Final Fantasy XV review – Rightful Heir

(Notice: I am well-aware of the gameplay and narrative changes added with the newest patches for the game, and those will be added to the review accordingly. This review was originally written a couple weeks before the March patches.)

(P.S.: It was also meant to be the first review of the site, lol.)

Title: Final Fantasy XV
Alternative title:
 Final Fantasy 15FFXVFF15Final Fantsay Versus XIII
Developers: Square Enix
Publishers: Square Enix
Genre: Action-RPG
Engine: Luminous Studio
Format: PS4 (reviewed), X1
Release: November 29, 2016

Final Fantasy XV had one hell of a development cycle, and I am shocked this game eventually saw the light last year. I know that this is a strange (and somewhat worrying) place to start a review, but I wanted to get it out the way first.

Originally announced in 2006 as the spin-off Final Fantasy Versus XIII, the 15th main entry of the notorious series has gone through a very long and troubling way until its final November 2016 release. And while other games had longer development cycles than XV, few were as troubling, messy and exhaustive as this title, with title having been redesigned and rewritten several times, as well as changing consoles mid-development.

So yeah, not a great start.

Honestly I assume that most people here won’t need any introduction to one of the most well-known JRPG serieses in history, so I’ll just say that XV had a lot on its shoulders with some drastical changes such as a true open-ended world and a real-time combat that were a stark departure from previous entries.

So in the end, how was Final Fantasy XV’s? A beacon of new regime, or a tragic fall from grace?

Story & Setting

The entire saga of
Final Fantasy XV is set in the modernized world of Eos, an Earth-like planet but with the addition of fantastical beasts and sci-fi elements, and is largely unconnected to previous titles. Once upon a time, each kingdom in Eos was in a possession of a crystal – a mysterious artifact granting magical powers – but eventually all lost in except for the kingdom of Lucis, who by the time the game occurs, remains the last free nation from the Empire of Niflheim, a powerful nation who seeks… world dominion.

Noctis is the only son and heir to the incumbent King Regis, and due to the king’s failing health and fading powers, is sent to a political marriage to his childhood friend the Oracle (a female adviser who serves as a Lucian King’s top ally) Lunafreya, as a means for a truce between the warring faction. But of course nothing is that simple and Lucis soon falls with Noctis, his father and Luna being declared dead. Noctis, alongside his friends Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto and their car the Regalia, decides to continue the journey in an attempt to reclaim Lucis and end the Niflheim threat.

This is more or less the summary of the entire synopsis, and given this is a Final Fantasy game, I assume most people expect upcoming apocalypses, whiny protagonists and over-the-top plot-lines. And all of that is still there.

It’s just that this takes a backseat to something else.

Final Fantasy XV begins with the four friends, having ran out of fuel, push their car on the road to the closest gas station. And that’s more or less gives the main idea of the plot.

In comparison to its legendary ancestors, Final Fantasy XV is presented as a slightly (but still bizarre and somewhat convoluted) more grounded and modernized entry, first experienced through the unusual urban/science-fantasy setting of Eos, which, taking away the monsters and robots, bears an uncanny similarity to Earth, with similar lifestyle and culture.

The story and structure of Final Fantasy XV takes some cues from 1960’s and 70’s road movies. There is a massive focus on character relationships and interactions, and the game constantly encourages well known road-tropes through gameplay such as camping, exploration and driving. The landscapes and playful conversations give off a similar vibe.

The four main characters are the heart of Final Fantasy XV’s narrative, which amongst other theme and concepts, gives the front stage to friendship, loyalty and family. Each member of Noctis’ party feels like one, big piece of a strange yet likable family member, be it Gladio’s stern and strict fatherly criticism, Ignis’ calm and caring motherly side, or Prompto’s cheerful and younger personality that akin to a little brother.

While the game doesn’t touch major character arcs except for Noctis’, each of his sworn brothers is given a unique and instantly likable personality, and their interactions with Noctis range from tender, to heated to funny. Some hammed and lousy line deliveries aside, they are mostly believable and touching, and by the end of the story they all feel like long-time friends and it’s just impossible to say them goodbye.

They also tend to make some really horrible puns, so be warned if you hate those.

The people the Regalia party encounters along the way are likewise immensely likable and memorable, with people such as Gladio’s little sister Iris or Lucis’ former General Cor “the Immortal” joining the Crown Prince’s side at times, while other such recurring series mechanic Cid and his gorgeous granddaughter Cindy (or Cidney in Japan) offer technical support to the four men. Sadly, their presence in the narrative is rather limited, and many of them gain little development or screen-time to become classics.

I guess that is a result of Final Fantasy XV’s tiring development cycle, which hurts the whole story with cut-off sub-plots and underdeveloped build-ups.

Nothing shows it better than the game’s main antagonistic force, the Niflheim Empire, which receives little relevance in the story despite being, y’know, the bloody chief antagonists of that whole game. Hell, Niflheim’s emperor and a major antagonist is given two or three cutscenes in the entire game, and has overall little impact on Noctis’ journey.

