After ten long years of development, Final Fantasy XV is finally here. I remember watching the trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII while still in school (just for a bit of added context, I’m now 25), so it’s fair to say Final Fantasy XV has been on my radar for a pretty long time. Regardless of how long I’ve waited, and the reverence I have for the series, I was incredibly skeptical coming into XV, especially after XIII burned me. I’m happy to say that XV is (mostly) pretty damn excellent.
The story is your standard Final Fantasy fare, although instead of religion taking the centre stage like many other entries in the series, politics and aristocracy are the main focuses of the game. Politics may not seem that interesting, but it does add excellent depth to the conflict seen across the world of Eos. You play as Noctis, the son of the King Regis, and the prince of the Kingdom of Lucis The game begins with Noctis being sent on a diplomatic quest to marry his childhood sweetheart, Lunafreya.
The marriage is supposed to be a sign of peace between the Kingdom of Lucis (good guys) and the invading Niflheim (bad guys). There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, and those that really want to understand the plot should probably watch Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, the tie-in movie released earlier this year. It does a great job of setting the scene whilst also adding a lot of weight to Lunafreya and King Regis, and even though you don’t see a lot of Regis in Final Fantasy XV, the extra exposition goes a long way.
When booting up the game, all players are met with the message “A Final Fantasy game for fans of the series and new players alike”, the “new players” claim is largely down to the new combat system present in Final Fantasy XV. The game no longer uses a turn based battle system, instead it gives players a real-time system that is far more fluent. It borrows from the hack and slash genre whilst also taking aspects of Kingdom Heart’s battle system - albeit a bit more grown up and a lot flashier.
The combat consists of one button to attack and another to dodge, it may be somewhat simple but it works incredibly well. This is accompanied by special moves called Link Strikes, which involve your pals and often look awesome whilst making you feel unstoppable. There is a pretty awesome magic system included as well, players must draw from magic sources from around the world of Eos - it’s fairly similar to the draw system present in Final Fantasy VIII, a system that only lets you use as many spells as you can pick up. The magic can then be crafted together along with items to create a variety of modified spells. There’s a surprising level of depth to it, and spells can be crafted to your personal playstyle.
Another notable feature is the Warp Link, an ability exclusive to Noctis. Using the power of royal spirits, Noctis is able to zip about the battlefield, throwing his weapon to a specific point, and then warping to it. It can be used both defensively and in an attacking manner. It adds a nice bit of vertically to fights while nicely differentiating Noctis from everyone else on screen - really adding to the notion that he is heir to the King's throne.
The real highlight of the game is Noctis’s bodyguards, Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus. They are tasked with protecting him throughout his journey to meet Lunafreya, but they are honestly the most enjoyable aspect of the game. Each one of them is incredibly well written, and manages to feel unique whilst still gelling together as friends. Watching their friendship develop throughout the game is genuinely one of the most enjoyable forms of character development I've ever experienced - also, Prompto is a massive cutie.
Each one of the characters has their own special skill, a skill that relates to their personality. Noctis likes to fishing, an activity that mimics his quiet and thoughtful persona. Gladiolus is brash and masculine, his skill lies in the world and survival. Ignis is intelligent, creative and calculated, he cooks for the gang as they travel around Eos. The best skill is easily the camera prompto carries around with him. As you travel around the world Prompto will photograph your experiences and show them to you at the end of each in game day. Some of these are pre-set photos, but they also include photos taken during battle. Going back through the experiences of each day really helps solidify the journey in your memory whilst adding an incredibly personal feel to your adventure. Each one of the skills can be levelled up and improved, making them even more effective.
The open world they travel through is as huge as it is impressive. I remember being pretty overwhelmed at the starting area, but when the game takes the training wheels off and throws you into the main world the visible game world is overwhelmingly large. The map is divided into several regions all of which are opened as you complete story missions. Each of these regions have towns and petrol stations scattered throughout them, at which certain characters will dispense quests and knowledge about the area.
So how do you travel this massively large world? A lovely car called the Regalia. Yes, Final Fantasy XV is essentially like that film called Road Trip, but it isn’t a bit shit. Most of your time in Final Fantasy XV (unless you choose to fast travel everywhere) will be spent on the road with your companions. The road best traveled is one surrounded by friends, and the road travel really helps add gravitas to the friendships. Everything from small talk, to the way that each character interacts with the car helps build a bridge between player and characters.
The side quests are probably the weakest aspect of Final Fantasy XV. They often come down to fetch quests or hunter contracts. Fortunately, thanks to the stellar combat, the latter is incredibly enjoyable. Most of them are often just normal enemies that are a bit stronger, but occasionally the hunter quests chuck a big unique enemy at you; these often make for exciting fights that include character building exposition.
One big selling point for Final Fantasy games, and one of my favourite calling cards of the series, is just how much content there is to immerse yourself in. Final Fantasy XV is no different. The world might be huge, but there is a lot of depth, the term “a mile wide, but an inch thick” does not apply here. Each town and petrol station has a myriad of unique characters and conversations for you to listen in on. The world is also filled with radios, newspaper clippings, books and posters that help build the world of Eos into a tangible, believable world.
My favourite feature, by far, is the in-game radio. The radio features some songs that have been specially created for Final Fantasy XV, which is pretty awesome, but the real joy comes from in-game collectible CD’s. Each item shop you encounter on your journey will sell you a selection of songs from previous games. This enables players to listen to previous soundtracks in the series whilst travelling around Eos. It's a small touch that really adds to the experience for fans of the series . I often found myself driving along, reminiscing about my time in Balamb Garden during Final Fantasy VIII or my time spent wandering around in Final Fantasy X to Spira Unplugged. It’s a shame this feature is mostly wasted on new fans of the series, but it genuinely causes a pleasant catharsis that made my experience more enjoyable.
The pacing is a little odd in Final Fantasy XV, it pretty much follows the complete opposite path to Final Fantasy XIII. The game is incredibly open for about 70% of the game upon which it completely shuts you down and forces players to follow a linear route. While most might question it, I do understand the choice to speed the narrative up. The linearity creates a sense of urgency, whilst an open world map leaves players free to roam around. This creates a heightened level of drama with the end game events, rather than letting player muck about in the open world.
I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about chapter 13, a (near) end game chapter that limits the abilities of Noctis. Players must rely on the fairly weak stealth system in order to progress, whilst also using a fairly poor form of magic that makes the battles quite tedious. While the chapter was not as enjoyable as the rest of the game, it served a purpose. It highlights how important Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus are, along with the power gifted to him through his bloodline. It also creates a lot of motivation for the last chapter and sets up Noctis as a hero, rather than the privileged young boy he’s been portrayed as throughout the game.
Final Fantasy XV is a return to form for Square Enix, a showcase of their willingness to adapt more Western approaches in their game development whilst also keeping what gave the series it’s charm, flair and personality. Final Fantasy still isn’t for everyone, but it is now far more attractive to a wider range of people, whilst still pleasing fans of the series. Final Fantasy XV isn’t just one of the best games released this year, it is also one of the best Final Fantasy games ever created.
Final Fantasy XV (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
Final Fantasy XV is a return to form for Square Enix, a showcase of their willingness to adapt more Western approaches in their game development whilst also keeping what gave the series it’s charm, flair and personality.