When is a Final Fantasy game not a Final Fantasy game? Seemingly, when it's Final Fantasy XV. With a long and tortured development process, this is a game that's been in the works for several different formats, in several different guises (at one point, famously, it was even supposed to become a video game musical), having spent over a decade in total going from concept to reality. As a rule of thumb, any game that spends quite that long in development ends up being a bit of a stinker, as a hodgepodge of different iterations, without anything holding them all together. But somehow, Final Fantasy XV just about pulls it off.
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Based on perhaps the best known role playing series of all time, Final Fantasy XV is a game that hasn't been afraid to make some changes - although not all of them have been for the better. There's an open world here to explore, with less of a rigid difference between towns and the overworld, to make the game's universe seem more believable; a quest system, with defined quests and sidequests (something which really is a change for the better); and a brand new, real-time battle system - which is perhaps the only major mistake the game really makes.
The story here follows the young prince Noctis, a typical pretty-boy lead with an emo haircut, who's setting out on the biggest adventure of them all - a journey to marry a princess. Not just any princess, mind - this is Lady Lunafreya of the Empire of Niflheim, a childhood friend allied to an empire who've long been at war with Noctis' homeland of Lucis. Now betrothed to marry, it's hoped that the marriage will lead to a ceasefire, and a period of peace between the two warring nations - but as is always the way with these things, it doesn't take long for things to go tits up. What starts out as a bachelor trip with your bros suddenly turns into a journey into disaster, when word reaches your party that Niflheim have invaded. Ransacking the city, burning buildings to the ground, and killing the poor prince's father, it's all but certain that Noctis would have been killed too had he by chance happened to be at home. With his homeland in ruins, and his people under the control of an invading empire, the stage is set for a journey to reclaim the prince's throne, and avenge the late king.
However, that all makes Final Fantasy XV sound a heck of a lot heavier than it really is. While there are undoubtedly some serious moments - and the plot does start out in a particularly depressing way, to set up the hero's journey - Final Fantasy XV is actually a game with a real sense of humour, designed from the ground up to feel like a road trip, and an adventure. It's a game of lads on tour through a land filled with gigantic, fantastical monsters, with a plot that focuses more on the relationship between you and your band of brothers than it does on the quest for revenge - and if anything, it's all the better for it.
While you might expect Noctis would be in a hurry to rush back and reclaim his throne, if anything, the opposite is true. Young Noct seemingly feels a little bit insecure about his prospects, and so instead sets out on a journey to train - to find himself, to get stronger, and to ensure he's ready before heading back to what's left of his home. With radio reports suggesting that both prince Noctis and his bride to be are dead, there's no rush to crash the party. Instead, you'll set out on a quest to retrieve your 13 ancestral weapons - legendary spirit blades that are holed up in tombs across the land - to ensure you have an armoury no-one will be able to stop.
Of course, there's more to it than that, and like everything in a Final Fantasy game, there's a lot of story to get down here, and several plots all interweaving at once (luckily, it's not too tricky to follow). Given a choice of main quests (which progress the story), and side quests (that give you chance to level up, and see some of the land of Eos' sights), there's a lot to do here, and everything feels really rewarding.
You'll get around the world by way of Noctis' fancy (and rather nice looking) car, the Regalia - a convertible that looks as plush as anything on the road today, and which would undoubtedly sell like hot cakes if they ever made a real one. Joining you on your trip are the aforementioned band of brothers, a motley crew of guys who are each loyal to prince Noctis, and who each have their own reason for being there.
First up is Ignis, a regal sounding chap with a really unusual British accent, and somewhat vertical haircut. As a kind of royal advisor to the prince, he's probably the most level headed of the crew - and least likely to joke. Prompto, meanwhile, is something of a skinnier chap, who's light on his feet, fights with a pair of pistols, and has a great sense of humour. If there's ever a joke being cracked, it's probably Prompto making it. The cheeriest of the bunch, he's a character that looks and feels a lot like Zell from Final Fantasy 8, and is also something of an amateur photographer, even if he does have a name that makes him sound like he should be a Mexican butler. Finally, there's man mountain Gladiolus, the muscle of the team and Noctis' bodyguard - a guy who never wears a t-shirt (he wouldn't want to hide his washer board abs), and who could crush a walnut between his biceps, yet has a name that makes him sound more like a pretty flower.
It's a cast of characters that mesh together really well, and you'll enjoy spending your time wandering the world, listening to them quipping with each other, whether you're exploring a dungeon, or simply driving around the world in the Regalia with the top down, as they discuss the current goings on. It may be a small touch, but it's also one that helps make the world feel alive - and lets you find out that little bit more about each of their personalities.
As touched on earlier, Final Fantasy XV is a game that steps away from the series' traditions - and one of the big improvements here is the new quest system. While Final Fantasy games have always had quests, there's never really been anything that keeps track of them, or tells you where to go next, with side quests you have to stumble upon by chance, rather than which get added as defined entries in a quest log. In Final Fantasy XV though, things are a lot more structured, with story quests, and side quests for you to get stuck into - and it's one of the best improvements to the game.
More than simple fetch quests, the majority of side quests have their own little mini-story attached. Whether you're heading off on a search to find a young chocobo, and take a photo of it to prove that it's still doing well; rescuing a broken down van that's come under attack by wasps (twice); or going on the hunt for a dangerous monster, there's a lot of variety, and little mini-stories to enjoy.
How you get around the world is mostly up to you, too. While you can take the Regalia out for a spin, it can be a little bit on the sluggish side - and it can only go on roads. The more fun way to get around is to rent a chocobo - for a pricey 50 gil a day, you and your party can each have your very own chocobo come and join you, to make getting around the land that much easier.
However, there is one big problem with Final Fantasy XV, and that's the battles. For Final Fantasy XV, rather than stick with the tried-and-tested through the years Active Time Battle, or ATB system - a battle system that was mostly turn based, with some added real time elements - they've instead decided to do away with everything they've built on over the years, and make things entirely "real time", making the game look and feel like just another button mashing hack and slasher. When this was first revealed, it was enough to start alarm bells ringing, as no Final Fantasy game has ever managed to create a real time battle system that's as accessible, and as easy to use as its more turn based encounters. And unfortunately, nor does FF XV.
As is in vogue nowadays, the battles here are seamless, without anything in the way of transitions - you'll either see an enemy on the field, or one will randomly appear next to you, and bam - you're in a battle. That in itself is a bit confusing, as one of the things everyone always used to complain about in a Final Fantasy game was the randomness of the encounters - yet Final Fantasy XV still has plenty of battles where your foe will simply fade in next to you, plunging you into a duel.
Here, your team mates will attack automatically (you can't issue commands to them, so you're relying on their AI to do most of the leg work), leaving you to your own devices. Holding circle lets you attack, moving the left stick up/down/left/right lets you cause slight variations in your combos, and R1 allows you to lock on to a specific foe - something which is all but essential, as otherwise you'll just end up attacking any enemies in the area almost equally, wearing them all down in the least efficient way possible, rather than getting rid of one and moving onto another. Down in the bottom left of the screen, there's a wheel which shows you your choice of weapons - with each enemy having their own special strengths and weaknesses, being able to switch out to a weapon that'll give you an advantage can make all the difference in battle.
On the plus side, there's no awkward menus to navigate mid-battle (we're looking at you, Kingdom Hearts 1), and if you do need to use a potion, or elixir, the game will pause to give you time to rummage and find the item you want. And in its defence, the battle system does usually work perfectly well when you're against a handful of weak enemies - all you really need to do is hold circle until everything stops moving. But this is Final Fantasy XV, and this is a battle system that has to cope just as well with short grinding quests as it does with lengthy dungeons, or epic boss battles. And unfortunately, it doesn't.
For starters, things are incredibly frantic here. With four of your team mates, and half a dozen enemies (in most battles), there's a lot to be keeping an eye out for, and it can be immensely difficult to tell who's doing damage to who, as things get so busy. Your screen will be packed with bodies - enemies or otherwise - with numbers flying up into the air, but in the heat of the moment, you'll have no idea who they're coming off, or even what they really mean for your team. As it's so hard to keep an eye on your enemies, your moves, your openings/dodging prompts, and your health bars all at once, your team mates can end up all but killing themselves, and you won't even notice until it's too late - something which wasn't a problem with the battle systems of old.
