For a long time — the late 1990’s — the name Final Fantasy transcended genre. Much like Mario, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto, calling out the franchise signaled you knew what was going on in gaming culture.
Not anymore. The series, though still popular, has lost that luster in recent years. The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy did not hold up the franchise’s reputation, and other releases proved mediocre or downright terrible, as was the case with the ill-fated Final Fantasy XI massively multi-player game .
Final Fantasy XV, whose story was first conceived as another Final Fantasy XIII spin-off before being promoted to its own number, wants to remind everyone — fans and onlookers alike — why Final Fantasy has endured as one of the game industry’s legendary franchises. That means proving it’s not “just another Japanese RPG,” a dismissive but impactful label.
In attempting to make an RPG for everyone, developer Square Enix frequently veers into other genres, such as action, platforming, shooting, and stealth. Most of these experiences do not feel as polished as the areas where the series has traditionally excelled — visuals, world-building, exploration.
Yet, somehow, Final Fantasy XV retains the series’ unique charm. It’s a unique entry in the modern realm of role-playing, even if it has some serious flaws.
Spinning a yarn
Set in the world of Eos, players control Noctis Caellum, prince of the nation of Lucis. Noctis and his three bodyguards/best pals, Glaudios, Ignis, and Prompto, are leaving the country for his wedding, when Lucis is invaded.
That doesn’t stop their road trip. Instead, it pivots into a quest to unearth the powers necessary to reclaim the throne from the seemingly overwhelming forces of Lucis’ oppressor, the empire of Niflheim. In classic Final Fantasy fashion, there is a larger battle at the heart of the conflict, that transforms Noctis and his crew from political revolutionaries into champions of light.
Final Fantasy XV was originally conceived as a side-story set in the universe of Final Fantasy XIII, and it shows – because the plot is a mess. It’s clear the story is cut together from at least two rewritten plots. Important plot points, from characters to concepts, are frequently dropped in without proper introductions, and excised unceremoniously. Loading screens in between new chapters feature short text summaries, and they often explain what’s going on better than the game itself. Publisher Square Enix has announced it will edit some aspects of the story in a post-release patch, which may alleviate some technical problems with how the story unfolds, though it’s doubtful they can “fix” it that way.
The lack of context makes the story very hard to follow. One good example; the game introduces two separate sets of powers for Noctis to find — without giving away too many details, we’ll call them weapons and summons. Though both are explained in ways that make them essential to the narrative, the hunt for weapons is a mere series of side quests, while the summons take center stage. The closest the game comes to explaining why is a single, off-hand piece of dialogue. The line would be easy to miss, and even if you heard it, would not imply a tectonic shift in your crew’s motivations.
Final Fantasy XV fits together differently than any game in the franchise, and that’s exciting in itself.
Despite this, the game’s writing has its charms. While the plot can feel inscrutable, it is always grounded in the friendship between Noctis and his pals. Much like Shulk and the crew from Xenoblade Chronicles, the four primary characters are constantly talking, even in combat. Though the dialogue can feel stiff at times, you get to see these characters’ relationships in action, drawing you into their world. Even when it’s hard to get a sense of exactly what they’re doing, you still care about what’s going on, and what happens to the characters.
It’s an odd dichotomy that, weirdly, will probably push most players to play more. The balance between the story and game feels best during side missions, where your intent is generally more clear.
It also helps that the game’s setting, Eos, is beautiful. A recalibration of Final Fantasy’s usual blend of technology and fantasy, FFXV paints the picture of a vaguely modern world — characters use cell phones and cars, the capital is a modern city comprised of skyscrapers — but is also deeply steeped in magic. The slightly more “realistic” tone also applies to the shared encyclopedia of monsters, spells, and items that appear in every Final Fantasy. Though fans have come to expect a new exciting take on bombs, behemoths, and chocobos in every game, Final Fantasy XV blends themes together in a way that’s new to the franchise.
Playing, not Role-Playing
Final Fantasy XV was designed to remove many of the abstractions that traditional RPGs impose. The game clearly draws from its RPG roots, but does its best to streamline the experience to minimize the amount of time thinking about menus and mechanics. The game features many of the genre’s staples — experience points, equipment, dungeons, and an overworld — but these elements are stripped down to the point where they can be largely ignored. You need to keep your characters’ levels on pace with the recommended level the offered for each mission, but further scrutinizing your stats isn’t necessary.
