Few games can boast as tumultuous a development period as Final Fantasy XV. Originally envisioned as Final Fantasy Versus XIII for the PS3 back in 2006, fans of the series have long awaited this entry. By 2012, however, development was abandoned on Versus XIII, and the project was rebranded as Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Fortunately, unlike other games with a decade-long development cycle (see Duke Nukem Forever), FFXV delivers a package bursting to the seams with content, and one for which the wait was well deserved. Despite the many behind-the-scenes changes during the past ten years, the final product is cohesive and bold, opening a new page for the Final Fantasy franchise, and offering an RPG experience both familiar and wholly unique from the competition.
As the game loads, the message “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First Timers” informs the player of what to expect, and those eight words serve as a thesis of sorts for the title. Veteran fans may lament the loss of such iconic features as turn-based combat and medieval settings, but the fast-paced action combat and contemporary magical-realism setting offer a reason for new players to pick up the title. Perhaps the biggest change is the fact that the game bears more in common with The Witcher and other contemporary Western RPGs than the JRPGs that are the title’s forebears. Yet, in the long run this move is more likely to be a boon rather than a curse for the series. Turn-based combat has its place in both gaming history and the present, but to compete in the modern RPG genre, these changes seem a necessary evil.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine trekking through the world of Eos in the same ways as in previous Final Fantasy worlds, as Square-Enix has created a gorgeous and unique open world. The graphics are breathtaking, to say the least, and when players are first given control of Crown Prince Noctis and his pals pushing a broken car along a deserted highway, something truly magical happens in seeing the world for the first time. The draw distances are amazing—some of the longest and most awe-inspiring sightlines of any game in recent memory—and the sheen of the sun glinting off the group’s trusty vehicle, the Regalia, is a testament to the hard work put into this game. The way the breeze blows the hair on the characters’ heads, the way the group fluidly moves amidst packs of enemies mid-fight, and the overall beauty of the day-and-night cycle make Eos a world players will have no trouble sinking many, many hours into. With world building being such an important pillar to any RPG, the fact that Eos captivates from the first scene and never lets go sets up the rest of the game on a canvas ripe for the taking.
The heart of the game however, is in protagonist Noctis Lucis Caelum and his three traveling companions and best friends: Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. Making up a sort of ego, superego, and id respectively to Noctis’s own personality, the four companions serve as the core of the story which begins as a bachelor party gone bad, and turns into a heartfelt exploration of friendship faced with loss, defeat, and tragedy. Perhaps the reason these characters work so well together is in the endearing banter between the group as they explore the open world, whether it be delving into the deepest dungeon or camping for the night under the stars. Or the car rides players take to get around the world, capturing the road trip trope perfectly while allowing players to listen to the soundtracks of previous Final Fantasy games as the landscapes roll by.
The integration of each character into the gameplay itself via the form of different activities that define them also serves to reinforce the strength of the group. Prompto, the photographer, takes snapshots of the group’s journey and allows players to save their favorites, ostensibly just for fun but later revealed to be much more important. Ignis, the cook, can fashion a variety of stat-boosting meals, the spectacled and reasonable “mother” of the group. And Gladiolus, the stout shield that protects the Crown Prince, is all about survival, picking up items during combat and acting as a sheer force of destruction in any fight. Noctis himself is a fisherman, the relevant mini-game simple to learn but hard to master. At its best, players feel like Jeremy Wade wrestling a leviathan on River Monsters, but there is nothing more frustrating than having a line snap moments before reeling in a prize catch. These activities capture a mundanity to the journey, which is many ways makes the game feel even more realistic, and makes the moments of companionable silence more impactful.
Yet there are also a myriad of side quests for players to engage with, offering experience points and gil to spend. While many of them amount to nothing more than fetch quests, a staple of the series, they provide a narrative, however small, to go to different places in the world and see the many walks of life. Such diversions help to evoke the intriguing setting of Eos, where players drive cars on paved roads, but also fight with magic spells and magic weapons. The sheer number of beasts that inhabit the world make Eos more dangerous, but the design behind them represents the best monsters fantasy has to offer. From griffons and goblins, to unicorns and dragons, many familiar creatures are reimagined to fit the game’s graphic style. Taking on the role of hunters tasked on taking down the deadliest of these beasts, Noctis and his band at times feel like Geralt of Rivia and his fellow Witchers, killing monsters for coin and to protect the common folk. Again, such similarities are necessary to draw in new players more familiar with The Witcher than Final Fantasy, and the sheer joy in taking down some of biggest, baddest beasts is exceedingly rewarding.
The combat system itself, which players use to complete these hunts and all other fights in the game, is simultaneously chaotic and simple. With one button relegated for using a weapon, the real strategy comes in the positioning of the group during these encounters. Noctis has the unique ability to ‘warp-strike’ around the battlefield, hurling his weapon at a foe, teleporting to it, dealing damage, and moving away in the blink of an eye. His companions have Techniques of their own, powerful moves they make in combat both with and without the player’s input. The more devastating of the two are the ones players choose to unleash using a tech bar filled up through combat consisting of three segments. Each companion has several Techniques to choose from, costing from 1 to 3 blocks of the tech bar, increasing with effectiveness the higher the cost. These abilities can save the lives of some companions, as they are effectively invincible when performing them, and they can also turn the tide of a losing fight in an instant.
