Final Fantasy XV
Developed and Published by: Square Enix
2016, PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
In the mid-to-late nineties, Final Fantasy was king. If you weren’t hooked on the role-playing franchise with Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan) on Super NES, then the phenomenal VII certainly did with its genre re-defining gameplay and as one of the first examples of just how glorious 3D gaming could be on the relatively new Sony Playstation. For the following few entries, it seemed that Squaresoft could do no wrong with Final Fantasy, with hit-after-hit landing on store shelves. Then, in 2001, the franchise made the jump to the silver screen with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. While the movie was praised for its realistic and highly detailed computer generated imagery, the film was largely panned and ultimately failed to make a profit on its bloated $137 million budget. Financial difficulty forced Square to merge with rival Japanese RPG studio Enix. Since then, many fans have felt that the series hasn’t been able to live up to its legendary status. Final Fantasy X-2 attempted to capitalize on the very successful X, serving as the first direct sequel ever in the series, and while the combat and class system were exceptionally good, the story and overall package failed to deliver. The twelfth entry in the franchise, one of the most divisive games in recent memory, did away with turn-based combat for a much more real-time battle system and a much more open world than previous games, but many fans felt the story and characters were too predictable and flat, and combat not much of an improvement if at all. Final Fantasy XIII and its two sequels attempted to weave an epic trilogy that would take advantage of the powerful PS3 and Xbox 360, but the open world gamers had dreamed of since the new consoles landed was absent, and a far too simple combat system and confusing story didn’t help.
Enter Final Fantasy XV. Originally conceived more than 10 years ago as a side story to the XIII trilogy, the game has undergone numerous redesigns before finally releasing as its own standalone title set in its own unique world. The long development cycle and missteps that franchise has taken in recent years have been plenty enough to make fans warry. Largely, XV succeeds where past entries have stumbled: the graphics are glorious, the story is largely engaging and easy to follow, the combat is both fluid and fun, and an open world is ready to have its every corner thoroughly explored. That is not to say it doesn’t come with a few caveats, making this ultimately a Flawed, but Fun, Fantasy.
Before going in-depth in this review, I want to state my own biases. I have been a longtime fan of the series, playing the original on the NES to death and following the franchise all the way up to the modern era. About three years ago, I played through each main entry up to XIII, taking detailed notes on the pros and cons of the games in an attempt to understand just what makes these games so great, as well as chronicling the evolution of one of gaming’s biggest franchises. Each one is its own experience, and they haven’t all been great, but they have certainly culminated into something special. Recent games have distilled my love for the games, but nevertheless I’ve waited with baited breath for this new title to drop. I’ve avoided too many reviews so as not to spoil my impressions, though this hasn’t stopped some friends in giving their input. After finding enough time to truly devote to the game, I’ve played through its entirety. I’ve debated back-and-forth and what an appropriate score to give the game would be, and decided that, like Fallout 4 from last year, I should let the game speak for itself and not let the name get in the way.
Let’s just get this out of the way: the game is beautiful. Characters are as rich in detail as they are in personality, and rival even The Spirits Within’s CGI prowess. Monsters are made to be wonderfully fierce, and never before has a monstrous Malboro or towering Behemoth been so threatening. Cities are crafted down to even the most minute detail, really making them feel like historic, lived in locales they are. The lighting effects can’t be overpraised: be it from the flames of a campfire, to the blast of magic on a foe, the lighting here is spectacular. Screenshots look glorious, but to see the game in motion can be almost unbelievable. It’s hard to find a game that can match this graphical fidelity on consoles; the only ones that come to mind would be Uncharted 4, Ryse, and The Order, but none of those have the sheer scope of a vast role-playing game.
