Review: Final Fantasy XV is a tale of two games
So many mixed feelings
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One (reviewed)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
The fifteenth Final Fantasy entry feels totally at odds with itself on multiple levels. Its story is a grand science-fiction epic that throws its entire focus on a group of four young friends. It is a tale with dire consequences and yet in between cutscenes feels light in tone. It is entirely convoluted and yet the most basic of stories. It features a gorgeous, expansive world that at many times feels muddy and unpolished. Its mechanics are deep and fluid but at multiple points can feel bare and disjointed. At the end of the day, Final Fantasy XV is a game that has to be played for all its successes and failures to be appreciated.
Welcome to the world of Eos
Players will insist that they have no idea what happens over the course of Final Fantasy XV, but the story couldn’t be more simple: an evil empire takes down a powerful kingdom and you play as the heir to that fallen nation’s throne in a journey to reclaim your homeland. The evil empire is known as Niflheim, the fallen kingdom is Lucis and the heir to their throne is Prince Noctis. Noctis is joined by his three friends Gladiolus, Prompto and Ignis on what starts out as a journey to meet Lunafraye; the princess of Tenebrae whom Noctis is betrothed to. Their marriage is a part of a peace treaty struck up between Lucis and Niflheim in a means to end war, but after Niflheim betrays Lucis and kills its king Regis, Noctis’ trip becomes one of vengeance. Lunafraye holds the key to reclaiming Lucis, and Noctis must reach her at all costs.
The story can get lost in the number of characters comprising it, but great design choices make it clear who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. The banter between the group of friends, which is plentiful might I add, also goes a long way to clear up some of that confusion. I personally feel like the story is well told, and when partnered with the CGI film Kingsglaive and online anime Brotherhood feels like a success.
There is an interesting design choice in how this story is told. We start out in a truly massive open world with the four friends in their awesome car; the Regalia. After some initial story beats, the player is offered a bevy of different things to see and do if they wish to forgo the main quests. Around halfway through the game, however, this open world becomes more and more linear. I suspect that this is in part due to development on the title dragging on, and the team decided to help speed up the release by closing the world off. It goes a long way though in helping focus on the story, so I for one welcomed the change of pace. Once the story is finished, all the open world areas become available again with a slew of post game content. Overall, I have very few complaints with the story or how it’s told.
Age before beauty
In a lot of ways, Final Fantasy XV looks like a last generation game. Especially when running on an Xbox One which offers the best frame rate, but trails the PS4 and PS4 Pro in resolution at 900p. The overall design of the world is fantastic and I’m a sucker for the science fiction/fantasy hybrid the game rocks. However, there’s no denying that the fact development started over a decade ago isn’t abundantly clear. Textures lack detail, in-game text is blurry and character models look janky as hell. Pop-in is abysmal, with some moments a creature or landmark only appearing when I’m feet away from it.
Outside of the beautifully rendered CGI cutscenes, the game looks its best when in a confined area with few characters and at its worst when driving around Eos in the Regalia. And don’t get me started about how poorly the game runs when you upgrade the car into a flying vehicle.
It’s even worse at night, which is something at multiple instances the game will try to have you avoid by throwing overpowered creatures in your way when darkness descends. But when trying to sneak through an enemy base using shadows as cover and your character model is fully lit, the poor fidelity actually hinders gameplay. My hope is that if the game does receive a sequel, the fact that it would be developed for current generation platforms would fix all these issues. Unless of course Final Fantasy XV-2 takes another ten years to develop.
The gameplay of Final Fantasy XV suffers in the exact same manner as its fidelity; it feels like both evolution and stagnation. The most used technique, the warp strikes which has Noctis throwing his weapon and teleporting to it, never gets old and keeps every battle feeling kinetic. Input from the player seems to trail behind however. Noctis can instantaneously materialize a wide variety of weapons, all of which are either effective of ineffective dependent on the enemy you’re facing. But there’ll be times when I’ve switched to my Engine Blade only to see on screen that Noctis is still hacking and slashing with his twin daggers.
Partnered with a terrible camera, which Square Enix still can’t seem to fix, fights wildly vary from spectacular set pieces where the player has made quick work of their targets to complete messes where they’re lucky to have made it out alive. The combat is greatly improved from the likes of the Episode Duscae and Platinum demos but still could have used some more polish.
The systems outside of combat such as leveling up, crafting, upgrading items, and obtaining new techniques is perfectly fine. It isn’t as great as some games but could also have been a lot worse. The game does introduce an interesting way to play with Wait Mode, which pauses the combat whenever Noctis is stationary. This gives the player time to survey a battle and figure out the best course of action. Just like with how the game tries to prevent you from playing at night, I feel like Wait Mode was an interesting mechanic that also helps cover up some of the technical limitations of the game.
As someone who has never been a die-hard fan of the franchise, my expectations were not set in either direction. I think Final Fantasy XV is a totally competent and enjoyable JRPG, but for a lot of gamers, that won’t be enough. It’s hard to justify those ten years of development time when I think the whole project could have been scrapped and restarted for current generation consoles. I feel like if that had happened we’d have been waiting just as long but received a much tighter experience. There are both western and Japanese RPGs that look and feel better than Final Fantasy XV. And I don’t think it’s unfair to judge this game by that standard when you consider CD Projekt Red put out all three The Witcher titles in the same time frame, all of which are better games.
This is Square Enix’s marquee title. It’s the franchise that saved the company from shutting down almost 30 years ago. If they were going to take all this time to put this game together, they needed to make sure they hit the mark. They didn’t. Not to say Final Fantasy XV isn’t going to be totally fine. I think it lays the groundwork for what this franchise will be going forward, and I’m excited for the future installments. But I think it’s not hard to be at least a little disappointed with the end product.