We joke about Duke Nukem Forever taking over 15 years to release, but Square Enix has two games releasing this year that took close to the same amount of time. First up is Final Fantasy XV, which was originally known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, went on a hiatus, and then after discombobulated news, was reborn as Final Fantasy XV (FFXV). It’s been ten years since the original name was announced, and now that it’s finally here, was it worth the long wait?
While the characters look straight out of a Final Fantasy title, as well as some of the nomenclature and creatures, these appears are really the only recognizable facets from an FF game. The combat has been completely overhauled from the last FF game (or really any FF game), the party travels by convertible, and the entire game is open world, complete with dozens of side quests, from the very beginning. It’s quite possibly the most un-Final Fantasy game in the series’ direct lineage. I’d even call it, dare I say, rather Westernized for a JRPG. In fact, during my entire stint playing the game, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Dragon Age Inquisition and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in terms of gameplay. The story, however, that’s all from the cracked minds of Final Fantasy, and FF fans really wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those who played Final Fantasy Type-0 will instantly see some parallels between it and FFXV. Prince Noctis, our hero, is being sent off to the beautiful city of Altissia to marry Lady Lunafreya of Tenebrae. The two have been betrothed for some time, but the marriage is also an alliance between their countries, which are under threat of the looming Niflheim Empire. The trip Noctis takes with his three best friends and guardians was supposed to be a simple one; simply get him to the church on time. Not long after they depart, Niflheim breaks their truce and attacks the Crown City during peace talks, killing King Regis. Noctis and Lunafreya are now both fugitives from the Empire, and each has their own tasks to carry out in order to try to take back their respective countries. All Noctis has to aid him on his journey are his three best friends, their Regalia convertible, a few surviving members of the King’s court, and unlimited camping supplies. This is, quite possibly, the most insane road trip anyone has ever been on, including anything Hollywood has dished out over the years.
In addition, there’s plenty to distract Noctis from rushing out to Altissia in the first place, before his father is betrayed and murdered. Not long after they start on their journey, the Regalia breaks down, forcing the foursome to find work to earn cash. Cid (yes, Cid is back) bankrupted them with his repair costs, and if they want money for food, gas, or potions, then they’ll have to earn a bit. Right away, the game opens up to numerous side quests for Noctis and his friends to take on and earn both gil and EXP. The random question marks littered all over the map aren’t the only icons that pop up; mining areas, harvesting patches, and treasure chests, just to name a few, all sprout upon either exploration or getting info from a local tipster. It’s nearly The Witcher 3 all over again for me, as I’m constantly pulling over the Regalia or hopping off my chocobo to gather what’s in that treasure chest or unearth those potatoes so Ignis can come up with a new recipe.
Just like it has been for me with recent western RPGs like The Witcher 3, Dragon Age Inquisition, or even Skyrim, the need to clear my map of all side quests is a strong one, especially since they appear so early in the game. I have a wedding to get to? Pssssh, surely she can wait while I clear out these infestations of monsters. I’m supposed to meet my adviser in a Niflheim stronghold right now? Whatever, I have plenty of time to go fishing. Or find these stones for this jerk of a jeweler, or gather scientific research for a biologist, or find fallen dog tags for a hunter, or fix a motorist’s car. The next thing I know, it’s 2 a.m., I’ve been playing for nearly eight hours straight, and I haven’t done a damn thing in the story. Oh well, who cares when there’s chocobos to photograph?
Besides, camping takes up a considerable amount of time. When night falls, really powerful daemons come out, which makes driving nigh impossible (Ignis flat out refuses to drive at night) and it gets rather difficult to see where to go. The party will also yawn tiredly and grumble about being hungry. It quickly became habit to be near a place of lodging or a campsite when the sun started to sink. I was stranded once in the middle of the night with nowhere to sleep. If I even tried to drive, insanely powerful monsters would block the road. I couldn’t even fast travel, because we had to abandon the car in front of a level 80 daemon. Fortunately for me and Noctis, the gas station nearby had a pinball machine and the prince killed several hours in front of it until the sun rose. Oh Ignis was not pleased with us at all. Camping does more than keep you safe from daemons, it’s also how you convert your EXP into levels. All of the EXP you gain during the day is spent around the campfire, leveling up each character, and doling out additional AP. The player then spends the AP on the various Ascension grids—you didn’t really think the sphere grid system would go away, did you—to learn different abilities. It’s strange, but like I said, it doesn’t take long before it becomes habit.
