Final Fantasy XV has had one of the most storied developments of any game, and can proudly stand next to The Last Guardian as a title that has battled for a decade to see the light of day. So since its inception as Final Fantasy Versus XIII through to its final release ten years later as Final Fantasy XV, was it worth the wait? The answer to that question is complex. While it’s a decent game, with a great story filled with interesting characters, FFXV suffers from some fundamental issues that betray its long and beleaguered development.
And so the adventure begins…
FFXV picks up directly after the events of the feature film Kingsglaive. I thoroughly recommend watching that film before jumping in to FFXV, as the game does a relatively poor job of explaining the context in which the story takes place. Basically a small kingdom called Lucis stands against the powerful, technologically-advanced nation known as Niflheim, locked in a bitter war of attrition. Lucis would have been destroyed were it not for the magical barrier powered by a crystal in its capital Insomnia that has been protected for centuries by the fabled kings of Lucis. The events of Kingsglaive depict a peace treaty being brokered between the nations, however this treaty is swifty revealed as a ploy by Niflheim to steal the crystal, destroy the barrier and indulge in a bit of regicide. King Regis falls with Insomnia, but is survived by his son Noctis, who is sent from the capital before the calamitous Niflheim betrayal. You play as Noctis, who must gain the power of his ancestors and the gods themselves to rise up and heal the fractured nation and beat back the encroaching darkness. Not a task to be done alone though. You have a retinue of Crownsguardsmen in the form of Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus, who are sworn to protect Noctis and help him on his journey to realising his power and claiming his birthright. But first, they have to get the car fixed…
The story in FFXV is one of its greatest assets. The game is filled with interesting lore and history that gives its many characters quite compelling emotional depth and complex motivations. This is not a classic good versus evil scenario, and there are many surprising twists and turns that throw doubt and intrigue into the mix at regular intervals. An aspect that lies at the heart of the story and is a source of constant enjoyment is Noctis’ relationship with his three friends. As mentioned the game begins with them getting their car fixed, and despite the heavy events at the beginning of the game there’s a light-hearted, road-trippy feel to the opening chapters. While he may be a prince, Noctis is not beyond reproach and the group is just as likely to support him as to pull him into line. This is particularly true of Gladiolus, Noctis’ appointed guardian and all round leather pants-wearing, majestic mullet-sporting tough guy. The bond between these four brothers is strong, and each has a role to fulfil in the group. It’s no glorified #nohomo bromance either; the relationships forged between the four feel tangible and real, and they anchor the plot on a very strong base.
The story concept and execution is generally good, but a lot of important events (especially towards the end) occur off-screen, and entire characters (and even Niflheim itself) appear to be ungraciously sidelined in the process. It seems like the game rushes towards its conclusion, and I felt there was a lot of room for expansion. This being said, the fact that a game that in development for ten years has any semblance of cohesive narrative is no mean feat, and I was happy to go along with the tale when things started to accelerate.
In terms of actual gameplay, FFXV is an action-RPG at heart, in the vein of games like The Witcher. Most of the game has you exploring a vast open area on the outskirts of Insomnia, where you’ll get to know the locals and accept missions and monster hunts around the area. While this gameplay loop will be familiar to any RPG fan, unfortunately FFXV really scrapes the bottom of the barrel in the majority of its side missions. For the most part they are unashamed and uninspired fetch quests that have little background and are a chore to complete. For instance, an NPC might task you
A finer side profile of a glorious mullet you will not find
It’s not Final Fantasy without a cat-based mission
with dismantling some traps, finding a certain amount of fireflies or tracking down the dog tags of a fallen monster hunter. You’ll be given a certain area in which these might be found and then you simply walk around looking at the ground and hoping you find them. RPGs have come leaps and bounds since this sort of terrible quest design, and there are simply far too many of these to ignore. On the upside, quests encourage you to explore the region and uncover its secrets, including entrances to dungeons that contain tougher enemies and powerful weapons known as Royal Arms. I found all of the dungeons containing Royal Arms by sheer happenstance while completing side missions, and they were always exciting to uncover and explore.
…The bond between these four brothers is strong, and each has a role to fulfil in the group. It’s no glorified #nohomo bromance either; the relationships forged between the four feel tangible and real, and they anchor the plot on a very strong base…
Wearing all black was a bad choice
Put on your seatbelt young man
Fireside chats with Ignis
There’s a giant bird behind me isn’t there?
