Final Fantasy XV, the new mainline entry of the legendary JRPG franchise has finally been released after a 10-year development and I couldn’t be more happy about this. During the last 10 days I played this game for over 70 hours and I think that I have seen enough of the game to formulate my final opinion on this game. Please note that while I will try to avoid major story spoilers, it can always happen that I will mention things that some people consider to be spoilers depending on how sensitive you are. Therefore read this piece at your own risk.
Final Fantasy XV can be a really odd game. At its best, the game is bombastic, exciting, brilliant and things fall neatly into place, but at its worst the game feels disoriented and messy. This strange mix seems rather fitting for a game that had such a lengthy and problematic history. And yet, the team at Square Enix has managed to deliver a really enjoyable game that is more than just the sum of its parts and that instills confidence in the series as a whole.
The Prince and his entourage
Final Fantasy XV takes place in the world called “Eos” and the player takes the role of Noctis, the Prince of the Kingdom of Lucis, who is on his way to the City of Altissia for a political wedding with the former princess of Tenebrae, Lunafreya. He is accompanied by 3 companions who are his royal servants as well as longtime friends. Hajime Tabata, the director of this game, has made it clear from the beginning that XV would focus on the relationship between these 4 characters on this roadtrip adventure and except for guest apperances, the player will therefore stick with this 4-man party for the entirety of the game.
The interaction between these 4 throughout their journey is therefore one of the main pillars in this game and while the portrayal of these characters doesn’t reach the heights of for example The Last of Us, the group feels totally believable and over the course of the game you can sense that they care deeply for each other. Ignis is the calm and calculating member of the group who values reasoned decisions, while Gladiolus is the strong and straightforward tank who often assumes the role of a big brother for Noctis. Last but not least Prompto serves as the most lighthearted of those 4 and can come across as annoying, but is nevertheless an integral part of the whole group.
Character interaction mostly takes place outside of traditional cutscenes. During your journey on foot, in the car or on the back of chocobos you will listen to countless chats and banter between the party members and they often comment on stuff that has been happening in-game, be it about quests that you have accepted or handed in or about things they see in the game world. Everyone of them also has certain skills that are helpful for your entire journey. Ignis is a very talented chef and therefore cooks dinner for the group every night at camp which gives the party various buffs over the day. Gladiolus can find useful consumable items on the ground and Prompto can take up to 10 pictures with his camera over the course of the day. Everytime you camp or sleep at a hotel, you have the chance to look over the pictures that he has taken and can decide to share or save some of them. It’s a neat little feature and at times I was surprised by how well some of those shots turned out.
This is a fantasy based on reality
Speaking of this, the open world of Eos is beautiful to look at and I was really impressed by the visual quality and design of the game world, monsters and cities. Driving through some of the areas of the game made me realize just how good the game and the world look like and I caught myself taking tons of screenshots everytime I reached a new area with fantastic sceneries. It is in these moments when the game almost feels like a tourism simulator in which you gaze at wonderful landscapes, nice cities (Altissia looks amazing!) and enjoy good food in a restaurant next to the highway (I am not kidding, at times this game actually made me hungry!). I can therefore definitely say that the dev team managed to nail this feeling of a road trip that they were going for.
I am far from being a graphics whore, but despite me saying earlier that I hope for Square to leave their own engines behind in order to speed up the development process of other games, I now feel that it would be a waste if the Luminous Engine would not be used again, because it really impressed me. One particular aspect that I want to point out is the game’s lighting which is one of the best I’ve seen thus far and stays consistent over the course of a whole day cycle and even works well at night.
But what can you actually do in this game?
As with many modern Open-World games, the open world of XV is also filled with tons of stuff to do and things to discover. NPCs in every area offer plenty of sidequests which unfortunately mostly consist of boring fetch or killquests. In addition they only rarely offer any substantial reward except for experience, gil and minor items, which is a real shame and definitely one of the weaknesses of this game. The party can also participate in hunts which require you to take down specific mobs, which can be quite challenging at times and serves as one of the best sources of Gil in this game. While exploring the huge game world Noctis can find treasure items lying around or can gather cooking ingredients or mine different metals. The map is definitely filled with lots of icons, but it doesn’t feel as overblown as in the usual UbiSoft open world for example.
