First announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII ten years ago, Square Enix’s long-awaited, newest entry in the highly acclaimed series is finally here. The game has undergone quite a few changes in the last ten years due to a troubled development cycle, switching directors, team members, and even the overall scope of the story. What we’ve been given is an experience that very much reflects this fact. The potential on display is intriguing and exciting, but the reality is a bit disjointed and feels like a hodgepodge of ideas that have been forced to work together with variable success. All in all, Final Fantasy XV is a very good game that just misses the mark of being great.
“A Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike” is the opening text when first booting up the game. While fans of the series will find plenty of familiar Final Fantasy elements such as: potions, magic, and chocobos, newcomers seem to be the main focus of this entry. Final Fantasy XV takes a decidedly different approach to the series. While still a role-playing game at heart, this adventure takes pages from the open world and action books of design, giving players a sprawling and exciting playground to explore and enemies to conquer with a new battle system. The story begins with the main protagonist Noctis Lucis Caelum, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Lucis, and his royal entourage pushing their broken-down car up a stretch of desert highway. This opening sequence does an admirable job of setting the tone of the story while simultaneously introducing the other three party members, Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis, as well as their personalities and friendly relationship with prince Noctis. The four characters are hitting the open road for what can be described as a mobile bachelor party. Think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets The Hangover. Long story short, four friends head out on a road trip to travel the world, and then some things happen.
And what a world it is to travel. The land of Eos is a massive environment full of beautiful vistas, dangerous monsters, and many secrets. Spanning from arid deserts, to lush forests, to beach resorts, the world does a fine job of encouraging exploration. You have the ability to drive the Regalia (your fancy car) to various locations such as parking lots, gas stations, and towns. Riding in the car is surprisingly one of the best parts of the game, as the banter between the characters is entertaining and gives a chance to look at the surrounding scenery. Luckily, if something of interest catches your eye the car can be pulled over at any time to get out and explore on foot. Exploration is a big part of the adventure, but similar to real life, not everywhere you go is going to be interesting or worth the time. Eos is a fantastical world, but deliberately grounded in reality. Barring the occasional hidden item or pack of wildlife, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to really explore every nook and cranny of the map. When you do come across something worthwhile, however, it can be an absolute treat.
For example, I scoured an early section of the map out of curiosity only to find a small, inconspicuous cave entrance. What I found was a hidden dungeon filled with monsters (known as daemons), treasure, and a challenging boss fight, capped off with a curiously elaborate door waiting at the end. Of course the door was locked and I didn’t have a key at the time, but just stumbling upon this entire sequence out of the blue was exhilarating. The dungeons are easily one of Final Fantasy XV’s highlights, full of fantastic battles, hilarious banter between the party, and some of the most gorgeous scenery on display. Speaking of scenery, from a visual standpoint Eos is easily one of the most impressive and attractive open worlds I’ve witnessed. Some areas may not be as polished as others, but overall the game is quite the piece of graphical eye candy. If your jaw isn’t on the floor when first sailing into Altissia, you very well may not have a soul. The soundtrack from Yoko Shimomura (of Super Mario RPG, Kingdom Hearts, and Street Fighter II fame) is a pleasant treat for the ears as well.
In typical Final Fantasy fashion, there are plenty of side quests available to complete. These quests can range from fetching an item to defeating a specific group of monsters and are largely optional. They are typically accepted from NPCs but some quests will automatically trigger while traversing the roads. Completing quests usually awards gil (currency) or accessories, though some will start a chain of events that can lead to more substantial rewards. There is no limit to the number of side quests you can undertake at once but monster hunts are a different story. Monster hunts are exactly what they sound like but can only be completed one at a time leading to a lot of unnecessary backtracking. Also sprinkled throughout the world are campsites, brought to you by the good folks at Coleman (No, I’m serious. The honest-to-goodness real world purveyor of outdoor equipment provides the gear used when camping in a humorous case of product placement). There are two reasons to set up camp: traveling at night will almost certainly get you killed since powerful daemons appear when the sun goes down, and to cash in experience points. Well, that’s different.
In another deviation from the norm, experience points are still earned from battle but then placed into an “experience bank” so to speak. Resting will then apply the banked experience to the party, leveling up in the process. You can rest at a lodging such as a hotel or RV camper and receive an experience bonus multiplier, or camp and receive a chance to cook a meal for the party, bestowing a long-lasting buff for the next day (such as higher attack and defense, or resistance to status effects). Cooking is one of the party member “Skills”, unique to each character. Ignis is the cook, and can discover new recipes by collecting ingredients or watching other people eat which totally isn’t creepy at all. Noctis has a Fishing skill that can be improved by playing a mini game to catch fish for ingredients or profit. Gladiolus’ Survival skill increases the chances of dropped items after combat, improved by simply walking around the map. Prompto is the best with this Photography skill, randomly taking pictures of your adventures and having you pick the best photos at the end of the night. I got way more entertainment out of this feature than I’d care to admit. He even takes random selfies and snaps photos during fights as well, that lovable rebel.