For many RPGs, the story is the most important element, and overall XV’s is easy to follow, although it suffers from many missteps late in the game, as well as missing vital information in the beginning. Final Fantasy XV follows Prince Noctis of the kingdom of Lucis, who is on his way to his arranged marriage to the oracle Lunafreya as a symbol of peace between the warring nations of Lucis and the Nilfheim Empire. Escorting Noctis is his personal entourage of bodyguards Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto. Shortly after setting out on their journey, negotiations between the two nations turn sour, and open conflict postpones the wedding as the war grows as devastating as ever. It’s a tale that expertly weaves in political intrigue, the theme of ancient magic versus progressive technology, intense romance, and a journey to find oneself, all elements fans of the franchise have come to know and love. Problems exist in the beginning, though, as much of the opening was removed due to poor pacing and boring gameplay in favor of making a movie: Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive. The film helps define the kingdoms, sets the stage for their extreme conflicts, and really enriches the experience. The bad part about this is that hardly any of this information is included in the game itself. The game’s opening message is that it’s a Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike, but I can almost guarantee casual gamers will not know of Kingsglaive existence or have the initial motivation to watch it, thus gamers are left in the dark on material that I feel is essential to understanding the game’s story. This is pretty unforgiveable, and the game designers could have found some way to include the most pivotal parts of Kingsglaive in the core game in some fashion or another. There is also the free to watch anime series Brotherhood that helps develop the characters more, but more on that in a moment. In fact, there are many instances in the game’s plot in which holes are created because of likely cut content. The cast seems to jump between locations far too quickly, events occur with little build-up or explanation, and character motivations, especially the villain’s, aren’t always clear. This makes for a very unbalanced experience that, by itself and not assisted by side quests or other activities, could be seen in all of 20 hours. That’s relatively short for any role-playing game.
The characters, for the most part, are a pleasant surprise. My first impression of the all-male party’s designs made me afraid that Final Fantasy had once again fallen into the pit of bland caricatures for their cast, yet after few hours with them I realized there is much more to them than meets the eye. Each character certainly fits a characterized role (the hero, the comic relief, the smart one, and the brute), but there are more layers to them just that. Just when you think you know the characters, they do or say something that will surprise you. They fit even better together as a unit, playing off one another that really makes you feel that they belong to a brotherhood. The main character of Noctis, although a bit of a spoiled brat being the prince that he is, has many likeable redeeming qualities, such as his overall politeness and his absolute love for fishing. I do wish that the game allowed for a little more backstory with the characters, as anyone who has not watched the Brotherhood anime would not know of their origins and the birth of their friendship with one another, which is sorely lacking in the overall experience. This anime includes five episodes detailing each of the main characters’ backgrounds and adding much needed depth to the characters. Without having watched Brotherhood, some gamers may be left scratching their heads in confusion as to why a particular character may behave a certain way at key points in the game, thus I feel it’s almost essential to the experience. Honestly, I felt Brotherhood offered some of the best side stories that the Final Fantasy XV experience has to offer, but again newcomers aren’t likely to know about its existence or have the want to watch it. Although free on Youtube and other sites, Brotherhood doesn’t include English dubbing (to my knowledge anyway), thus casual gamers may be turned off by the Japanese voiceover. Again, the designers could have found ways to add qualities like Brotherhood into the game so that players can truly come to understand the threads that hold together their tight friendship.
While most of the game’s central characters are well designed, one in particular stands out as being especially awful: Cindy. Cindy is the granddaughter of Cid, an old mechanic that has handed the majority of his business over to his younger relative. Cindy is the worst type of character: she’s obnoxious, doesn’t fit with the game’s aesthetic, and does nothing to improve the plot in which all of her minor contributions could have easily been carried out by more likeable characters such as Cid himself. She’s the only character that can upgrade the character’s car, the Regalia, despite the numerous pit stops on the map, which unfortunately means the player will have to visit her more often than they’d like. Cindy has been all over the promotional material for Final Fantasy XV for the past few years, and is one of many reasons I was so hesitant about the game, as she seems to have only been developed as eye candy and nothing more; whereas I was wrong about my initial feelings towards the male cast, I was spot on with Cindy. Her design appears to be a board room’s convoluted idea of attempting to attract every male gamer available: she has a cute, clueless personality coupled with an exaggerated southern accent (“Y’all come back now, ya hear?”), yet she brings up in nearly every conversation how “tough” she is because she works on cars; she covers her insanely large breasts behind simply a bra underneath an open bright yellow sports jacket, while her Beyonce booty is stuffed into tight, barely there daisy dukes; at every given opportunity, be it just making small talk, or when she pumps the Regalia’s gas, the camera makes sure to be as perverted as possible, diving into to her cleavage or staring into her round butt as if that’s the only thing that players want to see. I believe what makes Cindy so offensive is that she is only one of three central female characters, and is by far over marketed despite being the most worthless to the plot. In a game that has been criticized from the outset for being too male centric, it’s puzzling why Square-Enix decided to use the most sexist video game character since Metal Gear Solid 5’s Quiet in all of its marketing material.
