Ten years ago, Square Enix teased us with taking the Final Fantasy franchise in a bit darker direction with Final Fantasy XIII Versus. Ten years later, not all of those pieces remained intact, and the game was given a name change. It’s been a long wait, but Final Fantasy XV has finally arrived. So, was it worth the wait? While the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy had its share of fans, it also had many detractors, with many viewing that’s where the franchise for its single player games (the online MMO FF XIV was a different story) had gone off the rails. So after the decade long development, Final Fantasy XV was hoped to right the ship. And, for the most part, I’m happy to report that it did just that. While it is no masterpiece, it’s a solid effort from Square Enix, and puts the franchise back on the right track, rectifying some of the wrongs of the FF XIII trilogy. It didn’t solve them all, but it took care of most.
This outing of the Final Fantasy franchise takes place in Eos, a land torn by war between the kingdom of Lucis and the empire of Nifleheim. Things are supposed to be smoothed over by the wedding of Prince Noctis of Lucis and Lunafreya of Tennebrae. But King Regis is betrayed by the emperor during the signing of a treaty, and Luna is forced to flee, carrying with her the king’s Ring of Lucii, which holds the power of the ancient kings of the land. Things fall to Noctis and his three friends- the pragmatic cook Ignis, the gruff soldier Gladiolus, and the ever peppy photographer Prompto- to make the journey across the land to reunite the Prince with his bride to be. Naturally, many obstacles stand in the way, in the form of the land’s myriad beasts, daemons, and the empire’s robotic soldiers. Along the way the friends also need to recover a crystal of power that was stolen from Lucis, as the crystal will give the rightful king the power to banish darkness and restore peace to the land.
In many ways, it’s a typical Final Fantasy story, one that holds a couple of new elements but is mostly a familiar tale. While the prologue animated movie Kingsglaive isn’t required viewing to understand what’s going on, it does set the stage nicely and I’d recommend watching prior to beginning the game. There is also a short anime series called The Brotherhood which gives some backstory to Noctis and his three friends. Again, not required viewing, but it does provide some nice background for the characters.
And how you ultimately will feel about Final Fantasy XV will depend heavily on how you feel about the four friends. The four are the core and the heart of the game, and regardless of how the player feels about them, they do come across as a true group of longtime friends, their camaraderie evident in all of their actions. You’ll play as Noctis, the prince who can come across as a whiny brat and someone who feels entitled, but there is a growth arc as he does rise to the occasion, often with Gladiolus berating him, and he becomes who he needs to be. Ignis can come off as pragmatic and the steady one of the group who uses logic to hold everyone together. Gladiolus is the gruff big brother type, a soldier that will serve his prince and future king, whatever the cost. Prompto can be nearly insufferable with his singing, bad jokes, and boundless enthusiasm. But he does take a good picture (there’s a neat feature that allows you to share Prompto’s pics on social media- more on that later). This is a group that some will form a great attachment to, and those that do so will get more enjoyment out of the game. For others, the group may never quite resonate, dampening the experience, even if you can recognize their core friendship in the game. I fell into this second group, and Prompto came to be among my most despised characters in the franchise (at least he’s not as bad as FF XIII’s Vanille, but he’s close). The inane and repetitive dialogue between the group as they went about their travels didn’t help things much.
But how is the gameplay among the group? After all, good gameplay can help ease any unlikeable character defects. The active time combat system is, for the most part, fun. Noctis has four slots in which to equip either weapons or magical spells. You can also equip two accessories for Noctis that can add buffs like extra HP or strength. The other three have a slot for a main weapon, a secondary weapon or spell, and an accessory. You can also change their clothing, but I never found extra outfits on my travels (save ones granted just by playing the main story line) so never used the option to change. It’s nice to have the option, though, so you can modify the characters to fit your own play style. You can buy weapons at vendors across the land or collect items and have Cid (there is always a Cid in these games) modify your weapons. Spells are created through Elemancy, where Noctis can absorb the energy for fire, ice, and lightning from special stones which are often located near the many campgrounds found across the land. These spells don’t last forever, and you’ll need empty flasks to create new ones (never a problem to be short on flasks). The basic three elements can be combined with health items, food, or various treasures to give the spells different properties. Combining lighting with antidote, for example, will give you Venomcast, lightning bolts that will also poison your foe. You need to be careful when casting spells, however, since you can injure your friends along with your enemies. At times this could be a source of frustration, since unleashing a powerful spell could do a great deal of damage to a foe, but often the three friends would charge in blindly and get affected as well, making it necessary to pause and use a healing item.
