The best Final Fantasy games are those with great characters and which take the player on grand adventures. If nothing else I think Final Fantasy XV fits in to this category. As a long-time fan of Final Fantasy it’s fair to say that I know what I want from the series. For many years now Square has taken the series in a direction I’ve not really agreed with. Final Fantasy X may have received critical acclaim, and the adoration of legions of fans, but on a personal level the tenth instalment was a huge disappointment (I won’t discus exactly why here). Final Fantasy XIII was even more disappointing, and my general disinterest in MMORPGs (I have nothing against them, I just can’t devote the time to them) meant I never played XI or XIV.
Since the series’ debut on the PlayStation 2 the only main series entry I’ve enjoyed has been Final Fantasy XII, which I thought was an excellent title that made some great changes to the series. XII did a lot of things right that both X and XIII didn’t. But thankfully, after over a decade, I think Square has got it right once again; at least for the most part.
You can tell almost immediately after starting Final Fantasy XV that it was designed to be everything XIII wasn’t. Within ten minutes of starting a new game I was given the freedom to go off and explore the gorgeous world, taking on monster hunts and side quests at my leisure. I played the game for roughly six hours before I even attempted the first story mission. Final Fantasy was never a linear, corridor RPG before Final Fantasy X, and XIII only made things worse, but it was also never this open-ended previously either.
While the pace of previous games in the series was dictated primarily by the story, which generally pushed the player forward from one town to another, you still had freedom to do side content. With Final Fantasy XV it’s very much the opposite, as the story takes a back seat while exploration takes centre stage. Some fans will find this disappointing. Admittedly I found it disappointing to an extent myself. Past Final Fantasy games have had fantastic stories full of lore that you couldn’t help but find fascinating. The story of Final Fantasy XV is perfectly adequate, but at times it feels like certain story arcs are missing. Despite being in development for a decade the story almost feels like it was rushed, or was an after thought for the most part. Yet, after the boring linearity of Final Fantasy XIII it almost feels refreshing to have this much freedom to explore.
The main story itself revolves around Noctis, a young Prince who has to deal with the death of his father and the destruction of his kingdom. At the beginning of the game Noctis is accompanied by his three friends, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto, who are tasked with escorting the young Prince to the city of Altissia, where he is to marry the oracle Lady Lunafreya. It is hoped the marriage between the two will ease the tensions between the Kingdom of Lucis, Noctis’s homeland, and the Empire, who have been at war for years. Despite being a marriage of convenience Noctis and Lunafreya are genuinely in love and have been friends since childhood. Although, not long after the departure of the heroes Lucis is attacked by the Empire, it’s King slain and crystal stolen, leaving Noctis and his friends without a place to call home. The emotional impact of the story does hit home on occasions, but whether or not you get the best experience from the story all depends on whether you’ve watched the related Final Fantasy XV media. Certain parts of Final Fantasy XV’s story are vague because much of the backstory and lore are explored in the film Kingsglaive and the anime Brotherhood. If you really want to get the most from Final Fantasy XV’s story watching these is essential. It’s disappointing that you have to go out of your way to get the best experience, but the rest of the game is strong enough to help you forgive it.
Despite the story lacking the punch you’d come to expect from the series the relationship between the four main characters is arguably Final Fantasy XV’s biggest strength. Much has been made about the awesome foursome since the reveal of the game in its original form of Final Fantasy Versus XIII over ten years ago. People have criticised their design, with many going as far as to say they look like a soppy, emo rock band and that their personalities will reflect this. But these fears are unfounded.
The foursome may not be my favourite Final Fantasy characters, but they are possible the most relateable group in the series. Previous Final Fantasy games have had large, diverse casts, but some characters always felt out of place. Characters like Cait Sith in Final Fantasy VII or Gau in Final Fantasy VI almost felt unnecessary, and as a result I never use these characters when I play those games, and I almost feel the games wouldn’t lose anything if they were removed entirely. But that’s simply not the case with Final Fantasy XV. Having only four characters to focus on has allowed Square to create a more believable cast. Not since Final Fantasy V has a main series entry had so few playable characters, but Square did a great job developing the bonds between them. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie, and when you’re walking around exploring the world, or fighting against hordes of monsters, they will talk to each other, often with enough banter to put a smile on your face. Gladiolus in particular has a tendency to say things to deliberately annoy Prompto. They are all best friends, and the writing really does a great job of showing this.
