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Final Fantasy XV Review

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How well do you remember ten years ago? Do you remember when the Xbox 360 was less than a year old and neither the PS3 nor Wii had been released? Do you remember when Treasures of Aht Urhgan was less than a year old? Do you remember when Peyton Manning did not have a Super Bowl ring? Do you remember before the iPhone and smart phones? A few months prior, in May of 2006, E3 rolled around and SquareEnix announced Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Final Fantasy Versus XIII was intended to serve as the third entry in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series along with Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII. While both those games would eventually be released, Final Fantasy XIII in 2010 and Final Fantasy Agito XIII as Final Fantasy Type-0 in 2011, Versus seemingly vanished from the public eye. Trade fairs and conferences such as E3 or the Tokyo Game Show would come and go, often without any mention of Versus. Occasionally reports would circulate of behind-closed-doors trailers, but for the most part, Versus was a phantom. In 2013 this information drought ended when SquareEnix announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII had been rechristened Final Fantasy XV and would be released for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Players are finally able to experience a game ten years in the making, so the natural question is, has it been worth the wait? Short version: not really.

Final Fantasy XV tells the story of Noctis and his band of brothers. The story begins as Noctis, the crown prince of Lucis, departs for his wedding to the princess Lunafreya. Joining him on his journey are his three friends, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. Before they can reach the wedding destination, the quartet hears news that the capital city has fallen, leaving Noctis as the sole remaining member of the royal family, and that the Niflheim Empire has claimed the nation’s magical crystal. Noctis and his friends set out to wage war against the Niflheim Empire and regain the stolen crystal. The stakes only grow larger as the story progresses, and Noctis and his friends uncover a feud that spans generations. As is often the case in Final Fantasy games, their personal journey eventually transforms into a mission to battle the forces of darkness, bent on enveloping the world. While Final Fantasy XV certainly follows a predictable pattern for the franchise with its storytelling, it also lacks much of the rich detail and development which characterizes many of the other Final Fantasy games. The game is comprised of fifteen chapters with each chapter focusing on a different and distinct step along the story. The issue is that the motivations for going from one step to the next are often muddled. Part of this undoubtedly stems from the fact that Final Fantasy XV is an open-world game and rather than progressing from one objective to the next, much of the game is interrupted by the freedom to explore the vast world. At the same time, there’s also an undeniable sense that this iteration of Final Fantasy XV’s story was rushed. Halfway through the game Final Fantasy XV becomes significantly more linear and the story scrambles from one plot point to the next without taking the time to expand the narrative much beyond a bare-bones outline. The game unfortunately largely relies on undeveloped exposition to keep players invested as the climax looms.

While Final Fantasy XV’s story might be incoherent and disappointing at times, what saves the narrative is the focus on Noctis and his friends and the chemistry and bond between these four characters. Unlike the typical parties in Final Fantasy games, these four are not brought together by fate, destiny, or chance. Rather, they are four close friends who have known each other for much of their lives, with (seemingly) no secrets between them, and a common mission to save their homeland. Given the initial open structure of the game, SquareEnix has wisely chosen to fill in much of the game with random dialogue instead of just wandering the world with background music. These range from discussions about landmarks and sightseeing, to questions about Ignis’ taste in coffee, to constantly ridiculing Prompto because he has no chance with Cindy. While you will inevitably hear many of the same statements repeated over and over during the course of the game, they help to develop the sense of friendship between these characters. Even when the party is camping or staying in hotels (which SquareEnix wisely forced players to do to actually collect on their accrued experience) those moments are punctuated by actions such as playing games on their phones around the fire or horsing around. Because their journey is not just about the major moments of spectacle, it helps convey the sense that Final Fantasy XV is more than just the story of the forces of good versus evil, but also the story of four friends on a journey. At the same time, it is undeniable that the game’s focus is heavily on Noctis at the cost of the others. This problem is only accentuated by the shadow of Final Fantasy XV’s ten year development. As a result, the fact that important character points (glaringly in the cases of Gladio and Prompto) are seemingly being left to be filled in by DLC is more than a little insulting.

Fans of the Kingdom Hearts franchise will immediately feel a sense of familiarity with Final Fantasy XV’s real-time combat system. Players control Noctis while the actions of his three compatriots are largely controlled by AI. While players can merely rely on button-mashing the attack button over and over, players utilizing such a strategy are likely to struggle through the game’s more arduous encounters. The true depth of the game’s combat system comes from following combat prompts to dodge and parry attacks, effectively directing your allies to use their abilities, targeting different limbs and weak points on your foes, positioning yourself to deliver powerful attacks in concert with your allies, and utilizing the warp system to hop in and out of combat as necessary. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the combat of Final Fantasy XV can feel complicated and cluttered, whereas combat in the Kingdom Hearts games feels more distilled and parsimonious. Noctis can equip four weapons at anytime from a wide arsenal comprised of a variety of different weapons. These range from Final Fantasy classics such as sword and spears to massive shields, guns, crossbows, shurikens, and even a sniper rifle. Players can easily switch from one weapon to the next, using whichever weapon is more appropriate for a given encounter, or which better suits a player’s preferences.

