It’s been a long road for the Final Fantasy series in the last decade. After the calamity of the XIII trilogy, and the perpetual delays for Versus XIII, it’s been a long time since the once-prestigious JRPG series felt relevant to mainstream gaming. But after Versus XIII re-emerged as Final Fantasy XV, it became apparent that Square was doubling down on its efforts to bring the franchise back in a big way. Introducing a new, western-inspired, open-world design, as well as real-time combat, Final Fantasy XV was billed as a return to the top for the series. By focusing on a simplified story, an entirely new approach to combat, and reinvention of classic series tropes and themes, Square Enix hoped to court not just the hardcore fans, but everyone looking for a great game. Still, after ten years of development, few were ready to jump on the hype train, instead content to see how the game actually played out. It was a completely understandable reaction. The last time a AAA game took this long to make was Duke Nukem Forever.
As we got closer to release, it became clearer just how much stock Square was putting into FFXV. A full-length CG film with a star-studded cast, a spin-off anime, and comparisons to beloved series entry Final Fantasy VII led a marketing campaign for the ages. It was evident now that this was make or break time for an entire franchise, a series nearly three decades in the making. But was the actual game worth all the hype, was it worth the time it took to make?
I honestly think it was. Final Fantasy XV is a fantastic, wondrous experience that is at once messy and focused. Its scope is matched only by its ambition, and even though it often fails to meet the lofty heights it may have once reached, it can stand tall as a fresh start for a once ailing franchise. It’s far from perfect, but it innovates in so many ways that it’s hard to deny it’s greatness.
Final Fantasy XV follows Noctis — the 20-year-old crown prince of Lucis — in a quest to reclaim his throne after his father is killed and his kingdom taken over by the villainous empire of Niflheim. On his journey, he is joined by his three friends Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis. While it may be a throwback to the classic four-man party of the original Final Fantasy games, the main cast is one of the core elements that makes Final Fantasy XV so entertaining. As you and your party drive across Lucis, there is a real sense of camaraderie that develops. Each character starts out as a one-note archetype, with Prompto playing the lovable dipshit, Gladiolus being the muscle, and Ignis playing the well-read know-it-all. But over the course of the game each evolves into a deeper character, undergoing various arcs that will test their relationships with Noctis and each other. Each one of the characters has a sense of personality rarely seen by in game partners, up there with the likes of Bioshock: Infinite’s Elizabeth and Ellie from The Last of Us. By the end of the game these characters felt real – their bonding was believable, due in no small part to their individual eccentricities. Even characters I was initially annoyed with such as Prompto eventually grew on me.
While the characters carry much of the interaction outside of the main story, at its heart Final Fantasy XV is a coming of age story, and a touching one at that. After an uneven and somewhat jarring first few hours, the story begins to pick up. It’s regrettable it takes so long to get interesting, but once it takes off, the story of Final Fantasy XV soars, bringing with it bold twists and turns that result in more than a few emotional moments. Noctis himself has one of the best character arcs I’ve seen in an RPG, beginning as a spoiled prince, and being forced to grow through loss, pain, and patience. I refuse to spoil anything, but I can absolutely say that no story this year has affected me so much, or had me hanging on until the end like XV. Themes of love, compassion, and brotherhood rule the day, and are incredibly well conveyed. Even when this game gets dark, it never reaches the kind of dour hopelessness or nihilistic anger seen in the likes of The Last of Us or Mafia 3. Add into the mix one of the best villains I’ve seen in a long time, and a love story that surprised me with it’s hidden depth, and you have a fantastic narrative, well deserving of the name Final Fantasy.
It is a shame then that the narrative is so lopsided in its execution. After a bumbling start, players are set loose into the open world for about 20 hours, before being funneled into absolute linearity for the last 10 or so hours, where the story picks up dramatically. It’s a necessity for the story they wanted to tell, and players always have the ability to go back to the open world at any time, but it’s a jarring shift that never quite meshes the way it should. Going from the sparse story elements of the open world section to the incredibly plot point heavy linear sections is a bizarre choice, and it honestly feels like there were meant to be more open sections that didn’t make it into the game. Even worse is a certain late-game section that drags on for far too long, causing a chapter to last upwards of an hour after several that lasted only 30 minutes or so.
