Final Fantasy XV Review
A long time coming, the JRPG franchise returns to the spotlight with positive results
The first time I heard rumblings of Final Fantasy XV was when it was still called Final Fantasy Versus XIII. At the time, there were just a handful of promotional images, the most prominent being Final Fantasy XV’s protagonist Noctis on the throne. It’s difficult, ten-or-so years later, to define how much of the original parts became what we now know as XV, but there’s no doubt that what became of it was a medley of different ideas and rewrites and design choices. It’s a Frankenstein game, to a degree.
A lot can happen in ten years, particularly in the JRPG and WRPG scene. Some say the JRPG is dying. I’d have to disagree. Funnily enough, in toting up what my games of the year were, I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the great JRPGs I played this year. Trails of Cold Steel, Bravely Second, World of Final Fantasy, I am Setsuna—some great entries for purists (and my personal games of the year). Not that WRPGs were slacking, either. On current-gen systems, we’ve seen hits like Dragon Age Inquisition and The Witcher 3—two of my favourite RPGs. However, there’s no denying that, to make a game that has more marketability and global appeal, the Western slant is the way to go.
In some ways, FFXV wants to have its cake and eat it. With FFXIII and its subsequent sequels, Square Enix has been trying to find this middle ground, to appeal to both the old and the new. At the start of XV, you’re greeted with “A game for both new and old Final Fantasy fans.” To be honest, it rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t want games to make excuses, simply "be".
In FFXV you step into the shoes of Noctis Lucis Caelum, Crown Prince of Lucis, which is the last kingdom in the world that controls the crystals. You set off on a journey with your royal pals: Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis, to marry Noctis's future wife and current Oracle Lunafreya Nox Fleuret. It's her job to protect the world from evil creatures, who could potentially drown the land in eternal darkness. And, obviously, there are forces out there that don't want you to achieve that.
After the four heroes say a brief farewell to Noctis’ father in the city of Insomnia, you’re greeted with Florence and the Machine’s cover of Ben E King’s “Stand by Me”, pushing your broken down car across the tarmac. Togetherness, perseverance, bromance. The intro gave me a lot of hope, a blend of the old and the new, setting what would be the tone of the entire journey. You soon meet one of the many nods to this theme. Cid, who’s made an appearance in pretty much every FF game, is an old mechanic. Cindy, his youthful protégé, now holds the torch. I took it as a metaphor for the series: it’s time to move on.
As a player, you’re simply dumped in an open world, right off the bat. It’s yours to explore. Final Fantasy has never done that to this degree before. Sure, at first, you’re gauntleted—the wider world slowly unlocks. If you blaze through the story, the areas became available in a couple of hours. The trouble, though, is that there is something more dangerous in this open world than monsters, the eternal struggle of WRPGs: pacing. It’s distraction. It’s spending hours hunting or item collecting or chocobo riding. No longer does the plot drag you along, broken sporadically by sidequests that are the JRPG pacing formulae.
In The Witcher 3, you have different villages, with quests and events that bring out the character of each locale. Similar design follows in the likes of Fallout and Dragon Age. However, in the open world of FFXV, it’s the same rest stops with a few cosmetic changes. I miss the sense of wonder in discovering new cities that I had with older instalments. Even World of Final Fantasy does a better job; though, I’ll concede the effort needed is certainly lower. It’s almost as if we’ve pendulously swung from the linearity of FFXIII right through to FFXV—there’s no middle ground. If we go all “Inception” on this, FFXV battles that issue once again: half the game is open world, then we go on rails for the second half. I honestly don’t know which version of the game came first.
Let’s make this a compliment sandwich, though. FFXV has some beautiful environments, whether you’re rolling along the tarmac in your royal Regalia vehicle, creeping through icy caverns, or galloping across grassy fields on your chocobo. The sense of scale is some of the best I’ve experienced in a game. When you tackle the goliath Astral Titan in a crater, having to block his giant hand, it looks and feels fantastic. The developers made a huge improvement since that awful E3 demo. In another portion of the game, you had to grab a jewel for an NPC with a ridiculous “There’s Something About Mary” haircut and an even more ridiculous New York accent. You creep along a mountainside and carefully make your way past a giant bird (a variant of a Zuu, maybe). At one point, the flying monster rumbles and takes off, and you can only gawp as this truly massive thing towers above you.