In general, the game definitely encourages the player to explore and it happens often that you encounter a huge beast that is still too strong for you to take down or a tomb of a former king in which Noctis can aquire royal arms or one of the many dungeons in this game. While some dungeons are mandatory for the main story quests, the majority of them are optional. I’d recommend everyone to visit as many dungeons as they can though, since the dungeons in this game are definitely one of the highlights for me. Never before in a JRPG have I experienced dungeons that were as atmospheric as the ones in XV and I can’t remember ever feeling so tense while in a dungeon. Many of these dungeons are really dark and the group has to use their flashlights to be able to see anything. Mobs sometimes jump out of holes or behind rocks and managed to jump scare me a few times. I actually had to remind myself that this is a JRPG and not a Survival Horror game at times. The dungeon music is also great (although I would have wanted more variety at the end) and enhances the already great atmosphere, but more on the music later.
Learn to love warp strikes
The Action-Combat in this game was one of the main things I was worried about before its release and while I still have issues with it, I am surprised by how much I actually liked it during my playthrough. The game basically provides you with 2 combat stances: Offense and Defense. While holding down the Circle-Button Noctis will attack your enemies and you can adjust the type of attack by moving your left analog stick. While holding down the Square-Button Noctis will evade (nearly) all attacks that target him, but this continously costs MP. On paper, this sounds extremely simple and it would be easy to assume that the combat basically boils down to “Press Circle for Awesome”, but in practice it’s actually not that simple, but much more dynamic. In most of the fights you will not fight only 3-5 enemies as you may be used to in older FFs, but sometimes up to 12 different enemies at the same time. Knowing when you can be on the offense and when to back down and to defend is crucial in order to not get overwhelmed.
Noctis also has the ability to throw his weapon and to warp to its location which serves as the major pillar of XV’s combat since this move is so versatile. Noctis can use it to initiate combat by directly warping at an enemy and hitting it, to warp to higher ground where he regenerates MP, to disengage from an enemy or to dodge attacks without pressing the dodge button. Learning to use this ability is key and not only does it look flashy, but is also incredibly fun to use. Hitting an enemy from behind also inflicts higher damage and can activate link abilities if one of your party members stands close to you while you do it. You can also ask your team members to perform certain skills that have various effects and can be really helpful in the heat of battle. Noctis can also switch between weapons mid-fight and the game offers a variety of different weapons with different movesets. The attack animations are mostly well made and the heavier weapons have a good sense of weight behind every swing. There is also great visual feedback for when you hit enemies since they visably flinch or break down when you hit them. They can also lose part of their horns or armor when you hit them at certain spots (the sound effect is actually quite satisfying to hear as violent as it sounds).
The main issue I have with the combat is that it falls into the same pitfalls as many other (mostly) Western AAA games in which animation is prioritized over responsiveness (Witcher 2 is a good example of that). What do I mean with this? In many games developers want the animation of the characters to be as realistic as possible and it can therefore happen that a character doesn’t immediately does an action when you press the corresponding button since he still hasn’t finished his animation. This also means that you can usually not cancel animations and it can lead to getting hit although you pressed the dodge button in time. It’s also strange to see when your companions cannot use their team-skills because they can’t walk past certain enemies that block their way and seemingly walk against a wall. I get that it’s more realistic that your companions don’t always have the space to come to your aid, but I personally don’t care about too much realism in game combat situations. Don’t get me wrong though, animation locks don’t always have to be bad. In games like Monster Hunter or Dark Souls you are forced to commit to the whole animation while attacking which forces players to think about whether it’s worth to hit the enemy at all, but they nevertheless never feel unresponsive when they don’t need to be.
The camera is another problem, especially in narrow areas since you sometimes completely lose the overview over what’s happening and it’s really hard to adjust the camera manually everytime this happens. I had the feeling that they improved it with Patch 1.02, but I still encountered issues until the end. Some story boss battles were also quite disappointing since they feel strongly scripted and gimmicky and don’t let you use the skills that you have acquired over the game (these bosses, are usually the worst kind of bosses..). All in all I really enjoyed the combat in this game though because it had enough depth and still managed to feel incredibly dynamic and satisfying despite its issues, which was a positive surprise for me.
