Review: Final Fantasy XV
More bros than you can shake a magically summoned stick at.
There are some things that have just always BEEN, for as long as we remember. Static constants, never changing. Since the dawning of the modern age, since video games first entered the public mind, since time immemorial – Final Fantasy XV has always been in ongoing development.
But no longer! FINALLY, and pardon the pun, the game has arrived.
Starting its life as a side-title to Final Fantasy XIII, titled Versus XIII, this particular property has been through more changes than most of us will in our lives. Some core elements have remained such as the primary cast and overall modern aesthetic, but the separation from its parent title let FFXV take on a more distinct presence in the nine years since it was first revealed to the public.
At its core, Final Fantasy XV is a road trip story about bros. That may seem overly simplistic for a series both famous and infamous for its fantastically convoluted narratives, but give Square Enix some credit – just because that’s the basis doesn’t mean there can’t be a million layers stacked on top of it.
Final Fantasy XV tells the story of Noctis Lucis Caelum, Prince and heir apparent to the kingdom of Lucis. He is tasked by his father King Regis to meet his future bride Lunafreya Nox Fleuret while peace talks are carried out between Lucis and its enemy, the Empire of Niflheim. After suffering a car breakdown, Noctis and his guards-slash-friends learn that the peace talks were a ruse – Niflheim has attacked the capital city of Insomnia, killed the King and taken over the kingdom, and declared both Noctis and Lunafreya dead. Setting out with his team, Noctis makes it his mission to find Luna, gather power and return to reclaim his kingdom and rightful place on the throne.
Now while that paragraph above is pretty heavy, it communicates the initial drive of the game fairly well. In fact, it probably does a better job than the game itself. The opening scenes abruptly push you out into the world without giving a true sense of what’s going on – beyond the brief blurb on the loading screen. Prior to the arrival of Final Fantasy XV a tie-in movie prequel was released. Called Kingsglaive, it breaks down the events that set the greater plot in motion.
It was widely publicised that the movie – while giving more information about the setting and world – was not required viewing to understand the game plot. Obviously that declaration was disputed, because the day one Crown Update patch introduces several scenes cribbed from the movie to flesh out the introductory chapters and better communicate the story. It’s understandable — prior to this patch there was a lot more assumed knowledge in the early stages. Short of lore entries, there are several key concepts that go unexplained until much further into the game. Why is everyone looking meaningfully at that ring Luna is carrying? You’d better set aside two hours before you start playing the game to watch Kingsglaive.
That said, FFXV does a much better job of introducing the mechanical side of its lore, even if it doesn’t give you the reasons why. As a member of the royal family, Noctis has access to many abilities that make combat a lot more hectic and fun. Able to summon several weapons at will to arm himself and his buddies, he can also throw his blades around as a kind of carry-along teleportation, called Warp-Strikes. Letting you both attack and evade enemies, warping adds an extra dimension to combat, both figuratively and literally. At any time, you can warp to many distant vantage points to recuperate health and MP, and line up a powerful distance attack to re-enter the fray.
The more action-based freeform combat also encourages you to use co-operative techniques with your party, with some triggered manually and others through proximity to your party members. On screen, this amounts to Kingdom Hearts combat, only dialed up to 11 and with better effects and more angst. While it’s come a long way since the initial demos, the camera still struggles to keep up with what’s going on and will occasionally get lodged in scenery or a combatant’s body – thankfully, the snap-lock camera can quickly readjust this to keep your fight in view.
Overall, the game feels a lot less Final Fantasy from a mechanical point of view. The fusion of Western and traditional Japanese game design was a necessary move for the aging franchise, as the purist Japanese RPGs don’t do as well as they used to. We need only look to the popularity of Final Fantasy versus Dragon Quest in the West to confirm this. What it amounts to is a game that feels more like a single-player MMORPG than a pure entry in the franchise. The nearest comparison I could make would be Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii/3DS, at least in terms of its structure. Final Fantasy XV has you managing a quest list charted over a (less helpful than it could be) world map, broken down into main and side quests.
If you love fetch quests you are in for a treat, because FFXV has them in DROVES. Plenty of missions see you hunting down particular items from the environment or enemies, as well as hunts that see you either committing genocide against a set number of a monster species or taking down unique higher-level monsters (such as Deadeye the Behemoth from the Episode Duscae demo). Thankfully these aren’t all purely for money earnings – some quests will grant access to mechanics such as Chocobo riding, while Cindy sends you out to fetch unique items she can craft into upgrades for your car, the Regalia.
The Regalia also signifies one of the big changes for Final Fantasy XV: traversal. With the move to a more large-scale, open-world format, the Regalia becomes your primary mode of transport. Traveling long distances by foot is unbearable (especially prior to upgrading Noctis’ stamina), and Chocobos are subject to availability and hire costs. While this offers a great deal of scenic views to enjoy – the world presented here is richly detailed and great to look at – it does mean you’re going to be watching a car drive from one place to another for a few minutes every time you need to get somewhere.
Sure, you can drive manually if you choose to, but it adds very little; the Regalia is hard-coded to follow the roads and cannot plow across the continent cross-country. It’s pretty much the difference between whether you want to spend four minutes holding down the R2 button or not. You’re also given the option to pay for fast-travel at 10 gil a pop, but only once you have entered your car, only to certain destinations and only when the game ALLOWS you to fast-travel. For a series that HAS done fast travel in the past (at the expense of a world map in titles such as Final Fantasy X) it seems an odd side-step.
While the story and combat may be serious business, the general feel of the game is a lot more chill. The idea of an all-male primary cast ruffled a lot of feathers early on, including my own – raising fears that the game would become a pit of toxic masculinity and bro-power. Thankfully the reality is a lot better – Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto have much more of a dad-joke vibe than a locker-room one. Incidental dialogue while exploring or driving has the boys dropping pun-bombs on each other almost constantly, a feature that did not go unnoticed by me. While the tone will shift as needed when the story calls for it, this consistent lighthearted banter goes to show that Square Enix has really put in the effort to portray the four as long-term friends who are comfortable talking to one another.
For everything done right, there are equal parts done wrong. Women still dress like someone attacked their washing line with a pair of scissors (Cindy the mechanic is the best-slash-worst example). Often, they’re also a lot less developed than their male counterparts. Final Fantasy XV leans a lot less on the more unpleasant Japanese game tropes, but the essence of it is still there. It’s an interesting effect of the more Western-influenced game environment presented over the last few Final Fantasy titles.
This review may read like a negative assessment of Final Fantasy XV, and that’s understandable. As a long-time fan of the franchise, I have a lot of presumed standards and historical check-boxes to tick off for what I think of as a real Final Fantasy. The truth of the matter is that any franchise, any series, any GENRE changes over time, whether you like it or not. It has a lot of quirks for something in development as long as it was, but the release of and updates to the two pre-release demos show just how willing Square Enix is to adjust to fan expectations.
While I may not think of this personally as a true Final Fantasy title, that doesn’t make it any less of a good game. Despite all my above quibbles, I still haven’t been able to put the controller down for any longer than it takes to visit the bathroom or refuel my needy human body. It’s understandable why this was set as a side title to the franchise initially, given how much it plays with the formula, but fresh input is what is needed to keep this franchise alive. Final Fantasy XV welcomes new players with open arms, and challenges long-time fans to try something new. It’s worth your time, and worth the wait.
God help us with Final Fantasy XVI.
Final Fantasy XV was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.