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Final Fantasy XV Review: A Great Adventure Held Back from Greatness

I drive towards the quest marker in my custom blue Regalia. While Ignis drives cautiously through the open country, Noctis sits out of his set on the back of the car to get a better look at the surroundings. Galdiolus starts reading a book and Prompto leans over the side of the car, looking a little restless. All the while, Motoya’s Cave from Final Fantasy is playing over the radio. When we reach our destination, we kill a few monsters and go to turn in our quest. All is good until night falls and Ignis states that it is dangerous to drive at night. In my hubris, I scoff at Ignis and had Noctis take the wheel. Not five minutes into the drive, a massive daemon crawls up from the ground and sends us running. We struggle through the forest until finding a camp spot. While watching the level up screen, the four friends sat together playing a cell phone game with each other. It is moments like these that really helped get me invested in the world of Final Fantasy XV.


“This is a Fantasy Based on Reality”

Final Fantasy XV was first announced in 2006 as a spin-off game entitled Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Since then, the game has seen many significant changes including its planned console to be released on, the storyline and characters, as well as aspects of the gameplay. After many rumours of the game’s demise, it is understandable that fans of the franchise were very much worried about the quality of the final product. After spending over 50 hours with this game, I can say that there is certainly a lot of care and love put into this game’s development, but it is almost like you can see the staples that are barely holding it together. Overall, I think Final Fantasy XV is successful but has many glaring flaws.

Final Fantasy XV’s most striking feature is its surprisingly diverse open world. This is one of the game’s most impressive features as the nation of Lucis is a well-developed area full of secrets, dungeons to explore, and side quests to complete. The overworld in this game has a real sense of place thanks to how much time you and your pals spend wandering around the region. In the past, Final Fantasy has used many different settings such as European medieval, steampunk, and even straight up science fiction. For this first time, the setting is much more based on a contemporary world. Interestingly, Lucis is quite reminiscent of the US, complete with long highways, greasy spoon diners, farmlands and seaside cafes. As you travel through the world of Eos, you will find towns that are based on places like Shinjuku, Venice, and the Bahamas. The realistic setting is complimented by fantastical geography. Strange rock arches stretch across the horizon, rock plates jut out of the ground where a meteorite crashed into the ground and there is a flaming crater that powers a city. These geographical phenomena are absolutely beautiful from a distance but become breathtaking up close. I have spent more time than I would like to admit panning the camera around these areas just to get a picturesque view of my surroundings. It is a shame that such a fantastic setting is paired with a muddled story.


A Tale of Kings

Final Fantasy XV‘s story is confusing at best and poorly explained at worst. Before I talk about the story, I need to mention the supplemental material for the game. Before its release on November 29th, there was the Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV anime released for free on YouTube. The series had five episodes, each one focusing on the backstory of the main cast. The CG movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV acts as a prequel to the actual game. Both of these forms of media explain aspects of the game’s story. Without them, I would have been completely lost on some major plot points as well as the basic set up for the adventure.

But I digress. This game kicks off with Noctis and his beautiful friends pushing their broken down car to a cover of Stand by Me by Florence and the Machine. This oddly mundane opening serves to show the four main heroes familiarity with each other and sets the tone quite well for the next couple hours. The four are on a road trip to Altissia where the main character Prince Noctis is to be wed to his childhood friend Lunafreya while the mechanized empire of Niflheim signs a peace treaty with Lucis to end some massive war. Unfortunately, things go pear shaped when Niflheim does not honour the treaty and takes over the capital. Noctis along with his close friends Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto must gather mystical weapons known as the Royal Arms and put an end to the Empire’s tyranny.

The set up for the game’s main plot is as standard as they come. As it continues, things get a bit bogged down as certain events take place off screen, new motivations are introduced and backstories are glossed over. This is a shame because the world of Eos actually has fascinating lore that is actually relevant to the main story, but it is quite hidden within the game in a way that many players will miss. Other important plot points are simply not in the game. To better understand the story you have to either engage with media I had mentioned earlier or wait for the upcoming DLC. Square Enix has stated that they will be releasing a free patch to better explain certain aspects of the story, specifically a certain turn for a woefully under explained character. There will also be paid DLC that will further explain aspects of Noctis’s AI controlled pals.

