Final Fantasy XV Windows Edition Review

Final Fantasy XV originally released in late November, 2016. That’s quickly approaching a year and a half ago. In our original review of the game, we thought that the game was charismatic, if rough around the edges. We stated that “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. “ And with a year’s worth of updates still to go, it feels like the truly feature-complete title is, somehow, still a long ways off.

While it’s very difficult to say what exactly Final Fantasy XV will look like in a year from now, it can be stated that its current rendition is the best yet, But I still hesitate to call it great. 

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Final Fantasy XV’s Royal Edition, bolstered by a surprisingly adept PC port, is a markedly different and marginally better game than the one that released 15 months ago. Having not played the original console release of the game, I found myself having to compare copious amounts of notes with my peers just to be sure exactly how different my experience with the game had been compared to those that originally enjoyed Noctis’s journey two winters ago.

As a new player to Final Fantasy XV, I had to compartmentalize my time with the game in a few ways: I had over a year's worth of free updates to the game to consider, the packaged in DLC content, the tweaks made with the Royal Edition upgrade, as well as the PC specific customization options. Needless to say, it actually became mildly frustrating trying to discern exactly what was new new, or less new, or otherwise altered compared to the game's original version. I actively found myself wondering if certain sections of the game had changed or to what degree.

At times it was easy to tell. Other times, not so much. Some of the additions were more obviously post-launch inclusions, such as the Regalia Type-D off-road customization or the alternative Chapter 13 -- awkwardly tacked onto the main menu or as a menu option in-game. 

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Others slight modifications, however, I didn’t even know had been altered or completely absent from the original release. It’s a testament to the title’s production to note how seamlessly some of these features have been incorporated, but it’s also baffling to think about the absence of these at the game’s launch – especially huge quality-of-life improvements such as the ability to undertake ten hunts at once. If I wasn’t writing this article up, I wouldn’t have even realized that millions of people had to enjoy (or not enjoy) the game while only undertaking one hunt at a time.

Other additions felt seamlessly integrated into the experience, but only because they were grossly inconsequential – the quests added into Chapters 10 and 14 amount to nothing more than busy work, and I didn’t even realize that the Insomnia map I was exploring near the end of the game was supposed to be improved from the original release. I kept looking for ways to unlock the expanded Insomnia map I had read about, only to realize that I had already explored it.

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Each of the stand-alone DLC Episodes feel fun enough, but also unimportant.

Even the 3 released DLC packs so far felt largely inconsequential. The scope of the DLCs included with the Royal Edition is basically exactly as expected – a handful of little optional scenarios that flesh out the game in an unnecessary but appreciated way. The fact that the gameplay mechanics for playing as each character carry on into the added character swapping mechanic in the main game is a nice touch. It’s just a shame that all three packs are incredibly short. Episode Ignis is the most endearing of the set, though it can only really be enjoyed after the player has finished the game. It has some neat character moments as a side-story, but as a sort of quasi-epilogue, it feels messy and awkward.

We generally expect games to be buffed out after released with official patches to address shortcomings, as we saw in the last few months with both Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s huge bug-smashing update and Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s quality-of-life bolstering revision. Both games are also now in a considerably better state than they were at launch due to significant updates after their respective releases. 

But Final Fantasy XV’s post-launch aspirations are rather unique and on a scale I’m not sure we’ve ever seen for a primarily single-player game. And despite the sheer number of additions to the game, it’s difficult to state that they’ve done a whole lot to improve the core experience. Not counting "Episode"-specific additions or the day one patch changes (those Kingsglaive and Omen inserts are still rather awkward), some fundamental post-launch additions include:

  • New Game Plus
  • Timed Quests
  • Cross Chains
  • Bestiary
  • Character Dossiers
  • Chapter Select
  • The ability to drive Regis’s boat between Lucis and Altissia
  • The ability to accept up to ten hunts at once
  • Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto can now be controlled in battle after unlocking the ability via Ascension
  • Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto can now climb ladders
  • Expanded Insomnia and new boss fights in Chapter 14

While it’s not a good argument to state that simply adding more stuff to a disappointing title is enough to make it better, I do feel that the large majority of these changes have helped to make Final Fantasy XV an incrementally stronger game now than it once was. Of course, many of the updates are altogether trivial, such as the ladder use by the party members. Others have a very limited impact, such as the aforementioned quests added to the game or the menu-based features.  These features and additions are welcome, but the impact feels small relative to the input. They make Final Fantasy XV a better game, but just barely.

One of the general overall critiques of Final Fantasy XV was how the focus of the game continued to narrow into something more reminiscent of the much-criticized Final Fantasy XIII as you approached the end of the game. In our original review, we stated that “the first half of FF15's story plays out in an open world zone… 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.”

Several of the post-launch updates have attempted to remedy this issue, but the core problems remain. Chapters 10-12 still feel like the abridged version of a story section that we never got to see, and Chapter 13’s alternate path feels like a giant band-aid. By far the best additions to the last section of the game is a handful of boss encounters and a couple story cutscenes leading up to the final showdown the help flesh out Noctis’s relationships with his three friends and Luna. It’s hard for me to imagine how brief the final section must have been in its original rendition.   

