Noctis must do everything by himself, though it’s not always clear why. For the most emotional impact, I would have let the guys be a part of the fight with Ardyn, realizing that they’re hopelessly outmatched and getting into desperate straits. Noctis could have arrived to protect them, either with an Astral summon or the kingly arms—a way that would signify his rise as a king, the one who protects the people, and a reversal of their roles. I think it would have heart-wrenching (in a good, if miserable, way) if the guys had been present to witness Noctis’ ascension to the throne and watch him go through the painful process of acquiring the power of the crystal and the ancient kings. They have devoted their whole lives to keeping him alive, and the fulfillment of their duty is having to watch him give up his life. This would parallel nicely with Noctis’ development and acceptance of his destiny, as he realizes that everyone has protected him so that ultimately, he could protect them.
I’ve talked a lot about “fulfillment,” and that’s because that’s what a good story offers for the one playing or reading. The questions that are raised should be put to rest. The themes that are developed should be matured. A lot of fulfillment comes through narrative echoes, events that are similar to each other or moments that call back to something we’ve seen before or heard earlier. The fulfillment, to be resonant, has to be nuanced in a way that distinguishes it from the earlier incident or moment. That’s where the emotional punch gets us.
FFXV, because of the ten-year time jump, loses tension (also an enemy of fulfillment) and drops many of the themes that would have made it perfect from start to finish. The ending almost feels like it belonged to another game. But that complaint aside, it leaves the player with lots of questions, some of which being what happens to Lucis after Noctis dies? The royal line and the crystal die with him, so how do they defend from demons and who will rule the country? Do Ignis and the others die in the last battle? Their presence in the hereafter with others like King Regis and Luna suggests so, but they don’t appear in the very last cutscene that shows Noctis and Luna’s wedding seemingly in the afterlife. If they are still alive, what do they do with their lives after that? There are many theories about the meaning of the ending, which is fairly standard for Final Fantasy stories, but I’ll go ahead and add my two interpretations/rewrites.
Well, except Noctis and Luna, of course. Narratively, that just can’t and shouldn’t be changed. If Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto were present to witness Noctis’ ascension of the true king, their missions would be fulfilled. From that point, they would be free to start new lives, knowing that they had done their work. A particularly poignant moment I was waiting for was the return of the light after Noctis overcomes the darkness. Darkness and light are obvious motifs in the story (note Luna and Noctis, the moon and the night), and the last triumph is the sun coming up again. Earlier, when they are all are heading to the palace, Noctis asks Ignis if he can sense light, to which he replies “more or less.” Noctis then remarks that he’ll be able to tell when the dawn breaks, with a tone that could be relief. I think this was put in to indicate how Ignis can hold his own in a fight now (without any of the handicaps that he had before), but I had hoped it would go one step further. I had hoped that as a part of Noctis’ ascension and possession of the supreme powers of light, he would restore Ignis’ sight, a very personal “bringing back of the light.” Ignis could always see the best of Noctis, seeing him as the king even when they were on the never-ending bachelor party road trip and trusting him even when it brought hardship upon him. Noctis returning his sight would be a thematic and emotional return of the favor, as well as a last goodbye.
I had hoped after the last credits that we’d get to see what the guys were up to. I say this because I didn’t immediately guess that the story might be saying that they all died. I really hoped that Prompto would become a chocobo wrangler and run a magazine that only printed pictures of chocobos. I thought maybe Gladio would take up a job at the garage in Hammerhead and try (unsuccessfully) to pick up Cindy while they waxed cars together. And I really hoped Ignis would open a restaurant that never served carrots in honor of Noctis. And the three of them would get back to the easy, bro-adtrip feeling of the first part of the game as they continued to protect people from demons in their off hours. Their continued brotherhood would be a tribute to their journey and Noctis’ life.
This version’s not too different in the long run, but it would address the problem of the lack of continued protection for the people after the king dies. In this version, the heroes of this game would become the new guardian spirits of the country, living in a perfect version of Lucis in the afterlife. Noctis and Luna would marry, Noctis and his father would get to know each other much better, and the guys would be within driving distance following their dreams (chocobo wrangler, gourmet chef, etc.). The foursome would still go out fighting monsters in the Regalia when it was needed, ready to fight in the real world when summoned. All of them would become the country’s new protectors, becoming folklore themselves. This would fit nicely with the quiet scene of Noctis and Luna’s wedding at the very end of the credits where they fall asleep, as if waiting to be called upon someday as they live out their “final fantasy.”
So, hopefully you’ve had a good laugh at these long ramblings and the amount of time I’ve thought about this, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the game is not well done. To the contrary, it is because this game has so many excellent qualities that makes me pick apart the ending so much. It is an awesome game, so it feels like the game’s ending could have been totally awesome. FFXV has been a delight to play, visually and interactively, and I love the fact that I’m not even halfway through the game yet, looking forward to the dozens of hours left to explore and play around in the re-opened world following the credits.
In short, FFXV is a grand adventure, and I think it was well-worth the wait.