Back in 2006, an amazing trailer made waves at E3, blowing my teenage mind away as a young Prince stood his ground against an army of soldiers as partially invisible weapons danced about his person. That trailer was for Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a game to be released on the PS3 as part of a larger narrative called the Fabula Nova Crystallis, which was to include three games in the same world. Final Fantasy Versus XIII spent many years absent at major gaming conventions, popping up every few years with a minuscule amount of detail. It was a wildly appealing enigma, one that as the years went by built its mystique to a crescendo. In 2012, Versus XIII distanced itself from the hot mess that was Final Fantasy XIII. The game was re-branded as Final Fantasy XV and was to be made on the next generation of consoles, the PS4 and was later revealed to be coming to the Xbox One at the same time.
I was 15 years old when the game was announced and I even purchased Final Fantasy XIII the day it was released to familiarize myself with the world that Noctis would live in. Unfortunately, I hated XIII and hoped that something would change for the better with Versus XIII. When it was announced to be changing its name to Final Fantasy XV, I couldn’t have been happier for my most anticipated game of all time. Now, as an adult, I can finally say that I have played much of Final Fantasy XV, something I wouldn’t have believed even a year ago. Could a game I have waited ten years for even come close to meet the excitement and expectation that began as a child?
Final Fantasy XV is a departure of norms for the series, adopting a real-time battle system and blending the lines between reality and fantasy. For the first time, players are given a massive open world to explore relatively freely.
Our narrative starts with Noctis setting out to marry an oracle, Lunafreya, which is a marriage of politics that has been set in stone years prior to the game’s time. Noctis is heir to the throne of Lucis, a country whose capital is Insomnia, which is protected by the magic of a crystal that creates a barrier in times of need and gives many of its citizens access to incredible abilities. The King of Insomnia, Regis regulates the balance of power while also commanding the power of the past kings of Lucin with a ring as its catalyst.
Soon after Noctis sets out on his journey to wed Lunafreya, accompanied by his band of friends Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto, the news spreads of the warring Empire of Niflheim has attacked the capital, killing Regis and destroying much of Noctis’ home and stealing the crystal. Noctis spends the majority of the story recovering the power of the past kings, making pacts with incredible beings of power known as Astrals, and keeping a close eye on the Empire of Niflheim. All in an effort to return his country to some semblance of normalcy and prevent whatever Niflheim’s plans are with the crystal.
This narrative is coupled with dynamic relationships between Noctis and his friends and other characters met throughout the journey. The story forgoes a lot of traditions within the Final Fantasy anthology, basing a lot of its rhythms on a traditional American road trip tale. Final Fantasy XV also blends this Americana with Japanese mythology and Final Fantasy tropes in design. In one example, we get to see Gladius become excited at the thought of a perfect cup of Nissin ramen, only to later battle a monstrous shrimp with spells and swords.
There isn’t much more of the plot that can be explained without spoiling the adventure for others, so from here on out, I’ll be speaking mostly of the game’s design as a whole.
Final Fantasy XV plays in a way that is jarring at first, but quickly becomes something incredibly enjoyable. Players primarily control Noctis, only having the game shift perspective to other characters for special attacks. Noctis is able to travel much of the world of Eos from the get go, taking on quests with only specific ones moving the game’s plot. Players will slowly make their way across Eos, running simple fetch quests, hunting monsters for valuable Gil, and occasionally delving into dungeons. Each quest awards experience and sometimes unique items or upgrades, while hunting monsters is the primary way to build Gil. Gil, Final Fantasy’s classic currency, is fairly hard to come by, as it’s easy to get invested in the game’s story missions, only to need upgrades or health items and finding that the wallet is empty. The game also explains our party’s poverty by saying that Lucin uses a different currency, meaning all of the wealth of a Prince is meaningless in the other countries.
What Final Fantasy XV most resembles as far as other games go is the Witcher 3, with less focus on dialogue choices even though those do crop up from time to time. It’s hard to judge just how much of an impact dialogue choices has on the game’s story with a single playthrough though. At one point I opted to flirt with Gladius’ sister Iris, a dangerous relationship to even consider after seeing just how protective the brother can be. Once again, what effect this has as a whole, I probably won’t know until after playing through the entire game a couple times.