The food, too, is insane. I never thought a fictional cut of meat from a behemoth could look good. But if Ignis cooked it for me and slammed it between two pieces of bread with some sauce, I’d eat it. You can cook at camp, and it bestows a number of bonuses, like increased health or attack. You can acquire recipes as you go along, much like the in Tales of, I am Setsuna, and Trails of Cold Steel games. Don’t ask me why cooking and fishing minigames are such a big thing. It’s a big pastime in Japan. Now the players are stuck with it.
While cooking is Ignis’ speciality; Noctis has fishing; Gladio scavenges for better items after battle; Prompto takes selfies. Well, not just selfies, but acts as a record of your adventure. Every time you rest at a campsite, motel—wherever—these personal stats can increase depending on what you have done since your last period of rest. Sleeping also tots up your EXP and lets you level up.
Each time you level up, you get AP, which most FF fans will find familiar. You spend AP on the Ascension board to buy certain abilities: new moves, stat increases, generating more AP, etc. It’s a simplified version of the board in FFXII and, to a lesser extent, the board in FFX. It’s fine. It’s not the most inspiring levelling system, mainly because I never really wanted to use many of the abilities, save for increasing my stats—which was a must. Many of the best abilities require rather lofty amounts of AP, which you’re expected to grind a lot to achieve.
And most of the AP you accrue will be through combat. The closest similarity with regards to combat you’ll find is with Final Fantasy Type-0 (which, I felt has the combat edge). I like the fact combat has been streamlined. While you have, strangely, two modes—Active and Wait—I found no reason to use the latter. Again, it’s that idea of trying to please both the old and the new. Active is just live combat, no pauses except when you access the menu. Wait pauses while you target each enemy.
Battles can be insanely fun and hectic, especially when you have to take down large beasties. One of Noctis' abilities is that he can warp to certain points, to take cover or assess the situation. It’s part of his royal heritage, much like the Royal Arms, which are special weapons that bestow stat improvements, as well as increased damaged. There were 13 in total, which are scavenged from old tombs across the map. These range from axes to katanas to bows and sceptres. However, I rarely found myself using them because of the fact they slowly whittle your health down. On the other side, the limit break drains your MP and powers up your moves, which I found infinitely more useful. When you’re in the late game and monsters really pack a punch, you may only get a couple of hits off with your Royal Arms until you’re dead. Instead, I used them in empty weapon slots simply to boost my stats.
One component I liked from the Platinum Demo, which I feel was lost in the game, was the need to cycle through weapons, somewhat like Devil May Cry. Because the majority of enemies have one or two weapon/elemental weaknesses, you’re better off just sticking with one method of punishment. Your “fellowship of the bling” do well in combat and will generally wail on enemies by themselves; however, you have to suitably equip your pals first. Their link abilities—whether it’s a straight up attack, more defensive or magical—can be switched on the fly. But I rarely swapped abilities out because, most of the time, you want to cause as much magical or physical damage as possible. Your Link strikes and Blindside strikes are paired and singular moves that, respectively, cause increased damage. The fluidity of movement and interaction between Noctis and his bros looks really nice. And it was only in rare instances that I became bored in combat.
Items are an aspect where I welcomed a streamlined approach. Much like the “Tales of” games, items don’t restore a fixed amount of health anymore, but rather a percentage of health. Because they are relatively cheap and easily accessible through the menu, I wasn’t forever navigating for just the right type of healing item, nor had a stock of potions that I’d never use—like in Skyrim.
My gripes with the open world really only extend to the settlements themselves. The diversity in locations, like the murky marshes of The Vesperpool, the town of Lestallum, the Mistwood, and Disc of Cauthess offer nice distractions. Each dungeon you enter, whether it’s a disused mine, old temple, or an ice cavern, are visually appealing and feel personally crafted. It’s why I didn’t mind the fact that there were relatively few of them, when taking into account other types of open world games. I just wish they’d stuck to that ethos throughout the game.
The now somewhat infamous post-game dungeon, which plays out more like an adventure platforming game, was infuriatingly fun. It was just so unexpected and hinted at the kind of genius that is lurking underneath. But for every dungeon like that, you have the several post-game dungeons that are slog-fests to get a slightly better weapon. By accident, I stumbled upon the 100-floor dungeon. I finished that dungeon a changed man. I’d stared into the abyss of Master Tonberrys and Flan enemies so much that I literally had to set the game aside for a couple of days. I had spent around 5 of my 78 hours in FFXV in that infernal place.