This is a little frustrating because Final Fantasy XV’s story is so disjointed. Things start off building well and interesting characters are introduced but after a certain plot twist, things seem to feel very rushed, with major plot points happening off-screen and reveals being explained through notes clumsily placed in the environment for players to read. It does not help that the section where the story becomes muddled is during the most frustrating section of the game. The last few chapters of the game forgo the open world for much more linear story focused sections. The linearity itself is not an issue as you are given ample warning and can return to the open world at almost any point before the last boss. The issue comes in the form of how backloaded the final chapters of the game are. The pacing of the infamous chapter 13 grinds the story to a halt after things were moving too fast. Because of this, it felt stitched together awkwardly.


Stand By Me

Where the story falters significantly, I was still attached to the events and felt the most important emotional punches thanks to the main cast. Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus are about as archetypal as they come. While Noctis is the only one that undergoes major character development, each of these men are very well realized. Each of them has a distinct personality that play off the others really well. They also seem to have hobbies and quirks that make them feel like people. Gladiolus is the serious one, but he has a weird obsession with Cup Noodles that leads to a strange but entertaining quest. Ignis is a foodie who will yell “That’s it! I’ve come up with a new recipe” every time he discovers a new dish. Prompto will take pictures during battles and important story events making you question how the hell he got that footage. After major story events, the four friends will often chat about what just took place in a fairly organic fashion. During exploration, they will sometimes comment on the region you are in, landmarks you pass by or even ask you to pull over to check out a hidden dungeon. This serves as a simple yet effective way to show each character’s individual interests. They will sometimes comment on each other’s quirks or have randomized conversations during and after battles. A lot of these conversations do repeat so it can be a bit annoying, but there were a few that are surprisingly heartfelt.

Noctis: Got my back?

Ignis: Always.

Me: *Cries*

What really sold the relationship between these characters were the subtleties of their fantastic animations. During combat, the Noctis and his friends have very slick animations where they occasionally attack enemies together, really showing off how familiar they are fighting together. When the four of them are at a campsite or a hotel room, players will get to witness them chatting with each other, playing cards or eating together. One of my favourite of these animations involve Noctis, Prompto and Gladiolus sitting together playing a cell phone game with each other. Ignis is in the camper, so Noctis gets up and calls him over. After a brief moment, Ignis sits down, greets his comrades and begins playing the game with them. A lot of these moments lack any dialogue whatsoever and still manage to sell the close bond between these characters. The vast majority of the secondary characters do not get nearly as much attention to detail, but characters like the slippery Ardyn and the charming Iris really grew on me as I spent more time with them. Lunafreya, Noctis’s betrothed is a bit underserved, however. She has an incredibly important role in the story and shows incredible strength of character in a few cutscenes. Because of the poorly explained story, her actions seemed as if they were a bit of an afterthought despite how important they actually were.

But enough about these characters. How is the actual gameplay? That is a bit of a mixed bag.


Fight For Your Life

There has been a lot said about the combat mechanics of Final Fantasy XV. The game utilizes a real time action based combat system. In combat, you only control Noctis while the rest of your pals are controlled by a somewhat competent AI. The combat system is fairly simple with a few nuances. You hold one button to perform combo attacks with their equipped weapon. While performing combos, you can push the joystick in different directions to use different attacks. Noctis can equip up to four different weapons that can be switched out at any time with the d-pad, give you the ability to engage opponents with a variety of fighting styles. You hold a different button to block and dodge attacks. Dodging attacks like this uses up your MP (magic points). Certain attacks can be blocked and then followed up by a counter attack as well. The main crux of Noctis combat is his warp strike. Noctis can throw his weapon at opponents to warp into them from a distance and do some extra damage to enemies. He can also use this ability to warp to a safe point in the combat arena where he can recharge his health and magic. It also gives you a chance to see the combat arena from a distance and plan your next strike. If you run out of MP, you will enter “stasis” mode where you will be unable to warp or dodge until some of your MP regenerates. If your health reaches zero, you will be in “danger” mode and unable to attack until you heal yourself, one of your friends heal you, or you get hit once more and taken out.

Final Fantasy XV has a large focus on physical combat. Each of your AI party members has their own main weapon and a sub weapon that they can utilize in battle. Noctis’ friends are fairly competent when fighting and often take out as many enemies as you do. They will give the player and each other a boost when they are in danger mode or save you when you are getting mauled by a monster. The biggest downside to your party members is that they have limited defensive capabilities. Aside from Gladiolus who has a shield as a secondary weapon, they seem to lack the ability to block and dodge. Many times during combat I saw my friends run right into an enemy’s powerful attack time and time again, leading me to curse loudly while frantically healing them. During the more difficult fights, this became a bit of an annoyance. Having said that, their combat effectiveness cannot be understated. During periods of time when party members are gone, I found that I really missed their banter as well as their ability to make fights significantly more manageable.

