A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-timers
This is the line you’re greeted with immediately upon starting Final Fantasy 15. It’s a good line, and it says a lot. It tells you, right as you start, that you don’t need any previous experience to appreciate this. It tells you that the game wasn’t just designed as a love letter to past fans, like some recent SquareEnix ventures have been.
And it tells you that long time fans are going to be in for a surprise, since they are not this game’s primary audience. The question, of course, becomes: Will this be a pleasant surprise?
When you start the game, you’re greeted by a scene of Noctis and his friends Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis pushing their car as it has run out of gas. The opening scene reinforces, right from the first second, that what we’re dealing with is not your standard Final Fantasy fare. You open up with a brief quest chain for the local mechanic, a voluptuous young lady named Cindy, and then are immediately dumped into a relatively open world. You have several towns you can visit, an array of quests and missions to do, and as much time as you want to spend exploring. There are places that are restricted, but aside from that you can take your time and explore.
And the game offers you plenty of incentives to leave the beaten path. Most individual missions are relatively simple – typical fetch, kill, or find fare – but they unfold into long chains that expand into stories for the gameworld. Probably the best example is the hunter’s dogtags… at its core it is a simple quest chain requiring you to retrieve the tags of fallen hunters over and over again. A basic fetch quest, as it were. But this basic fetch quest also tells you how dangerous the world is, provides you deeper understanding of the hard life these hunters live, and gives you a bit of insight into a few characters. Nothing mandatory or groundbreaking, but a nice bit of exposition for the world and an easy way to toss you some experience points at the same time. I appreciated that SquareEnix recognized that, even though not every quest can be dynamic or exciting, it’s important to give every quest some form of relevance and meaning.
And, you’re able to travel the majority of the way from the comfort of your own luxury vehicle: The Regalia. Realistically, the Regalia represents a lot in this game. It is Noctis’ main tie to his family, it’s a symbol of the bond of friendship between these people, it’s also a status symbol showing Noctis’ wealth – and, of course, it is a symbol of the fact that this game is meant to differ in direction from previous entries in the series. Rather than being ushered down a relatively linear story for the first x hours (which has been the norm for most Final Fantasy titles), the Regalia serves as an instant reminder that you are free to just drive.
Conversely, the Regalia serves as one of the game’s few ties back to the series’ long and storied history through one of my favourite features the game has to offer. From various stores across the world, you can purchase the soundtracks of previous Final Fantasy games which can be played in the Regalia whenever you drive. This is a beautiful piece of nostalgia. That’s not to say the game’s soundtrack is bad on its own, but it felt so fitting to be able to just sit back while driving around the world and enjoy whatever Final Fantasy songs you wanted. Nothing like taking a nice long trip from Hammerhead to Lestallum, relaxing to ‘You’re Not Alone’ from Final Fantasy IX or ‘To Zanarkand’ from Final Fantasy X, enjoying the sights as you drive.
On a similar note, the game’s use of chocobos also gave me that same sense of amazing nostalgia. After completing a certain quest chain, you get to name a chocobo. After that point, you can summon your chocobo to ride. It’s a pretty basic system, but it reminded me a lot of the chocobo races in Final Fantasy VII: your chocobo will grow as you ride it, getting faster as it grows, and the game even features a stamina system that lets you get a burst of speed. Where things got new is that, as the chocobo levels up, it will even be able to help you in combat, offering buffs and occasional attacks.
However, and you’re free to call me shallow for this, my favourite part of the system was that you could dye your chocobo’s feathers, colouring it in a wide array of different shades. I ended up having a gorgeous deep blue chocobo that I was strangely proud of. The only downside of the system is that you have to constantly renew your chocobo ‘rental’, which becomes basically a mildly annoying formality by the end.
Final Fantasy XV is also one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played overall. Discounting how awesome my chocobo was, the overall scenery, animations, and character models were simply spectacular. Part of the reason why simply driving was so relaxing, aside from the amazing music, was just enjoying the scenery as it passed by. But my favourite piece of scenery couldn’t be reached by car. For a brief period you venture to the waterbound city of Altissia. You only spend a short time there, but it is hard to accurately convey how gorgeous this place is. Clearly inspired by Venice, Altissia is a watery paradise full of intricate architecture, beautiful canals, and waterfalls on all sides. It is far from the only beautiful sight the game has to offer, but it stands above the rest as undoubtedly the most spectacular.
