It’s been a long time coming. Final Fantasy XV’s decade-long development has seen worrisome changes of name, director, and console generations that could so easily have ended up an unadulterated mess. Fortunately, under the leadership of Hajime Tabata, Final Fantasy XV has managed to rise above its troubled past. It’s still unsurprisingly inconsistent at times, but if anything that makes it all the more endearing.
Following the journey of Prince Noctis and his retinue – Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto – your adventure sees you embroiled in the ongoing conflict between Lucis and Niflheim as you attempt to make your way to meet up with your betrothed, Lunafreya. Set in an open world, you are often free to roam the incredible world of Eos, picking up various quests and tasks as you go.
Final Fantasy XV shares some DNA with previous entries in the franchise, formerly having been part of the loose Fabula Nova Crystallis subset of games that includes the XIII titles and Final Fantasy Type-0, but largely it feels unlike anything else in the series. Its focus on action-heavy combat is an evolution of the combat seen in Type-o, with often frantic battles that rely on swift reflexes and an ability to read the situation.
Overall the combat is enjoyable stuff, especially once it all clicks into place, though in the standard mode it’s easy to get lost amongst a large crowd of enemies before being overwhelmed. Holding the Circle button sees you unleash pre-programmed combos depending on the type of weapon you have equipped, but it’s in the well-timed blocking, parrying and positioning of your character and your teammates that combat takes on real depth.
Noctis is also able to warp out of danger, either dodging out of the way or leaping to a vantage point where he’ll hang from his weapon embedded in a wall or tower. You can slow things down by opting to use Wait Mode, which in essence introduces an element of turn-based control to proceedings, but I found its staccato pacing far less enjoyable. While the combat works well on the whole, magic is mishandled and can be largely ignored, and there’s an odd lack of summons for a Final Fantasy game. When they do crop up they look incredible, but you won’t be rolling them all that often.
Sometimes the biggest problem you’ll have during combat is fighting with the controls and the camera. At various points it won’t quite do what you want it to, whether that’s attempting to warp out of the fray to a safe point or merely trying to see where your nearest enemy is. When later stealth sections appear, the control issue becomes more of a problem than a mild annoyance, and you’ll likely be re-running through portions of what are the game’s least enjoyable moments.
Final Fantasy XV has it’s own unique rhythm, and part of that is down to the way it deals with gaining experience. Instead of completing each battle and having your experience immediately dished out, here you have to make camp out in the wilderness or stay the night in one of the game’s various lodgings in order for your accrued experience to be added to your team. When you make camp you’re also able to peruse Prompto’s pictures that he took throughout that day, as well as have Ignis prepare a stat-enhancing meal for you to feast upon.
Both Prompto’s pictures and Ignis’ cooking continually make the experience wholly personal, and it never failed to raise a smile when skimming through the day’s photos to find one where Gladiolus had his eyes shut, or an image that seemed to depict Noctis performing some kind of misdeed to a giant wasp. Ignis will often shout “I’ve got it!” after you find a new ingredient, and he’ll add a new recipe to his tasty-looking repertoire. Each of your companions, Gladiolus included, actually makes the whole game hang together, and it’s in their relationships that the game is most successful. Far more than the overarching narrative, it’ll be this group of four, and the way they interact, that will be your overriding memory.
Along the way Final Fantasy XV cribs any number of ideas from its peers, with some of the excellent dungeon exploration feeling deeply reminiscent of Square Enix’s own Tomb Raider, while the ill-advised stealth sections are magic-infused retreads of Assassin’s Creed’s most annoying moments. Some of your encounters with the larger enemies have the same ebb and flow as Capcom’s Monster Hunter, and taking one down is similarly triumphant. Somehow it all works when taken as a whole, and there’s enough inventiveness and heart to overlook the less successful segments.
Given the opportunity, FFXV is easily one of the best-looking console games of all time. With a PS4 Pro and a 4k HDR TV to attach it to, the results can be absolutely phenomenal. The world of Eos is joyfully designed, from the lush fields of Duscae to the drowned architecture of Steyliff Grove. There’s miles and miles of rolling countryside to explore, and thankfully you don’t have to do it all on foot.
Your journey begins with you travelling in the luxurious Regalia, an aggressive-looking automobile suitable for a combative prince, and while you can take some control of it should you wish to, you’re better off letting Ignis drive and putting your feet up while the landscape swings by. It’s here, amongst these calmer moments, that some of the small incidental details catch your attention. From the leather stitching of the Regalia’s seats, to the way each character’s hair blows in the breeze, the level of craftsmanship is incredible.
Beyond the visuals, the conversation between Noctis, Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolus while you travel is often warm and believable, and while it won’t necessarily further the narrative, it draws you ever further into this circle of friends. It’s commendable how well this sense of companionship is conveyed, and I can’t remember any recent RPGs to succeed so fully in making a party of well-crafted characters into a believable group.
Besides the Regalia you’re also given the opportunity – once you’ve completed the requisite quest – to ride on those feathery fan-favourite Chocobos. The giant birds not only look the part, but the merry music that kicks in every time you take them for a jaunt makes travelling by them a great deal of fun, allowing you to jump and glide across trickier terrain. The more you ride them, the more that your kinship with them will increase as well, and they’ll begin to join in when you hop off to face down a monster.
Things begin to fall apart a touch when the game’s too obviously starts to funnel you down a set path or slow you down. A journey with Iris which could take five or ten minutes is purposefully strung out with additional stopovers and quests. While she’s with, you you can’t travel by car at night, forcing extra camp-outs on top of this. It’s not that the stopovers are boring or useless – far from it – and with Iris in your party you suddenly find yourself with a dedicated healer which makes encounters flow even better, but the journey feels artificial, as does much of the close of the game.
All of the visual frippery also comes at a price, and the standard PS4 has a handful of technical issues from texture and item pop-in to poorly handled frame pacing. Even running on the enhanced PS4 Pro, the problems continue, though to a lesser extent. They’re problems, but none of them do anything to detract from either the beauty of the world or from the gameplay.
While it’s a fairly common issue in Japanese developed games, the treatment of women in Final Fantasy XV is also problematic at times. The majority of the adventure boasts an all-male party, and the short period where Gladiolus’ sister Iris joins you is telling, particularly as she’s one of the only fully dressed women in the whole game. Sure, mechanic Cindy and mercenary-for-hire Aranea are strong, empowered women, but their clothing is for little more than titillation, and doesn’t sit well with the rest of the art direction. At least you can opt for the gents to run around in tank tops if you want to vaguely balance the books.
Final Fantasy XV is a unique offering, both for the franchise and RPGs in general. Placing the onus on the relationships of your party, rather than the narrative, has meant that this is a game that strikes not just an emotional chord, but a personal one. While Final Fantasy stalwarts will likely balk at the action-heavy combat, the spirit of the franchise remains, and is better served here than it has been in many years.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro