Ten years in the making, the fifteenth (but not really) Final Fantasy is one of the strangest games we’ve played for a while - but that’s no bad thing.
When you sit back and think about Final Fantasy XV, a mixture of emotions wash over you. As a fan, there’s relief that it actually exists and you can play it. But how it got made at all, and how it ended up in the state it shipped in, is fascinating.
Announced ten years ago as a completely different game, then switched to newer hardware and a completely different game engine, before replacing its director and finally breaking ground a decade later? The very definition of development hell.
Despite it often feeling like the most Western game in the series yet, it is tied to the past in ways that are baffling, and sometimes a bit of a shame.
One problem lies with the story. The developers presume you have seen the tie-in prequel movie, Kingsglaive, to such an extent that for a good while, you will honestly have no idea what is going on aside from the very basic key facts.
It’s like a greatest hits of the series’ storylines, which is to say it’s not awful, but certainly not great. Even if playing as Prince Noctis, heir to the Lucis throne, with magical abilities to phase in and out of space to warp across the battlefield, sounds lke an absolute blast.
A STORY BROUGHT TO LIFE BY THE PEOPLE
Aside from that, it’s a while before you really learn too much of note.
Noctis and his friends Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto, are on a road trip to meet his bride to be Lunafreya (whom he seems fairly delighted to be marrying, as they’re childhood friends). She just so happens to be something to do with enemy nation Niflheim, and this is a key to a peace treaty (which, obviously, goes wrong immediately) between the two warring countries.
Such a middling story is genuinely elevated by some of the characters. We say some, because XV also suffers from a very Eastern-designed approach to females. Cindy, the daughter of series-stalwart Cid, is the first we get to talk to, and she's wearing a crop-top coat barely covering a bright yellow bra.
It’s jarring to see such backwards design in an otherwise delightful world, and it’s unnecessary.
Elsewhere, the mixture of accents and names (from Prompto and Gladiolus to… well, Dave. No, seriously) is bizarre. Cindy and the people in her region speak in a Southern American drawl, yet in the same area you meet a reporter with the most New York of New York accents we’ve ever heard, that could only be more New York if his catchphrase was “Forget about it!”.
ROAD TRIP, THE GAME
Forget all that, though: the core four-piece gang is just delightful.
Each is stereotypical in their own way, but they work as a unit because they genuinely come across as friends. They all talk about what’s going on in their lives as you travel around, and actually come across, well - exactly like a bunch of friends on their first road trip would do.
One thing you can’t complain about, is how Final Fantasy XV sticks to its guns. Levelling up has changed, and it’s really interesting. Now, you bank XP after a fight, and it all levels you up when you rest at a camp.
These moments don’t just provide you with a chance for you to strengthen your group, but another opportunity to see the lads interacting with one another as friends, playing cards, or just having a laugh, as well as bookending a lovely day of adventuring.
WANNA FIGHT? FIGHT ME!
Everything about the combat system feels designed to create a more streamlined version of a series we’ve been playing for decades, so potions and elixirs are just things you can quickly take during a fight, rather than dig for through the menus.
This extends to your interactions, too.
While you only control Noctis in a fight, you can have your buddies help out by telling them to do special moves. If you time a button press right, and are positioned well, Noctis will jump in for a strike at the end of the attack.
On first inspection, there’s a temptation to say that the combat is just “hold the button to attack”, but as you progress, weaknesses and strengths appear, and you’ll have to switch between your four chosen weapons to get the most effective attack.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
Enemies won't wait for you to take a turn, so you'll get attacked while planning your next move.
Holding a button will defend, and if you time it right you can even parry the enemy. While it never goes all the way towards being a full Devil May Cry or Bayonetta-style combat system, you can certainly surprise enemies with a backstab, or a combo from your team-mates. It’s rewarding, and looks amazing on-screen.
For those yearning for the days of old, Square Enix has included “wait” mode. Here, you can pause combat and study the enemy, allowing for a more slow paced, methodical combat system. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t feel as though any of the encounters have been designed with this in mind, and most people will go with the default system.
Since so much of Noctis’ warping uses magic, you can always phase to high vantage points to recharge instead. These vantage points serve another purpose, too: planning out a battle ahead of time, if you can sneak up and gain the higher ground to see the lay of the land.
The combat feels quite unique, and is something you’ll love or hate. We loved it, it’s exciting and offers so much customisation thanks to the usual amount of accessories, weapons, and magic that the series is known for.
SO MUCH TO DO, SO MUCH TO SEE
The story is a little shorter than expected from a Final Fantasy game, but XV's brilliance is in its wonderful open world. It feels vast and, especially in the early game, allows for exploratory rewards.
People will offer you mundane side quests, sure, but there are also the hunts - basically a mini version of Capcom's Monster Hunter series, somehow shoehorned into a Final Fantasy game.
Every party member has their own skills which play into the open world: Noctis is a keen angler (all young lads love to fish, right?), while Prompto is an amateur photographer who actually takes selfies and snaps pictures at random as you play, allowing you to pick and share the best ones at camp each time.
Ignis is a chef, and you can find new recipes for him to cook for you at the end of the day. These also give you a stat boost, so that adds another layer. Then there’s Gladiolus, the big burly dude who is an expert survivalist and can find you useful supplies.
LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION!
Unfortunately, whenever you leave the colourful outdoors for a dark dungeon, lit only by the torchlight of Noctis and friends’ mobile phones, the battles can tend to descend into a battle with the camera.
It doesn’t always happen, but losing sight of yourself in a fight that’s not turn based is a problem. It’s not unique to this game, of course, but a tighter reign on the sweeping camera would work wonders inside.
Elsewhere, you can see the money dripping on the screen. On a PS4 Pro with HDR turned on, and the settings on “High”, this is a gorgeous game. It may have taken ten years to make, but this is a game that, visually, can compete with anything else on the console.
Final Fantasy XV Verdict
There are moments where XV feels like Final Fantasy only in name - that’s how fresh a take on the series it is. This is a story about four young men, and it’s full of heart.
Despite the fact that the over-exaggerated, almost J-pop, boy band-like friends should annoy us, they just don’t, and you find yourself in the moments away from the game wishing you were back with it.
It’s a mix of ideas that feel sandwiched together, but the combat remains fun throughout, and there’s something incredibly compelling about the world it all takes place that begs you to take your time and explore all the nooks and crannies.
While the story is standard fare for the series (the pacing is a little strange after the first few chapters, and it gets rather linear towards the end), Final Fantasy XV stands tall as a welcome return to form, and an exciting look at the potential future for the series.
It might not have seemed possible, but Square Enix really has delivered a game that is for fans and newcomers alike. Bravo.