Final Fantasy XV should be less divisive than the previous XIII titles with fans. It helps that this release in the fabled series gets off to a strong enough start that you are properly invested by the end to overlook most of the flaws encountered along the way. If it is true that an experience is more about the journey than the end, then Final Fantasy XV is the video game representation of that saying.
Final Fantasy XIII did not sit well with a lot of the series' longstanding fans, but I actually enjoyed the titles. Odds are if they were called something other than Final Fantasy, a lot of people would have been far more receptive and accepted the games for what they were. However, when you are working with a series as old and beloved as Final Fantasy, the title alone creates a certain level of expectation that can be hard to ignore. That's not to say that the XIII games were perfect by any means, but I thought they were generally quite good.
I am happy to say that Final Fantasy XV is even more enjoyable from my standpoint. I will admit that going in, I had some reservations. I am a sucker for a big romantic storyline, but here you see the story built around a bromance instead of a proper romance. I've always gravitated more towards the fantasy elements in the series than the technological ones, so seeing a car driven all over the place seemed odd to me after years of hoofing it on foot and then eventually unlocking airships in the series. Mobile phones? Yup, we have those too. I myself am guilty of bring some preconceived notions to the table with this iteration in the series and at first I was not sure they would gel.
The story starts simply enough, with an introduction that tries to set the stage between Prince Noctis and his father King Regis. If you played the A King's Tale: Final Fantasy XV game, you don't really get any important story details, but you get a sense that father and son really love each other and that Noctis grew up idolizing his father. However, as events kick off in Final Fantasy XV, the relationship seems somewhat strained between the two of them. Noctis is aloof towards his father but his camaraderie with his thee friends is evident right out of the gates, setting the stage for the story ahead.
The tale has the four companions on their way to a nearby kingdom so Noctis can be married his betrothed Lunafreya, but before the group can make their way there, things go wrong. At first you might believe that the story - which does heavily feature these two characters - will really revolve around them and their relationship, but that turns out to be secondary to another set of relationships the game's foundation is built upon. The mishaps start innocuously enough as the car breaks down and they are forced to push it to a nearby station where it can be fixed up. As they are waiting for the car to be repaired, the group runs some errands and performs quests to help build up some money and experience in a much more open world experience than the XIII games began with. This gives us a low stakes introduction to our characters as they engage with one another. Each of the characters fills a sort of traditional Final Fantasy/RPG role with Gladiolus being the big, beefy warrior. Ignis tends to be more tactical, and uses magic effectively but can also get in close if need be. Prompto is best used as a ranged combatant - quick and fond of guns. Noctis is the more traditional jack of all trades who can be good at just about whatever he wants, allowing you to be flexible in how you develop his combat style.
However, each of these characters starts to show a little something more along the way as Gladiolus enjoys reading and almost comes across somewhat big-brother-y to Noctis. Prompto is the opposite, a lower class background with a talkative attitude that plays out akin to an annoying younger brother. Ignis is clearly a friend to Noctis, but has this Alfred the butler feel to him between his crisp enunciation and measured approach to all situations - plus he enjoys cooking for everyone.
These characters are the lifeblood of Final Fantasy XV, because the story itself is pretty hit and miss. I adore the Final Fantasy games, but quite often the stories can become somewhat nonsensical and this version suffers some of those same abstract pitfalls along the way. However, watching the friends do everything from cooking for one another as they set up a campsite for the night to racing along the beach in the morning as a form of early exercise to how they risk life and limb for another another creates an emotional catalyst that kept me invested in moving things forward even when the story itself sometimes stumbled.
This camaraderie is further enhanced by how combat plays out. Final Fantasy XV is a very action-oriented game, and while it is not perhaps as much so as the beat-'em-up A King's Tale: Final Fantasy XV, you spend a lot of time zipping around the battlefield and manually entering commands for Noctis. You are focused on Noctis, using his ability to warp around the battlefield for safety or to slam your weapon into unsuspecting opponents while your companions go about things how they see fit. Most of the time they do a pretty good job, but you can influence them somewhat along the way as you build up technique bars that let you trigger specific abilities. Teammates will also sometimes join you in a blindside attack, or if Noctis is too badly hurt, rush to his side and heal him to get him back on his feet. Admittedly I was not sure how I would like this system as I often find myself leaning towards turn-based combat in RPGs, but by and large I really enjoyed the combat here in Final Fantasy XV.
