It’s hard to believe that I beat Final Fantasy XV. This is a game I have been eagerly waiting for 10 years and here I am, writing a review. It’s surreal but at the end of the day it’s a video game with a beginning, middle, and an end. Final Fantasy XV not only delivers on the wait but manages to do the most important thing: bring back Final Fantasy as the king of JRPG’s.
You play as Noctis a Prince from the Kingdom of Lucis that houses the last magical and powerful crystal in the world of Eos. He, accompanied with royal guards (who are also his closest friends), embark on the mission to bring peace between two countries by marrying his longtime friend/love interest Lady Lunafreya (Luna for short). While away his kingdom gets invaded by the Niflheim Empire who seek nothing more than to conquer the lands and steal the crystal for their own evil gains. Noctis loses his father, his kingdom, and is now on a mission to reclaim his throne.
Story plays a massive role in Final Fantasy games, heck for many it’s probably the sole reason they play Final Fantasy games to begin with. We’re talking about the same franchise that created memorable villains such as Kefka and Sephiroth and introduce compelling themes from Final Fantasy 7. But with recent entries the stories have been messy and convoluted. Many point their fingers at Final Fantasy XIII (even though I don’t think it’s the worst Final Fantasy game) for being the lowest point in the franchise history, especially in terms of plot and characters. Final Fantasy XV thankfully does away with convoluted mess and for the most part is a very straight forward kind of journey with great pacing. At no point did I feel bored or uninterested in knowing what happens next. There is a constant push for urgency to compel the player to move forward with plenty of plot twists and surprises especially towards the end when things get very emotional. It also helps that each chapter includes something new to do and experience. Now a lot will find the latter half of the game’s linear structure to be a bit worrisome. Just the word linear triggers flashbacks of hallways from Final Fantasy XIII but don’t worry it’s nothing like that. In fact, I would say I enjoyed this structure a bit more as the story began getting darker and shifted its entire focus on the main narrative without distractions. The best way I could describe this is similar to Mass Effect 3 and how the final section of the game takes place on Earth (if you played it that is). I would say the only section that dragged on was around chapter 13 when things suddenly starting feeling like something out of a Resident Evil game. It wasn’t the gameplay shift as much as the longevity of that chapter that felt a bit long.
In terms of characters Noctis and his companions all share chemistry. Prompto is like the Michelangelo of the gang and serves as the major comic relief, Gladio is the tough guy and pushover, Ignis is the wise guy, and Noctis is just the carefree Prince who’s still coping with the responsibility of becoming a king and leader. The amount of dialogue they share is insane. Almost every dungeon area and location triggers the characters to talk and react to the world around them. And while some of the dialogue get recycled it’s still incredible to see how much effort they put in the banter. Supporting characters on the other hand don’t play that big of a role. Even Luna barely appears in the game despite her being a prominent character. Surprisingly enough Arenea and Iris, both characters who barely get featured in any promo get more screen time than Luna. That being said the relationship between Luna and Noctis feels more intimate. It’s not your in your face love story where characters spouting silly cheesy dialogue but instead is something hidden and personal between both characters. Even when communicating with each other, Noctis and Luna use letters even though they live in a world where cell phones exist. It’s charming and honestly haven’t seen this kind of love tale told before in a video game.
A question I hear often asked is ‘what is a Final Fantasy game?’ Many fans are split on this debate with some claiming that it is the fantasy setting of castles, monsters, and magic that defines it. While the other side argues that it’s the cyberpunk and real world themes of Final Fantasy 7 and 8 that feel more suiting. Final Fantasy XV aims to satisfy both fields by bridging the fantasy and real world setting into one. The result is something quite strange yet somehow works. Traditional Final Fantasy beasts are seen roaming the lands while driving the luxurious Regalia convertible on a highway. It’s a striking contrasts but works with the game’s theme of making a world of Fantasy based on Reality. In other words they’re basically creating a world where fantasy elements exist in a modern world to give off a more realistic ‘what-if’ vibe.
Realism plays a huge part in Final Fantasy XV. Characters animations are filled with motion capture from top to bottom including facial animations and crazy hair physics. Even during battle the characters themselves react based on what’s happening around them. The young and eager Prompto would be seen whizzing around and shooting enemies while distracting them, Galdio, being the tank that he is, would charge the enemies head on, and Ignis would be more efficient by looking for enemy weak spots. It feels convincing especially when doing something more technical such as swapping weapons between characters when landing a counter. Of course things don’t always look clean as animations tend to get obscured when enemies start piling up on the screen. Driving (if you call it that) is more of an experience than a gameplay mechanic. It’s limited how you drive and certain areas need to be explored on foot. But it’s not a deal breaker as the experience ties itself with the narrative and road trip themes. You take the time to enjoy the sights and step out every now and then to explore specific areas. It feels more compelling than say driving from point A to B like most open world games.