While each party member has their obvious differences in terms of combat, each one has a unique skill that they can utilize outside of battle as well. These are fun and are a nice touch in making the cast stand out, though ultimately only one is truly beneficial. Noctis can fish at certain spots in the game world, and by using different lures he can catch one of dozens of fish in the game. This doesn’t have much practical use in the game, but much like Ocarina of Time’s fishing, it’s a fun little diversion from the main quest. Gladiolus’s skill allows him to occasionally acquire additional items after a battle. While it’s handy to get another potion or phoenix down, items aren’t that costly in the game, and the infrequency of Gladiolus actually getting an item makes it unreliable and thus not that handy. Prompto’s photography skill is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, although admittedly it too doesn’t have a practical use. Throughout the game, Prompto will snap pictures of the gang, be it visiting a new locale, meeting a new person, or even in the heat of combat. His pictures can be viewed anytime the player rests, and the best can be saved into a convenient photo album that they player can then share with real friends on Facebook or the like. These pictures make great screenshots for the game, but other than showing off the great graphics or reminding the player of key moments that have passed, the ability doesn’t offer much. By far the most useful skill is Ignis’s cooking. Everytime the player makes camp, Ignis can craft a meal that can offer exceptional boosts to the character’s abilities. This is almost essential in tackling some of the toughest foes in the game, and when there are over a hundred different recipes to learn, it’s enjoyable to try and find them all.
Final Fantasy XV’s world to a joy to explore, but if you were expecting a fully open world you might be disappointed. It is true that after just a few hours the majority of the game’s large world is open for the player to explore at their leisure. Throughout the map are numerous pit stops for shopping and collecting side quests, several dungeons to pillage and explore, fishing spots for relaxing, and more. Compared to previous Final Fantasy games, it’s impressive how much there is to do. Hunting quests are the main highlight. Similar to those found in XII, players can pick up a quest to hunt down a legendary monster or a group of troublesome foes and set out to take them down for great rewards. Other side quests however are pretty run-of-the-mill fetch quests, and their mostly trivial rewards make them even more unappealing. The story takes the player around the globe, visiting other nations and cities, but it’s a mostly linear experience. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing—in order to craft the detailed story Final Fantasy does linearity in parts is a must—but the player is grossly limited in how much he can explore besides the area surrounding Lucis. Players are limited to certain cities and dungeons, of which they arrive via train, and these moments lack the sense of exploration and adventure that the rest of the game enjoys. I kept wanting to explore more of these foreign lands, and it was disappointing how limited my visit was compared to the freedom I had in the beginning.
The combat is loads of fun when it is done correctly, but it is yet another area that is left feeling unbalanced. Gamers only control Noctis in intense, real-time battles, but can issue commands to their squad with the press of a button. Battles are fast and frantic, with Noctis’s ability to warp to an enemy or certain points on the field adding to this brisk pace. It’s great fun unleashing a barrage of attacks on an enemy, then warping to another to get in a few hits before warping to a safe vantage point, then once more to again the fray. Noctis is the typical all-around character that excels in about every category; each character has his unique weaponry that makes them stand out, but Noctis can equip any and all of them. Players will mainly use Noctis for stealth attacks from behind (dealing extra damage), and his powerful magic casting, but when the situation calls for it Noctis can serve as a second broadsword wielder, a ranged gunner, or what have you. Battles can sometimes be too fast-paced, which is why I recommend turning on the “wait” combat option on, as it stops combat briefly when standing still, allowing you to quickly devise a safe tactic or choose which enemy to attack. Combat also freezes when the item menu is brought up, which is a big help so players aren’t rushed in finding the right item for the right occasion.
Combat does have its problems. For starters, the camera can be downright awful in tight corridors or crowded areas. In most games, objects between the character and the camera are transparent, but no so in Final Fantasy XV. The numerous wooded areas are the worst example of this. When the shot is close, the camera gets lodged on rocks and bushes and refuses to cooperate; when from afar, the player may see nothing but the leaves of trees and not the action below. If button props to dodge and block didn’t appear on the screen, I would say that the game would be unplayable in these situations. Secondly, the game is extremely too easy. I believe this is the first JRPG I have ever played in which I not once saw the “Game Over” screen. It’s not that you won’t get hit, you will, but the game is far too forgiving in giving opportunities for players to heal. Near the end of the game, I purposefully tried to die for the purpose of this review, and I could not. Once Noctis’s health runs empty, the game pauses allowing the player to use any curative necessary to stay alive. The only ways the player can meet their end is if they run out of healing items (not likely) or refuse to put in a command (not playing the game). It’s because of this that I never feared any boss, because I was certain I would prevail. Lastly, I felt hat there were few too commands that could be issued in combat. Each character has a few techniques that can aid you in battle, but only one of these can be equipped at once. Players can always pause the game, enter the equipment menu, and give a character the technique they need, even in the heat of battle. I could almost forgive this in the vein of making battles more strategic, but because you can switch at any time eliminates this. Ultimately, I used one or two abilities through the entire game and that was it simply because it was too much of a hassle to switch for every conflict. The developers could have found some way to access all unlocked techniques in battle without the tediousness of pausing and entering the equipment screen.
