By Andy Humphreys
Final Fantasy has been around since the very early days of the role-playing video game. But one of the most enduring and beloved franchises in gaming has had some tough times of late. Some less than memorable entries, coupled with an unpopular policy of releasing multiple games from the same universe has led to a significant slump in interest for the once vaunted series.
Now, after a reportedly tumultuous decade(!) in development, Final Fantasy XV is finally ready, and the weight of the series’ future rests on its shoulders. Developers Square Enix are not oblivious to that fact. They acknowledged some time ago that something needed to be done to revitalize the series in a way that would entice new gamers, not just the loyal returning fans that have kept Final Fantasy afloat for a decade or more now.
This change in direction is heralded right from the outset. Before FFXV’s title screen, the words “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers” greet the gamer, loud and clear. Self-awareness alone isn’t quite enough, though. Square Enix needed to follow through on their goals and make this iteration of Final Fantasy their most accessible yet.
Did the succeed? Well, certainly FFXV does plenty to attract new players, and while it's true that FFXV wears some of the bruises of its full-twelve-rounds of development, the game that has emerged into the light of day is a thing of extraordinary wonder.
Wonder is the best word to describe FFXVs world. Rather than the usual sci-fi tinged high-fantasy worlds the series usually offers up, the landscapes of Eos have much more of a present-day Earth feel. Rocky outcrops and vast open deserts put in mind the American West, with endless highways, gas stations, and locals greeting you with a ‘howdy, darlin’’ drawl. Even the sleek, 1950s-styled cars invoke an undeniable feeling of Americana.
This contemporary flavor jostles oddly alongside more traditional Final Fantasy influences to create a genuinely unique setting. Moments such as stepping out of a homely rest-stop diner to see massive, alien-looking dropships passing ominously across the horizon contribute to a feeling of Final Fantasy somehow creeping its way into our world. It’s certainly a departure for the series and one that is not unwelcome. You can’t help but wonder whether the setting is an example of an area where the developers felt a need to give players unfamiliar with Final Fantasy’s tried-and-tested tropes an easier way in.
Although the success of the world’s design could be debated, its execution is nothing less than delightful. Eos is realized in staggeringly beautiful detail, with incredible draw-distance allowing an unbroken view that stretches for miles. This graphical mastery extends across to all elements of the game, with the character animations a particular strength, and the magic and combat effects looking suitably spectacular. A special mention should go to the enemies, some of the larger of which are astonishingly well-rendered. Technical issues were few -- frame rates, in particular, were smooth and playable throughout -- but I did experience a little texture pop-in from time to time, and some load-screens were notably lengthy.
Along with the innovative setting, the story too is a departure from the norm. Noctis is Crown Prince of Lucis, the last free kingdom of Eos, which is otherwise under the rule of the empire of Niflheim. As we join him, the Prince is embarking on a road trip. Accompanied by his three friends, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto, Noctis must travel across Eos and arrive at the imperial capital in time for his wedding to Lady Lunafreya, to whom he is betrothed as part of a peace treaty between his the two kingdoms. Not long into the trip, though, it’s revealed that the treaty was merely a rouse for nasty Niflheim to attack Lucis and take the world’s last known Crystal, a source of immense power. His home now devastated, Noctis must rally together with his friends, jump in their car, the Regalia, and begin the search for the lost relics of his kingdom to fight back against the empire, recover the crystal, and restore his homeland.
Ok, so the opening isn’t particularly revolutionary, employing some pretty classic Final Fantasy tropes -- the importance of family, grand kingdoms, and large-scale war will all be familiar themes to anyone who’s ever played a game in the series. But it’s how the story proceeds that makes this adventure feel quite different, and fundamental to this is Noctis’ friendship group.
Rather than meeting new party members on your journey as is the often case with RPGs, Noctis’ already tightly-nit group is made up of his three closest friends. What begins almost like a bachelor party evolves into a sort of coming-of-age tale, with Noctis learning that he must quickly start to shoulder the great responsibility of his royal obligations -- a responsibility that he has long been avoiding -- and become the king he was born to be. At the very start of their journey, there’s even an unsubtle musical reference to one of the most popular coming-of-age movies, Stand By Me. The developers have clearly put their house on the fact that the emotional resonance these four characters create will be just what their story needs.
It all sounds mightily heavy-handed, and at times it is, but for the most part the dynamic between the four friends works. It’s genuinely touching to see Gladio, Noctis’s strong-and-silent bodyguard, shows concern when the Prince is hurt. Or when Noctis’ childhood friend Prompto is excited to see a Chocobo for the first time (of course those giant chickens make a return -- more on that later).
This camaraderie isn’t just a way to make you care about the characters. It informs game’s design, with elements built specifically with this interaction in mind. For example, each party member contributes a useful function as you explore the vast world around you. At the end of each day, you must set up camp and rest in order to tot-up your accumulated XP from the hard day’s adventuring, and level up your character. Survival-savvy Gladio will go about setting up camp, while Ignis, advisor to Noctis and mature voice of reason, will cook a nutritious meal for the group, complete with useful stat-boost for the day ahead. Prompto is a keen photographer, and at the end of the day you can peruse his snaps, picking the best to document the journey. Noctis himself has a passion for fishing, so can contribute to meals or sell the catch of the day for in-game currency. All these skills level-up over time, too, so become more useful as the game progresses.
