Together with his faithful retainers, Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum is on his way to get married, a move designed to secure peace between his nation and the Niflheim Empire. But all that goes horribly wrong when Niflheim attacks the Lucian capital and kills the king. Now, Noctis must rally the ancient powers of his bloodline if he is ever to reclaim his throne.
Final Fantasy XV was a game that took a long time in getting to us. Originally meant to be released under the name of Versus XIII, for years it was little more than vaporware, boasting only an impressive trailer that kept us all intrigued. Finally, it was overhauled, promoted to main series title, and rushed out the door under a strict deadline. What results is a game of two halves, boasting some potential but clearly unfinished.
The very first gameplay you experience in FFXV is pushing your broken-down car along the road whilst Stand By Me plays in the background. This slightly tedious and odd sequence sets the tone for everything that is to come.
The First Half
Along with Nier Automata and Xenoblade Chronicles X, the first seven chapters of FFXV represent one of the very few true open world JRPGs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really match up to either of those games.
Before we get onto the criticism, let’s talk about what’s actually good about FFXV. The open world part of the game is essentially a boys’ road trip, featuring Noctis and his three friends and retainers: Ignis, the smart and sassy ‘mother hen’ of the group; Gladiolus, the strong and stalwart defender, and Prompto, the chirpy and upbeat photographer with a fondness for chocobos. The banter between these four as they explore the world is priceless, with little touches that give us a real sense of their personalities. Gladio may be a musclehead who occasionally wakes Noctis up for early morning training, but we also glimpse his intellectual side when he relaxes with a book in the back of the car. Prompto’s cheerfulness is hard to miss – especially when he sings the classic Final Fantas victory theme after a particularly tough battle. And Ignis is the best character of all – when it comes to Noct, he’s fiercely loyal and protective, but also not afraid to speak truth to his prince. And besides, how can you not admire a man who can cook a fluffy chiffon cake on a campfire stove? Perhaps the best demonstration of his personality comes not from the game itself, but from the Brotherhood anime – in one episode, the boys have just defeated a large monster and are looking forward to cutting it up for steak, but Ignis insists they can’t eat until he goes back to town to get the right spices.
But what about the world itself- is it actually any fun to explore? Here, results are more mixed. There are certainly good elements. The rest stops are evocative of American roadside diners and motels, whilst the towns of Lestallum and later Altissia are both delightfully evocative of central European cities. The seaside resort of Galdin Quay even reminded me a little of FFVII’s Costa Del Sol. Wilderness areas are reasonably functional, although areas that transition from true open world to more closed in regions, such as the Nebulawood, are frustrating – they take up huge swathes of the map, but have only one or two hard to find entrances.
The worst part of the open world, however, is how you have to travel around it. In Xenoblade Chronicles X, you spend about the first 60% of the game exploring on foot, with the option to fast travel to sectors you’ve already explored. Even though the world is huge, forging ahead is only occasionally tedious, and there’s always plenty to see along the way.
Let’s contrast that with Final Fantasy XV. The first time you travel anywhere, you’ll almost certainly want to do so in your royal car, the Regalia. There are two options for using the Regalia – you can either drive yourself, which is not particularly fun, or you can get Ignis to drive you. Whilst the latter option is easier, it does mean that significant portions of the early game are spent sitting in a car doing nothing – aka “passenger simulator”. It comes to something when the most enjoyable part of travel is being able to play soundtracks from earlier FF games via the car’s CD player.
Even at this point in the game, the main plot is pretty thin, and story quests are over quickly – so it’s just as well that there’s plenty of optional content to keep you occupied. As you might expect from a JRPG, there are monsters to hunt down and items to collect, all in the name of keeping NPCs happy. Once again, however, FFXV somehow manages to make this all a bit less fun than usual. For example, much as I’m not a fan of wandering around an area hoping an item spawns or a monster drops something rare, FFXV’s approach to quests feels a bit too stripped down. Often, all you need to do is follow a marker to exactly where the item is, pick it up, and head straight back – there’s no real sense of exploration or accomplishment. And yet, the quests where you have to search around a particular patch of ground looking for items are scarcely more enjoyable.
