Final Fantasy XV is the latest installment in the long-running series of Japanese video role-playing games (the franchise is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year!) produced by gaming studio Square Enix. Styling itself as “a Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers” this game, like most in the franchise, is independent of previous titles, being set in its own world and featuring new main characters, while also keeping to the FF tradition of sharing common classic elements, including the giant rideable Chocobo birds, and minor supporting characters that re-appear in slightly different forms throughout the games. On top of the game itself, the full FF XV universe also includes a free 5-episode anime series released on YouTube, and a computer-animated movie Kingsglaive: FF XV, both of which provide additional backstory.
The main story of FF XV follows the adventures of Noctis, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Lucis, who at the start of the game sets out on a road-trip with his three friends — Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto — to meet his fiancee, Lady Lunafreya, in distant Altissia. However, things quickly take a turn for the worse: the evil Empire of Niflheim, who have already conquered most of the world and have long had their sights on Kingdom of Lucis, betray Noctis’ father, killing him and seizing control of the capital city. Noctis and his friends must now strive to evade capture, while learning the truth about the Empire, recovering powerful mystical artefacts, and making alliances with the gods themselves.
Gameplay in FF XV revolves primarily around quest-based exploration, and combat. The game is huge, allowing open exploration of the continent of Lucis, where players can choose to focus on completing story quests, or take on a range of side quests to earn resources and accumulate power.
The friends travel around the continent in their car, the Regalia, and the design of the world is breathtaking, with beautiful landscapes and scenery, and phenomenal attention to detail. Side quests typically consist of hunting particular prey, finding resources or other items (including frogs for a very pushy Professor), or generally troubleshooting various issues that are vexing the local townsfolk. Adventuring becomes substantially more dangerous at night, when powerful daemons are unleashed, making the countryside unsafe. Most quests are engaging and fun, although some are also quite cheesy (arguably another staple of the FF franchise) and this, together with the fact that Noctis and friends sometimes don’t seem to be in any particular rush to address the troubles that are facing their world, can at times feel at odds with the otherwise epic storyline.
In combat, the player controls Noctis, who can draw upon a wide range of weapons and magic spells, all of which develop considerably as the game progresses. Primary options include attacking with a selected weapon or spell; defending by parrying or dodging; and warp-striking, a special power that allows Noctis to teleport himself to a distant enemy to land a more powerful attack. The three friends make their own combat decisions, and the AI is typically quite competent; Noctis can also call upon them explicitly to carry out signature combat moves (each of the companions specialises in different weapon types) when a resource bar is sufficiently charged. Unlike previous FF installments, combat is no longer turn-based but instead happens in real time (although the game does offer a “wait” mode that periodically freezes the action, and allows for a more strategic approach to battles). Overall the combat system is fluid and dynamic, offers lots of options in terms of weapons, magic and strategy, and is a whole lot of fun.
While this game has many impressive aspects, it also has its share of problems. Despite (or perhaps because of) the amazing amounts of loving detail that were lavished on some areas, in particular the vast continent of Lucis, other parts can sometimes feel a bit rushed or incomplete. Similarly, although the main storyline is truly epic in scope, and mostly very engaging, it also feels as if some parts were simply not completed. In contrast to the beautiful cutscenes that we’re usually treated to when major events occur, other important plot turns take place entirely off camera. While this could be an effective story-telling approach if used sparingly, it becomes quite confusing in certain parts of the tale, for example where some key supporting characters seem to fundamentally change their goals and opinions of others, with no explanation.
Gameplay also takes a dramatic turn as the story progresses into later chapters, suddenly casting the player from an open world, party-based exploration setup into to an increasingly linear sequence of scenarios, culminating in a long dungeon crawl featuring Noctis on his own, and with his usual array of powers removed and replaced by a magic ring. Battles that used to be dynamic and fun suddenly take a very long time, with few interesting options available to the player, and the level simply drags on (so much so that game director Hajime Tabata has recently promised to “enhance” the whole chapter in a forthcoming update).
On the other hand, the stark contrast is effective in driving home that Noctis and his friends work best as a team. The feeling of relief when they are finally reunited was palpable, and indeed the friendship between Noctis, Prompto, Gladiolus and Ignis and the way it is developed throughout the game is a major highlight of FF XV. The guys interact in countless ways, from cracking jokes, to winding each other up, to supporting each other, whether they’re driving around in their car, setting up camp, exploring a dungeon, or in the middle of life-or-death combat.
The player is further drawn into the adventure through Prompto’s photography skill — throughout the game, you can review and save photos that he’s taken of the journey — reinforcing the shared victories and setbacks that the gang have gone through.
By the time the main story reached its tragic conclusion, these characters felt more fleshed out and substantial than in most other games that I’ve played, and I was truly saddened that my journey with these friends had come to an end.
Fortunately the designers included a post-game “chapter”, to allow players to further explore the huge FF XV world, complete unfinished side quests, and delve into the many mini-games that are available throughout the lands. Anyone up for a Chocobo race?
The reviewed version of Final Fantasy XV was played on a PS4 console. Thanks to Prompto Argentum for sharing various images; other screen captures taken by Games vs Play for the purposes of review. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!