It would take more than one hand to count all of the Final Fantasy games I’ve played. Not all of my experiences with the franchise have been good, but it has a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
The first Final Fantasy game I played was Final Fantasy II (released as Final Fantasy IV in Japan). At the time, I was far too young to understand and appreciate its intricacies. Used to Atari games, the concept of an inventory and persistent gameplay was unfathomable. But that didn’t stop me from playing – despite all the frustration associated with the title.
College advanced my experience with the series considerably. Not all of the titles I consumed weren’t fantastic, but a few remain an indelible part of my gaming memory. Like Final Fantasy X.
The first time I played Final Fantasy X, I hated it. And, eventually, just stopped playing. But despite my annoyance with the title, a year or two later I gave it a second try. I’m still not sure why, but the second playthrough of the game was an entirely different experience. Areas initially too difficult folded beneath the might of my heroes. Progression somehow seemed more intuitive than it had before. I actually started to enjoy Blitzball. When I finally beat the game, the feeling of satisfaction from soldiering through to the end was unparalleled. Special.
You can imagine my elation when Square announced Final Fantasy XIII. It would be the first real Final Fantasy game in almost a decade and a true successor to the franchise.
Note: I deliberately skipped over Final Fantasy XII. I enjoyed the game, but it was the first title in the series to depart from turn-based combat. A feature that had defined the franchise for almost 20 years. That doesn’t make it bad, but the extreme departure made it feel alien despite the Final Fantasy title. Still, the high-definition remaster for PS4 should be something to look forward to in 2017.
Final Fantasy XIII arrived as a disappointment. The game had a litany of flaws. And despite two attempts, I couldn’t finish it. Or play the subsequent titles in the XIII series.
That brings us to Final Fantasy XV – a game ten years in the making. And, at one point, a title that seemed poised to determine the future of the franchise.
To a degree, it has, but far differently than anyone expected…
Final Fantasy XV begins with a glimpse of the four main characters – Prince Noctis of Insomina, his bodyguard Gladiolus, his chef Ignis, and his childhood friend Prompto – fighting a powerful enemy. Then, it cuts to the four leaving the Crown City, only to wind up pushing a their through the desert. This inauspicious introduction to our heroes highlights how normal they are – just four friends starting a road trip to take Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, by car, to his wedding.
A fantastic rendition of “Stand By Me” by Florence + The Machine draws the scene together and sets the tone for the entire of the game. Though, the importance of the scene, and every one that follows, isn’t truly understood until the credits finally roll…
Nearly everything between these two points is new. And while some of the familiar trappings of Final Fantasy remain, this latest offering in the franchise strives to bring it into the present, while preparing it for the future.
That attention to detail and care for the franchise shows in nearly every aspect of the game. And while there are missteps here and there, it generally succeeds. But, most of all, it makes the first screen that appears once the game loads feel earned.
So what’s different? What has changed? Nearly Everything…
Nuts and Bolts
Hammerhead, the first Outpost in Final Fantasy XV, is where the player is introduced to all of the new core game systems. Questing, hunts, and map discovery is touched upon, but the first few hours focus on acclimating the player to the altered game mechanics.
In fact, the entire first area feels like a tutorial. And there’s plenty to learn.
Sword and Board
Final Fantasy XV quickly warns the player, via pre-game tutorial, that combat is significantly different from what has come before. It’s possible to skip the combat tutorials, but doing so would be inadvisable considering just how much has changed.
Gone are the days of turn-based combat typical of the Final Fantasy series. The new system in place is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Reminiscent of titles like Kingdom Hearts and Rogue Galaxy, it mixes real time combat with an optional feature called “Wait Mode”. While not initialized by default, Wait Mode pauses combat every time the player stops moving. This allows time to analyze enemies, determine proper weapon/magic use, and even heal team members that are having a hard time.
At first, I attempted combat with Wait Mode turned off, but I would suggest enabling the feature. Too much is lost – feature-wise and tactically – to suggest leaving it off. And the fact that it’s off by default becomes questionable as the game progresses and encounters tip towards challenging.
Otherwise, real-time combat is a welcome, and refreshing, shift from the turn-based combat of yore. The ability to move freely around the battlefield allows for more tactical decisions when it comes to combat. Flanking strikes (called Blindsides) are rewarded via damage multipliers. Enemy strengths and weaknesses further effect damage done – to the point where not playing against weaknesses becomes a true detriment to the party in late-game battles.
Noctis’ friends aren’t controllable, but they possess techniques that can be called for on occasion. And when that isn’t available, they can pair up with Noctis, if close enough, for a Link Strike that has the potential to deal massive damage.
There are plenty of accessories to equip, but the mediocre weapon selection stands out. Over the course of the game, there are about a dozen choices per weapon type, with only a few feeling significantly different. Early on, there are a few enticing options, but the ability to modify a few key weapons means you’ll most likely use those for much of the game. At least, until the very last tier of weapons becomes available. Besides that, I was disappointed to find that very few weapons feature the ability to inflict status effects on enemies.