It doesn't help that the camera here seems to have a mind of its own. As mentioned before, locking onto enemies is all but essential - but if you do lock on, the game often ends up treating you to a view of the inside of a bush, or, worse, the sky and the underside of your opponent, as it too tries to lock on to the enemy. With things being so hard to keep track of as it is, there's nothing that takes you closer to rage quitting than being killed by an enemy you can't even see properly.
There's so much other weirdness here, too. You can use magic spells (more on these later), but they take forever to recharge so you can use them again. If you press the attack button while you still have your spell equipped, it won't automatically switch to a different weapon so you can actually do damage - instead you'll simply be running hammering circle, and doing nothing at all, basically rubbing your chin in the monster's face. Noctis can also use his magical powers to "point jump" - a weird move which essentially involves you teleporting to a glowing blue marker found on a cliff, or other surface high above the battle, giving you a bit of a breather. On the surface, this sounds great - especially as it instantly replenishes your MP, and starts restoring your HP - the only problem is, it's so incredibly hit and miss. You can be looking directly at a point jump marker, and it'll disappear, then reappear, then disappear again, all in the space of a few paces. And without manually turning your camera to look at it, there's no way of actually locking onto it either. Something you can rely on in a battle, then? Not exactly.
There's also a special move bar that fills up as the battles progress, kind of like the old limit break/overdrive system in the earlier games - only with less reliance on you taking damage first. When full, you can call on one of your team mates to perform a more powerful, special move, which can often work as a real difference maker in battles - it's just an immense disappointment that the game doesn't bother telling you when it's full. The meter itself is incredibly slim, and while we believe there is a very faint noise that plays, it all but entirely gets lost behind the grunting, groaning and clashing of swords. Again, with so much to keep track of, it'd be nice if it made things that little bit more obvious.
At one point, all of our frustrations came together in a boss fight (where else)? The bosses here are of the usual, irritating "immensely overpowered, can kill you in a handful of hits, the game just trusts you to dodge out of the way" variety - and that means the battle system all too often ends up tripping its own feet. At one point, in a battle with a giant robot, the camera zoomed so far out, and decided to sit at such an incredibly weird angle, we couldn't actually see our character. So we sit hammering circle, hoping for the best - but then, without the robot actually seeming to do anything, we're all but entirely dead. There was no warning, no rearing-back-to-hit you animation, no way of knowing an attack was coming, and for all intents and purposes, no actual attack animation - just a camera angle that made any sort of reaction on our part completely impossible. Fun.
And it's not just the frustration of having to keep so very many plates spinning that makes these battles so bad - there's loads of irritating little niggles that mean these come nowhere close to the turn-based, ATB battles of old. On your mini-map, when you enter a battle, you'll see a red circle showing the boundary of the fight - if you cross it, the battle will finish, and you'll run away. The only problems are, a) it doesn't actually show you the boundary anywhere but on the mini-map (there's nothing on the main screen to illustrate it) - so you can end up "running away" without intending to do so, and b) you can easily knock your foe out of the area, just as you're about to beat them, causing the battle to end, and their HP to almost instantly replenish. This is particularly chuffing annoying, as if you've spent ages grinding down a foe that's a much higher level than you, only to knock it out of the arena that isn't even marked on the screen with your penultimate blow, there are few words that can describe the frustration when you get diddled out of your well earnt XP. It's not just your enemies, either - you can get knocked off cliffs, too, and have to basically go back to the beginning of a dungeon, or try and find another way up a hill on the map to try again - and that's if you don't get thrown out of the circle, and automatically end the battle.
And then there's wait mode - an "alternative" battle system that purports to make things easier, but actually only serves to make your most useful moves nigh on impossible to pull off. As a kind of hat tip to the much better battles of previous years, wait mode attempts to bridge the gap, and pauses the battle when your character stops moving. While the game's paused, you can survey the battlefield, analyse enemies for weaknesses, and choose your next target (or use a special move). The only issue is, it makes it immensely awkward to dodge, or counter attack enemies. If you stop in front of an enemy, and are waiting for it to attack, the game will pause - you'll have to wiggle the left analogue stick, and try and keep yourself moving (pointlessly) in order to keep the game running for long enough the "defend" icon will pop up, giving you chance to parry and counter attack - something which is nigh on essential in the rest of the battles.
