November 28, 2016
Final Fantasy XV feels like a proper Final Fantasy game - that’s the most important thing you want to hear, right? The title has been the subject of a hellish development cycle, and has seen trends in Japanese games and RPGs change fundamentally in the time it’s been in utero, but the result is a game that lives up to a series that’s been instrumental in shaping what the modern RPG is.
You’ll notice from the second you pick it up that Final Fantasy XV has all the trappings of a western RPG, rather than a Japanese one. Gone are the menu-based combat mechanics, the convoluted levelling systems of days past have been removed and replaced with something altogether more streamlined, and even the story veers on the side of simplicity (compared to the ludicrous ducks and dives of Final Fantasies past). The result is a game far more accessible to a wider audience, and while we don’t doubt hardcore franchise fans will lament the change, we think overall the shift in pitch and tone has been for the better.
We’re not going to go into too much detail about the story here, because the journey of Crown Prince Noctis is instrumental to this game. Any concerns fans of the series had about Final Fantasy XV forgoing its narrative focus in favour of world realisation or combat need not worry: the story beats and character arcs in this game could rival that found in Final Fantasy VII, VIII, IX or X. The four protagonists are simultaneously united as one and stand apart individually; Noctis, Prompto, Gladiolus and Ignis each have such specific personalities and traits that the development team has made sure to flesh out in dialogue and in combat, and their development is anything but superficial.
Noctis is admittedly the weakest of the main cast as far as characterisation goes, but that leaves him open for you to project onto, to a degree. The Crown Prince suffers from the same downfalls other FF characters do - he can come across as whiny, mopey, uninterested and vague, but the difference here is that the world around him knows that, and holds him accountable. It validates our own annoyances, and makes for some gripping and compelling relationships between him and the rest of his crew.
There are twists in the story that impact the core crew, too: brave decisions that impact the party in the ways that previous Final Fantasies set the scene for. The game sometimes feels cruel in its treatment of you as a player, but it makes you appreciate the freedom the game gives you early on. Certain events carry a pretty heavy sense of dread, or loss, or fear, and considering you sort-of see the climax of the game right at the very start of Chapter 0, we’re amazed by how surprised we were by the events that unfolded in the middle. If you’re a sucker for epic, high drama RPG stories (over the more domestic, slow-burning affairs like The Witcher or Skyrim) this is for you.
The game looks, sounds and plays phenomenally, and even if you jump into the title without having touched the various demos that have come out to support the game, you’ll feel comfortable: the combat reveals itself almost in full from the very beginning, teaching you how to take advantage of the live attacks and dodges, rather than having to rely on ATB bars filling up and allowing you to strike.
The combat system doesn’t get boring, either - a fear we had for a large portion of the game’s development. Whilst you can just wail on the circle button to blitz your enemies to death, it’ll be a long and boring process. Getting behind foes and ambushing them with blindsides is in your interest from an entertainment point of view, and a gameplay one: consistently taking advantage of your crew’s link-strikes and cross attacks nets you more experience and will take down enemies quicker. When you’re in a hectic, large-scale battle, these moves are vital: the attack animations offer invincibility frames that you can take advantage of to mitigate the effects of dangerous enemy attacks, and they look cool as hell whilst they’re in progress, too. It’s also another way the game characterises the core cast - one of Final Fantasy XV’s greatest achievements - and any excuse to see that in action suits us.
Boss battles are a mix of high-intensity set pieces and more traditional encounters, and the way the story mixes that up for you gives the pacing of the whole game an effective kick. Certain story missions end with massive scale fights that are so different and so important to the game that they had us grinning like idiots when working our way through them. Final Fantasy XV isn’t scared of taking advantage of its own sense of scale - it’s just a shame sometimes the cutscenes and story fail to really drive home the importance of what’s going on in the same way the incidental dialogue does.
The open world given to you at the start of the game is such a satisfying playground that the title’s linear second half doesn’t feel out of place: you can explore to your heart's content pretty early on, and very little of the experience is locked away from you. By the time you’re ready to push on, you feel you know Eos and its geopolitical rifts and lore and landscape really well, so the game’s second half is a neatly packed surprise that can really focus on showing off level and dungeon design (and cut to the core of the story), rather than catering to an open world experience.
