Final Fantasy XV is a weird video game. One moment I was driving down the highway in my luxury vehicle, stopping to refill the tank and stock up on potions and fishing tackles from the roadside convenience store. After coming back outside, I noticed a short hiking trail nearby that seemed like it met with a massive river just under a mile away. Why not see if there’s a fishing spot? I strode down the peaceful path with my friends. I’m sure Prompto is taking snapshots and selfies along the way. It’s a pretty normal day.
Then I stumbled upon a giant, purple serpent straight out of a Nordic myth, casually slithering under the highway bridge. My party pummels the monster with spells and swords, only to be ruthlessly extirpated in moments. I decide it’s best to avoid the daemon and scout out the waterfall to the right. I think there’s a dungeon behind it with a royal tomb in its depths, so I can look forward to retrieving an ancient weapon from one of my forebearers in the line of Lucis that were blessed by the Six. I need to be able to summon all of their arms through the Crystal if I can hope to receive the marks of gods like Shiva and Leviathan, and I can only do that if I battle my way through the Imps and Wraiths lurking in there. I have a birthright to live up to as future King of Insomia, ruler of Eos, son of Regis Lucis Caelum. I’ve been tasked to defeat the Niflheim empire. Gotta chip away at fulfilling that prophesy.
Anyway, once that was said and done, I went back to the car, started up some tunes, and cruised to a campsite. Couldn’t wait for Ignis to cook me up one of his new recipes.
Noctis and his squad rocked early-2000s fashion so hard in the early versions of Final Fantasy XV. Oh, and it’s Prompto, Gladio, Noctis, and Ignis from left to right.
You see what I mean? XV straddles a jarring line between a modern, unassuming world like ours (albeit with far more glamorous fashion and hairstyles) and a fantastical realm echoing medieval days of yore with kingdoms, royalty, divine destiny, and what have you. The characters seem unfazed by the juxtaposition, which is made more baffling since there are technical marvels like sci-fi airships and robotic infantry. The past, present, and future collide in this world. The game has a borderline insane plot, bizarre assortment of side quests, strange pacing (both with its plot and missions), outlandish mishmash of ideas…look, this is a weird game.
By all means, it shouldn’t work, especially since it was caught in development hell for a decade, changed directors from Tetsuya Nomura to Hajime Tabata, and underwent who knows what kinds of substantial revisions. However, like I said in my review for The Last Guardian, it miraculously survived and coincidentally released alongside Fumito Ueda’s latest. While it remained surprisingly consistent throughout production and plays like it, XV screams of experimentation to evolve Final Fantasy beyond its turn-based RPG legacy and make up for valiant yet flawed efforts to change that. In other words, you can sense the awkwardness of a Japanese studio trying to understand and translate Western game design. After all, a lot of people who worked on this were pioneers during the golden years of the JRPG.
Maybe that’s why there’s something endearing and curious about XV. There’s nothing like it, having gone through such an arduous, unique process. For everything that’s baffling and wrong, there’s something special beneath the surface. When it stumbles, it sure does stumble. But when it walks tall…boy, does it walk tall.
The Burden of Expectation
I won’t be able to make apt comparisons to previous Final Fantasy titles. I’m fairly knowledgeable about heavy hitters like VII, but I haven’t been acquainted with any others. I’ve only played X at the request of a friend. Thankfully, I enjoyed it since I was into Pokémon SoulSilver at the time, so the turn-based combat clicked with me. I loved the strategy involved with switching out party members, figuring out which stats and abilities to unlock in the Sphere Grid, exploiting weaknesses, and calling upon summons. You add more people to your team and encounter monsters in the wild at random…so yes, it was Pokémon for me, but it pulled me in with its eccentric, strong characters, dramatic story, and beautiful world.
Six years later, XV is my second Final Fantasy, and it’s both familiar and foreign. The “Ascension” menu is like the Sphere Grid with AP you gain through combat, exploration, and the like, which can enhance stats related to Recovery, Magic, etc. The layout and more ability-focused upgrades here remind me of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim‘s skill trees, too. Elemency returns with classic spells like Thundara and Fira that are weak or super effective. You can equip bands and varying weapons to enhance specific stats or magical prowess. Summons are also back, but they merely perform a single attack under special circumstances. Instead of being like an additional party member, they’re only good to get you out of trouble on rare occasions, which is a step down from their more integral roles in past games.