Magic is a bit odd in this game. Rather than learning spells and using MP, you absorb magic from points in the environment, kind of like draw points in Final Fantasy VIII. By mixing Fire, Thunder and Blizzard magic, you will be able to make combinations of spells with devastating results. You can also add items like your curative, food or monster parts to the spells. For example, you can combine magic with the tail of a scorpion monster to create venomcast. This will blast the enemies with a magic spell and also poison them. Each created spell comes with a limited number of uses. You can equip spells as you would regular weapons. Spells in Final Fantasy XV are like grenades as you essentially hold the attack button to aim them or you can just tap it to unleash the spell on whoever you are currently targeting. Spells are incredibly powerful and can often effect the whole battle arena. Having said that, friendly fire is a real thing in this game. Your powerful spells can also greatly wound you and your party members if you are too close to the blast. Again, this is hard to avoid as your pals have an aversion to dodging. Because physical combat is the main focus, Gladiolus and Ignis tend to be very close to enemies and will often run right into the after effects of a spell. This is less often the case with Prompto as he fights with a gun but still happens too often for my liking. I will fully admit that I do not like the magic system in this game. It lacks a lot of the interesting spells and status effects from past Final Fantasy games replacing it with something significantly more limited. I used magic throughout my playthrough of the game, but I never felt like I was being as effective as I would like. Plus I almost always nuked my dumb friends.


As I stated earlier, the combat is simple with some nuances. Different directional input will perform different attacks with weapons. When using a spear, pressing the joystick towards the enemy will have Noctis perform a series of stab attacks while pressing it to the left or right will have him use sweeping attacks. As you advance your skills, you will learn new abilities that will give you more variety in combat like the ability to warp dodge and continue your combo in mid-air. If you dodge an enemy attack at the last minute rather than holding the dodge button, you will phase through their attack, rewarding you with using less MP and having an opening on your enemy. Circling around behind your opponent and striking from behind will result in hitting them with a blindside strike, resulting in extra damage. This also gives you a chance to perform a link strike, where you and one of your friends will team up and do a stylish combination move resulting in even more damage. These skills are always fun to watch as it not only shows how well the heroes know each other’s fighting skills, but it just looks damn cool. When Prompto and Noctis throw their weapons to each other to strike an enemy, it is quite thrilling. There are a surprising number of different animations so it is unlikely that you will get tired of seeing them. The animations are also quite snappy so I did not feel like they were interrupting the flow of the action. You can also equip your friends with techniques that you can trigger during combat. These skills use up a green meter called the tech bar that charges during combat. These attacks are often powerful and will even provide Noctis a chance to follow up with a quick time button prompt. While these skills are great, it is a bit frustrating that you can only have one equipped at any time.

Summons are… baffling to say the least. It seems there are specific conditions that trigger them as you cannot just call them at will. I would describe these conditions, but I am honestly not sure how they work. I say this because I have been in similar conditions during combat whether it was a boss fight or a regular battle and sometimes they are triggered, while other times nothing happens. It also seems inconsistent as to which summon will come forth. The summons themselves are very powerful and are visually impressive, but their use is quite annoying. For me, they kept being triggered during regular battles where I did not need them. Besides story-based sequences, I only had one instance of a summon being useful in 50 hours of gameplay.

As you can tell, there are quite a few features to the combat system, but ultimately I feel it is just too simple. While I like to use the different features to challenge myself, the vast majority of battles can be won with holding the attack and block buttons. Most bosses and regular enemies will pose little threat. I would suggest learning to use these techniques as it not only makes combat more fun, but it will also be useful for taking on the game’s optional bosses and dungeons. Frustratingly, one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to fighting is the game’s camera. It will get stuck between trees or caught on a wall at the most inopportune times. There were whole battles where I just had to hold the attack button and pray. The combat can be thrilling at times. When things are working well and your team is operating like a well-oiled machine, I found I was really getting swept up and having a lot of fun. But too often fights were too easy, the camera got in the way or my party would run right into my magic spells.


Taking a Load off

As I mentioned earlier, some of my favourite moments are when the guys are just hanging out. Luckily, this is an important part of your journey. When you camp, go to a hotel or a camper, you are your friends tally up your experience points and level up. If you camp, Ignis will be able to cook you some food that will give your party a limited stat boosts the next day. The food Ignis cooks looks surprisingly realistic. If you go to a hotel or a camper, you will not get a chance to cook food, but you will get a multiplier to your accumulated experience. As you gain levels and do quests, you will also gain AP.

