Final Fantasy XV Review: A Winding Road

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Square Enix is back with another fantasy epic – Final Fantasy XV, a game trapped in development for a decade. Could this be the long awaited modern masterpiece that fans have been clamoring for or would Square deliver yet another bizarre entry into their beloved series?

Please note: this review contains some spoilers for FFXV.

We begin the game with the prince of Lucis, Noctis, and his band of somewhat merry men setting off on a road trip to the city of Altissia. Noct is to fulfill his arranged marriage to a woman we know as Lady Lunafreya, the Oracle of Tenebrae. Everything goes to hell pretty quickly; the empire of Niflheim invades Insomnia (the capital of Lucis) , kills the king, and pronounces both Noct & Luna dead. Noct, knowing he can’t return to the capital of Lucis without the certainty of death, continues his journey to Altissia after receiving word that his bride-to-be may still be living.

Everything goes to hell pretty quickly.

All of your standard story elements are here; a crystal, an ongoing war, a reluctant and quiet protagonist, a mysterious villain, etc., but at it’s core FFXV’s setting is about the road trip. The journey. It just feels like that’s really what the game was built around. Driving your car, listening to the soundtracks of Final Fantasies-past, and hanging out with your bros. Early on in the game, you are exposed to the open world of Eos, where you are free to drive or run around at your leisure. There are a lot of things to do in the open-world environment, which the main storyline deviates from around Chapter 5-6, if I’m not mistaken. You lose your ability to wander around; it puts you into that “linear” mode of play during the main storyline. This is the kind of thing that people hated about FFXIII, however being able to go back into the open-world setting is a fantastic compromise. The linear points of the game really only serve to advance the story, aside from the few rare instances that you’re locked into doing them.

The majority of the NPC characters in FFXV are really flat, uninteresting, or otherwise boring. They are generally only there to provide you with quests. While FFXV is probably the closest a Final Fantasy game has felt to having a world that is living and breathing, they are still pretty far off of the mark. The party members have some neat interactions with both eachother and Noct throughout the open world and main storyline portions. Generally these scenes happen while you are wandering around at outposts and mostly don’t impact the game. A caveat to though: make sure that you camp or sleep all of the campsites and inns you can. There are some major scenes that serve to develop character that can be completely missed if you don’t stop at various inns and campsites. These scenes really made the relationships formed between Noct (you, the player), and his companions feel more important, more real. This serves as a huge contrast to the relationship Noct has with Lunafreya, as it’s presented in the game. It’s not really discussed or emphasized enough for me to care about. That is to say, one of the high notes on the storyline felt rather throwaway to me. Lunafreya dies and I think I was supposed to feel upset about it but I had no attachment to her. I didn’t watch Kingsglaive or Brotherhood, as I’m sure many players haven’t. True to Square Enix form, and you can quote me on having said this for years, they did something crazy with their game. They left all of the backstory of the main cast out of it. It feels like a lot of the finer points in the story exist solely within FFXV: Kingsglaive and FFXV:Brotherhood. For example, the explanation of Noctis’ powers, how his mother died, his relationship with Prompto, etc.

I didn’t watch Kingsglaive or Brotherhood, as I’m sure many players haven’t.

Final Fantasy XV has an interesting battle system. It plays a lot like Kingdom Hearts with a hint of FFXII. It’s simple, but offers just enough depth for those who seek it. Long-gone are the days of turn based attack battle systems; FFXV is an action RPG that has an optional “wait” mode. Wait mode merely pauses time to allow you to scan enemies for weaknesses and take a bit of a breather during combat. Otherwise, you hold the attack button to attack, you can block and parry, you can throw spells, call on your team mates to do special attacks, and there are even some contextual “link” attacks that happen as well. The link attacks are actually really neat; your party members will jump in to make an assisted attack on the enemy with Noctis. This sometimes involves them borrowing their weapon to Noct or perform some sort of cool combo. Magic, or Elemancy, are AoE attacks that can harm anybody or anything within their radius. The magic actually effects the environment in some cases, so don’t go casting Blizzara in a body of water you’re standing in. For me, the magic was kind of an afterthought in the battle system. Even when fighting Flan enemies that are traditionally weakest to magic. The battle system feels pretty well balanced, usually, but is very centric on Noctis. Your party members are kind of just… around, unless you command them to use an ability. They take hits or make a couple of attacks, but you’ll be doing the majority of the fighting in most cases. On the flip side, there were some truly cinematic battle scenes that stuck out to me! I even had a handful of difficult, yet enjoyable, battles with mini bosses and “bounties.”

Throughout the journey Noct must acquire powerful artifacts, mainly in the form of weapons, left behind by former kings of Lucis. Using these artifacts in battle will drain Noct’s HP, which is supposed to serve as a trade-off for the buff in attack power or effect of the artifact. Frankly, I very rarely had any of them equipped as they really didn’t feel as powerful as I hoped they would. Eventually Noct will gain the power of the Armiger, essentially his form of a limit break. He calls on all of the artifact weapons he has, swapping between them all, as he zips around enemies while attacking. It’s stylistic and all, but again, doesn’t feel as powerful as I’d hoped it would. The best part about the Armiger is that your HP can’t hit 0 while it’s active, and you can gain AP just for activating it.

