Ten years in the making and Noctis and the gang are finally ready to take you on the ride of their lives. While the adventure itself doesn’t quite match up to the 40 hour average you’d expect a typical JRPG to spin its tale, there’s a strange string of circumstances blocking this one from being all that it should.
The whole experience of Final Fantasy XV kicks off far more quickly than most other story-centred games of its kind. Going in, you’d expect the same level of exposition and setup seen in titles like The Legend of Zelda (not a JRPG in the same respect) with its opening cinematic spinning its latest iteration of the green-garbed hero’s tale for 5 minutes before throwing you into an another 30 minutes of text boxes and tutorials.
That’s not the case here. We’re shown the faces of the 4 friends we’ll be carpooling with for double-digit hours as they’re shown the door of Insomnia’s citadel. Noctis’ father – King Regis – has struck a deal with the impeding power of the Empire and sends his sheltered son to fulfil part of their deal; wedding Lady Lunafreya Nox Flueret – a childhood friend of Noctis and the proposed second half of the land’s aged prophecy of a king eventually being chosen by the land’s crystal to deliver them from the darkness.
Noctis, being the pampered pouch that he is, isn’t all too pleased with the goings on. Living a life as a Prince has its ups and downs; but being forewarned of his need to fill his Father’s boots once he’s gone, the young man has reached the peak of any pubescent boy where he’s completely sick to death of having his life run by others. His life of royal obligation has made him into a moody man-child who scowls at any attempt to encourage his progression throughout the game. It’s annoying for sure, but it’s a situation I feel many can actually sympathise with in their own way.
Rolling out onto the open roads of Eos headed straight for Altissia to meet the bride-to-be, things don’t go as swimmingly as Noctis and his band of merry men would have hoped. Failing them at an alarming speed, his mighty stead – a beautiful automobile by the name of ‘The Regalia’ – breaks down. Pushing it to the nearby Hammerhead garage, we’re introduced to one of the game’s many ‘outposts’; a place to pick up additional work, buy items, fill our faces with some incredibly convincing food and sleep on a bed that isn’t made of stone. It’s certainly a novel way to force a tutorial.
It acts as a fine example of how the four handle a less than ideal situation – something they’ll be seeing a lot of now that they’re away from the protective confines of the Crown City. It also gives us our first, and arguably the best, character quirk – Prompto’s impromptu photography. A collection of documenting shots you’ll see every time you put the boys to bed.
Joining a ‘Hunt’ and picking up a quest or two is at the forfront of the experience here. Attempting to usher Final Fantasy into the open-world era, we’re free to push on ahead and take the Regalia straight to the next chapter of the game’s main storyline. So long as you can hack the troublesome combat, you’re good to rush to the end in one or two sittings.
But for those coming at this for the first time, learning to ‘live off the land’ – so to speak – is the best way to experience this ambitious world. Hunts are picked up by talking to ‘tipsters’ at each outpost’s eateries; the very same folks who’ll dish up a stat-boosting meal and scribble down key points on your map like rare items, dungeon locations and harvestable nodes. They’re certainly a handy bunch, and considering you can only pick up one of their many hunting jobs at a time, you’ll be going back and forth from their establishments quite a lot down the line. It’s all a ploy to get you eating their garbage, for sure.
But why are you doing these menial tasks in the first place? Isn’t Lady Lunafreya waiting for you? Well, Final Fantasy XV really isn’t like your typical Final Fantasy. The open world understands that enemies don’t just spur you into a loading screen every 4 steps off the beaten track. So when you’re getting wrecked by the Empire’s punishing machine guns in the later chapters, you’ll have to rely on other sources to buff up your party’s attributes. And while monsters certainly populate the land without a hunt being active, they’re a lot you’d expect in a ‘Fantasy based on reality’ – you might get a group of mobs in one specific spot and no more around there until they decide to respawn.
Grinding isn’t really a viable option early on, so you’ll be teaching the boys a lesson in helping your fellow man and contributing to society if you want to see them grow.
And while, for the most part, it feels like the world of Eos is doing you a favor, the fate of the world feels the need to kick you around a little more than we would have hoped. Once nightime rolls around (which comes quickly) you’re almost forced into staying put until dawn breaks. Ignis won’t drive over fear of rogue daemons and while Noctis will happily take the wheel, powerful enemies like Iron Giants and Imperial ‘MT’s will both crawl out of the ground and fall from the sky to block your attempts to drive particularly far at night.
Though the chocobo rental service helps alleviate the pains a little later on, it seems like a needless system that actively attempts to force you into spending the night at a camp site to encourage a tiny amount of character interaction through a system that’s barely worth using. Sure, camping lets Ignis put your produce to good use by whipping up a nice meal, but you lose the best way of levelling up and pushing on ahead with the game.
