Final Fantasy XV Review
Well, we finally made it. Final Fantasy XV is here. Announced in 2006 as Versus XIII, the game has had a long and difficult journey to release - but they did it.
The fact that Noctis has made it to become a fully-fledged FF hero in his own right is astonishing. You know what's more astonishing, though? Final Fantasy XV is good.
Such a protracted development with name changes, director changes, platform changes, engine problems and all manner of other difficulties sounds like a recipe for disaster, but somehow director Hajime Tabata has managed to pull from amidst those flames one of the most thoughtful, interesting and perception-challenging Japanese RPGs in a decade. It's not perfect, but it's a game with a lot to say.
In this regard FF15 is the inverse of FF13. Where 13 sought to make existing battle system ATB look flashier and move more quickly while keeping in place the broad concepts established in previous titles, FF15 moves with the times. We live in a post Skyrim and post Witcher 3 world, and for a big-budget RPG hoping to sell 10 million copies those titles are the watermark to look at. FF15 seeks to borrow from them and does in some generally intelligent ways, tossing out some FF traditions in the process.
Even as Versus this would've always been an action game, but the action-based combat developed here seems smarter and more nuanced than something derived from Kingdom Hearts could've been. Its use of a single button to attack smacks of a concession to keep things simple for fans less familiar with action games, but it's a choice that actually works rather well in the context of FF15.
FF15 is all about preparation, party and understanding the lay of the land in combat. The game isn't afraid to allow you to pause and swap pretty much everything about how a character is equipped mid-combat, even.
Magic is a little clunky - the crafting screen is just a little weird, it always feels like it takes too long and even casting spells by tossing them like grenades is more than a little unwieldy. That pairs with a frustratingly poor camera to form the bedrock of my criticism of the game's combat, but the moment-to-moment action is satisfying and engaging.
There's a ton of solid RPG prep you can do behind the scenes - Noctis can equip up to four weapons and switch between them on the fly, plus there's accessories and other gear for all four guys. A full skill tree rounds it out, and it all feels to have a lot more breadth and potential than FF13's Crystarium - it's a positive step.
The combat intertwines with various other systems too, primarily Ignis' ability to cook for the party at camp. Camp becomes a staple of FF15, and it's a welcome one. I found camping to 'bank' EXP and level up to be a frustrating distraction in episode Duscae, but within the tempo of the game it makes perfect sense. Cooking is a key part of that, and a key part of any pre-dungeon or pre-boss strategy.
Some FF fans feared the switch to action, the worry being that it would reduce the tactical focus that players can have on higher-end FF combat. This plainly isn't the case. While I still feel several Western RPGs execute on action-based RPG battling better, FF15 is a strong first step into this realm for main-line FF.
One thing it's absolutely vital to note about FF15 is that despite being advertised that way, it isn't truly an open-world FF. It's a Final Fantasy game that has an open world segment - and there's a difference.
What I mean is this: roughly the first half of FF15's story plays out in an open world zone. That zone is Lucis, Noctis' country, and you'll have seen a lot of it in pre-release footage. Once Noctis and crew leave Lucis the game begins to tighten its focus, the result smaller and smaller zones as you go. By the time you reach the end of the game you'll be on an entirely linear path.
Some might be disappointed with this, but hold fire on the disappointment for a moment and consider: FF15's interesting structure allows the game to tackle multiple approaches. The open-world segment of the game is beautiful and expansive. It's a world that you'll likely want to spend a significant amount of time in, since we certainly did.
The world is filled with side quests and content, and it's beautiful and interesting enough besides that sometimes I just found myself compelled to cruise around it in my car.
Much of the design of the named and obvious side quests could be better. Everybody usually wants you to fetch something with the act of doing so putting you in front of some monsters to kill - that's about it, the story more or less the same each and every time.
Sometimes you'll need specific loot for a quest or weapon upgrade but the game gives little to no indication of which loot is important, leading me to a few times selling an item I needed to upgrade a weapon or complete a quest - not ideal.
So, yes - much of the quest design could be better, but scattered among the simple fetch quests are great deep-dives into winding dungeons that are some of the best FF has ever managed. Optional but entirely original bosses at the end of these dungeons often evoke classic FF creatures in the best possible way, too.
