Review: Final Fantasy XV
Note: this review is the thirteenth entry of a multi-part series in which I review all of the single-player mainline Final Fantasy games. For a link to all of those reviews, they can be found via my ranking of Final Fantasies I-X plus XII-XIII.
The Final Fantasy of Two Halves
Final Fantasy XV was first announced way back in 2006 as part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy shared world, with Final Fantasy XIII as its starting point. With Tetsuya Nomura initially behind the project, Final Fantasy XV was originally Final Fantasy Versus XIII and another game in the set, Final Fantasy Agito XIII became Final Fantasy Type-0. However, as Final Fantasy XIII got sequel after sequel, and Type-0 was released and re-released in HD, Versus XIII was left without any word as to its status, and for many years, at that.
Seven years later, in 2013, the project finally resurfaced, with a new project head in Hajime Tabata (who was also behind Type-0's development), new consoles for it to be on (PS4 and Xbox One, whereas Versus XIII was a scheduled PS3 release), and - most notably - a name change: from Versus XIII to XV. Subsequently, all references to the XIII universe such as L'Cie, Etro and, well, Lightning, were removed or reworked and Final Fantasy XV got its own universe with several different pieces of media to build up its lore.
Yet, after ten long years of development, the game now known as Final Fantasy XV still finds a way to feel rushed. Well, that depends on what type of Final Fantasy player you are: one who plays for the gameplay, or one who plays for the story. This game ends up being a significantly different experience depending on which one you are.
The Battle System
For the gameplay-oriented, the battle system will be the game's main draw, and its a battle system unlike any other mainline Final Fantasy before it.
Throughout the game, the player controls only its main character: Noctis Lucis Caellum, the crown prince of Lucis. A button is designated for Noctis to attack, one to "warp-strike" to a specific spot or area, one to defend or parry, as well as one to access items, and more. His companions usually consist of his bodyguard Gladiolus, his advisor Ignis and his good albeit goofy friend Prompto. The game's AI handles these three characters, though the player can have each character activate a specific ability once a tech bar is filled up enough to do so. Rarely, additional characters can join the party for a little bit, but its never that long.
Noctis can equip basically any weapon in the game (you can equip four which Noctis can freely swap between), as well as "elemental grenades" which count as the game's magic. You, the player, "craft" magic from Fire, Ice, or Lightning deposits, and you can add a catalyst item to boost your magic as well. The other characters can equip a single main weapon type, and either a secondary weapon type or magic.
Battles can easily become a clustered, hectic mess, where mashing your attack and defend buttons just has to do to get you through mobs of enemies. Magic is very powerful, especially after you boost it with catalysts, but they're really only reliable in Noctis' hands, and they do hurt your allies as well, though as you level up that becomes less and less of an issue. Airborne enemies can be bothersome as well, as you're forced to use either warp strikes, magic or long-range weapons, none of which are ideal.
Still, it does feel great to pull off a parry on enemies or dealing additional damage via back attacks or through partner link-strikes. Being able to wipe out entire mobs of enemies with a single "grenade" of magic is quite satisfying as well. Overall, I enjoy how this game handles battling, its definitely more active than in Final Fantasies past, though not entirely seamless either.
Final Fantasy XV (PS4) on Amazon
The Roadtrip and the Open World
Final Fantasy XV is broken up into 14 chapters (with a 15th chapter strictly for postgame content). For much of the first eight chapters, you're given the freedom to drive, ride, run, and otherwise explore the game's world at your leisure. This includes scores of hunts, sidequests and dungeons which contain ancient weapons that player is advised to acquire (though only a few are mandatory overall).
Quickly, you'll become accustomed to the party's main method of travel: their sleek car the Regalia. You can redesign or decorate its outer body, interior and wheels (the body you'll likely require items to do so) and there are sidequests you can do with the game's main mechanic - Cindy - to upgrade to the car to make it go faster, improve its fuel mileage or upgrade the headlights to make night-driving worry-free.
The diners in the game offer their unique sets of monster hunts. These are the bulk of the side material, with all sorts of monsters both familiar or not to provide a steady challenge. The dungeons - most of which are only optional - are fun to traverse through and offer the most fun of the optional content.
Many of the sidequests, though, are not as exciting. They are either glorified hunts, or are glorified fetch quests which require you to search a very specific part or parts of a larger area. Sometimes, these searches can be interrupted by enemies, making the process somewhat frustrating.
Another annoyance is how time consuming traveling is. Whether by foot, car, or chocobo, it can take quite awhile to get from destination from destination. If you use the Regalia to quick travel to previous locations, the load times between each use is quite lengthy as well. Subsequently, you'd have to set aside quite a bit of time if you decide to partake in this game's sidequests.
The Game's "Second Half"
Starting in Chapter 9, the player visits Altissa, a coastal town on a different continent. At this point, the only way the player can continue doing sidequests on the main continent of Lucis is via "Umbra", a dog the player has come across a few times at this point but will now offer services to go to the "past" - i.e. when Noctis and pals were still on Lucis - to continue any sidequests the player so chooses. This effectively means that no further main content occurs on Lucis itself (at least, the Lucis the player can freely access). Nearly every dungeon, outpost, and section of that massive map is left as completely optional. Altissa itself has its share of sidequests and hunts, but once you decide to conclude Chapter 9, that, too, becomes accessible only through Umbra.
