Game Review

by Dustin Bailey,

Final Fantasy XV

PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Final Fantasy XV
After a decade in development, the latest entry in the Final Fantasy franchise is finally here. Final Fantasy XV follows Prince Noctis on an epic road trip with his three closest pals, who end up as the central figures in the battle to stop an encroaching empire from destroying everything they hold dear.

Every time you boot up Final Fantasy XV, it presents you with a message, calling itself a “Final Fantasy for fans and first timers.” The series' disconnected chronology has always favored reinvention, but this one takes that that further than most, doing away with all but the most superficial vestiges of FF past. Crystals, chocobos, and a guy named Cid. This game draws as much from the Witcher, Monster Hunter, and even Devil May Cry as FF, and it may be that the “first-timers” are the greater focus here than the “fans.”

Is that a bad thing? Not really, no. At times, the disparate inspirations that make up Final Fantasy XV's network of influences and ideas meld together into a very cohesive whole, creating a beautiful, unique moments unlike anything the series has done before. At other times, you can feel the confusion of the game's decade-long development, and the points at which the game isn't quite sure what it is or what it's trying to accomplish stick out like so many sore thumbs.

The story opens with four friends pushing their broken-down fancy car up a desert highway. There's Prince Noctis, heir to the throne, making his way toward a wedding with his childhood love which will also double as the final seal of a peace treaty between the Kingdom of Lucis and the Niflheim Empire. He's joined by his pals and attendants, Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto, each of whom have their own connection to the future king and are prepared to do anything to ensure his seat upon the throne.

That setup will be intimately familiar to you if you've followed any of the extended media that's anchored the release of FF15. I hope you're familiar with it, because the stories of Brotherhood and Kingsglaive are the only plot you're going to find for well over half of the game's runtime. If you're looking for an epic tale in the latter-day tradition of Final Fantasy, you'll find the early pace at which the story unfolds excruciating. The tale early on is simply that of four buddies on the road, getting distracted from their destination time and again by pretty girls at gas stations, townsfolk in need, or local fishing holes.

But as a road trip RPG, Final Fantasy XV works, and it works spectacularly. The open world that dominates the first half of the game is deeply inspired by the American highway, albeit a majorly fantastic one. There are the greasy roadside diners, and long stretches where there's little to do aside from watch the scenery roll by. Your car, the Regalia, is a beautiful piece of engineering with lots of customization options, but driving is a very passive experience. Ignis typically takes the wheel, chauffeuring the party to their destinations, but even when you're in control the car is magnetized to the road, automatically following the curves just as long as you're holding down the gas.

You're stopping in town to pick up quests and find monsters worth hunting, then picking up and driving forward to the next bit over the horizon. It's slow, it's methodical, and it's beautiful. Prompto takes pictures that you sort through and save every time you make camp, and these photos make the journey feel like a real, honest-to-goodness road adventure. If you're willing to enjoy the scenery, there a moments where FF15 is downright magical.

But none of that would work without the cast. Without extended cinematics—with in-world dialog and mechanics that say things about the personalities who make use of them—the game wonderfully builds the personalities of its core cast, making them incredibly likeable and endearing. Prompto's over-eager positivity, Gladio's stoic heroism, Noctis' brooding silence, and Ignis' loving annoyance with the whole group are all the traits of a generic four-man RPG cast, but smart, constant characterization keeps that from being the case.

Take one late game moment where some very bad things have happened and the party is barely holding together, and everyone's blaming each other for what's gone wrong. The normally chipper combat and exploration dialog is toned down, with everyone having a certain edge in their voice. After one battle, Prompto excitedly shouts “We did it! Together!” and his attempt to bring levity to the situation falls entirely flat, ending only in an awkward silence. In that moment, the entire cast feels real. You know who they are. You know why Prompto would try that. And you know why, despite the attempt at humor failing utterly, that this group of friends is going to be alright.

You control Noctis exclusively, and discounting a couple of story events the four-man crew is your party for the entirety of the game. Getting into fights sees you holding down an attack button for combos and holding down a dodge button to evade, with skill coming from the timing of each and strategy coming from which weapon, ability, or spell you're using at the time. Different enemies have weaknesses to various weapons or elements and exploiting those weaknesses is core to effective battle. Along the way a meter fills that you can use to activate your party's special abilities, whether that be a healing regroup command from Ignis, a massive cleaving blow from Gladio, or a defense-breaking pistol shot from Prompto.