As you explore, you’ll come across campsites and hotels, and that allows you to explore the game’s inventive levelling system - another place Final Fantasy XV shines. You accrue experience as you battle and complete sub-quests, all of it being held by your characters until you rest up. Now, camping out in the wild will drop all that experience onto you in one fell swoop but hitting up a hotel will give you between 1.5x and 2.0x the experience gained. On top of that, in the wild, Ignis can cook what you want, each meal granting different benefits depending on what you’ve hunted and created. Staying at an inn might get you more experience, but largely the dishes on offer there are no where near as effective as what Ignis makes, meaning every single level-up cash in is a consideration of growth versus buffs.
It’s a fascinating system, and one that invigorates the RPG elements of the game with something pretty fresh. The ingredients list and recipe book is extensive and there are some game-changing perks in there - it seems to have taken a lot of inspiration from the Culinarian skill tree in Final Fantasy XIV, and that’s no bad thing (it’s one of the best parts of the stat-based play in the game). It’s also a very convenient way of allowing the development team to characterise the crew even during their down-time: just another small part of how well the four Insomnians are brought to life. It also urges you to explore more, because some campsites have unique events and conversations that only occur there, giving you narrative and mechanical reasons for wanting to get out and see more of the world.
One issue with the exploration is the time it takes to get around: Final Fantasy XV starts out as a remarkably slow experience. Everything is manual; getting from point A to point B is always an intentional effort, and as such we recommend completing the Wiz Chocobo Post missions as soon as you possibly can. A lot of frustration in this game comes from moving around the map at a snail’s pace, having Ignis drift the car slowly to a location or having to push your Chocobo on through the (dangerous) night to reach your destination.
We appreciate Square Enix is probably doing this to try and make you take more of the world in - and the world is beautiful - but sometimes you just want to get on with a hunt or an objective and you find yourself lazily wandering half the world away to do it. There are fast-travel options but they’re often obscured by bizarre criteria, or just far enough away from the point you’re working towards to be annoying. The Regalia (Noct’s custom car) is a nice bit of kit from a narrative and systemic point of view, but in practice, sometimes it’s more annoying than practical.
If you are looking to take advantage of everything a local area has to offer when you arrive in a new location, you’ll be taking part in a lot of Hunts. They work similarly to Marks in Final Fantasy XII or XIII - specific beasts that you’re tasked with eliminating that are typically stronger than most enemies in the area, but offer more experience and rewards than their lowly peers. These Hunts seem to be where Square Enix has focused showing off encounter areas and mechanics in a lot of ways: we fought certain unique enemy types we hadn’t found elsewhere in these missions, and in places that really seemed to fit with how you needed to fight them. There’s a lot of good combat and design hidden in these sub-quests and paying attention to them is going to do you well if you’re looking to get the most out of this game.
Other than that, you’ve also got a few other mini-games to take advantage of, too: Noct is pretty big on his fishing, and despite the mini-game itself being pretty damn infuriating and hard to master, it’s a good distraction. When levelled up enough, you can earn experience for this, too - something that can never be sniffed at. The same is true for Ignis’ cooking, Prompto’s photography and Gladio’s habit of picking things up off the floor (also known as ‘survival’). If that’s still not enough to break down those extensive travelling times, you can always play Justice Monsters V instead - it’s an RPG-inspired version of pinball that’s just as insane as it sounds (but still pretty fun).
Any fantasy epic is really made by its antagonists, and unfortunately this is another area FFXV kind-of fails to excite: the pompous, insincere villains in this game feel pretty bland by FF standards (they certainly aren’t Sephiroth or Kefka - the main villain actually puts us more in mind of Seymour Guado, without that constant, terrifying low-key threat). That said, the permanent imposing shadow of the Empire holds everything together quite nicely, and FFXV even goes ahead and deconstructs the big evil Empire trope in some pretty inventive ways, which is always refreshing.
