Final Fantasy XV opens with the tagline: “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers”. Fittingly so, it really is a Final Fantasy for everyone. Right from the get-go, you are introduced to an easy-to-understand world. The characters are loveable, and you can kind of relate to many of them. The story – with pacing issues that we will get to later – can be quite epic as well. The game even has control mechanics that everyone, and their moms, can get used to. To top it all, the game is gorgeous. In short, Final Fantasy XV is a wonderful, yet wacky, and incredibly surprising game that has amazing highs with one or two major lows.
When it comes to the development process, the Final Fantasy franchise has always been the poster child of how not to do it. The very first game that started it all was meant to be Square (now Square Enix’s) last ever game. This was the studio’s last-ditch effort in the game industry, and a massive gamble. Fast forward 29 years, and we have Final Fantasy XV. Contrary to the Roman numerals after the title, it is not at all the fifteenth game in the franchise. It is, however, one of the best in more than a decade.
Final Fantasy XV was intended to be a spin-off from the Final Fantasy XIII universe. It was meant to take part in the world and lore setup in XIII. After numerous setbacks and pauses in its development, the game shifted focus and was finally released as Final Fantasy XV – a game with its own world, lore and characters.
Set in the world of Eos, players take on the role of Noctis Caellum, prince of Lucis. His best friends, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto, serve as Royal Protectors to Noctis. The four young men are sent on a journey by King Regis Caellum, Noctis’ father, and head of the kingdom of Lucis. Together, they are tasked with guiding Noctis to his bride-to-be, Lunafreya – beloved oracle and a strong leader in her own right.
As they make their way out of the capital city borders, Lucis gets invaded by the oppressive Niflheim Empire. It is during this chapter in the journey that they learn of King Regis’ death, an event that transpired in Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive – a film that takes place during the opening chapters of the game. With the guidance of Ignis, the four decide that the best thing to do is to continue their journey onward. Through their quest, they are introduced to incredibly high stakes, but not before the four young men treat the journey forward as the best road trip in the world.
In classic Final Fantasy tradition, the world is ravaged by conflict and love always conquers all. A returning concept in Final Fantasy XV is that of the power of the Crystal. This is not a new concept, as it use to be a staple in the original Final Fantasy games. In Final Fantasy XV , the Crystal is back and this time it has the power to control the daemons that plague the world at night. Similarly, the Crystal also gives Noctis the power to use magic. This also featured in Final Fantasy: Kingsglaive, where the Glaive were entrusted with the powers of the King. For Noctis, the powers allow him to switch between weapons on the fly; teleport (or phase) through objects and to different locations; and take control of the ancient powers of the kings of old.
The biggest change to Final Fantasy XV, coming from older titles, is a massive shift from turn-based combat to real-time active battles. The game takes queues from the likes of Kingdom Hearts and mixes it up with mechanics introduced in Final Fantasy XI and XII. With this in mind, Noctis can switch between four different weapons and spells as quickly as the player can tap the corresponding buttons. Similarly, by merely tapping a button, the player can lash out at the enemy without thinking too much about it. Tapping or holding another will block and parry. It really is that easy.
Some of the slightly more challenging gameplay mechanics come into play with Noctis’ friends/teammates. For the most part, the other guys function autonomously and without any input from players. However, there are moments where players can order them to do special moves (called techniques) and tell them to take potions and power-ups; but that is about all that players can command them to do.
Fortunately, the artificial intelligence that powers ‘Noctis’ Crew’ is smart enough to navigate around the various monsters you face. By this, I mean that it has been finely tuned to avoid frustrating the player. So when your attention is elsewhere (namely trying to prevent Noctis from an early grave), your teammates are more than capable of helping each other without any additional input from you, the player. Similarly, I also noticed the boys using their techniques, of their own volition, during later stages of the game. Perhaps I was unintentionally causing them to react, but the fact that I was not able to tell is testament to how good the AI and combat system is.
