Finally, after more than a decade, and millions of dollars put into creating a larger scale universe, Final Fantasy XV is finally here. After an anime interlude called Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV and a full-length feature film in Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, the adventure all comes together.
Back when Uncovered Final Fantasy XV rolled out back in March, I admittedly never had Final Fantasy XV on my radar as a game to play. Once it ended, though, I wanted to play the game because something about it felt different than the recent titles that Square Enix put out. I felt like the game had something great behind it that had gone missing during Final Fantasy XIII and the following sequels. Playing it at E3 2016 this year, I was wowed by the visuals and the encounter during the demo, but it still felt a bit lacking and needed that refinement, which was remedied with a delay of two months. I had the chance to learn a lot more about the world and the incentive behind some of the decisions in the game and film when I met with Square Enix during San Diego Comic Con in July. It got to the point where even my own colleagues basically wanted me alone to tackle the review, as they saw how eager I was to play (I’ve been bubbling about it for weeks now).
The stakes for Final Fantasy XV are extremely high for Square Enix. After a struggle with their previous console release in Final Fantasy XIII, which suffered from linearity and questionable game concepts, the future of the franchise was put at stake. Despite a strong MMO release in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, it wasn’t quite enough to tide over the fans of the more traditional RPG. With games taking on an open-world design philosophy, like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild among others, it remained to be seen just how Square Enix was going to adapt and reclaim their throne as the kings of the RPG.
To be frank, it’s an excellent combination of traditional RPG values with open-world design – never aspiring to be one over the other but rather coming together as a duality. Your grand fantasy starts off not with bangs, bells, or whistles. Instead, it starts you in a very anti-fantasy type of event – pushing a car through a hot desert while Florence + the Machine croons “Stand By Me” in the background. It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve played to date, if not the nicest one I’ve gotten my hands on. For the first time in quite a while, the story was something worth getting invested into, even if it got a bit confusing later on. I would highly recommend exploring the different stories outside of the game in Kingsglaive and Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV, because it all adds more to the relationships and motivations of the cast.
The world in which Final Fantasy XV takes place, Eos, is expansive but not barren. It has a ton of things to go out and do or explore. Just as it was in Breath of the Wild, if you can see it, you can interact with it, even if it’s way off in the distance. Players can find joy in going off the beaten path and explore for hours on end using the car, the Regalia, as a means of travel. The game stays true to its RPG roots by including equipment systems, leveling up, and upgrades to gear found along the way. There are plenty of quests and side quests that give players a bit more insight into the mindsets of the cast, and while the game remains very open, it slowly becomes more linearized as the story heads towards its conclusion.
I very much enjoyed this story even with its somewhat predictable events that transpired. During the events of Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, the Kingdom of Lucis had fallen to the Niflheim Empire during a treaty signing that was supposed to bring peace. The story from Kingsglaive makes an appearance in the opening chapters and acted more as exposition, but the plot kicks off when Prince Noctis Caelum makes his way towards the beautiful coastal city of Altissia on his father’s behest to marry Princess Lunafreya Nox Fleuret from the autonomous kingdom of Tenebrae, a province now under the control of Niflhiem. When Noctis learns of the details surrounding Lucis’s fall, he takes on the role of upholding the family legacy to retake his home alongside his closest friends and advisors. This journey includes visiting various landmarks around Eos to reclaim the weapons of the previous Lucian kings, while at the same time battling the empire. Without spoiling things, the story has its fair share of twists and turns and gets dark later in the adventure, with a powerful ending that adds a whole new layer of tragedy.
If there was one thing that defined the theme of Final Fantasy XV, it had be the bond of brotherhood shared between Noctis, Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis. Their relationship is thankfully not glamorous anime boys with non-existent dialogue and interaction. They stand out, not just in the way they dress. Their relationships are varying and they come from various backgrounds. Ignis is the intellectual, groomed to be an adviser to Noctis, and Prompto is the comedic relief who plays a great shooter, whereas Gladiolus is more stern and serves as the bodyguard descended from Clarus, who served under King Regis. At the end of day, though, they’re all there to guide Noctis in his quest to ascend the throne and take back Lucis, while giving him a good time. Even though they suffered hiccups during their quest, it’s evident that they care deeply for one another.
