‘Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV’ review

Who would've thought we'd have so much fun in a Final Fantasy VR fishing game?

Fishing has a long and storied history in video games. While often featured as a mini-game in popular, larger games (e.g. Ocarina of Time, Stardew Valley, or Nier: Automata), dedicated fishing games have remained a niche genre. In order to catch a wider audience, developers need to bait the hook with something interesting, like a fantastical setting from the world’s most famous role-playing game series. Thus we find ourselves playing Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV, an unexpected (and unexpectedly charming) fishing game spin-off for PlayStation VR.

Final Fantasy XV took over ten years to develop. It finally came out at the end of 2016 with mostly positive reviews, which may have been surprising given its protracted and torturous development process, transitioning between several titles, platforms, and directors before settling on the game we have today. The economic logic of AAA video game production means that Square Enix could never hope to recoup the costs from sales of the base game alone, and so it must become more of a platform than a discrete game.

Square Enix’ first published foray into VR, Monsters of the Deep seems like a strange fit, especially given that the publisher showed off a shooting-gallery-style Final Fantasy XV tech demo prior to the launch of the PlayStation VR. As it turns out, though, fishing lends itself to VR. Monster shows off Final Fantasy XV’s beautiful art in VR, but in reasonable gameplay chunks that work well within the young medium’s limitations. Monster of the Deep easily could have felt like a cynical cash-in, but in actuality is a surprisingly robust and thoughtful little game, and one of the most polished experiences available on the PSVR.

Get thee to a fishery

In Monster of the Deep you are a Hunter, tasked by the Hunter’s Guild with taking down giant, demonic fish that are terrorizing fishing holes around Eos, the world of Final Fantasy XV. To lure out these monsters, you have to catch a requisite amount of regular fish, which is how you’ll spend most of your time.

Monster of the Deep [is] one of the most polished experiences available on the PSVR.

Fishing works exactly as you would expect in a VR game. Using either your right-hand PlayStation Move controller or the standard DualShock, the player holds down the X button and whips the controller forward, releasing it at the right moment to cast the lure.

You reel your catch in using either the left Move controller or thumbstick. When you get a bite, you have carefully pull the fish in at the same angle the fish is swimming (helpfully indicated with arrows when relevant) to reel them in without breaking the line.

It’s an elegant gameplay loop that lends itself well to the medium. The gesture of pulling back and flicking your rod forward falls well within the scope of what the PlayStation camera and Move controllers can accurately capture and translate, which is unfortunately rare in these early, experimental days of VR gaming. It also helps that the fish are never hard to find: At any time, you can use a sonar device, which helpfully highlights fish beneath the surface and draws large circles around areas that are particularly populous.

The basic mechanics of fishing are fleshed out with a wide variety of rods, reels, lines, and lures and jigs for you to mix and match. Different lures are better at attracting particular fish, which we found felt somewhat arbitrary, but it nevertheless adds another layer of depth and progression to the game, being the only way to spend the money you earn.

While the broad strokes work exceptionally well, we did have difficulty mastering the nuance of placing the lure exactly where we want it.  Controlling the exact distance that the line flew out before landing was very tricky, with a seemingly subtle difference between undershooting or wildly overshooting your target. After several hours, we never didn’t feel like we had improved much, which was frustrating. The lack of progress sounds like a serious problem, but the game is generally forgiving enough that it was never became a dealbreaker.

Final Fan(tasy) service

The main story includes just seven levels, each with a boss fight. Once you have reeled in the requisite weight of fish, an ominous pink mist fills the air, and the daemonfish appears. In these fights, you trade your fishing rod for a crossbow, shooting down the monstrous fish as they breach the surface. Once you’ve whittled their health down, you have to cast your line into the area where they’ve fallen and reel them in.

One level has a fully-grown, fluffy Chocobo standing by the water.

They’re essentially shooting gallery fights, each with its own little spin on the basic formula, and they work very well. Except for the final boss, none of them gave us any challenge, but the battles were a fun climax to each level, and served as great visual setpieces that remind you that you’re in the world of Final Fantasy.

In addition to story missions, as you play you unlock other gameplay modes. These include tournaments where you race FFXV protagonist Noctis to catch the most in a time limit, targeted hunts for specific fish, and free fishing sessions at any spot you’ve unlocked to that point. The story missions only took us about three hours to complete, but fans of the game will find plenty more hours of enjoyment in the rest of the content.

The game’s Final Fantasy setting is more than just window-dressing. In fact, it’s core to the game’s appeal. The diverse and beautiful range of levels are lifted straight from Final Fantasy XV, and that game’s gorgeous environments look beautiful up close. Each level has several spots from which you can fish, and you can explore around between them along certain paths.

The levels are loaded with collectibles, easter eggs, and series references for you to discover. One level has a fully-grown, fluffy Chocobo standing by the water. Another had a creepy little Tonberry and several monstrous spiders lurking around you. Like many VR “experiences,” Final Fantasy fans will get a lot out of simply putting on the headset and getting to feel a new level of intimacy with the series’ iconic creatures.

In addition to Noctis sharing his competitive streak, various members of the Final Fantasy XV cast show up throughout the game as well, adding more fun fan service. The one inclusion that raised eyebrows for us was the scantilly-clad mechanic, Cindy. Her sexualized appearance was widely criticized in the base game, and now feels egregious from the perspective of VR. She often leans down to talk to you through a car window, or suggestively bends over to pick up an item. VR makes these moments impossible to miss, and we felt uncomfortable at times.

Where a lot of VR titles struggle with scope, Final Fantasy XV: Monsters of the Deep admirably knows exactly what it is. Square Enix has married the elegant and achievable (by current technical standards) gameplay of VR fishing with the lushly-produced world and assets of Final Fantasy XV, producing a charming and complete little game that we enjoyed more than we were expecting. It’s fan service, but with a solid enough underlying game that it doesn’t feel like a cash-in. Fans of both fishing and Final Fantasy will likely find a lot to enjoy here.