Thanks to the power of the Crystal, Noctis can phase through attacks and teleport around the battlefield. Holding the ‘Y’ button on Xbox One or Triangle on PlayStation 4 lets Noctis teleport to a nearby vantage point where he will regain all mana, and regenerate health at a faster rate. From there, you can also lock on and initiate stronger warp strikes.
At the end of the day, combat in Final Fantasy XV is easy to understand and fair to master. It does not have a lot of depth to it, and will not go down in history as a revolutionary gameplay feature. If I had my way, I would return to the old-school turn-based roots that I grew up with. I feel that older games like Final Fantasy IV, VIII, and IX did better with that kind of play style. Then again, I am not so sure if the turn-based fighting solution would work for Final Fantasy XV, given its open-world. As such, I do feel that Final Fantasy XV is able to stand on its own, with its own mechanics – which work well for the kind of game that it is. One of my favorite fighting moments was when the team versus Titan. It is easily one of the best the game has to offer as it gives you an impressive sense of scale and keeps you engaged. More so, it proves how changing to a real-time battle system was necessary.
To be honest, the story takes a bit of a step back during the majority of the gameplay. Rather, the narrative slowly works itself into the weave of what is an open-ended sandbox adventure. An adventure that results in some of the best bonding that I have ever experienced between video game characters. Noctis’ friends are the driving force behind the game. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses. Ignis’ calm and collected, almost “mentor”-like role; Gladiolus’ brash and straightforward demeanour; and even Prompto’s awkward, yet happy-go-lucky attitude; all help to solidify the fact that this is as close as anyone will ever get to experiencing a ‘real-life’ Final Fantasy road trip.
During their journey, the friends tend to banter, sharing both memories and innocent yet meaningless insults. Up until that very last chapter, the bond between the friends are put at the forefront of the game and story. With every passing night, and every mundane fetch-quest that the friends go on, their friendship grows. Even during trying times, it seems that the bond between them is unbreakable… which is why, when it does break, the game offers a sense of heartache that is unlike many I have played before. Of course, as is Final Fantasy tradition, all is always well by the end.
The payoff is unlike that of more recent titles in the franchise, where the end is just that, an end. With Final Fantasy XIII, for instance, there is no sense of accomplishment or “completeness” that is had. Instead, you close the program and continue with your life. With Final Fantasy XV, however, I genuinely felt like the payoff was worth it. Before we get there, however, let me ask you: how many times did I mention the story? Once? Maybe twice? Therein lies Final Fantasy XV’s biggest problem.
As I mentioned before, the story takes somewhat of a step back as one plays the game. This is fine, and by no means a bad thing. However, the way it is done is rather jarring and, in my opinion, is a problem.
First and foremost, the story is actually incredible. It is a happy-go-lucky road trip that turns into an epic journey of vengeance. You start off as four boys, leaving to get married in the name of peace. You end up as four men, warriors in their own right, who ultimately save the kingdom – by bringing the Empire to its knees. The problem is that the sandbox nature of the game means that it is very easy to go “off course” and completely lose track of what is an engrossing and interesting story. In short, the sandbox elements are too disparate from the narrative of the game.
Questing in this game is easy enough. You run from outpost to outpost in search of quests. Most of these take you to various locations in search of items to bring back. You can go on adventures to take photos of famous locations, such as the crater where the franchise-old Meteor struck Eos long ago. You can even go on various Chocobo adventures, which leads me to my next point: Chocobos are back baby! Now, I know this is a part where I have to speak about the plot, so bear with me.
Obviously, we all knew that they would be back! With their big, golden, fluffy plumes, these birds are as synonymous with Final Fantasy games as is the character named Cid. However, the context in which they returned is amazing. Unlike recent games in the franchise, you can now pretty much go anywhere with them. When you first unlock your Chocobo (which I creatively named Choco), you are taught how to hire them for several days at a time. Naturally, I spent my remaining 1000 Gil on as many days as it would allow me to hire my new chocobo. This is where the game’s main narrative problem presents itself. After renting ‘choco’, I did not return to that same outpost for days. This is where I noticed, for the first time, just how jarring the open-world content differs from the plot.
