Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Available On: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: November 29, 2016
I can’t stand most JRPGs. I find most of them overwritten with vapid dialogue, stocked with insufferable characters and all featuring variations on the same boring, tedious gameplay. I can count the number of JRPGs I’ve enjoyed on exactly two fingers, but even those games haven’t compelled me to stick with them long enough to finish them.
Imagine my surprise then, that Final Fantasy XV isn’t just a great game, it is quite possibly my favorite game of 2016.
Amidst a time of uneasy peace between two powerful kingdoms, Prince Noctis sets out with his companions to the neighbouring kingdom of Niflheim to take part in a marriage of convenience that will unite the two kingdoms and secure a peace treaty. Before long though, that relatively straightforward goal quickly spirals into an epic adventure that will take Noctis and his friends to every corner of the beautiful, diverse and dangerous world of Eos.
The problem with storytelling in most open-world RPGs is that between fighting monsters, doing side-quests and generally exploring the world, you’ll tend to forget exactly what you’re supposed to be doing or sometimes what the main story even is. I’ll fully admit that by the end of the first area my reason for being there had slipped almost completely to the back of my mind; but at more or less exactly that point and accompanied by an interesting narrative fake-out, the story came roaring back, changed the story’s focus entirely and never let me forget about it again.
Keeping the story front and center, even through all of the exploring and side-questing really made FFXV stand out from other open-world RPGs for me. Your companions frequently talk to each other about recent goings-on in the world, which gave me motivation to keep going and not get bogged down by side-quests, something that frequently happens to me in open-world games and sometimes keep me from finishing them.
Besides Noctis, there’s Ignis, the smart one, Gladiolus, the big tough one and Prompto, the cocky smartass. By themselves, they might be merely inoffensive archetypes, but it was the interactions between them that endeared me to them as a group. I usually find the dialogue in JRPGs to be very stilted and awkward, even in the better translated ones like Fire Emblem. But the dialogue in FFXV is genuinely good and I frequently found myself laughing at the characters casual banter and feeling for them when tragedy struck.
And god damn, does it ever strike.
Final Fantasy XV might be the best looking open world game I’ve ever seen. Open world games usually have to make a sacrifice somewhere in order to fit in all their content and that often means a dip in graphical quality. But the world of Eos is impressive not only on a technical level, but also diverse and full of vibrant colors.
Eos is home to arid deserts, expansive grasslands and swamps all flow believably into each other, dotted with human settlements.
Classic Final Fantasy staples show up from time to time throughout Eos in one form or another as well. The FFXV incarnation of Cid is a mechanic whose granddaughter, Cindy will work on your car. Chocobos return and can be rented to get around faster off-road, and most if not all of the summons that you collect are iconic creatures from the series’ history.
Every town you visit has a diner in which you can get your map updated with new treasure, item and camp locations; as well as take part in hunts. Hunts are side-quests where you’re tasked to hunt down different types of wildlife for a bounty, and completing them will unlock more numerous and challenging hunts. Hunts aren’t always easy, but they’re good for sharpening your skill against varying types of monsters, as well as a great way to make money and to ensure you’re appropriately leveled for the current area.
Unlike most RPGs, experience you earn isn’t immediately applied to your characters. To level up, you must rest at either a camp site in the wild or stay at an inn, and each has their own advantages. Most of the time you’ll be camping, as campsites are much more numerous, but camping has two major gameplay benefits. First, surrounding each campsite are deposits of magical energy which fuels your spells; with the exception of certain magic-draining weapons, these deposits are the only way to collect this energy. Second, whenever you make camp, Ignis will cook the party a meal which boosts everyone’s stats for the next in-game day.
Inns are much less common, located only in cities and some smaller settlements, but are occasionally worth seeking out as resting in one grants a 20% bonus to any experience earned. You have to pay to stay at an inn, but if you’ve banked a significant amount of experience, the benefits make it more than worth it.
Each party member has their own valuable skill that develops naturally as you explore the world. Noctis catches fish which earns XP and food, Gladiolus can scavenge items, Ignis cooks stat-boosting food and Prompto……takes…pictures. Huh.
Actually, facetiousness aside and as someone who always tries to get good screenshots for his reviews, Prompto was constantly doing my job for me, as you can review his pictures whenever you make camp or stay at an inn and save the good ones.
In many ways, FFXV plays more like a western RPG than a JRPG. The fully real-time combat is exhilarating and even when fighting low-level enemies, I never found myself getting bored of it, as battles can start and end very quickly.
The combat may seem overly simple at first, holding down a button to attack or another to evade. Once you get into the game, though, you’ll have to start parrying, spellcasting, using items and team-up attacks, using the right weapon in the right way and you’ll quickly realize that there’s more than enough to think about without having to make individual attacks.
One aspect of combat that deserves particular mention is the Warp-Strike. At the press of a button, Noctis will throw his weapon at a target before teleporting to it and striking the enemy. It’s a super-cool move with both offensive and defensive applications. Many arenas have “warp-points” in them, essentially safe zones that Noctis can warp to where he usually can’t be hit and his health and mana will rapidly regenerate; warp-points can be used offensively as well, as the warp-strike does more damage the farther you are away from the target.
It shouldn’t surprise you to know that Final Fantasy XV has a summoning system, but it’s implementation is so confusing and vague that I kept forgetting it even existed. There are six summons to collect over the course of the game (seven on Easy), each representing one of the gods of Eos, and rather than electing to summon them like spells, the gods will make themselves available to be summoned under certain conditions, usually when circumstances are particularly dire.
