The worst chapter of Final Fantasy 15 sets up the best ending.
Final Fantasy is a series that has a lot of really memorable story moments. That makes sense, of course - FF is really story driven, but despite that I think the series has a few moments when it goes above and beyond even that, providing some of my favourite moments in gaming - even among other story-led games.
I'm talking about moments like when Bahamut is laying waste to Alexandria in FF9 and the cast manage to summon Alexander out of the very foundations of the castle they're in to protect the city, the first moment Balamb Garden suddenly reveals it can fly, or suplexing a train. These moments are special - and that's without even having to touch on the obvious story, that of FF7.
I've been thinking about the ending of last year's Final Fantasy 15 ever since finishing it, and with Square supposedly getting ready to talk a lot more about FF15 at Gamescom and with the statue of limitations on spoilers really at a reasonable point, I finally want to talk about one little QTE-based touch in its ending that makes it one of my all-time favourite Final Fantasy moments. So let's do that.
Spoilers for FF15, obviously. Read on at your peril.
Before I get to the very end and that fateful Quick Time Event (QTE), that single button press that has such an impact, I really need to talk about the last few hours of FF15 in general. You see, those last few hours are a bloody rollercoaster. The good stuff story-wise really kicks off with the diabolically structured chapter 13, a mess of repetitious hallways and jump scares that has only been half-fixed in the game's many patches. Chapter 13 is rubbish - but it leads into FF15's twist in the tale, a move crucial to the actual ending.
As chapter 13 closes, protagonist Noctis ends up trapped. He's not powerful enough to escape, but he can use this time trapped in a spiritual realm of sorts to gather power ready for the final encounter. When he wakes up it's something like a decade later. Antagonist Ardyn joins Kefka and Kuja as one of the few FF villains to actually succeed - for a full decade, the world is thrown into a never-ending night and ravaged by monsters. Many presumably die, and a quick tour through a familiar area now inhabited by level 70 monsters goes a good way to underline this.
During his slumber Noctis has also has a chance to speak to the gods. Bahamut tells him, bluntly, that he must give his life in order to defeat Ardyn and restore the light to the world. He must make his way to his throne and sacrifice his life there to receive the power needed to save the world.
"The King of Kings shall be granted the power to banish the darkness, but the blood price must be paid. Many sacrificed all for the King; so must the King sacrifice himself for all."
From here FF15 enters a high-octane race to the finish that has you reuniting with your friends and storming the ruins of the city from which you fled at the onset of the game. There's a few great combat encounters and a wonderful, memorable boss battle against Ifrit with some incredible music.
It's one of the best final hours of any FF game, and even though the final boss fight itself against Ardyn is a bit crap, the moments around it are excellent. When you first enter the throne room after battling Ifrit Ardyn sits lazily on your throne. The corpses of Noctis' father and lover, killed earlier in the story, hang from the ceiling in chains. Ardyn is as twisted as FF6's Kefka but rather than mere insanity and apathy his motivation is a revenge hundreds of years in the making. He's not FF's best, but he is an effective villain.
Once Noctis has defeated Ardyn in battle, he says a stunted, awkward goodbye to his friends. Everybody knows what is to come. They stay behind to buy Noctis time - and the game never deigns to explain if they survive or not. The last we see, they're surrounded by powerful monsters. What happens to them is left to your imagination, itself a powerful touch.
Inside the throne room, Noctis summons the power of the previous kings of his land (analogous to FF7's Knights of the Round) to accept their power - and that includes his late father. When they do, he'll be able to enter the afterlife and finish Ardyn for good. One by one the spirits of the kings stab him - his father the last, the killing blow. Noctis has to plead his father to end his life. You can watch this sequence and the rest of the ending here.
All of this is amazing - beautifully scored, brilliantly localized and excellently directed. The real kicker comes in a wordless final scene where in an afterlife of sorts Noctis faces off against the immortal Ardyn's spirit, with the specters of his loved ones appearing to spur him on. This moment is likely deliberately reminiscent of FF7's ending, where after the big final battle Cloud has a final spiritual one-on-one with Sephiroth in the Lifestream. It's here Noctis must summon the power of the kings and finish things, and it's here that the QTE comes into play.
It's all pretty simple, really. The music crecendos, and a prompt appears on screen - and everything freezes until you choose to proceed. There's no other way out of this (other than to turn off your console), but it is still a choice of sorts: this single button press is used to summon the Knights of the Round. Doing so kills Noctis. Through inference and explanation, you understand this.
This is the genius of this QTE, I think - and it's something that's stuck with me ever since completing FF15 for the first time - in an otherwise non-interactive scene, you are asked to consent to this act. By pressing you agree to kill your protagonist - a likable chap who you've spent forty or more hours with. This moment is already set up to have an impact, but forcing you to participate makes it all the more so. This is something only video games can do.
I find this to be a really effective storytelling device, handing a little control to you over an event that ultimately proves brutal. This is one of the things that really sells this moment, incidentally: the animation of what the summoning does to Noctis is surprisingly violent. The mystical swords of the old kings grow from his back before tearing free from him; he screams in pain. After the knights do their work Ardyn crumbles to dust, and moments later Noctis does the same.
"It's all enhanced, somehow, by that QTE. FF15 has a lot of deficiencies in its plotting - but in that final stretch, it really sticks the landing."
It's harsh. Where most FF games end happily everyone gathered applauding the heroes, here it is bittersweet, much like the also-amazing ending of FF10 and the original ambiguous ending of FF7 before sequels wrecked it. You save the world, but the cost is steep. It's a bigger sacrifice here, in a game that goes to great pains to endear you to Noctis and his friends, focusing on that sometimes to the detriment of the main plot.
The true final scenes drive this home further - most prominently in a flashback to the group on the night before the final assault. Noctis affirms his love for his friends and says he's made his peace with his fate, and Ray Chase puts in one of the finest voice performances I've ever heard in a translated game. Then you get the pay-off: the sun rises on the world once more, the first sunlight in a decade. The beauty and importance of the sun rising again is understood - and the sacrifice feels worthwhile.
A slightly awkward afterlife reunion between Noctis and his lover provides an ultimately necessary coda, but that can't do anything to really dent how special that ending feels, though: and it's all enhanced, somehow, by that QTE. It would've been very easy for FF15 to rip control from you once the final battle with Adryn is complete - to force you to watch the events idly. One button press is all it takes, however, to make you complicit in the death of your character.
Somehow, that makes the entire chain of events that much more effective and memorable. FF15 has a lot of frustrating deficiencies in its plotting - but in that final stretch, it really sticks the landing.
What are some of your favorite moments in games where a simple input becomes significant? From MGS4's corridor to... well, moments we can't talk about without getting too spoiler heavy in things like Life is Strange and What Remains of Edith Finch, there are a few that come to my mind - but what about you? I'd love to hear yours in the comments below.