As players explore, most the open-world portion of the game is just a flat-out bachelor party for Noctis before he weds Lunafreya. The biggest delight is in the small details and interactions with these guys, who become infinitely more relatable than a lot of the Final Fantasy cast that came prior. Instead of strangers banding together to save the world from cataclysm, players will find one of the main cast to identify with. In-battle banter makes things feel much more realistic, like interactions close friends would have with each other. When they travel in the Regalia, they just talk for a long time about events that unfolded in the story and their daily activities, rather than being strictly silent. Their conversations felt real, and even something as simple as Prompto with his goofy camera antics made for a much more realistic game. I felt like I was a part of the world, and these four buddies became good friends to me.
Besides the main four protagonists, there was not a lot of development of side characters and supporting characters save for the events of Kingsglaive and Brotherhood. A lot of these character arcs felt like they were hastily concluded in the last portion of the game, which pursues a more linear goal. Some material even felt skipped out. I wanted to know more about these side characters as much as I wanted to interact with the main cast, as there are tons of great characters. Characters like Iedolas Aldercapt and Ravus Nox Fleuret needed to be fleshed out a bit more beyond their appearances in Kingsglaive, because for some of these supporting characters it was difficult to ascertain the depths of their motivations. I couldn’t grasp the love story between Noctis and Lunafreya – they felt like platonic friends rather than the forced love story that attempted to blossom. It felt strictly political (even if it is!) and it left more to be desired. I admire the fact that Lunafreya is an independent character with her own sets of motivations, but her relationship felt tacked in to prove a point or provide a trope, with a stronger focus on Noctis and his friends.
Battling in Final Fantasy XV is hugely addictive. It’s not a turn-based battle system anymore, instead taking elements of Kingdom Hearts and its action-based fighting. While you only control Noctis during battle, his partners can be set to do specific commands to chain for big combos and damage. Warp striking is incredibly fun and addictive, as well as giving Noctis the opportunity to control various weapons. The only unfortunate problem with the battles is that the camera feels awful with large monsters, as it can sometimes get stuck with terrible angling that makes seeing what’s occurring a nuisance. Battling capabilities can be improved by leveling up and upgrading various equipment pieces and through status buffs provided by food cooked by Ignis at night. Getting rest is the means in which the characters level up, so be prepared to have lots of late-night cookouts.
No Square Enix Final Fantasy title is ever complete without a great soundtrack. Florence and the Machine killed it with the rendition of the Ben King classic, “Stand by Me.” It plays at such an opportune moment that drives the friendship home. Other tracks such as “Omnis Lacrima” are great pieces as well. The environment noises are all wonderfully created and add a layer of immersion to the game play; combat noises sound realistic and entirely pleasing to the ear. The thing about the music is that each piece plays a part in telling the overall story. As gruff as Noctis appears, his own theme has an air of vulnerability and it demonstrates a different aspect of Noctis beyond his royal upbringing. To be honest, I expect no less from a Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy XV is a game with its own share of flaws. What game doesn’t have issues though? After ten long years and conceptual changes that extend back to when the game was called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, there are clearly elements that still stem from that original concept. The thing is, this is all entirely okay when the player looks at the overall product. From the expansive world of Eos to the conceptual building of the storyline in Kingsglaive and Brotherhood, the game is a fine addition to the Final Fantasy franchise and contains all the core staples that made the franchise popular; at the same time, it adds modern game play design and open-world exploration, resulting in a strong duality that just works out well for the game. With addicting gameplay and a living world, this definitely is one of the better titles to come out in 2016, and just in time for the holiday season.