While a lot of the game’s joys are exploring its world, whether it’s finding new recipes for Ignis to make at camp, looking through Prompto’s photos he has taken, or fishing by lakeside or at some seclusive spot as Noctis, the other half is Final Fantasy XV’s combat. Combat happens in real time, although there is an option to slow things down with Wait Mode, meaning every button press swings a weapon or activates an ability. Once again, it’s jarring at first for long time fans of Final Fantasy, but as one plays the game more and more the cadence of battles becomes second nature. The more I took down monsters and the mechanical soldiers of Niflheim, the more I come to appreciate the combat. Note, that I have not tried Wait Mode, but I intend to do so on the next playthrough.
There is a rhythm one can get into in the game’s combat engine. More often than not, I approach larger enemies with a spell first, and then alternate special abilities like Prompto’s gravity attacks to put my foes in one central place. If things get rough I usually use Ignis’ Regroup to get all my guys on one side and heal our depleting health bars. From there I’ll use Gladius’ wide swinging blade, while Noctis strings combos with his varied arsenal. However, if this rhythm is interrupted in any way, finding how to resync or make changes is where the combat system gets its intricacies. Not only that, but my way of approaching battles could be vastly different from other players, especially considering the plethora of perks players choose as they gain AP.
Occasionally, there will be special combat scenarios within the game’s story missions. For example, early on players have to fight against one of the Astrals, which are the traditional Summon beings from Final Fantasy’s anthology. These battles shake things up with special moves that can be done like quick time events to result in more damage or create an advantage. It’s like if Witcher 3 had moments of God of War 3 sprinkled in. These battles are spectacular, creating scenes that can really only be experienced in Final Fantasy XV.
Setting up for these battles is fairly simple, as the game’s equipment system forgoes armor entirely. Players will only be able to equip Noctis with four weapons, who can wield any weapon or spell in the game, and a handful of accessories. The other party members get a special ability, two weapons in their respective categories, and a few accessories. Once again, it’s incredibly simple in its set up, meaning players will instead have to use clever timing and searching for various advantages against each foe. For example, some foes are weak against spears, while others may have an elemental weakness. Some monsters fall to the ground when parried, or lose a body part like a horn or wing.
Each monster feels unique, even if the enemy variation isn’t as staggering as some of the past games. Instead each creature fits in the game’s world, as goblins hoard in great numbers in dark caves and massive Catoblepas laze about in the swamps. Some of the coolest moments in Final Fantasy XV is seeing some of the larger monsters in the distance while driving down the highway, wondering if they can be defeated and what items they could drop. Of course taking that risk often results in harder battles, even death.
At night, Eos is filled with Daemons, which are some of the more mystical and powerful beings in the game. These creatures range from deadly Bombs and eerily expressionless Iron Giants, creating a lot of tension and even horror elements. Nothing is worse than being miles from the car as night begins to fall, making the trip back a scary trek of fleeing from things that are far more powerful than the player. Daemons also appear as bosses, especially in the dungeons. One optional dungeon close to the beginning of the game has an incredibly strong samurai foe that should really only be tackled when Noctis and his crew are reaching level 40 or so. There is a time consuming tactic in which Noctis can station himself above the guy and slowly chip away its health with a pistol, but doing so is so incredibly boring. It’s a much more interesting battle when facing it on even terms. Which is why at night it’s usually a better idea to run away from these daemons.
Now, traveling at night is less scary when players get access to the Chocobo, which can be rented for 50 gil per day. Riding these classic birds is exhilarating, making long time players smile as the music gently plays to the gait of the flock. Players can even take part in Chocobo races, which reward them with medals that they can hang on their Chocobo’s saddle. Chocobos can also be colored in a multitude of ways as more quests are done. Chocobo’s can even be leveled up to earn special abilities that can be used in battle as well as increase their stamina. The birds are an interesting contrast to the Regalia, Noctis’ car that can only travel along roads. The car is more or less stuck on rails, with the player only able to influence what road is taken or when to make a U-Turn. Usually I let Ignis drive so I can enjoy the scenery of the game’s world, as well as listen to the vast soundtrack the Regalia has access to.