Yet the biggest issue is, all of these are frustrations that this brand new battle system has introduced - and none of them would have happened if they'd stuck with the traditional, turn-based ATB system. While some of the press have lauded the FF XV battle system (apparently it's "more satisfying" - presumably in a "if you manage to finish a boss fight without throwing your controller through your window, you've done well" kind of satisfying), the weird praise for the worst aspect of the game is kind of to be expected, as these are the same sort of folks who, in almost every review of a Final Fantasy game for the past two decades, have criticised the turn based battles as pretty much the only thing they could pick fault with in the game - without providing anything by way of an alternative that wouldn't turn it into an overly complex mess. And lo and behold, the devs have listened to them - and it's turned into an overly complex mess. It's proof you shouldn't listen exclusively to your most hardcore playerbase, and a huge ball and chain around FFXV's ankle, as the battle system makes up so much of the game.
Still, it's not that the battle system fizzles out and lets you down all the time - it just tends to buckle under the pressure when you need things to work the most. Luckily, that means for the majority of the game, you're able to work around most of its biggest issues and have some fun exploring the world, its characters, and its secrets.
And there's a lot to like about Final Fantasy XV. For XV, the developers have created a world that perhaps comes as close to recreating the magic of FF7/8/9 as any game has since, with towns, cities, and an overworld that feels familiar yet magical. There's a great cast, an interesting story, and a range of familiar and brand new monsters to do battle with. There's also one heck of a lot of great touches here - particularly when it comes to the end of the day, and you've got to find a campfire/hotel room to rest your head (something which is essential for tallying your XP, and actually levelling up). If you go for the former, you'll have to choose a meal for Ignis, who's seemingly the official chef of the crew, to cook, which will grant you a number of status boosts for the next day. Regardless of whether you're camping or sleeping indoors, though, before you lay your head down, Prompto will share the photos he's taken during the previous day - a series of Prompto-eye shots that are a mixture of things that actually happened (meeting characters, mid-battle shots), and posed pictures in places you've visited. It's a really, really nice touch, and one that adds to the whole road trip vibe. Whether you're enjoying the story, doing the side quests, or simply exploring the world on Chocobo-back, there's so much fun to be had here.
But then, there's also a lot missing, too. While the world comes close to the Final Fantasies of old, it doesn't match them, treading a little bit too much of the familiar/realistic side of things at times, lacking that special something in its art style to make things feel truly original. And the soundtrack, particularly, seems to be lacking. There's great tracks that play at rest points and when you're in town, but nothing at all playing while you're out and about on the battlefield, or driving in the Regalia. While you can put a selection of in-game CDs full of old Final Fantasy tunes on when you're on foot or in the car, it's something that ends up feeling like a cop-out, playing off nostalgia rather than creating something equally memorable and fresh - even more so when, rather than write a tune that lives up to the Final Fantasies of old (see: Eyes on Me, Melodies of Life, even Otherworld), Square instead decided to pay for the rights to Florence and the Machine covering Stand By Me. Which doesn't quite have the same effect.
In all then, Final Fantasy XV is a game that's torn us in two. While it had started to feel like Final Fantasy had lost confidence in itself, most of XV feels like the series is really getting back on track. Everything feels more like a Final Fantasy game than the disappointing XII or XIII, and when the times comes for a Final Fantasy XVI, if it builds on the progress made here (and if the upper management at Square listen to the developers and producers), it could finally be the game that makes Final Fantasy an event again. If this had turn-based, ATB battles, or a variation thereof, it could have been a must buy in and of itself too. As it stands, Final Fantasy XV is a great, daring, and expansive game, let down by a battle system that lets you down whenever you need it the most. In XV, Square Enix have created a game that's definitely worth playing - just know that you're letting yourself in for something of a flawed masterpiece. We just hope they carry on down the same road in terms of story and world, fix the battle system (ATB plz), and take less then a decade delivering the next one...
Format Reviewed: Xbox One