With the various sequels of Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix has been slowly moving away from the strictly turn-based system. Lightning Returns was barely turn-based at all, even though it was considered part of their Command Synergy Battle System. All of that has been shucked out the door with FFXV in favor of an action-RPG system. Players can only control Noctis, although they can ask for Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus to carry out some of their special techniques. Combat is fast and explosive with a mixture of chaining together combos and quick-time events for blocking, parrying, and counterattacking. Noctis also has the ability to warp into and out of action, which is perfect for surprise attacks and quickly escaping an ambush to replenish HP and MP. The party uses MP in dodging, warping, and other special tactics. The only way to recharge MP without an item is to remove yourself from the action, either by taking cover or warping to a high point. HP also conveniently recharges during these moments. If you aren’t able to get away in time, that’s where you’ll need to call upon items for instant aid, or one of your friends will come over and help you up.
The way magic is incorporated is even stranger than how potions operate in The Witcher games. Noctis doesn’t learn magic, don a black mage hat, or buy new spells. He concocts them and puts them into flasks. He can either equip the flasks in one of his four equipment slots or assign them to his friends’ slots. To create a spell flash, Noctis has to gather various magical energy lying around Lucis, usually by campsites, and then he combines the energy with other energy or items to create various spells. For instance, a simple fire spell only requires 3 fire energy to concoct. Add more energy for a greater potency. But if you add an item to the mixture, you can create a Dualcast Fire spell, a Healing Fire, or other spells. It’s a strange magic system, and you have to be even more careful with it than in other games, as friendly fire is always a heavy risk. I’ve killed Prompto outright because I tossed a lightning flask, forgetting it had a Quintcast spell inside.
FFXV is, without a doubt, the most beautiful Final Fantasy game in existence. If there’s one thing Square Enix knows how to do, it’s create phenomenal cut scenes that appear to be live action rather than CGI. That’s in abundance, and the environments are just as beautiful. I am blown away with how far this developer has come with hair technology, both in cutscenes and out. All of that said, however, this many moving parts does cause some visual glitches. There isn’t much texture popping, but characters phase through one another quite a bit. Sometimes, they get stuck. Sometimes Noctis will just run in a circle for no reason, preventing you from completing a side quest until the game decides he’s worked out long enough. Sometimes the frame rate will drop in a combat scene, particularly if you’re fighting a pack of animals in bushes.
The craziest glitch came from my first visit to Galdin Quay, where the water was quite an odd color. It stayed that way for my duration of the Quay visit, through a few nights of camping, monster hunting, and random side quests. The next time I returned to the port city, I nearly did a double take at the sight of the water.
I honestly believed that the bright purple color was just how the water looked in this particular world. It made fishing damn near impossible, but I coped. I never saw it return to purple drank throughout the rest of my time, thankfully. And before I’m asked, these screenshots were captured on the same road but two different times in the game on a standard PS4. One is not PS4 Pro.
Nothing has produced a game breaking experience, only enough to be occasionally annoying. Hopefully these issues will be patched out over time. It would be nice if the load times were also patched up, because they are painfully long. This is the first time I’ve never wanted to fast travel, and it’s not because it costs gil to do so. A load time from fast traveling takes nearly as long as having Ignis drive does. When you unlock the entire continent, obviously this is no longer true with fast traveling. However, I’d almost rather set Ignis behind the wheel and send them to drive the journey across the world, because it’s not as painful as watching a screen load.
The best parts of Final Fantasy XV are not unfolding the epic story, completing side quests, or your first summon (although that is pretty damn cool), but the bonding of these four friends as they try to survive being hunted by the empire. I often preferred watching Ignis drive the team instead of fast traveling because of the interactions between the friends. It’s a blast checking out the photos Prompto took during the day around the campfire. It’s heartwarming listening to the team tease one another, especially when Noctis takes on yet another fetch quest. You can’t help but smile when Noctis celebrates with a teammate after executing a linked attack. FFXV may be a grand epic about saving the world from evil, but at its heart, it’s about the incredible bonds of friendship, true friendship. This isn’t some party that came together unexpectedly because the world is coming to an end; these four have been friends since they were kids. It doesn’t matter that Noctis’ friends are his guard now, because you know they would be protecting him all the same if they weren’t guards or if he wasn’t the prince. Final Fantasy games of the past have had numerous touching moments, but none have been quite like this.
Square Enix has taken quite a few risks with Final Fantasy XV to make it different from past installments or even JRPGs overall. Despite some graphical issues, they have pulled off an amazing experience, and it’s one that veterans and newcomers alike can immensely enjoy. This road trip has been well worth the wait.
Final Fantasy XV review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.