Monster hunting can also feel a bit lacklustre. The default selection of monsters feels rather lacking in variety – by day, you’re mostly looking at wolflike quadrupeds and Imperial troopers, with night-time adding in some overpowered Iron and Red Giants. Monster types required for hunts don’t even appear until you accept the hunt – although fortunately an update patch allows you to have ten simultaneous hunts on the go instead of just the one. Hunts must be accepted at various diners across the world, and each one offers a different selection, something which is a bit of a pain when it’s not easy to use the map to keep track of where all the diners are. When you add in these bounty monsters frequently being overpowered for their levels, it all conspires to make things feel a bit less fun than they need to be.
What I’ve yet to touch on, however, is the combat itself. As you’re no doubt aware, FFXV is an action RPG, which means all pretence of turn-based battling is out in favour of a real-time system. Thanks to an update patch, you can now unlock the ability to play as any of the four regular party members, but until you do, Noct is your only choice. Fortunately, he’s a versatile fighter, able to equip any of the weapon types in the game – everything from guns to swords. He also comes with some special skills thanks to his ability to phase and teleport, not to mention his mastery of the Royal Arms – special weapons that drain HP but offer some powerful moves of their own.
All that being said, the vast bulk of combat is really just holding down the circle button to perform melee attacks, with the occasional “warp strike” to reach distant enemies. If you’re a fan of magic in FF games, then prepare to be disappointed – the only spells you can use are Fire, Ice and Thunder, and these basically operate as powerful hand grenades whose effects can damage enemy and ally alike. Yes, the magic effects look spectacular and can do prodigious amounts of damage, but when your friends get caught in the blast, it can turn victory into defeat pretty quickly.
FFXV also has some other odd mechanics. Summon monsters, the acquisition of whom is key to the plot, only show up randomly after certain conditions are met, so whilst their attacks are utterly devastating, you can’t plan any sort of strategy around them. And in combat, the odd decision has been made for you not to die when you reach 0 HP, but to limp around in a “danger” status while your maximum HP temporarily starts draining – at least until an ally shows up to ‘rescue’ you. This means that healing and revival items don’t quite work as you expect, with some restoring your HP to whatever its maximum now happens to be, and others restoring your maximum HP. What all this does mean, however, is that once you’re rich enough to lay in vast stocks of healing items, you won’t need to worry too much about dying.
As I mentioned above, once you unlock the relevant abilities, you can switch to Ignis, Gladio and Prompto in battle – and of course you can splash out some more cash to play as them in their individual DLC chapters. Each character has his own play style – Gladio is meant to be played slowly, with lots of blocking and defence; Ignis throws enchanted daggers with a range of special effects, and Prompto can pick off enemies from afar with his handgun.
The Latter Half
For all its flaws, the open world part of FFXV is vastly more enjoyable than what comes next. Before we continue, it’s worth noting that parts of the late game have been patched over time, adding a little bit of extra content – in particular, there are optional quests added to some of the later chapters, and in the Royal Edition the final dungeon is transformed into a boss rush by the addition of four extra powerful adversaries. Nonetheless, the most major complaints still stand.
For plot reasons, in the later chapters Noct and his companions must leave the open world, and embark on a series of events that leads to the final confrontation. Along the way we learn some interesting things about FFXV’s world, but it’s at a cost to gameplay. For example, there’s an entire chapter that takes place on the thin corridor that is the central aisle of a train. There’s an event that completely nerfs one of the party members for a good long while. But, more than that, there’s a chapter that feels like a completely different game.
In Chapter 13, Noct is separated from both his allies and his weapons. He ends up inside a facility with only the Ring of the Lucii to hand, a magical item that grants him all new magical abilities. These abilities are nothing like any of the skills you’ve used before, and your progress through the facility’s corridors stealthily hiding from enemies and collecting keycards feels more at home in a survival horror game. What is this sequence doing in FFXV? Well, they had to pad the game out somehow.
Given how long it spent in development, it’s a bit of a shame that FFXV feels so rushed. Whilst patches and updates have added some much needed extra functionality over time, even the game we have now is a mere shadow of what it could have been. It’s not completely without merit, but it falls far short of the quality we saw in Final Fantasy’s heyday.