Final Fantasy XV

Platform(s): Android, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: First Production Development
Release Date: Nov. 29, 2016


PS4 Review - 'Final Fantasy XV'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 5, 2016 @ 1:30 a.m. PST

In Final Fantasy XV, previously known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, the armed forces of Niflheim launch a devastating assault upon the Kingdom of Lucis, casting Crown Prince Noctis and his comrades out of their homes and into the fray.

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There are few games that have spent as much time in development as Final Fantasy XV. It began life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII and was announced at the same time as Final Fantasy 13. It was intended as a simple spin-off, but it flickered in and out of attention until it was finally rebranded as Final Fantasy XV with a new team behind it. There are a lot of expectations riding on it, especially since games with such a complex history rarely end up being good. FF15 bears the scars of its long development history, but at the end of the day, it's a pretty fun game.

FF15 follows the story of the improbably named Noctis Lucis Caelum, crown prince of Lucis. He sets off on a road trip with three bodyguards, the equally improbably named Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto. They're planning to meet Noctis' friend and arranged fiancée, Lunafreya, as part of a peace treaty between Lucis and the Niflheim Empire. No sooner do they leave than they discover that Niflheim invaded during the peace talks, killing Noctis' father and sending Noctis and Lunafreya on the run. If he hopes to stop the Empire, Noctis must find a way to reclaim his land and master the ancient power passed down through the kings of Lucis.

The story is all over the place and spectacularly disjointed, a clear victim of the game's development troubles. Major events happen off-screen or are only shown in patched-in clips from the "Kingsglaive" spin-off film. Even many on-screen events feel patched together with little in the way of coherent flow. It is clear that the primary focus was on making a playable content-heavy game, and there wasn't enough time to properly flesh out the story. Characters and concepts are introduced or dropped with little fanfare, villains are forgettable, and major areas are skipped without a word.

Despite the mess of a storyline, FF15 shines in its interactions. The strongest and most enjoyable moments are not when you're fighting the evil empire or taking on colossal titans. They're when Noctis is chilling with his pals by the campfire or driving down the road and chatting with them. The story of loss and revenge takes a backseat to stupid antics. The friendship between the four is fun and leads to characters who are more well-rounded than the usual Final Fantasy cast. However, it also means the meat of the game is mundane, so when the story takes center stage, it's distracting rather than engaging. As weird as it is for Final Fantasy, this game is more appealing when characters are arguing over the radio station instead of arguing over the fate of the world. The weakest moments are when the game breaks up the four pals to focus on other characters.

At its heart, FF15 is a mix of open-world RPG and linear story missions. You're in the thick of things as soon as the game starts. You have your full party, a busted-down car, and an open area full of monsters, items and places to explore. Progressing unlocks more places to visit, including towns and dungeons. Dozens of side-quests are scattered throughout the open areas, but the quests vary wildly in quality, and there's no indication which ones lead to awesome boss fights and which ones are tedious. There's always some form of character interaction in a side-quest, which makes them feel more worthwhile when the context is boring.

Players have direct control over Noctis, and the rest of the party is AI-controlled. He can change weapons at any time, and each weapon has its own specialty, usually based on the weapon category. For example, knives are fast but weak, spears are fantastic at single-target damage but bad at dealing with groups. Greatswords are slow but hit in huge arcs. He can hold up to four weapons on a quick-change menu, and each weapon can be swapped out at any time.

Noctis can dodge attacks by "phasing" through them, rendering him almost immune to damage but draining the MP in the process. He can also dodge-roll, which lacks invincibility and doesn't drain MP. If you run out of MP, Noctis goes into stasis, where he is far more vulnerable until he can rest. He can't defend while he's attacking, so you have to balance the two. The game isn't over until max HP hits 0, and your allies can bring you back from the brink.

Positioning is very important to combat in FF15. Hitting enemies from behind can do additional damage, and enemies have vulnerable body parts. Fortunately, Noctis has Warp Strike, which throws a phantom weapon to which he can instantly teleport. Warp Striking to an environmental object refills all of Noctis' MP, which is critical for keeping up defenses.

