Note: For the purposes of this review, I played the PS4 version of this game. This game is available on PS4 and XBox One
OK, everyone. Final Fantasy XV is a gargantuan game to tackle, so I’m going to start with a couple of TL;DR points, in case reading a huge review isn’t your thing:
Final Fantasy XV is a good RPG. A great RPG, in fact. It truly deserves a place in the same pantheon as the other great Final Fantasy games. However, it is a complicated one to tackle. It is such a massive game, so vast in scope, that it inevitably misses some of the numerous targets that it tries to hit. Did anyone ever really expect that this game would live up to its decade old hype? I don’t think any game can. The point is, there are annoyances, but Final Fantasy XV is really, really good. OK? Good.
First announced all the way back in 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, XV was born as a PS3 companion game to Final Fantasy XIII. Production went slowly due to the game’s ballooning scope, until production was eventually rebooted on the then-next generation consoles, and in 2013, the game was re-branded as the next numbered entry in the series. With that re-branding, the game ended up becoming its own entity in the Final Fantasy canon, and shed its relation to XIII. I will hold back on the spoilers in this review, since I will be writing another, separate article to tackle the story by itself. So if you’re worried about spoilers, don’t worry because I will only mention specifics where it helps me describe the gameplay.
The game opens with the statement, “A Final Fantasy for fans and first timers.” In some respects, this statement rings true. XV has a reverence for the Final Fantasy games that came before it, and it is much appreciated. At the same time, it embraces new gameplay concepts that set it far apart from any of the other games. There are chocobos, characters named Cid, Biggs and Wedge, there are Phoenix Downs, Crystals, summons named Ifrit, Shiva and Bahamut, et cetera. You know the drill. However, the open ended, quest-based design and the chaotic action-based battle system are definitely a departure for the series.
At the same time, Final Fantasy XV can be a rather obtuse, and at times it feels like it would be rather unfriendly to newcomers. It takes a while for the game to get its core rhythm going, and the experience goes totally off the rails at the end. However, I have to stress that this should be nothing new if you’re a returning Final Fantasy veteran. You should be used to weird curve ball moments in these games already. The series’ worst example- Final Fantasy XIII‘s terrible opening levels-is not a good barometer for measuring the kind of weird design decisions in XV. I can guarantee you that it never gets to be that bad, so if that was your worry, rest easy.
Final Fantasy: Road Trippin’ Edition
XV takes place in the world of Eos, and stars a core cast of four heroes, with a couple of rotating guests who come and leave every one in a while. You take the role of Noctis, the prince of the kingdom of Lucis. Lucis is the last remaining free kingdom that is not under the control of the (*groan*) “Niflheim” Empire. At the beginning of the game, everything is looking great. The Empire has agreed to a peace treaty with Lucis, and Noctis is set to marry his childhood friend Lunafreya, who hails from the empire-controlled land of Tenebrae. However, this is-unsurprisingly-a ruse, and early on, Noctis learns that the empire has overthrown the king of Lucis, and thrown the whole country into chaos.
It is with this background that the core of XV unfolds. In order to fight back against the empire, our boy band sets out to collect a group of magical ancestral weapons, so that they will have enough power to take down the Empire. OK, the story is cliché, but really it is on the backburner for the vast majority of the game. Instead, the core of the game relies on the evolving relationship of its four main heroes, and it is in this department that it absolutely shines.
Initially, the four characters fill out some pretty basic RPG archetypes. Noctis is the cocky and brooding hero, but there’s also Gladiolus, the bulky dude with a heart of gold, Ignis, the aloof know-it-all, and Prompto, the annoying comic relief. Although they start as tropes, these four characters are fleshed out exceptionally well as the game progresses. Their banter is actually really endearing, and the curiosity and wonder they express as they explore their world is as infectious as it is genuine. This is one of the few instances I have ever seen in a video game where the characters are so well written that they feel like actual people to me.
Their relationship is so important to the core of the game that this title spends the vast majority of its run time building that chemistry. When the last 10 or so hours of the game roll along, they begin to put some immense stress on that relationship, and the payoffs, while occasionally tragic, are massively satisfying. This game is a shining example on how to do your characters correctly.
A Visual Feast
Square Enix has always excelled at delivering cutting edge visuals and music, and XV is no different. The game is simply spectacular to look at. The game’s main explorable overworld, the continent of Lucis, is absolutely gorgeous. It’s filled with diverse landscapes that are dotted with wondrous landmarks, such as the meteor in the middle of Duscae, or the funky looking mountain in Cleigne. The character models are fantastic, especially the four protagonists. In battle, their animations are the glue that hold the combat together, as they work together as a terrifyingly efficient monster-killing unit.
The most impressive thing about the visuals is simply the sheer beauty of some of the set pieces. From the beautiful city of Altissia to the doomy urban wasteland of the Imperial capital, the locations are all a joy. The summons especially are absolutely jaw-dropping. I am still always stunned every time I see one of these humongous beings cause massive destruction. In addition to this, some of the boss battles can also be stunning in scope. I won’t spoil much, but one end game, optional boss is HUGE.
The music in the game is diverse, and it particularly excels at the peaceful exploration music and insane blood-pumping battle themes. However, I won’t lie and say that all the tracks here are good. Some of the music, such as the town theme of Lestallum, a city where you spend a lot of time in the game, are downright obnoxious. The voice acting can be hit or miss. The main characters are generally pretty excellent, but NPCs can get pretty bad. I get pretty sick of hearing everyone have dumb southern twangs and asking me “What can I do yer’ for?”
Final Fantasy Goes Open World
The main rhythm of Final Fantasy XV is this: you travel throughout the massive continent of Lucis, picking up quests at towns and outposts. Quests can lead you to take on imperial bases, caverns and other diverse forms of dungeons. You do this to collect experience, which you then rack up when resting at an inn or campsite to level up and get stronger. Leveling up gives you AP points, which you can spend on perks, similar to many other modern RPGs.
Your main form of transportation is the Regalia, your trusty car. You don’t truly drive the Regalia directly, which was very disappointing at first. Instead, you have several options. You can plot out your destination and have it drive automatically, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks style, you can manually “drive” it, which involves it moving forward on the road automatically with it letting you determine which way to turn and when to stop, and finally, you can use it as this game’s fast travel system. Once you’ve discovered a location, you can fast travel to it on your car for a modestly small monetary fee.
The main catch of all of this is that you have to stop before it gets dark. This is because fearsome demons spawn at night, and you don’t get to be nearly strong enough to survive at night until relatively late in the game. Thankfully, this isn’t annoying because the days are long, and campsites are pretty plentiful, so you’ll always have a place to rest. Resting also gives you the chance to occasionally check up on some of the game’s other mechanics. Besides leveling up your characters, you can cook meals to boost character stats, and also review any pictures Prompto has taken with his camera, which you can choose to save. I had way more fun with that particular feature than I’d like to admit!
In addition to this, you can participate in other activities. You can go on Monster Hunter-esque hunts that you can get from certain NPCs, which have you tackle particularly fearsome monsters. You can go on photography missions to take the perfect snaps of the game’s many landmarks. You can go fishing. You can hunt for parts to customize your car. You can train your chocobos and race them. You can run your own farm and grow vegetables. If you were afraid Final Fantasy XV would have a barren open world, don’t be. There is simply a staggeringly huge amount of things to do in this game.
Finally, there is combat, which is a total joy. XV sheds the old turn-based design of past games in favor of a frantic action battle system. Think Kingdom Hearts. However, the game’s “Wait” mode gives it the tactical and strategic depth that fans have come to expect from Final Fantasy games. While it can feel “button mashy” at first, the quickly increasing difficulty makes sure that you can never win battles simply by hitting the attack button, even on easier matches against low-level enemies. Instead, you have to win by exploiting enemy weaknesses and using a combination of Noctis’s teleportation ability, items and well timed magic spells and party member skills. It may take a little bit for it to reveal itself, but there is a lot of depth here.
The Elephant in the Room
This core gameplay is absolutely excellent, but as you may have heard by now, that is not all there is to the game. Late in the game, there is a jarring sea change in the gameplay style that throws off the pace pretty badly. This happens when our characters leave the continent of Lucis, and explore the game world’s other locations. The game tries to ease you into it by having a buffer period in the explorable city of Altissia. However, Altissia is straight up devoid of content when compared to Lucis, and by the time you are traveling around the western continent of the Niflheim Empire via train, the game is entirely linear, taking you from story point to story point without any input from the player.