Which brings us to Final Fantasy XV’s battle system, the largest departure from the franchise history of active time and turn based combat. Battles are now action based, giving direct control over Noctis’ movements and attacks plus the ability to give the team orders on when to use special techniques. If you’re familiar with the Kingdom Hearts series, the combat has a similar flow here. Attacking is as simple as holding a single button to unleash a flurry of well-choreographed strikes, with the option of holding the left stick in different directions to modify attacks. Noctis also has the ability to switch weapons at any time using the d-pad, adding even more variety. Different weapons may be weak or strong against certain foes, so changing them often is highly encouraged. This new combat system also introduced an array of central mechanics. Warp strikes are a special technique where you can lock on to an enemy and instantly teleport to their location by hurling your weapon at them. The technique is strengthened by using it from a longer distance and can also be used to teleport to safety, giving Noctis a chance to recover his health and magic. Phasing is a defensive technique also activated by holding a single button. While phasing, the prince will dodge just about any attack at the expense of MP, so it’s limited, but necessary for survival. If you defend against a powerful attack, you may have the chance to parry and perform an equally powerful counterattack. Blindsides are attacks performed from behind an enemy giving a damage bonus, and link strikes are extremely powerful attacks that your party members will team up to help perform randomly. It’s a simple system with a surprising amount of depth that flows very well, often resembling a scene straight out of an action film.
Well, at least that’s what the battle system strives for most of the time. It definitely has its issues, such as a less-than-ideal camera that has trouble keeping up the action in cramped spaces, leading to plenty of unavoidable off-screen attacks and rendering the game’s finicky lock-on system useless more than necessary. Battles largely consist of two types of encounters: a large mob of daemons throwing so many attacks your way at once you can barely tell what’s happening as your health abandons you, or a very large monster that can and will wipe out your party just by swiping his arm a few times. Luckily, health restoring items are both cheap and abundant, and losing all hit points simply triggers a “Danger” mode where your maximum HP will slowly drop over time and is easily cured. It’s a neat idea, but feels more like a crutch to counterbalance the sometimes haphazard combat. Magic is handled a bit differently in this entry to the series, acting more as a consumable item. You can draw elemental essence from abundant, special nodes around the world and then craft magic spells usable by any of the party members. Lastly, there is a skill tree known as the Ascension Grid used to learn new skills and increase stats for Noctis and friends. The tree is very similar to the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X, though highly simplified.
Are you still here? I commend your patience and dedication! I know I’ve been rambling for quite some time now but we’re almost done, and this is where things get… let’s say “interesting”. For the record, I’ve enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XV and still look forward to playing more as I write this, but I need to tell you something. Are you sitting down? It’s a bit complicated. The first half of the game is great and consists of everything I just explained above, but the second half is where things begin to become extremely compelling and fall apart at the seams at the same time. The second act is a bit of an emotional roller coaster, in both story and gameplay. I found myself highly praising and then quickly cursing the game faster than I thought possible. These events honestly brought my satisfaction with the overall experience down quite a few notches.
The second half is far more story-driven than the first, placing the party on a linear path leading to the conclusion of the tale at a rapid pace (though it is possible to return to the open world at practically anytime, so don’t worry about missing anything). Along this path are some the highest points of the game, but unfortunately more often than not these high points are followed up by some of the lowest points. The story, in my opinion, becomes very disjointed and hard to follow if you don’t pay very close attention, a difficult task considering how quickly things are revealed and the events you never see play out. Yet somehow, by some kind of paradoxical sorcery, everything starts to come together and make sense at the same time. Things do ultimately conclude in an acceptable way, and I loved the ending, but the story could have used more exposition. Some of the story bits and gameplay sections were extremely powerful and satisfying (there’s a Final Fantasy VI reference, my personal favorite, that had me doing cartwheels), and others were highly discouraging. One chapter in particular is quickly gaining notoriety for being one of the worst sections to grace a Final Fantasy title, and is easily my largest disappointment with this entry. I know it sounds hyperbolic, but our friends at Square Enix have already announced a patch in progress to change the way the chapter plays out. I wholeheartedly agree with their decision.
Whew, feels good to get that off my chest. Despite the issues, I still think Final Fantasy XV is an experience worth diving into and one of the better games in the series, even though it lacks a full sense of cohesion. The cast of characters, especially the four main protagonists, are delightful and memorable. Even the main villain is well written and interesting. The beautiful open world is incredible and a joy to explore with plenty of content to keep playing for hours upon hours. In fact, after concluding the story, you can return to the road and take on special quests, explore new secret dungeons, fight super bosses, and find the ultimate weapons, all post-story content. On top of that, Square Enix has announced a good amount of DLC in progress for the game, including character specific story chapters, more player characters, and even an online mode. It appears they want us to play this for a while, and that’s an exciting prospect.
FINAL FANTASY XV:
About Final Fantasy XV
Synopsis: Final Fantasy XV takes place on the fictional world of Eos. All the world’s countries—bar the kingdom of Lucis—are under the dominion of the empire of Niflheim. Noctis Lucis Caelum, heir to the Lucian throne, goes on a quest to retake his homeland and its magical crystal after it is seized by Niflheim on the eve of peace negotiations between the two nations.
Developer: Square Enix
Director: Hajime Tabata
Writers: Kazushige Nojima, Saori Itamuro, Akiko Ishibashi, Takumi Nishida
Composer: Yoko Shimomura
Final Fantasy XV is available for PlayStation 4 (also PS4 Pro enhanced) and Xbox One.