After ten years in development, Final Fantasy XV delivers a memorable open RPG adventure through a bizarre and beautiful world. The game’s story draws heavily on the themes of the wider series, which puts it in constant conflict with its desire to appeal to newcomers. But whilst the story is a little weak and often confusing in its delivery, the entertaining battle mechanics and strong supporting cast make this endearingly strange video game really entertaining.
At some point we’ve all watched a half decent movie about a car full of buddies or unlikely friends heading out on the open road for misadventures. First and foremost, this is how I’d describe Final Fantasy XV. Or at least, the better half of it.
The story follows the only player-controlled character, Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, heir to the Lucian throne, on his journey to reunite with the Lady Lunafreya, his betrothed. Their union is set to bring peace to the two nations, but just as he and his three companions begin their journey, they receive devastating news and must spend the subsequent chapters traveling through Lucis, building Noct’s strength before reuniting with Lunafreya and reclaiming his homeland.
This first half of the game is really enjoyable. Along the way you’ll navigate a large map full of settlements, dungeons, friendly NPCs and enemies to hunt – with plenty of pit stops in between to grab some fries or gas up the Regalia. When the sun goes down the boys can fork out for a motel, camp under the stars or brave the over-levelled danger that comes at nightfall. Whilst sidequests can feel a little empty and the storytelling can be a bit weak, the dynamic of these lads and their journey is really entertaining.
The very first screen when you load up the game is a wide still-shot of the four main characters side by side, seemingly chatting away with a long stretch of road ahead of them – and that very much encapsulates their journey. The game itself opens with the group pushing their broken down Regalia to the tune of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” instantly setting you up for what is essentially a FF themed road trip.
And ultimately, it works. This is a great, feel good RPG with a beautiful sprawling world, fun combat and strong leading characters. Unfortunately, much of this is upturned in later chapters.
The second half of FFXV leads the player through a very linear narrative which for large portions does away with some of the characters and battle dynamics that made the game so fun. Even the tone is very different, and whilst this would be understandable for a finale, it lasts far longer than necessary and leans heavily on a story that is, up to that point, the weakest part of an otherwise brilliant game.
And this is FFXV’s most obvious issue, it constantly feels like two distinct game mashed together. One half appeals to everyone as an open-world RPG that encourages vast exploration and slow grind, and the other is a linear action game with some epic set-pieces that is heavily inspired by the series’ established mythology, beloved by long time Final Fantasy fans. Rather than a healthy blend of both, at times the game makes very jarring leaps between the two and the story suffers a little because of it.
But the game’s most glaring flaw is its very name. Pegged as a Final Fantasy for fans and first timers, it seems counterintuitive to lump ‘15’ on its title and risk alienating a new generation of fans – and this conflict haunts the game from start to finish.
It’s a problem we’re seeing franchises struggle with increasingly often. Next month the seventh incarnation of Resident Evil will hit, on the same day as the impossible titled Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. The industry is at a point where games like Mass Effect are ditching the numerals entirely to avoid putting off new players.
So when a game drops with 15 in the title – it’s hard to believe it could truly be for first timers at all. This is a franchise with a notoriously deep and detailed lore, and positioning this instalment as the fifteenth chapter implies quite a bit of baggage.
Originally announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII way back in 2006, XV shares its mythology and lore with FF XIII (2009) and Type-O (2011, originally Agito XIII). They hold many common elements and underlining themes, which Tetsuya Nomura once defined as “a battle of the gods that lies behind each tale and gives it inspiration in a different way.”
But what is important to note is that these games are not actually related outside of their thematic connection, which is one of the reason the game was renamed. Ten years later, XV surfaces on a new generation of consoles as a messy blend of Final Fantasy’s best bits and what might be considered standard for modern open world RPGs. You don’t have to know anything about gods and crystals to enjoy this game – and maybe that explains some of the problems with its storytelling.
And the slogan for fans and first-timers reaches further than the series’ complex mythology and history, it’s very mechanics have been built with all players in mind.
The game dynamics are complex whilst somehow maintaining an intuitive simplicity that allows new players to pick the game up quickly, without depriving veterans of gratifying gameplay. An example of this is the battle system, which instantly feels familiar for returning fans and Kingdom Hearts players but employs a more western action-based real-time mechanic, rather than turn-based arenas. This works well with the open-world environments, allowing you to free roam and naturally encounter enemies.
This is particularly successful with the ‘hunt’ sidequest. Throughout the first half of the game as your’re traveling you can learn about hunts from local tipsters, allowing the group to earn money for monster slaying. It’s a little disappointing that these aren’t more fleshed out, compared to something like contracts in Witcher 3 which each felt distinct and had more story elements. Hunts and other sidequests are almost all fetch quests with very limited narrative, and this would be less forgivable if combat wasn’t so fun.
