FINAL FANTASY XV Review
Like a Quentin Tarantino film release or a new addition to Kanye West’s discography, whenever the latest Final Fantasy game comes out, people pay attention. Absent are the cynical opinions reserved for annual release franchises like Call of Duty or NBA 2K; there is an unwritten understanding that the Final Fantasy games are held to a high baseline of pre-established quality. The games take years between releases for a reason: they are the gold standard of JRPGs.
But, MMORPGs aside, the disappointing releases of FINAL FANTASY XII and FINAL FANTASY XIII, which did not live up to fans’ lofty expectations for one reason or another, left the community wondering whether or not FINAL FANTASY XV would be the title to set the franchise back on course. And let’s make one thing clear right off the bat: FINAL FANTASY XV is the series’ best game in 15 years. But this begs the question, can I make that claim because it legitimately matches up to FINAL FANTASY X? Or is it only because XII and XIII set the bar so low?
Free at last…
FINAL FANTASY XV immediately drops players into the Hot Topic-approved garb of Prince Noctis, heir to the immense open world that is the Kingdom of Lucis. Reminiscent of the open worlds seen in The Elder Scrolls or The Witcher, this vast landscape combines an emphasis on exploration with collectibles such as treasures, mineral deposits, and ingredient spots. This is a refreshing feature, as the return to a world map satisfies longtime fans after the linear Disneyland ride track fiesta that was FINAL FANTASY XIII, while also welcoming newcomers to the franchise with open world elements that they may have seen before. Different cities and outposts, dungeons, and optional bosses decorate a scenic environment in what initially seems like Final Fantasy’s roaring and triumphant return.
However, possibly the most jarring change of the game comes around the halfway mark through the plot, where the party boards a ship and never returns to an open world setting for the rest of the storyline. At this point, players are squeezed into a linearity that serves as a harsh reminder that the game was at one point being developed under the FINAL FANTASY XIII heading. Moreover, this second half of the game seems largely experimental. There are sizable portions that emphasize stealth and suspense that felt more Metal Gear than anything close to Final Fantasy. Overall, this dramatic shift in gameplay leaves FINAL FANTASY XV feeling like two vastly different titles uncomfortably stitched together.
The combat system is perhaps the most considerable deviation from traditional Final Fantasy mechanics. Battle is done via an up-tempo, high mobility hack-and-slash system reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts, where reflex and reaction are key points of emphasis. Dodging and blocking enemy attacks while warping around the battleground are thrilling supplements to chaining attacks together. If the customary ATB system is too outdated for modern gameplay, then I must say that this is a very exciting direction to go in. The animations are crisp and flashy, the skillcap feels very rewarding, and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing Noctis and friends execute a Link Strike.
There are, of course, other deviations that need to be considered. Magic is largely pushed to the backburner in this installment. It is still within the game, but the variety of spells at your disposal is incredibly limited and must be crafted in small quantities, which makes for a tedious time investment for a comparatively insignificant payoff. Arguably the most iconic Final Fantasy spell, Cure, is absent from the game, meaning restorative duties fall to purchasable items like Potions, which often makes difficult fights unnecessarily expensive. And of course, summons make their return. Their presence in fights is more old-school, as they come in, wreak havoc with their signature ability, then leave; however, the actual ability to summon the astrals in fights is rather randomized and unreliable. Thus, it is clear that FINAL FANTASY XV puts a large importance on weapon-based attacks. Though different from the slow, conventional swords-and-magic Final Fantasy theme, when one considers how fleshed out the combat system is in FINAL FANTASY XV, it is a well-executed change.
There’s nothing more “Final Fantasy” than impossible hair and oversized swords
As we move on to discuss arguably the driving engine behind all Final Fantasy games to date, the plot and characters, I must first make a note of the importance of this game’s pre-release anime, BROTHERHOOD: FINAL FANTASY XV, as well as the pre-release anime film, KINGSGLAIVE: FINAL FANTASY XV. A large majority of the playerbase, including myself, did not end up watching BROTHERHOOD or KINGSGLAIVE for some combination of reasons that include time, money, and accessibility. Unfortunately, these pre-release media provide an abundance of backstory for FINAL FANTASY XV’s plot, characters, and setting that is either glossed over or omitted completely during the game itself. The way that the plot is delivered in the full release feels as if there is the assumption that the player had already seen the pre-release content. Players who haven’t are either left piecing things together, not feeling the full gravity of plot twists, or are left in the dark entirely. For example, in the first few hours of the game, I had a pretty good idea of who Noctis was. But I hadn’t a clue of who Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto were, or why they were traveling with our prince. The game never gives a full explanation, leaving the player to solve this unnecessary mystery through context provided in dialogue.
