So after finally beating the game (twice!), I have many mixed feelings on the Versus Project and its various forms that it embodied over the last decade. Identifying my opinions as a clear-cut review isn't entirely fair, my views are occasionally driven by emotions rather than objectivity, but nevertheless I will aim to format everything in a structured way for ease of following along.
So to start things, a little history lesson; Final Fantasy Versus XIII was revealed at E3 2006 alongside two other games, FFXIII and Type-0 (formally known as Agito-XIII), all three were to be independent stories bound together by a shared "world lore" and mythology. As the years went on, the latter two games got their eventual releases, but Versus XIII was still "sleeping in Fantasy", as Square Enix put it.
It wouldn't be until TGS 2011 were an actual full length gameplay trailer was showcased, confirming the game is not forgotten or cancelled. However, Versus XIII once again fell off the radar in the coming years. Rumors began surfacing again of the game's closed-door cancellation. It wouldn't be until E3 2013 that the Versus Project would be once again revived (to the masses at least) - this time, as Final Fantasy XV. The impactful story and depth deemed worthy of a numbered entry, together with fan support, kept this project alive and pushed SE to resume development of their most ambitious title yet.
It wouldn't be until the end of 2016 that the game would finally reach store shelves, a long wait that paid off with generally positive reception from the consumers and press, but was the wait worth the final product in its entirety?
The story of FF XV is.. functional.. for a lack of a better word. You're a Prince on a journey of attaining the God's blessings and reclaiming your nation from the technologically superior Empire seeking world domination. The story is fleeting in retrospect, by comparison to the various other gameplay side activities there to distract you, and often is incomprehensible due to its vagueness. I understand the game's design highlighted exploration and world discovery, but the severely lacking story, terminology explanation and unknown character motivations all take the player out of the experience that was "ten years in the making."
I believe the true disappointment comes not in the form of a shallow story, but rather in the content that was cut from the final product. We can only speculate that the team did not meet the deadlines - but the sheer amount of removed material seen in preceding trailers is baffling. The Internet can be a wonderful thing, as in this instance, there are many videos and articles comparing and summarizing what content ultimately didn't make the cut. Furthermore, there are numerous leaks of content that was never shown on video and simply didn't make it past the story-on-paper stage. The mature approach to storytelling that the prior game director (Nomura) presented was deemed "too dark" for Final Fantasy standards by SE, and the new game director (Tabata) heavily filtered the story we ultimately got. A very disappointing turn of events.
Square Enix have long since solidified their industry status as the Kings of CG, and that still holds true with their newest entry. The presentation and visuals of the game are nothing short of stunning. The careful attention to lighting, facial expressions, world realism, and game cutscenes is splendid. However, there are some hiccups along the way. There are numerous small issues and a few questionable elements within the game that I can only justify with time constraints. For starters, there is a lack of lip-synching for all supporting characters. Second, the PS4 limitations result in poor texture optimization and severe pop-ins (forests, landscapes and mountains often appear as nothing more than smudged layers of paint in the background until the player gets near - leading to sudden population of vegetation in an instant). Similar issues happen with character's clothing and hair detail, especially during in-game cutscenes. The other notable thing is the overall downgrade in graphics by comparison to what was shown in gameplay trailers throughout the game's development.
The definitive feature that separates FF XV from the other entries in the mainline series is its action oriented battle system, which works well. In contrast to much of fan reaction, in my opinion the battle system is the least problematic element of the overall gameplay. It works, it plays well, and it's fun. Nothing more to say on that.
On the other hand, the actual exploration, side actives, driving, and other gameplay elements all lack polish. The game is "open world", but not really, as the entire map comprises of little sandboxes separated by tunnels (clever loading screens) and contained by clever walls of trees or high mountains that prevent exploration beyond their limits. Moreover, even parts of each sandbox region have plenty of areas with invisible walls that simply prevent entry. Speaking about limitation, standard fetch quests and hunting quests are all you'll do, there isn't much variety. Even the simple stuff has issues, like the lack of direction on where to find requested items/ingredients for quests or the ability to take on more than one hunt at a time. The driving is also flawed, it's on rails, the car does not go off road. Simply hold the gas button and the vehicle moves forward with automatic steering - you might as well quick travel after driving by once, there is little fun to be had with driving the car.
