Final Fantasy XV Review — A Gorgeous World and the Best Virtual Friends I Ever Had

on December 6, 2016 7:33 AM

Final Fantasy XV is finally running on our consoles,  after ten years of waiting for Final Fantasy Versus XIII first, and then for its new incarnation under the direction of Hajime Tabata. Games that stay in the oven that long, most of the time end up fairly underwhelming. Yet, every rule has exceptions, and Final Fantasy XV is that exception.

The story is fairly simple, at least on the surface: in a continent torn by decades of war between the Kingdom of Lucis and the Empire of Niflheim, young and lazy Prince Noctis is forced to face his responsibilities, and to travel with his three friends/bodyguards to the city of Altissia to marry Lunafreya. While the wedding is dictated by political convenience, engineered to serve as the bargaining chip for a truce between the two warring nation, the perspective of marrying the lady who happened to be his childhood sweetheart doesn’t look all that bad to Noctis.

Of course, things go south: Niflheim doesn’t really have any intention of respecting the cease-fire, and while Noctis and his friends are away on their trip, Lucis’ capital is attacked and conquered. As his world collapses around him, Noctis is forced to shed the mantle of the lazy nobleman, and to cease being the protected to become the protector, with the help and support of Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto, who have always been more like close friends than simple attendants.

One of the peculiar elements of the story is also potentially a weakness: there is a lot of expanded storytelling that Square Enix injected in a CGI feature film (Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV) and in a short anime series, Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV.

ffxv-2

This is great if you’re willing to watch them, but it’s not ideal if you aren’t. The game can be enjoyed on its own, but the view on the story and the characters is certainly more complete and compelling if you watch the movie and the anime. While Brotherhood is freely available on YouTube, which means that there really is no reason not to watch it (unless you hate anime, I guess), Kingsglaive is sold separately, so you have to pay an additional toll if you want to see the whole picture.

This is not to say that it’s not worth it: both Kingsglaive and Brotherhood are awesome, but it’s still a narrative choice that can put off some, due to the additional price tag. On the other hand, if you don’t mind dropping a few more bucks, the experience is greatly enhanced by the further depth and breadth provided by the show and by the movie.

To bring an example, the Brotherhood anime series showcases how Noctis and his companions became friends years before the game, and there will be moments in the game itself when they will reminisce about those events. Those moments are still impactful and enjoyable if you haven’t watched the series, but if you have, they’ll be twice as powerful and heartwarming.

The story itself becomes more and more complex and at times a bit convoluted as it proceeds towards its latter half, but that’s pretty much standard fare for Final Fantasy games, and I found the overall plot very enjoyable, even thanks to a cast that is, most of the times, really lovely and genuinely likable.

ffxv-11

Most of the narrative weight is on the “four bros,” Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. I can certainly see how some would be disoriented by them. They’re not exactly ideal role models for modern fantasy heroes, and for the most part they feel like four normal dudes that you’d meet at your local university.

They’re also a bit trope-ish on the surface: Noctis is the lazy, rich boy who has been pampered for his whole life and desperately needs to grow up, Ignis is the super-smart glasses guy who always retains his composure and always has a logical solution for every problem, Gladiolus is the jock with a heart of gold, and Prompto is the immature jester.

I said “on the surface” because there is a lot more depth behind the tropes, and character progression, especially for Noctis, is one of the most interesting and most engaging that I have seen in quite a while.

Incidentally, their apparent normality also ends up being one their strongest points: as characters, they’re extremely relatable, and it’s very easy to just join the fellowship and ride along on their road trip. Joining them for a meal under the stars is relaxing, and truly makes you feel like you’re among friends. I started really caring about them very early in the game (much earlier than in most games of the genre), and that feeling only grew stronger as the story progressed.

This fragile normality, of course, is also what makes the story even more impactful when things really start going wrong.

ffxv-25

While most of the rest of the cast gets a lot less screen time, there are several gems even among them, including some who appear only seldom, even if it’s hard to go in depth on this without dropping into spoiler territory. Yet, the cast, while unbalanced (four boys as protagonists could be a bit too much for some), is really enjoyable overall.