Now, the story, and the pendulum analogy returns. Moments of genius, moments of tedium. Surprisingly, for a game that tries to please everyone, the team took a big risk by basically saying to the players: if you want to understand this game, you’re going to have to watch all our supplementary material. I’d watched the Kingsglaive movie—went so far as to go to a cinema with loads of fans. I really enjoyed it. To be honest, the story of the team of soldiers in service to the king was more interesting on the whole. I knew about those characters, even cared about them a little.
You’re not told about Noctis and his pals, and what information you do receive is very piecemeal. By the end of the game, I knew that Prompto went to high school with Noctis and that he feels somewhat insecure. Ignis…cooks. Galdio is a ladies' man, likes interacting with people, and has a sister. That was kind of it.
For RPGs, the story tends to be the axel in which the game world and action turns. As we play, we learn character history, their motivations, and it’s revealed through narrative and action. However, something happened in FFXV where this never really arrives. There is the odd mission-based story event—fishing or finding an ingredient—which reveal a little backstory. Not much else. And if our protagonists suffer a disservice, I don’t quite know what you could say happens to our antagonists and ancillary characters.
Noctis wants to see Lady Lunafreya, his bride to be. Their marriage can end the tensions between Insomia and Tenabrae. Throughout the story, Noctis is asked if he’s excited, asked what this marriage means to him. As a player, I had no idea. I didn’t even know why I should care about Luna. I’m told her and Noctis have a strong relationship, and flashbacks were even shown a handful of times. I never felt their bond; they felt like strangers. I never wanted to go forwards to discover what happened next. She seemed to exude an Aerith vibe. But you actually learnt about Aerith in FFVII, so her sacrifice meant something.
The main antagonist Ardyn felt like wasted potential. The look and feel of the character had something in him to be memorable, and I got a serious Jeremy Irons feel from him. I assumed he wanted revenge against the astrals (elemental gods) because he was immortal… or something. A lot of the plot and motivations are a real mess.
Ravus, Lunafreya’s brother, who wants revenge because Noctis’ father invaded their lands, is treated with even less regard. Again, there is something good there. He has motivation, but unless you’ve watched Kingsglaive, you have no clue. He’s antagonistic one moment, then praising Noctis the second. Then he’s dead - turned into a monster - and all he gets are a couple of notes explaining his entire motivation. Oh, how kind of you, Ravis.
Aranea Highwind, a mercenary/ex-mercenary in the employ of Tenebrae, also had potential to be interesting. And again, we get nothing from her. Her muddy motivations and nihilistic viewpoint could have been interesting. Nope. Better you explore the open world rather than form any connection with what’s happening around you. Where FFXIII disappointed me in the linearity, FFVX disappointed me in story. At least, for the majority of the time.
There’s a sequence on a train where the game uses its mechanics so that you zip from one small aircraft to another—that’s cool. The battle in an enemy facility where you fight Aranae and it feels like Final Fantasy again—awesome. The final battle—more of that, please. Show me how far I’ve come, Square Enix. Don’t just have a selfie do it. The ending is reminiscent of FFVII, and the collection of pictures that rolled during credits was a really nice touch.
It was these parts which hinted at what could have been. It made me nostalgic, and it made me like FFXV a lot more. It’s been a ten-year labour; the fact that FFXV arrived, albeit a little broken, is a miracle. It’s a damn sight better than FFXIII, but never reaches the heights of other previous instalments. Final Fantasy, as a series, is trying to figure out how it fits in the world. It’s dealing with its teenage angst in more ways than one. But there’s hope there, a promise that it can be great again.
Is the world of FFXV worth revisiting in sequels? Honestly, I don’t know anything of the wider world. Maybe. The recently announced series of very heavy updates are a positive sign. Perhaps they could even elevate the game to bigger greatness. I believe I probably hold the game to a much higher standard than most. I went through pretty much all the game had to offer, and I really enjoyed it—just not as a perfectly faithful Final Fantasy experience.
Final Fantasy XV is a very solid open world RPG if you’re going in there to battle, collect items, and generally sink some time in an interesting place. If you’re coming from Dragon Age or The Witcher or Skyrim, you know what you’re getting. For the Final Fanboys and girls, you'll just be pleased to be back on the road.