The Final Fantasy series has one of the finest pedigrees in gaming. However, Square Enix’s iconic franchise has been under intense scrutiny since the divisive Final Fantasy XIII series came out. Not only was Final Fantasy XV under the gun because of unhappiness with previous entries in the series, but it's also very possible that it’s success means there’ll be further blockbuster Final Fantasy entries.
With ten years in development, going from being part of the Final Fantasy XIII series as Final Fantasy XIII Versus, and moving from the PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Final Fantasy XV’s development cycle has been long and tumultuous. I was apprehensive, after all, Duke Nukem Forever had a similarly extended period of, development and it was one of the biggest gaming disappointments of all time. Fortunately, this is one of those rare instances where the ten years in development seems to have allowed for a more cohesive and profound game than would otherwise be possible.
A Different Kind of Final Fantasy
FFXV gets you out and playing much quicker than any other main series Final Fantasy title to date. Upon launching a new game, you’re given the option of playing through a short, helpful tutorial or getting right into the story. For those used to the bevy of cutscenes and dialogues that typically make up the beginning of a Final Fantasy title, Final Fantasy XV will seem somewhat foreign. After a short opening scene, Noctis, Gladiolis, Ignis, and Prompto are on the road in the game’s primary form of transportation, the automobile Regalia. You’re on your way to Altissia to deliver Noctis to be married to Lunafreya, which will seal a peace treaty between the magical Kingdom of Lucis, of which Noctis is a Prince, and the Niflheim Empire.
A short distance out of Insomnia, the capital of Lucis, the Regalia breaks down. The gang pushes the Regalia into the small outpost of Hammerhead, where you meet Cindy and Cid who run a garage. The game gives you control as you turn the Regalia over to Cindy for repairs and she sends you on a few errands while it’s being repaired. No more than 10-15 minutes into Final Fantasy XV you’re given free reign to a big chunk of a very open world. You have to complete a few tasks from Cindy, but once they’re done, you get control of the Regalia, which allows you to traverse relatively quickly and freely throughout the province of Leide.
You're In Control (Mostly)
This non-linear experience gives Final Fantasy XV a favor more akin to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Dragon Age: Inquisition than any previous Final Fantasy game. There’s a vast world to explore, and in every nook and cranny, there’s items to gather, side quests to complete, secrets to find, and constant throwbacks to Final Fantasy creatures, objects, and events. The references to previous Final Fantasys aren’t used as a crutch, though. Like previous entries in the series, all these franchise mainstays are similar to ones in past games but exist entirely in Final Fantasy XV’s canon instead of being shoehorned in for nostalgic appeal.
Around two-thirds through the game, the world closes up considerably, though, and with very little warning. This will be a divisive point for fans. I think that focusing the last third of the plot and limiting player agency is the only way that the game could reach a satisfactory conclusion. Without putting the game on rails, Final Fantasy XV would have suffered from the lack of urgency that plagues other open-world games. When you’ve got a quest or mission system and you’re left to your own devices, it’s very easy to become unengaged with the plot. After a tangential string of sidequests, suddenly that pivotal moment the developers strived for becomes much less impactful. I’m glad Hajime Tabata made a choice to sacrifice a bit of freedom in the gameplay for a much more focused run-up to the end and resolution. You get to return to an open Lucis after the main story, so if you end up missing something along the way, there is an opportunity to go back. In fact, many items, quests, and fights are only available after the main story has ended, so there’s plenty of reasons to stick around after the credits.
The visuals are spectacular, and everywhere you turn there’s a scenic vista that makes you realize just how far games have come from the release of the first Final Fantasy. PC gamers have had the privilege of realistic hair, fur, and features for the last few years with technologies like AMD Tress FX and NVIDIA Hairworks. However, this is the first title for consoles I’ve seen that could really compete with PC for all the little touches to visuals that give games that little extra bit of immersion. The scuff marks and dirt that cover the Regalia and the characters and that can be washed off after a night at a hotel or in a car wash makes the world of Eos feel that much more vital and alive.
The combat is fluid, but there are some issues with the camera controls during combat. Like many third-person games, FFXV’s camera is more than adequate out of combat or during combat in wide-open spaces. However, whenever you’re indoors or any other close-in space, the camera can have quite a bit of difficulty keeping up with the fast-paced combat. This can be mitigated to an extent by utilizing the lock-on function with precision, as that swings the camera automatically to keep your locked-on foe in sight, but there’s no avoiding the issue entirely. Fortunately, it’s never bad enough that it makes combat overly frustrating, and the somewhat forgiving combat system means even if you make a mistake, you can quickly rectify it.
You have all your party members from the beginning of the game. Even though you have only four of them, each has quite a bit of utility, but none, save Noctis, is a Jack-of-all-trades. Gladiolus’ expertise is greatswords and shields, and he fills the role of the party’s tank and slow but heavy damage dealer. Ignis utilizes daggers and polearms, and with the least HP but most supportive skill set, he’s a great healer/magician. Prompto’s arms are guns and machines, and he fits the role of a quick rogue, picking enemies off at a distance. As Noctis, you can equip any item in the game, but you’ll likely find yourself sticking with a select few weapons classes. Each weapons class controls differently so you’ll have to choose whether you’re looking for quick, light strikes; heavy slow blows; or something in the middle.
A Tale For the Ages
As a game, Final Fantasy XV inhabits that special place that titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt; Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4; and the Elder Scrolls games do. While you’re playing it, you’re an inhabitant of its world, and it’s a place that can be almost as vivid as reality at times, with its own history, lore, and culture. As a Final Fantasy, FFXV returns the series to the wonderment that Final Fantasy VII inspired in a generation of gamers. While it might not have the cultural impact of FFVII, it has the same precision and attention to detail that let that game bust the jRPG into the gaming mainstream 19 years ago. Final Fantasy XV is the rare game that transcends its genre to become an appealing product to anyone who is a fan of gaming. While a few issues keep it from being considered “perfect,” Final Fantasy XV is one of the “must-play” games of 2016 and is an incredibly enjoyable experience from beginning to end.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 digital copy provided by the publisher. Final Fantasy XV is available in retail and digital stores now, starting at $59.99. The game is rated Teen.
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