It’s been ten years in the making, but finally – after much toil and effort, Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix’s latest release in the Final Fantasy series is here.
As the fifteenth game in the company’s long running series FFXV gets a lot right, sure there are some missteps along the way, but ultimately these are easily overlooked when you get to grips with the overall vision of the game and lose yourself in the spectacle of it all.
Final Fantasy XV is a hell of a game. As the companies first foray into the J-Pop band simulator genre there is a lot to take in and take on, indeed it’s a big enough departure from the previous Final Fantasy games, that you are greeted with the message ‘A Final Fantasy for Fans and First Timers’ on each launch. There is enough familiar here that long-standing fans of the series will see a lot they know, new fans will have a lot they are discovering for the first time with a decent pace to it that never leaves you lost or overwhelmed. Part of this fit with the first-time crowd comes from how the Final Fantasy series has handled its many sequels, while sequentially this may be the 15th game in the series, it, like its predecessors is completely stand alone, sure you have a few games in the series which have genuine sequels, such as XIII and XIII 2 and so on, but they are the rarity, rather than the norm.
For Fans and First Timers
For the existing fans, you have a lot of old favourites, Chocobos, Moogles, character names and so on, but there are also some newer additions which may take some getting used to, the biggest shift for existing fans is how combat is handled. Previously this would always be a turn based affair, with characters taking turns to carry out actions, either via simple stat based selection for the older titles, or a timer as seen in Final Fantasy IV and later, which used a gauge to show when each character could act. Final Fantasy XV however eschews these in favour of a purely real time based combat system. While this can be a bit clunky at first, thanks to occasionally poor camera placement, it’s simple enough to pick up and learn and feels more Western audience friendly than the previous titles in the series, controls are relatively basic with buttons for dodge, block, and attack, with each being adjusted by the direction of the thumb stick. The real-time nature of combat also means you lose the ability to have direct control over your team mate’s attacks, who will generally also aim to attack your enemies and preserve themselves as best they can. There are a few times you can influence their attacks beyond the basics, via the use of a tech bar – which functions like the Active Time Battle system of the older titles, allowing you to call on specific abilities, or getting them to join you in what Square call a blindside link, where one of your party will assist you in an attack when near the rear of an enemy.
Of course, the game has a few other things which set it apart from the rest of its stablemates, it launched with a swath of tie in material, including a CGI movie, featuring Aaron Paul, Lena Headey and Sean Bean as well as a five-episode anime details the main characters lives, of course FFVII also had a tie in CG movie, though this was many years after the games launch.
While viewing of the ancillary content isn’t vital, it can help in terms of the overall story, providing some much needed background to the events surrounding Noctis and his friends. Since as enjoyable as the game is one of its biggest miss-steps is the story, or rather how its told, Final Fantasy has a blunt approach to how it tells its story, which while not a bad thing, can be off putting to some. It may be part of the reason I never really got on with and ended up overlooking the later titles in the series after being utterly hooked on Final Fantasy VII while in high school. Of course, it’s a testament to what the game does right that I have not only seen it through to the end, but keep going back for more helpings.
J-Pop and a story of brothers!
I made a quip earlier about this being a J-Pop band sim, which to be fair, is not completely without reason – the game starts by introducing its main five-piece cast, Prince Noctis, the lead of the piece and player character his three erstwhile companions, who are placed somewhere between high-school friends and royal guard, Ignis, the groups intellectual, chef and driver, always putting his prince’s needs to the fore of his mind. Prompto, the groups gunman, photographer and in a sense, the lost little brother who tries to use humour to make the rest pay attention to him. Gladiolus, the broody brawler of a bodyguard, who handles the parties camping arrangements and can often be handy when it comes to gathering useful items. And of course the fifth actor in the ensemble, the Regalia, the groups car – it feels odd characterising a mode of transport in this way, but it honestly feels like another member of the group, both in terms of how its talked about by the many characters you encounter and how much you as a player will come to depend on it as a means to get around the sprawling setting of Lucis, or rather what used to be Lucis after much of the land that made up the kingdom was conquered by the Niflheim Empire. At the very start, the 4 friends are pushing their broken-down car, all dressed in black, with perfectly and often spectacularly coiffed hair – another staple of the Final Fantasy series.
