After 10 years of uncertainty and ‘back to the drawing board’ moments, Final fantasy XV has finally been released. And behind it are huge amounts of hype and hope that this title will be grand enough, comprehensive enough, and impressive enough to inject new life into the franchise. And remarkable, with such a burden on Square Enix and all the individuals that worked so hard and long on this RPG, Final Fantasy XV is close to achieving its lofty ambitions, providing a title that’s occasionally spectacular, often marvellous, but occasionally disappointing.
Final Fantasy XV welcomes you to the world of Eos and the struggle between the kingdom of Lucis and the empire of Niflheim. The empire has forced its rule on the majority of Eos through their magic and tech fused military might, leaving the Lucis city of Insomnia as the only remaining bastion of the Lucis kingdom, thanks to a powerful crystal that grants the king the power to erect a magical energy shield around the city protecting it from outsiders. The two sides have negotiated a peace accord, with an arranged marriage between the Lucis prince Noctis and the Oracle Lunafreya set to finalise the peace. You play as Noctis, travelling with your body guards and friends Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto, to your wedding.
Of course, things don’t go smoothly, and soon you and your party are pulled into a quest of duty, destiny, loss and victory, as you fight against the empire, the monsters and daemons of Eos, and the Astrals, great slumbering gods that can grant you favour and power in the coming fight to reclaim the throne of Lucis.
It’s very much in line with traditional Final Fantasy tales; a magical crystal, monarchies, the melding of magic and technology. It feels familiar. However, behind the traditional setup are some new, enhanced and tweaked mechanics that make the adventure far more unique. Indeed, Final Fantasy XV features a modernised take on combat and exploration that make for a title that’s more accessible to newcomers and pleasantly refreshing for veterans.
Within a few minutes of the tale kicking off, you’re released out into the wild, with a host of places to visit and a vast landscape to run around in. Monsters roam the wilderness; get too close and they’ll engage you in real-time combat, meanwhile, your main quest awaits to further the story but plenty of side quests can keep you amused if you’re in the mood for exploration and combat. Before long, the map opens up even larger and reveals an open-world you can travel within, explore and complete quests. It’s a refreshingly non-linear start to your adventure, and helps you acclimate to the new mechanics.
Exploration can be done through walking, running, and later on riding everyone’s favourite feathered friends, chocobos, but for longer trips it’s your fancy car that’ll do most of the work. This attractive beast of a vehicle can be driven by you, in a fairly on-rails manner with the ability to stop in car parks and by the side of the road, or it can be driven by your party member Ignis, allowing you to relax and let the journey unfold. Through upgrades you can purchase and find, you can tweak its cosmetics as well as add additional features to it, such as brighter headlights for keeping daemons away, unlimited fuel, and even turning it into an airship. It’s a key part of your party, almost as crucial as the living and breathing ones.
But the car does more than just moving you from location to location, it also helps facilitate the bonding between your characters and for you and the cast. Conversations, jokes and banter are common as you drive the open road. In fact your party natter away frequently throughout your adventure, whether you’re stalking enemies in dungeons, running across the plains on a chocobo, or walking through a town buying items and fulfilling quests. It’s largely good banter too, although there’s plenty of repeated conversations and occasionally the voice actors lose all self-control and overdo the accent and parlance of their character a bit. For the most part though, the English voice work manages to grow on you and fits the character’s personalities, with the performance by Darin De Paul of Ardyn Izunia absolutely stealing the spotlight whenever that character is present.
And indeed, the bond between the main cast of characters – Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto – is very well-done, and establishes a feeling of brotherhood and dependability that helps the party feel whole when everyone is together and getting along, and fractured when apart or at odds with each other. It’s a pleasure to get to know them.
When in combat the brotherhood also plays a big part. Whilst you only have direct control over Noctis, you party will aid you independently and perform team attacks with you depending on the situation – such as blindside attacks if you and a member of your party are attacking a foe from behind. Furthermore, as you fight you fill a gauge consisting of three parts, and you can spend these on actions performed by individuals in your party, before following up with an enhanced attack of your own. It’s a clever team-based system and one that only grows as you level up.
Combat is also remarkably simple yet strategically deep. You essentially hold a button to attack, and hold another to defend, but it’s there’s a breadth of tactics you can employ. When an enemy attacks you can phase, allowing attacks to pass through you, meanwhile, add a direction whist defending and you can dodge and move around the battlefield with that same phase advantage. Furthermore, a shield icon alerts you to a block and parry opportunity which can stagger your foe as well as save your life. Additionally, enemies can often be temporarily disabled by knocking them off their feet or by destroying or decapitating limbs, giving you the ideal opportunity to focus your attacks, and those of your party, on your enemy whilst they are vulnerable.
Magic and items also play a big part in combat. Magic is crafted by Noctis and stored in flasks. As you explore you’ll come across sources of ice, fire and lightning in the open-world which can be absorbed, with some additional energy coming from defeating enemies and from using specific weapons. This energy can then be combined to create elemental spells, with options for items to be added to the crafting to add additional properties. Once again, it’s a clever system with plenty of depth but it’s easy to fathom. Once crafted, you can equip the magic to one of yours or your party member’s’ weapon slots and they can be used as a consumable. Casting results in an area of effect splash of whatever elemental force you combined, dealing immediate damage as well as additional damage to anyone who wanders into its sparks, flames, or ice.
