Ten years, man. Ten years.
It’s rare to find a video game that survives a full decade in development, and even rarer for such a game to see the light of day after so long. The history of video games is littered with the corpses of titles that stagnate or die in development hell. They are the horror stories that developers tell each other around campfires.
Final Fantasy XV is one such game. First announced in 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, it is in many ways a make-or-break product. Though strongly rooted in video game history, the Final Fantasy brand has taken on its share of tarnish over the years. Recent titles in the series have been neither critical nor financial successes on the same scale as their predecessors, and most of its mobile entries have faced harsh reviews from both players and reviewers.
Although every Final Fantasy game stands on its own with unique mechanics, characters, and even worlds, there are a number of commonalities that tie them together. The internet is rife with articles explaining them, so I won’t go into too much detail here; suffice it to say that every game in the series is as different as it is similar. Final Fantasy XV’s subdued opening sequence is an example of this. Instead of throwing the player headfirst into conflict, like previous titles, it introduces its lead characters as they push a broken-down car along a mostly-deserted country road. Florence and the Machine’s cover of Stand By Me plays in the background as they banter during the task.
The actual stakes at hand are no less dire than in previous Final Fantasy titles. Noctis, prince of a country called Lucis, is being escorted by bodyguard-friends Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. Their entire planet is at war, with Noctis’ home country the last holdout against an invading Empire. He travels to marry his betrothed, princess Lunafreya of Tenebrae. As is often the case in these situations, things don’t go quite as planned.
Final Fantasy XV features a story as complex and engaging as it predecessors, but goes about telling it in a very different way. From a gameplay perspective, it takes many cues from 2014’s Dragon Age Inquisition, a fantastic game that made great strides in combining open-world concepts with the linear nature of storytelling. Final Fantasy XV does not approach the same level of character creation or player choice, but it does present a large, seamless world to explore. There is some artificial gatekeeping that forces the player to complete certain tasks before they can access it entirely, but it’s not something worth complaining about.
Just as one might play The Elder Scrolls or Fallout to get lost in the world, one plays Final Fantasy to experience its story. Final Fantasy XV does a fantastic job of drawing the player into the lives of its main characters, and captures the feeling of close friends on a road trip with perfect accuracy. It does a fantastic job of conveying a range of emotions, and even finds a way to manipulate feelings through gameplay. It’s a surprising experience that targets empathy to carry the narrative, and it is usually successful. It takes time to reach that point, but the investment pays off. The story also hits a breakneck pace around halfway though, and starts to feel a bit rushed, but it remains enjoyable throughout.
From a technical perspective, Final Fantasy XV is an absolute marvel. The sprawling world is overloaded with lush detail. Characters move with unparalleled fluidity and realism. Its lighting and shadows are a sight to behold(though they do have some surprising pop-in). Environmental effects, like rain and fog, offer appropriate feelings of weight. The only real let-down is the water, which animates and reflects awkwardly compared to other elements. On top of astonishing visuals, there is next to no load time, save when first starting to play or when transitioning between chapters. Once a player has repaired the aforementioned car and cleared a few blockades, they can seamlessly drive up and down the continent. The music is a bit more sparse that previous entries in the series, but the pieces played during battle and exploration are fitting and memorable. The voice acting is probably the lowest creative point; most of the acting is acceptable, though a few secondary characters are a bit grating.
Combat in Final Fantasy XV is fast-paced and fun. The player controls Noctis alone, leaving the majority of companion control to the game’s artificial intelligence. They are actually fairly dependable, doing a good job of avoiding damage and doling it out. The player can issue the occasional command to them, though this is limited to coordinating team attacks and using healing items. Unlike previous games in the series, magic feels like a bit of an afterthought; characters have access to the “big three:” fire, ice, and lightning, but that is it for most of the game. It’s also always area-of-effect with friendly fire, making strategic use a necessity.
The game does falter at points. Camera angles during combat can sometimes leave a great deal to be desired, interrupting the flow of battle as the player attempts to re-orient the view. Contextual interactions, such as picking up items or talking to characters, sometimes result in Noctis jumping instead. All of these actions use the same button, which is only a problem when it isn’t doing the right thing. There’s also a chapter that outstays its welcome, though it does an acceptable job of serving the narrative. These are all nitpicks however; most of the time these things aren’t issues.
The most perplexing thing to me is Final Fantasy XV’s dealings with female characters. No one in the game gets anywhere near as much attention as the four main characters, but the women in particular are largely one-dimensional. The relationship between Noctis and Lunafreya is compelling, but characters like Cindy and Iris are bland archetypes that drag the game down. Cindy in particular dresses like she’s wearing, at best, a “Sexy Mechanic” halloween costume that was created by an adult film costume designer.
There is also the case of product placement: several major “real-world” brands make recurring appearances in Final Fantasy XV, and one of them gets an actual quest. It’s completely off-putting to have Gladiolus suddenly develop an obsession with a major instant ramen noodle brand, and fourth-wall shattering to have all four main characters shamelessly shill the product during a camping scene. It feels beyond forced. Seeing the logo of a brand isn’t a problem; being forced to listen to characters extol their virtues for minutes on end is weird and annoying.
For all its faults, Final Fantasy XV hits far more than it misses. The risks it takes usually pay off, and the homages it pays never feel out of place. I’m still not sure how to interpret the ending, but Final Fantasy XV is all about the journey, and it’s the best one I’ve taken in years.
[The reviewer purchased a retail copy of the Playstation 4 version of the game for this review, and played over 65 hours.]
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