The main plot is perhaps the most inconsistent part of the game. The lack of context can make it very hard for anyone not paying attention to follow. Without spoiling too much, all I can say is that you are tasked with finding ancient weapons in one instance and then finding and summoning Astrals the next. I can get to grips with the main story aspect turning into a sidequest down the line, but it is done so quickly in Final Fantasy XV, that it feels a little bit ‘off’. As such, it compounds the disparity between the story and the open-world gameplay. For example, after just ending a chapter where you felt like the world just came down onto your shoulders… you can go on a road trip and do a bit of monster hunting straight after! The problem is that once the story bit is said and done, the four friends go about their business like it never even happened. The disconnect pulls players out of the narrative, which is a shame given how great the story is.
It was revealed back in August 2015, that only half of the game would be open-world. This is mostly true. Without spoiling anything, I can safely say that the game effectively closes off at Chapter nine. Even then, however, the game allows you to go back if you really wanted to. This is possible thanks to a seemingly tacked on “time travel” magic that a support character gets during the later chapters. Linearity aside, I must admit that the most enjoyable “epic” moments definitely came from the last few chapters. Before this, the story literally followed the following structure:
- Serious story moment
- Open world gameplay with no mention of serious story moment
- Serious story moment
- Open world gameplay with no mention of serious story moment
- Repeat steps one through four until Chapter nine
Now, in the game’s defence, I reckon that it is possible to go through the entire game without doing much of anything else. The game kind of forces you to taste the open world every now and again, but you can pick it up from there pretty easily. The only thing that might make it difficult is the sudden jump in enemy difficulty. The jump in difficulty is, of course, also an old staple of the franchise. This forces the player to go out into the world and grind to level up their characters and get better equipment. My question then, is this: why do this when the game is very clearly, not made to go back and forth between story and open-world?
Now do not get me wrong. Final Fantasy XV is a remarkable game. It is easily one of my top three games of 2016, and possibly even the foreseeable future.
Final Fantasy XV features some of the best bonding that I have seen between a cast of characters – period. I honestly cannot recall the last time I cared so much for a group of digital people. The game has a fair bit of combat and manages to keep the player on their toes throughout. Many aspects of the game have an amazing sense of scale, especially the boss battles. I mentioned the fight with Titan before, but I must also mention Leviathan. In order to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, I will only mention what is seen in promotional media: Noctis phasing through the air to attack the legendary sea serpent head on. This actually happens in the game and it is so cool to watch. With that said, however, the combat that follows kind of takes away from it all; but even then, there is no greater sense of scale in other games.
Then there is the story. It really is a doozy. While it is the best story by far in recent Final Fantasy titles (that is counting from XIII), it is also the most jarring in terms of pacing. Following the story right through is a possibility, but the gameplay has an incredible jump in difficulty that might make enjoying the story a chore. Similarly, when engaging with the fantastic open-world, there is no sense of a need to return to the story. The point is that both are great features of the game, but neither go well together.
Final Fantasy XV is very big in heart and spirit. One could argue that it hearkens back to the simpler days in the Final Fantasy franchise. At its core, it is a game for fans of the genre, and it is developed with the greatest of love. It has elements of third-person adventure games like The Witcher, and elements of old-school Roleplaying Games like, well, older Final Fantasy titles.
The game manages a few lows and a heck of a lot of highs. I admit that I am a very emotional gamer, but I guarantee that the game will creep into your very being by the time that it is over.
Final Fantasy XV was reviewed on the Xbox One using a retail copy provided by Megarom Interactive and Square Enix.
|Time Played||35 hours|
|Acquisition||Game supplied by Megarom Interactive|
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