In all honesty, for all the flaws in story telling in the game, it’s the relationship between the four main players in the story that keeps me coming back, ultimately this is a story about brotherhood more than anything else. While there is a clear distinction between Noctis and his three friends, by the sheer fact that he is royalty and ultimately, they are merely there to protect him and see to his needs, the level of comradery shown often transcends this simplistic dynamic, with small conversational quips made frequently that reinforces the sense of brotherhood that the character all feel towards each other. Certainly, as the story progresses, there are several points where it’s clear there are some internal struggles occurring as various members of the group try to come to terms with what Noctis needs to do, along with how he goes about doing it, do they support him? Do they let him fall foul of his own inadequacies? Or do they see things through and trust in their bonds with each other to see them through whatever the world can throw at them. Indeed, the same approach of support is present when in combat, since as mentioned you can team up with one of your party during a fight to unleash some devastating attacks on your opponents.
While I have yet to see the tie in anime, Kingsglaive, the CGI Movie tie in crashes into the games plot within the first couple of hours, with scenes from the movie being used to show the player the larger events of the world, specifically focusing on the groups home city, Insomnia, the only part of Lucis that Niflheim has yet to capture, the events of the movie turn the story from a simple tale of a few friends going to meet and marry the princes bride to be, Luna Freya, to a larger story where they need to unravel the plot behind the Niflheim attack on Insomnia and restore Noctis’ birth right as heir to the throne. The Niflheim attack acts as a clever way of blocking the group from certain locations in the game world initially, as does the general level of control Niflheim holds over the former lands of Lucis, gradually the roadblocks in place are lifted or broken through by the party as the story allows it. It’s here where the game really comes into its own. While its plausible the main story line could be run through in around 25 – 30 hours give or take, I spent a solid 60 or so just exploring Lucis, picking up side quests and ultimately having fun with my friends in the party, I say my friends because ultimately the light humour, quips, comments and comradery throughout the game certainly do allow you to develop some degree of feelings to the characters in the group, this is something that becomes more important for the player to feel over time if they want to get the most out of the game in my opinion. Granted, some of the side quests suffer from many of the usual complaints levelled at open world games, such as being repetitive and samey, you’re generally enjoying the whole thing too much to really notice, driving around the various towns and cities, meeting new, slightly less well written characters as you go, racing chocobos with your friends, hunting monsters and generally just enjoying spending time with your party. The game seems to actively makes you want to slow down the pace of game play, and certainly it’s well worth doing so, even if just to take in the sights that Square have crafted, playing on a 4K TV using a PS4 Pro, the game is utterly stunning to look at, with some beautiful vistas and scenery to enjoy while driving around in the Regalia. There are a few minor tricks used to keep your pace fairly gentle, such as members of your party mentioning they want to sleep, something which can be ignored, but you’ll feel bad for it as they point out how tired they are, or taking the time to help Ignis find new ingredients for his cooking, something which you will want to find time to do too, since his meals will often give the party a much needed boost, while also looking good enough to reach out and eat – yes in addition to being a J-Pop simulator, the game is also a food porn show. (I warn you, make sure you have a few napkins handy, some of the pictures of food will potentially make your mouth water.) The regalia will also need fuel adding from time to time, which like the need to sleep is not at all that bothersome while playing, since it happens infrequently and due to the need to use a fuel pump allows you grab some much-needed supplies, like weapons, healing items and similar while doing it.
The pacing changes when the group leaves Lucis to finally meet up with Luna in Altissa, with the game taking a more linear approach to level design. Sure, Altissa is still relatively open, though in a much smaller area than that which has been available to the player prior to arriving. Though honestly, where Lucis was well crafted, with a variety of beautifully realised locations, Altissa is something else, the city has similarities to Venice, in so far that it has canals and gondola, but beyond this? Its utterly stunning.