I’m pretty mixed on this decision. It does make sense with the story, for reasons that I will not mention. I will simply say that the mood of the story darkens significantly, and it no longer made sense that our characters would be jovially exploring strange lands. But don’t worry too much, since you are able to return to Lucis at any time by resting at an inn. A new option allows you to access your “memories” of the past, returning to that moment in time and to the wonderful open world questing style. When flipping between the past and present, you retain your level, items and gear, which is a necessary decision to keep it fun. In the end, it just doesn’t feel good to have to choose between advancing the story and having fun, and I had to flip back and forth a couple of times just to keep myself from losing interest.
It just feels like a missed opportunity to me, especially since there are so many interesting locations in the western continent that we see from the distance and never get to visit. If the western continent had been explorable via car, even if it didn’t have the same size or wealth of content, it would have been far more fun. The end result just feels like they ran out of time to create another explorable continent, so they just frankenstein-ed the locations and story beats together to allow the game to speed along to its conclusion.
However, this particular segment is not half of the game. Hell, it’s not even a third of my playing time.
It took me just a bit north of 40 hours to beat this game. I didn’t reach Altissia until about 30 hours in. I would estimate that 25%-30% of the remaining 10 hours were spent in the open world of Lucis, while the rest of the time I was advancing the story’s linear portion. So at most, it is a quarter of the game’s run that is spent on this segment, and even that is not true, since there are still dozens of hours of content left to uncover in Lucis after the credits roll. Additionally, I have to say that not all of this segment is unenjoyable. Actually, a lot of it is still very fun, and still provides some non-linear dungeons to explore. It’s particularly interesting to see the game experiment with negative moods and how it puts the friendship between our heroes to the ultimate test.
The best example of this duality is in one particular sequence near the end. Noctis is separated from his friends, and has lost access to all of his items. He is forced to continue forward by himself in a lengthy, maze-like dungeon that takes clear inspiration from horror games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Now, in theory, this is a fantastic deconstruction of all that the game has built up so far. What is Noctis worth without his friends or trusty arsenal of weapons? Nothing. Our previously powerful, confident hero is now in a situation that makes him vulnerable and weak. This is a great story decision.
In reality, however, this sequence drags on for far longer than it should. Two hours in to this dungeon, far after the game made its story point, it still continues on and on and on, as Noctis slowly recovers his abilities and friends. It ends up being the worst moment of the game, but you know what? I appreciated it putting me through the fire and brimstone of its length. Once I came out on the other side, I had a stronger appreciation for Noctis and his allies, and it made the game’s ending all the more impactful.
The Fantasy Is Still Alive
If you are a Final Fantasy fan, or heck, even an RPG fan, I think Final Fantasy XV is a must-buy. It is a stunningly beautiful and deeply affecting return to form for the series. It’s world and characters are easily the best that the series has provided since Final Fantasy IX, and its forward thinking, open world design moves the series in a bright direction. At the same time, it’s not the most user friendly of open world RPGs. While I would recommend this to veterans of the genre, I would not say this is the best starting point for the RPG genre. It has just enough quirks and missteps that I can see a less-than forgiving gamer getting pretty frustrated.
But I am a firm believer that a game is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Final Fantasy XV‘s slower and linear back end do not take away from the stunning achievements this game has accomplished in other departments. This game is a stellar example of great world building and character development in an open world setting, something that other open world RPGs have never gotten quite as well as this game has.
- Amazing character models, animations and world design
- Technically, the game is a marvel. It runs at a smooth 30 fps for the vast majority of its length despite being so visually intense
- It moves the series to “open world” while keeping the identity of Final Fantasy intact
- The numerous dungeons are a joy to explore, and the environments are equal parts mysterious and creepy
- Combat system is one of the best in the series, blending intense action with strategic depth
- There is a metric ton of things to do in the game’s main explorable area, the continent of Lucis
- The characterization of the game’s protagonists is masterfully done. The world of Eos also feels very well built, and there is a lot of fascinating lore underneath the breathtaking vistas it provides
- The storytelling structure in its back end is an interesting shift, darkening the tone of the story significantly and putting the relationship of its protagonists to the ultimate test
- Pretty buggy, but nothing out of this world if you’re already used to open world games
- The overall story can be cliché and requires some suspension of disbelief to enjoy fully
- Pacing goes totally off rails near the end of the game, and it feels rushed, despite the game’s lengthy development time. The linear structure can also feel unsatisfying when compared to the wonderful open world that came before it