At the time of Final Fantasy XV’s release in 2017, it was one of my great gaming shames to have never played a Final Fantasy game. Turn-based RPGs and MMOs had never been my thing, but seeing that XV was a live combat, open world, single player experience — well I couldn’t turn that down. I eagerly awaited the PC release and grabbed it on day one, ready to see what all the fuss was about.
Final Fantasy XV puts the player in a world actually unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The cyberpunk skyscraper city of Insomnia is surrounded by miles of desert plains with underground cave networks. The canal city of Altissa sits on the edge of a rushing waterfall, overlooking the river with gleaming gold and silver towers. The Caribbean downtown of Lestallum provides multicultural foods, markets and attractions on the edge of the water. Then there sits on a foggy hilltop just minutes away the skeletal tower of Caem, a strange beacon that watches over the floating Disc of Cauthess, a rotating monolith powered by spirit energy in the valley. How are all these places in the same game, you ask? Magic!
While much of the game is beautiful and vividly colored, much of the game is also just dry, cracked desert. Nothing to find by exploring but more dirt and rocks. The locations in Final Fantasy XV themselves are magnificent, but miles of empty space exist simply to pad out an unneeded open world. Music is wonderful though!
The monsters that inhabit these places are spectacular. You will see old creatures from the Final Fantasy franchise rise anew in XV as well as brand new creatures. And the scale of the battles is, in a word, epic. Fighting a single Naga down by the river or a herd of Tonberrys with kitchen knives is exciting in its own right. Many of the creatures are herbivores and won’t attack unless provoked, so there are times you’ll be able to sit back in the car, listen to some Final Fantasy VII music and just observe the wildlife.
Final Fantasy XV is the first single-player entry in the series to feature live combat. As such, Square Enix was tasked with finding a way to incorporate the wide variety of conventional weapons, spells and upgrades from past titles into streamlined action. They gave it a very honest shot, but didn’t quite make it. I suppose the worst thing I would say about XV is that the combat feels stagnant. Fighting different enemy types doesn’t feel particularly different, and switching between weapon types as Noctis (the main character) doesn’t seem to alter combat in any significant way. You can utilize elemental spells that hail from past Final Fantasy titles, although they operate in a very different way to fit into live combat. Items and potions work in the expected way, asking players to navigate menus sometimes during combat. It would all come dangerously close to button mashing if not for the key new element, warping.
The open world and smaller arenas are loaded with warp points, sometimes hundreds of feet in the air. Noctis’s special ability allows him to warp across the field between warp points and enemies, so traversal, momentum and altitude become crucial parts of pulling off combos with spells, guns and swords. I genuinely enjoyed warping around the field at lightning speeds, and the high-octane movement made the rest of the monotonous combat tolerable. While the player controls Noctis, they can use the D-pad to issue special attack commands to the rest of the party (Ignis, Prompto and Gladio) that build up metered power over time. Noctis predictably also has an ultimate attack, summoning the weapons of past kings to protect him. Oh yeah, Noctis is the King. A great segue into the story.
At the start of the game, Noctis becomes the King of Lucis. He then sets out with his three best friends on a road trip to reach his betrothed, Lunafreya, for the royal wedding. Luna is an interesting, witty character with whom I enjoyed my time, but Square Enix, for lack of a better phrase, does her dirty. The other characters like Cindy, Aranea and Ardyn were kind of a mess of ideas, but the ambition of telling a story on this scale outweighs the dumb twists and turns the writers seemed to think were clever. The story relies a good bit on the Kingdom Hearts strategy of throwing plot spaghetti at the wall until it sticks and then heaping on some out-of-character meatballs with what’s-going-on-right-now sauce. The plot of Final Fantasy XV is an indisputable train wreck, especially in the second half, but the relationship that Noctis, Prompto, Gladio and Ignis form is the glue that holds the entire project together.
I do not say this lightly; after spending 65 hours with my leather-clad boy band, I honestly feel that the relationship between these four fictional characters is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in media, across movies and books as well. The power of true love that platonic friends have for each other is something that Hollywood shies away from, but putting it front and center in Final Fantasy XV saved the entire project.
Think for a moment — you love your close friends, and they love you. That love is as true and real as what you have with your family or significant other. Noctis, Prompto, Ignis and Gladio do love each other, and through all their ups and downs, their fights and joy rides, their nights playing video games together on the beach and their battles with the forces of evil, Final Fantasy XV never ever loses sight of that. Although each of these four boys lose their way at some point in the story, they always find each other again. No matter how stupid the second half of the story is, how confusing the decisions of the writers become, you will stick around for these kids.
The world itself is smattered with main quests, side quests, fortresses full of mechs, and weird dungeons that don’t quite feel like dungeons. You can find legendary items in these dungeons, so it’s worth it to stock up on elixirs and brave it out, but there was something missing I can’t quite put my finger on. Side quests involve a lot of the traditional open world “go here, kill this, come back” with some fun twists, and of course the best officially sponsored Cup Noodles (TM) quest ever! About halfway through the game, after the “big thing,” the open world closes off. The next 15 hours or so are spent in one dungeon after another (one is a prison, one is a forest, etc so it doesn’t get too samey) but you can time travel back to a time when the open world was okay to explore whenever you like. It’s confusing, but it really just leads me to think the game should have been more linear with smaller open areas to travel around.
Seven DLC expansions were originally planned for XV, but due to restructuring at Square Enix only four of them were produced before the game was abandoned. Episode Gladio, Episode Ignis, Episode Prompto and Episode Arydn were moderately well received but ultimately did little to add to the story or change opinions on the base game. The cancelled Episode Noctis, Episode Lunafreya and Episode Aranea were condemned to a novelization that received extremely poor reviews. It’s a shame, because Episode Lunafreya in particular could have solved a huge problem I have with the plot of this game.
Final Verdict: 8.0/10 — Shoots for the Moon and Hits the Stars
Final Fantasy XV wanted to be a lot of things to a lot of people all at once, and at that I think it failed. What it succeeded at is becoming a heartwarming story of sticking together against unbeatable odds, taking a road trip with your bros, and finding something special in your own failure. This mess of ideas tried earnestly to be one of the all-time greats. The awe-inspiring monsters, the beautiful cities and the land features of Lucis are really going to take your breath away. While convoluted in both game design and story writing, Final Fantasy is overflowing with heart, and I think that’s enough to carry it. It has a ton of problems, but I never stopped being impressed with how epic it all felt, right up until the heartbreaking final scene. In the most platonic way possible, Noctis, Ignis, Prompto and Gladio tell a love story for the ages, and I believe it’s well worth experiencing it with them.