It is pretty easy to hurt yourself and your party with your magic, but fortunately items and curatives are easy enough to activate and keep everyone fighting fit. A press of the right trigger pauses the action and throw up your list of your available items. Pick the one you want and the character who needs to use it, then the action starts up again and the item is used. Meanwhile, animations such as using items, performing team attacks, performing individual special attacks, as well as immediately after being put in a state of danger with your HP reaching zero, are place you in a state of invulnerability, allowing you time enough to perform your action, move to relative safty and assess the situations. It’s splendidly fair. Add to that the ability to learn the flow of combat thanks to telegraphed attacks from your foes, and once you do master all the mechanics of combat your can fell the majority of foes you face without having to grind.
Indeed, this aspect of Final Fantasy XV can make it feel a tad easy where the main story is concerned, but with this title aiming to bring in new comers as well as satiate the thirst of veterans, it feels very well-balanced. If you want more of a challenge, it’s there to find in the side quests, but otherwise the story is more aimed at allowing you to experience it than throwing up any sudden barriers that requiring a high level.
Speaking of which, levelling is also a very different beast this time around. You, of course, collect experience points for felling foes and finishing quests, but this accumulates until you rest at a caravan, hotel, or camp site. When you rest the experience you’ve collected is tallied and levels your characters, enhanced by a modifier granted by the location you stay in. Furthermore, you can eat meals at restaurants or at your camp site, cooked by Ignis, which adds buff to your characters, such as enhanced health, elemental resistance, and even experience modifiers like the hotels. It all comes together to offer interesting combinations for levelling faster – if you ca afford the hotels – and deciding what food to eat to better prepare you for your next step on your adventure. Additionally, the food looks extremely good, almost edible, with high quality textures really bringing the dishes to life.
In fact, the whole game is visually stunning. Particle effects flow from weapons and magic frequently and looks tremendously inviting and colourful. Character models are intricately detailed and superbly animated, and enemies are equally finely crafted. The world itself is drenched in beautiful natural splendour, with the open-world offering up a breadth of locations from dusty deserts to lush green forest, imposing mountains, and dark and damp swamps and dungeons. Additionally, the day and night cycle makes the world feel more real, and facilitates roaming monsters during the day and magical daemons during the night. NPCs are less impressive, with many copy-pasted models and low textures, and occasionally the world will suffer a dodgy texture that looks entirely out of place with the detailed ones surrounding it. Additionally, things can look hazy and out of focus from a distance, a side effect of its dynamic resolution and draw distance, fortunately it’s not too distracting, and it does mean frame rates are kept high and fast.
The presentation continues to impress with the musical score, in particular the battle themes. Location and exploration music is less memorable but nicely varied and thematic to the world, but those battle themes strike precisely the right cord in getting your adrenaline pumping. Furthermore, whilst cruising around in your car you can play in-game CDs featuring the soundtracks of previous Final Fantasy titles, which is a nice touch. Additionally, level design is a strong point, with the many dungeons featuring rich architecture, and impressive labyrinthine mazes full of treasures, enemies, and the occasional puzzle. And with the handy mechanic of returning to the beginning of a dungeon from the map menu, and enemies staying dead, exploring every inch of each of these is fun and intriguing, largely avoiding any frustration. However, as splendid as this RPG is mechanically and in its presentation and level design, the story has some glairing issues.
Much of the political state of the world and the key character’s driving force is explained in the CGI film and anime rather than the game, putting you at a disadvantage if you’re coming to the game fresh. Flash-backs, cut scenes and dialogue help fill some of the gaps but it’s still confusing and feels incomplete. In fact, the story going forwards feel very much incomplete.
Many of the supporting cast, villains and allies, are introduced and then dismissed so cavalierly their presence makes little or no sense. Meanwhile, there are hints in the late game that point to encounters with characters that never happened, as if entire chapters of the story were left out. The game also feels like a game of two halves, with each feeling as if they were developed entirely separate from each other. The second half is strictly linear and completely at odds to the open structure of the first. Its bewildering. A time travelling features at least allows you to return to the open-world and its quests but it takes away from some of the fun and exploration when you know the future is set. There are also some odd scenarios that unfold within the main story that feel detached from the rest of the experience, such as a forced stealth section and horror section.
It’s also disappointingly short, with the story clocking in at around 25-30 hours, and it doesn’t approach the grandeur or complexity of it’s previous titles. However, despite the story feeling underdeveloped and badly constructed, the finale is appropriately epic and grand, and being able to return to the past and experience the side quests and the rest of the content the open-world provides, is enough to keep you entertained for dozens of hours. Ultimately, the aspects of Final Fantasy XV that are great are strong enough to immerse you and keep you coming back, even after completion, which speaks volumes about just how great the overall experience is, because where Final Fantasy does slip up, it falls completely flat on its face.
Exploring Eos, battling the monsters and daemons that the open-world is hiding, finding legendary weapons to wield, and levelling your party and discovering the many secrets on offer, is more than enough to keep you entertained. In its exploration, combat, and main character development, Final Fantasy XV is spectacular. The fractured, incomplete story and inconsistent experience of the two halves, is often frustrating and occasionally entirely broken, threatening to undo all that is good about the title. But fortunately, the good does outweigh the bad considerably enough to make it feel special, unique, and compelling. With a little luck, future patches and DLC will fix the bad, but even if it doesn’t, there’s still a lot to love about this exceptional RPG.
Thanks to Xbox and Square Enix for supporting TiX