Final Fantasy games have been known for battle systems that revolved around a variety of different turn systems, most notably the active time battle system made famous back in the Super Nintendo era. Variants of this system persisted throughout the series’ history and were even somewhat present in the recent Final Fantasy XIII compendium. Final Fantasy XV chose to buck this trend and go with a mostly pure action system revolving around Noctis’ unique abilities.
You see, Noctis’ family has the distinct ability to conjure their own weaponry and, apparently, teleport. Basically, you equip Noctis with up to 4 different weapons or spells, and then you fight using them by pushing the face buttons. Pretty basic overall, except for Noctis’ warp ability. You see, he can throw his weapon at enemies and teleport to them, allowing him to enter battle or switch targets relatively easily. Warping like this, as well as dodging, costs Noctis MP to use. Additionally, he can do the same to certain warp points around the various environments using a technique called a ‘point-warp’ that restores his MP fully and speeds up his health regen. Darting in and out of combat by finding these warp points is what makes the combat feel so much more engaging than a standard 4-button action combat system otherwise would be. It creates this high-paced dance of blades that is incredibly satisfying and fun.
The other key component of the system lies in Noctis’ friends. For most of the game, you’ll have his 3 companions battling alongside you, handled by the AI. For the most part, the AI is relatively useful. It’s not perfect, but it’s usually fairly good. I will say that I was annoyed by how much Prompto sure loved to stand right under large enemies, which was unnecessary since he used a gun for a weapon. You can also command them to use various special abilities from a shared tech bar that builds up over time, and warp-strikes and back attacks will sometimes cause your allies to initiate powerful follow-up attacks which really helps to hammer home the close bond between these friends.
Of course, magic and summons make a return in Final Fantasy XV. In a lot of ways, magic takes the place of what summon magic used to be: powerful, area of effect attacks that can only be used so often that, if used right, can devastate entire squads of foes. You have to craft each spell before you can use it, incorporating junk items you find on enemies or around the world to give it specialized secondary effects. The spells have a limited number of uses, based off of what you use to make them, so you need to be somewhat careful in how you use them. Fortunately, the reagents for making magic are plentiful and easy to acquire so don’t be afraid to use them when in danger. The only part about the magic I didn’t like was that it hurt you and your friends too if you are caught in the blast radius.
Summons, on the other hand, take a much more grand role in Final Fantasy XV. Final Fantasy XV’s world has 6 gods, called Astrals, who will come to bless you throughout the game (of course, it would be spoiling to say how this happens). These Astrals can come to your aid, although it is not entirely within your control. In times of peril, you’ll occasionally get a prompt to trigger a summon, and you’ll get to see one of the most incredible spectacles Final Fantasy XV has to offer as one of these gods appears to smite your foes, doing enormous damage. Fortunately, unlike magic, summons won’t harm your friends so feel free to trigger these whenever you see one.
A Tale of Four ‘Brothers’
The game’s cast is surprisingly strong. They’ve clearly learned from Final Fantasy XIII’s mistakes and have worked hard to give a strong personality to each of the characters you interact with. Of course, Noctis and his friends benefit from this the most, with each of them having a distinct style to them that reflects in their dialogue and in their skills. One thing I really enjoyed was the banter between the cast. I do wish they’d written a few more lines for certain events, but for the most part the banter was entertaining and fitting.
It was really interesting seeing them explore atypical male character types and actually do a credible job developing the characters still. For example, Ignis is soft-spoken, and often takes on a ‘motherly’ role for Noctis, while Prompto comes across as all ‘eager nerd’ (okay, he almost reminded me of a puppy dog in a lot of ways). Despite these less than ‘normal’ male personalities, neither of these characters are portrayed to be ‘less’ for it than the more typically masculine Gladiolus, nor do any receive less storytime than the others. Additionally, each of the four main characters has a distinct specialty – which draws from their personality fairly well. For example, Ignis is responsible for the team’s cooking, preparing their meals every time they’re at camp, while Gladiolus scavenges items from the wilderness during your travels.
