Reviewing Final Fantasy XV
The most dangerous enemies in all of Final Fantasy XV are trees. Not evil trees–just regular trees. The camera gets stuck on them mercilessly during combat, obstructing your view and making it almost literally impossible to fight near foliage. This is just one of many problems that makes this game the clunkiest and least polished main-series Final Fantasy title ever. I would be sensationalizing if I were to call the game bad, but it sure ain’t great, not in any context. Whether compared to past entries in the series or to other modern open-world games, Final Fantasy XV comes up short.
It’s a Small World after All
While Final Fantasy XIII flirted with an open world in its second half, Final Fantasy XV opts to fully embrace an open world–in its first half. The results are mostly underwhelming. For starters, the “open” world just doesn’t feel that big, and the environments aren’t especially varied. Excluding dungeons, you mostly see sunny grasslands and cloudy marshes. Other than that, there is a volcano, a few caves, and… a couple forests. The few exciting locations are saved mostly for the second half of the game.
On the one hand, the environment actually feels very true to real life, in spite of all the monsters prowling around; I must praise the game for that big success. But on the other hand, if the majority of environments playable within the game are within driving distance of my house in real life, is that really a good thing? I can’t help but compare Final Fantasy XV‘s world with that of Xenoblade Chronicles X, the latter of which trumps the other in every possible way. The X world is ludicrously big, rife with imagination, and full of visually distinct locations. It lives up to its promise of delivering an alien world. For better or worse, XV lives up to the promise of delivering a believable world.
Worse than the size and look of the world however is how underutilized it feels. You can go fishing if you want, or play a very weird pinball game. Other than that, the extreme majority of sidequests in the game are fetch quests or monster hunts, a perennial and significant problem of most open-world games. Often, the monster hunts don’t even come with a story attached–you just accept the quest from a menu, kill the monster, and return to collect your earnings. The fetch quests typically have a story, but they’re as generic and instantly forgettable as one might expect. So what ultimately happens is this: You either skip these mindless quests and become underleveled for the story, or you make an earnest effort to do the majority of them (which I did, because I’m an idiot) and end up highly overleveled. My party was consistently 10-20 levels higher than the story demanded.
On the bright side though, I will say that being chauffeured across the countryside in an expensive car (your primary mode of transportation, aside from chocobos for off-roading) is actually very relaxing in a “Sunday drive” sort of way. It’s nice to see the main characters goof around with each other in the car, and I was delightfully surprised the first time that the car paused in order to let a family of monsters cross the road. I appreciated those quiet, heart-warming details, and it helped that songs from many old Final Fantasy games can be played on the stereo.
Speaking of which, the soundtrack in the game is always appropriate for the situation at hand, but seldom ever memorable. It just comes and goes. Final Fantasy XIII at least had a beautiful main theme; this game doesn’t really have anything.
Phoenix Down and Back Up Again
At its heart, the battle system in Final Fantasy XV is pretty simple. You only control the central character, Noctis, and AI controls his friends Gladiolus, Ignis, and Pronto as they all battle in real time. (A “Wait” mode, which pauses combat, is available, but I admittedly didn’t try it.) You can order your allies to use a single, equipped special technique, but they otherwise act by themselves. Each party member attacks using his own unique weapon type except for Noctis, who can equip anything and may equip up to four items (weapons or magic) at a time. Noctis can parry attacks by holding down a button, and he can also teleport across the battlefield to attack foes or take cover to heal.
Notably, magic is now a finite resource that must be crafted via easily accessed materials. For the most part, the only magic Noctis and co. will ever use are the standard Fire, Blizzard, and Thunder. You get to select their area of effect in battle, and their effects can be amplified by mixing them with other varied items in the game. Nonetheless, it all felt to me like an enormous step backward after roughly 30 years of big, devastating spell selections in the series. On the flip side though, summoned monsters are available after acquiring them through the story, and their effects on the battlefield are truly spectacular. It’s a trade-off, but still an imbalanced one.