Ultimately, the peculiarity of having four young men under the spotlight nearly all the time, allows Final Fantasy XV to tell a story that you see very seldom in basically every kind of media: that of a deep and intense friendship among men, made of brotherhood, camaraderie and at times even clashing differences, that create a very compelling and interesting ensemble. It’s extremely far from the cookie-cutter parties you see in many JRPGs and RPGs (including previous Final Fantasy titles), and that’s exactly what makes it so special.

Interestingly, the means of storytelling depart slightly from the usual Final Fantasy fare: while there are still plenty of cutscenes to underline the main events of the game, a lot of the narration is done via banter while actually playing. The four main characters talk a lot among each other, exactly like four friends would do while traveling together. Almost every landmark, location of interest and situation has dialogue associated to it, very naturally conveying what the player needs to know and much more.

On top of that, there is plenty of dialogue that appears to happen semi-randomly, making the main characters feel alive and delivering further background and information in a pleasant and organic way. For crying out loud, they will even talk appropriately and dynamically about the clothes you put on them, in relation to the time of day and weather conditions.

Incidentally, a lot of that banter is also genuinely light-hearted and funny, exactly as you would expect from four boys on a road trip.

ffxv-32

The story is enriched by an absolutely exceptional performance of the voice cast in the Japanese version, and by a quite solid one even by the English cast. While the star-level voice acting in Japanese is unreachable, the English voice actors did a good job in conveying their characters as well, keeping things mostly grounded and realistic, and avoiding the cringe-worthy characterizations you often see in lower-budget JRPGs.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the English localization: if you listen to it on its own, it’s certainly a decent script, but when you compare it with the Japanese original, even basic knowledge of the Japanese language will reveal that Square Enix’s localization department took liberties much bigger than what simply making the script elegant and enjoyable would require.

We are at the point in which characters often interact with each other differently than in the original dialogue, shifting the weight of relationships by quite a bit.

If you don’t understand Japanese, the best option is most probably to enjoy the original voice acting with English subtitles, but be warned that there will be plenty of cases in which they won’t say the same thing. When “This tunnel is really beautiful!” gets turned into “It’s like warping to another dimension!” you know that someone overstepped the boundaries of localization into the realm of authorship, which should never be done.

Add to that the fact that not all banter is subtitled – for instance subtitles for the greetings of many shopkeepers are missing – and you get a localization that could, and should, have been done much better.

ffxv-26

The other arm of the game’s audio, the soundtrack, is absolutely majestic. Composer Yoko Shimomura did a fantastic job with creating the game’s music, and we can easily say that Final Fantasy XV has one of the best scores of the entire series.

Tunes move from epic to dark and emotional, in a whole range of moods and hues of musical color that create something unique and beautiful. On top of that, Square Enix simply opted to unload into the game a large chunk of the whole Final Fantasy discography, providing tons of tracks from every main chapter (plus a few spin-offs) that can be listened to while riding the Regalia or traveling on foot. If you love music, Final Fantasy XV is almost worth its pricetag with the score alone.

Final Fantasy XV‘s visuals are extremely compelling, especially on PS4 Pro, with fantastic main character models and dreamy environments.

Protagonists and main secondary characters are beautiful under basically every aspect, upholding and expanding the Final Fantasy standard. They’re extremely detailed and expressive from their outfits all the way to every strand of hair, and they blend beautifully with the world around them.

On the other hand, rank and file NPCs are a bit of a weak point: while their outfits and costumes are mostly well designed and interesting, their faces are extremely lifeless and simple. While this isn’t different from most open world games (besides The Witcher 3, that does an exceptional job with its commoners), I expected a bit better from a game with such beautiful main characters.

ffxv-12

On the other hand, monster design is absolutely top-notch:every critter we’ll meet, no matter the size or the relevance, is beautifully designed. One of the strongest point of the idea of the “fantasy based on reality” at the base of the game, is that most of the animal lifeforms populating the world of Eos, actually feel like they could exist.