The issues with side missions are compounded by the fact that actually getting around the world can be quite tedious. Once the Regalia (your wheels) is fixed, it will be your main form of transportation in the early game. You can fast travel to certain spots, or you can drive there in real time, listening to the crew’s banter and taking in the sights. The latter option is a novelty at the beginning, and the first few times you cruise to your destination while watching the wind gently tussle Gladiolus’ magnificent Tennessee waterfall are quite enjoyable. You can also get Ignis to drive for you, however in the beginning you can only have him drive during the day as the night is dark and full of terrors known as daemons (fast travel is therefore also forbidden at night). While driving you can only check the map (not your stats, loadout or weaponry) so it’s a very passive experience. With destinations as long as eight real minutes away, this quickly became my least favourite method of getting around. Things became better once Ignis stopped being a baby and agreed to drive at night, but fast travelling still requires you go through a loading screen before arriving. The loading times aren’t too bad (about thirty seconds to a minute), but you’ll be seeing a fair few of them to complete a mission. Later on you’ll get access to rideable chocobos, which are an absolute godsend and often a good alternative to the driving load screens depending on distance.
The combat in FFXV is a huge departure for the series and is much more real-time action-oriented than the Final Fantasies of yore. It took me a good ten hours to become accustomed to the flow of the battle system, and at the end of that period I was surprised to discover how deceptively simple it was. In fact, it’s a simplicity that borders on shallow, but it’s fun nonetheless. You can play it like a classic hack and slash or use Wait mode, and I thoroughly recommend the latter. Wait mode pauses the action whenever you remain stationary so you can plan your next move, be it warp striking an enemy, switching your gear or even crafting and equipping a magic spell to hurl at your foes. Wait mode also allows you to scan enemies for weaknesses, and it’s essential you
exploit this to take down the tougher enemies. You can also unlock techniques for your crew that can be executed once you fill a gauge called a Tech bar, and these are quite useful. Performing certain actions like getting behind an enemy or parrying an attack can also initiate link strikes, where one of your buddies will do a team attack for extra damage. Combat is flashy and satisfying for the most part, but by far your greatest foe is the camera. It is completely controlled manually, meaning you’ll be adjusting it constantly (another reason Wait mode is a godsend). In tight spaces or in areas that have lots of foliage you pretty much need to blindly perform attacks and hope for the best.
…the first few times you cruise to your destination while watching the wind gently tussle Gladiolus’ magnificent Tennessee waterfall are quite enjoyable…
At the end of the day this is an RPG, so expect to be gathering XP to level up and increase your skills. However, while FFXV’s approach to levelling is novel, it is also poorly designed and suffers from fairly massive balancing issues. XP is only tallied (and thus levels gained) when you rest in a bed/caravan/hotel or when you put up camp at a designated spot. Camping also allows Ignis an opportunity to cook a mouth-watering photorealistic dish for the crew that grants significant stat boosts for the next day. Staying at a hotel however grants you an XP multiplier, and you’d be mad not to take advantage of it. You’ll find one in Galdin Quay early doors that gives you a 2x multiplier for what seems like the hefty sum of 10000 Gil, but do enough missions (particularly monster hunts) and you’ll see this as pocket change. There’s a 3x multiplier available later in the game, and it is entirely possible to very quickly overlevel to the point where the late game becomes a cakewalk. In fact, despite a few notable dungeons, this is by far the easiest FF game I have ever played. Once you complete the game you can return to the world and complete new higher level quests and explore new areas (and these will most certainly test your mettle), but I thinks it’s poor design to introduce a challenge only once you’ve completed the game.
Chocobo gang: Not to be messed with
Cactuars: As weird and annoying as ever
One thing you’ve probably gathered from the screenshots is that the game is absolutely beautiful, as is tradition for a Square Enix game and particularly a game in the hallowed FF franchise. The settings are wonderfully detailed blendings of modern technological and more fantastical vibes, and the cutscenes are moving works of art. The use of scale is extremely impressive and character and monster designs are incredibly intricate, particularly the hair. Square Enix has an odd fascination with sculpting outlandishly real looking hair, and FFXV is no slouch in this regard. With so much detail one would expect the framerate to chug more than a binge-watching session of Thomas the Tank Engine, but I found it to be commendably smooth running on a vanilla PS4. The sound design is also superb, with Kingdom Hearts’ main composer Yoko Shimoura doing a fantastic job of filling the shoes of legendary FF composer Nobuo Uematsu. In an ode to Uematsu, much of the music from FF games of yore is available to play in your car, and you’ll be surprised at the nostalgia hit it creates. Games that I played over a decade ago were suddenly fresh in my mind, including my beloved FFVIII.
Real bros take gondola rides together
Behemoths in the mist
Given its history, the fact that this game actually exists is a miracle in and of itself, the fact that it is actually good even more so. You can tell that the original game’s vision changed significantly in the way the story jumps around towards the end and some pieces don’t quite fit, but it’s an emotionally engaging journey filled with well written characters and expertly delivered dialogue. However it’s impossible to ignore the fact that so much of FFXV’s world is filled with some of the most uninteresting sidequests to ever grace an RPG, and its levelling system leaves itself wide open to exploitation and the difficulty pacing suffers severely. After spending 80 hours in FFXV’s world, would I recommend it? The answer to that question is complex, hopefully the answer is somewhere in this review.
Reviewed on PS4