Within battles players can use a combination of traditional melee attacks, ranged magic and defensive parrying, as well as player-controlled character Noctis’ ability to warp through the battle and strike multiple enemies. Battle techniques also evolve to include other party members for more powerful combo attacks, and in true Final Fantasy style Noct can summon the powerful god-like ‘Astrals’ to aid him on occasion.
Even the most basic melee attacks are customizable, with a decent choice of weaponry that can be equipped and rotated across four weapon slots. This feels natural and fun, offering complexity without overwhelming new players. Occasionally your party members will suggest a particular battle strategy, which you can choose to follow for AP or ignore entirely. Having them participate not just in the fight but in planning feels really natural and strengthens your bond with the characters.
For context, there are times when Noct must go it alone for a portion of a mission and it’s never more apparent just how important your party members are than the moment you face enemies without them. They strengthen your attack, but also make combat way more entertaining. In fact, these characters and their close relationship are the game’s greatest strength, holding XV together through even the most dubious parts of the story.
The lack of large party selection from previous games has delivered a more fleshed out relationship between four friends. These aren’t just your allies chosen for battle advantages, they’re your buddies along for a road trip and that dynamic is really endearing. There’s Noctis, the player character and royal prince, Gladiolus, beefy bodyguard and camping enthusiast, Prompto, energetic budding photographer and Ignis, well-spoken chauffeur.
Between the writing and the acting, these characters and their relationship rescue some of the more difficult parts of the game. An example of this is the incessant product placement scattered throughout the game, which includes everything from the gang’s camping gear to wedding dress design. The most notable however is Cup Noodle – which is available from an obviously branded food truck in a major city. This leads to a side quest to gather ingredients for the noodles, and a monologue that could be lifted from a commercial. The only thing bearable about the whole thing is the fact that the actors for the English voice over delivered the monologue with the irony it deserves, and embracing that makes the whole thing a self-referential joke rather than the embarrassment it could have been.
It’s not like these are the most lovable characters of all time, sometimes they’re downright irritating, but their relationship and the group dynamic is pulled off brilliantly. Each has their own very distinctive personality with dialogue that emerges organically as the characters observe their environments and weigh in on the story progression. The world is way more immersive when other characters respond to how cold an ice cavern is or the how terrifying a boss design is, and chat about challenging dungeon puzzles. Considering the size and scope of this game, it’s really impressive that they’ve been able to pull that off consistently and it really stands out against the ‘lone-wolf’ experience of traditional open-world RPGs.
The downside of this is that inevitably you will hear repetitive dialogue, particularly on the road and at pit-stops. It isn’t anywhere near Skyrim’s ‘arrow-in-the-knee’ proportions, but the more roaming and side missions you complete the more you’ll hear the boys trading repetitive banter. This is to be expected of course, and it’s a testament to the game that it doesn’t happen more often, but it could still be irritating in the long-term, particularly if you don’t find their chit chat endearing in the first place.
That’s the crux of the game really; if you’re sold on these characters, you’ll probably put up with some of the game’s weaker points. There is also a tonne of content to explore outside of the main storyline. Even after the game is complete there are dozens of optional dungeons that can be explored, and contrary to the often dull side quests, these are exceptionally well designed and really entertaining to complete.
On top of that the game itself is beautiful to look at. The world of Final Fantasy XV is full of bizarre, fascinating creatures and inexplicable landmarks that make driving around entertaining in and of itself. It also has the benefit of beautiful high end graphics and HDR mode, which I can attest having playing on both a standard PS4 and a PS4 Pro with a 4K, HDR enabled television makes a subtle but impressive difference. The game doesn’t run in 4K, but offers a high quality mode that plays at a higher resolution, with greater depth for detail and shadows at 30 FPS or an uncapped frame rate mode that plays at up to 50fps.
So believable relationships, a tonne of interesting content and beautiful environments on top of strong gameplay is probably enough to pull you through linear storylines without really caring about the big picture. But it is a real shame that in a game with such a wonderfully designed world they couldn’t better incorporate the story and the wider cast into gameplay. This together with a lack of meaningful side missions really lets the game down, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it is, at its heart, a great game with hours of entertaining content.
Pros: Beautiful looking game with a really entertaining RPG game play loop. Exploration and battle mechanics fantastic. Main character relationships are believable, and make up for weak story in some parts. Also has some great level design and dungeons.
Cons: The effort to include ‘first timers’ has clearly meant they’re struggling to tell the story sometimes. Sidequests are almost entirely ‘fetch quests’ and offer little to no narrative substance. Second half of the game is suddenly and significantly different – it becomes very linear, which is a bit jarring.