Levelling up is somewhat akin to FFX, in that you have a grid that functions similarly to the sphere grid – you unlock abilities by spending AP, unlocking new or stronger abilities as you progress through the Ascencion Grid. Your characters don’t really feel like they gain levels, for the most part, even though you do see their level increase. The most noticeable changes to your party’s strength will come from the purchasable abilities in the Ascension Grid. Purchasable abilities are on a series of grids shared between the whole party. Some abilities are character specific, while others affect the group as a whole. AP is easy enough to come by, as you can earn it passively after purchasing some abilities. There’s actually also an exploitable method that someone discovered which allows you to earn ~1200AP in an hour, if you really want to power-level your party.

Back on the topic of things that I’d hoped would be powerful… the Astrals. Oh the Astrals. If you have played the Episode Duscae demo, you’re already familiar with Ramuh and the devastation he brings. Throughout the game you will unlock 5 additional Astrals, only 3 that can actually be summoned in addition to Ramuh: Titan, Leviathan, and Shiva. The remaining 2, Ifrit and Bahamut, are seen during scripted events toward the end of the game. Carbunckle, the “hidden” 7th summon, only appears during Easy mode. Interestingly, summons can’t just be performed on a whim in every battle – a major change from the majority of previous games in the series. After you have unlocked them, they will only show up during specific times in battle; generally this is when you are low on HP or struggling against enemies. When a summon is performed, it will usually result in a complete wipe of the battlefield. The Astrals are absolutely massive and their cutscenes really drive home the sheer power that they contain. For me, seeing them never really gets old. Small details, like having Ixion’s head on Ramuh’s staff really stood out to me.

Summons can’t just be performed on a whim.

Final Fantasy XV feels like it is paced somewhat slowly, but I believe that’s mainly because of the open-world environment. I found myself getting sidetracked in the silly amount of sidequests, most of which are rather generic, but fun nonetheless. They’re your main source of income and often serve as an excuse to travel to new places. Usually the sidequests involve taking a photo of a specific location, killing an enemy, fishing, or some other generic fetch quest. Standard fare for an RPG. The main storyline was the most interesting, however it does hit a major snag in chapter 13. Noct is by himself with half of the chapter making him rely solely on a ring that he must use to kill enemies. During this chapter you cannot go back to the open-world area. You’re essentially stuck for a solid 1-2 hours of gameplay in a hallway, fighting 1-2 enemies at a time. I cannot stress how much I disliked this portion of the game. The only thing that kept me going through it was knowing that it would end and I’d eventually get back to the good stuff. It just felt like it took forever.

Hajime Tabata, the director of Final Fantasy XV, recently wrote that he has plans to patch the game in the future. Supposedly this process will address a lot of the issues that I had with the game, like chapter 13, the simplicity of the side quests, story/character development, adding a New Game+ mode, limited time events, and more. This is all planned to be free content, as I understand it. It’s nice to see this kind of dedication to their game from the dev team, and drives home a point I’ve made many times on podcasts and conversations alike – video games are often very different a year or two after release than when they first come out. Games are living, breathing works of art that are developed even after their release. This is most commonly seen with indie titles, but it seems that AAA developers are taking queues from the indie scene; they are listening to their audience now more than ever before! Some people choose to complain about this and whine about how the product they purchased isn’t finished, that we are beta testing the game for developer, should be getting a discounted price, etc., but that’s a conversation for another day.

The development team had a herculean task in front of them when they first started working on FFXV (or whatever it was called back then). Make a Final Fantasy that doesn’t feel antiquated, but doesn’t stray too far from what we’ve seen before; make it feel like a Final Fantasy game. Was this task met? I’m not sure, and my opinion isn’t a popular one. See, I believe that you could call any game “Final Fantasy,” slap a number or subtitle on the end, and people just have to accept it. It doesn’t matter, Final Fantasy is just a mantle, an affix. It could be called Purple Monkey Dishwasher XV, for all I care. It’s another entry into a series comprised almost entirely of separate games that I feel should all be treated individually. So if you were to ask me: “Rob, is this a good Final Fantasy game?” I’d say… Sure. Final Fantasy XV is an enjoyable experience, regardless of the legacy that its name carries. Does it live up to the legacy of that name? Who cares. Final Fantasy XV is one of the more enjoyable RPGs I’ve played in recent memory and I look forward to revisiting it in the future.

Rob was gifted his physical copy of Final Fantasy XV for PS4 by Lee, co-founder and co-host of Turn Based Attack. After completing the main campaign in approximately 43 hours, Rob has decided to chase a platinum trophy. This review was written after an additional 15 hours of gameplay and at 84% trophy completion. There are only 3 Royal Arms left to acquire in Rob’s playthrough before the Armiger is complete. All characters weren’t at max skill level and the Adamantoise still lives, but Rob did acquire the Regalia Type-F. While Rob is a huge fan of all of the small details in the game, like new scars showing up on Gladio, he will always be creeped out by Prompto’s serial killer-like smile.