Final Fantasy XV represents a bold change of direction for the iconic, longevous franchise. Booting up Final Fantasy XV, the screen simply reads “a Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers”. Long-awaited and repeatedly delayed, FF XV has evidently drawn inspiration from a range of role-playing and action/adventure games released over the last decade, making a concerted effort to appeal to a broader audience than ever before. Diehard fans have waited ten years which makes it an exceptional risk. It pays off, Final Fantasy XV as a sum of all its parts amounting to a truly heartfelt, tremendous experience.
I had little attachment to the Final Fantasy franchise, but almost immediately I connected with XV. A brief tutorial and self-guided tour explaining the lore of Eos gives you the confidence to jump into what is set out to be a narrative rich and mechanically deep, potentially hundred hour adventure. From there, the visually impressive pre-rendered cut scenes sweep you off your feet and the whirlwind adventure begins.
Overall, the story’s pacing is strong. Certain sections of the gameplay drew out a little longer than they needed to be. Plot points are skipped over and only alluded to in loading screens between chapters. However, climactic battles smoothly transitioned to more personal, human struggles as the character’s relationships developed as the focus of the game. Initially unable to really form a particular attachment to any of the characters – especially Noctis as the lead – I soon began to grow rather fond of the crew as they developed with the story addressing their flaws.
You quickly acquire an increasingly powerful arsenal, go through countless ups and downs, victories and losses, and battle through huge-scale set pieces all within the first few chapters. Meanwhile, you’re mucking around with your merry band of mates, taking selfies, flirting with inappropriately clothed mechanics and cracking jokes.
There’s a clash of tone in this game; moments of epic, high-fantasy drama and human conflict with emotional turmoil, clash with the deliberately obnoxious puns and the goofiness you’d expect from four mates on a road trip. But it’s not necessarily the banter you’d expect from those cause up in the midst of a possibly apocalyptic battle. It’d be almost endearing in a way if it didn’t feel so jarring and disjointed.
Voice-performers do a tremendous job with what they’ve been given considering dialogue tends to be a miss for most of the time. The soundtrack is a mix-mash of apt popular songs, enchanting vocals courtesy of Florence Welch and soaring orchestral themes the franchise is known for. I took fault with the annoying Chocobo theme, bearing in mind you’ll have to listen to it on repeat as you complete side quests. Everyone’s got a different taste though right? Thankfully, the majority of the soundtrack is genuinely captivating and greatly contributes to the adrenaline inducing, jaw-dropping set pieces.
In the ten years it’s been in development, Square has clearly been paying close attention to the competition. I see elements almost resemblant of the Elder Scrolls games, Metal Gear Solid V, the Witcher, Far Cry, the Last of Us and Uncharted. That is to say the open-world thankfully provides variety, a vast array of side quests and bounties, options on how to approach a conflict, frequent enemy encounters, resources to collect and place to explore or sight-see. There’s even moments of stealth and survival horror. It’s as if the game – even if only for a moment – pays homage to some of the greatest games released during its development.
However, recent releases have drastically raised the stakes and if scrutinized piece by piece, FF XV falls short of soaring to the heights set by these titles. To its detriment, the open-world does not grant you a huge degree of freedom; you’re often blocked off or funneled around. Decent environmental variation and stints in dungeons provide a welcome change in scene. Final Fantasy XV is caught between a traditional, story-oriented Final Fantasy and the present expectations of an open-world action-RPG, without being exemplary of either.
Where the game excels is without a doubt its combat system. As the first true, real-time action combat system in a core Final Fantasy game, it’s perhaps the key reason why the game is more likely to gel with new players. It’s fast, fluid and responsive. Combat rewards experimentation and absolutely requires careful strategy and technique. The game deliberately puts an enormous arsenal of weapons, spells, powers, techniques, items and aids at your disposal with the expectation for you to use all of them in a tough fight. The difficulty ramp demands adaptation but does not cause frustration. Lenient saves and abundant options to train or grind mean you always have an option or a temporary out.
This feeds into one of the more intuitive inventory and progression systems I’ve encountered within an RPG. It’s deep without being overwhelming. Preparing for combat, levelling up, and managing your party and inventory feels less like a chore. This instead contributes to making FF XV hugely enthralling. Even after an eight-hour session, I was reluctant to put the controller down, considering the character progression prospects of completing just one more quest. Considering you’ll largely being doing the same thing between quests and side-quests – that is, going and killing something – that is a testament to just how good the gameplay is.
Often in an attempt to appeal to everyone, you can appeal to no one. However, in the case of Final Fantasy XV, we have a rare exception. It sits comfortably somewhere between a traditional Final Fantasy experience and the Western action-RPGs currently setting new standards. A slightly muddled tone, narrative shortcomings, and a little too restrictive open-world are faults largely forgivable due to the game’s robust combat system. The benefit of ten years of development is evident in the fine tuning of the combat mechanics over the apparent attempts to keep up with the current open-world action-RPG trend. To quote Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
Final Fantasy’s greatest achievement however, is creating a JRPG that can serve as an entry point to the sub-genre for a new audience. It’s accessible but not lacking the depth or sophistication that you would expect from a Final Fantasy title. It’s an amazing, heartfelt, satisfying and exhilarating but ultimately, we must judge a game by what it claims to be. And indeed FF XV is a Final Fantasy for “Fans and First-Timers” alike.
For the purpose of this review, Final Fantasy XV was mainly played on a PlayStation 4.