On the flip side, despite a strong main cast the support characters lack depth, which is especially annoying considering some of them play a key role in the story. As much as Square tried to build up Lunafreya as a love interest for Noctis I didn’t really feel the connection myself because she has very little screen time devoted to her, and much of their relationship is lost if you haven’t seen the expanded media. The same rings true for other characters as well, such as Ravus and Emperor Aldercapt. The main villain, on the other hand, is really good, the best the series has seen in many years in my personal opinion. What I can say is limited for fear of spoilers, but the villain is an excellent character and I honestly don’t think many would disagree with me when I say this.
Final Fantasy XV is at its best when you’re exploring the world, completing quests and hunting monsters for the local tipster. In terms of sheer content Final Fantasy XV is the most content rich Final Fantasy game we’ve seen so far. That’s not to say more content makes a better game. The large majority of open world AAA titles have huge worlds and hundreds of hours of content, but the actual content on offer is more often than not lackluster, and you tire of it rather quickly. A game like Mad Max, as an example, may have a large open world, but it very much feels like a game thought up on a whiteboard at a meeting based on market trends, designed by people who know little about video games. Final Fantasy XV doesn’t free itself entirely from the usual trappings of open world titles. There isn’t much variety in the missions, a common criticism of many open world titles, with side missions tasking you with the same fetch quests you’ve come to expect. Every now and then you’ll also have to help somebody whose car has broken down, or go fishing, or help an injured hunter who is lost on the job. While the side quests lack originality there are tons of them, and they all reward the player well with experience points or Gil, meaning they are worth completing.
It’s with monster hunts are where a lot of the fun lies, and that’s down to how enjoyable the combat is. Combat is quick and frantic; the closest comparison I can give would be Kingdom Hearts, which isn’t really surprising considering Tetsuya Nomura, the creator of Kingdom Hearts, was the original director of Final Fantasy XV back when it was still known as Versus XIII. His input on the project is clearly still visible in the final product.
Like Kingdom Hearts you can only control one character in battle, Noctis, while the others are controlled by the A.I. (although you can still manually issue certain commands to Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto, which they learn as you increase their skills). The A.I. isn’t perfect, and I would have preferred a gambit style system, like what XII had, because that way you could set the A.I. to control the characters the way you wanted, adding further strategy to combat, but it works fine as it is. In battle you have to make the most of Noctis’s two key abilities to take enemies down in the most efficient manner; his ability to phase and his ability to warp. Both phasing and warping require MP to use, and they each serve their own unique function in battle. Phasing is achieved by simply holding down the square button, which allows Noctis to avoid incoming enemy attacks. Warping, which is achieved by pressing the triangle button, can be used to strike enemies, which sometimes grants a damage bonus, and to avoid enemies by warping to safe zones within the field of combat, and doing so will replenish Noctis’s HP and MP. Mastering these techniques and when to use them will increase your finesse in battle substantially.
Attacking is done by simply holding down the circle button, which will keep Noctis attacking enemies on a constant cycle which is only broken if he suffers damage. While attacking you can move using the left analogue stick to pull off combos, and as you upgrade Noctis his range of combos will expand. Noctis has the ability to carry up to four weapons in combat, which you can freely swap between at any time, and doing so is essential because certain enemies have resistances and weaknesses to specific weapon types. There are eight weapon types in total, so keeping one of each type is recommended so that you can tackle any awkward situation. You can also use magic spells, but unlike most previous games in the series magic isn’t something you learn, rather it acts as a consumable item. It’s similar to the magic system in Final Fantasy VIII in some regard, but instead of drawing magic from enemies you need to find magic source points in the world and draw magic essence from them. Once you have some magic essence you can craft your spells, and as you upgrade skills you gain the ability to craft stronger variations of these spells. Magic spells are powerful, and are useful on occasions, but the system itself doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could have been, and if you use magic on an enemy which is too close to your allies they also suffer damage and status effects. Because of this I hardly used magic in my entire play through, aside from against some specific, high level bosses that had clear elemental weaknesses.
