Review: Final Fantasy XV
A decade of issues, silence, rebirth, and hope led Final Fantasy XV to the throne room. Reaching the critical moment of discovering if the king will prove himself worthy of the crown, it is impossible to undertake this journey without looking over this period of gaming history, one that push everything to change. Here is the story of four you men, four brothers in arms, tossed in an adventure where friendship is at the core of the story.
After ten years of waiting and a stunning marketing campaign including many cross-media projects such an anime movie and a full CGI movie, Final Fantasy XV is finally here. Crystallizing the hopes of a whole community, hoping with all my heart that this title will succeed in reviving the flame after the bad trilogy that was Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XV comes out in the wilderness with a heavy burden: that of restoring the might to a franchise on decline. This new chapter is all about Noctis, the young prince of Lucis, and his personal guard of three people from his entourage: Gladiolus, a man beast and bodyguard, his butler Ignis and finally Prompto, his childhood friend and designated road trip photographer.
There is so much to say about a title whose main story needs around 30 of hours to complete, not counting the hefty 50-70 more hours of sidequests. Therefore, I’ll be very frank to start with that my review will not be a description of each novelty, the analysis of this game’s skill tree, or even dwell long on the use of the devastating weapons Noctis will get throughout the story. Instead I will share with you my own journey with these four heroes. You see, I think it will be impossible to fully understand the scope of Final Fantasy XV before you reach the very last task of that one final chapter, and thankfully our four brothers in arms, will become your own siblings as you play more and more of the game, remembering the moments shared with them. While not all pleasant, some are even frustrating, but they are all human memories, to the point of resonating with me long after the console was turned off, and that is such a rare thing in gaming, which I only managed to feel through games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain or even Dishonored 2. That’s because, behind its blockbuster attire, which can sometimes lead to awkward technical issues (as is the case with most grand projects), Final Fantasy XV is nothing more than a game with big dreams, ambitions and gets intimately close to the player.
Right from the start of the game, Final Fantasy XV does things differently than most previous games. As mentioned in the beginning of this review, you play as Prince Noctis, accompanied by his three companions who are part of the Royal Guard. Together they are sent to Altissia to meet Lunafreya, the promised bride to be to the young prince, exiled from her native land by a sprawling empire called Nifhleim. Our heroic quartet will find their plans ruined by a major event which is the attack of the Nifhleim empire on Insomnia, Lucian’s crown city, during the attempt at a peace treaty, and the death of Prince Noctis’ father and ruler of Lucis, Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII. Noctis then undertakes a long initiatory quest to take back the throne that is rightfully his by royal blood.
This is how Final Fantasy XV starts, and pretty much all I can say in this review without spoiling the experience for many. What is certain is that from the beginning of the adventure, you will find yourself in a vast land to explore, the world of Eos, with a royal car to take you around. Named Regalia, this vehicle will be your main mean of transportation throughout this adventure, thanks to its semi-automatic driving mechanics (it follows the roads, you choose the directions either manually), which will leave you plenty of time to contemplate the incredible universe created by the team at Square Enix. From a strictly artistic point of view, Final Fantasy XV offers undoubtedly one of the best settings and panoramas that an open world game could offer us. From the beaches to the mountains, passing through deserts, volcanic craters, or even the rustic charm of some of the Southern influenced cities of the world of Eos. Thanks to breathtaking light effects and a dynamic management of time and weather, there’s so much variety and eye candy sceneries. Technically, the game holds it together quite alright, although one can note a certain amount of aliasing (especially on the hair of the characters) and a little bit of clipping.
On that technical front, while the first demos before release gave us many frights after seeing this torrent of framerate drops, but the full version is stable in almost all circumstances, with maybe too much effort needed when in Altissia, the game’s largest city/hub. The modeling in general of the main characters is excellent and some panoramas are particularly impressive, which is even more majestic thanks to Yoko Shimomura’s divine composition, that stick perfectly to the different situations that our heroes will face (even if I believe that the mixing of the music with sound effect should be fixed, as it seems too discreet in boss battles). Finally, even if the game is only locked to 30 frames per second, Final Fantasy XV remains a technically solid title, with very low number of bugs, but some of them will tarnish your progress. For example, I got to a point where Prompto disappeared in a dungeon, forcing me to go back to the surface to regroup. It’s the curse of building ginormous open world games I guess?