There is also the issue of high powered summons. Summoning god-like beings to aid in battle has been a longtime staple in the Final Fantasy series, and XV has them as well. Summoning these colossal beings is as stunning as ever, with some of the best summoning cut scenes the series has to offer. The damage they deal is also suitably devastating—it always felt odd when they occasionally did minimal damage in previous titles after, for example, flooding the entire area with a tsunami—but here they often wipe out the enemies on the field. The problem is that there are requirements for summoning these that aren’t made clear, thus the player is left in the dark about when and how to summon these creatures. I personally had to look online to find out their requirements, and most of it just comes down to chance. They offer good, lucky bonuses to battle, but aren’t reliable enough to be very useful. Add to that the fact that there are only a handful of summons in the game, compared to the dozens in some other titles, and you’re left with a mostly disappointing system.
One of the most unique features of Final Fantasy XV is the driving and camping systems. From the game’s outset, players have access to a vehicle, the Regalia, and can take to the open roads. The Regalia cannot leave the roads, meaning players can’t pull a Grand Theft Auto and ride directly through the plains, but it’s simple, realistic, and fits the overall gameplay. As much as the Regalia is in the marketing material, chocobos again steal the show as the best mode of transportation. Players can rent out chocobos, the riding birds that have become a franchise staple, in order to explore the game’s vast wilderness. These are exceedingly more enjoyable to use than the Regalia, as their jumping, gliding, and fast trots really help the game feel like a classic Final Fantasy brought to life in the modern age. They can even be customized in color, and can level up with use, which is a nice touch.
At night, strong monsters called daemons appear, proving to be a challenge for players of all levels, thus it’s recommended that once darkness falls players seek shelter at a camp or inn. This is an RPG staple that is made all the better in Final Fantasy XV. For starters, experience points are not tallied until a player rests, much like in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, forcing players to take advantage of sleeping often. In other games there isn’t a difference between camping and going to a hotel, but not so here. Camps are where players will utilize Ignis’s beneficial cooking skill, giving helpful boosts to characters’ abilities. Inns on the other hand give crucial experience point boosts, allowing players to level up even faster. It’s recommended that before tackling a boss or dungeon the player uses a camp to boost stats, and then afterwards use an inn to cash in on the experience earned. It’s an ingenious way to give players the freedom to develop characters how they want when few other personalization options exist.
There is one way to personalize the appearance of characters by way of the Attire tab in the equipment menu. It’s a neat idea, but there are just too few options to justify the option even being available. Characters have only two different outfits, with the option to wear either one with or without the jacket. At the very end of the game, a third outfit is unlocked with the same option to wear with or without the jacket. There are no new outfits to purchase in any of the game’s numerous stores, and none are rewarded for completing any of the plentiful quests. It honestly feels like a wasted opportunity, as having fashion boutiques located at pit stops could have really added to the customization of the game. Since the game’s release, some new outfits have become available via download, which means Square is improving this area, but currently it’s just not up to snuff.
Along with experience are AP points that are used to gain abilities and other boosts on a type of grid found commonly in the series. AP is acquired through many various means: leveling up, fishing, driving long distances, and more. I think this is a great idea in concept, as it encourages players to experience as much of the game as possible. The AP grid is a bit confusing to navigate though, as the game doesn’t give a clear visual clue as to which abilities are currently available given the amount of AP you have. Every time I was ready to spend my points, I tediously had to go through all of the abilities to see what I’ve unlocked and what is available.
The Final Fantasy series is often noted for its wonderful music, and this game is no different. Taking over as head composer for the first time in a Final Fantasy game is Yoko Shimomura, famed for her scores with the Kingdom Hearts and Mario & Luigi franchises. The game’s soundtrack is both beautiful and epic, with stunning orchestral tracks throughout. The main battle theme sounds a little too much like Kingdom Hearts to me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great tune. What’s even better is that the majority of tracks from other Final Fantasy games are also included in the form of soundtracks the player can buy at various shops. These soundtracks can then be listened to while riding in the Regalia, or through a portable music player that can be purchased early in the game. Every numbered entry in the Final Fantasy franchise is represented here, along with some extras. It’s a wonderful way for fans new and old to experience the rich history of Final Fantasy.