Mecha design is also very solid, with Niflheim’s magitek armors and ships coming with compelling looks, but at the same time still fitting the setting perfectly, never resulting out of place.

Animation is probably one of the strongest points of the game, with abundant use of advanced techniques like inverse kinematics and contextual movement. Our characters truly feel like they’re living and breathing beings, while enemies appear vicious and fearsome when they prepare to strike.

Environmental design is also fantastic. The open world of Final Fantasy XV is one of the most interesting and beautiful I’ve seen in a while, with a charming mix of normality and exoticism. Both natural and urban environments aren’t just beautiful. They feel familiar, but at the same time slightly alien. Yet, they make perfect sense within their internal coherence.

The world of Final Fantasy XV is an absolutely beautiful place, and I spent more time just traveling around in the Regalia and enjoying the sights than I care to admit. When you reach the city of Altissia, the visual spectacle reaches sublime levels. The only regret is that we aren’t given a chance to visit even more of this world, even if I hope that such a chance will arise in the future with DLC and beyond.

ffxv-21

There are a few flaws here and there, especially with some occasional textures that appear too low in resolution and definition, and some pop-in even on PS4 Pro, but most issues are dutifully hidden by one of the best lighting engines to grace the genre, bathing every location and its characters in its dynamic day/night cycle, which makes exploration and discovery even more pleasant.

Of course, a Final Fantasy game with a compelling story, awesome graphics and fantastic music is almost expected, but does the gameplay deliver? Oh yeah it does, at least in most cases.

The action battle system devised for the game is absolutely spectacular, and I don’t mean just the way it looks (and it does look fantastic). While at first sight the system appears simple, it quickly becomes apparent that most enemies require a lot more finesse than simply holding down the attack and defense button.

And there is a whole lot of room for finesse, with warp strikes, dynamic weapon switching, battle commands, positional link attacks, timed parries and dodges, Final Fantasy XV‘s battle system is one of the best I’ve seen in an action RPG, if not the best.

The mechanics are actually very technical, especially if you want to use all the tools at your disposal to subjugate your enemies. There are all sorts of subtle details that you can explore, like the ability to target and  break dangerous parts like horns and claws, and much more. Ultimately, there is a lot of room to find your comfort zone, approaching fights in many different ways.

ffxv-6

Magic is definitely an interesting element in Final Fantasy XV. Besides one system, that I won’t describe because it would be a spoiler, it’s based on gathering magical energy and crafting your own spells. You can find ice, fire and lightning energy scattered around the world. Once harvested, you can use it in combination with items to craft a number of spells that you can equip pretty much like any weapon.

Once equipped, you’ll have to target an area you want to hit, and unleash hell. There are two important caveats to keep in mind when you do: firstly, friendly fire is enabled, and while most spells won’t hurt your companions too heavily, it’s still advisable  to use them carefully.

The second element, and the most interesting, is that magic realistically interacts with the environment: if you throw a fireball in a grassy area, it’ll catch fire, creating an interdiction zone that will keep burning for a little while, hurting whoever steps into the flames. If you unleash a lightning spell while it’s raining, you better make sure that you’re quite far from the area of impact, because water will cause electricity to propagate.

It’s an extremely fun system to play with, especially after you learn the ins and outs of the combinations you can achieve, and how you can use your spells to their maximum effect. Unfortunately, this also marks a small shortcoming of the game, because it really does a poor job in explaining those ins and outs.

While it’s good to encourage a bit of exploration, I found that many are intimidated by the fact that you can create only a finite number of “charges” with each craft, and they tend too use magic too sparingly in order to save it, missing on half of the fun.

ffxv-30

Those who love traditional RPGs might be a little put off by the fully action-based combat system, but the development team came up with a way to mitigate the problem that is at the same time simple and very clever: if you enable “wait mode” in the menu, the game will automatically pause whenever you’re not moving, while still allowing you to issue commands. This gives you all the time you need to plan your next move. I will admit that, before trying the system, I was very skeptical about its effectiveness, but it works really well.

