About a year ago, in last December’s ‘most anticipated feature’, I wrote that Final Fantasy XV was my most anticipated game of 2016, and after a near ten-year wait, it finally arrived last week. Before I get into the review however, I should state that at the time of writing this, I am yet to fully beat the game; I am well into the story and am in the final few chapters, but have not reached the journey’s conclusion. What I intend to focus on here however, is whether the game is true to its opening statement: ‘A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers’.
That message is shown proudly every time you boot up the game, right before you get to the main menu, and Square Enix have made a push to get Final Fantasy back into the upper tiers of gaming success. After the somewhat disappointing XIII Trilogy and the original version of Final Fantasy XIV Online — before being remade as the excellent ‘A Realm Reborn’ — it is not unfair to say that the franchise was starting to buckle under its own weight. But now Final Fantasy XV is out there, you can see it on most buses going up and down Oxford Road, and how does it stack up? In keeping with the idea of a game for ‘fan and first-timers’ I shall take two approaches: on one hand a review of the game for those entirely new to the series, alongside how the choices and changes might be seen to a long-time fan of the series. I myself have play a few entries before this, namely I, VI, VII, X, XIII, XIII-2 and XIV (Realm Reborn).
For those unfamiliar, Final Fantasy has largely been known as a turn-based JRPG set in either large worlds that showcase either a traditional fantasy setting — castles, wizards, crystals, etc — or a more futuristic aesthetic — steampunk, factories, guns, motor transport, etc. XV is none of these. Instead it has tried to buck the trend and place itself as ‘a fantasy based on reality’, but what does that mean beside seeing American Express logos in shop windows and an in-game mention of Vivienne Westwood? XV is intended to be grounded in a world that could feel real, but with little dashes of magic of wonder thrown in: you could be driving your car, the Regalia, down the highway, stop off in a town, eat at a restaurant, go do some fishing and then camp one night. The next morning you might then go off in search of an astral giant that powers a city with the energy from a fallen meteor, come face-to-face with a storm god, or just ride around the countryside on a Chocobo — the big yellow birds.
For those familiar to the series this is a welcome change, and sits nicely alongside previous entries whilst offering something fresh. Whilst not identical in premise, it reminds me a bit of how the Dark Knight films tried to make a more grounded setting for Batman.
The story centres around the journey of Noctis and his three friends, Ignis, Promto and Gladiolus, as they are sent out by Noctis’s father, King Regis, to meet Luna for Noctis’s wedding. As is common in these games however, the trip takes a turn for the worse and turns into a much larger narrative, dealing with large and personal themes, ranging from a war between nations and the threat of the world ending, to how Noctis and his friends relate to one another, and individual moments like Ignis cooking dinner whilst you camp, Promto wanting to run a photo-op, or Gladio taking you out for training. Despite it being easy to discuss the larger arcs of the story, these intimate moments between friends are better experienced for yourself, and Square Enix have acknowledged this, by having Promto take photos throughout your journey that you can save to an in-game album of 150 images total. These photos are individual to each player, so no two games will have the same exact album.
From what I have played of the story so far, it has reminded me at time of the narratives of VI and X more than any others, but still retains enough of its own identity to stand by its own merits. However, I would strongly recommend that before playing you watch the Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV anime — it’s short and free on the official YouTube channel — as well as perhaps seeing the film Kingsglaive, which runs parallel to the opening of the game. Whilst not required, it certainly gives you a much better sense of who is who and what is going on in this world, as when the story begins, the four main characters have already known each other for years and it can feel a little like you’re jumping into a story that started a little before you got here.
In stark contrast to most other games in the series, combat is now fully in real time, and is somewhat similar to that of Kingdom Hearts but with a more fleshed-out system: Disclaimer: I have not played any Kingdom Hearts games, this is based off what I have seen and been told by those who have. Whilst some die-hard fans may be a little unsure of this at first, the system works very well, apart from a camera that can’t always keep up. The system is very simple to learn, but becomes deeper the more you get into it. Perhaps the only let down is the use of magic, which has been cut back to three basic elements — Fire, Ice and Lightning — and are essentially very flashy grenades that can be buffed to give added effects such as poisoning enemies, or healing your character. I could go further into the combat system, but then we’d be here for quite a while…
A final point that I only discovered whilst playing the other night is how players should react to the pacing of the game, which towards the end can get a little odd. In a reversal of XIII’s structure, the world here begins very open, and once you get to a certain point in the story it begins to shove you down more of a corridor. At this point you can start moving through the chapters at quite a clip, but then reach a place where you will be slowed down a lot, which can be a bit jarring as you are still locked on the path. The only place where I became concerned about this was when I was fighting through enemies around my level, before facing a boss that was many levels higher, and so was essentially impossible to defeat. This was the point however where I found out that from save points — there was one right before the boss — you can travel back to ‘the past’ and continue your journey in the open world from earlier, and ALL your levels and experience carry over, which was not made entirely clear. It does feel a bit odd however that to progress the story you may have to jump between the actual chapters, and the open world of the first half of the game, but you could always avoid this by just levelling up your character more than you should a little early on.
I wish I could talk more about Final Fantasy XV but then I’d be here for days trying to unravel every single element. Basically, the game is amazing but not perfect, yet the flaws are so small they fade in the background. As a jumping-off point, XV is a great place to be introduced to the series, and is also rewarding for fans. It took ten years, but it was worth the wait.