That is not to say there is still no danger, or no learning curve. It takes times to master the correct timings to dodge attacks, as well as when to use potions to heal or otherwise enhance the party. Phoenix Downs, a staple of the series, are back, used to revive teammates in combat, and necessary to save Noctis should he falter or else the game will end. There is a window to save each other, as when one’s health is depleted, they enter a state of danger where they cannot fight but only limp away until they are healed or take a potion, adding another layer of tactics to the combat. At times, the camera angles can render any strategy useless as players are lost amidst their enemies, but it works impressively well for the most part. A Wait Mode for the combat is also included, which pauses the combat when the player is not moving. This mode allows a necessary reprieve at times, allowing overwhelmed players to catch their breath and plot the next attack. Encounters with one group of enemies can bleed into others, as random encounters come in the form of ambushes from Imperial dropships and packs of beasts roaming the plains. These battles are the most chaotic, but also the most stimulating. Boss fights are also another monster, however, relying more on tactical precision against a big foe where one false step can spell certain doom.
Yet it is possible for players to severely over-level if they do many side quests before moving on with the story, at times being double the recommended level for a certain quest. While being this powerful certainly has its benefits, it makes the random encounters more deadly, and players can find themselves outnumbered by lower level foes and still struggle. The grinding of previous Final Fantasy games is replaced with more organic XP gain from side quests, and players are not forced to level any more than they want to. It is rewarding to see combat become easier, however, and to see one’s combat prowess increase, to see enemies that once left Noctis limping now the ones being cowed. As such an integral part of the gameplay, the combat fills its role quite nicely, and though it may be hard to master, it still captures a distinct choreography unlike any other series offers.
In order to better prepare for combat, players can outfit the party with better weapons and trinkets that boost different stats or have special effects. Furthermore, the customization system incorporates ability nodes that can be activated through AP points, accrued while leveling and through other activities such as driving or fishing, if players choose to upgrade those nodes. From increasing the effectiveness of linked strikes to unlocking deadly new abilities for Noctis and the party, these options add further depth and allow players to pick a build which suits their playstyle. Players must make camp to level up and receive some AP, while also choosing a meal to cook and peruse Prompto’s photos. During these downtimes, a kind of companion quest can be initiated, where one of the Crownsguard will take Noctis away from camp for some one-on-one training. With the addition of New Game +, players can become even stronger the second time around.
Yet for all the differences from the rest of the series, FFXV still has some hallmarks of the titles that came before it. The iconic Chocobos, for instance, return, allowing players to traverse the land on the back of the lovable feathered steeds. They too can level up, and even aid in combat, looking as gorgeous as ever and providing a strong connection to the rest of the series. There are also a myriad of dungeons and high level bosses for players to take on, as well as some hidden bosses and other secrets only available after completing the main story. In this structure of mystery and exploration, the sense of wonder the series captures so well remains intact. In addition, the story itself strikes some familiar notes common throughout the other narratives within the series, while also elevating the franchise with stronger characters and a tighter story.
As a series, Final Fantasy has always had strong characters but has suffered from often convoluted or unnecessarily complicated plots. The premise here, however, is simple: Prince Noctis is heading to the city of Altissa to marry his betrothed, Lunafreya. His three Crownsguards and friends are escorting him there, and all seems to be going well at first. Unfortunately, things go south very fast, but players are not given the full story. Instead, to fully understand what happens, they must watch the CGI movie Kingsglaive which explains an incident that occurs at the beginning of the game and effectively changes the world forever. The series is no stranger to such CGI films, but to have one be so integral to understanding the story told inside the game seems a mistake. Square-Enix has also released a five-episode animated series entitled Brotherhood which gives more background on Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus. While not as integral to understanding the plot as Kingsglaive, it offers some information that helps inform who these characters are and makes the player appreciate their group dynamic even more. Still, even without knowing the full details players learn enough to understand why the party’s plans must change, even if it is not a satisfactory explanation.
From there the story opens the world to the player, and allows them to choose to either continue with it forthwith, or do side quests and explore the world. The main goal remains the same in reuniting with Lunafreya, but the quest becomes increasingly complicated as demons and the Imperial army dog the party’s steps. There is a rich lore and strong ideas floated, but as a whole, the story could have been a little less vague and more fully fleshed out at points to clarify plot twists or explain the motivations of certain characters. Still, the English voice acting is surprisingly solid and helps lend an emotional authenticity to scenes that might otherwise fall flat on plot relevance alone.
This story is more straightforward than others in the series, filled with many low points of darkness and defeat, but also instances of hope and love. The other locations (besides the open world of Lucis) that players see, however briefly, remain breathtaking in their own right, even though players may find themselves wishing they could spend more time in them. Though some plot points may not be entirely clear by the ending, there is nonetheless a strong conclusion to a story which has its own missteps, but ultimately finds its strength in the relationship between Noctis and his friends, and the tests put to those bonds over the many chapters and hours. In telling this linear story, players are not given any choices that may change what happens, offering a tighter narrative on one hand, but also removing story choice which is so important to RPGs today. Though dialogue choices are occasionally incorporated into the plotlines, they amount to nothing more than XP or AP given to the whole party or only certain members.
Final Fantasy XV is an impressive title despite some narrative flaws, massive in scope and ambition, and technically impressive. From the awe-inspiring graphics and lovable protagonists, to the unique, visceral world and the fluid, action-packed combat, fans both old and new will find something to hold their interest. While the series seems to be adapting to the contemporary Western RPG, and it stands to reason a sequel would continue in this direction, at its core, it is still Final Fantasy. No other series can be so well known and have such a cultural impact, nor capture such a unique style of character and storytelling, while also remaining a giant in a constantly changing industry. There is more than enough bang for buck with this one, and then some. The message at the load screen does seem to hold true. “A Final Fantasy for fans and first timers.” All are welcome. And with more DLC to come, both free and paid, an already full package will go on to bursting.