Unfortunately, the battle system is so quick and exhilarating, that the camera struggles to keep up. This means that there will be occasions in which it’ll end up being obstructed by elements of the environment, especially in tight quarters or in the most lush areas of wilderness. While this is far from game breaking, a more responsive camera is definitely something developers should focus on for future updates.

Another small but rather annoying flaw is that a few very relevant boss fights rely a bit too little on the game’s fantastic battle system, and a bit too much on pressing the right button at the right time, making them feel a bit cheaper and less exhilarating that they could be.

I also found an instance in which I could easily (and reliably) exploit the environment and poor pathing to prevent  one of the dungeon bosses from attacking Noctis at all, while I could safely bombard him with spells. While this isn’t a widespread problem, it would have probably been avoidable with a bit more testing, especially considering that the fact that it’s absolutely evident at first glance that the boss’ pathing is very confined and exploitable.

ffxv-14

Speaking of dungeons, that specific boss aside, they’re possibly one of the best parts of the game. Most of them are big, beautiful to look at, and present interesting mechanics to tackle. They’re also quite challenging if you delve into them at the right level.

Companion AI is another high point: Gladio, Ignis and Prompto act mostly independently, but they do so in a way that feels genuinely useful. They also act in a very different manner from each other, reflecting their personal characterization. I know that many would have preferred to be able to switch control between characters, but the advanced AI, combined with the fact that Noctis can use every weapon, largely make up for the lack of controllable companions.

Resting and camping are another interesting element, turning what would often be considered an absolutely mundane concession to realism into a very functional risk and reward mechanic. While you fight and complete quest, you acquire experience like in every RPG, but that experience is just a number until your party goes to sleep.

You have two main ways to rest. The first is to camp in certain areas of the wilderness. When you do so, Ignis will also cook a meal that you can choose among the recipes he has learned (provided that you have the ingredients), providing buffs for the following day. The second is to sleep at a hotel or similar paid accommodation. Ignis won’t cook one of his healthy meals, which means you won’t have his buffs the following day, but on the other hand you’ll get a bonus to the experience you acquired. The fancier the room, the better the bonus.

ffxv-19

You can still buy a meal at a local eatery, but selection will be limited, so you probably won’t get to micromanage your buffs as well as you could with Ignis’ cooking. Good meals are also rather pricey.

This consistently challenges the player to plan his days, pretty much like a traveler would do during a road trip. Do you try to get as much experience as possible before night time,and then go for a fancy hotel room to apply the best multiplier available? Or maybe you camp, giving up the chance to multiply your experience, but getting some nice bonuses for a challenging boss the day after?

In addition to that, we should consider that the day/night cycle is actually meaningful in Final Fantasy XV: not only nights are actually dark and scary, with your visibility limited to what the moon and the stars illuminate outside of the beams of your torchlights, but more dangerous monsters will appear to turn the darkness into a potential deathtrap.

Your mobility will also be more limited because Ignis will initially refuse to drive at night, and even when he’ll eventually accept to take the wheel, your travels will often be interrupted by the dangerous monsters mentioned above. Traveling after sunset is more risky, and this further enhances the value of the resting mechanics, working in perfect synergy with them to provide players with interesting dilemmas on whether to carry on or call it a night.

While the darkness can be scarier, danger is definitely not limited to the night, and this leads to one of the aspects of Final Fantasy XV that I enjoyed the most. In the vast majority of games nowadays, the enemies you face are solidly tied to your progression, unless you go out of your way to find more powerful critters.

ffxv-10

Even in open world games, the map is often zoned in a way that you’ll normally travel in areas with enemies of a level comparable to yours. While that concept is partly present in Final Fantasy XV as well, the game does not refrain to throw curveballs at your face.