AP or “Ascension Points” are utilized on The Ascension Grid. This allows you to spend points to gain abilities, increase your stats and teach your party members new techniques. The Ascension Grid is where you can increase Noctis’ combat abilities in order to make the act of fighting a bit more interesting too. The grid is fairly simple and easy to understand, but because the cost of abilities can be quite high, it is worth your time to plan out which skills you want to focus on and plan ahead.


There and Back Again

Playing Final Fantasy XV, you spend the vast majority of your time exploring the open world. While traversing, you will be going to places in your sweet custom car, the Regalia. The act of driving is a fairly automatic affair as you can have Ignis drive and act as chauffeur to you. While doing so, you can listen to a lot of selected tracks from past Final Fantasy games as well as a couple original tracks. While driving is pretty time-consuming and can be frustrating to do at night thanks to daemon attacks, I actually found it quite relaxing. I enjoyed panning the camera around to see the beautiful landscape while listening to my favourite Final Fantasy music. I can certainly understand that this can be boring to some players, but I actually found it to be quite soothing. You will also spend a lot of time walking around on foot, the controls are a bit troubling. Most of the time, traversal works well and Noctis has a real sense of weight when he walks around open spaces, but there seems to be invisible walls in strange places that block paths that you can access from other angles. The jump and interact button being the same adds to a lot of frustration as it seems to be somewhat touchy. More than once, I ended up jumping multiple times rather than picking up an item on the ground. Chocobos are back in full force and they are a ton of fun to ride. This time around you rent them for days at a time and can call them with an item until the rental time runs out. These adorable chicken monsters are great for running quickly across distances that your car cannot traverse. The frustrating part about Chocobos is that the control scheme becomes completely different and takes a bit of getting used to.

The various side quests in the game are mostly hunts and fetch quests. While some of them lead to entertaining battles, most of them are fairly uninteresting. Structurally, it seems Final Fantasy XV was influenced by games like The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it seems that they did not combine narrative with the quests in the same way that the aforementioned games do. There are a few quests that have a minor ongoing story for the characters involved, but these are few and far between. Much more successful are the secret dungeons and the vast number of Royal Arms that you can collect.

Symphonic Fantasy

The main composer for Final Fantasy XV is the incredibly talented Yoko Shimomura. She is known for her work on games like Street Fighter II, the Kingdom Hearts series and many of the Mario RPG games. Shimomura’s distinct style of music is very recognizable. Final Fantasy XV features an eclectic mix of understated background music, twangy country style tracks and engaging combat music. Many of the background area tracks are competent but do little to stand out. The combat tracks are significantly more successful in standing out. Thankfully there are a variety of battle tracks that you will hear depending on the location, time of day and the type of enemies you are facing. Standouts include the Cleigne Battle theme and boss themes like Hellfire.

Throughout the game, you will also be able to purchase many of the songs from past Final Fantasy games to use in your car and later on an MP3 player as you travel around the world. It is amazing to hear these iconic songs while enjoying the awesome setting that is Lucis, but it also serves to remind me that past Final Fantasy games have more iconic music. XV does not seem to reach the heights of its predecessors in this area. Even so, there are definitely a number of tracks that I find myself humming while not playing the game. All in all the music is a bit of a mixed bag.

At the end of the day, I really enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XV and I plan to continue going after optional quests. What will keep bringing me back it the interesting overworld, the great characters, and the cool secret dungeons. Unfortunately the story’s shortcomings, the frustrating controls and the fact that most of the combat is underwhelming detract from my overall enjoyment of the game. If you are a fan of Final Fantasy and/or have been waiting ten years to play this game, you will likely find a lot to like about Final Fantasy XV. Having said that, XV lacks a lot of the complexity of combat that can be found in some of the series entries. It becomes harder to recommend this game as there will also be content that will supplement the disjointed story and will hopefully improve the crippling chapter 13. Even so, I had a lot of fun with Final Fantasy XV and it is surprising that the game came out in a state that it is, for the most part, working quite well. The best advice I can give is to check your expectations. This is far and wide not the best Final Fantasy, nor would I consider this one of my favourites, but it is definitely an entertaining JRPG.

Final Score: 7.5

Nedu thinks Prompto’s puns are fantastic. He is not sure if this is because he has been playing Final Fantasy XV too long or because Prompto is clearly a genius. He is also a content writer for AYBOnline. His views are his own.

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