Hear the writers discuss this subject (and the whole Final Fantasy series) on the Secret Cave Podcast!
My first impressions of Final Fantasy XV came after a mere four hours of toe-dipping. As a result it was quite naive, occasionally singing praises where it shouldn’t. Conversely, there were many criticisms that weren’t exactly fair. There’s much to comment on with this release, and the mix of emotions it can bring about in players is stark. An equal portion of you is likely to utterly despise it as the side of you that loves it. With both its successes and its mistakes, it constantly provokes a strong response. This makes the mixed reviews somewhat misleading, since it’s far from an average release skating by on lazy formulas.
In fact, a lot of the time it’s the sheer effort of the thing that impresses you. Take, for example, the masterful way that enemies are designed and brought to life. Many of these are long-recurring creatures in the Final Fantasy series too, such as Cactuars, Tonberries and Malboros. The way that it redesigns many much-loved beasties is nothing short of inspired. This, for me, is probably the very finest thing about the game. It’s a constant joy to see classic opponents so lovingly rendered, each with nothing but reverence for its roots. This, almost alone, makes it feel most faithfully like a deserving entry in the series.
Fighting said enemies is an intriguing experience too. I’ve felt numerous ways about its battle system across my own adventure, but I think I’ve settled on rather admiring it. It’s a tougher job than one might think to bring turn-based combat into a modern arena. After all, it’s a puzzle that Square Enix have been wrangling with for some time now. I still think they were more successful with the woefully underrated Final Fantasy XII, but this is a bigger overhaul than that. It’s actually a brand-new battle system with elements of Batman: Arkham‘s innovations; alongside more familiar RPG tinges.
At times, that makes Final Fantasy XV a very frustrating compromise. It’s nowhere near as fluid, intuitive or rewarding as the Batman: Arkham outings, so playing in that style is ill-advised and unproductive. On the other hand, its more traditional leanings are equally shallow. What was once about strategy and tactics is now about holding a button and occasionally pressing another one to block. There are stats all over the place in the menus, but it’s often impossible to see them change the circumstances of a fight like they would in previous outings. This is, of course, a negative perspective on something I’ve already said I admire.
It’s difficult to put my finger on why I think it comes out positive. It’s probably that it’s heaps of fun, despite its shortcomings. This comes from its dynamic nature, which it stole directly from under Rocksteady‘s nose. Even if it is messy and undisciplined, it saves the series from stagnating on old ground. Thankfully, there’s just enough homage to its roots to compensate. While it is shallow, you can’t question such staples as summons, HP, critical hits and a surprisingly long list of other well-known features. Final Fantasy XV seems to have no interest in saying “fuck you” to its inspirations, preferring to wear them proudly on their sleeve. In some cases it evolves them in a meaningful way, even if other things are left redundant.
Let’s start on those redundancies, so we can finish analysing its battle on a positive. Don’t let anybody tell you there’s any point to magic in this game. Tacked on because it had to be there, i’m still mad at it for relying on a weak crafting system. Where magic once presented great opportunities for tactical advantages, here it represents nothing more than a special attack. It really does have the same depth as calling for the car on Streets of Rage, and that’s useless to me in a game I expect to be cerebral.
One of the very worst things about battle in this game is how often incomprehensible it is. You’ll spend half of your time trying to wrestle the camera into a reasonable position. The amount of battles that seemingly lob your camera into nearby bushes, for a good view of the leaves, is infuriating. Add the fierce independence of your teammates to the equation and the experience becomes quite a detaching one. It’s certainly not the immersive experience it once was. Perhaps that’s a necessary sacrifice for a higher pace. I would argue that such a pace has no place in Final Fantasy, but it’s what we’ve got and we have to be fair in criticising it.
This is exactly why I give Square Enix a lot of credit for consolidating two clearly conflicting approaches. The opening screen boasts the game as “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers”, hitting home that there will probably be some compromises along the way. That considered, the end results are enormously successful. I felt satisfied as an old-school fan, still able to consume phoenix downs, summon elemental deities and explore an arsenal of weapons with varying abilities. Its adaptations of classical features were, at times, inspired. That’s what make the compromises easier swallow. It’s also evidence of the team’s sincere intentions, even if their ideas don’t always work.
To round up talking about the battle on a positive, as promised, i’d like to talk a little about the summons. I feel that they’ve received a lot of bad press in other reviews, largely because of their sparse nature. In most previous games, summons could be used at your leisure against even the most pathetic foe. While some commentators may miss this freedom, I think their rarity greatly adds to their mystique. Final Fantasy XV will only bring one of these truly tide-turning behemoths into play when you really need one, making their entrances all the more magnificent. I can attest that you see a lot more of them when mopping up hunts end-game, and they’re truly something to behold.
It’s important that the fighting mechanics are quality. If they weren’t, Final Fantasy XV would be fantastically bad. This is because a lot of the surrounding gameplay is awful. Most of the time, it actually plays itself. It’s deeply saddening how long you spend in your car, debating whether or not you should have fast travelled. That’s no better either, locking you into an overlong loading screen regardless of the distance. Even chocobos lose their appeal after five minutes of their incessant theme tune. Getting around the world is, frankly, a bore. Dungeons don’t make up for it either. Expect to spend most of your time in them chasing linear breadcrumb trails. When they do start to offer multiple pathways they’re universally confusing in the most annoying of ways.