These ‘travel skills’ were integral in one of my favourite little touches Final Fantasy XV has. You see, Prompto is a photographer and he likes to document the journey. So every time you rest for the night, in addition to all the normal camp stuff, you get to choose through the pictures Prompto has taken over the course of the day and save the ones you like. These are not stock photos, they’re actual pictures of the events of that day. You can choose to share these pictures to various social media, but that’s not why I like the idea so much. SquareEnix actually uses these pictures – the ones you chose to save anyways – in place of the normal stock pictures you see during the end credits to document your journey. It was a small touch, but it was one that really made the game feel like a complete experience. It tied the ending back into my individual playthrough in such a fulfilling way.
That being said, the story was told in a really ineffective way with really poor pacing. It feels like the first 2/3 of the game mostly deals with establishing the world and the characters, and then suddenly you’re thrown into the end sequence and just get bombarded with story until the game is over. I wish there had been some greater hinting done as to the underlying story throughout the opening acts of the game. Despite the pacing issues and a few awkward parts, it was still a very interesting story that fit this world, and these characters, extremely well. There were just a few points where things became awkward.
Speedbumps and Potholes
Have you ever been just driving down the road nonchalantly, content to simply enjoy the road, when suddenly you have to spend hours walking down a hallway with no superpowers trying to avoid being seen by creepy zombie robots out of fear that you’ll have to spend minutes fighting them? We’ve all been there right? Well Final Fantasy XV reproduced that common everyday scenario perfectly.
Sadly, there’s a segment where you literally lose access to all of your powers for hours, have to walk down a hallway without any of your abilities, and play the most forgiving stealth game of all time trying to avoid these enemies who move a lot like zombies. I get that you need to lose access to your superpowers to really appreciate them, but the segment went on way longer than it should have. Hours longer. The sad part, this scene is also where the game starts overloading you with story exposition.
Another problem I noticed is that the game seemed a bit overeager to give you dungeon environments where you couldn’t use the ‘point-warp’ functionality I mentioned earlier. Without the dance in and out, a lot of fights in these areas become boring slogs of autoattacks instead of the elaborate dance that combat usually was. Scarcity is important, and sometimes making you feel vulnerable is great for atmosphere… but when overused it can make for some really bland moments. It’s a pity because some of the game’s dungeons were incredible, but so many became little more than chores.
The game features a vast and robust post-game including a ton of new dungeons, special bosses, and items to collect. These really explore the true potential of the game’s mechanics, including – but not limited to – a massive boss that is intended to take hours to fight, a dungeon with clever puzzle platform elements that even switches your perspective, and numerous hidden collectables and dungeons. You can even make the Regalia fly! Seeing so much of this makes me wish I had the time to really delve into it and give it the attention it deserves.
That all being said, a small corner of my heart is rebelling at how positive this review is. At how good this game is. Because, as good as it was, almost no part of it felt like the formula my heart and mind associate with ‘Final Fantasy’. Even Final Fantasy games that I did not enjoy, such as XII, still maintained that overall form and flow that define ‘Final Fantasy’ for me. Final Fantasy XV doesn’t have that. Now, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because what we have here is incredible. But it still makes me sad to think that what I’ve always known as ‘Final Fantasy’ might be well and truly dead since what we have here is incredible and will likely become the new standard.
SquareEnix expertly blends interesting characters, a fascinating world, and amazing aesthetic touches with dynamic and engaging combat mechanics to create a new breed of ‘Final Fantasy’ game. One that is an overall incredible experience. What is weird is that, unlike most Final Fantasy games, FFXV shines most when it isn’t trying to show you anything: when it is just letting you be in the world.
When you can just appreciate the characters, the world, the music, the visuals, and the combat as it is presented to you, the experience is fantastic. When the game tries too hard to make you feel vulnerable, the experience begins to fall flat… when the game tries too hard to tell you a story, things start to feel dry. But when you’re just allowed to enjoy the greatest road trip of all time? That’s when you feel the connection the most, when the game feels the most alive.