“A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers.”
Those words are displayed every time you boot up Final Fantasy XV, and beyond the inherent marketing sentiment, there are specks of truth in that statement. Final Fantasy XV has endured a decade of development, mired in rewritten codes and flaky whiteboards while the industry continued to expand and evolve around it.
It’s because of that time in the oven that XV occasionally feels like a mish-mash. It’s open-world, but also linear. It’s an action game, with role-playing game elements, magic and swords clashing in real time but with a little less frantic urgency than your average beat ‘em up. Like a selfie you took in the mirror in high school, you can see the cluttered mess, but still appreciate the journey and feeling of the moment.
Final Fantasy XV is the story of Noctis, a deposed prince who seeks to reclaim his throne and rescue his bride-to-be Lunafreya from Niflheim, the empire that killed his father and ravaged his kingdom. Alongside him are your only party members (save a few mission-specific guests), the royal prince’s retainers and bros, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. The former two are the prince’s mindful tactitcian and stalwart shield, respectively, while Prompto provides the comic relief and snaps group photos throughout the game’s journey.
Starting with the four shoving a car down a desert road, the game hands you the reins fairly early, and with little information to go on. It’s more than recommended to at least watch Kingsglaive, the fully CGI prequel film, prior to starting XV proper, and you will probably want to breeze through the anime side-story Brotherhood as well. The first five or six hours of XV gloss over much exposition, leaving it to optional tutorials and one-off conversations.
It’s not that you need this information to comprehend the story, but you’ll probably want it to empathize enough to stay invested. Final Fantasy XV’s first blushes are scattered, as the game rapidly tries to familiarize you with its plethora of systems and features. XV’s main offering is the open world of Lucis, a sprawling land filled with optional quests, resources to gather, NPCs to meet and monsters to fight. Whether you’re traversing by car, chocobo or foot, destinations are full minutes apart, with the in-between filled with distractions and collectibles.
Though impressive, the massive expanse of Lucis is difficult to appreciate, mostly due to how empty it feels. Sidequests are more of the “fetch” variety than anything else, and collecting ingredients and crafting materials lacks any sense of importance or furthering the plot. The greatest disconnect from previous Final Fantasy games happens here, as you spend more of your time running around fighting dropships of the empire’s Magitek soldiers and wild beasts than watching cutscenes. More interesting are the hunts, which persist throughout your first playthrough and into the post-game, letting you tackle increasingly powerful creatures and daemons.
Combat takes similar liberties, playing out in real-time rather than the turn-based, metered back-and-forth of Final Fantasy’s golden age. Initially, battles can feel loose and unwieldy, with everyone swinging swords and slinging spells in a mosh-pit of fantasy battle. The camera ends up being your fiercest foe throughout the game, struggling to keep focus in tight spaces and against large swathes of monsters. As the level of difficulty increases, though, it becomes clear the system will demand more, and some of the better intricacies become key to survival.
A well-timed parry has a physical feel to its execution, holding block with one finger and then swinging it over to hit the parry in time with the on-screen prompt. Switching armaments mid-battle using Noctis’s magic king powers of summoning myriad weapons from thin air becomes key to exploiting enemy weaknesses, and the crushing power of magic (which harms both friend and foe) has a real cost associated to it. Casting my lovingly crafted Quintcast III spell wasn’t a mindless motion to exact more damage, but a conscious decision, understanding that it could harm me as much as it hurts the enemy. The combat of XV is reminiscent of the better parts of Kingdom Hearts, but with more flourish and a critical importance placed on analyzing your foe’s weaknesses and correctly parrying their blows.
The open-world, road trip aspect is the main appeal of the first 10 to 20 hours spent with XV, as you rollick around Lucis, a pseudo-J-pop boy band on a trip to stop those big bad “Nifs” and save Lady Lunafreya. Most of the story here is barebones at best, messy and scatterbrained at its worst. You get precious little exposition on key characters, including the four members of your own party, and many key story beats are explained in loading screen text or not at all.