This brings us to the the next big worry of Final Fantasy XV: the battle system. While plenty of FF games such as Lightning Returns experimented with the idea of going open world none dared to do away with the turn based battle system (yes, even 12 was turn based if you think about it). After years of experimenting I feel Tabata and his team hit a sweet spot between Zelda and Kingdom Hearts (which sounds a bit weird). Basically you’re not as floaty or cartoony as Sora but you can still do crazy things like air dodges and combos. In terms of Zelda it retains the Z-targeting. Different weapons also offer different experiences, I for example stuck to my engine blade for a good portion of the game as I got dodge easier even though damage was not as high as my lancer. The biggest feature is probably the warp strike. This allows Noctis to teleport wherever he throws his weapon. The further you are the higher the damage counter goes up. It can also be used to teleport to a safe spot when things get dicey and want to replenish your HP and MP gauge.
MP is no longer tied to magic but instead your skills such as dodging or air combos. If it gets depleted you won’t be able to counter or dodge enemy attacks and instead will need to resort to hiding and restoring mana. Magic is now created out of draw points which can be crafted with added effects. For example blending fire and potions would cast fire while healing your party. However there are only three main fire elements (fire, lightning, and ice) and what you craft out of them. There is no cure and instead you will need to rely on potions which honestly isn’t bad considering that in most FF games potions tend to get replaced by ether the moment you learn curing spells. If HP gets depleted the character will enter a danger state where they will need to be rescued or cured. If nothing happens your character will die resulting in a game over. Honestly I didn’t struggle that much until the very end where the difficulty spiked up ridiculously. One particular boss fight felt like it lasted forever and had to constantly use potions to survive. It also doesn’t help that there are a lot of enemy attacks that result in pretty much a one hit KO where the character instantly enters danger mode. Things also get a bit hectic when too many enemies appear on screen. I struggled to focus on a particular target during these situations and sometimes felt lost or confused on how to approach the battle. Thankfully there are techniques which your comrades can pull off such as Galdios tempest which does a circular attack and pushes a mob away. Ultimately the battle system is pretty fun and works well especially during boss fights. I won’t spoil anything more but let’s just say there are moments in this game will truly stick with me for years to come. There are also some questionable stealth sections which work well when sneaking enemy fortresses but feel a bit out of place in one section later part in the game.
Summons are kind of a mystery. After unlocking one they only get triggered under certain conditions it seems, mostly if you’re struggling to defeat a tough opponent. Thankfully for me it happened with the last boss so I guess I got lucky? Sometimes summons play a role in gameplay moments which are stunning to watch.
Food and sleep are also huge elements that contribute to the game. Sleeping is essential to leveling up and not doing so will cause characters to feel tired and gain debuffs. Food serve as buffs from health to strength and are practically essential before venturing into a dungeon or enemy fortress. You can buy the food straight from a restaurant or let Ignis learn how to cook them when camping.
Gill is also a limited this time around as in enemies don’t drop them. I mean why should they? You expect money to come out of that wild boar? Instead players will need to stick to specific quests, selling treasure, or hunting to make ends meet.
The presentation in this game doesn’t hold back. Everything from weather physics effecting the hair and clothes to entering the beautiful city of Altissa will take your breath away. While some would argue that the game’s open world is limited it’s worth noting that this game is open world and not a sandbox. Meaning that you explore and interact based on the narrative rather than just killing cops like in GTA. And while areas such as dense urban cities feel limited, there are plenty of moments in the wild life that just feel incredibly dense. This isn’t your run of the mill open world game filled with emptiness but actual depth and secrets to explore with side activities as well. While I couldn’t get into the fishing aspect I did enjoy its charms and felt like a call back to Ocarina of Time. Other interesting skills such as Prompto’s photos help reflect on your journey. To best summarize this: when visiting a resort I saw a couple play at the beach splashing water at each other. Later that night I saw them gazing at the stars. Again this adds depth to the places you explore and feel more than just background decoration.
The only major gripes I can think of are the loading times. They can feel a bit much especially if you died and need to reload a checkpoint. There were some weird glitches I ran into such as fast traveling to a location only that my body is missing. Most of these can thankfully be fixed with a simple load checkpoint though one glitch kept showing AP 1 on the top which forced to reboot the game. Framerate has thankfully been addressed and it runs smoothly especially on lighter mode option in PS4 Pro. The higher res option has some occasional stuttering so I decided to just stick to light mode. It’s worth noting that this the best looking HDR game I played. The black levels are perfect and the colors simply pop especially during daytime and afternoon hours.
Of course it wouldn’t be Final Fantasy without music and this time Kingdom Hearts composer Yoko Shimomura steps into the spot light. While her tracks did a number on the trailers, trust me if you’ve heard nothing yet. So much work has been done on the OST with tunes composed not only for specific events but tracks that react and dynamically based on the situation. For instance when walking around the town you hear the track slowly change when entering a house. She has possibly created my second favorite Final Fantasy album and as it stands she can easily rival the great Uematsu.
Most importantly it feels like a Japenese game. I know this sounds a bit odd, but there has been a certain decline in Japanese games recently mainly because they try and emulate western game design philosophies and fail such as how XIII took inspiration from Modern Warfare. Here the devs are including their ideas and not caving in. Driving isn’t as free but it feels more stable than chaotic. It’s that charm of Ignis taking recipe notes from the last place you ate. Or Prompto randomly waking you up in the morning to take a picture with a wild creature. It’s that focus on sticking to a certain theme without compromise even during gameplay. Despite it ditching traditional gameplay elements, Final Fantasy XV is not only a call back to great Japanese games but a Final Fantasy title that will be remembered for years to come.