The story at least does take you to your destination via some pretty interesting characters, and there are so many nods to legacy Final Fantasy titles that even the fans most embittered by the changes this new game has forced onto the series will crack a smile at them. The game is a love letter - there’s no denying that - and you can tell there has been some serious effort in the development of it.
The game looks stunning too, and while a few bugs here and there do really snag as far as immersion is concerned, we never found anything truly game-breaking. Nor did we find anything that threatened to shatter our illusion of this wonderfully realised world. We will say that the first portion of the game in the open world has had so much care and attention lavished upon it that it made us want to never leave, and the second more linear portion definitely feels less polished, but that’s probably just because a few of the mechanics are taken away from you as you progress.
Final Fantasy XV is a really, really ambitious game - one that tries very hard to please hardcore Final Fantasy fans and newcomers at the same time. We think it succeeds on both accounts, though it’s perhaps less successful overall because it’s trying to be everything for everyone. The story is compelling enough to have had us up way into the small hours playing it ‘just to see what happens next’, and the combat is satisfying enough that we’d often wander far out of our way just to see if there was something new to fight. The side missions are fun, the levelling mechanics are unique and the world itself feels almost as enrapturing as Spira (and a damn sight more thought-through than Final Fantasy XIII’s Cocoon/Pulse).
It’s a Final Fantasy game that sets the series straight, that takes all the best bits of western RPGs and bends them to fit into this very specific idea of what a Final Fantasy game should be. It placates the old while celebrating the new, and the result is a triple-A Japanese RPG on modern systems that could rival The Witcher III for scale and execution, though might struggle to challenge it on depth. It’s a Final Fantasy game through and through, though, and but for a few little bugs and niggles with the larger design, we think it’s a game that anyone with a hunger for adventure and wonder should play.
We thought we’d hate every one of the voice actors when we first started playing this game, but on the contrary - we actually sorta fell in love with them. By the time we were 20 hours deep, we thought each actor fit their character perfectly. Supported by a soundtrack worthy of the Final Fantasy name and some SFX that could have been recorded on Hollywood foley, this is a game you’re going to want to play with everything turned up.
The game looks staggering. There are occasional glitches (but hey, it’s an open world game, they’ll happen) and some instances of artifacting around character models force us to knock the mark down a little, but otherwise this is a graphically ambitious and awesome-looking game.
We couldn’t put it down: the constant drive to get more of everything helped keep the game fresh, and by the time the story got properly underway and we began to fully understand the combat system, we were in. Even once we were ‘done’, we’d be just jumping back in to fight one of our favourite monsters or level up our Chocobos more, or catch that one elusive bastard fish that kept getting away. It’s frustratingly compelling, at times.
A couple of mission pacing issues and the general speed of exploration knocks this score down. The game is generally delivered in a satisfying and competent manner, though a couple of bugs and some slight UI concerns prevent it from being perfect. Those issues pale in comparison to the fun we’ve had with it, though, and the vast majority of the narrative and the story-based missions give you enough reason to keep playing, even if the open world fluff-busting isn’t really your thing.
This is not going to be a hard game to 100%... aside from some mildly difficult exploration tasks. The majority of rewards rely on your completing main missions and doing a variety of side missions, and you’re likely to net most of the rewards as you go (if you’re trying to keep ahead of the level curve). Some of the hunt-based unlockables will be a challenge - as well as the one against the ‘big’ boss - but we’re pretty certain most trophy hunters will be pretty content with the challenge this game offers.
As an RPG, Final Fantasy XV has everything you’d expect: a compelling, emotional story; a tapestry of complimentary mechanics; a significant lifespan; a cast of relatable and well-written characters and a world that’s dense enough to be a character in and of itself. As a Final Fantasy game, it lives up to all the tropes, despite the variations it’s taken from the more ‘classic’ games. Final Fantasy XV is a title that's aimed super high, and although maybe it hasn’t quite hit the targets it set for itself, it certainly doesn’t disappoint, and is a strong enough RPG experience to stand aside The Witcher as one of the best open-world role-playing games of this generation.