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
In Final Fantasy XV, an elemental crafting system called Elemancy replaces the typical magic system players familiar with the series have come to expect.
Noctis can draw lighting, fire, and ice energy from nodes at campsites and use them to craft spells. The system is fairly simple, but the tutorial is lacking. I say this because I didn’t figure out until 28 hours into the game that elemental spells can be modified with items! The result is a somewhat flexible system. Before this point, I was disappointed with magic. But even after discovering the ability to modify spells, I was still generally unimpressed – for reasons other than the spells available.
Crafted spells in Final Fantasy XV are items, which means they are consumed. The benefit of this system is that anyone in the party can be equipped with magic. But it also requires the constant crafting of spells before, during, and after battles.
On many occasions, I found myself going into battle without spells because I hadn’t spent enough time camping to collect elemental energy. And I never had enough extra energy to craft spells for any character other than Noctis. So, while there’s plenty of potential in the system, it leaves much to be desired. Which is annoying, considering how insanely powerful spells are.
It takes a few hours, but summoning is eventually introduced, though its implementation is far different from previous Final Fantasy titles.
Part of the story requires Noctis to gain favor from six Gods – Titan, Ramuh, Leviathan, Shiva, Ifrit, and Bahamut. Once each quest is complete, the player is able to summon these deities to assist in difficult combat situations.
The summoning ability, however, is based on criteria that aren’t made clear to the player. Once the criteria are fulfilled, an on screen prompt indicates that a summon is ready, but it can be very easy to miss in the heat of battle. And on top of that, in my 60 hours of play, I’ve only managed to summon Ramuh.
Of course, you’ll see each summon at least once, as they are all part of some late-game plot elements, but otherwise the system feels uneven (though, to be fair, when Ramuh does show up, it effectively ends the battle…and I definitely won’t complain about that since it’s saved my skin on more than one occasion).
To top it all off, each aspect of the game can be enhanced via the ascension grid. These allow the player to spend AP (accrued during play) to tweak nearly every aspect of the above systems. It’s a powerful tool that sometimes feels like an afterthought.
A Whole New World
There is a marked difference in the mechanics of Final Fantasy XV, but it’s very easy to get bogged down in the minutia of what’s different. So much so that it’s remarkably easy to move through the world without actually seeing it.
The world of Eos is beautifully strange, but familiar in enough ways that it feels like a Final Fantasy game. It was a unique experience, but one that was quickly drowned by the myriad of side quests shoveled in my direction. And so, the first dozen hours I spent in Duscae (the game’s second area), were dedicated to completing as many side quests as possible. The JRPG farming reflex kicked in and I donned proverbial blinders, ignoring the world around me. But as the main story progressed and I seemed to near the end of my time on Duscae, I slowed down and really paid attention to the wide-open world around me.
I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed.
I’m used to new games that usher the player to every single part of the world in a step-by-step march across the map. But Final Fantasy XV doesn’t do that. In fact, there are a few places that the game doesn’t prompt the player to go. It wasn’t until I took a good look at the map that I realized that there was a large swath in the southwestern corner of the map that I hadn’t even attempted to explore.
As I continued to search, I found more and more places that I hadn’t visited. And every place feels alive. There are people present that walk around and seem to interact with one another. Many of them don’t speak, or have voiced dialogue (a few do), but the pantomime goes a long way in making locales feel like they’re alive. And lived in. So often, games neglect the minutia of everyday life. XV, however, seems to get it right.
As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Final Fantasy XV has the highest quality food renders that I’ve ever seen. In any game. Ever.
And there are dozens of other recipes with equally detailed models!
The depth of the world is extended when the player goes out at night. Outposts that seem normal during the day become bastions of light when darkness falls. Past the limit of that light, the screams and roars of demons fill the night air. Venturing forth is a risky endeavor, but the spoils that await in the darkness are, eventually, worth the the effort. But it takes quite a while before venturing past the limit of an outpost or city at night is anything other than terrifying.
But, again, the healthy fear invoked by the demons is solid world building that drives the point of Noctis’ purpose home.
Yet, despite the game’s effort to ground the narrative in a living world, other glaring issues derail the otherwise (kind of) decent story.
It’s established fairly early that Noctis is the chosen king who must gain the favor of the gods, obtain the power of the crystal, and vanquish the darkness that threatens to overtake the world. On the surface, this seems like standard Final Fantasy fare. And through the earlier portions of the game, quests are delivered in a manner that seems to hold with typical Final Fantasy tropes. Only the barest amount of information regarding the main quest is provided to the player in the earlier sections of the game, but there is a general feeling of where the game seems to be going.
Then, everything changes.
About halfway through the main quest, XV forsakes its open world formula and begins to adopt an increasingly linear progression that focuses on Noctis – to the detriment of the other characters the game has spent so much time developing.
