Final Fantasy XV embarks on a journey of epic proportions pitting players against gods and daemons, traveling across countries and saving the world. Such a journey should be filled with touching moments and glorious battles, and it is, sprinkled in between long tedious car, train and boat rides. The mix of modern and fantasy makes for an interesting action role playing game but this most recent entry into the Final Fantasy franchise isn’t likely to become any fan's newfound favorite.
The most notable thing when starting Final Fantasy XV is the contemporary setting. The clothing, buildings, and technology are all familiar to us from the skyscrapers to smartphones. This continues right down to the jarringly realistic product placement for companies like Coleman and Vivienne Westwood. There’s a fair amount of fantasy mixed in too, giving the world a unique Final Fantasy feeling.
This unique world is fleshed out by nations with their own backstories, geographies, and traditions, but we don't really get to delve too deep into them. The presence of powerful gods unites these nations in a way that makes the world feel rather small despite the fact that you’ll spend hours traveling around it. There is an impressive range of geography to explore from Arizona-esque desserts to rainy Northern Pacific forests and a romantic Venice inspired city. However, in each new area, everyone dresses the same, speaks the same language and is plagued by the same daemon scourged nights as the rest of the world.
Our story begins in the Kingdom of Lucis where a line of magically gifted kings watch over a special crystal that keeps the universe in balance, or something like that. The militaristic nation of Niflheim is a constant threat. On top of that, fearsome daemons have been showing up during the ever-lengthening nights. Our protagonist, Prince Noctis of Lucis, is setting out to finalize a marriage alliance between himself and the Oracle Lunafreya with his three friends and members of the Crown’s Guard along for the ride. Of course, things don’t go according to plan.
Without giving too much away, Noctis and friends will have to change course to collect the Royal Arms of his ancestors and recruit the help of the Gods in order to reclaim his throne and save the world. It’s a story of sacrifice, betrayal, love and above all friendship. Indeed it is the interactions between Noctis and his friends that are always the most touching and memorable. Relationships with other characters, however, are less well developed. Many potentially interesting side characters are around so little it feels like the developers were teasing players by introducing them at all.
As expected from Square Enix the graphics, especially during important cutscenes, are realistic and gorgeous. The design of the beasts and other creatures players will run into during the game are creative and interesting. The music initially seemed generic and boring but improved over time; although none of the tracks will be making it onto any of my playlists (no, not even Florence + the Machine’s “Stand by Me” cover). Interesting monsters you'll face are far more interesting to look at than the boring punks clad in all black you'll be staring at most of the time. But one has to admit the car does look pretty cool.
Controls for the game work well with most actions being either a single button press or the simple combination of a trigger and button. Coupled with a decent lock-on system this makes combat fast paced and fluid. Although, changing the target you're locked onto can be a pain. The hardest thing to get used to with the combat controls is that many special actions require you to hold down a button for a long period of time before it will take effect and has no indicator to tell you how long.
Regardless, the combat is, for the most part, very fun. FFXV executes the real-time action combat masterfully. There are a variety of weapons and attacks from melee to ranged and physical to magical that allow players to accommodate their own play styles. Fighting elaborates on hack and slash basics with more technical maneuvers like doing more damage by “blindsiding” an enemy from behind or partnering up with teammates to execute special “link attacks”.
Party members are a crucial element of combat, each with their own set of weapons and attacks. They each have special “techniques” which are powerful attacks that you can command them to do when the technique bar has accrued points. Often these attacks incorporate a link attack that will bring Noctis into the fray and can be used for some creative maneuvers. Using their techniques is a great way to keep combat from feeling monotonous but otherwise, party members are often getting in the way.
Of course, the most interesting attacks are executed by Noctis. Central to combat are warping and phasing, abilities that allow you to dash to or from an enemy using magic to attack or dodge. Warp attacks are fun to execute and mastering them will become key to your battle strategies. Throughout Final Fantasy XV Noctis will continue getting more and more powerful abilities to add to his arsenal. You’ll even find powerful weapons of former kings called Royal Arms to wield. After fighting and befriending Gods you’ll also have the option of summoning them to help you in battle occasionally.
Noctis has access to magic as well but aside from warping and phasing, magic attacks feel a bit lackluster. Elemental resources can be readily found around the environment and are then crafted into spells to use. Different elements will be more effective against different enemies and will result in an area of effect-style attack. These spells can deal damage to party members that always seem to be getting in the way, making them finicky to use and often not worth the trouble.
