Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) has been a long time coming. The world first found out about the game when it was announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006 and it’s walked a troubled path to release since then. Despite all this, the team behind the game persevered for a decade to deliver the game to fans eager to see where the next chapter in the beloved franchise will take them. While an open world action RPG may be a departure for Final Fantasy, the positives of these changes far outweigh the negatives.
The game begins with protagonist Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum embarking on a roadtrip to wed his betrothed Lady Lunafreya. Tragedy soon strikes, with the Prince’s father King Regis reported dead after an attack on Insomnia, the capital city of Lucis by the empire of Niflheim. Uncertainty and chaos reign as both Noctis and Lunafreya are also reported as dead.
What follows is a journey to reclaim the throne of Lucis, fuelled by a thirst for revenge. Noctis is a flawed protagonist, burdened by a lack of confidence. His story is as much about growing into his Princely obligations as it is about procuring the strength to launch a counterattack. Luckily the Prince is able to delegate and rely upon his friends Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto, who accompany him on his travels.
Gladiolus serves as Noctis’ stubborn moral compass, his toughness and charisma never failing to put the Prince into line. Ignis acts as the glue keeping the group together, with a seemingly unflappably cool personality. Prompto serves as the group’s positivity, with a quick wit and a dedication to photographing the journey. Together, this quartet prove to be ideal foils for one another, each in possession of complementary personalities that mesh together perfectly. Quite simply I love these characters, with their banter and heart to heart conversations fleshing them out to establish a ironclad emotional attachment.
The narrative built around these characters to test and temper their bond is both complex and mature. I had a clear understanding of the various cultures and factions that inhabit the world of Eos. The net effect of this is a greater understanding of character motivations, especially where the game’s villain is concerned. The antagonist’s reasons for doing what they do are strongly defined, making for a fascinating character who is unpredictable by their innate nature.
Unusually for a Final Fantasy title, the story that forms around these characters is told in a brisk manner. Cutscenes are short and there is relatively little exposition when compared to past entries in the series. This quicker pace ultimately meant that situations aren’t overly elaborated on, allowing for personal meanings to be explored. There is also a lived-in quality to the world, with character relationships having a sense of unspoken history that predates the journey. It feels refined and allowed me to invest into the story to a greater degree than if everything were explained to the nth degree.
FFXV’s conclusion also deserves to be mentioned. While I obviously have to be vague, the ending offers one of the most satisfying conclusions of any game in recent memory. It is an incredibly fitting and rewarding way to conclude the story, a narratively consistent climax to the emotional journey that preceded it.
While I feel the story alone is worth the price of admission, it is of course not all you’ll be doing in FFXV. I very quickly warmed to what is an incredibly fast and fluid combat system that makes the entire experience feel fresh. At the heart of it are standard melee attacks and a dodging ability called phasing, where Noctis passes through enemy attacks. Each is achieved by simply holding a button. Knowing when to spot moments to attack or phase is a careful balancing act.
The most vaunted of Noctis’ abilities is warping, and it’s responsible for making combat feel fast. This ability sees the Prince throw his weapon at a distant foe to instantly close the distance and perform a powerful strike. Aside from looking incredibly cool, it is useful for maintaining pressure on weakened enemies and making a quick escape when surrounded. There are also warp points in battle which allow for a temporary reprieve.
Rather uniquely, it’s phase and warp that consume Noctis’s MP bar, with magic changed to a consumable item. Elemancy is the means by which magic is crafted, with rechargeable pools of fire, ice, and lightning magic able to be mixed together into unique concoctions, with other items providing secondary effects like healing or additional power. The options are numerous, and every spell looks stunning when cast.
Not content with simply one sword in his arsenal, Noctis can wield a variety of melee weapons with different playstyles. The standard short sword or daggers are great for striking quickly, while the great sword offers reach and power at the expense of maneuverability, and shields can knock enemies off their feet and provide reliable defense. Armiger, the collectible weapons of the past kings of Lucis, offer even greater power at the cost of health when using them.