You are told Noctis needs the Royal Arms, his forebears’ magic weapons that only he can wield, as well as a ring and the help of the gods, but those are rarely expounded on beyond an objective marker. There’s a real lack of impetus, as though the developers didn’t want players to feel too worried about running off into the woods to hunt more monsters instead of working towards reclaiming the throne. It’s a story about four dudes on the best summer road trip ever, with just enough push to keep them moving in the general vicinity of the story. It might be infuriating if it wasn’t so intriguing in how the four guys interact.
Male intimacy in games usually revolves around slapping each other on the back for how well you shot other dudes, or how you will learn to shoot them better as time goes on. The brotherhood of XV is a little different, as they tease each other, talk about girls, push to better themselves internally and discuss the photos taken at the end of each day. It’s a side of friendship you don’t get to see often in games, and that levity helps keep the thin story afloat through the first half of the game.
A break occurs two-thirds of the way into the game’s quest that shatters that paradise of jovial brotherhood. A trip to acquire more Arms and the help of a god goes awry, and the game shifts onto a linear, predestined path rocketing towards the climactic finale. It’s here that XV shifts into familiar territory, though in spectacular fashion; the open-world NPC chats lend way to cinematics and quick-time events, and you follow Noctis along each stop as he ventures to finally put an end to the game’s ultimate villain.
It’s a radical shift, but one that works supremely well, mixing the game’s already stellar combat with clever moments of scripted action and grand set-piece conflicts. Instead of hunting monsters, you’re slaying gods, fending for your life and dealing with conflict amongst your brothers. Character dialogue finally surfaces, and the cast starts to grow into its own, developing into a little more than just Robin Hood and his merry men. There are bespoke segments of gameplay, twists I would be loath to spoil because of the sheer incredulity they inspired. All of it results in a massive finale, which ties the whole journey together neatly, with a few tearjerker moments that land surprisingly well.
But it’s that surprise that belies the first two-third’s complete lack of attention to the story. Though the four bros get their fair share of exposition and development, precious few others get a spotlight. Final Fantasy XV’s villain is charismatic, slyly stealing every scene he’s in, and is probably the best villain Final Fantasy has had since the days of Kefka and Sephiroth. Others, like Aranea Highwind and Cor, make short but memorable cameos, and the rest are relegated to sidequests. Precious few even respond to world events or appear to help you in any way beyond mutual benefits. As an ensemble cast, Final Fantasy XV is extremely lacking, even in the romance of Noctis and Lunafreya, which comes off as forced and clichéd. Even in the latter half of the game, when the major twists and turns happen, they often get botched by poor storytelling devices and writing. A sudden revelation that changes a main character’s entire backstory in radical ways ends up feeling offhand, and gets glossed over in favor of moving on to more battles.
Yet in spite of the clutter, there’s an incredible amount of heart to XV. The playful banter between the four characters can get repetitive at times, but also cheerful and endearing. Combat is a blast, as over 30-plus hours into the game, I’m still finding new ways to approach conflicts and fight some of the game’s tougher enemies. The post-game is filled with compelling content to explore, secret dungeons with spectacular design and truly challenging boss encounters, as well as a flight engine for my car. Hidden symbols hint to even more secrets, and toppling the massive mountain of a hidden (in plain sight) boss will be my gaming Moby Dick for the foreseeable future.
As a grand epic in the vein of its predecessors, Final Fantasy XV stumbles, only recuperating in the last leg to deliver a satisfying, if bittersweet, conclusion. It doesn’t lay the groundwork for many of its larger emotional blows, and frequently mishandles or flat-out ignores character development in favor of moving you along to the next area. There’s a quality to be found in the details, however; a special kind of adventure, on a scale and production level not known for taking the risks XV does in its latter half. Final Fantasy’s core tenet has been to avoid stagnation, preserving only signposts of common references like Bahamut and Cid while crafting a new fantasy with each mainline entry.
There is no doubt Final Fantasy XV will be divisive, but in not playing it safe, the game earns a bit of my heart back with each errant monster hunt or one-off gameplay section. It’s messy, but earnestly so, like that high-school mirror selfie. Recalling all the good and bad, the moments that make you cringe and a warmth that makes you smile, you know not everything was perfect. You can only say you’re glad you chose to make the journey.
Final Fantasy XV was developed and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.