After arriving at the end of what was almost a two-hour film for a franchise I’m deeply in love with, my first instinct was to see how it was received by others.
I don’t like outside opinions or influences colouring my perspective when going into an experience I genuinely care about, so I tend to play/watch/read/listen to something in its entirety first, and read up about it later. Coming out of Kingsglaive, I was ecstatic, satiated, yet still lusting for more; a perfect reaction that Square Enix are hoping all interested players will walk away with.
That’s the goal for the film ultimately. In Square Enix’s cross-media approach to building up hype for the new Final Fantasy XV game (which has been over 10 years in the making, accounting for all of its re-designs etc.), there have been many media formats pushing the hype for the game’s release. Among a short Anime series delving into Noctis’ personal past with each of his companions helping him on his mission, the other major visual artefact has been this film. Accompanied by a strong cast including Aaron Paul, Sean Bean, and Lena Headey, the film is supported by a massive investment on all fronts, to make sure that this is the ultimate Final Fantasy CGI experience.
So I was disappointed to see that other critics didn’t feel the same as I did. With one major film critic giving the film a perfect score, most other reviews were trailing along the lines of a 5/10 and below, some going very low indeed. What I was pleased with however, was fan reception. The film is overwhelmed with five-star reviews, and a fraction going as low as 4, with rarely a 3 or less in sight. It’s important that we make some distinctions with this film, treating it very differently from regular ones if we’re going to extract the value of this experience, and give it a score which reflects its goals and intentions, and to what quality they’re achieved. You can discount my opinions for that of a raving fanboy gushing over his favourite franchise, but if you read what I write regularly, you’ll know I pride myself on taking as un-biased and level-headed a position as I possibly can, and as much as I love Final Fantasy as a franchise, I make no exceptions for that philosophy in my writing.
I’ll say straight from the get-go, that as a film, Kingsglaive suffers as an isolated piece. There’s no way I could defend giving the film a near perfect score, solely based on watching it alone, with no intention of playing the game in November, or without some interest in the franchise/universe. However, just like how you wouldn’t separate a hot dog from a bun on your plate and eat both separately, the experience of Kingsglaive is entirely dependent on playing the game, or having an interest in its world. I think the major problem with critic reviews is they’ve had Kingsglaive slapped on their desk, and given a review deadline. With no follow up questions of whether the reviewer has any interest in Final Fantasy, let alone Final Fantasy XV, I’d imagine an equivalent and relatable comparison would be to give Saving Private Ryan to someone for review when they have no idea what World War 2 was. Without some kind of context for the experience beforehand, it loses all value, meaning and weight. It becomes hollow.
For fans walking into the experience, they’re already aware of the fact that Noctis will come into play in the game, and he has embarked on some kind of quest that seeks to restore control and peace to his father’s (King Regis, played by Sean Bean) city of Insomnia (Crown City), the capital to the nation of Lucis. Knowing the importance of Noctis’ safety, and that his bride-to-be Lady Lunafreya needs to reach him to achieve their objective, the stakes are set for what the film will ultimately lay its foundations on, and create tension and conflict around. The main character of the film is Nyx Ulric played by Aaron Paul; he and his Kingsglaive members help set events in motion that enable Lunafreya and the King to play out their side of events, which lead into the introduction played out in Final Fantasy XV. Ultimately, the ending of Kingsglaive is the start of Final Fantasy XV. Remaining loyal to the King through all events, Nyx ensures the success of the King’s will, through all challenges and obstacles faced, even when his friends try to question his faith.
Very much like how Halo: Reach suffered from everyone knowing how the game was going to end (Reach falls in case you didn’t know from the title of Eric Nylund’s book about the event!), some might see this as a handicap for Kingsglaive, having viewers already aware of the final outcome of the story. It knows this, and plays on the fact that whilst you are aware of the outcome, you aren’t aware of the small details that surround the main event, and how things came to be when Final Fantasy XV opens up with its news of the fall of Insomnia. We know what will happen; we just don’t know how it happened. The game is even aware of this, and in promotional material at least, leaves out many important details which are explored and resolved in Kingsglaive. It also provides information on some of the mechanics of how the world operates in regards to its logic on how magic and weaponry is controlled and utilised.
Without ruining the specifics of that logic, and without going into what events constitute importance in relation to how you’ll enter your eventual FF XV experience (if you plan on playing the game), know that you will be richer for having watched the film, both in terms of building up interest in the final game, and of being more informed when entering its story. Whilst not essential (as I’m sure the game will fill in gaps to an adequate amount that serves the player in a practical sense), it’s certainly powerful from an emotional sense to see the complications which arose outside of the game’s focal point, in a timeframe that proceeds it, which ultimately will add weight to the reactions and events that will take place in the game.