During a fight, Noctis' pals distract and help. They can team up with Noctis to deal extra damage, but they can't be directly controlled. The exception is when you build up enough technique points (by fighting enemies) to order one of the characters to use a special move. Gladiolus excels in defensive moves and high-damage attacks. Ignis can buff your weapons with elemental boosts or heal your entire party. Prompto tends to be about battlefield control or debuffs.

As the game progresses, you'll unlock abilities and skills for Noctis and his pals. Some are simple passive buffs, such as Ignis gaining the ability to analyze a foe. Others are more active bonuses, such as allowing Noctis to use an Armiger super mode that boosts his combat abilities.

There's a surprising amount of depth in the combat system. You can finish the entire game if you only understand the bare basics, but there's a lot of room to grow. For those uncomfortable with high-speed combat, the game offers a "wait" mode, where time freezes between actions, so you have more time to decide what to do.

However, there are some flaws. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, magic in FF15 is a big deal. You can craft what amount to magic grenades, which can alter the battlefield by setting things on fire or freezing entire rooms. A well-timed grenade can instantly win a battle.

My problem with magic is that it's too limited and too strong. You get so little magic that you only save it for big fights, but it's so strong that it can one-shot bosses or strong enemies, so you're denied a good fight in favor of a single flash of light. It looks cool, but I find myself ignoring it because it dragged down things.

The other big flaw in Final Fantasy XV is that it's easy. It's easy to out-level content by doing side-quests, especially if you abuse the inns that allow you to multiply your XP. By exploring and doing missions, I was around level 45 by the time I was supposed to be level 20. As a result, you end up with combat that you can sleepwalk through, and there's no way to avoid it aside from of not engaging in the fun side-quests. A free content update down the line is supposed to add a level-capping option that may help, but in the current iteration, the XP gains are too high for the amount of content.

Beyond combat, there's a lot to do. As previously mentioned, you can take on dozens of side-quests. Each of the four characters has a specialized skill set. You can race Chocobos, play arcade games, and find tons of hidden things to do, including some post-game boss fights and missions that are among of the best in the game. There's an "open-world collect-a-thon" here, but the title is good about keeping you focused on your tasks. The mundane elements are some of the most engaging, and browsing through Prompto's goofy photos at the end of a day is as fun as battling a giant monster.

Unfortunately, it's also fair to say that the latter half is weaker than the beginning. The scope narrows down as you advance in the story. You can go back to the open-world segments, but they aren't open from start to finish. Some of the later chapters are particularly dire, and one late-game chapter that takes away your pals is the title's lowest point. It's clear there were some intended points where more area would have been included but were cut due to development time.

There are a lot of rough edges and frustrating elements in FF15, but it also a lot of charm and personality. It's clear the developers did a lot with what they had. There are a lot of small touches that are either enjoyable or annoying, depending on your tolerance for the quirks, and there are a lot of them. On their own, the nagging flaws don't do anything critical, but they demonstrate the game's odd sense of priority. Some minor niche features are polished to a mirror sheen, and some major features are awkward.

Final Fantasy XV is a nice-looking game that has more than a few rough edges. The characters and environments look good, but there are some moments when they get shockingly bad, such as some awful water textures. The frame rate is inconsistent, and the camera is all over the place. Beyond those rough edges are a lot of awesome visuals and great-looking design. When the game is at its best, it is breathtaking.

The voice acting is all over the place. Some characters have excellent voice work, but others are genuinely bad, with poor acting and absurdly overdone accents that feel like they came from a low-budget PS2 game. The game offers Japanese voices, which are better but make keeping track of the casual dialogue more of a chore. However, the soundtrack is phenomenal. It's easily among the strongest soundtracks in a Final Fantasy game, including some amazing atmospheric and combat music. It's bolstered by the ability to play music from previous Final Fantasy titles, so you can incorporate "One-Winged Angel" or "Battle on The Big Bridge" into your driving experience.

It's difficult to judge Final Fantasy XV. It bears all the scars of troubled development, and it has a list of nagging issues a mile long, but it's more than the sum of its parts. It's fun to play and has plenty of charming and likeable moments that balance out the frustrating time-wasting elements and weak plot. FF15 is a solid entry into the franchise and is as accessible to newcomers as it is to longtime fans. It might have some rough patches, but FF15 shows that it cares about the most important thing of all: fun.

Score: 8.0/10

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