10 years in the making, Final Fantasy XV certainly has a lot of expectations to meet. It provides a rare and unique experience for a big budget game, and one that sets it apart in the series. It’s a melting pot of ideas and themes that’ll come together for some more than others — possibly because it has little sense of the flavour it’s shooting for.
The opening of the game claims it’s a “Final Fantasy for fans and first timers”, and for the beginning of the game that holds true. Newcomers and veterans alike will all be pleasantly surprised with the opening statement of the game. It promises a tight-knit game that follows four friends on a journey across a huge open world to reclaim the throne from the hands of an Empire that betrayed the ceasefire with their Kingdom. The road trip feeling of the story and that self-same freedom offered by the open road is entirely new to the series. It feels fresh for any game to focus on a group journey in the way that it does, with dynamic-feeling conversations occurring in real time as you travel, and side-stories with your friends also cropping up from just travelling.
There’s a lot you don’t actually have to encounter, but it’s these moments that Final Fantasy XV is actually all about.
Make camp by Duscae’s epic slough and Prompto may ask you to help him get a photo of one of the massive creatures that stalk the swamp in the morning. The two of you sneak off to do so, baiting the creature near, and you need to make a decision as to what cool pose Noctis will throw and how close to allow the dangerous creature to get to you. Afterwards you flee the creature, giddy at the close brush with danger, and saving the photo forever in your gallery. There’s a lot you don’t actually have to encounter, but it’s these moments that Final Fantasy XV is actually all about. A lot of its offerings are what you make of them. Put the time in to become invested in this group of friends, and the game will reward in turn.
Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, there’s only one character here you are actively playing as — Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum. In so doing, it doesn’t just feel like a group of four friends, but Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis in a way begin to feel like your friends. Each have their own talents, and any times they do become unavailable their absence is missed. Yes, they all have their own quirks in combat, different weapons and strategies and everything — but they all have their own less fighty differences too which add some of the most colourful touches to the game. They each have a specific skill that levels through use, and can provide some bonuses.
Final Fantasy XV is easily one of the best looking games of this generation.
Noctis loves fishing, and the fishing activity is perhaps more built out and well-developed than it should be. Gladiolus is the Prince’s bodyguard and “shield”, so his Survival skill helps them find extra items. Prompto and Ignis’ skills are the most charming, though. Ignis can cook a variety of meals for your party that offer stat buffs, the recipes themselves being a sort of collectable. Graphically, the meals are rendered in incredible detail. In fact, everything about the game’s visual design is gorgeous. Final Fantasy XV is easily one of the best looking games of this generation. Befitting the visual splendour is Prompto’s skill: photography. He’ll take photos of your travels throughout the day, be they in the midst of combat or in cutscenes. Some will be duds, but you’ll likely come across some great shots that you can call your own and treasure always.
While there is a “wait mode” that moves enemies only when you do, the game defaults the Active Cross Battle System (ACBS) to being fully real-time. For the most part the group combat works exceptionally well. If you have to fight with the rest of your party KO’d, you’ll definitely feel the difference in terms of support. Not only do all the special moves involve partnering with one of your crew, but general combat will involve a lot of “link strikes” or “blind side link strikes” where you team up to deliver a stronger blow.
Moves and strategies can be tweaked with “Ascension Points” allowing you to equip them with new special moves or give them new strategies — for instance letting Ignis heal allies when their HP is low. If allies do fall, then they’ll enter a “danger” mode where their max HP begins to drop. Using an item to recover or helping them up will restore some of their HP, which can then regenerate up to that max limit. The AI can be spotty, as can sometimes be the way with RPGs where you only directly control one person, but for the most part it works very well. You might want to keep Ignis’ Regroup tech on hand to get the group out of jams if you really need it.
Once it clicks, it becomes a hugely satisfying action game in its own right.
In the ACBS, four equipment slots can be switched through on the fly with the d-pad, and each action Noctis can take is mapped to a face button. He mainly fights using his “warp” abilities. Holding Square will allow him to “phase” through almost any attack at the cost of MP, and just tapping will act more like a moving dodge. Upgrades can reduce this cost entirely if you time the dodging just right. Similarly, holding Circle will attack, and you can change the moves with the left stick. Attacking different points on enemies can weaken or stun them, leaving them vulnerable, so you’ll want to consider positioning and dodging rather than just holding down attack.
The biggest mix-up Noctis has is his warp abilities with Triangle. Hold it in the direction of a “warp point” and Noctis will warp over, where he can hang and regenerate HP and MP, overlooking the battle. You can also do the same hiding behind objects. Tap Triangle in the direction of an enemy, however, and he’ll do a “warp strike”. The further away you strike from, the more damage. Zipping around the battlefield is key to handling Noctis, and you’ll likely want to pump AP into improving his warp skills early on. It’s fast-paced and, once it clicks, it becomes a hugely satisfying action game in its own right. Fights against mobs can feel a little overwhelming, but when it’s one on one and you’re reading dodges and hitting those parries and counters it’s almost breathtaking that Final Fantasy has managed to convert its core principles into some really good action.
Eos is huge, but never feels too daunting.