It’s a little easier to forgive the mistakes of traversing the world map. They’re clearly still figuring out how to bring their niche into the advent of open-world sandboxes. The dungeons, however, are a shameful display of lethargy. Where you’re, at first, excited at the potential on show, it never develops in a way that grabs your attention. Instead, repetitive sequences leave you hopelessly tired. It’s dull in the extreme far too often, and the grind can be punishing. Having said that, dungeons and certain story sections are easily the best stretches of Final Fantasy XV*.
All that remains are side-quests and hunts. The hunts are okay in their own way, providing a nice distraction with a clear learning curve. The side-quests, however, are an insult to just about everybody. I’m well aware that i’m not the first person to whistle-blow this, but you can’t discuss Final Fantasy XV without considering them. Out of all of them, and I slogged through the whole list, I can count on one hand those with any real intrigue or reward. Beyond those, you’re left with countless uninspired fetch quests, punctuated painfully by the already established issues with even getting around the map. Why in Bahamut’s name would you even bother with side-quests if they’re going to be this thoughtless and numerous?
It’s all just there to puff up the game. It’s shoddy blubber on the whole, and it’s really undermining of an experience that delivers when it wants to. The central storyline missions lead to some absolutely outstanding sequences. The cynicism of Final Fantasy XV is in thinking its storyline isn’t enough. It’s a shame they had to paper over the cracks with such offensively thin material. After all, it takes approximately forty hours to complete its main story. That’s a perfectly acceptable length in my book. I’d have much rather they give us around twenty hours of great side-quests than the one hundred hours of stodgy missteps we’re granted.
The truth is though, the storyline missions kind of are fulfilling on their own; they’re a pretty great, if sometimes misguided, standalone experience. Obviously that works in its favour, but players shall have to decide for themselves if its enough to justify a purchase. While it was for me, anyone thinking of playing this game should first be aware of its scattershot narrative.
It’s plot isn’t half slapdash. For one incredibly important section it literally fast-forwards through it. This act is a horribly cynical middle finger to the player, pushing its chin right up in your face and demanding you buy the tie-in movie, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV. Even doing that doesn’t particularly help things, since the remaining story in the game is so poorly handled. It had such great potential too. The central protagonists are an interesting and endearing bunch. It’s actually great how well portrayed the group’s camaraderie is. Beyond that, however, I can’t say I know any of the characters much better than I did in the opening.
That’s all except for Prompto Argentum. At first he’s a spunky little bugger with a lot of casual cockiness. He can even be the most annoying of the bunch when you first meet him. It seems that he’s the only one with any depth, without spoiling the specifics of his development. Outside the party you’ll control throughout, things are even more vague. You barely form any connection at all to Lady Lunafreya or Ardyn, arguably the most important NPCs. This problem even goes as far as completely undermining the game’s key emotional scene; something that could have been wonderful if just handled with a little more focus.
For me, the ending tied things up in a way that was surprisingly satisfactory. Where before I felt physically angry at the lack of meaningful story, I found myself enjoying its conclusion. It’s important to make clear that it doesn’t atone for the mistakes that preceded it, but it’s certainly something to hold onto. It shows, yet again, that intentions were probably, at their heart, sincere. Unfortunately, it’s just another case of something being lost in the muddle, which is a truism found in every corner of this game.
Even the aesthetics of the whole affair have some strange choices, and that’s probably the most laudable aspect of the game. In fairness, Final Fantasy XV looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. I’m being finicky, but it annoyed me that most NPCs were simply the same model with a beard or pair of glasses tacked on. Similarly, there are some very odd ticks in the shadow mechanics which consistently broke my personal immersion. These really are nitpicks though. The game’s a visual treat, from the aforementioned summons and enemy designs to the beautifully realised world and architecture.
To match that quality, I really feel the sound department is top-notch too. This is something that I feel isn’t getting the praise it deserves. General fighting clinks, clanks, whizzes and bangs with perfect detail, but it’s not even that. The English voice cast is excellent in my view, and that’s a debut for the series. From the very first spoken words of Final Fantasy X, English voice casting has been a grating joke. With this we’ve gotten something that’s actually listenable. Just on the strength of his voicing, i’d love my own personal Ignis – if only to come up with new “recipays” wherever I go.
Yoko Shimomura’s score is refined and solid to help bolster the whole experience. I haven’t been truly in love with a Final Fantasy‘s soundtrack since FFVIII and I have to say that I am again this time around. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its problems, or lives up entirely to the legacy left by Nobuo Uematsu. In all honesty, it doesn’t, but it’s vastly superior to his other successors and even the worst of Uematsu’s work. While it’s more repetitive than i’d like, the memorable melodies are there. It avoids the cliche of using an orchestra at every step too. It was great to hear some tracks on more varied instruments, just like the series used to do.
As you can hopefully see, the whole experience is as marred by sincere inspiration as it is lazy compromise. It might be one of the weakest Final Fantasy games, but it’s also one of the ones that tried the hardest to innovate and step forward. That, I believe, deserves a fair bit of credit. On the other hand, so much important stuff got lost and ran over in the rush for pastures new that it’s difficult to get truly excited about it. I think it would be impossible to have a universally positive or negative experience with Final Fantasy XV, but the balance of that doesn’t make this an average game.
I still see it as a high quality release, and a definite MUST-PLAY. If only so you can make your own mind up. You’re sure to feel split down the middle, but what excites you and what alienates you could be wildly different. I suggest that, in the future, Final Fantasy scale down the concentration on open-world mechanics, looking instead at the arcs of their characters and variation in gameplay. Just know that it’s my belief in the creators’ intentions leading me to take my foot off the pedal of my criticism a little. Square Enix wanted to give you a wonderful game so much that they kind of messed it up en route…
*Except fishing. I’ve just remembered the fishing mini-game, and it’s excellent.