Successfully winning battles rewards the player with experience and ability points, as you would expect, and you can spend your ability point upgrading your characters stats and abilities in the Ascension Grid, Final Fantasy XV’s answer to the Sphere Grid. Leveling up your characters, on the other hand, is handled differently to previous instalments in the series.
Although defeating enemies and winning battles rewards the player with experience points you characters don’t actually accumulate experience until they rest. You can rest at various designated camping areas while out exploring the world, or at hotels, and different locations have different advantages. Resting at a camp will accumulate your experience points and gives the player the option to take advantage of Ignis’s unique skill. Each character has their own unique skill; Noctis is a keen fisherman, Gladiolus collects the items enemies drop in battle and Prompto loves taking photographs. Ignis’s skill is cooking, and when you rest at camp he can cook meals for the party which grant temporary boosts to variety of different things, such as temporarily increasing your maximum HP or attack power, or even granting a boost to the experience points you earn for defeating enemies. When you rest at hotels you gain a boost to the experience points you have accumulated. If you have 1000 experience points, and stay at a hotel with a 1.5 EXP boost, you will actually accumulate 1500 experience points instead, or if you stay at a hotel with a 2.0 EXP boost you’ll accumulate 2000. But when you stay at a hotel Ignis won’t cook you meals. Whether you prefer having stat boosting meals, or gaining a boost to your experience points, I’d recommend you rest at both types of locations throughout the adventure to take advantage of the different boots you earn.
The setting is a weird departure for the series. Over the years the series has taken on medieval fantasy and science-fiction, and sometimes elements of steampunk, but Final Fantasy XV is strangely grounded largely in reality (or at least as close to reality a Final Fantasy game can be). You still get flying ships, chocobos, giant summons and other traditions one would expect from the series, and monsters are a common sight, but never before have the characters had to travel around in a car, or go to fast food restaurants to eat, or go shopping at a petrol station after refueling the car to stock up on supplies. At first I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked all the mundane, everyday aspects to the setting, but after a while it really grew on me. It’s different, and in the end that’s what I ended up enjoying the most about it.
One aspect the developer greatly overstated was the feeling of a best friend “road trip”. The Regalia, the car the heroes travel around in, was featured heavily in promotion for the game. It was almost the fifth member of your party, in many regards, but the Regalia was essentially pointless. The most useful feature it has is that it allows you to fast travel, but outside that the general use of the thing is limited. When you actually drive somewhere it is usually controlled entirely by the Ignis. You can manually drive, but you can’t go off road and if you try and drive on the opposite side of the road the game tries to drag you back across to the correct side. Even on manual control it still feels like it’s on auto-pilot. Because of this it went largely unused, which for something Square promoted so heavily is rather disappointing.
The Final Fantasy series has a rich history of wonderful music. Some of the best video game soundtracks ever produced have been for the series, with the legendary Nobuo Uematsu at the helm. Since Final Fantasy X though Uematsu’s involvement in the series has diminished greatly, and the only game since IX which he has composed entirely by himself was the original Final Fantasy XIV. He isn’t involved with XV at all, but thankfully Square brought another legendary composer on board. The soundtrack for Final Fantasy XV was composed by none other than Yoko Shimomura, the composer of titles such as Street Fighter II, Super Mario RPG, Kingdom Hearts and Xenoblade Chronicles. She did a commendable job, crafting some truly beautiful pieces. Her work on Final Fantasy XV isn’t quite as good as Xenoblade Chronicles, but the music is still enjoyable to listen to. I have a tendency when playing video games with good music to just stand around doing nothing and just listen to the music play. I have to say I did this on numerous occasions throughout the 130 hours I spent with Final Fantasy XV.
Final Fantasy XV has gone a long way towards rekindling my love for the series. It is far from perfect. The main story is one of the weakest in the series, and the side characters are largely forgettable. And as unrealistic as it is in this day and age I would still love to see the main series go back to turn based combat at some point in the future. But despite the flaws it suffers I simply couldn’t put it down. It has been years since I have felt this much love for the series, and I have to congratulate Square on winning me back. I started to wonder if I would ever love the series like I once did, but if Final Fantasy XV marks the future of the series then it’s a future I can’t wait to see.
Final Verdict: RECOMMENDED