And of course we have Ravus, who was built as a major rival to Noctis through the Kingsglaive movie but in contrast bears little relevance to the plot in the end. Yeah yeah, new patched cutscenes and additions should clarify and expand his role, but even with them, Ravus ends up as a disappointing villain with inconsistent motivations.

Also, he is Luna’s brother.

That said… Final Fantasy XV also has one of the most awesome main antagonists in recent memory. I won’t spoil the identity (even if it’s obvious) but I would say he is a such a delight to engage with; clever, cynical, crazy and snarky, he serves as a perfect bad guy with surprisingly deep motivations to his character, and I can’t say enough about how great he is. He’s also endlessly funny.

The general story of XV is decently-written, particularly when it comes to its main characters and their dealings with a world increasingly gone wrong. It touches on what it means to be king and the position’s responsibilities and how the people beneath kings find secure and hope in them. Sacrifice and depression also provide backbone to the narrative as the tale grows darker, and sometimes the writing simply shines there.

But again, the long development cycle hurts an otherwise beautiful story about friendship and rulership.

Some elements are very poorly explained in-game (such as the entire backstory about the bloody war), and there are quite a few sub-plots that get lost in the grander scheme of things. And in relation to the poorly explained stuff, XV still requires additional media to flesh out elements, backstories and terms, such as the aforementioned Kingsglaive (which is an essential watch to understand the grand plot), as well as the anime Brotherhood.

Likewise, the first half of the game feels a little unfocused and sparse in its storytelling, taking a very slow and scattered approach to events and wasting a very precious time on what is essentially faffing around, which eventually leads to a second half that feels considerably rushed and overstuffed due the short amount of time left.

But… this is actually a curious standpoint for me, because as rushed as the second half feels, it pushes things and pawns forward with bigger and bigger revelations and set pieces. The escalation of the story is noticeable, but progression – in a very contrasting way to what I said – is actually smooth and engaging, dealing with tragedies, doubts and paybacks rather masterfully.

The stakes grow ridiculously higher with each chapter and conclude in a dramatic yet satisfying ending. Despite any criticism I have for the plot and pacing of XV, it still has a beautiful and bittersweet ending that left me with a generally good feeling about the whole, somewhat messy story which nevertheless remained an emotional trip.

Gameplay & Design

Unlike most of its predecessors,
Final Fantasy XV replaces the turn-based combat with a quicker, real-time one that involves hacking, slashing and bombing the opponents in a furious pace of speed.

I have many friends who were skeptical about that radical change of direction, but for me (partly due to a not so rich experience with the franchise), this change is more than welcome and add much thrill to the whole deal. For the most time, that is.

Taking cues from the Kingdom Hearts series, XV features a hectic dose of fast-paced action and a multitude of enemies in a vibrant showcase of chaos. Noctis’ attacks are all activated with one button which makes for a simple yet effective system, coupled with quick dodges in the form of phasing and team working with the AI-controlled party members.

While the three boys cannot be directly controlled by the player, Noctis can deliver powerful attacks with them, as well as back attacks that look incredibly stylish and amusing. In a nice touch of story and gameplay marriage, they also heal Noctis in case of critical damage.

There is no shortage of weapons in the game, with Noctis being able to use swords, longswords, lances, daggers, pistols and way more, including powerful royal weapons called Arms that come in different shapes and sizes. Customization is also available to the other three boys’ arsenal, which more class-specific than Noctis’ Jack of all Trades style. Players are constantly encouraged to change between weapons during combat, and can equip up to four weapons at the time, so it is always good to have some variety.

Magic is also available in the form of elemental grenades. Those would take some getting used to, but can be both dramatically effective in battle, or extremely dangerous due to their friendly fire nature that can cause devastating damage to the boys.

You also get access to summoning in the form of Astrals (godlike beings in Eos), but those only come whenever they like or if the fight is severe enough, so don’t rely on those too much. Still, it is much fun to have them arrive, with ridiculously dazzling screen-cleaning attacks.

All this makes for a deliciously chaotic combat system with quick dashes and spectacular strikes, but the combat can get a little too chaotic and frantic causing for confusing and exhausting scenes filling up with screen with so much action that can lead to fatal mistakes.

The camera can eventually struggle with the accelerating speed of the battles, and the inability to stop Noctis’ attacks in order to evade can lead to fatal and regretful mistakes. This is most obvious with boss battles and outranking enemies that can whip out the floor with Noctis by exploiting this sort of handicap.

Blocking and dodging can also get a little problematic and confusing with Noctis sometimes being notified to execute the defense move, but it fails and the Crown Prince receives a powerful blow that could have been avoided.

This could have been a crippling issue with the XV’s combat, but thankfully it remains just enough engaging, satisfying and varied to stand tall against its flaws. And it is a fine foundation stone for future installments.

Being the first true open-world installment of the series, XV boasts a vast, lively environment with a scary amount of content such as quests and dungeons, encouraging a constant player exploration.

Multiple side quests, including hunting missions, are available from the various towns and settlements players visit, and while the quest design is rather simple and straightforward in its execution, I can’t help but keep searching for more quests due to how addicting and fun they can become. And a lot of it comes in no small part thanks to the often eccentric quest givers and their sometimes bizarre motivations.

