Seeing as it's been a decade in development, Final Fantasy XV is one of the most ambitious games ever created. Now that it's out, has this ambition steered the team in the right direction or did it get the best of them?
Before we get to the review, I should discuss my background with the Final Fantasy series so you know where I'm coming from. My first in the series was the original NES game so I've been playing Final Fantasy ever since it debuted in the west. Years later, I fell in love with Final Fantasy II (AKA IV) then III (AKA VI) absolutely blew me away and it remains my favourite in the series (tied with XII). I purchased all of the subsequent Final Fantasy games on release day and enjoyed them all. Yes, even XIII to a certain extent. So, would I consider myself a fan? Absolutely.
When Final Fantasy XV was announced (back when it was known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII), my interest was piqued. The idea of an action-oriented spin-off set in the same world as Lightning's sounded very cool. As I watched it evolve throughout development and form its own identity in the process, I was looking forward to a contemporary open-world experience similar to XII but more futuristic and stylish. After trying the Duscae demo, I knew that I was in for a treat as it delivered exactly what I was looking for. That being said, the combat felt a little flat but I had hopes that it was just of a taste of what would be in the full game.
Throughout the past handful of weeks, I worked my way through the entirety of Final Fantasy XV while writing a series of play journals to chronicle my experiences. I take pride in the fact that I complete games before reviewing them and Final Fantasy XV is no exception. Anyway, now that you know where I'm coming from going into this review, I hope that you find my assessment to be fair.
Final Fantasy XV puts you in control of Noctis, a soon-to-be king who travels with his three buddies on a quest to marry his betrothed and bring justice to a threatening empire. Upon beginning the journey, the visual feast on display will impress almost any gamer. The Final Fantasy series has always strived for top-notch production values and XV continues this trend. The characters are beautifully animated as they run through the plains, slash away at monsters, have the wind blow through their hair as they drive their convertible, and even sit and chat by the campfire. Additionally, the environments can be simply breathtaking with gorgeous day / night transitions, hazy distant cities, and vast flatlands that end at rocky peaks. To accompany the beautiful sights, an equally phenomenal orchestral score provides a layer of ambience that always suits the current situation. It truly is a pleasure to witness Final Fantasy XV's world.
As the story progresses, you'll experience many unforgettable stand-out moments. Anyone will be filled with wonder as they watch enormous gods arise from the abyss to take out demons, intense intimate one-on-one battles, and plenty of utterly surreal sequences. Unfortunately, these are mostly shown through cutscenes so you could essentially get the same feeling from watching a movie. The voice cast does a decent job of bringing life to the characters during these scenes, too. Some characters' voices and dialogue (I'm looking at you, Prompto) will probably get on your nerves after a while but the actors portray their respective characters quite well for the most part. All of this being said, your enjoyment of these characters will ultimately rely on your fondness for hanging out with the same four young men for hours at a time. Obviously, not everyone will relish the opportunity.
After playing through the prologue, it's time to hit the open road. That's right; the four buddies actually drive a car everywhere together. This is a huge part of the game and also a significant departure for the Final Fantasy series. Sure, Final Fantasy XII was open-world, but you certainly didn't drive a convertible around Ivalice. Anyway, the world itself is rather impressive with many sidequests to take on, NPCs to meet, monsters to slay, and treasures to find. You could spend dozens of hours simply exploring and still discover new goodies. Although it's enjoyable to do so, it also feels out of place. More often than not, the story has some urgent matters that need resolving yet Noctis instead decides to catch red frogs in a pond for a scientist. I'm sure he'll make a great king!
Traversing the world via car is monotonous to say the least. Unlike most other video games, you can't fully control it. Instead, it snaps to the designated pavement and ensures that you follow the rules of the road. Thankfully, you can trust Ignis to take the wheel but doing so means that you literally have to sit there and watch your party have awkward conversations until they reach their destination.
Believe it or not, the combat is more-or-less on autopilot, too. In order to take out enemy forces, you hold circle to keep attacking and square to dodge oncoming blows. Sure, there are a few other features that allow you to use items, warp to cliffs then dive down and attack, issue special commands to your friends when the appropriate meter is adequately full, switch weapons on the fly, and summon astrals. However, these tacked-on features aren't staples of combat so you primarily just hold circle, push square when prompted to avoid an attack, then tap circle again to retaliate. It makes every battle feel like a series of quick-time events as opposed to a comprehensive combat system. It's unsatisfying, mindless, and takes a lot of potential completely out of the equation.
Final Fantasy XV begins abruptly by putting you in control of Noctis and his pals almost immediately after the short introduction. As a long-time fan of JRPGs, one thing remains constant: they usually start slowly as to allow the player to become accustomed to the characters and their world. For example, exploring the protagonist's hometown while talking to the locals and slowly revealing the cast establishes a bond between the player and the characters that they'll feel for the next hundred hours of play-time. However, the fact that you're supposed to just care about Noctis right off the bat with almost no exposition is ludicrous. Even after completing the entire game, I still don't feel an attachment to any of the characters. Besides that, the story itself similarly keeps trucking along without any pre-established reason to be invested. Generally speaking, Final Fantasy XV is like watching a play that you showed up late to.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Final Fantasy XV is the constant waiting that you're subjected to. Besides the frequent and lengthy load times which can last minutes, there are many in-game moments where all you do is wait. I already discussed how watching the characters drive their car to their next destination is mind-numbingly boring but other parts such as having to run around a train as you wait for it to arrive are inexplicably tedious. Even when you're exploring the open-world which you'd think would be uninterrupted, you can "fast travel" to certain spots yet doing so causes an unacceptably long load screen to pop up. Seeing as this beast of a game hogs more than 50 gigabytes of your hard drive, why are the load screens so annoyingly frequent and lengthy? How come the developers didn't make these screens interactive like in Symphony of the Night? How come music doesn't even play? Did they even play their own game before releasing it? If they did then surely they'd notice how infuriating the constant loading is.
Overall, Final Fantasy XV is definitely a memorable tale told with impressive production values. However, it's plagued by gameplay that basically plays itself, insufferable wait times, and a story that fails to establish itself before thrusting you into its world. In the end, Final Fantasy XV disappointed me as a huge fan of the series but I'm still looking forward to the next adventure. Hopefully, Square Enix goes back to their roots and allows gamers to be immersed in their fantasies yet again.
- + Lovely visuals, fantastic soundtrack, and some truly memorable story sequences
- + Open-world areas are enjoyable to explore
- - Gameplay feels like you're on autopilot whether you're travelling or fighting
- - Poorly established characters and plot
- - Far too many long load / wait times