Final Fantasy XV Review - The Fab Four On World Tour

The long-awaited Final Fantasy XV has finally dropped, and it's time to see whether Square-Enix's bold, epic, and expensive gambit paid off. The seeds of FFXV began life way back in 2006 as Final Fantasy XIII Versus, an intriguing-looking title that looked to emphasize the more action-based aspects of Final Fantasy's gameplay. We heard little about the game for years.

After the mixed reception of Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels and much discussion over the ballooning budget, the game was rebranded and development restarted in 2012 under game director Hajime Tabata (taking over the project from Tetsuya Nomura) as the next mainline numbered title in the Final Fantasy series. Fans would have to wait quite a while for FFXV. Despite the beautiful world and in-depth lore and history of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn's Eorzea, the MMO's story couldn't hold a Tonberry's candle to the more classic and traditional games in the series.

At E3 2013, we got our first look at FFXV with a gameplay trailer showing Prince Noctis and his loyal friends kicking Daemon butt in the city of Insomnia. Even though much was changed in the final product, it was clear Square-Enix was once again going back to the drawing board for the battle system, rehauling it beyond even FFXII's Gambit system and FFXIII's Paradigm system. Since the action-based combat is the biggest and most radical change from any other title in the series, I feel it's worth discussing first.

FFXV employs a simple but effective block-dodge-parry-punish system, where one can hold Square to block, tap it on time to pull off a perfect dodge, press Circle after a successful block to parry, hold Circle to chain attack, and do all of this either in the ground or in the air. Prince Noctis also has the unique ability to warp in and out of danger with Triangle, useful for weaving in and out of situations and warp-striking enemies from a distance.

Fights are fast-paced and generally intense. Block an enemy's attack at the right time, then parry to get them off-guard. Do extra damage by hitting them with a 'Blindside' from behind, then wail on them when they're 'Vulnerable'. Rescue your allies when they are in danger, heal them with items, and pop off their often life-saving Techniques when the action meter fills up. As using these essential techniques and teaming together with your buddies for 'Link-Up' attacks are the only methods by which you can issue orders to your friends, FFXV largely limits player control to Noctis, emphasizing the action aspects over more typically strategic JRPG gameplay.

This is a far cry from the team control present even in the imprecise FFXIII series' Paradigm system, and it may be a deal-breaker for some, but the truth about the action gameplay is that, while often fast, it isn't overly difficult in execution, nor does it require great reflexes. Pattern recognition is still key as the player needs to know when it's best to hold the defend button, look for parry opportunities, attempt to spot-dodge and punish, or go all-out in assault. There are still elements of strategy and timing at work, with perhaps the most pointed being knowing how best to anticipate and react to your enemy's attack phases. Love it or hate it, the battle system still feels uniquely Final Fantasy.

The only negative I have about the combat is the unreliable camera. Sometimes player characters get lost behind clumps of large bushes or obstacles. This can be hugely annoying, since there's no dodging an enemy you can't see. Short of going through the process of manually adjusting the camera distance in the Options menu, the most you can do short of spinning the camera is to use Noctis' warp ability to get out of there and try for a different view. An option to move the camera in and out on the fly in an analog fashion would have been very welcome, but thankfully this is a minor issue.

Prince Noctis can equip up to four weapons at a time, and switch between them on the fly with the d-pad. Spells, which must be synthesized from magic acquired via draw points ala FFVIII, are also equipped on weapon slots. You can mix and match clothes and accessories as well, each with their own effects. Also, your allies have context-sensitive skills you can unlock, such as having Ignis poison enemies during Noctis' chain-attacks, or having Gladio punish an enemy after you successfully defend against a blow. This emphasizes teamwork, even as it's frustrating that you can't assign certain basic commands such as selecting targets for your friends to focus on.