You might be looking for a dungeon that’s part of a level 25 quest, suddenly find yourself staring at the wrong side of a level 56 Midgardsormr, and have to start running really, really fast. That is, of course, just an example. You’ll stumble into similar situations quite often, forcing you to tread carefully when you’re in an area you don’t know well. I find thisabsolutely refreshing in an industry that often seems to try its hardest to make the player feel safe.

Final Fantasy XV also comes with a metric ton of things to do, a myriad of side quests to perform, finding scenic photo spots, chocobo racing, fishing, collecting recipes for Ignis, music disks for your radio, customization options for your car, minigames and much, much more. There is also a very solid suite of post-ending content to let you continue playing even after the credits have rolled.

Looking at the game’s content, it almost feels that someone within the development team kept saying “this isn’t enough, let’s add some more.” Square Enix really went out of its way to provide as much value as possible within the world of the game.

On the other hand, it’s difficult not to notice that a whole lot of the side-quests are simple fetch or kill quests, and offer less variety than I’d like. To be fair, though, the degree of variety is improved by the rest of the side-activities that the player is showered with.

ffxv-27

Without a doubt, the most powerful item in Final Fantasy XV

Another issue, admittedly relatively small, is that there is too much to do compared to the progression pace. If you’re a completionist, and even more so if you use fancy hotels extensively, you’ll easily find yourself massively overleveled compared to the tasks that you’ll have to face. This can be mitigated by going out of your way to find tougher challenges, but the level limiter promised for the Christmas patch can’t come soon enough.

There is one element that will certainly prove polarizing: the pace of the game is very uneven. Moments of hectic and exhilarating action alternate in a seemingly random fashion with times that are absolutely relaxing and peaceful. This is actually rare in an AAA market that tends to try to distill the pacing of games in an almost scientific way. By contrast, Final Fantasy XV is almost anarchic, throwing many conventions and established “rules” into the recycle bin, and presenting a less structured approach.

While I can see how this can prove disturbing to some, I found it very enjoyable, as during most of the game you can easily adapt what you’re going to do to your mood. Want hectic action? You can find yourself a dungeon and you’ll have plenty of it. Feel like relaxing? You can enjoy some slow-paced traveling and quests, or maybe some fishing for that record catch that has been eluding you for a while, taking a break once in a while to enjoy a chat by the fireplace and Ignis’ food.

Seriously, I could get used to this life.

ffxv-22

All things considered, the best part of Final Fantasy XV is its world. It’s absolutely fascinating, full of exotic and beautiful landmarks that simply scream “explore me!” Both natural and urban environments are among the most impressive I’ve seen in a game of this genre, with quite a few places that I easily place at the very top.

Yet, it’s not just a matter of looks. What’s really striking is the density of detail. The development team must have gone to extreme lengths in order to devise entire cultures and ecologies. They didn’t just study what the people we meet in the game look like, but also what they believe, what they eat, where they work and how they have fun. The same level of detail, while on different parameters, has been applied to monsters and their ecology.

Final Fantasy XV entices the player to travel its majestic lands and its beautiful cities, and to look everywhere, because in every corner, in every nook and cranny, there is a new detail to discover, or a new hint to better understand the culture and life of the fictional inhabitants of Eos. Even if you stripped the title of most of its gameplay elements, it would probably still be the best walking simulator on the market.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy XV isn’t a game for everyone, nor the ultimate savior of the JRPG genre (which doesn’t need “saving” anyway), but it’s an extremely high-quality game that has a ton of content and fun to offer to those willing to embrace the quirks that at times will surface. It’s a bit overdesigned in certain areas, but the sum of all the parts ends up working exceptionally (and at time surprisingly) well.

It’s also a monument to the determination and dedication of a team that quite obviously poured an inordinate amount of love and passion into creating a fantastic world that is worth exploring and living, and a lovely quartet of boys that are exceptional in their normality and humanity.

I couldn’t ask for better virtual friends than Ignis, Gladio and Prompto. I laughed with them, cried with them, and I really love them.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.