If you were to ask me what the common denominator is across the vast majority of my favorite games, I’d be able to answer you in about half a nanosecond: the characters. The RPG might be my favorite genre, but I’m hardly the sort to care about the technicals — talk about “crit rates” and the like absolutely puts me to sleep. No, for me, the biggest mark of whether or not a story-driven game is a success is whether or not I miss the characters when I have to step away from my system. I know I’m not alone; the digital friendships forged in games like Persona 4 and Fire Emblem: Awakening are written about by passionate fans every day. Now, after 10 years of waiting to truly meet the characters of Final Fantasy XV, I can confirm that their adventure is another one to add to the list.
I say “truly meet” because, of course, we’ve known about Noctis and friends since just after this game was announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII a decade ago. In that time, the story has changed and evolved a great deal — but I’m happy to say the essence at the heart of the team’s goal remains intact. Final Fantasy XV is a road trip, buddies-hanging-out sort of story, an angle that’s pretty different from the more serious and fantastic adventures of previous games.
There are fantastic elements here, to be sure: magical weapons, spells, ancient gods and Oracles, etc. Unlike the series’ previous offerings, though, the narrative here initially feels a lot more grounded than it ever has. Compare the over-the-top in medias res openings to Final Fantasy VII or XIII with this game, which simply has you pushing the boys’ car to a gas station.
I rather like the narrative direction here, though; as has been revealed previously, the game is split into open-world and linear segments. The first portion, the open world, gives us a chance to get to know Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto and the universe they inhabit. It’s an opportunity to see them in their normal states, goofing off and joking, while the stakes are still relatively low. These characters are appealing in the best way for a game like this: they’re funny and fun to be around, and hold an initially simple appeal that gradually peels away to reveal more complex personalities and backstories.
This outing marks a welcome change after XIII, whose narrative was so overstuffed with action and melodrama that it exhausted many gamers. Instead, there’s a real sense of pacing here, a gradual teasing at the grimmer machinations of the story that peels off layer after layer until the over-the-top finale. The choice to switch to a linear narrative midway might put some off, but I thought it made perfect sense and helped keep the story’s momentum going.
Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy XV marks about as bold a departure as Square Enix could have possibly made from the conventions of the series. I won’t be surprised if, among the longtime faithful, some controversy is stirred up about the big changes from past entries. You’ll hear none of that from me, though; to me, Final Fantasy has always been one of those franchises that remains fascinating because of its constant reinvention. And what a reinvention this is: beyond being the first mainline entry to play out battles in real-time, action-RPG style, XV also removes much of the complexity of past battle systems — distilling the satisfaction of combat down to its most visceral elements. Gone are the days of sifting through characters’ lengthy movesets: this time, you’ve only got Noctis under your control, and your choice of strategy comes almost entirely down to the gear you equip.
That might sound like sacrilege in a series that has built so much of its legacy on deep, complex battles, but I chose to keep an open mind — and have been rewarded with some of the most fun, visually exciting combat of any game in recent memory. The basic jist of it boils down to this: Noctis has four gear slots, each of which can be accessed on the fly by using the D-pad. These slots can be used to equip weapons too numerous to count: flaming swords, lances, crossbows, pistols — and yes, the series’ beloved magic spells, from Blizzard to Firaga. And in addition to fighting alongside you automatically, you can also call on your allies to perform special moves or trigger “link” attacks by meeting certain conditions on the battlefield. In the end, your two basic actions are mapped to just two buttons on the controller: use the attack button to chain together “blitzes” or parry enemy blows, and use the defend button to avoid or block their attacks.
Remember when Final Fantasy‘s random encounters instilled that sense of dread that you’d be thrown off your game when you were just trying to navigate a dungeon? At least for me, that never happened while playing XV — if anything, I couldn’t get enough combat. I think my favorite part is Noctis’s ability to warp, which makes battles a lot more dynamic and exciting than they’ve ever been.
I recall watching Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and laughing at how sluggish the turn-based battles of the game were compared to the free-flying action of the film. Now, we’ve come closer than ever to that sort of combat; with just a press of a button or two, Noct can go zooming across the screen to strike an enemy or take higher ground. It looks and feels satisfying in a way that has to be experienced to be understood.
When you’re not in battle, Final Fantasy XV still offers a bunch for you to do. During the open world segment of the game, there are sidequests and hunts galore to participate in. A lot of these involve trekking across the massive world in search of items or monsters to kill, as is customary for the genre, and admittedly a good few of the quests feel like filler rather than actual fun.
Thanks to some easy fast-travel options courtesy of the gang’s car, the Regalia, a lot of the trouble of trekking about — a major complaint in games like XII — is reduced. You have to actually drive to various “parking spots” before they become available for fast travel, but that just gives you a chance to take in the sights of the beautiful world Square Enix has created.
And oh man, is this game gorgeous. From the little marketplace town of Lestallum to the mysterious Disc of Cauthess and its burning meteor, Final Fantasy XV offers one memorable, beautiful set piece after another. Whatever you think about the rest of the game’s change in direction, there’s no denying that this brilliantly-realized map is right up there with other favorites in terms of stunning and unforgettable design. That goes for most of the major characters, too: all “boy band” jokes aside, the gang of guys at the center of XV have been lovingly brought to life, as have the equally-appealing baddies. Imperial Chancellor Ardyn Izunia has to be one of the coolest-looking villains the series has seen in a while.
The supporting characters aren’t as impressive, to say the least, especially the NPCs that give out quests. After a decade in development, I have to admit I was left feeling a bit miffed that so many of these character models are so hideous. Sure, one can’t expect every character to have the benefit of motion capture, but these are as awkward and cringe-inducing as they come. Of particular shame: scholar Sania’s black teeth, caused by a poorly-rendered shadow effect, and publisher Vyv’s bizarre tendency to talk to you with one arm raised in the air. He’s supposed to be waving his hand to fan his face (he’s fat, get it?) but the visual awkwardness of this is difficult to capture with words. At the very least, you don’t have to look at these folks for very long before setting off to complete their latest request.
On the other hand, I have absolutely zero complaints in the sound department. Both the English and Japanese voice casts give stellar performances, and Yoko Shimomura’s score is truly one of the series’ finest musical accomplishments yet. This is another game soundtrack that I’ll be purchasing separately to listen to while I’m writing — there isn’t a single miss among the dozens of tracks. My personal listening recommendations: “Somnus,” the game’s main theme, and “Stand Your Ground,” one of the main battle themes.
Final Fantasy XV might continue the series’ divisive streak thanks to a number of drastic changes to the tried-and-true formula, but I personally welcomed all of these with open arms. A beautiful world, exciting real time combat and a fascinating blend of open world and linear gameplay add up to a can’t-miss experience for JRPG fans. Though the remains of a long and troubled development cycle are evident in some of its rougher patches, this new entry in the legendary RPG series comes out on top for never losing sight of its theme — a road trip that both the game’s characters and the players who go along with them won’t soon forget.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with. Reviewed on PS4 Pro.
Final Fantasy XV's long, troubled development cycle is evident in some of its rougher elements, but ultimately, none of that really matters. Like many of its predecessors, this Final Fantasy's best elements — great characters, fun combat and a beautiful soundtrack — make its goofier shortcomings blend in as part of the endearing charm.