Speaking of teamwork, much has been said about the fact that FFXV's early trailers made it seem like a bro-bonding road trip, which isn't entirely an inaccurate statement. The closeness that Noctis, the wisened strategist and cook Ignis, 'Mr. Tough Love' bodyguard Gladiolus, and the photo-crazy childhood friend Prompto share is a major draw and leads, story-wise, to some of the deepest and most profound explorations of brotherhood and camaraderie in Final Fantasy. The writing for the leads is superb for the most part, filled with humor and real talk, and the theme of the initially bratty Noctis needing to come into his own and face his destiny is thoroughly explored. (Though the English dub isn't perfect, it's very good, and the game's original Japanese dialogue gives Gladio a much better voice.) The banter between the four men exists beyond the sake of window-dressing and atmosphere, it's a crucial element in the game's storytelling.

As for the story, it's told in ways unusual for even the genre-fluid Final Fantasy franchise (such as flashbacks and clips from the divisive Kingsglaive) and unfolds at a rapid pace. We catch up with Prince Noctis and his companions as they travel from their home continent of Lucis to the annexed city of Altissia for Noctis' marriage to the revered Oracle, Lady Lunafreya Nox Fleuret. Lunafreya comes from that JRPG tradition of pure, dutiful and noble female figureheads, and her task is facilitating communication between the humans and the Astrals (the elemental Gods and Goddesses of the world of Eos) and inspiring people via regular radio broadcasts. She and Noctis have been keeping up what seems like a pretty intense long-distance relationship since childhood.

The journey of the four men is set back by the shocking news that, hot on the heels of signing a peace treaty with the Niflheim Empire, Lucis' beloved King Regis was killed in defense of his Kingdom. Worse, Insomnia, the peaceful magical capital whose crystal keeps in check the Daemons that haunt the world at night, has been seized by Niflheim, who already control most of the known world. The Empire's armies, consisting mostly of mechanized infantry, strong lieutenants, and mercenaries like Aranea Highwind, and led by the enigmatic Chancellor and the cool-looking Ravus, begin seizing control of Lucis. The wedding is delayed as Lady Lunafreya's whereabouts are unknown and Noctis must fight to protect the lands beyond Insomnia by seeking out the ancient Lucii weapons of old left in his ancestor's tombs to grant him the strength to save Eos' people from utter ruin.

Despite the story's weight, much of the game is oddly lighthearted. I don't want to spoil the details but I will say that at first I was skeptical about the open-world approach since the stories often get pushed to the side in open-world games. And despite enjoying the time spent with these characters and NPCs like Ardyn, Iris, Cid, Cindy, and Cor, at first I was a bit underwhelmed. The truly moving story begins rather innocuously (and perhaps confusingly, to anyone who hasn't already jumped into this world with FFXV: Kingsglaive, the FFXV: Brotherhood OVA, and the various trailers), but picks up speed like a junkie strapped to a roller coaster in the latter half with many surprising and gut-wrenching twists.

The gorgeous game world feels lived-in and believable and there's seemingly no end of side-quests to do. Recurring mini-games include fishing, which I disliked at first, but found easily taking up many hours of my life, and the simple pinball-firing game Justice Monsters. Taking up side-quests and hunts are necessary for accumulating Gil, which doesn't drop on its own. Most of these are simple go-here-kill-monster fetch quests, and some of them even put you to inane tasks like hunting tiny frogs or seeking out glimmering ores, but there are a few missions that stand out (Deadeye being the obvious one). There are also recipes for stat-boosting dishes to unlock, Imperial bases to infiltrate and recapture, and dark dungeons hosting Royal Tombs. The high level of customizability of your vehicle, the Regalia, makes it a treat for car lovers.

Even after forty-six hours of gameplay, I still feel there's a bigger fish to catch, a stronger enemy to attempt, another Trophy to unlock. Apparently, getting Platinum in this game isn't too difficult, since you don't need to get close to 100% completion for it, but there is a good amount of post-game content, and with six DLCs to look forward to, I'm hoping for a wealth of new challenges, since the developers have already set up the groundwork near-perfectly.