Most towns and outposts have a store with a unique set of soundtracks of past Final Fantasy games that can be listened to while riding in the Regalia, which happens quite a bit. These tracks definitely bring back a lot of nostalgia for anyone familiar with the other Final Fantasy games, but the tracks from Final Fantasy XV and its other media are available as well. Of course, the player can fast travel to skip these driving scenes, but I recommend not doing that. Often times the other characters will point out things and even give the player new quests while driving, as well as chat about what’s happening in the game’s story. Not only that, but foregoing fast travel cuts down on loading screens tremendously. See, the game really only loads when starting up and at the start of a new chapter. If the player doesn’t use fast travel, the game actually runs without loading, creating a smooth experience throughout.
Speaking of the game’s performance, most of the time it runs like a charm. There are occasionally some lost frames here and there when battles get hectic, but more often than not I found the PS4 version incredibly smooth. There are some slight bugs here and there, as there are with any game of this caliber. In fact one of the major criticisms I have with the game is how one picks up items or interacts with anything in the world like NPCs or getting into vehicles. The jump button is the same as the select button, defaulted to the ‘X’ button. These means, more often than it should, I found Noctis approaching an item to pick it up, only to jump awkwardly in place. This almost becomes comical when talking to important characters. That and sometimes it’s easy to get Noctis too close to items forcing the player to shuffle around for that sweet spot. A patch could easily fix this however.
A lot of players have been complaining about the game’s overall narrative, with a ton of criticism thrown at the final chapters of the game. Personally, I still have about six or seven chapters left, with well over twenty hours of time invested into it. I’ve also been doing as few side quests as I can to enjoy the game’s story, really only doing them to upgrade the chocobo or make some gil for better weapons. By the time I reach the game’s climax, it may have been polished or amended by a patch. Therefore, I can’t really comment on the final moments of the game, but so far I’ve been enjoying the journey much more than the supposed destination.
There was a patch that changed the game’s story slightly the day the game was released. One of the major things that patch added was that during the game’s story, occasionally scenes from the Kingsglaive film would be added to provide more context. This is one of my major complaints about the game, cause these scenes have a visual contrast and just mess up the pacing. Now, I do think the film is a great way to preface the game, as I enjoyed it thoroughly. If anything I wish these scenes could be turned off in the options.
Aside from those few odd design choices, Final Fantasy XV is an amazing game, one that actually comes pretty close to my ten years of anticipation and excitement. Really, I think the game is at its best when Noctis and his friends are enjoying a meal or having a deep conversation after facing hardship. These more tender moments may not carry the weight as it would in a well-written book or an award-winning movie, but they provide some excellent character development and can sometimes add some humor. I especially enjoy Prompto, who covers his anxieties about not being good enough with brash and outgoing behavior. Noctis even seems like a spoiled brat at first, only to face his duty and adulthood bit by bit, boosted by his friends from time to time.
Is Final Fantasy XV the best game in the series though? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. There’s so much more for me to experience in this game, not to mention the plethora of additional content planned for it. Sure some segments are better than others (especially some of the side quests whose NPCs are fairly dull), but overall I find hard to put down and one that I want to explore every nook and cranny. It will be interesting to pick up this game five years from now, just to see how much it has changed and compare it to the rest of the series.
Final Fantasy XV is an incredible journey across a unique world with interesting, fairly layered characters and awe-inspiring moments of epic visuals. It is a must play for fans and newcomers to the Final Fantasy series, and while it almost satisfies that expectation that comes from ten years of development, it just simply isn’t perfect. Although, Noctis’ story will live on as a highlight in the Final Fantasy anthology for many years to come.
Final Fantasy XV is now available on PS4 and Xbox One. A PC version is rumored to be released in 2018. A holiday update is also slated for later this month, as well as more DLC coming next year.