All this camping and bromantic hang-time lends the game a unique -- and unmistakably Japanese -- tone, but it also gives a welcome air of unpretentiousness, of charming innocence that reinforces the feeling of naïve fun that permeates the game. Although these characters are essentially stereotypes -- they’re very much written and voice-acted as such -- the interplay between them means you do buy into their differing personalities. These four friends really do enjoy each other’s company, and as a result, you want to spend time with them, too.
The combat is another design element that is influenced by the main characters’ relationship. For this game, Square Enix have settled on an action-focused, real-time system, with the ability to pause the action and assess options mid-fight. Basic battling is simple enough: You directly control only Noctis, holding down one button to chain attacks, and another to dodge and parry. Each character is specialized with a particular weapon type (save for Noctis, who can use any) and you’re encouraged to use their strengths in combination to fight enemies. Get it right, and nearby buddies jump in and help you double-team an enemy with a powerful Link Move for bonus damage.
On top of this basic system are layers upon layers of depth. Noctis can Warp, essentially a quick teleport, to recover, but can also use this talent offensively with a Warp Strike. The further Noctis begins from the target, the greater the damage dealt. Such a mechanic also lends fights a welcome element of verticality, as Noctis can Warp to a high location to fight sniping enemies, or for a brief moment of respite.
Another layer: Techniques. Unique to each character, these super-moves are employed mid battle and usually include an element of party synergy. One particularly impressive example is Ignis’ Mark, which has him throwing daggers that pinpoint weaknesses for Noctis to run in and exploit.
Add to this mid-combo weapon switching, elemental resistances, magic, machinery weapons, and summons, and you have an enormous amount of depth for anyone willing to uncover it, despite the basics being accessible to newcomers, helped in part by the extremely useful tutorial.
As inclusive as it is though, the battle system is not perfect. There is a tendency for combat to feel a little confused, especially in larger skirmishes with lots of enemies, where I would frequently lose Noctis amongst the bewildering mess of graphical effects on screen at once. This meant I could never quite manage to orchestrate the elegant symphony of destruction the game seemed to think I should, with the masses of menus and status indicators (a series staple) doing nothing to make me feel more in control of the situation.
Contributing to that feeling of confusion is a mild case of Bad Camera Syndrome, that pesky third-person disease. It threatened to ruin my enjoyment in many battles but was acutely evident in boss fights, where the enemies are often the size of a small skyscraper. Here, the camera would frequently either swing too low for me to gain a full understanding of where I was in relation to the enemy, or it would find some spindly piece of scenery to hide behind, obscuring the action right as it was beginning to hot up.
Luckily, Final Fantasy XV’s other features are implemented very well -- some feat, when you take into account just how many features there are. The game is packed full of content, with everything you’d want from a modern RPG and some things you won’t be expecting. Crafting is all present-and-correct, and what a rich system it is. Recoverable magical elements of fire, ice and electricity can be combined with practically anything you have in your inventory to make single-use spells for the battlefield. Weapons, too, can be upgraded with parts found in the world, and Ignis will learn new recipes to cook with the discovery or purchase of new ingredients.
As previously mentioned, Chocobos, make a return. You can customize your mount, and of course take part in the obligatory races, but the mountable birds are this time particularly useful for going off-road where your trusty car can’t venture.
And it’s when you take a detour into the wilderness that you’ll be able to undertake one of the game’s Hunts. Available alongside the usual side missions, these mini-quests have you taking down humungous beasts for cash in a style clearly influenced by the Monster Hunter series. Caution is needed though: Hunts are often really challenging, so there’s a definite need to study your prey before running in to tackle them.
FFXV is a game that’s not afraid to take risks, too. Without giving too much away, there is a mid-game shift which has your party doing a spot of genre-hopping for much of the second half of your adventure. Although these sections are not entirely successful, the variety is welcome, and I can’t help but applaud the ambition. Some may decry the increased linearity that comes with these sequences, though.
Final Fantasy is a series that has brought us some real classics of the genre. Final Fantasy XV is not the best game in the series, but despite its flaws, is definitely amongst the most fun. Its brash silliness is infectious, as are its themes of friendship and togetherness. Not everything here will please longtime fans, and, despite that bold opening mission statement, it’s not truly the perfect entry for newcomers to the series either, though Square Enix has made progress in that department.
What FFXV does feel like is a game totally unburdened by the legacy of the series, and, most crucially for Square Enix, it successfully reinvigorates the formula in a way that will once again connect with gamers, creating a solid platform to build from for years to come.
Despite some combat hangups and a mid-game change-up that will polarize some, the focus on likable characters and fun, lighthearted tone make this the most enjoyable Final Fantasy in years.
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