Once conditions are met, holding down L2 for a few seconds will summon one of the gods to help you out; the problem is that unlike almost all other commands in the game, the button prompt only appears for a second and isn’t labeled.
When you do manage to perform a summon, it’s a spectacular sight to behold. Like everything else in FFXV, the gods look stunning and dominate the sky with their massive forms. Since you can’t control which god you summon when the prompt appears, each one does the same thing; that is, deal catastrophic damage to everything on the battlefield. The limited functionality of summoning may disappoint some, but when every enemy is dead at the end of a summon, what else do you need? Also, summoning feels more special when you can’t just wheel out a god each battle to step on every wild animal you come across.
FFXV also makes use of a unique and interesting system of creating and casting spells. Spells are crafted from fire, ice or lightning energy found in deposits across the world and stored in flasks which are then equipped like weapons. It’s another good example of crafting not interfering with the flow of gameplay.
The spells themselves are easy and fun to use, and can quickly turn the tide of a battle, I only wish there was a little more versatility to them. Every spell I’ve been able to make so far is an area-of-effect explosion of one type of damage or another. There’s no sleep spell, no petrification, life-steal or even the ability to combine elements for different effects; though you can craft a spell that deals a random type of damage each time, which strikes me as fairly useless. Also, spells deal damage to allies that happen to get caught in the blast. It makes a degree of sense since you’re basically crafting magical grenades, but it means that I ended up handling all of the spells myself, as later on in the game, fights can get difficult enough without having to worry about getting bombed by your teammates.
That said, your teammates are actually pretty smart most of the time and can usually be relied upon to focus on the biggest threat or to revive you in battle. Each teammate also has a number of abilities that can be slotted in and out between battles. Each of your teammate’s abilities draw energy from a bar that fills as you battle and are used with a single button for each teammate, who will target whatever you’re locked on to or pick their own target if you’re not. Commanding a group of allies is something the Mass Effect series never quite got the hang of, but it’s pulled off gracefully in FFXV.
Speaking of allies, with a few brief exceptions, your party is as big as it’s going to get right at the start with the same characters staying with you for the entire game. While I can understand why half the fun in a JRPG for some people might be meeting new people and having them join your quest, I personally enjoyed getting to know these four over the course of the game.
If the story of Final Fantasy XV has one problem, it’s that it sometimes focuses on the four leads at the expense of other characters who could have used some more fleshing out. The most egregious example of this is probably Ravus, one of the principal villains and brother to Lunafreya, Noctis’ bride.
Ravus is not only an intimidating presence but a nuanced and sympathetic character, possibly more interesting than any single character in the game, but he only gets a small handful of short scenes and never really gets the chance to develop as a character.
Final Fantasy XV also pretty much stops being an open-world game once your party leaves the country the game starts in for other, more exotic locales. Once that happens, you’re taken to one more somewhat open-ended area before FFXV becomes almost completely linear for the rest of the game. Granted, it happens about three-quarters of the way through the story, but depending on how fast you go through it, you could be looking at ten or so hours.
I can’t imagine that fans of traditional JRPGs will mind so much, but those expecting FFXV to be an open-world game from start to finish may be disappointed.
And then Chapter 13 happens. Kill me in the face with a brick if god-damn Chapter 13 doesn’t happen.
At first I was prepared to call Chapter 13 “A misguided but mercifully short section of an otherwise great game” or some variant of such, and maybe I would have if the game had started depositing money back into my PSN wallet while I was playing through it; but this chapter of FFXV took about three hours of my life that I will never, ever get back, and for that I’m dragging it out into the sun and staking it to the ground for all the world to see.
I won’t spoil the story by discussing the circumstances, but Chapter 13 sees Noctis navigating a facility alone and without any of the weapons you’ve previously had access to. In every area of this facility, Noctis runs into a locked door, has to scavenge for a key (which is always at the furthest point from the door), kill a few enemies, go back to the door and proceed to the next area. This repeats upwards of a dozen times and all the while the main villain, who was a fun and interesting character up to this point, gets on the PA system and cackles at you like a Saturday morning cartoon villain.
For some reason, Noctis loses the ability to sprint for most of this chapter as well, which makes the aggravating slog through these linear hallways take even longer than it should.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Chapter 13 ends with a spectacular boss fight, but it then transitions straight into what was clearly meant to be an awesome reveal featuring the main villain, which Noctis completely ruins by making unnaturally loud anime grunts and gasps over the entire scene, almost totally drowning out the villains’ low, reserved voice.
Reaching Chapter 13 after the excellent prior game that is the rest of FFXV is like having a wonderful meal at Hannibal Lecter’s house and then inquiring as to where your best friend wandered off to.
Final Fantasy XV proudly proclaims itself to be “A Final Fantasy game for fans and first-timers.”, which I immediately interpreted as a challenge. But after playing through the entire thing, something I wasn’t completely sure I’d be able to do, I found the game had endeared itself to me. The unique, intelligent combat hooked me and the well-told story and endearing characters compelled me to see the game through to it’s climatic, satisfying end.
While I may have spent some time slamming Chapter 13 (and man does it ever deserve it), it ultimately doesn’t ruin the game by any stretch; though it does botch an important reveal and bring down what should have been one of the high points in the story.
In many ways, FFXV is very much a classic Final Fantasy game. But it’s presentation, both visually and mechanically, has been tweaked to be attractive to people who wouldn’t normally be interested in JRPGs and it seems to have worked.
For whatever it’s worth, at least for now, this first-timer is a fan.
+ Well-Written, Compelling Story
+ Smart, Fun, Challenging Combat
– Limited Summoning/Magic System
– Chapter 13.
Also Try: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Final Fantasy 12