Sleeping on the ground does nothing for your growth, while sleeping on a rented mattress like the gas station caravan or the luxury of Galdin Quay nets you anywhere between a 10% increase in the experience points you’ve gained since your last rest to a whopping 100% boost. You can either run a few quests and double their worth for a quick jump in level or opt to slice your potential gains and hard work in favor of a stat boost that could be matched by just shelling out a little extra cash at the diner. You’d be shooting yourself in the foot – especially when gil isn’t exactly hard to come by.
Most of your time wandering around the same spaces of Eos will be your search for the tombs of the old kings of Lucis. On a quest to boost his powers by acquiring the weapons of his ancestry, there was no point in the game where I felt like Noctis’ ancient arsenal was of much use. Boosting particular stats in exchange for a piece of his HP per swing, it didn’t feel like a worthy trade when even much lower levelled enemies could shave of the vast majority of a character’s health in a single shot.
Combat feels unfair for the most part – for both sides. You either have your party fall victim to a group of lesser daemons through a mixture of janky AI and a wombo combo or slam down a single high-levelled target with ease. Making use of your allies changeable repertoire of skills helps along the way, but there’s only a certain amount your limited control can help the sorry saps. You can’t force them to hold a position, so there’s every chance they’ll stand and eat one-too-many swings and make a fight far harder than it should be.
Between rolling through the fields of Eos and fighting monsters, toiling through the dungeons of the old kings is likely the high point of the game as a whole. Though the weapons barely feel necessary – at least throughout the story – the trips toward the land’s hidden tombs is about as close to a traditional Final Fantasy feeling as you’ll be getting until the end.
And while they aren’t exactly the pinnacle of dungeon design, they offer up that feeling of discovery you’d latch onto if you found a mysterious stone door sitting behind a couple of branches in your local forest. They’re not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re a welcome sight after bearing witness to the blight of Chapter 13 – a solo stealth segment that rids you of your weapons (and party) and feels like a Game Maker dungeon crawl that had 5 more rooms dropped into it for each year that went by without the game sitting on store shelves.
For the most part, Final Fantasy XV is an upstanding citizen when it comes to ticking the JRPG boxes. But it’s clear some of the design choices attempting to keep it from falling to some classical genre tropes eventually hurt it more than including them would have. It dodges lengthy cutscenes but loses its ability to tell a complete tale.
The battle system falls victim to questionable AI and shaky camera while its own desire to offer up a sprawling world are shot down with the need to watch your step when it comes to juggling experience point gains with a story mission forcing you to lose your chance at boosting it through a strategic stop at a hotel. The entire experience lends itself perfectly to an open world design yet limits itself at every turn. There’s plenty of ‘post-game’ content to delve into much like any Final Fantasy game, so while the story comes to a close much sooner than the rest, there’s still plenty of reason to stick around if you really want to keep going.
Setting out to tell a tale of brotherly love and the pains of growing up, it’s only in the game’s closing chapters that we truly see Ignis, Prompto, Gladio and Noctis really feel like they’re in this together. Before that, it’s mostly needless arguing, pointless exchanges and a moody grunt-off between the Crown Prince and his bulky arms trainer. But that’s where Prompto’s photography really shines through.
If it wasn’t for each chapter telling its own story through the lens of his picture box, we’d never see the group band together in a way that doesn’t look like they’re 4 strangers forced into a play-date by their parents. You have to watch the ‘Brotherhood’ anime to see their past interactions as kids – yet even then you’re shown their awkward exchanges during the road-trip we expected to be like something similar to friends stealing their dad’s car to drive out to Vegas. The situation is a little more dire, sure; but they rarely give any convincing evidence to either possible scenario.
It’s a shame, really. Every concept of Final Fantasy XV feels like it’s onto a winner; yet it never quite makes it the full way before tripping over itself. The battle system feels fresh but falters under the weight of heavy mob spawns and a troublesome camera, the story brings a tonne of worthwhile characters and lore but struggles to give either enough of the spotlight and the open-world system often feels far more closed and restrictive that we hoped.
The saving grace comes in the way of the cast’s solid performances alone. Without their help, the whole thing just wouldn’t feel worth the trouble. It’s difficult to explain the story in anything but the bare-bones basics and the combat can go from feeling fluid to aggravating in every other fight. The landscape of Eos leans too far to the the ‘reality’ side while the final fight feels far too ‘fantasy’. The whole game struggles to find its own balance when it puts itself on the scales of judgement.
It’s a fine attempt at something new, but while it heads itself as a ‘A Final Fantasy For fans and newcomers’, it isn’t the one either side should start or end with. It’s too much of an incomplete concept to stand as either.
(All images used were pulled straight from Prompto’s camera. He didn’t ask for payment. What a champ.)