To its credit, Final Fantasy XV is an unforgettable road trip that will leave many players teary-eyed by the end of their journey. The bond you form with the four main characters is truly special, not because of the writing, but in spite of it.
As many critics have already pointed out, the story in Final Fantasy XV is a sore spot in what is an otherwise masterful game. It's hard to peg down what exactly feels so off, but it ultimately keeps the game from reaching the level of "truly unbelievable" that some speculated it might be.
Here's where Final Fantasy XV went wrong.
(Warning: spoilers for up to and including Chapter 10)
This is the most glaring issue in Final Fantasy XV. Pacing is so, so important in a JRPG; giving the player time to breathe is what makes JRPGs feel like epic journeys instead of the back-to-back action that's usually found in Western games.There are plenty of moments in Final Fantasy XV where what's happening feels convoluted and rushed.
A prime example is at the beginning of Chapter 7 when Gladiolus leaves your party. It comes off as sudden and inconsequential, as Noct and company put up little fight in keeping Gladio from his secret appointment. Fast forward to when you acquire the Mythical Ore with Aranea, and the mercenary transports you back to Lestallum to deliver the goods to Cindy.
Once you arrive back in the city, the game cuts to black. All of a sudden you're in a hazmat suit as a part of some plan to process the Mythical Ore you heard nothing about. You're told to meet up with another hunter in the power plant who sounds just like Gladio, uses the same moves, and carries the same weapons. You soon discover it really is Gladio, and your party is only mildly amused at seeing their closest friend once again.
So much happens in such a short span of time that none of these moments get to stand out on their own. The player feels detached from their mission to process the ore, and the impact of reuniting with Gladio is not earned. This becomes an even bigger problem later in the game when the things that are happening one after another aren't well-explained. Speaking of…
One of the anticipated casualties of Final Fantasy XV's supplementary movies (Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV, Kingsglaive, etc.) was that those who chose not to watch them would be missing key pieces of the story. And although Square Enix assured fans this wouldn't be an issue, critical scenes like the assassination of King Regis and the stories of how Noctis met his 3 friends are left out of the final game.
On top of that, a large portion of the lore that can found in the game is poorly explained or not elaborated on at all. The explanation of the conflict between the Niflheim Empire and Insomnia as well as the relationship between Noctis and The Six Gods can only be found in the "Lore" section of the tutorial, and even then are summarized in a sentence or two. These are major elements of the story, and the game makes little effort to make sure you're caught up on these critical bits of backstory.
Chapter 8 really suffers from this lack of explanation. After months of traveling, Noctis finally arrives in Altissia to meet with Lunafreya. In searching for her, a woman approaches Noct and tells him she's currently taking care of Luna. She's being pressured by the Niflheim Empire to hand her over to them first, so you have to convince the woman to give Luna to Noctis; simple enough, right?
But then, during the meeting, the woman starts asking questions about the Oracle's plans with the Hydraean and Luna forging some covenant? To which Noctis responds with a seemingly complete understanding of what she's talking about despite none of these concepts being clearly communicated to the player. And then, within a 5 minute span, the sea monster starts speaking in ancient tongues about Noct's prophecy to free the world from darkness, the Empire starts attacking the Hydraean with their control spears, Noctis starts floating and shooting the sea dragon with his swords, and then Ardyn suddenly appears and stabs Luna over some ring that he just lets her give to Noct anyway.
It's absolutely insane, and none of these seemingly epic moments can have their intended impact without proper context.
The four friends of Final Fantasy XV are easily the highlight of the game; they're not particularly complicated, but you end up forming genuine feelings for them by the game's climax. They're two-dimensional but lovable.
Noctis is the weakest link among the four heroes; his struggles of accepting the burden of his crown would be intriguing if not for the branching dialogue choices during some cutscenes. Letting players pick their own reactions during some defining moments mean his character is never clearly established, and the scenes that show his supposed weaknesses come across as contrived.
Take for example the scene in Fodina Caestino after Ignis loses his eyesight. After moping around the train, Noctis receives some tough love from Gladio, who criticizes him for pitying himself instead of acting like a leader. But up until this point, whenever Noctis is given the opportunity to act authoritative, it's usually in the form of a dialogue option where you do have the option to act like a leader, so these kinds of scenes don't end up making any logical sense.
This problem can also be seen in Noct and Luna's relationship. As Noctis journeys to finally reunite with Luna, he corresponds with her via a notebook delivered by Umbra. The player gets to choose how Noct responds, and you're given the option to act super interested, give her a lukewarm status update, or just give her a one-word answer. However, since Final Fantasy XV isn't a choice-based game, none of these options mean anything for the story. Noctis never changes how he feels about Luna, and consequently, their feelings for each other are never clearly defined. Is he reluctant to enter into an arranged marriage? Does he only have a juvenile sense of love for Luna or does he genuinely care for her? None of these possibilities are ever explored; he just loves her and wants to marry her. How simple.
So if the story in a Final Fantasy game is bad, isn't that a deal-breaker?
No, not necessarily.
The exploits of Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto are where the heart of the story is, not the plot itself. Final Fantasy stories are infamously confusing, and while this doesn't necessarily excuse the problems with Final Fantasy XV, series veterans know you don't need to understand absolutely everything to appreciate the journey. It's so much easier to enjoy Final Fantasy XV if you just sit back, don't think too much, and let Iggy take the wheel.