Four friends push a gasless car down a desert road bantering with each other to the sound of Florence + The Machine singing the R&B classic “Stand by Me.” The camera pans to the letters “Final Fantasy XV” and the screen goes black. An adventure has begun.
But something about this game feels strange; it’s familiar, yet foreign. We’ve started our journey to save the world but it’s not the typical Final Fantasy music. Instead it’s a mash-up of a Final Fantasy song and a tune from the ’60s with a modern pop band twist. While the mixture doesn’t exactly fit the mould of a generic FF melody, it nonetheless has the same effect, giving the player a sense of the characters’ relationship and the feel for the game itself. It’s the same outcome with a slightly different execution.
Which is a perfect introduction for a game that prides itself (and often learns lessons the hard way because of this) on mixing up its franchise foundations.
Final Fantasy XV follows the story of prince Noctis Lucis Caelum as he travels across the world of Eos alongside his three closest friends: Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto. His home city of Insomnia, along with the rest of the world, is under attack from the Niflheim Empire, until the two countries decide to sign a peace treaty. One condition of the treaty has Noctis marrying princess Lunafreya Nox Fleuret of the country Tenebrae (currently under Niflheim rule). The game begins when Noctis’ father, King Regis, sends the group out to his wedding. After an attack by the Niflheim, or “Niffs” as they’re referred to by the rest of the world, during the peace treaty, Noctis and crew are first faced with the task of survival and are eventually given instructions on how to take down the Niffs.
The remainder of the game has Noctis picking up side quests to make a little extra gil, collecting weapons from previous Kings to gain strength, proving his worth to the Astrals (gods in the world of Eos, or summons as Final Fantasy Fans have come to know them) and gaining enough power to take down the big, bad Ardyn, the supreme chancellor of the Niflheim Empire. Most importantly, even more important than the finale, the game has Noctis bonding with his companions in one of the grandest road trips four guys in a game have ever taken. It’s in this that Final Fantasy XV is given its soul.
Camping in the wilderness, taking photos every step of the way, overcoming hardships and driving around are all aspects of a road trip that developer Square Enix has somehow given life to through gameplay elements, and in doing so have given it a purpose. This not only yields in-game rewards but also moves along the storyline and develops character.
In Final Fantasy XV, experience points are gained by defeating monsters, completing quests, fishing, riding your car, riding chocobos and so much more, but that experience isn’t tallied until you go to sleep for the night. This lends itself to strategic levelling in that players can choose to sleep in places that offer higher experience multipliers. Sleep in your tent and you won’t receive a multiplier. However, sleep in a swanky seaside hotel and you’re looking at double EXP. The downside is that you won’t be able to cook a meal for your team in the morning or give your rental chocobos a riding buff for the next day.
If you make camp at one of the many camping locations scattered across Eos, Ignis can make you a breakfast that offers attack boosts, EXP boosts, health boosts and everything in between. So planning trips wisely can result in many sorts of outcomes that benefit the player. It’s up to you to decide what’s best for you at the time.
Speaking of Eos, Square Enix kept their promise and created a rather large world filled with plenty of side quests, hidden items, monsters both big and small (and even colossal), and a slew of old Final Fantasy references. Each area has more personality than the last. Vibrant meadows sway in the breeze, beaches add a splash of relaxation and the game’s one volcano region has players feeling the heat with magma and steam springing up everywhere. Nearly every kind of landscape is represented, so expect to see it all.
And trust me, you will see it all.
Although players do have the ability to fast travel, they can only do so after manually making their way to each location whether it be by foot, chocobo or car. Destinations are quite a ways away from each other and I’d estimate driving around the whole continent would take close to 30 minutes. And even if you’re not keen on the whole driving experience you can sit back and listen to previous Final Fantasy soundtracks while you get to where you’re going. This feature, while it is tiny, is one of my favourites in the series, and shows just how far the franchise has come musically. From the original Final Fantasy to more obscure titles like Dissidia, this “greatest hits” feature is sure to give every trip that little bit of fun that you might need to make it to where you’re going.
Final Fantasy XV’s soundtrack sits proudly among the masterworks of the series even though FF composer legend Nobuo Uematsu didn’t head the project. Instead, the ever-so-talented Yoko Shimomura who has composed for titles such as Street Fighter 2, Parasite Eve, Super Mario RPG and the Kingdom Hearts series to name a few, would take on the album. Just as each location in the game has its own unique feel, each track on the album matches that and adds in its own sense of emotion perfectly complementing moments of profound sorrow, jovial excitement, hopeless danger, unparalleled beauty and bittersweet declarations. While it might be a change for the series to bring in Yoko Shimomura, it proves that change can sometimes be a wonderful thing.
The combat, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story. Making the switch from turn-based to real-time combat was a divisive one among FF purists as the franchise built itself on that core gaming element. An element that is quite frankly synonymous with Final Fantasy.