It’s this inconsistent AI which at times could become very problematic, especially during a boss fight. At times the friends would press an attack, at others they would stand off not doing a thing. They would sometimes come to your aid and heal you, and at others never made the effort, which could result in Game Over if you were out of curatives. Cheap deaths also occurred when I was locked in a healing animation, only to have the enemy freely continuing his attack. Adding to combat woes is a camera that often will not be your friend. Adjusting it in the options helps a bit, but there will still times where bits of scenery hid the action from my sight, making it hard to know what was going on. I also hit a little lag at times with Noctis using his weapons on the Xbox One (whether this is the fault of my controller or an issue that also affects the PS4 I couldn’t say, but since I encountered it I felt it was worth mentioning). Thankfully the combat system works well more often than not, and when all is flowing smoothly linking attacks between Noctis and the others can be a thing of beauty and produce very satisfying results. Using a dodge to phase through an enemy’s attack and then using a warp strike in quick succession would often result in doling out a healthy amount of damage, but timing is the key. Oddly enough, the quick time events used during big boss battles are much more forgiving than your average fight, but this works to the game’s benefit, as it can make for some truly epic scenes. Those epic fights come later in the game, but are well worth experiencing.
Leveling the group up is handled a bit differently this time around. The Ascension grid can open up additional slots for accessories, make the group better at working together, or net you more experience. The grid is accessed through AP, which is gained in your travels across the land, completing quests, and doing battle. There are various divisions- Combat, Teamwork, Magic, and etc- and you can choose how to level up to suit your play style. Experience points are applied to each character when you rest at a campground or an inn. Campgrounds and inns have their own modifiers. Staying at an inn will grant you extra experience points as opposed to resting at a campground, and the more expensive your accommodations, the higher the modifier is. Each character also has their own particular skill to be leveled up. Noctis has an affinity for fishing, and catching more varieties and larger fish grants Ignis, whose specialty is cooking, new recipes. Ignis can also find new recipes during your travels, and each food dish provides temporary buffs, such as extra HP or immunity to certain attacks like poison or fire. Gladiolus is the survival expert, and he gains combat proficiency as he levels up. Prompto is the group photographer, and you’ll get to see his shots when you rest for the night. There is a nice share feature for these pics, however, it doesn’t always work well. For some reason (at least on the Xbox One) a comment, even if it is composed of blank spaces, must be entered, or else the picture won’t share with Facebook or Twitter. Going back and trying again can be problematic- I had the game crash on me three times due to issues with this function. It’s a cool feature, but it needs a patch to get it up to snuff. Saving the game can be done most anywhere, except inside a dungeon or in certain chapters late in the game that have save rooms. It’s a good idea to save often, as a technical glitch or dying in battle can erase a good chunk of progress. You’ll also get a time travel gimmick late in the game through the dog Umbra, which will allow you to travel into the past for grinding should you be up against a challenge that’s giving you difficulty. You can choose to hold off on the side quests and monster hunts, but be forewarned you’re going to need to do some of them at some point to help you reach the proper level to tackle the story missions. While these side quests are little more than fetch quests or killing some nasty critters, they can be fun in their own right. Going back to them post game isn’t as satisfying, unless of course you love the four friends and want to spend more time with them. But there’s nothing that has the depth of side quests found in other RPGs like The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age, so if you hope for something like that you will be disappointed.
Final Fantasy XV is definitely a very pretty game to look at, and continues the visual splendor that the franchise is known for. Environments are well rendered with plenty of nice detail, like the way small trees move as you pass through them or how the streets look after a rainfall. The wildlife tend to move in realistic fashion, with predators hunting in packs and herbivores moving in herds. Most will react to you realistically as well. Predators will attack immediately if you come in their line of sight, while others won’t bother you unless you threaten them. Daemons and the robot soldiers will attack as a squad or group, and if you’re not careful, Noctis can be easily overwhelmed. For the most part the NPCs behave in a believable way, though some other characters you encounter and talk to move in an odd and unrealistic way, twisting and turning and looking away as they speak to you. This is most glaringly obvious with the mechanic Cindy, Cid’s daughter, who tends to your car. the Regalia. She seems to be there for one reason only (to show off her ample, um, assets) and behaves more as a caricature than a character. Frame rate holds steady for the most part on the Xbox One, with some issues being reported on the PS4 with stuttering in certain spots. You’ll also get occasional pop in, and some textures can look a bit rough around the edges. Cut scenes are of course gorgeously rendered, continuing the series hallmark in their animated sequences. The musical score is also top notch, and may be one the best scores in the franchise to date. As a nice bonus, you can purchase soundtracks from other Final Fantasy games to play as you tool around in the Regalia. It’s a neat feature that let’s you build your own traveling soundtrack.