Here's the interesting wrinkle: The open world segment of the game is actually pretty devoid of narrative, with the game only really ramping up with the traditional big FF cutscenes in long succession in the second half. If to you FF is about the story, the second half is likely to satisfy more.
The second half might not satisfy completely, however - and that's sadly because if FF15 has a notable weakness it is in its narrative. The open world half of the game has events happening to the periphery of Noctis and the gang; they learn about things, but events don't seem to be truly unfolding to or around them with one notable exception. The second half twists the story on them, but I found what that half had to offer to be largely unsatisfying.
Noctis, Gladiolus, Prompto and Ignis make up perhaps the most charismatic and believable Warriors of Light in the whole history of the FF series. There's a surprisingly personal weight to their relationships, and the strength of that characterisation helps to carry the whole game.
They're well written and in the localized English version the voice work proves to be a particularly pleasant surprise; Ray Chase puts in a barn-storming performance as Noctis, an FF lead with more of a personal development arc than most.
These four feel real, and even though they're a sword-summoning, monster-crushing royal retinue there's something grounded about the way in which they interact with each other and live together. They are the lifeblood of this game. In this sense FF15 embraces much of what made some of the best FFs special; these interactions between memorable characters rescue the game.
The supporting cast isn't quite so lucky. It's not really clear if this is a casualty of trying to trim back the story to ensure the open world aspect wasn't suffocated, or of time, or something else entirely, but much of FF15's supporting cast goes under-developed.
Best-off is the main villain of the piece after the four guys, but some of the supporting cast have scant further development beyond their appearances in trailers over the years. In other instances character background can be overheard on in-world radios or found in notes as you explore, but these are hardly bulletproof storytelling methods; it is a disappointment.
FF15 is the story of a fantastically-written group of characters making their way through a vaguely-told, muddled story. Towards the end the game begins to find its feet once more, confidently striding into what ultimately becomes one of Final Fantasy's best ever finales - but much of the journey there leaves a great deal to be desired.
I'm left wondering how much of this comes from FF15's story being salvaged and pieced together from the remains of another project. While there's certainly more egregious examples of story in the FF series, FF15 is by far one of the least satisfying in this regard. It's telling that Square felt the need to patch in sequences taken from the Kingsglaive movie and Omen CG trailer to help lend the game some cinematic flair and additional context: the narrative is often delivered so dryly that even this quick addition is an enormous improvement.
Strip away the pretense, however, and you realize that perhaps isn't the kind of game Hajime Tabata and his team set out to make. FF15 feels the most alive when it's you and your party out in the open world - bantering, exploring, fighting, hunting and then camping and cooking before heading down into a deep, dark dungeon. It's a fantastic feeling, and one not often delivered by Final Fantasy in the past, but it's one that this game is absolutely committed to and makes work for it.
When FF15 shoots for story it's hit or miss. It hits with the guys themselves, with an intriguing and beguiling antagonist and with its big set-piece moments such as its astral battles, but then equally there's an under-developed supporting cast and some very unpolished direction and animation in story sequences that just looks... well, it looks rushed. There's also a dubious quality chapter focused on stealth and jump-scares. For a while, FF channels Resident Evil - it's novel, but goes on too long.
FF15 has that going on: sometimes it looks incredibly polished and sometimes it looks almost unfinished. It's a strange game.
Even with these issues noted, there are some victories that can't be dampened by such issues. The strong feel of the combat and the strength of FF15's core characters - the four guys, their villainous rival and finally the open world of Lucis itself.
These characters shine brightly and glide over even the rockiest of terrain for good reason. They're special. They're worth spending time with.
FF13 was comparatively a more polished game. Every shot was pretty, every system meticulously built. It also didn't have that much exciting and new to bring to the table beyond its unique take on ATB combat. FF15 is the opposite; it sometimes appears a little unpolished, but it's bristling with ideas - so many, perhaps, that its scrappy feeling was something of a necessity to cram them all in.
When FF creator Hironobu Sakaguchi was trotted out on stage at the FF15 'Uncovered' event I rolled my eyes, but I now understand what he meant. Final Fantasy XV brings back some of what made FF special to begin with - it's bold and brave, throwing caution to the wind to try to make a statement about what big budget Japanese RPGs can be going forwards. It's rough around the edges, but that's okay: where it counts, it's got plenty of heart.