While the change wasn’t a complete failure, Square Enix has shown that they still have a bit to learn when it comes to this style of gameplay. Holding or mashing the attack button will have Noctis performing a combo. Holding the block button will have him phase (a technique akin to teleporting, and a trademark move for Noctis) through attacks in defence and locking-on while pressing another button will have him teleport into a far off enemy to begin a series of slashes. Using items pauses the game briefly and parrying can be performed by blocking an attack and immediately pressing the attack button.
Tutorials teach the player early in the game; but even after 50 hours of developing battle strategies I found the combat to be awkwardly paced and commands to be somewhat unresponsive. If you choose to be offensive, you rarely have enough time to dodge or counterattack. If you choose to be defensive you’re often times stuck phasing through attacks without much time to mount an offensive without getting hit anyways. Much of this could be avoided if Noctis had a faster dodge roll or if parrying didn’t feel so sluggish, but unfortunately both of those issues are present and additional skills don’t help to completely resolve them.
Summons look their best in FFXV and impressive cinematic cutscenes truly capture the essence of how powerful these beings are. That’s what makes it all the more depressing when you have trouble calling forth your celestial allies. When a battle has slogged on long enough, a prompt tells you to press L2 to summon. Unfortunately, pressing the button often times does nothing. After searching a bit on the internet, I found you had to be in a danger state where your health is low and you have to hold the L2 button. Again, I tried to do this and again nothing. I sat there helpless, letting an enemy deplete almost the remainder of my health bar. A few times I was able to make it work, but it came with no rhyme or reason – a frustrating prospect considering all of the care they put into the summons and how they look.
However, even though skills and summons don’t fix the awkward combat, they do add satisfying incentives to levelling up. In order to unlock skills you need to spend AP which can be gained through levelling up, setting up camp, riding chocobos and countless other way. Skills include buffing stats, giving the player more ways to gain AP, making magic stronger and giving players more link-strike commands (a sort of limit break finisher move that is completed using one of Noctis’ three friends). If you’re not feeling the story at any particular point, you can instead gain AP to unlock that next cool ability in one of your skill trees.
Despite the story becoming linear in the game’s second half, it almost never becomes a true issue because you’re able to travel back to the open world at any rest station. Sure it would have been better to keep the game open at almost all times, but the fact that Square Enix gave the option to switch back and forth means they gave players a choice, unlike the forced linearity of other FF titles.
Final Fantasy XV’s biggest strength and weakness, though, lies in its storyline. It’s the plot that confuses with strange revelations that are only briefly touched upon or vaguely explained, but it’s also the plot that grabs me by the heart and forces me to care until the very end. This, by the way, is an ending worth the emotional rollercoaster. I was constantly wanting to know more about the flippant antagonist Ardyn only to be answered with obscurities. I always felt like I was never getting the full picture throughout the game, and while it was a good sign that I was begging to get that picture, the game ends without fully delivering it.
This brought about my curiosity in Kingsglaive; the Final Fantasy XV movie that came out months prior to the game. After watching the flick only an hour before the final boss fight, so much light was shed on the story which is truly a shame. Unlike Advent Children, another Final Fantasy movie that came out because of a numbered entry, Kingsglaive is not supplementary to the storyline but rather integral, explaining main plot elements that desperately should have been touched on in the game. The movie was good and had I known it would have been this necessary to the story I surely would have made a point to see it, but that does not excuse the lack of clarity in the main game. FFXV sorely lacks a coherent narrative at times which is only remedied by the tested friendship of Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto.
The evolution of their relationship through the trials they are faced with adds a strong humanity element to FFXV that is almost otherwise nowhere to be found. Arguments erupt, wounds (both physical and mental) are torn open before our eyes, faith is tested and lives are constantly put in danger to climactic effect during the trip these comrades embark on which forces them to grow like no other group of friends I’ve seen in a game.
When FFXV was announced and the first picture of the four of them riding in a black luxury car was released people would joke about how this was going to be Final Fantasy Roadtrip Edition, and at the time I thought that might be the game’s biggest downfall. Instead, it proved its greatest asset which kept me going through to the very end and also provided one of the most dark, heart-wrenching, genuine moments the series has seen thus far. Without this fellowship, this game loses what it is.
Final Fantasy XV may have changed many franchise staples (and not always successfully, I might add), but it keeps the charming characters and bonds they create intact. And if there’s something Final Fantasy can’t afford to lose, as it takes a step toward the future, it’s most definitely the heart and soul of the characters it brings to life.
Noctis, Prompto, Gladiolus and Ignis prove that point as they steal the show on their road trip, and are the biggest reason to invest time and money into this experience.
A few unsuccessful changes to the FF formula and some confusing plot choices keep this game from being an instant classic; but what it lacks in gameplay and story it makes up for in character development, a stunning soundtrack and some good old-fashioned Final Fantasy feels.