While combat is fun and enjoyable for the majority of the game, it is far from perfect. In addition to camera controls which are far from ideal, especially when trapped in enclosed spaces, the biggest weakness with Final Fantasy XV’s combat is that it lacks variety. Pretty much every encounter, whether it is a pack of wild animals, group of armed soldiers, or even one of the game’s major foes, can be approached in essentially the same way. Nothing exemplifies this problem more than one of the game’s biggest foes, the enormous Adamantoise. Before Final Fantasy XV’s release, this monstrosity was advertised as an arduous obstacle which would take many hours to beat, even for the strongest players. Yes, it can take multiple hours to beat Adamantoise. However, it never really feels that much more challenging than other adversaries encountered over the course of the game. Instead of serving as a satisfying challenge like many other super bosses, Adamantoise merely feels like an uninspired chore which must be beaten by players who care about the trophy/achievement. This problem is also highlighted by the game’s lack of significant boss fights. Given the appropriate similarities fans will draw to the combat system in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, the lack of memorable and challenging battles is an unfortunate blemish against one of the most unique combat systems featured in the Final Fantasy franchise.

With the success of games like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, and The Witcher 3, we are seeing undeniable pressure for more developers to break away from more linear storytelling and embrace the open-world philosophy in their games. Final Fantasy XV adopts said philosophy, at least for the first half of the game. From the start, players are dropped into the gorgeous continent of Lucis. Although initially restricted to mostly plains and desserts, players eventually gain access to various other terrains which comprise Lucis, including swamps, forests, and marshlands. Players tour the world primarily aboard the Regalia, the party’s car which can be controlled automatically or manually. While players are free to roam the world during the day, during the night, players are encouraged to halt their journey and stay at one of the game’s many rest stops which dot the map. The night is filled with fearsome and terrifying demons which will make quick work of the party, especially early on. Again, I can appreciate this dimension as it forces players to rest which works to build the sense of brotherhood between Noctis and his friends, but it is also something of an irritant for players who might be hoarding experience for one of the game's more expensive and rewarding inns. I will admit, I did not take these threats seriously until an Iron Giant appeared before the Regalia, bringing my joyride to an abrupt halt and forcing me to weave my way across the terrain, dodging foes while looking for the nearest safe haven to await the sunrise.

Of course, an open-world game means nothing if there is no reason to journey into the vast expanses, and while Final Fantasy XV thankfully provides numerous distractions, some are admittedly more successful than others. There’s no denying that many of the quests are fetch-quests which task players with traveling to a location, collecting an item or defeating a foe, and then returning to a quest-giver. Yes, it is difficult to be too excited about these quests. Coupled with the fact that the most common side-quests, the monster hunts which can be picked up from most rest areas, are restricted to only one active hunt at a time, the system feel like it carries an artificial burden which forces players to trek back and forth across Lucis numerous times. At the same time, one of the earliest quests tasks Noctis with finding the hidden arsenal of magical weapons scattered across the world which gives players plenty of opportunities and near constant motivation to wander into the wilderness to explore the beautiful landscape of Lucis. Final Fantasy XV is by no means the perfect open-world game. Still, the game features a myriad of fun and engaging activities which work to build up the world. As I’ve said before, many of these activities are mundane. But the time spent fishing, cooking, camping, and even taking pictures, help the game’s world serve a role in telling the narrative. Rather than a nice feature as in most other open-world games, I would go so far as to argue that Final Fantasy XV better succeeds at making the open-world a critical piece of the game's narrative because of these mundane activities.

One of the biggest peculiarities with Final Fantasy XV is the way that the game manages to perform so strongly in some regards, while faltering so disappointingly in others, many where the Final Fantasy franchise has excelled in the past. SquareEnix has created a beautiful open-world which players will want to spend hours exploring. They took a group of four seemingly uninspired protagonists and managed to build some of the best bonds seen in a Final Fantasy game. They created a captivating villain who players will want to engage with to understand his motives and his plans on a level I would venture has not been seen since Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth or Final Fantasy IX's Kuja. And yet, as great as that world is, the second half of the game is under-developed and rushed. They built amazing bonds between the characters, but rather than letting players delve into those characters, that content was seemingly left for DLC. And worst of all, the great potential of the world and villain is squandered by an incoherent narrative which fails to really take advantage of all the pieces and potential that the game has to offer.

Is Final Fantasy XV a good game? If I’m being honest, this is a difficult question for me to answer. I imagine there are many of you who, like me, wanted to love Final Fantasy XV. I wanted this game to be worth the ten years of waiting. I wanted this game to be the perfect merger of the Final Fantasy franchise and the open-world experience that I would want to immerse myself in for hundreds of hours. When I started this review, I stated that Final Fantasy XV has not been worth the ten year wait that fans have endured. But, I venture that there are very few games which are worth such waits. There is no part of me that believes that this version of Final Fantasy XV which players were able to play has been in development for ten years. But still, Final Fantasy XV cannot escape its ten year development cycle. Honestly, if you look at my playtime, I put sixty hours into the first half of the game, ten hours into the second half, and another thirty hours into finishing side-quests and post-game content. I easily got my money’s worth out of it. In an ideal world, Final Fantasy XV would be judged solely on its merits, and not weighted by its pedigree. But that's not the case, and for better or worse, this is a major entry in an iconic franchise. My recommendation? Play Final Fantasy XV, but realize that it is not going to live up to ten years of hype and it is a different type of Final Fantasy game. If you can do that, I think you can appreciate Final Fantasy XV for what it is -- a complex game that is fun and enjoyable, but also a little flawed.

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All images owned by SquareEnix.