While I’ve played most of the game on my trusty Xbox One, you can tell that there’s Microsoft’s typical dynamic resolution implemented here, which stabilizes the frame rate in some way, but at the expense of playing the game at 900p, which ends up leading to screen tearing when the machine can’t keep up. While the latter is not a perfect solution, it’s still a better one that the base PlayStation 4 experience, which bluntly gets fixed by playing the game on the Pro console. Yes, because Final Fantasy XV is one of the few games that has been updated for the PlayStation 4 Pro, but it’s more of a “compatibility” fix than a real optimization (a dedicated PlayStation 4 Pro patch will make its way to everyone in December 2016), and requires you to have extra supporting gear to truly see the full power like a 4K TV. If you do, then you can make use of the different graphic options in the game which are simple called “high” (ranging between 40 to 50FPS) and “lite” (30FPS). The game will also support HDR on the PlayStation 4 (and Xbox One S to that matter), with 4K upscaling for your TV, which will reflect by a wider color gamut, making everything look more vibrant. I will note that certain areas will seem a bit overdone with HDR, with oversatured colors such as the example of white brushes in ice dungeons and sceneries.
In terms of the game world itself, Final Fantasy XV world is massive with up to 10-15 minutes’ need for your Regalia to go from one end to the other of the map, at least in a straight line. But like any grand open-world game like GTA V, roads are only a small way to explore the land, and if you want to make the full of it, you’ll have to cross plains, forests, and mountains on foot or by riding Chocobos. And that’s always been a good thing about Final Fantasy as a series: it’s one of those games that reward exploration, ever since the semi-open world games they released like Final Fantasy X. The world of Eos is filled with micro-locations scattered throughout the territory, allowing you to restock, buy weapons, but also discover new sidequests and bounties, indispensable for you to go on as a main source of income in the game. These sidequests can be categorized into two categories starting with hunting quests which usually task you to go kill specific enemies in a precise area point to get Final Fantasy famed gils as well as rewards (usually accessories). Simple to understand, these hunting quests sometimes allow you to discover areas you never thought about visiting, but also allow you to go through the hunting ranks, which unlocks harder and better paid hunts. The other type of quests are just your typical fetching quests, backed by an NPC. Some are fun, other can be really boring like the repetitive dog tag fetching sidequests but once again, they are key to get some of the best rewards in the games (equipment, loot, weapons) but also to get a steady amount of gils. There are over 200 sidequests on top of the hunts. Is that a lot to do? Of course, but it’s nothing if you think about what RPGs and JRPGs fans are used to.
Walking around the world of Eos is not a task without danger, of course, and this is what will be strange for many Final Fantasy fans, where combat is not activated the same way as it used to be in the franchise. You see, if you’ve played a lot of different Final Fantasy games, you’d be used to the fact that enemy spawns are controlled by RNG, but things are quite different with Final Fantasy XV. In what I believe is an effort to appeal even more to the western world of gaming, the game is closer to a Witcher 3: Wild Hunt than a traditional turn-based combat Final Fantasy, but that’s not a bad thing. You see, since Noctis and his companions are on the run, and the whole world is under the control of the Nifhleim empire, you will be regularly attacked by soldiers disembarking by dropships, but also by a bunch of monsters and critters (some known from previous games in the franchise like the flans). Certainly, this adds some kick and spices to the exploration, but this can turn ugly if you are in the middle of nowhere at night. When darkness of the night comes, Daemons appear out of thin air, which are evil and very powerful beings, coming to hunt for you. Fortunately, several spots across the land allow you to sleep in, such as caravans, motels, and hotels, each offering you an EXP bonus per the quality of the stay.
This is when I get to talk deeper about the major change in the series: the combat. Like most Final Fantasy fans, a lot of us were worried how this game will be seen in the lineage of the franchise. Is it a JRPG? Or is it a western RPG? Well, I believe it’s neither, and probably more of a fusion of both styles than anything else. As mentioned above, gone are the days of turn based battles initiated randomly as you walk through dungeons, because Final Fantasy XV is closer to the combat system of a western RPG like The Witcher 3. For example, attacking is done continuously if one leaves his finger on the B button (or Circle for PlayStation 4 players). You can vary the attacks per the pressed direction, between neutral, front, back or side, which might even remind you of the fighting mechanics of Devil May Cry. And since Noctis can equip and rotate through up to four different equipped weapon, each with its own attacks, there are plenty of opportunities to learn and use depending on the situation. For example, with a lance, pressing back at the time of the attack allows to push back your enemy while backing off. Anyway, it’s up to you to learn the combos, unless you want to go through the – very boring – tutorials.
In terms of defensive maneuvers, holding the X button (or Square on PlayStation 4) allows you to dodge most of the moves automatically. However, these dodging abilities spend mana points, which are far from infinite. In fact, you’ll soon learn that while automatic dodges save you most of the time, it is by pressing the button at the perfect time that you’ll be able to perform parries, which will really turn the fight to your advantage with devastating counterattacks. Thus, despite its very action oriented side that may seem like any western RPG at first glance, Final Fantasy XV proves to be particularly tactical, especially when you want to face an enemy more powerful than the group a whole, relying on special strategies like attacking an opponent in the back, for example, to trigger a special combo with our companions. In short, it’s an exciting fighting system even if the cameras can tend to be chaotic, especially against several fast enemies like goblins.
