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Square Enix won’t let us play Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth on PC yet, so my consolation prize is finally playing Final Fantasy 15

I’m descending into a wet cave. The flashlight stuck to my all-black uniform provides a pitiful light. In fact it seems like it’s mocking me by being on at all. I can’t see anything, and what’s more I know there will be a million goblins and ghouls in here waiting to make my field of vision a particle-filled hell.

“There’s danger around every corner,” I hear someone say behind me. Then someone else in response: “Avoid all corners. Got it!”

That’s Gladiolus and Prompto, two of the four Boys who star in Final Fantasy 15, and it wasn’t the first dialogue in the game to make me laugh out loud. That’s a good thing, because the gang and their relationship are the mechanical and narrative center of the story of FF15, which follows Prince Noctis and his three retainers (known as Crownsguard) as they chaperone the prince to his wedding, undergo a magical road trip, and eventually journey to save a magic Crystal and reclaim the throne.

Why am I playing Final Fantasy 15, you may be wondering, when the follow-up to one of the best games in the series is releasing this week? Final Fantasy 7 Remake is lauded, four years after its release, as an unequivocal success. It refined many systems from previous games in the series including its own source material, and created a vibrant enough world to sustain five hours of FF7’s Midgar turned into a whole game. Its sequel, Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, is one of my most anticipated games of the year.

But here’s the problem: Rebirth is only coming out on PS5. Until the exclusivity window closes in a year or two, us unfortunate souls who don’t have one are reduced to other pursuits. Like, for example, playing the Windows port of a game from 2016 whose troubled launch soured it forever in the eyes of many, and whose existence stands as a kind of preemptive skeleton of many things Remake would do better four years later.

I was inspired to do this by recent FF15 retrospectives which position the game more generously than it’s been viewed at launch. FF15’s unpopularity is a product of its conditions, as it released with serious holes in its story and progress-halting bugs. Similarly, my appreciation for it now is colored by years of DLC that added to the story, and the fact that I got it on sale for $13.

However, I can still see the problems people had with FF15 at the time: it is very short, and despite post-launch updates its plot still sometimes makes no sense. Systems, too, go without explanation: what’s the difference between an accessory increasing strength slightly, incrementally, and nominally? I’m not sure, and unless you go deep into the menus (or a dictionary), you wouldn’t be either.

Lots of this game’s trademarks, good and bad, are germane to other RPGs of the mid-2010s. Dragon Age: Inquisition, one of my favorite games, has impeccable party banter that almost never runs out. Here, too, I rarely heard a line repeated, at least until I got to the latter third of the game. Another similarity to Inquisition is some boring sidequests.

FF15’s combat is widely considered a worse version of the combat in FF7 Remake. It does not handle crowds well, and in the dungeons a lot of it takes place in weird corners. People say it’s pretty easy, but I needed to rely on potions to get me through, even after 20 hours. I think the happiest I was with the combat was in the darkest part of the game, when you’re trekking through a swamp to try and move a car. I fought a bunch of crocodiles in a green puddle, and it was the most fun I’d had in a long while. When you have no more than three targets and you’ve upgraded your air step move to be able to glide among them, it feels free. There’s not much penalty for doing badly, but doing well is fun.

At about the two-thirds mark of the story, I realized something else I like about FF15: how much of its narrative is propelled by its systems, and vice versa. The bros each have their own chain attacks that charge up while you fight, and you release them by calling out to them while they zing their own one-liners. You’re constantly yelling at each other to indicate how much health you have, whether someone else is in trouble, and how close you are to killing the thing you’re trying to kill. The connection you have with your teammates is the indicator of how well you’re performing and what you need to do to stay on top; it’s essential feedback for the player.

In the swamp, this synergy breaks down. When you’re iced out by one of your friends and another has an injury, you can no longer use chain attacks. The fun one-liners stop, too. In other words, the combat system reflects the absence of relationships that empowered you to emphasize how weak you are without them. This hit me like a freight train to the heart.

The other system besides combat that really adds to the group dynamic is photo mode, Prompto’s special ability. When you’re driving around in your car for the first part of the game, Prompto will stop you and ask for photo shoots. You can review whatever pictures he takes at campsites to create a scrapbook of your adventure (and you can add to it with photos you take yourself). This creates a record of your friendship with group photos, but if you’re like me and you get a kick out of the posters and low-resolution assets that litter any Final Fantasy game, a large portion of the scrapbook will be food stalls and billboards for Cup Noodles.

Some of the more photogenic scenes in the game are in dungeons, where the combat is at its most egregious but the atmosphere is at its best. In Vesperpool’s dungeon water swirls around the ceiling as you descend lower into ancient ruins, creating a setting that’s physically impossible and never explained. “It’s like being inside a dream,” one of the characters says.

FF15 is good at creating mood. Often one of Noctis’ gang will literally describe the mood it’s trying to create. It’s better at mood than it is at story, or combat, or minigames, or anything else. Driving around and listening to Aerith’s theme on the radio while monsters prowl the countryside, or wandering among Coleman chairs after you wake up from camping and greeting your buds, or really doing much of anything in the game’s first six chapters conjures a sense of limitlessness that exceeds what you can actually do. It’s no wonder people were disappointed by FF15 when it came out— it’s distilled promise.

I kind of get why some fans are already asking for a FF15 remake less than a decade after its release. The game has moments that hit so hard it’s tempting to believe that one or two more years would have ironed out its issues. At the same time, even though the main story is too short now, I think it would become way too bloated in a remake. The hour or so you spend in Altissia, the city on the sea with Florentine towers stretching out of the water, is so beautiful and different from what came before it that I was upset when it was (I felt prematurely) removed. But I don’t want a crepe-making minigame and a gondola race added to what eventually becomes a tragic moment, and I know they would be.

I started playing Final Fantasy 15 as a consolation prize for missing out on Rebirth this month. I didn’t expect to discover that it avoids some of the problems I had with FF7 Remake: its stifling linearity and mandatory minigames that are way too easy, to name a few.

Still, FF7 Remake is the more even experience on the whole. FF15 is a fireworks show of very good ideas with very uneven execution. I can’t say I honestly prefer the latter, but from an artistic standpoint I have to respect the experimentation, even if it failed to consistently work.

I’d heard people describe FF15 as shallow: pretty on the outside, but with little substance. Now having played it I would flip this description. Your experience with FF15 will depend entirely on how willing you are to focus on the beauty of an environmental setpiece (even if you can’t climb it), on the joke an NPC makes (even if their sidequest isn’t worth it), to run through some (pretty empty) fields to hear your friend say something they haven’t before.

If that sounds unbearable, I can’t blame you. But personally I think FF15 hits on something every Final Fantasy strives for: the joy of getting lost in the potential of a living world that can never fully replicate what it’s representing. FF15 might fail more spectacularly at that representation than others, but its ambition is its own kind of spectacle.

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