Final Fantasy XV
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
After a well documented development cycle where Final Fantasy Versus XIII was trapped in the ninth circle of hell for a decade and managed to emerge as Final Fantasy XV, imagine my surprise when Square Enix’s latest installment in their long-running RPG franchise managed to exceed my expectations. Dare I say, I haven’t been this invested in one of these games since Final Fantasy X released in 2001.
Hell, it may even tie for my favorite numbered entry ever–because, let’s be honest, nothing will top Final Fantasy Tactics.
Though, of course, it’s not without its problems. Despite Final Fantasy XV’s fluid and engaging combat, its drop-dead gorgeous visuals, and lovable cast of characters strengthening the overall feel of the game, its pacing fumbles quite a bit during the middle acts, a lengthy stealth chapter late in the game drags on far too long, and there’s a handful of characters introduced and removed rather quickly that we’re just expected to care about (because plot). It definitely feels like a game that’s suffered many script changes throughout the years, but that doesn’t necessarily prevent it from being a coherent and thoroughly enjoyable adventure.
At its core is a heart and a soul, a combination of emotional moments, relatable characters, and a living, breathing world that’s book-ended rather well. So let’s discuss that, shall we?
For those of you not in the know, Final Fantasy XV focuses on the pilgrimage of Prince Noctis and his merry boy band as they adventure across Eos to reunite with his childhood pal Lady Lunafreya, whom he now has an arranged marriage with, in hopes of bringing peace to their respective warring kingdoms. As well laid plans tend to do in these types of games, things go sour rather quickly and the four friends must exchange help with the locals in order to reach their destination.
If you’ve yet to watch the Kingsglaive film, I suggest you do so before playing Final Fantasy XV. The events that transpire help flesh out the game’s opening chapters quite a bit. Square Enix tried to accommodate newcomers by including scenes from the film at certain plot points, but did so in a way that doesn’t explain much. From what I imagine has to do with contract issues or copyrights, none of the footage from the film features spoken dialogue–just film clips with dramatic music as the backdrop. Sure, you can probably piece things together well enough, but again, I highly recommend watching Kingsglaive first if you have the luxury.
That being said, while plot is definitely strong in the game’s closing moments, it’s not a heavy draw throughout most of the adventure. The first few chapters are slow burns, as I spent most of my time completing uninteresting fetch and kill quests or partaking in optional monster hunts to pass the time. Certain characters are introduced and either fade away entirely or exist as nothing more than a quest giver, yet we’re expected to treat them as important plot devices. It’s as if different narrative ideas were brainstormed, coded in, and then sliced to pieces over the last ten years.
It’s not like the plot is a wash entirely–there are some incredibly memorable and emotional moments, which rank among some of the best in the series’ long history. It’s just what occurs in between them that fails to generate much interest. Square Enix basically looked at a checklist of what fit the description of an open-world RPG and did the bare minimum, filling the world with repetitive and mundane tasks. Fetch this, kill that, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t add much to the game.
Even when the plot isn’t moving forward in interesting ways, there’s a lot of friendly banter and character building as we’re introduced to the unbreakable bond and brotherhood of Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus. Whether they’re teasing Noctis about being scrawny or taking jabs at Prompto’s photography, it really felt like I was taking a road trip across the country with four of my best friends. They’re essentially tourists in Eos, pulling over to snap pictures, eating at roadside diners, and sleeping under the stars in makeshift camps. As an aspiring photographer, Prompto even documents the entire journey with a slew of selfies and screenshots that can be saved and uploaded to Facebook or Twitter.
Final Fantasy XV does a great job at making you believe in these characters, laughing alongside them, cheering at their successes or empathizing with their personal struggles. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried a few times. While Noctis may be a little bratty, having no say about his path in life, Prompto is right there to lighten the mood with his cheery optimism and comic relief. Acting as Noctis’ royal shield, Gladiolus takes his role and his training quite seriously. He constantly harps on Noctis for sleeping in or being lazy, and doesn’t hesitate to deliver some tough love when the future king loses focus. Ignis serves as the group’s strategist and caretaker, scanning enemies for weaknesses during combat and devising new cooking recipes to make sure they’re all well fed and ready to roll in the morning. Like any group of friends, they’ll drive each other crazy at times but would ultimately risk their lives for one another, should the moment arise.
Aside from the very first game, every Final Fantasy before has gradually introduced new party members that would continue to fill out your roster well in to the adventure. What you see is what you get in Final Fantasy XV, though. There are two or three segments where you’re given an additional NPC to fight alongside, but 99% of the game is Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus. This was initially worrying, but rest assured the characters are strong enough to carry the narrative through its low points and accentuate it at its peaks.
