Here it is, the game that was announced as Final Fantasy Versus XIII back in 2006 has been released, renamed as a main line title, Final Fantasy XV. Now the general rule of thumb is if a game has been in development hell for that long then it’s not going to turn out great. That’s kind of true here, but also kind of not.
Final Fantasy XV puts you in control of Noctis, the prince of Lucis. He starts out on a journey to get married to his betrothed, Lunafreya. He’s not alone however and his three friends/bodyguards accompany him in his father’s car. This is your party and beyond brief moments when members leave or new members join this is how it will remain. The amount of time you spend in your car with your team mates gives the game the feel of a road trip and this is one of the games stronger points.
Spending so much time with these characters does actually make you grow fond of them. They’re constantly chatting, often repeating lines of dialogue and initially they seem quite irritating. You’ve got Ignis, the British butler/smart one, Gladiolus, the strong one and Prompto, the silly one. Typical anime staples but as I said, you spend so much time with them that you can’t help but bond with them. Noctis is probably the weakest but then he’s the main character, the one you’re controlling, so you’re probably supposed to project on to him somewhat.
There is English and Japanese voice acting but I stuck with the English and it was fine. Some of the writing isn’t great, these guys love a pun, but the voice cast does a good job with what they’re given. It really does sound like they’re interacting with each other which is unusual.
As the game starts you’re thrust into an open world. It starts gated off but quickly opens up allowing you to explore to your heart’s content. Different locations have different side missions for you to take on and you can have as many missions on the go at once as you please. These missions range from killing certain enemies, finding an item within a disclosed area or interacting with some of the other activities like fishing.
Exploring the world is the best part of Final Fantasy XV. The missions are all very similar and the travel between each location isn’t that interesting as the car is pretty much on rails so requires very little player input (you can even get Ignis to drive if you prefer) but seeing all the different locations and finding a hidden dungeon off the beaten path is a lot of fun. The missions do a good job of sending you to different areas if you need a little persuasion and if you find walking on foot to be a little too slow then you can hire a chocobo to sprint around the map.
I did a lot of side missions before progressing the main game. Each mission you get has a level suggestion on it so if I had a side mission that was lower than my main mission I’d do it, which meant I was always ahead of the curve as far as my level went. If you don’t want to do all the side quests then you may have a little more trouble and need to grind some levels out to be strong enough to progress. The game isn’t overly hard but if you’re fighting a higher level enemy then the numbers will work against you.
Skill will take you so far however as this isn’t a turn based game but has a real time, almost action game fighting engine. I say almost as I don’t want to compare it directly to a Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry as that wouldn’t be fair, but it is a decent attempt at a simplified version. You can hold the circle button to constantly attack with your equipped weapon and the square button when held auto dodges, with certain attacks being parryable for a powerful follow up attack. There are more wrinkles to it than that of course; you can switch between four weapons on the fly to suit the enemy, back attacks are very effective and auto dodges use MP but at its base level the combat is very simple.
My main gripe with the combat is something that has challenged 3D action combat games through the ages and that is the camera. The camera just can’t show you everything you need to see to be aware of what is happening around you. Hell, the camera sometimes struggles to show you who you’re attacking when there’s only one enemy, it’s seriously that bad. There is a lock on system but that doesn’t seem to help and the game seems to disengage the lock on whenever it fancies which has lead me to say “What is even happening?” on numerous occasions. Sometimes when you pull off a perfect dodge to get behind an enemy which leads to a back attack which finishes it off then you can feel skilled and powerful but there are other times that through no fault of your own you get knocked about like a rag doll as the game fails to show you all the information you need.
You only control Noctis in combat and your AI team mates aren’t that great. Most of your item usage will be on helping them as they fail to dodge an obviously telegraphed attack. They do put damage on enemies but no where near the amount you do. By building up a meter you can unleash special moves with each character that will make you and them invincible (which can be exploited) and do major damage or aid you in some other way but they won’t be carrying you through often. It’s not to say the combat can’t be fun as it is involved and relatively fast paced but it is definitely flawed.
You can also use magic in combat but rather than using MP you have to craft it so you always have a limited amount. Beyond that it also damages you and your partners meaning I ignored it a lot of the time. I always carried some just in case and when I did use it it was powerful but the negatives seemed to outweigh the positives for me.
You gain experience for defeating enemies and completing missions but you don’t level up until you cash in that experience by resting, either at a camp or at a hotel. Hotels cost money but give a boost to the experience earned whilst camping doesn’t give a boost but is free and allows you to cook a meal which will give you stat boosts for a short period of time. As well as experience you gain AP as you play which you can use to unlock nodes on an ability tree. These range from upping the amount of AP you can gain to making Noctis and his friends more effective in combat or upping stats.
Visually the game is great. Individual elements can sometimes stand out as not up to scratch but when taken as a whole it looks very nice, with a strong draw distance. Viewers of Digital Foundry will know that the PS4 version has a frame pacing issue which in general play isn’t that noticeable but when you’re in the car, moving at a smooth speed you will see judders every now and then. Hopefully it is something that can be fixed as once you see it you’ll struggle to unsee it.
The other major gripe I have comes from the game blocking you from saving whilst in a dungeon or on a mission (you can usually save anywhere, anytime) and the game doesn’t checkpoint very often so during one dungeon I died on the boss and it sent me all the way out to the beginning of that dungeon, which is ridiculous. Any RPG with save points would put one before a boss so why there isn’t a checkpoint or why you can’t just save when you want I don’t know.
The main missions will progress the story but the narrative is one of the weaker parts of the game. It starts off quite slowly as your crew sets off on their road trip and they have some minor set backs, then they clash with the incredibly evil empire, then the shit hits the fan and then the game ends. Now the slow build felt like half the story missions, where you’re still in the open world and can do other things as and when you please, but from chapter nine onward you are moved out of the open world and the game becomes far more restrictive and linear.
This would not be a problem in and of itself (you can return to the open world portion of the game if you desire), but these linear chapters are some of the worst. There are set pieces that play poorly, story beats that come out of nowhere, making no impact and being forgotten instantly and chapter thirteen feels like it’s been pulled from a completely different game. A bad game. It’s these sections that, like Metal Gear Solid V‘s second chapter, show the game was not ready. The devs have even come out and said what their long term plans are for improving the game through patches and specifically mention chapter thirteen.
Now this may sound like a disaster, but here’s the thing – I had played over thirty hours of Final Fantasy XV before getting to these linear bits. I was very much enjoying exploring the world, ticking off quests. Somehow, even though they combine two of my least favourite things in RPGs I enjoyed the fishing mini-game (fishing and durability as the fishing line has to be replaced in case it breaks whilst fishing, losing the fish and the lure). Yes, those latter chapters did dampen the experience a whole lot but that doesn’t detract from those first thirty hours or so. Now that I’ve completed the story I’m able to go back to that open world and continue completing quests and finding new ones.
In a years time it won’t be the story I remember from Final Fantasy XV, it’ll be the world. I’ll have fond memories of cruising with my bros whilst listening to soundtracks from old games from the series, of some of the beautiful sights I witnessed. A Final Fantasy game with a terrible story is not a new thing, a Final Fantasy where the best part is its open world is. Hopefully that’s what they can build on to create a truly excellent game and hopefully it won’t take ten years this time.