That’s where many similarities end. Gone are the days of turn-based combat. While a form of it exists with Wait Mode (it freezes time when you lock onto an enemy, which is useful for overwhelming fights), it’s best to keep it in Active Mode so you don’t disrupt the flow of real-time fighting. Once you engage enemies, you and your buddies hack and slash to victory (or humiliating defeat). You use the circle button for attacks, triangle to warp to safe spots or perform a Warp Strike, and square to avoid or parry offenses. Depending on where you strike a foe, you can do Blind Strikes for extra damage or activate Link Strikes to deal damage as a duo when you parry next to someone. For example, you and Prompto might be near each other, so while you deal a paralyzing slash, he’ll approach and unload a volley of bullets. A celebratory high-five caps off your epic display of teamwork before you resume the slaughter.
Gladio can literally send you flying with one of his Link Strikes. You jump on his sword, he tosses you in the air, and you land on the enemy with a downward strike. Strong man, there.
Comparing XV to Kingdom Hearts is relevant. I love those games, so I can get behind an action-RPG like this. Hmm…if only it were as tight and engaging. Kingdom Hearts is intense when you’re fighting big groups or major bosses because it’s fast-paced and demanding. The best thing about it? The camera and groove of combat keeps up if you’re giving it your all. On the other hand, XV is slower and less graceful. You can’t connect, if you will, with how many weapons feel in combat, and transitioning to blocking or dodging isn’t smooth. You’ll be holding down circle to attack with occasional warps and dodges, so you can imagine how tedious combat can be. Even when it’s appropriately challenging, you just get downed over and over without any worries of serious death while pecking away at the enemy’s HP. There’s rarely a sense of urgency or real risk with XV’s gameplay, which is weird to say since X had more of it with some nerve-wracking boss fights.
However, to say fights are always underwhelming would be a lie. Some are thrilling when you’re able to clearly see the attack patterns in completely open areas. Dodging, parrying, and warping become second nature as you expertly evade and cooperate with your team, and utilizing special moves called Techniques are great to finish off foes. Gladio’s “Tempest” has him hitting enemies as hard as a home run. Ignis’ stat-based Techniques are excellent to temporarily imbue you with elemental energy or summon the whole team to regroup and recover HP. When it came to differing fights, I always put thought into these. They add much to how I approached my team’s changing statuses and particular monsters.
Combat is a mixed bag in execution. What about the open world? With fetch quests, a few side dungeons, photo ops, bounties (killing high-level monsters), and more to choose from, you’ll be occupied for a good 30 minutes doing 1-3 of these while picking up cooking supplies, treasures, and recovery items for one day. If you manage to fit in a story mission for the 40-minute cycle, you’ll need to camp or rent out a place for the night. If you do the former, Ignis can make meals that will boost particular stats the following day. You look over how many levels you gained, how your party’s skills are coming along (like Noctis’ fishing or Prompto’s photography), and wait for a new dawn. This cycle is a bit frustrating to get used to, but getting a handle on travelling around and tackling objectives feels great after a while, especially since there are interesting sights and unexpected detours.
You can ride Chocobos! Fun way to get around the world a bit faster without the constraint of remaining on the road. You can even customize them, summon them into battle, and race with them.
Some side quests are a drag, such as digging up onions for a farmer in Lestallum or picking off Voretooths next to Wiz’s Chocobo Post. Then there are shockingly good ones that turn into sprawling adventures or lovely opportunities for character development. For example, randomly going down a trail Ignis was interested in evolved into discovering a Royal Tomb, great boss, and beautiful valley of flowers waiting at the end! That’s why there was a continual fight within me wondering if some quests were as boring as they likely seemed or more than meets the eye, and that’s part of what makes XV such an up-and-down experience. There are poor objectives and long stretches of nothing to get through, but there are truly memorable sights and activities that pop up when you least expect it. Magic happens in between spells of boredom, and the same principle applies to the main missions.