Movement across the world works well for the most part. You can have the characters sprint for short distances, until their stamina bar depletes (which you can choose to be visible or not). The Regalia can be driven by either Ignis or Noctis, but there is only one time you truly need to drive as Noctis, and even then, driving manually works almost like autopilot, as the car will take curves on its own. When Ignis drives it’s completely on autopilot until you reach your destination, and it seems curious why Square Enix bothered to put driving controls in at all. It’s not the car rides I’m objecting to here- sometimes the banter has actual purpose- but it makes little sense to have controls for driving when you barely need to use them. Chocobos naturally make an appearance and become available once you remove a certain threat (players will recognize his quest from the Duscae demo). Riding them often and feeding them levels the chocobos up, making them able to go for longer distances and having a stronger bond with their rider. One bit of advice: do the mission for the chocobos early, or else you will have to suffer with Prompto constantly singing his chocobo song (which gets annoying fast).
Summons also make an appearance, though using them can be initially tricky until you realize you need to target your enemy in addition to using the prompted trigger button. You’ll need of course to beat most of these beings first in combat, which make for some of the most epic battles in the game. The Summons is accompanied by some spectacular animation, but since it rarely is used (you can’t just summon anytime) the animations never get old to see. The nice thing is they do seem to become available when you need them most. They’re also characters in their own right, and you get some nice interactive scenes with Noctis before they join him. Also aiding Noctis are the weapons of former kings. The specialized weapons are found in tombs scattered across the land, and they pack a punch in their own right, though some tend to work better than others. Sometimes it will take some trial and error to see which one is best for what type of enemy, but once I had them I never went back to regular weapons, even those improved by Cid.
The game’s story for the most part is paced nicely, with the beginning chapters being more open world and later chapters getting more linear as they fit the main story. Things do grind to a halt, however, in chapter 13, and the only real saving grace for that chapter is that save rooms are provided along the way so you don’t lose a ridiculous amount of progress. Had it been shorter, it could have been an interesting change of pace. Noctis is stripped of his friends and his weapons, save for his Ring of Lucii, which is powerful against beasts and daemons but useless against robotic soldiers. The stealth needed in some spots and the feeling of hopelessness adds another layer to the game, but it just goes on too long. The first couple times you’re surprised by a seemingly dead soldier gives a nice jolt of adrenaline. By the tenth time it simply becomes annoying. It’s a neverending chapter that is more of a relief to get through and really kills any motivation for a second playthrough (short of you chasing trophies/achievements). It brings the game to a stop just when it was gathering momentum, and proves to be a misfire (Square Enix has already said future patches will address the chapter’s issues), which is a shame. The game’s initial ending felt like a letdown, and a mid credits scene just smacked of over sentimentality (again, the scene’s impact will depend on how you feel about the four friends). The post credits scene was a bit better, but still left you with some questions, making me wonder if Square Enix is thinking direct sequel. The journey there is for the most part solid, but the payoff felt weak to me. Again, it truly depends on your attachment to Noctis and Co., since if you love them the ending could prove to be more emotional than if they didn’t resonate with you.
In all, Final Fantasy XV is a step back in the right direction for the single player entries to the franchise following the less than spectacular FF XIII trilogy. It’s a solid effort, looks beautiful, and has a top notch soundtrack. The heart of the game are the four friends. No matter how you personally feel about them, there is no doubt that they are a tight knit group and drive the game forward. Your enjoyment will stem mainly from how you feel about the four, and if they resonate or not with you. The combat system is mostly fun, and some epic boss fights are truly a sight to behold. There are issues, some technical (game crashes), some graphical (pop in and some jagged textures), and some with the gameplay (inconsistent AI). Inane and repetitive dialogue can make you cringe, though there also are some nice scenes of character development. A small font size also works against you in spots, making it difficult to carry out actions. The story is decent but familiar, and bogged down with chapter 13 and given a weak ending that leaves an opening for a sequel. But despite some issues, this is a solid game, and one Final Fantasy fans should play at some point. It may not be the masterpiece that was hoped for after spending a decade in development, but it does put the franchise firmly back on track to being among the better franchises in the RPG genre.
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