Final Fantasy XV has finally arrived. It’s a game quite literally 10 years in the making. With 10 years in development ( 6 in development hell / 4 years of active development) this game is bringing along a lot of baggage and expectations. Having transitioned from Versus XIII to a main numbered entry also adds another level pressure to Square especially after failing to connect with audiences on their last single player outing, The Final Fantasy XIII Trilogy. Three demo’s later, a couple of delays, and copious amounts of pre-release coverage it’s time to render a verdict on the finished product.
What’s it all about?
One of the very first screens that welcome’s you to Final Fantasy XV is “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers”. This is definitely an apt description. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII which was an incomprehensible mess with bland characters and a story that couldn’t be understood without reading its extensive encyclopedia, Final Fantasy XV is as straightforward narratively as it gets. You play as Noctis Lucis Caelum, the prince of the Kingdom of Lucis, who is on his way to meet Lunafreya Nox Fleuret who he’s been betrothed to in an effort to broker peace between Lucis and the Empire of Niflheim. On his way there, things go sideways (see: Kingsglaive Final Fantasy XV) and Noctis and his entourage of bros a jettisoned on a journey to gather ancient power to take the fight back to Niflheim. That’s the whole story in a nutshell. There are twists and turns and revelations to be had but the best parts of the story revolve around getting to know your party members.
A hero’s Journey
For the first time since Final Fantasy X, your party feels like living breathing people rather than walking plot devices. They all have distinctive personalities whether it’s Prompto’s Photography hobby which is on display every time you end a chapter or camp for the night. Gladiolus, the resident tough guy is also a huge nature buff which allows him to find items while you’re on foot in forested areas. Ignis is the default driver as well as the party’s cook. As you go to various restaurants and find certain ingredients out in the wild he thinks of new recipes that give your party certain buffs during the next day night cycle. They all contribute to the narrative as well as gameplay and it’s quite excellent how they pulled this off. Final Fantasy XV’s best parts are when it truly feel like 4 friends on a road trip. Them in the car listening to music or Prompto begging everyone to pull over so he can get an awesome photo. It’s all very convincing in no small part due to its excellent voice acting. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to the rest of the cast. The biggest problem with Final Fantasy XV is its overarching story and how it treats its villains and secondary characters.
Narratively speaking XV feels like a film with too much of its story left on the cutting room floor. It’s clear that it had a skeleton of a story with a series of story beats that they needed to hit but too much of the context behind things are left to the imagination. For example a big part of the narrative hinges on the relationship between Noctis and Lunafreya as well as his father, however, you’re simply not shown them together in a major capacity. Minor spoiler, King Lucis dies in the opening chapter of the game (also see: Kingsglaive) but because you only see him for a single scene you as the audience don’t feel the weight of his death because you haven’t spent any time with him. The same can be said for Lunafreya. The game explores the bond between her and Noctis but you never are shown them actually developing a bond. Instead, it’s told to you over and over again from characters.There are a couple of flashbacks that show them as children but they only ever talk about prophecies and their future roles. Now some of you might say well there is the movie Kingsglaive and the ONA Brotherhood that give the audience more context to which I’d say for a $60 AAA title I shouldn’t have to rely on ancillary media to get an understanding of the story.
On top of that other characters are criminally underdeveloped. In the beginning of the game, you’re introduced to the Head of the Niflheim empire who are the game’s primary antagonist yet some of them are never seen again. Other characters like Cindy the granddaughter of this game’s Cid seems to exist solely for fan service. Some seem to be set up for major arcs only for them to disappear or abruptly end All in all Final Fantasy XV’s story had a solid core that could’ve benefited from more meat on the bones.
Control and Gameplay
From episode Duscae not much has changed in the gameplay department. You control Noctis while his compatriots are controlled by AI. Noctis has an impressive arsenal of weapons at his disposal including but not limited to one-handed swords, twin daggers, lances, greatswords, and projectile weapons. These weapons are mapped to the D-pad allowing you to hot swap between them at will allowing you to tailor your loadout depending on the enemy. In addition to weapons, you also have the use of magic extracted from the environment and stored in husks. Final Fantasy summons return in the form of Astrals who aid you in combat under certain conditions like down party members or Noctis’ HP reaching zero. For a mainline Final Fantasy’s first foray into real-time combat, it has an amazing amount of depth. The only problem I’ve experienced is the camera. While going into the settings and choosing to move the camera as far as possible during combat improves things in open areas, enclosed areas are still a huge mess. The camera is fine during exploration but once combat hits it has no idea how to get a proper angle. One egregious offense happened later in the game where every time I cast a spell, it would spin the camera around to face Noctis rather than the enemy I had targeted leaving me open to attacks from other enemies off screen. Another complaint I have is how the jump button is also the interact button so whenever I tried to open a door or pick up an item on the ground Noctis would jump until I viewed it from the right angle. In terms of things to do, there is no shortage of side quests. Carrying over from Final Fantasy XII are monster hunts each increasing in difficulty and netting lots of experience and items. There are also a dozen or so hidden tombs holding special weapons from Noctis’ ancestors as well a couple of hidden gems after the game is beaten. The best part is that once you reach the point in the game where things become more linear you can almost always travel back to the Duscae region and do any sidequests you’ve missed.
Graphics and Production Value
If you’ve made it this far you’re probably asking “How does it look!?” Final Fantasy XV looks amazing. Never before has a final fantasy world felt so convincing. Towns are lively and filled with NPCs (That’s right XIII fans there are actual TOWNS). The in-between areas are brimming with plant and animal life. This is easily the best looking open world title this side of The Witcher 3. This does come with its share of hitches. While I’m by no stretch of the imagination, a frame rate guy, it’s hard not to notice some of the frame rate dips I experienced throughout the game. During wide open areas the frame rate holds pretty steadily at 30fps. Once you enter two of the major cities in the game The engine buckles under the pressure of all the NPC’s and building geometry. This also happens during the boss battle with Leviathan at the midpoint of the story. Outside of those, it’s really impressive how beautiful the game is. According to Digital Foundry the best way to play the game is on the Playstation 4 Pro in 1080p mode as it brings the most consistent frame rate of any of the current consoles.
If you’re a lapsed Final Fantasy fan, or a new fan, or even a long time fan that felt burned by Lightning and her crew, XV is definitely one of the best launching pads to get you interested in the series. A strong core cast, fun and engaging gameplay, and beautiful graphics make Final Fantasy XV a must-play game. With a litany of DLC plans and improvements to the core game as well as a newly released New Game + makes XV something you’ll want to hold on to for the next few months. At least until Persona 5 comes stateside.