Finally, other gameplay elements are present in the form of mini-games; fishing (that isn't explained, so figure out the mechanics yourself), a neat picture mode to discover if the RNG took a cool action pose of you exploring, a good chocobo system for off road travel, and many hidden dungeons that sometimes lead to anger due to a lack of sensitive controls (this isn't Tomb Raider, it's hard to do precise jumping with Noct).
Other things to note about the gameplay are, once again, the previously shown mechanics that got removed, such as the inability to control enemy machinery, the removal of TPS mechanics when equipped to a gun, swimming outside the single boss battle, stealth kills outside of bases, depth behind the Armiger combos, and the ability to point-warp outside of battle at will is also removed.
Other Issues or Questionable Decisions
This section isn't so much a discussion as it is a list of things I don't understand after playing the game twice. I don't have anything to say about them, there is no justification I can fathom beyond "SE running out of time and capital to fund anything else" - so here is a list of small and big things that were changed/removed/not addressed etc:
-Story simplification, such as the change from having a God oversee every nation, like Etro in Insomnia, which resulted in permanent night. The lore was done, it made sense, why cut it out and have an incomprehensible story instead?
-Insomnia worshiping reapers and possessing the dark crystal (supposedly change so the game could be approved in certain countries like China)
-The removal of Etro's blessing of Noct, and the lack of explanation of his red eye color permitting him to see the light of expiring souls, those being people about to go mad after being infected by the red moon scourge
-The downgrade in Luna's character, removal of Ravus' story (who in the original script intended to hunt down Noct for the murder of Luna)
-The lack of development for the supporting cast (Cor, Iris, Aranea etc)
-The complete neglect of the Empire, and the characters present in it
-The removal of iconic areas like the Insomnia Citadel Courtyard (now only there for a single boss fight)
-The separation of the world, why are no other nations explorable beyond Lucis, not even Insomnia is explorable beyond the minimum of the final chapter
-The removal of the 'End Game World of Ruin" that was meant to be explodable
-The lack of budget in parts like the Leviathan (downgarded) and Titan boss battles (those were messy, both in gameplay and visuals)
-The unknown conditions for summoning
-The removal of enemy specific parries as seen in the Duscae demo
-The removal of blood (even the blue blood from other trailers was cut)
-The lack of alternative outfit variety (not adding the Versus XIII costumes as DLC was a big miss, but barely having any clothing options is sad)
-The severe lack of variety in character dialogue as you're exploring, even by comparison to the Duscae demo
-The presentation of distance in feet and miles without the option to switch to km and meters (not the whole world uses a single metric system)
-The unbalanced night/day cycle, days are too short even before end game (and the sub-plot about the red moon was cut from the game, so it doesn't make sense. The sleeping theme where Noct sleeps a lot and enters the world of Etro is cut, these nights no longer make sense)
-The lack of pressing R3 for a camera reset (this one is so basic that it's just funny
-And my personal frustration, the downgrade from the Duscae demo in areas such as: The Behemoth hunt (the strategic element with explosives from his blind side is gone), the downgrade in indoor graphics (inside gas stations and such), the in battle prompts (like warnings of the direction of enemy approaches removed), the downgrade in object graphics (while stone textures improved, impact animations and sparks/bodies of water/sky/destination markers/cars/sheds/and other objects scattered throughout the game, like barrels, were all downgraded in graphics or appearance for the worse)
It might appear that I am picking this game apart with little insignificant details, which may be the case, but there are just SO MANY questionable decisions, they all pile up to form a big problem. I still like the game, the combat is fun and running through the world once is amusing enough to explore, but the story/graphical/and gameplay issues just slap you (or at least me) right in the face each time. I don't understand the decision to cut so much plot, I don't understand the decision to write out so many characters, I don't understand the decision to remove complete areas from the game (seen in trailers or glitches that let you explore beyond the walls of the game), and I don't understand the conscious choices to downgrade simple things that worked in previous builds. I wish we can one day learn what went wrong and the reason for these drastic changes, but I doubt we will. I had fun, I will play more after the DLC drops, but I will also forever hurt at the unfortunate end this project met.
As of the current version of the game my total playtime is 210 hours across my first and NG+ playthroughs, as well as 45 hours in episode Duscae. My heartbreaking score is 6/10