When I think of a Final Fantasy game, I think of mesmerizing stories and exhilarating gameplay. Some of my most cherished gaming moments came from the series or another created by Square Enix. Safe to say, then, that Square Enix publishes some of my favourite games. So when Final Fantasy XV finally came home to roost, I tempered my expectations but was still wildly excited to dive right in. And dive right in I did since I received the title early last week. You might be asking why the review is coming out now, almost two weeks later? Well let’s just say I played the game more and more, until near one hundred percent completion, hoping things would get better. Hoping things would make sense and all would be revealed to fix this middle of the road JRPG. Sure the exhilarating gameplay and vast exploration options are present, however, usually that is all wrapped up nicely in a finely tuned story of emotional journey. That’s not the case here. If you haven’t already checked out our review in progress, you can do so here. It goes into my first fifteen hour impressions of the title and I summed it up into “a very weak yay.” Sadly, that has turned into a just ‘OK’ type of feeling.
Our story begins when the vast kingdom of Insomnia is ransacked and destroyed by the Niflheim Empire. The latter has been acting weird the past decade and has acquired advanced technology to aid them in their world domination, the former being host to a long-standing tradition of kings who have ways of communicating with the gods and are charged with protecting a crystal that held the gods’ power. Before the invasion the current king, Regis, sent away his son, Noctis, to a safe location with his bodyguard, Gladiolus Amicitia, adviser, Ignis Scientia, and close friend, Prompto Argentum. This rag-tag group eventually hears word that their home has been conquered and the Empire has won. From here the rest of the story is traversing the world to acquire power from former king’s tombs and from the gods themselves. That’s it. Noctis’ journey felt incredibly like a straight line instead of a winding road. Too much point A to point B if you will. There wasn’t enough twist and turns or even any complexity to mix it all up.
Other Final Fantasy games built their world in a way that meant that you could access any story missions within it. XV did the opposite and crafted its story before the world was truly seen. Mostly all plot related missions took place within a closed-off portion of the map that you couldn’t access until you reached a certain point. This wasn’t a terrible occurrence but you felt a disconnect from the huge open world around you. There will also be a disconnect in understanding the story itself. It’s incredibly loose, nonsensical, and lacks maturation. Characters would just know things or do the most illogical things to move the story along. The writing just wasn’t up to snuff when compared to previous entries in the franchise. Not only that but you could literally remove more than half of the “important” characters in this tale and it wouldn’t change in the slightest. I was left wondering why some people were even involved. The only explanation I could come to was that this was repackaged from Final Fantasy XIII Versus and the development team worked with what they had. The main players that were necessary for the story just weren’t developed properly. There was no effective character development and when Square Enix tried to be emotional or catch you off guard, it lacked the necessary oomph. I didn’t grow to care for any of the characters, whether because their horrendous lack of screen time, wondering why they’re even here, or simply they weren’t given enough time to develop as characters.
The end in particular was a disappointment because I didn’t feel any connection to the characters (besides our main four which I’ll get into soon) and because you had no clue what was going on because the story wasn’t fleshed out. I eventually scoured the internet looking for an explanation and luckily came across a person who pieced things together in a logical way. Sadly, people making sense of the story and its themes didn’t bring me to suddenly care. If only the plot was realized some more or characters actually served a purpose, I would feel one of the emotions that the ending should elicit. The tone also felt all over the place. There were a few times where I genuinely didn’t know if I should be feeling sad, happy, or excited. Let me be clear though, I am actually depressed that I couldn’t enjoy the story for what it’s worth because it lacked substance. Usually when I spend fifty or more hours in a title, I grow fond of the protagonists and want to see their journey through so they can finally be at peace. That didn’t happen here, which is unfortunate because there were a few instances in Final Fantasy XV where I felt like I should be emotionally invested enough to care. As far as Final Fantasy stories go, this one joins the FF13 series at the bottom of the barrel. To be fair, however, there are some truly awesome set pieces within the story. The scale of the battle or enemies was enough for me to lose myself in. Unfortunately, it says something about a title’s action scenes being bombastic with the story falling way behind. Michael Bay, anyone?