The combat offers moments of fun, but it exists in service of the characters and world—that's not a bad thing, but it will be disappointing if you're looking for complex action or deep strategy. By the time enemies started becoming difficult, I had a surplus of healing items that carried me through even the most trying of encounters. (I never saw the game over screen.) The best—and worst—that can be said about the battles is that they're inoffensive, so while fights can be entertaining they'd fall completely flat if not for the strength of the game's remainder. There are situations where the camera can be a serious problem, though, with trees or cramped hallways getting in the way of what you can see. For 9 out of 10 battles it's no problem, but the instant you can't tell when to attack or when to dodge things become immensely frustrating.

If you're holding out hope that the included “Wait Mode” is the answer to concerns over Final Fantasy becoming an action game, there's disappointment in your future. This feels very much like an inclusion to appease indignant fans of turn-based role-playing rather than a viable way to play. With Wait Mode active, the action pauses when you stand still, allowing you to survey the battlefield as you plan your next move. Start acting and things resume. It might help ease some folks into the action-driven combat, but it won't change the fact that is, indeed, action combat.

You also won't find much in the way of customizability for your party. While the ability tree takes inspirations from the sphere grid, it's a much smaller, more manageable system, with mostly linear upgrades that enhance your abilities rather than add to them. Gear also follows a straightforward progression. Each non-player party member can only carry one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, and one accessory (though that can be upgraded), and there are only a handful of each, with every new option being a clear improvement over the last, meaning you'll have no tough choices over what to equip.

Final Fantasy XV has an abundance of “things.” I could talk about the Elemancy system for crafting spells, or how you get AP, or the way Warp Strikes work, or phasing and MP, or hunting levels, or camping, or fishing, or cooking, or the stealth segments, or the base captures, or Chocobos, and there's a lot to be said about each and every one of them. This game trades in breadth rather than depth, with a tremendous variety in gameplay elements to make up for the fact that no one idea is fully explored. In many games, that's a recipe for disaster, with half-explored ideas feeling broken and unfinished in service of just introducing more things. But there's hardly anything bad about FF15, and a lot that's great about it. All these disparate parts are just good enough, they're just polished enough, and they're in service to such a wonderful world and set of characters that when they come together they form a whole that's not just good—it's often excellent.

So far, I've just been talking about the first half of the game. That's the open world road trip RPG that's unlike anything the series has done before. But halfway through, it feels like somebody remembered to hit the Final Fantasy button, and the remainder of the game is a story-driven cutscene-heavy linear adventure that abandons the US-inspired open road for the truly fantastic locations you traditionally expect from this franchise.

The pieces of plot that exist in the open world half of the game are told largely through static shots of characters talking to each other. The latter half has cutscenes—spectacular cutscenes with gorgeous animation and incredible spectacle. The first half of the game is low-stakes adventures on the road, with occasional encounters against antagonist forces. The latter half is a constant march toward an inevitable confrontation with a clear villain. Cities get torn asunder in massive, set-piece battles, with the gods of the world becoming involved in these human battles.

It's a huge, jarring shift in focus that comes completely out of nowhere, and if not for the common thread of the cast and the combat system linking the two parts together, they'd feel like entirely different games. It's a complete shift from utter disinterest in grand storytelling to a complete disregard for anything but plot-driven action.

Even with that renewed focus on story, pieces feel like they're missing. Major plot points appear and disappear out of nowhere. Every new decision made by the cast feels like it took place five minutes ago and now we're just along for the ride. Major characters die out of nowhere, completely off-screen and outside the view of the story. When you talk about “plot holes,” you're normally talking about story elements that contradict each other—here we have plot holes that can only be defined as the absence of plot. In retrospect, I can tell you everything that happened and why. But in the moment, it was a rollercoaster of bizarre twists and turns unpredicted by anything that had come before, each new moment coming with a shrug and a “I guess this is happening now.” There are amazing moments, incredible in their spectacle and anchored by a cast you've grown to love over the course of what's come before, but each of those moments feels like a piece of a whole that's missing its connective tissue.

Final Fantasy XV is a game that's alternately bewitching and bewildering, a broad selection of design influences and story ideas that often come together for spectacular results. Sometimes, things don't gel and you're left wondering what strange confluence of events made things the way they are. But I can't stop thinking about this game, what there is left to explore, and what further adventures Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladio might have.

Overall : A-
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : B
Presentation : B+

+ Fantastic core cast, beautiful open world, incredible set pieces, solid fundamentals and breadth of gameplay
No story in the first half and a bewildering variety of events in the second, little depth to combat or customization

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