Originally announced as a PS3-exclusive spin-off of Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XV eventually became its own fully fledged title. The development of Final Fantasy XV has seen several twists and turns, and the influence of modern WRPGs such as The Witcher 3 is undeniable.
Final Fantasy is one of the world's most revered video game brands, but it's suffered in recent years from the botched launch of the MMO Final Fantasy XIV and the punishingly linear (and often dull and incoherent) FFXIII.
Can Final Fantasy XV drag the franchise into the modern era? Can it satisfy the series' long time fans at the same time as appealing to the sensibilities of modern Western gamers? So far, it's looking likely.
Final Fantasy VII was the game that turned me into a gamer. I'd loved Sonic, Mario, Super Metroid and all the classics, but it was Final Fantasy VII that had my jaw on the floor in the realization games could be as funny, as moving and emotionally engaging as they are fun.
Final Fantasy VII allowed you to travel around a huge world in various vehicles. Airships, cars, Chocobos, and for me, it was that sense of journey, that sense of adventure that Final Fantasy XIII really lacked. I certainly wasn't alone in that sentiment, and Square Enix appear to have taken the criticism to heart with Final Fantasy XV, delivering one of the largest open worlds of modern times.
So far, Final Fantasy XV bears the hallmarks of a grand journey, a huge and perilous adventure that will take four friends, Prince Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto to the four corners of FFXV's world — Eos.
Story & Setting
FFXV side-steps the jargon-heavy introduction found in Final Fantasy XIII, delivering something far more cohesive and comprehensible. Most Final Fantasy games revolve around a magical crystal, and FFXV is no different. The crystal of Insomnia powers a massive barrier that prevents the encroaching, high-tech armies of Niflheim from conquering the entirety of Eos. Insomnia's King serves as a conduit for the power, wielding and bestowing magic on others with ease. FFXV's main character, Noctis, can also wield this power, given the magic found in his royal blood line.
At the start of the game, King Regis sends his son away from Insomnia to meet Princess Lunafreya, with the intention of marrying in arranged ceremony as part of treaty terms with Niflheim. Niflheim will give up their onslaught and allow peace to reign, as long as the aging King, Noctis and Lunafreya agree to the terms.
The movie Kingsglaive explains in more detail what happens inside Insomnia during the first chapter of the game. And honestly, if you're planning to get into FFXV, I cannot recommend watching Kingsglaive enough. Scenes from the movie have been injected into the game (somewhat haphazardly) to provide some additional context, but Kingsglaive, I'd argue, is pretty much required viewing for those seeking more information on the state of Eos. And hey, Kingsglaive features Sean Bean and Aaron Paul, and it's surprisingly really, REALLY good.
After the end of game's light-hearted introduction, it's quite clear that unquestionable evil has taken root in Eos, and I'm excited to learn more. I'm excited that I'm excited to learn more, with bitter memories of FFXIII still in the back of my mind.
Hajime Tabata and the team behind FFXV had reservations) about taking the franchise into the Open World genre. Anxiety about competing with the likes of Red Dead Redepmtion or Grand Theft Auto in terms of content density filtered through the team. It's pretty clear to me that Final Fantasy XV is using assets and technology originally destined for PS3.
The game looks horribly blurry on Xbox One due to its aggressive resolution scaling tech, and it reportedly suffers from frame pacing issues on PS4 and even the PS4 Pro. The art direction is absolutely triumphant, from the character designs to the game's huge, hulking monsters. However, in the technical department, the visuals could use improvements across the board.
After playing through the game's first open world segment, I think it's fair to say that FFXV might not have the same rich, open world gameplay density seen in games like The Witcher 3. Is this a problem, though? So far, not really.
Instead of cramming the game with soulless MMO-style fetch quests (although, there have been few), Final Fantasy XV focuses on travel-heavy story missions that present opportunities for exploration and rewards along the road. And again, I've only finished the first chapter at this point (roughly 10 hours), but I've already discovered gigantic monsters, hidden tombs, performed errands for needy NPCs and discovered a whole host of mini-games. I've explored a very tiny portion the game's full map.
FFXV piles on progression systems that make every action feel rewarding, even if the narrative-heavy side quests of The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption don't seem to be on offer. Noctis can go fishing, in a surprisingly fun and rich mini-game. Ignis can take those fish and use them in stat-boosting recipes, of which there are dozens. Each meal is fully modeled in 3D, making them surprisingly addictive to unlock.
Whenever the party rests at a campsite, a motel or a caravan, EXP is spent to boost your stats and levels. Prompto takes photographs in the field, and you can even choose which to save and share on Facebook and Twitter. You can even upgrade your characters to reward Ability Points for performing actions like fishing and exploring. I was even able to gain some AP by playing on a random dart board.
The monster hunts in FFXV pertain to "travel here, slay this, and return for a reward," but the camaraderie and banter between the party members prevent traversal from feeling dull. The game has thrown an abundance of unique dialogue at me thus far while traveling in the field, some of which has been genuinely funny, while others just help you get to know, and engage with the characters more. That last point is important, because caring about FFXV's characters is pretty crucial, given the structure of the plot.