Magic and summons this time around aren’t really much of a focus. Spells in Final Fantasy XV are basically crafted into bombs (elemental energy can be found on the map and absorbed, or dropped). Of course, you can acquire weapons with certain elemental properties too, as elemental weaknesses are still very much something to keep in mind. By tweaking catalysts when crafting spells, you can come up with some interesting combinations too. As for summons, you won’t really be able to spam them. Each one has quite vague and specific conditions for when the ability to summon them will appear, and it’s more likely they’ll be able to help you in a pinch rather than using them to crush mobs. The summons have a terrific sense of scale, and are truly awesome in the original sense of the word.
Eos, Final Fantasy XV‘s open world, is stunning to look at. It’s huge, but never feels too daunting, as you’ll have your car — the Regalia — at your side, and also access to Chocobos from quite early on. The car is tied to the road network, where you can park pretty much anywhere, and you can then proceed to where you need to go by foot or (preferably) by Chocobo. Most key locations will be quite close to somewhere you can park the car, though. You can get Ignis to drive you, or cruise around yourself. These can get you nice conversations and some bonus AP. The longest points to drive between will never be more than a few minutes away, but for pitiful change you can fast travel to outposts. Plus, you can warp directly to where your car is or the last place you rested, so ricocheting around isn’t ever a hassle.
Any excuse to journey the world with your friends is more than welcomed.
The world is packed with things to do, some more satisfying than others — Chocobo races, fishing, sidequests, hunts, hidden treasures, and that sort of thing. Some of it doesn’t even appear until the post-game (for seemingly arbitrary reasons), and a lot of it is worth checking out. A lot of the sidequests are actually quite boring fetch quests, and only the later hunts inspire much awe. But it’s about the company you keep. Any excuse to journey the world with your friends is more than welcomed. With that said, there’s a bunch of pretty impressive content that’s optional, from dungeons and collecting the rest of the King Weapons, to, yes, that big Final Fantasy turtle, the Adamantoise. Unfortunately the wonder of journeying around a magnificent world only really forms part of the game, and doesn’t really deliver on what it feels like it could have because of it.
The story does very well for sticking with the tale of its four friends and their place in the world.
There’s a clear point in the game where it shifts gears, tucks the open world into a little pocket, and becomes a linear bullet that rushes through to its conclusion. The story doesn’t go where you might expect, at times for the better, and at others for the worse. I didn’t watch the associated Final Fantasy XV media in preparation for this game – I actually wanted to see how it would fare on its own. For the most part, the story does very well for sticking with the tale of its four friends and their place in the world, rather than overdoing it with world lore and epic statements. Ultimately it’s a story about friendship and companionship, which benefits from the smaller scale focus. A couple of fleeting shots of a photograph of King Regis and his own three friends on a parallel journey they undertook in the past does much more for the game’s tone than any deep dive into the history of what Noctis’ father was up to before his birth. That’s good, wholesome world building, the sort that makes my stomach quiver with delight.
On the other hand, what doesn’t work is the game walking you through a tour of straight corridors in the second half, giving you glances at interesting concepts that the game will never explore; or story beats that feel so removed from your experience you can tell without looking at the Season Pass that they will be DLC. So much feels obligingly lifted from the cutting room floor. Other things were perhaps left there unfinished, as plot threads dangle and are forgotten about completely. One city, gloriously modelled and artfully crafted, features only in the story extremely briefly before you’re shoved along. At another point a loading screen (because yes, as the game moves along the frequency of information being only divulged in the loading screens increases tenfold) tells of vast and bizarre vistas brought about by a world changing event, only for you to briefly glimpse the environments from a train as you whizz your way through to the plot’s conclusion.
Mechanically, the game becomes a bit odd during the second half too. A lot of what the game spends the first half teaching you is thrown out of the window for odd and unsatisfying gimmicks. There are moments when these changes feel powerful (for instance if the party is briefly split), but others just fall flat. One boss fight throws the combat you’ve learnt out of the window in favour of a Super Saiyan fight that is strangely reminiscent of a cross between the Perfect Chaos boss fight from Sonic Adventure, and the Final Hazard from Sonic Adventure 2. Things like the mechanics of that boss fight, or stealth, are introduced and taught and then promptly forgotten about never to be seen again. Similarly characters jump into the story, are cool to hang out with, and then leave never to really add anything to the story ever again.
You can’t overlook the originality and the amount of love that oozes from the true heart of Final Fantasy XV.
Final Fantasy XV isn’t a bad game. Far from it. But it is a frustrating one. It’s a great game that quite quickly does the best it can to get in the way of itself. It’s fair to say that Final Fantasy XV “played itself”. Behind the game’s 10 year development cycles doesn’t appear to lie fine tuning, but a troubled process that ended up delivering a very disjointed, patchwork experience. There’s simply no satisfying conclusion to what Final Fantasy XV is.
But, taking out the conclusion, the sense of journey and adventure offered by the first part of the game and the post-game is deft and incomparable to really anything else out there. With a greater focus on using the party’s comradeship and the open world to weave the narrative, Final Fantasy XV would have been a truly spectacular game. This is instead a very flawed game that nevertheless provides some unforgettable experiences and journeys of your own making that feel very personal to the characters you spend your time with. The journey, the open world, and the combat are all terrific steps forward for Final Fantasy as a series. It’s hard to overlook its flaws — the game does as much as it can to put those flaws square in your way — but at the same time you can’t overlook the originality and the amount of love that oozes from the true heart of Final Fantasy XV.
It’s worth noting that Square Enix have addressed some of the issues I’ve covered here, and are promising to support the game for a long time with major tweaks and updates beyond DLC. I stand by what I’ve written, but it’s something to consider.