Once business is finished in Altissa though, things change completely. Where Lucis was open and vast, and Altissa, similar, but on a smaller scale, the rest of the story drops all of this, placing the party on a train, which essentially is where you stay for the duration of the game right up until the end, the fact that on the trip to Altissa and indeed when boarding the train you are told and indeed on the train can see that you have The Regalia with you makes this change much more galling, since the one thing that has given you access to the vast world prior to this is sat right there, unable to be touched and to almost entirely remain unused, barring for one last, sadly linear approach to end of the game. I mentioned the pacing changes dramatically here too – granted, this is in part down to the fact that I spent 60 hours on everything in the run up to leaving to go to Altissa, but the fact the game seems to encourage you to take your time about things does make this sudden pace adjustment something of a shock to the system, making it feel almost like it’s a separate game entirely. Indeed, from heading to Altissa to completing the main story line, I believe was around 10 hours in total, maybe slightly less. Granted the game can be completed in around 20 – 30 hours if you just focus on the core story, but as I keep saying the player is seemingly encouraged to slow down and take their time about things by the design of the game itself, which ended up leaving me with a bit of a sour taste for the pace change.
Well worth the effort
Prior to the games release Square held a large-scale media event, with online streams to coincide, showing not only the Kingsglaive movie, but also some of the work that went into the making of FFXV, with developers visiting varying locations, trying different foods, camping, fishing, cooking, essentially going all out to ensure that they could learn everything they felt was important when it came time to craft the game world and its locales, while many may see this as pointless, the attention to detail really does shine through, as I intimated earlier the game is utterly gorgeous, with its various locations not only looking incredible, but also being fully believable both in the game world but also in and of themselves. I mentioned fishing and camping, both are activities you can do a lot of or also ignore – there are some fishing specific side quests, but nothing vital to the story, indeed, I skipped most of the game without touching the rod once, only picking it up later on in the 60 hours I spent on the open road to try to give Ignis some additional ingredients for recipes he’d concocted. This said, fishing is a reasonably enjoyable diversion from the main story, with the ability to increase Noctis’ ability as a fisherman, while also pickup varying lures, rods, reels and lines over time. Indeed, all the characters have one unique, none plot critical skill they develop – Noctis has Fishing, Ignis has cooking – which while not plot critical is certainly damned useful for the stat boosts, Gladiolus has camping and Prompto has photography. This last one is perhaps one of the more oddly compelling things about the game, Prompto will take random photos as time goes on, upto a maximum of 10, or 15 with the right equipment – when the party settles in for a night, one of the last things you’ll get to do is review his pictures, sometimes of fights, sometimes of the guys just goofing off, or sometimes shots so comedically bad you can only assume his finger slipped, I often found myself looking forwards to seeing what he’d snapped at the end of each day.
And now, the not so hot
Unfortunately, I did mention some missteps and the game does have its fair share. As said the plot can be a bit on the direct side at times, often to the point of being quite juvenile in its approach, something which also brings up another potential issue. The game lacks many major female characters, no more than three or four of them in fact, sure there are a few more than this who function as quest givers, but none of them feature heavily in the game outside of this function. One of the first characters the player meets outside of the party members that could be classified as a major character is Cindy, the local mechanic who fixes up the Regalia for the boys. To say Cindy is designed to appeal to a certain subset of the audience would be putting the point about as bluntly as the plot handles some events at times. Her character design is ultimately one that fills a single role familiar to anime fans, fan service. From the skimpy cut-off jeans, to the low zipped top either of which the camera will invariably be pointed at when she bends over to give the car a bit of a clean after fixing it up for you. It’s obvious that there is a certain target demographic in mind here, which can have the potential to alienate certain other demographics in the process. It doesn’t help matters that as the local mechanic she does serve a vital part of the game, since you will be taking the regalia to her often to have it upgraded and repaired when you crash the car, so it’s not like she is easily avoided.
Another major misstep is sadly the combat. I’ve already briefly covered the basic mechanics earlier in the review and indeed on its surface, it works well enough, though it’d be fair to accuse it of simply being button bashing, in the same sense that the combat systems from games like the Batman series or the Assassins Creed series can be accused of having button bashing based combat systems. The problem is, due to poor camera interactions there are often periods of time where you are utterly blind to what’s going on, making using the block, parry, attack system somewhat redundant. The fights are visually enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, they just simply lack depth. There are certain levels of tactics you can use, for example Noctis can equip upto four weapons or spells, which are supposed to help you against certain enemy types, when playing however I found that ultimately, I could stick to my preferred weapon with no real impact on my ability to take down an enemy, beyond perhaps just adding a few more minutes to the fight. Essentially once you get to a certain level in terms of combat, every fight becomes a case of mixing up attacking, dodging and countering, lather, rinse, repeat; with the only real variance to the approach being how you use your companion’s abilities and when. You do get a few other things to throw into the mix, such as the ability to use an attack known as the Amiger, where Noctis will use ethereal weapons that are collected by completing some of the dungeons found in the game in a devastating attack and of course, the Summons the series is renowned for. Extraordinary attacks of almost comical levels of overkill, but these are rarities, rather than the norm of combat. Regarding the summons, Square have tweaked how these work also, meaning you cannot directly control when they appear now; instead the player must meet a set of criteria for each different entity to appear, such as having a party member knocked out, or being on your last dregs of health and even then, they may not be available to use since it seems in the latest version of the game the gods the summons represent are fickle creatures, only choosing to bestow their power when the time is convenient.