So enough about how the film and game will enrich each other through informed contextual world-building, how does the film stack up as an isolated feature film? First of all, the CGI is some of the best the genre has to offer, if not the best, period. I can’t think of another film that is completely CGI, that reaches this level of quality and scope. Whilst I enjoyed Resident Evil‘s CGI films, Kingsglaive does this on an unprecedented scale, without compromising on their approach. A few moments of insignificance occur, where I had noticed low resolution textures at the back of a van at the start of the film for example, or some low quality/resolution shadows on a statue towards the end of the film, but ultimately, so much is going on around the scene, that the amount of particle effects, lighting complexity, motion, and environment detail mean that you’re focused on being immersed in the experience, and very little presents itself to pull you out from it. I was always waiting for that sloppy facial animation, or weird body movement to pull me out and make me realise I was watching a 3D animated film, but everything remains solid throughout. Characters have real weight to their movement, clothes react convincingly, and emotions are mostly conveyed convincingly (minus one or two hiccups which I attribute to having to re-render scenes for multiple languages under a deadline).
The pacing is a little off overall, with a fantastic opening that carries on with disclosing the plot for the first 30 minutes or so, but does little to speed things up or excite for a while after. This drags around for a little too long, before we arrive at the final arc of the film that sees the city being attacked and the enemy nation of Niflheim carrying out their plans. The film makes up for what is essentially a long period of mood-building and character/tension building before arriving at the climax of the film, which stretches for the rest of its length. The final fight sequence more than makes up for the extended length of plot proceeding it, but brings the film to an unfortunately dull conclusion in comparison. Whilst the ending plays out interestingly and excitingly, the final few minutes of the film drop you uncomfortably from the experience. Without suggesting what happens next beyond Lunafreya’s goal of finding Noctis, little is done to tie up loose ends at the end of the film. We see Lunafreya walking towards the city’s boundary walls, knowing that she is to leave and find Noctis, but that’s basically it. With no information on her first port of call, her intentions of how to get there besides staying “secrective”, we’re just left with the open-ended finale of knowing she made it out of the city, with no other context. Probably a restriction on the film’s part, as the game will probably explain how she made it to Noctis and her journey along the way, but it would have been nice to have some information of her first few moments out of the city, and how she began her journey, which would have rounded off another 10 minutes or so of quiet and calming narrative to finish things off on a softer-note than straight after an epic fight scene.
Critically, the film is decipherable for a non-Final Fantasy XV fan. It goes out of its way to establish the world at the start of the film through narration and visuals, and maintains the assumption that you are ignorant of its universe. From here, some liberties are taken and things are sped up quite quickly, but nothing that will leave anyone outside of the franchise scratching their heads. We all understand magic; we all understand swords and guns, and everything else is explained through visual storytelling and environmental design. Unlike Final Fantasy: Advent Children, terms such as Materia or Magitek are not thrown around without explanation, and everything is grounded in relatable terms. Kingsglaive could have easily just been a love letter to fans in the same style as Advent Children was, but avoids doing so to ensure that everyone is welcome to come along for the ride.
Overall, Kingsglaive is a fantastic achievement in CGI filmmaking visually, with a soundtrack that fits perfectly, and with a strong cast of high quality actors that ensure the film doesn’t enter B-Movie territory – which other similar films in the genre tend to lack. The film does incredibly well to tell an extracted sample of a much larger story and universe without becoming overly-complicated and losing you in the process. Kingsglaive has the luxury of a big budget to make sure it puts its best foot forward, and whilst its primary focus is to build hype and context for the upcoming game, it does deviate slightly to ensure it accommodates others for its viewing without sacrificing its appeal and effectiveness for pleasing fans. To judge the film in the same way as you would judge any other however is folly, and is the reason we label it a cross-media production. If you don’t enjoy the film, that’s fine, it’s not the type of thing the creators expect people to rent online for a movie night with popcorn and pizza after someone shouting out “Oh Final Fantasy? That sounds interesting!”. It’s not that kind of film. In the same way Final Fantasy: Advent Children would make little sense to anyone who hasn’t played Final Fantasy 7 , Kingsglaive is not as effective as it can be, without the viewer being at least slightly interested in the game.
That said, Kingsglaive is still worthwhile to watch alone with no intention of playing the game, but it ultimately ends with a build up to a major cliffhanger whose itch can only be scratched by playing Final Fantasy XV in November. As a standalone production, it doesn’t serve any conclusion or resolution of conflicts and story arcs to its viewers outside of the internal and self-contained journey of the main character Nyx. Whilst I wholeheartedly recommend this without hesitation to any Final Fantasy fan, regardless on their decision to play FFXV or not in November, for non-fans or people not versed in the franchise, I still recommend you give this film a try, if you’re interested in anything remotely close to the themes presented in its universe such as New Wave Sci-Fi Fantasy. If magic, swords, guns, and modern mega-city design floats your boat, then you’ll love what Kingsglaive has to offer.