The progression system that underpins this wealth of options in combat operates on two levels.The first is the XP system, with points accumulating until you take some rest at a camping spot or motel to be rewarded by levelling up and raising stats. The second is Ascension, a skill system that uses AP earned through completing tasks and increasing your level. These are used to upgrade each of the four main characters with additional abilities, including those that allow for team-up attacks. The grids here are much smaller than previous games in the series, but they act as a streamlined means to the same end.
Dungeons in FFXV are a chilling proposition, littered with dark corners and powerful monsters that prove to be a worthy challenge. Noctis slows down to a wary walk when exploring, contributing a sense of tension. Approaching a gleaming treasure spot almost certainly leads to an ambush, and the stakes feel much higher than when traversing the wild.
Battling through waves of difficult enemies not only brings you closer to your reward, but also closer to the boss of a dungeon. FFXV’s bosses are all unique and compelling, with each being a massive hurdle to overcome. While each has it’s positives, there is one near the end of the game that provides one of the best battles in recent memory. Astrals, the summons for FFXV, also have to be overcome in combat. Once their favour has been gained, they can come to your aid in a pinch to devastating effect.
Exploring the game’s open world is a mammoth undertaking, with Lucis a country so large it is impractical to travel by foot. Luckily Noctis’ car, the Regalia, is at hand from the very beginning of the game to make travel easier. Growing accustomed to road trips is almost a requirement of the game, as a lot of time will be spent in the Regalia. I grew tired of having to wait for a journey to conclude, which makes the quick travel options for previously visited locations an expected but welcome saviour.
With the Regalia relegated to travelling by road, an off road option is also required. Enter everyone’s favourite feathered friends, the chocobo. After a certain point in the game, chocobo can be rented (I never saw an option to buy permanently) and can be called whenever the need arises. The level of joy I had riding across plains and deserts with my chocobo is a highlight of my time with the game. It’s hard to do anything but smile when hearing the chocobo theme, or hearing the birds of my travelling companions squawk in reply to one another.
Visually, the game has a bounty of gorgeous vistas and carefully designed characters. Environments are a feat of imagination, with vegetation littering the ground and unique rock formations peppering the horizon. Coastal areas are particularly beautiful, with jagged cliffs and vast stretches of ocean. The characters you meet throughout the story are equally well designed, with each having something of their personality embodied in their physicality and costume.
It is all brought to even greater life by some outstanding lighting. How the game presents darkness deserves special praise, with night reducing visibility to only what a flashlight can remedy. Sunsets, lens flares and god rays make the beautiful locations all the more picturesque, and the way light bounces and saturates characters shows the level of care that has gone into making FFXV such a sight to behold.
This level of quality is not spared on the game’s audio either. The voice acting is of impeccable quality, with actors injecting life and emotion into their characters. The voice of the game’s main antagonist provides a subtle and unsettling menace that grows more chilling as the game progresses. Astrals are also given booming voices befitting of their divine stature, while the roars of bosses provide an intimidating introduction to encounters.
In a nice touch, the soundtracks of past Final Fantasy games are available to listen to on your travels. This serves not only as nostalgia, but also a reminder of the quality of music the series has produced over the years. The score for FFXV is not to be outdone, and is able to stand proudly alongside the tunes which preceded it with songs to rouse, calm, and unsettle, all the while elevating the experience.
While my time with the game left me with an overall glowing impression, I did also experience a couple of minor annoyances throughout. The most significant of these are the incredibly long load times. These can reach a couple of minutes at their worst, and appear when booting the game, fast travelling, between chapters and cutscenes. They are necessary to load the entire world, but ultimately feel excessive.
FFXV also features a choppy frame rate, which is especially noticeable when rotating the camera. This didn’t dampen my experience excessively, but it is a frequent enough issue to warrant mention. There is obviously a trade-off at play with the visual quality hampering performance, but it is disappointing all the same.
These minor setbacks aside, FFXV is every bit the experience I have been waiting a decade for. The story provides a mature narrative that brings with it a bonding experience that is a joy to share with its memorable characters, and the open world gameplay and combat offer a host of gripping mechanics I am clamouring to return to. Final Fantasy XV is a glorious return for one of gaming’s most beloved series. It’s quality is proof positive that good things take time.