Finally, the interface can be… Clunky. While you can get used to it, it does often lead to annoying mistakes being made where Square seem to have ignored the basic design of interfaces from literally every other game ever made and have done their own thing. The main map springs to mind here, in most games when accessing the map, you press X to leave a marker, or initiate fast travel or some other thing that the game designers think you may want to do. This is common amongst most RPGs of the last five or so years that I can think of. Not so in FFXV, pressing X returns you to the player location. Now, granted the menu does state it will do this, so you could argue that its my fault for not reading the menu options and understanding how the shortcuts work, but this is going against the grain of years of interface design that RPGs have been using, it forces the player to relearn how they interact with the game and in some cases, I can get behind this, but not when it comes to something as fundamental as the menu system, similarly fast travel is done in its own unique way, rather than select a location in the map and transport, you have to board the Regalia, then select Auto, then select your location and hope that the game lets you fast travel – that’s right, in some cases you cannot fast travel to a specific mission location, despite it having a parking spot nearby which you can choose as a fast travel location. This clunkiness extends to more than just the menu system sadly and become something of a running joke in our house and indeed the internet at large, with a few memes appearing as a result. In an odd twist of decision making, Square decided to map interact and jump to the X button by default. While on paper this shouldn’t present a problem, in practice… Let’s just say I spent more time jumping up and down in front of objects I wanted to use rather than using them. Granted, you can use the ‘walk slowly’ button to change this, so the game either prioritises the interaction command, or, what is more likely is that you simply have more control over your input making you more likely to hit the interaction point than not, but either way, this seems like a strange choice on Squares part.
Despite some misgivings I have regarding the combat and the oversexualising of a certain female character, honestly I cannot say enough good about this game. Its not perfect by any stretch and certainly their are other things that I’ve not covered here which I wasn’t overjoyed with, but on the whole they are minor enough to be forgettable. Sure, the story isnt amazingly strong and lacks any subtlety, but that’s surprisingly easy to forgive and yeah, I wasn’t happy about how quickly the game wrapped up and how linear the game became after having a massive open world to play with. But honestly, the 60 hours prior to this more than make up for my misgivings. It’s the first Final Fantasy game since VII that I’ve not only enjoyed playing the majority of, but also fully seen through to the end, which is a testament to the job Square have done in terms of making you care about the characters and in terms of crafting an utterly enjoyable experience while just cruising around Lucis. The fact that on completion you are basically sent back to Lucis, just prior to the end sequence kicking in shows just how much Square understand that this part of the game is probably the biggest draw of the title, the vast open world, where its just you and your friends in an awesome car, having fun, goofing off and going on adventures together. Perhaps it appeals to the child in me, jumping on my bike as a kid and heading off to do who knows what at who knows where with my friends, perhaps its something else entirely, but something about this segment of the game, about spending time with Noctis, Prompto, Gadiolus and Ignis is enjoyable on a very emotional and instinctive level for me and hopefully for others too. While I will be going back to spend more time with my travelling companions, taking on a certain Adamantoise and just kicking back to enjoy their quips, comments and jokes, when I’m finally done and there is nothing left to do, honestly, I can say I’ll genuinely miss the characters Square have crafted in a way that few other games have managed to make me do. With the talk of a possible PC release, where the visuals will be specc’d to match the hardware, I’m hoping it wont be too long before I get to do it all again with these lovable rogues.
- A beautifully realised open world envrontment
- Main characters that you can't help but want to get to know better
- Graphically quite impressive considering the limitation of the platform
- A simple, unsubtle plot
- Quirky controls and menu systems
- A simple combat system, which is both a blessing and a curse.