The remainder of the game, from the end of Chapter 9 through Chapter 14, plays basically nothing like the open-ended style of the first half of the game. To start, Umbra isn't even available for much of this period of time. Second, a few of these chapters are very, very short, it feels like they were separated into their own chapters just so it can be said there were fifteen for Final Fantasy XV.
Most notably, the "combat" during these chapters is quite a departure from what the player will likely have done up to this point. The boss battle at the end of Chapter 9 is basically scripted. Chapter 10 plays is more traditional but offers its own unique challenges. Chapters 11 and 12 are narrative driven, and gameplay segments seem more like filler than anything else.
Then, there's Chapter 13.
In this chapter, Noctis is left alone, and his many abilities have been sealed. Out of options, Noctis decides to equip his last remaining item - which he acquires during the story - opening up new methods of attack and defense. However, these methods are limited, and barely function against the mechanized enemies that you have to otherwise attempt to avoid later in the chapter.
As if that's not enough, the location of the chapter is basically a sprawling maze of a building full of several levels of security clearances the player has to slowly upgrade a security card to pass. With the downgraded combat, no access to Umbra to break up the monotony, and sequences which amount to cheap jump scares, Chapter 13 works more like a poor survivor-horror game than any sort of action RPG. Unlike the previous sets of chapters, Chapter 13 also takes a good couple of hours to clear, maybe less if you rush it.
Thankfully, it does come to an end, and the party reunites to end the lengthy chapter on a gameplay high-note before the drastic events which leads to the conclusive Chapter 14 which, compared to Chapter 13, felt wonderful.
The Grand Clash of Styles
I do have to note that, while I am avoiding major spoilers, there might be minor implications of plot details included in this section. There shouldn't be anything that gives anything anyway, but read with caution.
Thus far, I've made it a point to focus on the gameplay and design elements of the game. I've yet to focus on the story and narrative because, as a whole, its an absolute mess. Its completely indicative of the development turnover the game received from when it changed from Versus XIII to XV.
To start, a lot of backstory and lore isn't even in the game. For that you'd have to watch the CGI movie Kingsglaive Final Fantasy XV, which focuses on events just before the start of the game, or Brotherhood Final Fantasy, a short animated series which focuses on the pasts of the four main characters, or A King's Tale - a GameStop preorder exclusive which pries just a little into the experiences of Noctis' father.
Oddly, a few of the characters in this game, such as the emperor of the rivaling Niflheim, or the brother of Noctis' bride-to-be, get more character development in Kingsglaive than in this game itself. In Final Fantasy XV, many characters are introduced, but other than a few mentions on radio (which you need to go out of your way to even listen to), not much is seen from them until their fates are suddenly revealed.
What's more, the latter half of the game mainly focuses on two characters: Noctis and the game's main antagonist. Every other character, including Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto, get left in the dust, especially in the concluding moments of the game. The fates of many characters in the game are just left to the player's imagination as the game focuses purely on Noctis at the end. Supposedly, additional storyline content will be released as DLC or even as a patch for Chapter 13, but its a Final Fantasy game. It shouldn't need such patchwork!
As a result, the game's story does not even begin to match the scale of its world. It is almost as if the story acts like a nagging family member urging you to get on with it already so you can return to the meat of the game (since some of the open-world content is locked until the Chapter 15 postgame). The gameplay and design elements of the open world do not match at all with much of the combat and design of the main storyline elements, its actually quite jarring how different the two are. From stealth missions, to defense missions, to scripted fights and Chapter 13, the main story of the game feels nothing like the what the game should be.
Graphics (by PS4 standards)
I hesitate to score this game. There's a lot that works, but there's much that doesn't. If this game was comprised solely of its main quest elements, it'd easily be the worst Final Fantasy, much moreso than even Final Fantasy II and its ilk. For the people that play Final Fantasy for the storylines, they probably will rate this game very poorly as the sidequest elements will likely not appeal to them and the main story itself is unfinished and unfulfilling.
If the game was comprised of only its open world elements, then this game fares much, much better. Although there is a bit of a dullness given the repetitive nature of some of the sidequests and hunts, the dungeons and the battle system make for the bulk of the game's goodwill.
If you've read my rankings for my personal favorite (and not so favorite) mainline Final Fantasy games, you're probably wondering where on this list this game would go. I do think its better than Final Fantasy XIII, and I think its just a bit better than Final Fantasy III as well. I'm debating whether this is better than Final Fantasy VIII, but its not better than Final Fantasy XII.
To conclude, Final Fantasy XV, I feel, is worth a playthrough if you enjoy playing games for the gameplay. The optional content itself is worth it. If you just play games for the story, you're better off watching the odd twists and turns of Final Fantasy XV's story on Youtube or something, I would not advise trying to play only the main storyline parts of this game, you'd be robbing yourself of the best this game would have to offer.