There is always a leveling system of some sort under the hood in these Final Fantasy games, and Final Fantasy XV has one that feels similar to some prior titles. You earn AP that gets spent on unlocking various skills on a grid. Some of the most powerful and most expensive skills have prerequisite earlier ones that need to be unlocked first. There are several areas of focus from adding new skills to your companions to boosting stats like hit points and strength to unlocking abilities that boost experience and AP gains.
Visually Final Fantasy XV proves that Square Enix has a real eye towards creating a pretty scene, and this is often emphasized in Prompto's photographs he takes along the way. Each character has their own specialty or hobby that improves over use. If you are interested in getting all of the trophies in this title, I strong recommend unlocking Snapshot for Prompto and using it regularly in combat. As Prompto takes more pictures, he unlocks more filters. Noctis enjoys fishing and can gain access to more advances lures and lines for better fish. Gladiolus is a big, fit dude - so of course he likes to walk instead of driving about. Improving his ability by hoofing it as much as possible makes it more likely he'll find items after combat (frankly this is probably the strangest / least interesting of the character-specific abilities) while Ignis enjoys coming up with new food to cook for the group. Find new items and recipes and he'll concoct new dishes that grant the party various stat boosts for a limited time. It's a nice touch that adds a little more differentiation between the characters beyond just stats or weapon preferences.
The aforementioned photographs taken by Prompto can be pretty hit or miss, but the ability to save them out or share them on social media is pretty cool and adds to that road trip / bromance vibe that really serves to give Final Fantasy XV a core identity. There are some fantastic environments (there is something to be said for the long lines of site as you drive and walk to pretty much anything you can see in the horizon) and artfully realized creatures that help to mask the fact that there are times when textures can be a little flaky (Robert had nothing but trouble with this game on his PlayStation 4, with black textures and reflective surfaces freaking out, while PY and I had none of those issues), such as buildings and light reflecting oddly off of the water while fishing now and again, things like that. Less important character models are pretty bland and forgettable compared to storyline characters. Still, more often than not, Final Fantasy XV is a pretty game with a very good soundtrack. It never quite reaches the stages of memorable soundtracks found in VI, VII or X for me, but there are some quality songs here. Interestingly enough some of the best ones are modified versions of songs from previous games in the series.
The voice actors are all pretty good as well, which is key as the personality they infuse into the companions is key to the game's success. I can't help but feel that there were some missed opportunities however where characters repeat the same ramblings over and over again and we could have used some more unique pieces of dialog injected into the game. I realize that would have taken a good deal more time, but this is a game that was ten years in the making so it doesn't seem an unreasonable hope.
Speaking of the game's overall gestation period, there are times where the framework shows its age. Final Fantasy XV is more engaging than XIII early on in large part due to its open world structure, but then the game narrows down dramatically in the later portions (almost the exact opposite of Final Fantasy XIII which starts very linear and opens up during its final quarter or so). The story becomes somewhat shoehorned to fit the game's structure and layout in order to allow you to go back to earlier areas. It creates a somewhat uneven experience during the campaign's stretch run that slightly dampens what had been a generally outstanding experience the rest of the way.
However, when looking back at Final Fantasy XV, I have decided to focus on the journey itself as mentioned earlier in this review. There is a lot of heart in this game and to its credit Final Fantasy XV managed to dispel just about every concern of mine going into it. I found myself genuinely enjoying my time on the road with my three companions and taking on plenty of side quests and monster hunts along the way. They did not feel grindy or annoying, because it was an opportunity to spend more time with Noctis and his best friends while exploring a fascinating and often beautiful world.
Article by Nick