Voice work is also a plus, though Cindy’s exaggerated accent is a blemish to an otherwise stellar cast. The one problem I had with the voice work is that there are simply too many lines repeated throughout the game. For a game based on the concept of a party on a journey, their conversations are few and far between, and often repeated. Some car rides are long and silent, and when compared to the likes of Grand Theft Auto, it’s quite noticeable. When questing, I would have cherished more banter and character development through conversations as seen with Dragon Age or other Bioware titles, but here many comments seem to come out of nowhere. There is even one line that starts with “I just now realized that…” and when this is said over-and-over again, it sorely sticks out of place. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is whenever you discover one of the hundred or so recipes in the game, prompting Ignis to start one of two largely identical conversations with the cast. For a game in development this long, many more lines should have been written and recorded to really bring life to this large world.
Many RPGs include a rich “post-game” to explore after finishing the main quest, and Final Fantasy XV is no different. Each of the game’s dungeons has an extra layer that can only be explored once the main quest is finished, each with high leveled bosses and legendary weapons. Numerous new side quests are also unlocked, giving access to some great rewards. There is also the issue of the game’s “ultimate” boss, which I won’t spoil but I have to discuss in some detail. In many JRPGs, end game bosses are included as a means of pushing the player to his or her limits, forcing them to master all the skills they have acquired over the course of the adventure. Unfortunately, this game’s end boss is nothing of the sort. Indeed, he is massive, and upon first seeing the beast players will undoubtedly be in awe, but problems occur when it comes to actually battling the creature. For starters, he only has two attacks, and while damaging, they are easily shrugged off due to the aforementioned system of pausing to allow you to heal. Due to his enormous size, the camera can never decide what’s a good angle to display the battle, thus the player is forced to see Noctis as if he is a puny ant attack a mountain, or is so close up that that there is nothing on the screen but the back of Noctis's head. Thus, the only tactic is to perform the same attack repeatedly while using potions to heal occasionally, thus requiring no real variety or strategy. For the three hours that this battle took to complete (not a typo), I have never experienced a battle so tediously boring and plagued with problems. In all honesty, I do not see how this battle made it through testing and was approved, as I feel it’s hardly playable in any satisfactory way. It truly sours an event that is meant to cap off the game.
I lastly want to cover trophies and achievements in the game. It’s refreshing to find an RPG that doesn’t hide the coveted Platinum Trophy behind a wall of achievements that forces the player to maximize every single aspect of the game, but I don’t think Final Fantasy XV goes far enough. There are trophies for completing the first monster hunt, but nothing for thwarting the much harder foes (aside from that horrible end boss). You can unlock an achievement for completing 80 side quest, but with more than 120 available, there isn’t much challenge to reach this number. Aside from maximizing the skills for the characters, there is nothing rewarded for pushing the game to its limits, such as catching legendary fish, finishing the optional dungeons, or acquiring the most powerful weaponry. It’s not a real negative to the game, but I do find it odd that so much is left unrewarded in this section.
After my 70 hours with the Final Fantasy XV, I had done most of what there was to do with the game. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with the it—in fact it’s immensely enjoyable taking on quests and exploring the land—but I also wouldn’t be truthful if I said the game didn’t have numerous problems. I would be much more willing to overlook some things had it came from a less respected publisher, wasn’t from a classic franchise, and hasn’t spent more than a decade in development. The final result is a very uneven experience: battles are largely fun, but the camera at times defeats any enjoyment; the story is well crated, but numerous holes mean that it feels largely incomplete; music and voice work is excellent, but too few recorded lines of dialogue destroys the illusion of immersion the game creates; summons are epic in scale, but their unclear requirements make for a system that is confusing and ultimately disappointing. Considering all of this, I think fans new and old will be pleased with Final Fantasy XV, but the series still hasn’t reclaimed its throne on top of the RPG kingdom.
+Beautifully composed music
+Likeable cast of characters
+Enjoyable monster hunts
+Innovative sleep system
-Numerous holes in the story
-Camera during battle
-Difficulty far too easy
-Summons are complicated
-Some linear sections limit the ability to explore
-Dated fetch quests
-Horrible end game boss
Overall Score: 3.5/5