The story is a huge mess
Many open world games traditionally have troubles with storytelling, since the chances that players get distracted by the amount of things you can do in the open world is pretty high and FFXV is no exception there. But even knowing this, the narrative in FFXV is without a doubt the weakest part of the entire game and will probably disappoint many. I don’t want to go into too much detail with this because of spoilers, but there are several reasons for this: First, the pacing is all over the place. The game is special in the sense that it is only half an open-world game, since the second half is mostly linear in order to focus on the storyline. Forcing the player to focus on the storyline at some point is okay in my view, but it feels off when you barely experience any story sections in your first 30 hours and then are bombarded with stuff all at once. Second, the way the story is being told is bad. As I said, there are only few story bits in the first half of the game and the only way to find out more about events that are occuring at the same time is to listen to other people’s conversations or to listen to the radio in various outposts. This means that a lot of story development happens off-screen and the player has to try to collect these bits and pieces on their own. This is an approach that works in other games like Dark Souls, but not in a game in which the narrative is very important for the overall experience, since I am sure that many people missed important parts. Even in the second part there were instances when important character development was hidden in documents the player had to read and it really felt like a cheap cop-out to not show things in more detail. Another issue that fits this problem is the fact that the anime OVA “Brotherhood” as well as the movie “Kingsglaive” that were released before the game are in my view not just companion media that add to the experience, but rather essential in order to get the whole picture. In my opinion these additional media should never be essential in order to enjoy a video game! Third, I felt that the overall narrative didn’t know which direction it wanted to take. It’s hard to explain this point without spoilering, but I felt that the second part of the story completely didn’t fit the exposition that was being built up in Kingsglaive and in the first part of the game which made me wonder whether they just couldn’t decide between 2 major directions the story could have went for and just decided to combine both…
In short, the story aspect of this game is bad and this is a shame since I know that many people play this series because of its narrative. Square has announced that they will try to patch certain aspects of the story and to add some cutscenes, but I honestly doubt that this will be enough to save this mess. At least the most important scenes were audiovisually impressive I guess.
Amazing music with issues
Having said that, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Shimomura is amazing as expected. The producton value is extremely high and also the musical quality stays high throughout the game. Even long after I finished the game there are still countless themes that are stuck in my head . Especially fans of epic choral battle themes will love the countless battle and boss battle themes that the game has to offer.
Unfortunately, there were issues with the music in this game as well. First, there are too many instances when there is no music in the game. Entering a town, an outpost or Hammerhead was always accompanied by their themes playing as you’d expect, but moving into the field doesn’t change the music immediately. Instead the game doesn’t play any music until maybe 30-50 seconds have passed. The field themes in this game are great (although there could be more of them), but it takes too long until it starts playing. It doesn’t help that it gets interrupted by battles, entering towns, entering the menu or opening the map since all of these have their own themes. It wouldn’t be so bad if the field theme would immediately continue after exiting one of these instances, but it doesn’t and you have to wait for 30-40 seconds again. The chance that you don’t do any of the things I mentioned above in a timespan of several minutes is nearly zero, unless you decide to stand around and do nothing. This means that you might never hear the complete field themes of this game which is more than just a shame! I was also disappointed that driving in the car doesn’t have a default theme. It’s a cool idea that you can listen to tracks from older FF games in the car, but considering the fact that I spent quite some time in the car, it is unfortunate that I mostly associate it with music from other games than with XV’s own music which hurts its own musical identity imo.
Another problem, and this is probably connected to the story issues, is that certain tracks are almost never used although they are great and based on their title even important and that most of them only appear in the story-focused second part. Noctis’ own character theme for example can only be heard ONCE in the whole game and you can’t even listen to it completely since the scene cuts off in the middle of the track. I could imagine that these are non-issues for a lot of players, but since I am really invested in game soundtracks, I am disappointed that such a great soundtrack has been used in such a suboptimal way. I pre-ordered the limited edition of the soundtrack and I can’t wait to give it a full listen, but the use of it in the game leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
As I have already written at the beginning of this review, Final Fantasy XV feels like a weird game with its ups and downs, but despite the countless issues that I had while playing it, the goods definitely managed to outweigh the bads. I really enjoyed travelling and exploring this vast and beautiful world with a group of believable friends and fighting cool-looking monsters in atmospheric dungeons while listening to great music tracks. This game is far from perfect, but as an overall package, the game managed to be something that Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t: fun. My expectations were reasonably low because of the development history, but after playing the game I have to say that I am positively surprised and that this is probably close to the best outcome that this whole odyssey could have seen. Let’s hope that Square Enix has learned its lesson and that we won’t have to wait another 10 years for Final Fantasy XVI to come.