For many, the real hook of FFXV will be the open world of Lucis, where players will spend a majority of the game’s playtime. Divided into distinctive sections, players can take on side quests, chocobo races, hunts, and other challenges to help them spend their time in Lucis. Secret missions, side quest lines, and hidden dungeons await, and the world is always beckoning to be explored. I never had a lack of things to do, be it mysterious caves to explore or just taking photographs for a certain NPC. There is also an impressive variety of the tasks given to Noctis and co., and while they always lack the depth of side quests in a game like The Witcher 3, they are mechanically diverse, offering more variety than say Fallout 4.
One element of the open world that is sure to be divisive is the driving. Unlike your average open world title, driving in Final Fantasy XV is almost entirely on-rails, more often than not consisting of just observing the world as Ignis drives you to a requested location. Noctis can take the wheel if you so choose, but seeing as how you can’t leave the predetermined roads ever, there really isn’t a point. Players can access the store to sell valuables and buy potions and other implements, but aside from that, and fiddling with the impressive music selection, there isn’t much to do except wait to arrive. Shockingly, I enjoyed this. Driving across Lucis’ surreal landscapes with the excellent music of previous Final Fantasy’s was a perpetually relaxing experience, and was a nice way to break up the quests I was taking. But that’s just me; some people will hate it.
When I first got a chance to fiddle with the combat of FFXV in Episode Duscae last year, it left me worried. The combat was messy, and enemies took way to many hits to bring down. Thankfully, my fears turned out to be unwarranted, and combat was completely revamped between then and now. For the first time in a main franchise entry, Final Fantasy XV uses entirely real-time combat, similar to Kingdom Hearts, and maybe even a little DmC:Devil may Cry. Players can equip up to four weapons at a time, each with different stats and passive abilities, and are able to switch at will during combat for some impressive combos. There is an impressive variety of weapons for Noctis to choose from, including guns, swords, spears, and even circular saws. The other party members can also have their weapons changed and upgraded, but they are each restricted to a specific, specialized type.
Tying the flamboyant combat system together is Noctis’ warp ability, which allows him to instantly teleport to enemies for a crushing blow, or even to predetermined points that will allow Noctis to regain some of his MP and health in the heat of battle. It’s a great system that could have been a disaster, but works very well, offering even more options for players. The camera, however, does not fare as well as the rest of the combat. While there is a standard lock-on that does a serviceable job of guiding you to your desired target, battles can often get chaotic, leaving the camera in a bush or behind a rock. It’s nothing new for melee action games to have camera issues, but when the success or failure of a fight depends on needing to see when you should dodge, it can get a tad bit irritating. Thankfully, the combat is further bolstered by the players other abilities, as well as a diverse cast of enemies, ranging from monstrous wild beasts, to the towering machinations of the Empire.
Final Fantasy XV is often a stunning technical achievement. Even with some blurry rocks and far-off texture pop-in, there is rarely any framerate issues, and the game’s performance in some of the larger battles late in the game is nothing short of impressive, given the scale operated on. But more enamoring than the visual fidelity itself is the absolutely incredible art design of the world. From Lucis to the neighboring kingdoms, the world of Final Fantasy XV is never short of wonders to gaze at. The bizarre blending of high fantasy with leather and coiffed hair shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, yet XV manages to pull it off with panache. All other things aside, Lucis is hands down one of the most stunningly realized game worlds I’ve ever seen and is an absolute treat for any fan of quality art design in games.
Of course, no Final Fantasy would be complete without a fantastic score, and XV delivers without a question. From the somber, beautiful main menu theme, to the grand, operatic boss themes, and even an incredible cover of Stand By Me, FFXV is one soundtrack nobody should miss. Even more so if you include the volumes of music available in-game, to be bought and played in the Regalia (The name given to Noctis’ car) as you drive across the countryside.
Final Fantasy XV is a bizarre amalgamation of a game. Fantastic characters, music, art direction, combat, and narrative are constantly undercut by issues with pacing and a finicky camera. I have a feeling that a great deal of this game is bound to be divisive, but that’s fine; not every game needs to appease everyone. For me, Final Fantasy XV is the rare type of game that can be held up as art, studied for its themes and narrative, and looked to by future game designers. It has its fair share of flaws, but it remains a unique experience unlike anything else on the market. With one fell swoop, Square Enix has returned its premiere franchise to relevance, and set out a bold roadmap for the future of the series. I can’t wait to see what comes next, I just hope it doesn’t take another ten years.