The game’s first half involves some visually impressive boss fights and decent dungeons, but there are also odd stealth missions, trailing sections, and lengthy treks across the open world. That’s not even mentioning the dreadful Chapters of 10 through 13, which are a mess of off-the-wall, linear levels. Walking around train cars until you arrive at your destination? Exploring a drab facility with suffocating, insulting level design where you find key cards to painfully ascend its floors without any abilities (which felt like some bizarre version of Metal Gear)? Finding and simply viewing Luna’s wedding dress? There are some neat boss fights beyond this game’s section (more visually exciting than mechanically engaging), but I don’t know what got into the studio after Chapter 9.
I can’t delve into more detail lest I ramble, so it needs to be said here and now. XV is a perplexing amalgamation of Eastern and Western design. It’s a living world with days and nights replete with creatures and places and quests and things to (respectively) hunt, explore, do, and collect. One day you’ll find yourself tracking down a Behemoth you secretly follow to reach its abode, only to desperately search for a campsite when you’re done since it took a whole day (high-level daemons come out at night). Another day you’ll be pocketing frogs for a biologist in the rain, and then you’ll stumble across a fisherman nearby who challenges you to catch something, giving you a nice, little reprieve to practice your fishing skills. The next day you could be challenging a god to receive its blessing or infiltrate a Niflheim base. All of this makes for an uneven gameplay loop marked with content we’ve seen done better in other open world games, but if half of them aren’t intriguing and pleasantly surprising at times, then you can strike me down. That’s why you’re sure to get around 25 hours out of the game if you sprinkle in side quests. While a lot of them don’t motivate me to return (especially pointless lower-level ones), many of them along the way are worthy padding that extend the story another 7-10 hours.
We’ve all got to take a break every now and then, especially if you’re a savior that everyone’s counting on to save the world.
The whole point of this extensive camping trip is for Prince Noctis (you) to be wed with Lady Lunafreya. She’s the Oracle, which means she can commune with the gods. Because of this ability, she is to help Noctis receive their blessings in what ways she can and be by his side. The Niflheim Empire has slowly overtaken Eos, and the last bastion of hope – the capital city of Insomnia – has only lasted so long because King Regis (your dad) has been able to maintain a shield around it with the power of his ancestors in the Ring of the Lucii, which has its power channeled through this otherworldly “Crystal” that grants the wearer untold power and burdens. The prologue has Regis sending you away with your three best friends. You find out later that he knew Insomnia would shortly fall to Niflheim and its daemons. Only Noctis can end this darkness by taking his father’s place, so you seek out Luna, ever-growing power, and guidance to confront this daunting destiny.
The first half of the game starts out strong. With a good ensemble of antagonists, clear motivations, and a charismatic group of bros, XV is most interesting for its characters, their developments, and relationships. The circumstances and plot they’re pulled into are wild and hard to follow sometimes, but it’s enjoyable if you just go along with it. Eventually, this casual approach won’t hold up though. The story becomes unfocused and predictable. Pivotal characters that obviously should’ve reappeared to play large roles…don’t. Large jumps in time and rushed plot points are striking in comparison to the steady pace of the beginning Chapters. The dialogue also glosses over needed exposition with wasteful lines and poor explanations, but at least it shines through with good writing during emotional exchanges. Again, XV is best at its characters and the grand roles they play as classic, fantastical archetypes. They just find themselves in an unbalanced tale that’s mostly made interesting for its thought-out world and lore. With this in mind, I’d recommend viewing Kingsglaive and Brotherhood. The game abruptly starts in media res, so the movie gives great context into the events leading up to the invasion of Insomnia, the history surrounding Noctis and Luna, and the status of characters like Luna, Regis, and the antagonists. If anything, the five-episode anime is a must-watch. It gives wonderful glimpses into the pasts of our four-man group to establish how they came to know each other and their personalities.
Noctis isn’t filled with angst and brooding like you’d expect. He’s a quiet introvert that doesn’t always know what to say, and part of this comes from traumatic events in his childhood and the awful responsibilities he’s destined to carry. Despite his heavy soul, he knows what he has to do and acts like a king. He’s a tragic character, and I liked him better for it.
