Final Fantasy XV review: The open road

by Lars
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Final Fantasy XV is a game of unbelievable scope. You’ll battle gods that tower over you like skyscrapers with swords the size of small cars. You’ll journey across a lovingly-crafted fantasy world, hunt beasts and demons through night and day, and get caught up in some unbelievably over the top storylines that bring kings, monsters, titans, and chocobos all together in one mad, glorious blaze.

It’s strange, then, that this long-awaited entry in the revered series best moments are the small ones. The way Noctis and Prompto high five after pulling off a successful combo move. Sitting down at a campsite and having your bespectacled butler cook a stat-boosting meal with the ingredients you gather from a lavish world. Finally taking down that troublesome bounty after a long, supply-consuming battle. We’ve seen towering boss fights and over-dramatic cutscenes time after time in Final Fantasy, and, indeed, the genre as a whole. What we haven’t seen is the degree of friendship and camraderie Final Fantasy XV strives to portray in almost every line of dialogue, every frame of interaction. Between fighting to reclaim his stolen throne, Crown Prince Noctis and his retinue laugh, fight, crack terrible jokes, and take selfies in dungeons. Though it can be corny, a lot of the time it feels genuine and goes a long way towards making you actually care about these guys.

Which is a damn good thing, because Final Fantasy XV’s main cast is just about as stereotypical as they come. Noctis broods, lashes out, and doubts his own abilities from behind an impossibly coiffed hairdo. Bodyguard Gladio snarls and postures, cracking wise and giving Noct the business when he starts acting up. Ignis the butler tuts and sighs, preaching the values of a reserved approach with an accent so English it could butter a crumpet from a mile away. And then there’s the class clown Prompto, a constant source of cringey dialogue who insists on group selfies when you’re on the way to some terribly important meeting. All these characters at their base level are as generic as they come. I’m no JRPG/anime fan but I’d put money on these archetypes being overly familiar and frustrating to their target audience.

A little help?

Noctis and his crew are driving through his kingdom so he can get married off to a childhood friend and bring an end to a war between his people and Generic Invading Empire #10. Somewhere between the game’s opening, which has you pushing their broken down car alongside a haunting Florence and the Machine cover of Stand By Me, and it’s epic, catastrophic finale, I realised I had actually begun to care about these characters I had so casually dismissed earlier on as hackneyed annoyances. But it wasn’t the story, which doesn’t do much to exceed the series’ earlier entries. It was everything inbetween. You’re going to spend so much of your time with this game driving from place to place, wandering dangerous wilds, and real effort has been put in to make sure that simple things like pulling into a petrol station or discovering a new recipe for Ignis’ meals are satisfying. The story is incidental – the real joy in this game is pretty much everything else.

The meat is in the exploration. Hop in the Regalia, drive to an outpost. Stock up on potions, then go to the local diner and get some info on the surrounding area, or pick up a bounty for a troublesome beast. On your way to the target’s location you’ll find treasure, food, sidequests, and incredible environments. Approach the fight and Ignis might take you aside beforehand to suggest flanking the beast from above.

Combat is something really special. This is definitely the culmination of something Square have been trying to get right for a long time between Kingdom Hearts, FFXIII and all its weird sequels. They’ve got it down, and it flows. Hold down one button and Noct will auto-attack the nearest enemy in a blur of ground-based and aerial combos. Hold down another and he’ll dodge whatever comes his way. You can equip a variety of weapons at once, changing between them mid-combo with a d-pad press, and as different enemies have different weapon vulnerabilities, you’re constantly being pushed by new challenges to think and experiment. Add to that Noctis’ warping power that allows him to flit around the field like Overwatch’s Tracer on hardcore steroids and some mentally powerful elemental magic and you have a combat system that feels complete and refined like so few do.

It rarely runs into flaws, and when it does, it’s even more jarring because of how smooth it usually is. The camera, for example, is definitely not at home in confined hallways and rooms. The times the game made me fight in a tight space created feelings not unlike trying to beat the monsters with my TV behind a brick wall. Fortunately these moments are relatively few and do little to take away from the sheer joy of how well it usually gels together. Whether you’re wading in with weapons, dodging and parrying attacks, or issuing orders to your bros, it all just feels right.

So many of the game’s big boss fights (and I mean big) capitalise on the new combat system with great success. Fighting the Titan for the first time, with his eyeball-scorching amount of detail and massive size, brought to mind God of War if Square had been in charge. You’re chipping away at this dude with his equivalent of a toothpick but he just can’t hit you as you sidestep and warp around his crushing strikes. When they do connect you can parry and stagger him if you’re fast enough, opening the Atlas wannabe up to an explosive combo. Final Fantasy XV is a game of huge encounters, and it does this better than almost anything else it has to offer. The only thing that compares to the challenge and scale of these fights is the unbridled sense of freedom and brotherhood so lovingly crafted in the game’s road trip core. The only mechanic that persistently annoyed me were Summons, a Final Fantasy tradition, now boiled down to random cameo appearances if a battle meets certain criteria. Over 50 hours played and the only Summon I ever saw outside of a cutscene or scripted event was the first one you get, whose summoning circumstances simply require you to be in a fight. They’re spectacular when you get them but I imagine unless you’re playing a hell of a lot, you’ll see more of them in cutscenes than you will ingame. Combat itself is amazing so this isn’t a huge downer but Summons could have been implemented in a way that doesn’t rely on random happenstance.

Towards the end the game’s horizon narrows, and it does so without much warning, funnelling the player towards the end game at breakneck pace. Half of the game’s story is a linear trudge through a hostile land, resulting in about four hours of gameplay in which none of the things you’ve come to love about the game exist. It honestly feels like two different games smashed together – perhaps this was where XIII Versus and Final Fantasy XV collided. To go from the grand, adventurous landscape of Duscae with your friends by your side and the wind behind you to walking around identical corridors for several hours, your only weapon a ring that takes about ten years to kill one guy, is a souring experience. It’s like playing Red Dead Redemption only to have it inexplicably turn into Duke Nukem Forever right at the moment where John Marston finally gets to ride home to his family. The story pulls out of this nosedive and gets back on track for the fantastic, heartbreaking ending, and right up until the final encounter you always have the option to go back to free-roaming via a time travel mechanic the story just sort of glosses over like Harry Potter’s Time-Turner.

I don’t even recognise The Last Guardian any more.

Final Fantasy XV: Come for the combat, stay for the road trip. The greatest strength this game has is the level of detail and interaction with the world around you inbetween the titanic action set pieces and cheesy anime dialogue. Sidequests might be repetitive, occasional camera grumbles could lose you a few fights, and you will hear Prompto hum the classic victory music enough times to make you want to shove his camera down his throat. But beyond all those minor annoyances this is one of the greatest games of our time, a completely realised, refined RPG with an incredible open world and ever-increasing challenges to pit your heavily armed boyband against. And you just might start to care about those stereotypes in impossible haircuts along the way.

Final Fantasy XV TL;DR:

  • Final Fantasy XV has one-of-a-kind interaction between characters in exploration and combat.
  • Easily the best combat system Square have used to date.
  • Massive battles and a gorgeous open world with a healthy amount of challenge along the way.
  • Story is stymied by occasionally generic anime writing and an excruciating chapter that rips everything the game has made you love about it away.
  • If the camera swings around behind that cluster of trees for no reason mid-fight again I might actually cry.


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