I spend a lot of time thinking about Final Fantasy XV. Even when I’m not playing it, even as I’m playing other games, I find my thoughts turning towards the experiences I had with this game, and comparing and contrasting. It is by no means a perfect game, but it is a great, and interesting, one.
Final Fantasy has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been playing games. One of the reasons I wanted a Playstation 2 as a child was because of the fun I had playing X with my friend in middle school, and even before that, my favorite GameBoy Color game had the Final Fantasy name attached (despite the fact it was actually an entirely different series). I’ve gone far out of my way to experience as many games in the franchise as I could since then, and as great as many of them are, XV simply blows them out of the water. And in order to fully understand why, I feel like you have to understand the series as a whole.
To begin with, XV is a much different experience than any previous entry in the series. Whereas the early entries were “open-world” in the sense that you could, theoretically, head in any direction you wanted, what that really translated to was being murdered by a pack of level 60 wolves as soon as you accidentally crossed an invisible level-barrier. Later entries gradually moved in a linear direction, culminating in X which was essentially a series of twisting hallways. XII tried to return to the “open-world” feeling of old, although it essentially just expanded the hallways into rooms and put nothing but monsters in them. This is the first game to attempt openness and truly achieve it, creating a vibrant world with beautiful landmarks, memorable and impossible to get lost in. It’s filled with dungeons to explore, mountains to climb, dangerous creatures to fight, and sweet, succulent fish to catch.
I can genuinely immerse myself in the world of Eos, and feel the plight of both my party and the general citizenry as they constantly face the threat of the Empire (because there’s always an Empire) and daemons. I struggle as they struggle, though occasionally that’s more with the mechanics of the game than anything else.
There is a single, pervasive flaw in the game’s mechanics, and that is Square’s attempts to apply realism to a universe that also includes magically-appearing weapons and colossi the size of a continent. Noctis can only sprint for a short while, after which he gets winded and can only jog for a period of time. There is no actual stamina meter (edit: apparently there is, but it’s off by default), so you won’t know if Noctis is about to stop to breathe until he’s actually doing so. Weapon animations cannot be cancelled in order to dodge or warp out of the way, meaning you have to wait for your giant greatsword to hit the ground before you can run away from the incoming giant spider. Magic, while powerful, will affect the environment and your party members, leading to tough decisions between quickly decimating your enemies with an Electron spell and risking severely injuring Ignis, or trying to survive in a much longer life-or-death struggle. These mechanics can lead to intense and exhilarating battles, but often they come across as cheap ways for the game to score a few hits.
Beyond that, however, the combat is amazing. Noctis’s Warp ability allows for fluid and fast action, quickly closing in on enemy’s to score a couple of blows, and then retreating to a safe place to restore life. His Royal Arms come with unique capabilities and fighting styles at the expense of loss of hit points every time a hit is made, allowing for different strategies, which the game’s four weapon slots greatly accommodate. You can have a familiar weapon equipped and ready to use at all times, while also being able to play around with other weapon styles without constantly accessing a menu. Your different party members are active in battle (though some last longer than others once the going gets tough), and they each have strong techniques you can command them to use in battle. Of particular note is Prompto’s Gravisphere, which draws in smaller enemies and does constant damage to everything in it’s radius, and Ignis’s Overwhelm, which causes the whole party to unleash a series of devastating, simultaneous attacks on a single target.
Boss fights are the highlight of the game’s combat, though. Most of them take a page right out of Kingdom Hearts and turn what might have been a traditional, arena-like boss into an enormous, unforgettable spectacle. The first time you fight Titan, your jaw will drop so far you’ll have to have it surgically replaced. The story bosses can come across as very scripted (especially in regards to Leviathan, who is more of a story setpiece than an actual boss fight), but the optional bosses available later in the game blend spectacle and gameplay very well (take the Zu hunt at the Rock of Ravatogh. Just trust me on this one.)
The sidequests are plentiful and lead to some of the best gameplay you’ll find in XV, but the characters who give them are often very dull and uninteresting and the objectives are very MMO-esque in their execution. It will almost always be “go to this place and find this thing” or “go to this place and fight this thing” or, in the case of my least favorite series of sidequests in the game, “fight this monster until it drops this item for me”. The Catoblepas hunt was one of the most exciting fights I had in the game… the first time I fought it. But then it didn’t drop what I needed, and I had to fight it again. Five more times, in fact. It ceased to be fun and became more of a chore. Those don’t crop up too often, but it will almost always be the same character who gives them to you, and you’ll get sick of them fast.
The dungeons and the hunts are where the sidequests really shine through. They eschew any pretense of characterization or urgent dilemmas, and instead set you on a course to an interesting boss fight or difficult gang of monsters, with no flavor text added. When you enter a dungeon, you open a sidequest, and the sole objective of said quest is to “defeat the monster in the dungeon’s inner sanctum”. When you take a hunt, you get pointed to the general vicinity of the monsters you need to defeat. No unnecessary reasons for why you’re doing this are given, the game simply sets you on the course to more of the thing you’re playing the game for.