You can also fish in this game, because of course you can fish here.

Leveling up in XV comes in the form of camping and hiring motel rooms, with the boys keeping all the EXP points they got until the eventual rest. You can also look at Prompto’s pictures and decide which ones you want to keep, and – should you rest in a camp – have a training with Gladio beforehand and choose a dish for Ignis to cook, dishes that can boost skills and stats during the following day, making it a good tip to find more and more recipes for Iggy – as long as you can endure his increasingly repetitive declarations of newfound food.

You will also get AP points, which you can trade for upgrades and new abilities in a rich skill tree thingy that empowers both Noct and his sworn brothers.

Accompanying the road trip themes, you will drive in the Regalia a lot, journeying from place to place while discovering new things or listening to the party’s amusing conversations. Sadly, despite sometimes providing some exposition or hilarious exchanges, driving in itself is boring and much a time waster. And even after sort of unlocking the fast travel function, some areas still require you to waste 5 minutes doing nothing while staring at the car on the road.

It also doesn’t help that the car handles like a bloke, and is rather restricted in movement, so it makes little change whether you choose to control the car yourself, or let Ignis do the driving.

Thankfully, Chocobo renting is simple and cheap, and the iconic birds of the franchise remain a genuinely fun method of exploring the world. They are also customizable – which means you can name them and change their colors – and can level up to learn attacks to help the company in battle, or increase their stamina to be able to run and jump for longer.

Visuals & Audio

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a first-party Square Enix game, especially one that belongs to the
Final Fantasy brand, is absolutely gorgeous and jaw-dropping in its presentation. A few (and rather minor) technical fallouts aside, XV is easily one of the most beautiful games in recent memory, a technical marvel that proves how money was poured into its tremendous production values.

A huge part of what makes Final Fantasy XV’s looks so appealing is its unique art direction, one that blends the urban landscapes of Eos with bizarre-looking animals and beasts, alongside high-tech technological pieces and some fascinating geographic wonders. Square really nailed the “fantasy based on reality” in terms of visuals, and the added sci-fi elements just makes it one, unforgettable game, visually.

The character designs are also worth mentioning, possessing an initially odd but increasingly stylish appearances that merge more realistic graphics and character models with over-the-top anime-like hairstyles and clothing. It’s an interesting, generally rare style that I haven’t seen in many games recently, especially in this day and age where almost every character is physically its actor, and that’s a welcome departure.

And with this being a Final Fantasy game, the soundtrack is a mostly wonderful affair, using the typically epic choirs and orchestral music that came to define the series. I did feel a little let down by the usual battle themes, which just don’t click with me in regard to the on-screen mad action. In contrast, I really love the general wandering theme, “Valse Di Fantastica,” which is just beautiful and reflects young curiosity and innocence.

And of course, the main theme song of the entire game is melancholically pretty and memorable, and of course, the “Stand By Me” cover is pretty damn good!

The voice acting of Final Fantasy XV… takes awhile to get used to. It’s a common problem that I’ve encountered with localization of other Japanese-speaking games, and the actors themselves are solid, but they take their time getting into character, delivering some hamming lines or getting out the tone. It’s far from a deal breaker, however, and as the game goes on, they grow more into their respective characters, resulting in much more natural performances.

Final Verdict

Final Fantasy XV is a game that should have failed harshly, but thanks in small part to a dedicated team that didn’t give up on what ends up becoming a solid evolution for one of gaming’s most precious franchises.

Despite a fair share of glaring and frustrating issues that I cannot ignore, XV is still a game of a very high-quality exploding with adventures and content to find and explore. While the combat might need a little more refinement it’s still a bloody satisfying experience that manages to shake things up with the series’ core gameplay. And while the whole story may suffer from poorly explained backstories and underdeveloped plot threads, the core of the XV – Noctis, Gladio, Iggy and Prompto – keep the entire thing glued thanks to a genuinely pleasant sense of friendship and comradery.

This is clearly going to be a divisive entry to the series, but Final Fantasy XV is, regardless, an ambitious and impressive game that one can’t help but admire. It’s a technical behemoth that does so much, and while not everything the game sets to do strikes the bull’s eye, it’s strengths undoubtedly outweigh the weaknesses. It’s safe to say that after a very long time, the King is back baby, and he’s prettier than ever!

In Points:

The Good:

  • Relatable, immensely likable main characters in a road trip narrative that form a genuinely lovely relationship with each other
  • A great main villain that steals the show, and an admittedly heartfelt and emotional conclusion
  • Real-time, fast-paced combat system that manages to feel both engaging and satisfying

The Bad:

  • Arcing narrative suffers from poor exposition, thin backstories and underdeveloped side characters
  • Combat can get a little out of control and chaotic, camera sometimes struggles to keep up on the action
  • Driving is both boring, restrictive and time wasting

& The Ugly:

  • Some puns could make your ears bleed…

One thought on “Final Fantasy XV review – Rightful Heir

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