Ring magic is much more impressive, but it’s rather unbalanced as well. These powerful magical abilities are gained later in the game and can drain life from your enemies and completely obliterate them. When the ring’s abilities are first introduced they are so overpowered there’s no reason to use any other attacks. Late into the game, these once powerful abilities leave you so vulnerable and do comparatively so little damage that they aren’t very attractive options to use at all.
When you're not fighting monsters you are probably traveling or looking for a place to stay for the night. For the first half of the game, much of your traveling will be done by car and whether you are driving, being chauffeured around or just teleported to your location for the price of gas it’s tedious. Sometimes interesting dialogue or exposition will be dealt out while you’re cruising the open road but it does little to distract you from the fact that you’re being held hostage in a car when you should be slaying monsters, saving people or practically anything else instead.
Traveling by Chocobo while off-roading is a little more pleasurable because you have more agency over what you’re doing and where you’re going. Also the more you use Chocobo's they will gain experience and level up allowing them to be more useful, even helping out in combat. Players can customize their Chocobo and will ride the same one every time they rent them. It’s well worth the money to rent some Chocobo's to ride through the countryside on quests and it was a nice way to include them in FFXV. For the second half of the game, you won’t have much opportunity to use them.
One of the game’s biggest issues is its pacing. The first half of the game allows players to wander and explore while they complete a variety of story quests and side quests at their own leisure. The second half of the game becomes much more linear with far fewer side quests and a strong sense of urgency to keep moving forward. Really the best way to complete side quests for some extra XP and Gil during the second half of the game is to travel to the past to “relive” some minor mission you’ve never done before. There are some nice interactions in these past sequences but they are narratively awkward. Director Hajime Tabata has mentioned that many free updates are in the works for this title including more cutscenes, playable characters and side quests. It's almost as if the game delivered on launch wasn't really the desired finished product and perhaps explains why the second half of the game feels so much more rushed and bare than it's first.
Adding to this awkwardness is the fact that the game lets you save less and less frequently as it nears its end. One chapter that is quickly becoming players least favorite completely removes the ability to save the game through the menu and makes players stop and sleep to save, along with removing the ability to travel to the past to complete side quests and takes away your weapons and companions replacing them with completely new skills. This, therefore, makes savvy savers sleep multiple times in a day just to make sure they don’t lose any progress which is disruptive to the flow of the game and adds to the overall annoyance of this oddball chapter. On the top of Square Enix's to-do list is patching the game, specifically to improve Ch. 13. However, the hinted changes include making the ring magic even more powerful (it's already overpowered in most of this section) and I'm not sure it can be saved at this stage.
The whole night and day sleeping mechanics are a little strange. When night falls daemons spawn making traveling more dangerous and this works to cement the plot point of the daemon threat. However, if you choose to travel at night you’ll be plagued by an increased rate of random encounters, fighting daemon and other foes and making it virtually impossible to progress. Making camp and sleeping at night is a preferable option which forces players to save and level up their characters. Some hotels give XP boosts for sleeping there but the whole mechanic seemed unnecessary.
Non-combat and traveling elements of FFXV seem tacked on. Dialogue seems to have little influence on the story and fishing and the annoyingly incessant picture taking isn’t very useful. Completing the game without investing in these ancillary skills at all is a perfectly viable option. If you don’t like grinding you can avoid it. Feel free to speedrun through the game without completing a single side quest and running away from random encounters. Sure, your report card will be horrible and you’ll be missing out on some things, but you can beat the game just fine, even on normal difficulty. Even the skill trees and spell crafting seemed a bit oversimplified like maybe the game was designed to be more accessible to people that had never played an RPG before.
Overall, Final Fantasy XV is a very polished and fun game to play. However, it still feels lackluster and lacking in a sense of cohesion and impact for a project that took so long to be produced. Combat is enjoyable and there was some interesting level design sprinkled throughout making the game not feel like a complete waste of time. Yet, the story and the world left something to be desired even with the closure bringing after credit scenes. Often RPGs feel like playing through a doorstopper fantasy novel with slow boiling character and plot development that are rewarding to see unravel and reach their end. FFXV felt more like the movie adaptation of that novel; hints of the emotional arcs and amazing world building were there but never fully realized, leaving players with fast-paced action between the important plot points. Although, if this were a movie, they would have at least cut out most of those boring driving scenes.
Final Fantasy XV exhibits some fun action combat and a few examples of good level design. However, it's lacking in its other RPG elements, especially the pacing of the plot.
- Fun Combat
- Great Graphics
- Pleasant Level Design
- Pacing Issues
- Lackluster Magic System
- Chapter 13