Progress in the game makes a lot of sense. The Ascension Grid hosts simple skill trees for various aspects of gameplay. Magic allows you to improve magic elemental drawing, synthesizing, and execution. Stats allow you to assign stat bonuses that scale with each character's level. Exploration allows you to earn AP (Ability Points) for various tasks. Techniques are for upgrading and unlocking new techniques for your allies to use in battle. Teamwork allows you to fine-tune your attack and defense strategies by tailoring options to suit your personal battle preferences. Combat focuses mostly on Noctis and the abilities he can unlock, such as Airslip and its upgrades, which allow Noct to nimbly dodge in between aerial attacks, and Blink, which lets you phase through enemy's attacks without losing MP if the button is pressed at the right time. Lastly, the Armiger upgrades are for the game's equivalent to Limit/Trance/Overdrive – an awesome mode wherein Noctis will attack an enemy with every one of the Royal Arms in his arsenal. The upgrades are easy to understand and the ability to see all the paths from the get-go makes planning your build a cinch.

Final Fantasy XV's soundtrack is noteworthy for a few reasons. First off, Yoko Shimamura's score is distinctly classic Final Fantasy and I was impressed with the quality and variety of music you'll be listening to, ranging from orchestral bombast to Florence + The Machine to a wide range of 'world music'-inspired tunes available on the car radio and portable mp3 player. In addition, the developers have included a long list of tracks from previous Final Fantasy titles that can be purchased with Gil and played during the long road trips and even on foot, once you unlock the mp3 player function. Sadly, when riding a Chocobo, you're still stuck with a fiddle variation of the Chocobo theme.

Travel by Chocobo, by the way, is a lot of fun and often preferable to going it on foot. In general, the presentation here really stands out. Cities such as Lestallum and especially Altissia are jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Astrals are larger-than-life in the best ways. Animations for the many creatures, Daemons, and bosses feel finished and fluid. The characters themselves are excellently motion-captured, the NPCs look both believable and in place, the towns finally feel like they are large enough to support the amount of people you see walking through them, distant vistas are rendered as far as the eye can see, and the game's many deep valleys, wide rivers, oversized forests, flowing waterfalls, and other natural and unnatural creations are saccharine treats for the senses.

Great gameplay, wonderful presentation, lovable characters, and a solid story are rounded out with legacy Final Fantasy fan-service in the form of familiar signature callbacks, classic enemies, and inside jokes. The many refined aspects of FFXV all gel together to create an unforgettable experience that's much more than the sum of its parts. Even the controversial Chapter 13 is a bold and welcome change of pace and tone, as well as a sly bit of meta-commentary on game design.

Make no mistake, much of FFXV feels more leisurely than epic. You'll be the fifth wheel with four bros on a road trip through a gorgeous open-world, and certain hunts and side-quests do stand out as content for the sake of content, but even through the slow moments, the enemies, environments, weapons, and mini-games are all very well-designed. Like many open-world games, it's easy to get side-tracked, and at times the story takes a back seat. But in this case, the experience on the whole is so damn good, it's easily worth more than the sum of its parts. A couple of glitches/camera issues/awkward dub moments aside, I can't fault the developers on a single major decision here.

Fans will either love or hate FFXV based on how boldly it plays with their expectations, but in my opinion, this is a quality entry in the series and is without a doubt worthy of being ranked among the best games in the franchise, such as the winning streak that ran from FFVI-FFX. I commend the developers on the phenomenal amount of work that went into this title and look forward to seeing the other secrets I've no doubt missed during my well-spent time on Eos. Hopefully we will have more work of this quality to look forward to from Square-Enix, director Hajime Tabata, and everyone concerned. Final Fantasy fans, the wait was worth it.


9/10


Did you just start Final Fantasy XV? Here's a few things to take note once you start your road trip. 

Pros

+ Excellent action-based combat that retains the Final Fantasy feel
+ Strong cast of characters and emotional storytelling
+ Gorgeous visual and audio presentation
+ A wealth of content, mini-games, unlockables, and post-game challenges

Cons

- Camera can sometimes get in the way during combat
- The story only kicks into high gear in the latter half of the game
- Many side-quests are either fetch-quest filler or irrelevant to the story