Major things happen to Gladiolus, Ignus, and Prompto, but these events are never really addressed past their initial happening. Presumably, each of these moments will be the subject of incoming DLC, but I feel like these events should have been touched upon during the main campaign. That they happen off screen and are never fully explored harms their impact.
And all of this happens before Chapter 13…
Chapter 13 – Yes, it’s really that bad…
This particular chapter is notable because of how significantly it differs from the rest of the game. Final Fantasy XV’s 13th chapter separates Noctis from his friends, removes his weapons, and tasks him with navigating a painfully linear maze of corridors alone. To a degree, it seems that the chapter attempts to trend towards survival horror by introducing a truncated stealth mechanic, and providing Noctis with a weapon that is meager, at best.
The formula is so bad that Square Enix is currently working on a patch that will adjust the chapter’s gameplay and insert additional cutscenes to flesh out the story.
Though the chapter is painful to endure, I’m not sure they need to change it.
Most of the game focuses on Noctis’ relationship with his comrades. And the constant banter that breaks the silence as they trek across Duscae goes a long way in defining the relationship that these four have. Noctis is prince, and the others show a measure of deference towards that fact, but it’s made clear that they are also his best friends.
So, the removal of these four, while painful and annoying, paints a picture that the player – and Noctis – needs to understand. Noctis is important. He is a prince. And a King. But just because he is all of these things, doesn’t mean that he can do without his friends. His brothers.
I think that many people missed this particular point. They spent too much time criticizing what Chapter 13 was, without looking at where it fit in the grand scheme of XV’s story.
And despite the many drawbacks of the chapter, it does make a lot of sense when considering everything that comes after. The story still stumbles over itself in the final two chapters, but the eventual ending is powerful.
Revisiting the Past
To a degree, Final Fantasy XV’s narrative is self-aware. During one of the later chapters, the player is given the ability to return to the open-world gameplay that comprises the first half of the game. I took advantage of this mechanic (heavily) during Chapter 13. About half way through the chapter, I returned to Duscae and completed a fair number of side quests I had left behind. In doing so, I was actively reminiscing about the past.
Nostalgia is a pretty big part of Final Fantasy XV. The times the player returns to the past to complete more side quests simply reinforces this notion. That the player enjoys this time more than the path ahead is natural. Analogous to life. That XV can so easily invoke such a response is a testament to how powerfully it plays to the bond between the four main characters.
Feelings and the relationship between the main cast of characters is a central theme in every Final Fantasy game. Usually, the feelings pertain to a single person’s relationship with the party – like Cloud or Tidus. Those feelings, while powerful, tend to dilute as the cast grows. Feelings for some characters wane as new party members take center stage.
That never happens in Final Fantasy XV. Noctis is only ever accompanied by Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. So the conversations they have and the things that befall them – as a team, or individually – matter more to each one of them. And they matter more to the player.
Even more so to veterans of the series. Because XV plays on the nostalgia built in to every single Final Fantasy game. It references Cid, Biggs, and Wedge. It relies on strong party ties. And it even allows players to conjure the emotions of previous Final Fantasy games by including the soundtrack from nearly every single previous game. And nothing beats a long road trip while listening to Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII.
To Each His Own
More than anything, Final Fantasy XV is a deeply personal experience. Each main character has a unique skill, but Prompto’s is, arguably, the most important. He’s the amateur photographer of the group and takes photos to commemorate the four friend’s journey together. His camera is only capable of holding 150 photos and, at each rest point, the player is prompted to choose which to save for posterity.
But, beyond this, the game takes special steps to make each individual playthrough special. I can’t say more without ruining anything. I can, however, say that these individualized moments are intensely emotional, and make everything that has come before worthwhile.
Final Fantasy XV is a lot of things, but the end of a series is not one of them. Despite the game’s many missteps, what shines through the most is the care that was taken – over ten years of development – to make Final Fantasy XV into a true successor of a thirty year old franchise.
I can honestly say that, after over 60 hours of play, the latest offering in the series is probably my favorite. And even though I’m done with the main story, the game continues to draw me back. There are still side quests to complete, monsters to hunt, secret dungeons to raid, and treasures hidden in every nook and cranny of the world.
Past that, the game sports a New Game + mode, though I’m not sure whether I’ll go so far as to start one any time soon. But even if I don’t, the now “special” save file (branded with a unique icon) that signifies I’ve completed the game has many more hours of potential that I have yet to tap.
Final Fantasy XV has rekindled a long dormant love affair with a video game franchise that has been increasingly disappointing in recent years. I can honestly say that I’m a fan of everything this game represents. For me, it’s a personal experience that has been a long time coming, and part of the reason why this article is so long – because I can say too much, and not enough, about this game.
Because Final Fantasy XV managed to get under my skin, like only the best titles can. Like those that have claimed a piece of your heart.