Also separating itself from Final Fantasy’s traditional history is XV’s focus on fast and fluid real-time action, as opposed to the series’ menu-surfing, turn-based roots. Pressing or holding the attack button unleashes a series of combo attacks that can be changed by tilting the left analog stick in different directions. You can arm yourself with things like swords, guns, and polearms, with each having their own attack patterns. For instance, titling back on the analog stick while attacking with daggers causes Noctis to leap backwards while throwing knives at his target from a distance, but the same action with a greatsword triggers a devastating charge attack that cleaves large groups of surrounding enemies.
Noctis can equip four different weapons or spells at a time, switching between them on the fly using the d-pad. It was nice having a variety of weapons at my disposal, in order to swiftly deal with enemies by exploiting their given weaknesses. Combat is largely satisfying, particularly once I got the hang of “phasing” through attacks and using Noctis’ ability to “warp” around the battlefield in order to close the distance or take shelter for some much needed healing. Warping is a key part of combat, allowing you to instantly teleport to the enemy’s location while also dealing a chunk of damage that can potentially stagger a foe, or even destroy one of their appendages. There’s a lot of learning involved, knowing when it’s safe to attack, when to block and parry, dodge roll, or warp out of harm’s way, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Each of the characters have their own respective skills that can be unlocked in one of the game’s many skill trees. These skills (referred to in-game as techs) can be manually issued in combat, which is helpful when you need Gladiolus to dish out a strong attack or have Ignis scan an enemy’s weakness and apply that effect to Noctis’ weapon. Skill trees work as you’d imagine, where killing enemies awards AP, which can then be spent on a variety of passive upgrades, abilities, and combat enhancements that assist in personalizing your play style. Want to strengthen your magic or dish out fancy air combos? There’s a tree for that!
One of the most interesting aspects of Final Fantasy XV’s combat is how it handles magic. Rather than being innately conjured by an individual, Noctis’ powers allow him to craft magical spells by siphoning energy from elemental sources and combining them with catalysts to a myriad of consequences. This can lead to interesting results, like a lightning spell that can apply poison or stop, a fire spell with a chance to multi-cast five times, or even an ice spell that multiplies your experience gained tenfold. However, friendly fire rules are always in effect when it comes to elemancy and I had my fair share of mishaps with some pretty dire conclusions. Crafting a spell called Failcast wasn’t just a clever name, I guess.
Graphically, Final Fantasy XV is captivating both in terms of character models and environments. I was often reminded of the worlds of Final Fantasy XII and XIV, especially in the earlier chapters when Noctis and company make their way through the desert landscapes of Leide. The visual aesthetic remains true to the fantasy RPG feel of the series, but also takes modern liberties in its portrayal of vehicular technology, cellphones, rural cities, and domesticated pets. It blends fantasy and reality in a way that doesn’t seem as far-fetched as the medieval approach of earlier titles, or the sci-fi nature of VIII or XIII.
The food also looks fucking amazing.
The game frequently rides the wave of nostalgia, be it Prompto’s humming of the Final Fantasy victory theme after a battle, or the group name dropping the NES classic King’s Knight and quoting Star Wars. While driving around in your vehicle, the Regalia, you can listen to a plethora of tracks from OSTs of the earlier games. Your playlist can even be expanded by purchasing CDs from vendors scattered throughout the world. There was just something surreal about playing a game I’ve waited ten years for while cruising around, listening to the Cosmo Canyon theme from Final Fantasy VII. Not only was I thinking about this brand new adventure, but I was reminiscing about the time I’d spent with some of my favorite games leading up to XV. Music has this way of triggering certain memories and while I was already having a great time exploring Eos, that enjoyment was exponentially increased by these constant reminders of my enjoyment in the games that came before it.
It’s been difficult putting in to words what made Final Fantasy XV so special to me. It wasn’t always interesting, but I was always interested–if that makes any sense. I felt for the characters, I was invested in their story, and I had a great time exploring the world around us. I grew to love Prompto’s funny quips and empathized with Noctis’ inability to outwardly express his feelings. Having worked with my friends on various occasions, I understood Gladiolus’ struggle of knowing when to be a friend and when to be the boss, and the hurt feelings that come with the territory.
Toward the end of the game I went through our folder of Prompto’s photographs and quietly sobbed alone in my room. I remembered saving all 130 of them. From the journey’s beginning pushing our broken down Regalia to Hammerhead, how excited Prompto was at Wiz’s Chocobo Farm, or one of the many nights we spent camping under the stars, I’d been through a lot with these guys and I didn’t want our journey to end. I wasn’t ready for that closure just yet.
Final Fantasy XV isn’t perfect. Hell, it’s not even the game I thought we’d get ten years ago, but it’s definitely one of the most engaging, enjoyable, and memorable experiences I’ve had with the series. There’s an old saying about it not being about the destination, but rather the journey, and I can’t think of a more appropriate way to express my adoration. Plus, it just feels good to be so positive about Final Fantasy in this day and age.
The series means a lot to me, as I’m sure it does to many of you. Was it worth the ten year wait? Absolutely.
Walk tall, my friends.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one! I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PlayStation 4 copy of Final Fantasy XV that I paid for myself. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased opinions to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.