After each fight, you get a certain amount of experience points, but these points do not automatically stack up to reach a new level. Remember when we mentioned the spots where your four companions will need to spend the night and gain EXP bonuses? Well you should know that experience only gets tallied to your characters’ level by sleeping through the night in the comfort of human sanctuaries like hotels, or by camping in the wilderness. As a side note the latter option also allows Ignis to cook meals he’ll discover throughout the adventures, which provides temporary bonuses in the morning such as HP boosts, defensive stats, or even elemental magic defense. Once Noctis and your companion reach a new level, you’ll also gain ability points or AP for short, which will be used in the skill tree of the game.
Although the skill tree is more like a series of individual mini trees, and visually looks closer to the one found in Final Fantasy X, it doesn’t have as much depth as other Final Fantasy games do. Call me traditional, but I love intensely complex skill trees that require a lot of effort to make it work per your playstyle. Nevertheless, these skill grids open additional actions that have a direct impact on the gameplay and teamwork element of the combat. For example, you can develop Noctis’ aerial attacks to chain enemies in the air, so much so that you will be able to fight certain bosses without even landing once on the ground thanks to these magnificent aerial ballets. But it’s not just about Noctis, and your companions can also gain special skills that you can trigger in combat once the Technical bar gauge is filled. Often devastating, these attacks also allow you to chain a special move if you press an action key at the right moment in perfect QTE style. However, since the camera no longer follows Noctis when you activate these special sidekick attacks, the prince becomes invincible during that time, which can sometimes become an abusive exploit to avoid certain boss difficult and painful attacks. Finally, skill points also allow you to develop some fun minigame activities, such as fishing for Noctis, cooking with Ignis or photography with Prompto.
As for the magic system, this is the thing that was completely shattered from its Final Fantasy foundations. Instead of learning new spells and spending mana to use them, Final Fantasy XV’s world lets soldiers store elemental essence (fire, ice, and lightning) into Magic Flasks, like some sort of fantasy Molotov cocktails. You concoct these in the elemancy page of the menu at any time (even during fights), and you can blend it with certain ingredients like creature parts, potions and more which will serve as catalyst and boost the effect of the flasks. For example, blending lighting elements with a potion will not only cast thunder on enemies but also heal the cast itself. To make the long story short, magic is purely and simply devastating, but is meant to be use in moderation because it can damage your companions (friendly fire) and a cooldown prevents you from abusing it.
Obviously, it is always difficult to summarize in a word what makes the strength of a title. But for Final Fantasy XV, I would say it’s its structure. While the first part of the game (the first 6-7 chapters) serves to present the universe and the open world, it is the second part, which becomes closer to a traditional Final Fantasy game, into a more linear and intense pace. Once again without any spoiler, all the greatness in storytelling revolves around the fact that Noctis is learning its responsibilities as a king and ruler throughout the adventure. Usually, in a game made up of a group of characters, the main character is often the strategist, but with Final Fantasy XV, Noctis is practically as immature as Prompto, (which is a cheerful male version of Final Fantasy X’s Rikku). It is Ignis who has the best tactical and strategic intelligence, while Gladiolus is clearly the one with the fighting spirit, putting Noctis several times back on his feet when necessary, in both a physical and mental way. This more realistic vision of the characters and the hero brings these surprising and touching moments, as you watch the evolution of their relationship, especially approaching the end, turning this wannabe boy band into an unbreakable brotherhood. If the story deserved to be more thorough, it carries enough fun moments, revelations, moving plot twists and epic fights to captivate the player all the way to the end… And will perhaps reconcile old fans with the series while offering something fresh to a new audience.
Final Fantasy XV was reviewed using a Xbox One and PlayStation 4 digital version of the game provided by Square Enix. The game was tested on both a base PlayStation 4 as well as a PlayStation 4 Pro for technical comparison, while the main story was played on Xbox One. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published.
• Beautiful settings and sceneries
• A condensed narrative experience
• Very intense and tactical combat
• Amazing voice over acting plus original Japanese ones
• Rewarded exploration filled with little secrets everywhere
• A soundtrack done by Yoko Shimomura
• A truly charismatic cast of heroes and villains
• The 3D model of the food in this game deserves Michelin awards
• Small finishing issues on the technical side
• Readability in combat is not optimal
• Some secondary characters are boring