These changes are a mixed bag. Sometimes, they successfully emphasize the game’s strengths. Instead of running around a world map to get between points of interest, for example, much of the game takes place in the open world. The game enforces its road trip motif by making Noctis and his friends drive from place to place in the royal car, called the Regalia. You can always put the car in auto-drive, but you can only fast-travel to places you’ve been and can reach before nightfall. As a result, you will spend a fair amount of time either driving, or taking in the sights while the computer gets you where you want to go. While the wait can feel oppressive at times, quips between the four heroes flow freely on your rides, and the rapport between them makes you feel like you’re a part of the gang.
The balance between the story and mechanics feels better in side missions.
Other sequences stray too far from the conventions of role-playing game, and feel poorly thought out. The game features multiple “base infiltration” missions, which involve stealthily avoiding patrols and even tailing enemy characters — tasks more suited for Assassin’s Creed. While the game tries to artfully employ Noctis’ warping skill for non-combat purposes, Noctis does not have any sneaking abilities, and getting through the stealth sections is a chore.
It’s hard to say whether the developer included these sequences because they wrote themselves into a corner, or because they felt they needed to offer a “diverse” range of experiences to appeal to many kinds of players. Regardless, the sequences that deviate from the game’s core loop feel forced, and they appear too frequently.
Swinging a sword wildly
The biggest change to Final Fantasy XV’s gameplay is a shift from turn-based combat to real-time, action-RPG combat that takes ques from Kingdom Hearts and Xenoblade Chronicles. Noctis can switch between up to four weapons and spells on the fly, and use a short-range teleport to warp across the battlefield. He can even throw his sword into a wall, then warp up to that spot, giving him a vantage point where he can recharge and/or insert himself into an advantageous position in combat.
Noctis’ allies work autonomously, for the most part. Noctis can order each of them to perform a power move (called a “technique”), but other than that they’re mostly there to make the fights feel bigger and help you avoid getting overwhelmed. The AI is decent, which helps avoid frustration. When you get behind an enemy, your pals move to back you up and perform a joint attack. In group fights, they generally engage enemies evenly, allowing you to focus one or two targets rather than dealing with a larger swarm.
Despite their help (or perhaps because of it), combat often devolves into a scrum of hacking and slashing. There are basic tactics to employ — certain upgrades allow you to target and “break” specific body parts, for example — but no matter the strategy you will inevitably have to charge head-long into the fray, button-mashing to victory. Sometimes this feels preferable to the random battles of old-school RPGs, as you spend a lot less time sifting through menus. When fighting certain types of enemies, small groups of monsters with whom you are evenly matched, the combat finds a simple, entertaining rhythm
Unfortunately, the combat doesn’t scale well when things get challenging. Even with dodging and warping powers, Noctis is liable to be attacked by many opponents from all sides, making elegant swordplay all but impossible. It also doesn’t help that some enemy attacks trigger large prompts telling you to when to dodge, but others don’t. You can be alerted to an attack on your left, only to get blindsided by a quicker blow from the right.Our Take
Final Fantasy XV is more fun than its individual parts suggest. Its story falters, but never so much that you lose your sense of adventure. Its combat lacks precision, but you’ll still take satisfaction from winning a tough fight. And it ties together these mediocre elements with a broad, beautiful world, an off-beat sense of humor, and excellent interaction between characters. But it will frustrate you at times, and coaxing yourself through a dull mission can take effort.
Is there a better alternative?
Yes. Gamers looking for a party-based, open world RPG have many choices. Dragon Age: Inquisition has a classic western RPG setting, and overcomes a mediocre plot with strong party combat. Xenoblade Chronicles X is an excellent alternative with fast yet thoughtful combat – if you have a Wii U. And the Persona series is great if you’re looking for a Japanese RPG that’s at once more coherent, and weirder.
For those specifically looking to dabble in Final Fantasy, we’d recommend starting with one of the earlier games, Final Fantasy 6-10 all have their own merits, and will do a better job showing newcomers what all the fuss is about.
How long will it last?
We “finished” Final Fantasy XV in around 38 hours, including the main story and many side missions. The game features a large amount of optional content that we did not complete, including missions that would require hours of “grinding” to raise your characters’ levels. Completing everything in the game could easily take more than 100 hours.
Should you buy it?
Final Fantasy fans should play this game immediately. It’s not perfect, but it has many of the franchise’s traditional strengths. If you’re new to the series, you may want to try the classics first, or wait for a sale.