It usually goes one of two ways for people when it comes to the prolific Final Fantasy series. Most have either never bothered dipping their toes, or have already obsessively played large chunks of their games. The release of Final Fantasy XV was something I greatly looked forward to, being a firm member of the latter camp. Of course, i’m far from the only one. Its announcement, ten years ago, has caused a rich lather of anticipation. From ridiculously impressive gameplay videos to an entire cinematic offshoot, we’ve had plenty of time to let excitement take hold. While it’s easy to go into things with a cynical mindset post-No Man’s Sky, just how much does the end product live up to expectations?
After only four hours of gameplay (so far), the overview I can provide is far from holistic. There’s still a lot of merit to analysing the game’s opening notes, however. First impressions are key to holding audience interest by establishing rules and atmosphere. Yet, slow development in their mechanics and world-building is the order of the day for Square Enix (formerly Squaresoft). It’s only fair, then, to bear that in mind. That said, the building blocks established in the first four hours are surely a fair indication of things to come. Left with mixed opinions by my own maiden voyage to the lands of Eos, Final Fantasy XV is at least deep enough to raise a lot of thought.
Straight away, if you’re so inclined, the game throws you into an incredibly active tutorial. For around half an hour you’ll be buzzing around a small hall, sparring with your pal; free from the occasionally suffocating trappings of narrative. Through learning the intricacies of its battle system, you also get a sense of the game’s intentions. It’s obviously rewriting the series’ whole approach, and doing so with admirable aplomb. Much more akin to its sister series, Kingdom Hearts, even Final Fantasy XII was more traditional. While this is done with all the fresh chutzpah that a new direction demands, there’s just enough hat-tipping to the past to breed familiarity. You’ll feel much more like you’re playing the Batman: Arkham series at times, but it works by being a natural evolution.
While a little fast-paced and difficult to get a practical grip on, there’s no doubt that interacting with the game’s battle system is immensely fun. It would have to be too. Stodgy combat would very much undermine the idea of jettisoning turn-based strategy. If it didn’t translate into an enjoyable experience then Final Fantasy XV would have fallen at the first hurdle. Luckily, it’s both fluid and rewarding. It even brings in some lovely innovations, such as the ability to swap weapon mid-combo. The biggest let-down comes in the detachment to your party members. While they swoop and swipe with amazing grace, it’s little more than AI window dressing. It seems that long gone are the days of in-depth character strategies. I’ll just have to see if that’s a development that shows potential with further development.
Indeed, the greater freedom it allows you with Noctis (the game’s sole playable character) is an opposing joy. A close bond quickly forms with him that may not have been felt with previous protagonists, despite feeling somewhat alienated by the mechanics of his chums. I mean this in a gameplay sense more than his personality, which is still decidedly less prickish than Squall (and certainly more switched on than Cloud or Tidus). Almost all characters in this game are one-dimensional. It’s a shame to have to admit that, since they’re still inherently likeable, but it is demonstrably true. Where previous titles have spent much time on complex character arcs and development, Final Fantasy XV seems much thinner. A far greater onus is placed on the gameplay itself, a strange choice considering their past.
For every slight stumble there’s a resounding success. Meticulous detail and nice touches are everywhere, permeating every outpost and interaction. In many ways, this form of world-building is a wholesale replacement for character depth and exposition. Under that light, it’s an intriguing leap to make. The things that truly teach me about the people of Eos, and the universe they inhabit, are the tiny ideas. Such examples as the way local youths will play on a pinball machine, or your party’s idle animations en-route to a quest are unspeakably good. These are the moments that made my hair stand on end the most, immersing me entirely as Final Fantasy should. It’s lovely to see how your quad of friends unwind at the end of the night; if only we could have heard some of their conversations to flesh them out a little.
The biggest crime I’ve discovered thus far is how the game treats magic. Crafting was a pretty cool mechanic once. Why do we now find it used as a lazy pillar? Every third-person adventure game under the sun has some kind of crafting now, most of the time ending up as an awkward redundancy. Bringing it into the Final Fantasy series isn’t actually too bad of an idea, and applying it to magic is a really interesting way in. However, this release seems to have done nothing more than tacked it on. Now, in order to cast spells, you must gather the appropriate resources from deposits found all over the map. Laborious, but still pretty cool if we end up with something meaningful. What mind-bending potions will I eventually be able to conjure from complicated ingredients?
The answer: fuck all. With an insulting trio of choices between the fundamental fire, ice and lightening elementals, even Final Fantasy‘s first game had a deeper menu. Later in the game you can add nonsensical effects to your preexisting spells, such as poison, but their use is both limited and negligible. Expecting more from a series that had previously mastered the use of magic in battle, with a wide range of possibilities, is entirely natural. Fortunately, the quality of the surrounding gameplay and design is more than high enough to maintain longevity and interest. It’s worth noting that the music is bloody good too, something that hasn’t been true of Final Fantasy since Nobuo Uematsu pissed off.
It’s clear, even at this early juncture, that Final Fantasy XV is far from the finest of its brethren. In honesty though, its achievements leave it deserving more said. An absolutely gorgeous environment alone, bloated with care in every corner, makes it worthy of note. You have to believe it’s sincere in its thrusting the series in new directions too. While failures are salient and numerous, so too are the positives. The imprint it will leave on gamers’ hearts is something we’ll have to wait to find out, but it’s fair to say that Square Enix are very much back on a solid track.