Final Fantasy games have always held a special place in my heart, let alone in gaming as a whole. For many, it serves as an entry into JRPGs in general, while for others it’s a unique JRPG that is appealing despite its genre specifics instead of for them. This iteration in the franchise has been long awaited, incredibly hyped and is totally different from versions we’ve seen before… and it was worth the wait, lives up to the hype and redefines what makes a Final Fantasy game.
It’s impossible to look at every aspect in this review. Instead, I will focus on a few core elements: combat, party mechanics and skills; the world; story and characters.
Combat, party mechanics and skills
Final Fantasy XV is unique in that it doesn’t really follow typical party mechanics. In previous Final Fantasy installments, as well as (J)RPGs in general, you can decide on the composition of your party, choosing which character you want to control. This time, while you can upgrade your party members as you see fit, as well as kit them out in your desired gear, you will always play as Noctis and you cannot choose who joins you for the journey. For the most part, your party is comprised of your guards and friends, Prompto, Gladiolus and Ignis, although some other characters might join your party depending on certain story or quest conditions.
To the novice player, Final Fantasy XV combat might appear extremely simple. If you are so inclined, you can probably get through most of the game by mainly pressing the attack button, watching Noctis rail on his enemies with a flurry of attacks. However, there really is a lot more to it, and players are awarded extra EXP and AP (points used to level up and upgrade abilities, respectively) if their battles have a certain degree of finesse. How do you get more finesse? Warp strikes, combo links with your party members, parrying and countering enemy attacks and the use of your party members’ special abilities.
Each party member can equip a special technique to be used in combat. These range from armor piercing attacks to making the party regroup and recover HP, to encouraging Prompto to take more pictures. Players can also equip magic, incredibly powerful elemental attacks that are treated as consumables. Players need to craft these, which is actually a lot of fun but pretty poorly explained in the game.
Outside of combat, each character also has unique skills that can be nurtured through various activities. Noctis has a passion for swimming, and players can spend time at various fishing points around the world while he catches the local trout or barramundi.
This links in nicely with Ignis’ skill – he cooks for the group whenever you make camp. These dishes can make use of the fish Noctis catches, as well as other ingredients found through combat or foraging around the world (or you can just buy ingredients in cities). The meals provide helpful buffs for the party for the following day, including HP or attack boosts. Gladiolus’ skill is survival, helping him to find additional potions or other items when he cleans up the battlefield following combat.
Prompto is the chronicler of the group, taking myriad photos throughout the journey which are displayed when you rest for the evening, giving players the opportunity to save the best ones in an album. He starts off taking some pretty awful pictures, eventually becoming quite an impressive photographer by the end. I didn’t think I would care about these, but it was actually quite fun to look back on everything the group did since last resting, and he captured some fabulous moments and images in the game. This actually ended up adding a lot of emotional and character depth to the game, which was a big surprise for me.
The world in Final Fantasy in vast and varied. There is a lot to see and players will probably want to make use of their car or chocobos to get around quickly. However, with treasures, ingredients and secrets hidden around the landscape, players who take their time will also be rewarded. That said, some of the distances and timings seemed a bit odd to me – a quest would be 0.5 miles away, but it would take my party a couple of hours of in-game time to run there. I’m no Usain Bolt, but even I can traverse half a mile (0.8 kilometers) in less than an hour. The same goes in the car, where I added an upgrade so that I could drive 60mph, but still seemed to take half a day to drive three miles.
Still, it was impressive to see just how large and detailed the world was, something enhanced by an important (and dangerous) day/night cycle, as well as dynamic weather. The world is further brought to life by party comments about it – when it starts to rain, the characters will talk about how much the weather sucks, or when it becomes dark they will comment about needing to make camp soon. Players will also encounter a rich cast of non-player characters, from quest givers to peripheral characters in the story. The more you explore, the more people you will meet, each with their own stories, experiences and perceptions.
A critical flaw is apparent in the map, though. Presumably in a bid to avoid the clutter that so many open world games face, only major landmarks such as outposts, parking spots, treasure and resources are visible on the map. To see quest markers, players must make those specific quesst active. This means that you might explore a new area and not realize that you could complete several side quests at the same time. It was irritating, especially when I was trying to clean up my side quests or level up quickly in a particular area.
Story and characters
As intrigued as I was by the additional media surrounding Final Fantasy XV, I purposely avoided it before playing the game. Instead of watching Kingsglaive and Brotherhood, reading the prologue and checking out all the additional storytelling, I decided to rely solely on the story and characters presented in the game itself. It ended up giving me a mixed experience.
The story itself is fairly common for RPGs in general and JRPGs in particular. You play as Noctis, a young prince who isn’t really ready or sure about taking on the responsibilities that lie before him. However, when tragedy strikes, he needs to gather strength to defeat the darkness and bring back the light. Fairly typical stuff for the genre, and it isn’t told in a particularly new or different way. In fact, many details of the story are unclear and downplayed.
However, the characters are what make this Final Fantasy the most poignant and memorable of any in the franchise’ history. Because players can’t choose who is in their party, there is room for a lot more development of the characters. When it rained, Ignis would remind the player to put on a jacket (if you’re wearing an outfit without one) or else you would get sick. Noctis might complain about being too warm, only to have Gladiolus tell him to take off his jacket, leading to a conversation about who has more muscles. Prompto appears making silly faces in his selfies, or capturing a serious moment with Ignis cooking. They discuss the video games they like to play, the quests they are on, and aspects of the story. It is warm and meaningful, and when tragedy strikes it feels much more real and impactful.
However, while I cared deeply about the four main characters, I wasn’t nearly as emotionally invested in the other major roles. In fact, at a point when something predictably tragic happens to a secondary character, I didn’t actually get upset until it turned out that in the same incident something unfortunate happened to one of the main characters. Then I was pretty devastated.
It seems that Final Fantasy XV could use a bit more storytelling to make us understand more of the backstory, more of how we got here, and what the implications are of the various events throughout the game. However, players shouldn’t worry that they won’t understand what’s going on. Even without backstory or depth of understanding, the road trip and journey of the game is so enjoyable and immersive as it is. It’s not a perfect game or experience, but it is by far the best Final Fantasy game thus far, and sets a new bar not just for the franchise, but for JRPGs in general.