XV is gorgeous from afar, but up close, some details aren’t so great. Blurry textures, a few bland environments and pop-ins, and a slightly uneven frame rate prevent it from being utterly arresting. However, I couldn’t help but gaze on at the beauty of some vistas. XV has exceptional draw distances where you can see distant mountains and far-off lakes, and what’s impressive is how touring is never interrupted by loading screens unless you fast travel or go to entirely different areas. The open world feels constant and daunting because of this, and when you go off the road, you’ll be surprised with what you’ll find. There are gorgeous, windy paths under canopies of trees to chart, dungeons glistening with frozen ice that reminded me of Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s subzero caverns, and the like. Cities like Altissia and Hammerhead are examples of the ever-changing settings, with the former being an elaborate Venice (literally built on the water with similar architecture) and the latter like Route 66. There’s even unbelievable castles built atop thin mountains in Tenebrae (which you sadly visit for less than 20 minutes…from a distance!) that reminded me of Rivendell. XV has a diverse landscape, benefiting from its paradoxical world of realistic environments housing impossible formations and larger-than-life creatures.
What I actually admire most about the visuals is the animation. If Kingdom Hearts is superior with its gameplay, I would say XV is often more satisfying to watch. It’s strange because while the controls tell a different story, the way movement and action are portrayed is impressively fluid and natural. After you perform a warp strike to hang from your sword above the battlefield, Noctis’ body and clothes will sway from the forward momentum. Characters will scramble as they change directions or rise from a fall, perfectly transition into their respective animations with the Strikes and Techniques, and – of course – their hair and clothing physics behave superbly (we’re talking Lara Croft levels of detail specifically devoted to this). The side of the studio in charge of this deserves recognition for their hard work here, and it shows in the cutscenes, too.
Sometimes you’ll be forced to turn off the HUD to take a delicious screenshot. If only most of it faded away like in Metro: 2033 when it’s not in use!
The English voice acting is fine. I had to revert to Japanese dialogue for the sake of not listening to Ignis, who sounds like the automated voice people use for MLG no-scope montages. Gladio and Prompto also try a little too hard with exaggeration, but the likes of Noctis, Ardyn (Darin De Paul is the best), and Luna are a delight. Either way, all of the voice actors heavily play into their archetypes, with some doing this better than others, which is also effected by the up-and-own writing. Since I’ve been referring to Kingdom Hearts, I couldn’t go on without saying Yoko Shimomura composed the score. She’s one of my all-time favorites for her strong command over integrating piano and strings into busy, upbeat songs or simpler, somber tunes. She pulls that off once more.
Tracks like Stand Your Ground and Noctis are perfect demonstrations, and while there are many others to speak of that exemplify her talent, she delves into foreign territory by attempting to emulate Western music for some of the game’s settings. Harmonicas will fill the air for “country” areas and electric guitars rock on when you chill with your bros. Some of it honestly sounds like generic, placement music, but there are lovely surprises like Rodeo de Chocobo and Bros on the Road II that show Shimomura-san has what it takes to go outside of her comfort zone. Overall, I thought the score fit the game’s settings and themes well, and half of the songs are instant downloads. I hope she comes back to score another Final Fantasy someday.
Camping is an empty pretense for the developing “bromance” of this leather-clad boy band. Much of it is accomplished through humorous back-and-forth banter and neat character-driven side quests.
Final Fantasy XV is a last-ditch effort to keep one of the world’s longest video game franchises chugging along. You can smell the fumes and hear troubling sounds with its bumpy story and out-of-place objectives on the road. The open world and gameplay also pose challenges to keeping you in for the ride, but after being behind the wheel for some time, there’s something nostalgic and one-of-a-kind about this game that can’t be shaken. It doesn’t necessarily do anything new or different, but the manners in which it forges its own blend of ideas makes for novelties that gain your appreciation and surprise. Unexpectedly engrossing quests and combat scenarios, meticulous animation, grand characters, and a messy yet fascinating lore are some of those things. Notwithstanding rough patches, there’s enough here to keep your interest fueled until you run on empty.