The plot itself gets credit for thematically being one of the darkest Final Fantasy games to date. No other Final Fantasy game experiments with some of the dismal plot twists or revelations that FFXV dives into. Again, to players who hadn’t seen BROTHERHOOD or KINGSGLAIVE, many of the major plot twists are undoubtedly less significant or taxing, which I find to be an unfortunate flaw. The plot is also quite convoluted, which at this point has become a hallmark of the franchise, but I personally find it comparatively more straightforward than the storylines of many of its predecessors.
The only major knock against the storyline is its brevity. Many players were able to complete the main storyline within 20 hours. I took my sweet time with it and was disappointed to find myself clocking out at only 27 hours. This is highly disappointing when you consider the length of the game’s development cycle; however, there is some relief in the fact that there is a significant amount of post-storyline content. Overall, I feel that the plot, while incredibly short and certainly not without its flaws, is a rare combination of brave choices with solid execution.
The characters themselves are delightfully designed. The personalities of each of the four members of the party are distinct and mesh together well, and their lines of dialogue and interaction are incredibly genuine and well-written. The side-characters and antagonists are mostly all top quality with vibrant personalities, backstories, and motivations. Because of this, however, it becomes rather disappointing when reality sets in that the boy band is your set party from the beginning to the end of the game. One of Final Fantasy’s signature mechanics involves characters permanently joining the protagonist’s travels for one reason or another. Usually, this enables the player to decide on his or her optimal party whether that be based on stats, roles, or simply a combination of the most likeable characters. FINAL FANTASY XV chooses to go in a different direction, focusing exclusively on how the core four reacts to the ups and downs of the entire plot. This is a bold idea, but one I found rather lacking in execution, as playing with the same four characters the entire game got rather stale from both a gameplay and dialogue perspective. It certainly did not help that there are many well-designed side characters that would have made excellent party members. The multiple encounters with Commodore Aranea Highwind in particular serve as a disheartening reminder of what could have been.
The entire soundtrack could be appropriately swapped for a Backstreet Boys Greatest Hits album
Visually, the game is as pristine as most had come to expect. The graphics, especially in the open world, are incredibly detailed and make the long load times easily worth it. The animations, particles, and summon scenes make battles exhilarating to be a part of. And of course, the pre-rendered cutscenes that dazzle in trailers and the full release alike are absolutely top quality. There are some cutscenes in which faces or hair look somewhat wonky, but these are mere blips on what is otherwise a beautiful feast for the eyes. The soundtrack is similarly triumphant, utilizing a predominantly orchestral track to give the game a cinematic quality. There are already candidates to be FINAL FANTASY XV’s signature track, much like “To Zanarkand” or “Terra’s Theme” are to their respective titles. “Somnus” and “Valse di Fantastica” are two of my personal favorites off of the list, and of course there’s always the beautifully integrated “Stand By Me” cover by Florence + The Machine. One of Final Fantasy’s constant strengths will always be its music, and while FFXV’s soundtrack likely won’t have as many hits within the community as, say, FINAL FANTASY VII’s soundtrack, it undoubtedly does its job extraordinarily well and only helps to forge memories of the experience.
So let’s revisit our opening premise. FINAL FANTASY XV is, without a doubt in my mind, the franchise’s best single player title since FFX came out 15 years ago. Is it because it can stand up to X? Or is it because it shines in comparison to XII and XIII? I would say that it’s a little bit of both. It is a remarkably solid game, both from the standpoint of objective video gaming as well as from the viewpoint of a Final Fantasy fan. Does “solid” put it in the same category as those games from Final Fantasy’s golden age? Not exactly. But it does a fantastic job in moving in the right direction, something fans of this franchise have been starved of for far too long. For the first time in over a decade I can say that I am excited, not nervous, for whatever comes next in the series. FINAL FANTASY XV puts the gaming community on notice: Square-Enix has woken up, they are listening, and they are paving the way for their crown franchise to reclaim its throne.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on Xbox One