Each of your party members is also given a certain hobby that affects your gameplay. Noctis has the only truly interactive one with fishing. This guy loves to fish, as you’ll learn when he squeals with glee upon seeing the game’s first available fishing spot at Galdin Quay (or outside of Insomnia, if you turned around before the end of Chapter One). This is the best fishing minigame I’ve ever seen, as proven by the fact that my friend and I have taken to calling it “Epic Fishing Action!” You can lose hours upon hours of gameplay just to trying to catch the next big haul, and it is honestly one of my favorite parts of the game. Best of all, it directly ties in to Ignis’s own hobby of cooking. When you rest at a campsite, Ignis will cook the party up a lovely, stat-boosting meal, so long as you have the recipes and ingredients. And Ignis will learn a lot of recipes with many different effects. Too many, really. You’ll be hearing about how he’s “come up with a new recipe” very often.
Prompto’s hobby is photography, as you’ll learn five minutes in and be reminded of constantly if you drive so much as half a mile in your car. Seriously, you can’t get this guy to shut up about taking pictures. Although, once you start looking at them and picking out your favorites to save, you’ll probably be talking about them quite a bit, as well. His hobby is, however, the one that affects gameplay the least, although it is also the only one tied to the main story. Gladiolus’s skill is survival, which is the one you have the least control over. Basically, he finds items after a battle. As it levels up, he can find better items. That’s about it.
The main party, as characters, can quickly get you invested in the game. All four are instantly likeable (though some may not remain that way through the end) and you’ll pick up on the ones you like most quickly. For me, I like Noctis and Prompto the most, so I’m going to address them first. Noctis is a great main character, first of all. I’ve read that he was meant to be a kind of foil to both Cloud (from Final Fantasy VII) and Sora (from Kingdom Hearts), and he definitely accomplishes this. He goes through heavy and deep emotional trauma, from before the game even begins through to the final battle, but rather than distancing himself from his friends, he finds solace and guidance in them. He’s angsty, but also quiet, shy, and awkward, while also easily excitable by the things he loves, like fishing. He also perpetually looks forward (save for one justifiable instance in the story) and works hard to accomplish his goals. There could not have been a better viewpoint character for XV than Noctis.
Prompto is ever cheerful, a fun-loving, over-the-top ham, who masks his deep-seated insecurities to better support the friends he cherishes. He’s the most inexperienced of the group, as well as the most recent addition to the quartet, so he overcompensates a lot so he feels like he belongs.And as the story goes on, you’ll begin to see the facade loosen gradually, until he’s comfortable sharing his darkest secrets with the others.
Ignis is essentially Noct’s caretaker, as he cooks for him, chauffeurs for him, and in general is the primary voice of reason in the quartet. He’s studious and proper, and rarely ever becomes less than that, even at his most upset.
Gladiolus is, quite honestly, my least favorite main-story character. What starts off seeming like a fully fleshed-out character will later reveal himself to be incredibly flat, never truly developing, and being the source of some of the most unnecessary intra-party conflict in the game.
You might notice that beyond Noctis, there’s not really much to say about the other three, and that would be due to the other major problem with the game; the writing. The game was clearly rushed out with an unfinished story, and while Square has stated they will be adding more to it over the months, as it stands any character beyond Noctis have barely serviceable amounts of screentime. Characters are introduced as if they’ll be important for the entirety of the game, only to drop away after a couple of chapters (or, in truly offensive instances like Cor, the chapter in which they’re introduced). Villainous characters beyond the primary Big Bad have a few lines of dialogue at best (Lo’qi and Ravus are primary offenders in this regard).
The story itself suffers from this rushed writing. The first half of the game encourages you to take your time and explore the world, but as soon as you enter the second half of the game, you are put on a literal train ride until near the end of the game. Chapter 14 was honestly the biggest disappointment for me. What could have been a World of Ruin trek similar to the second half of Final Fantasy VI is made entirely linear, sending you directly to Hammerhead, and from there, straight to the final boss, with no possibility for exploration. It was a painful waste of potential.
Overall, Final Fantasy XV is an absolutely gripping game, simply marred by design choices and a (somewhat understandable) rushing to market. After Square Enix failed to impress during the Playstation 3 era, they really needed another game to truly re-solidify themselves as a prominent JRPG developer and publisher, and Final Fantasy XV is that game. The gameplay is a step above, although if you’re looking for a truly compelling story, I would suggest seeing what they’ve added in six months.
Console: Playstation 4
Developed by: Square Enix
Year Released: 2016
Genre: Action JRPG