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Being able to fish in the ocean between Lucis and Altissia is one of the features unique to the Royal Edition.

While the Royal Edition and other post-launch changes have been spotty, one has to commend the excellent work done in bringing the game over to PC. Square Enix has had an uneven couple of years with regards to bringing over their titles to the platform: Final Fantasy XII’s PC version is now arguably the definitive version of the game, while recent the recent Chrono Trigger port was far more harshly received. Comparing XV’s PC version to the often chastised port jobs of Final Fantasy XIII series of games is night and day – the work put into Final Fantasy XV’s Windows Edition puts all of those efforts to shame.

Now, judging Final Fantasy XV Windows Edition depends a lot on how much you value some of the bespoke bells and whistles that Nvidia has contributed to the title. Even without these features considered, Windows Edition is a quality port that comes with a slew of configuration options. You can select both the display resolution and internal rendering resolution, level of motion blur, anti-aliasing, filtering, amongst other usual toggles. The game also has an option to download additional 4k textures, though do note that this will severely inflate the game’s footprint on your harddrive or ssd, up to about 150gb in total.

Nvidia’s contributions to Final Fantasy XV Windows Edition are listed at the bottom of the settings menu: HairWorks, VXAO, TurfEffects, and Shadowlibs. Nvidia Hairworks first made waves when it was incorporated into 2015’s The Witcher 3, but here it’s not incorporated into the main cast of characters, but rather into the various creatures of Lucis, such as the wooly Garulas and maned Spiracorns. The result is immediately obvious as early as fighting the bearded Dualhorn early on in the game. It’s a shame that the player character’s hair still often looks distractingly dithered at times.

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The visuals of dithered hair on models is a distracting blemish on an otherwise great looking game.

Shadowlibs and VXAO are less easy to nail down, but they help create more realistic looking shadows and higher image quality with respect to ambient or moving light sources. They can also help create shadows that naturally diffuse the further away they are from their cast point. Even without these settings enabled, the shadow work in FFXV is impressive – even while wading through dense foliage, proper shadows will cast onto Noctis as he moves or as the plant life sways in the wind.

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Shadows are cast naturally from all the surrounding plantlife, and the Nvidia specific addons make them look even better.

The last and easily my favorite of the special settings is TurfEffects. TurfEffects is a complete rework of the plant life across Lucis, replacing stock plant models with fully animated grass and brushwork. Light diffuses naturally through the remodeled grass and there’s a degree of fuzziness present with the setting enabled that’s just incredibly pleasing. During my time with Windows Edition, I found that one of my personal highlights was simply a chance encounter with a herd of Spiracorns -- their manes swaying with their movement within dense grass and brush managed to be a surprisingly memorable moment, despite the lack of narrative weight.

TurfEffects helps the world of Lucis come alive, at a hefty performance cost.

The key tradeoff here is performance, while all of these specialized features each come with a moderate performance hit, I found that TurfEffects alone could shave 10 fps or more during hectic fights in Duscae. With all of the Nvidia features and optional texture download enabled, I found myself limiting the resolution to 1080p, even on a 1080TI GPU, just to prevent dips below 60 fps.

Lastly, Windows Edition supports the Nvidia Ansel and Highlight features, which allow for high resolution screen capturing/editing and automatic video capture, respectively. The Ansel feature I found super handy and I never had problems getting the Nvidia suite to hook properly in-game.  I did, however, turn off Highlights early on, though there are a number of toggles the can limit what all the feature wants to record. At default settings, you’ll find yourself with dozens of videos queued up within an hour of standard gameplay.

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While there’s a lot to like about Windows Edition, it’s not quite bug-free. Luckily, the largest issue that I had with the game’s display configuration was fixed last week, where the game’s fullscreen mode was implemented in a way that caused certain configurations a lot of headache and didn’t include the option for a borderless mode. While I initially had to run the game with a third party application to prevent display bugs, since this update I have had no issues with the game in either windowed or exclusive fullscreen.

There is also a widely reported issue where the game seems to hitch a tad due to frequent callbacks to the Steam API. I noticed this as well when the game would state I was running at 60fps yet I still felt a level of choppiness to the image despite what the meter was showing. There is a third party mod that reportedly helps alleviate this issue.  Some level of uneven framepacing has been reported as well, but not to the degree that we’ve seen in other Final Fantasy PC efforts, such as the XIII Trilogy.  This might have also contributed to the slight level of choppiness that I noticed despite my framerate being reported as steady in-game.  Within the overall package of the game though, these issues remain relatively minor and fixable, which is something that can’t be said for all of Square Enix’s PC ventures.

All in all, Final Fantasy XV Windows Edition is the best console-to-pc port that Square Enix has produced to date. On top of that, the Royal Edition is the best version of Final Fantasy XV – so far, and even if only just. The route taken to get here has been a bumpy one, needlessly long with and perhaps without the most efficient direction, but the journey here has left us at a better place than we were at starting out. We know that there’s still several miles of road left to go though, so it seems like this trip has not quite found its end just yet.

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