The most confusing thing about FFXV is the combat system. I'm still not sure whether I like it or not. Like Dragon Age Inquisition, it carries through elements of an action RPG combined with features that encourage tactical play, but at this point of the game, it feels a little like a messy spam fest rather than a well-thought out gameplay system. I will caveat this and say that I still have hope that there's more to the battle system that I've yet to discover (again, these are merely my initial thoughts).
Holding down the 'X' button allows you to dodge, at the expense of magic points. Holding down 'B' performs auto attacks. You only control Noctis, with the rest of the party just running around, doing their own thing. When you dodge certain attacks, you have the opportunity to perform a parry and counter-attack, hitting 'B' in a slightly dated quick time event system. These QTEs present themselves when performing companion techniques as well, which you can trigger by spending the tech bar, which builds up over time.
Performing back attacks triggers powerful Link attacks, seemingly automatically, where you tag team with a nearby companion. Noctis can also use his Warp Blade ability to teleport to a nearby enemy to slash them, or even teleport away to recover health and magic.
The problem is, it's not often I felt like any of these additional features felt particularly necessary to win battles, which themselves are utterly chaotic. With mobs running all over the screen, it often feels impossible to know when or if you're going to be attacked, particularly considering the camera frequently gets stuck behind trees and other monsters, blocking your view of the battlefield. Eventually, I did find that you can learn enemy attack patterns to a degree where parrying becomes a little easier, but it's just as viable to simply continue attacking, almost completely locking enemies into a stunned state.
Murdering a flan.
Even higher level enemies I've fought never felt particularly difficult to kill, given that your party will just auto revive you if your HP falls into a critical state. Spamming companion techniques, with random attacks and dodges, seems to be a viable strategy for killing anything I've encountered so far, which is a little underwhelming. While the combat has been tightened up since FFXV's previous public demos, so far, combat still feels spammy, and dare I say, far too easy on normal difficulty. But it's early days yet.
That said, there's still something oddly satisfying about it. The animations for the various attacks are slick and well executed, and those rare times I've parried an attack at a crucial moment instead of just baiting it to occur felt pretty good. The animations, the ability to warp around and special effects are usually restricted to the realm of pre-rendered cutscenes, but here they are, playing out in real time in FFXV.
The game's magic effects and systems are also a little strange. You craft spells in the menu, in a similar fashion to The Witcher 3's alchemy bombs. Then those magic flasks have to be equipped and thrown like grenades. The effects of their usage are spectacular, however, throwing charred textures on burning enemies, or leaving frosty icicles when using Blizzard. The issue I have is how finicky it is to deploy these abilities. FFXV has no radial menu. Instead, weapons and abilities are assigned to the limited D-Pad, meaning that mid-battle trips to the equipment menu are all too frequent. It disrupts the flow of battle, which is otherwise well paced.
FFXV also has a time-stopping "Wait Mode," similar to Dragon Age Inquisition, which allows you to get a breather, scan enemy weaknesses and plan future attacks. I would've liked to be able to use this mode to control party members actions. It feels like a step down from FFXII, which allowed you to customize party member's behavior, as well as assuming direct control. I haven't played enough of the game to comment on whether this lack of functionality helps FFXV to feel more streamlined, or just dumbed down and simplified.
A glance at the game's Ascension progression system doesn't offer much hope for the future complexity of combat as I progress, however. Ascension allows you to unlock new abilities for your characters, but the vast majority of them are passive bonuses that won't really change the way you play in any meaningful way. More damage here, more resistances there. The limited nature of them, coupled with the fact you can grind AP, makes me feel like it's designed to be maxed out rather than customize your playstyle.
Again, these are my impressions from the first chapter of the game. I'm hoping the combat opens up with more opportunities for complexity, dynamism, and tactical play later on, but so far, it just feels spammy, with an emphasis on gorgeous, cinematic spectacle rather than player interaction. We'll have to wait and see.
Initial Final Thoughts
Final Fantasy XV has made me excited about Final Fantasy again, after the disappointment of the maddeningly punishing MMO Final Fantasy XI, the dithering blandness of FFXIII, and the PlayStation 4's exclusivity over FFXIV: Realm Reborn. While I feel like the combat system hasn't yet opened itself up to me, and the visuals could use a lot of technical improvements, I'm sitting here writing this article desperate to play again — which represents the calling card of a great game for me.
I'm intrigued to learn more about the game's villains. I'm curious as to where the plot will take Noctis and his friends, and I'm eager to see what secrets the game's ridiculously huge open world may have in store. I love listening to Noctis bicker with his friends, and I'm optimistic that FFXV will give me that same sense of wonderment and discovery that FFVII afforded me all those years ago.
I'm still working on a full review, but I thought it was important to take some time to share my personal thoughts on the game so far, even in these early chapters. I think Square Enix may still have a little way to go to marry the gameplay of the series' most beloved entries with modernized RPGs (and I'd still prefer a classic turn-based system than a haphazard compromise), but they really nailed the feel of Final Fantasy with XV. Now, I just need to find out if the gameplay can match up to that nostalgic fondness.
If you've picked up Final Fantasy XV — or are still on the fence — I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!