Gameplay on the other hand is this game’s redeeming factor. The combat system is real-time action based. You’ll be able to see enemies or creatures as you approach and decide whether or not you want to engage. Once you do you’ll be able to take them down with a variety of weapons, magic, summons and linked attacks. Weapons can be acquired in shops or when mooching around former king’s tombs, although those will drain your health slowly when used due to their power. Magic is actually created in the menu between fire, ice, thunder, and items. You can choose how much of each element goes into a spell (the higher the potency the stronger and more area it covers) and what items it can be combined with. Depending on your experimentation, some spells will net you combined elements or even a status effect attached to your magical usage. There are only four summons in the game but they are entirely badass. You only get them through the story and by golly are they huge. They are the gods you seek favor with after all. Once you reach the requirements for each one’s usage, they’ll tower over the battlefield and rain down death-dealing damage. And, no, you can’t decide when they are summoned. Linked attacks are also pretty awesome with your three compatriots in tow. By hitting an enemy from behind, parrying correctly, or selecting a link attack from the HUD will cause Noctis and his friends to work together on a strike that is both exquisite at times and life saving. You’ll also utilize an evasive maneuver that is easy to use as pushing the square button. It will drain magic points slightly but it never hampered me. What also drains your MP is the ability to warp around the battlefield and strike down your enemies with it. Noctis has the ability to teleport to any point where he throws his weapon. So you can teleport rush your opponent with an attack or retreat to recover health, which is rather handy. Items can also be used conveniently on the fly to restore health, magic, remove a status ailment, etc.
The most important part of the battle system though is the lack of turn based combat. There are no meters to wait for or turns to be taken before you engage in a fight. Well, except once you use a magic spell you then have to wait for that meter to charge back up before you can unleash your wizardry once more. But you can hack and slash at your will and Final Fantasy XV is all the better for it. Things feel fluid, dynamic, and as mentioned before, exhilarating. What doesn’t feel as such is when you are KO’ed. Once your or a buddy’s health bar is taken down to zero, another bar will appear and slowly drain itself. In that time you have to use a curative item or walk up to an able teammate so they can pat you on the back and give you some health. Even if this bar depletes you’ll still have the option to use an item if you have it. This is probably the only aspect of the gameplay I didn’t like. Not once through the entire game did I die. Yes, you read that right: I didn’t die once all throughout a Final Fantasy’s story. I think Square Enix took the notion that this was a game for first-timers as well a little too far.
The interface of the menus and the general HUD were all incorporated nicely. At no time did I feel overwhelmed or not know what any given bar or text meant. The pause menu was quite simple and is where you go to select a character’s equipment (clothing, weapons, accessories), peruse the map, select active quests, and look over the lore and story regardless of how weak or unsatisfying it was. In this menu you’ll also access the Ascension nodes. These act as a way to make your people stronger with new abilities and functions. However, easy as it may be to implement changes, not a lot of the unlocks felt incredibly necessary to make my band of brothers stronger. Gathering EXP from whatever activity and resting at a campfire or hotel to implement said EXP into the characters did a lot more. This is the part where I’d say make sure you save often so your earned EXP isn’t lost at death, though as I mentioned before, death isn’t really a risk. You may, however, die of boredom thanks to the offensively long loading times.
The open world itself though is quite huge and it seems all the more larger due to the slow nature of travel in Final Fantasy XV. The game’s world is fully explorable, though you’ll have to slog through the first few story missions before you can go wandering around. It’s essentially just one big plot of land that is open to you at any time via walking, driving, or using chocobos. The environments are also very diverse. There are deserts, valleys, forests, mountains, ash covered earth, a volcano, and more to explore at your leisure. Pretty and color-popping as it might be, the graphics do not do the world justice. They are by no means bad or put down the game in a major way, but they are no better than when Final Fantasy XIII released seven years ago. For example: tree branches look smudged until you get up close, enemies’ detail won’t set in until you’re within their range, clothing on our heroes doesn’t properly distinguish small things like buttons, rocks appear to lack given detail, and more. Again, these don’t truly hamper the game like more important things do but it’s definitely noticeable. Cutscenes on the other hand are gorgeous as always.
Questing and side missions are pretty straight forward. Happen upon them in the open world or receive them from diners or specified people. They’ll involve killing creatures, delivering items, checking up on certain situations, collecting key objects, taking photos, and fishing. It’s not very complex and some may even find them repetitive but they do give you a reason to explore the game’s world. Regardless, don’t expect to get invested in any set mission. It’s as simple as go here, do what you need to, and come back for the reward. Lastly, there are a lot of them. So much so that I had more fun creating my own story with the characters, traveling, and exploration while completing the side missions.
The last thing I’d like to touch upon is the voice acting. The actors/actresses did a phenomenal job, especially when you consider what they had to work with. In fact, the only facet of the story and character interaction I enjoyed were between our four heroes. The witty exchanges, inside jokes, and the straight out conversations Noctis, Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto had were a beacon of light in an abysmal story. Granted, I didn’t come to truly care for them as I should have but I was most involved when things happened to these specific four. The voice talent really did a great job expressing a wide range of emotions (even if you don’t feel them yourself). Another piece of art is the soundtrack of the game. It is well orchestrated but there wasn’t any standout track or sounds that caught my attention. Even in Final Fantasy XIII there was at least ‘The Promise.’ This doesn’t take away from the game as a whole though. That honor belongs to the poor story and poor script.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a physical version of the game bought at retail at the expense of the reviewer. It was reviewed with the latest patch available (1.02) and was played on a base PS4 console.