I’ve seen many people talk about what they perceive as a high difficulty level in Final Fantasy XV. On the default difficulty settings, I can’t possibly understand from where those perceptions are coming. Even when I discount the fact that my party was always overleveled, the battle system suffers from a massive flaw. Basically, whenever a party member drops to 0 HP, he ceases being able to attack, but any other party member can automatically revive him and restore some health (though maximum HP drops). If a party member gets hit too much while already at 0 HP though, he “dies.” And if Noctis dies, the game is over. That sounds somewhat reasonable, but—
Any time Noctis “dies,” the game grants you a few seconds to use a Phoenix Down to revive him, even if everyone else is also dead. That means that, as long as you have Phoenix Downs, you can never lose. Worse, healing items come in massive abundance in the game, so it’s normal to have a couple dozen (or more) Phoenix Downs, Mega Potions, Elixirs, and Megalixirs just sitting in the inventory. To emphasize how simple a time I had with the game–I used almost exclusively swords (which don’t work well on certain monsters) and never bothered with magic, and I still finished the hardest non-postgame dungeon (Costlemark Tower) without any serious difficulty.
The game is so easy as to render most of the enemies irrelevant. Every battle degenerates into a big hectic mess, mashing on the attack button and occasionally parrying until everything is dead. And if you’re lucky, the camera won’t get in the way while you’re busy mashing. But if Noctis does fall, no big deal–Gladiolus will pick him up in a couple seconds. Or in an extreme case, a Phoenix Down will suffice.
Mistakes were made with how revival is handled in this game.
Blinded by Light and Darkness
The story of Final Fantasy XV is very simple, yet conveyed in a convoluted way that defeats the whole purpose of telling a simple story. In summary, Noctis is the prince of the country of Lucis, which soon after the game begins falls to the Niflheim empire. Noctis escapes capture because he and his buddies are out of town when it happens, (He is supposed to be off to marry his childhood friend, Luna, in an arranged marriage!) so the game becomes about Noctis traveling around the world to collect the power to take back his kingdom. This power comes in the form of godly beings (i.e., the summon monsters like Ramuh) and 13 magical weapons hidden around the landscape by previous kings of Lucis.
Thus, the plot is governed exclusively by a “collect the MacGuffins” quest, but more concerning was that the events in the first half of the game (the open-world portion) seemed so arbitrary to me. In other words, a chapter (there are 14 story chapters in the game) would often feel disconnected in direct narrative importance to the events that preceded or followed it. By the time the story really tried to get going in the second half, it was too late for me to get invested.
And it’s such a shame, because Final Fantasy XV actually has a lot of good ideas that get executed so poorly! At its heart, the game is just about four guys on a road trip, making memories together. Pronto, for instance, snaps candid photos throughout the game, resulting in many exciting moments captured. And when the party sets up camp (which, along with hotels, is how the party levels up from the experience it has gained), Ignis can cook attractive, stat-boosting meals according to the materials on hand. In general, the constant banter between the four friends is endearing and seldom grating. They’re all likeable characters.
The problem is that they’re never given anything to do! Noctis is the only one out of the four with a clear character arc, but it’s an extremely choreographed, predictable one. Gladiolus’s only real purpose seems to be yelling at Noctis when he gets too mopey. Ignis receives some limited character development, but like with Gladiolus, his presence only seems to matter according to how it might affect Noctis. Pronto meanwhile does get a highly abbreviated character arc, and it again is nothing surprising. This further frustrates me because–dare I say–I actually thought Final Fantasy XIII had some of the best party character development in the whole series.
And for as underdeveloped as the main characters are, everyone else in the game receives even less development. Characters come and go without ever really mattering, like Gladiolus’s sister whose name I’ve long forgotten. Even more bizarre, the villains in the game are rarely ever seen, and only one of them ends up mattering. That villain’s motivation proves to be agonizingly stereotypical too, underneath the arbitrarily dense mythology of the game world.
A Fragile Fantasy
I almost missed that villain’s motivation altogether, thanks to a bad bug I encountered: During a scene that reveals the game’s pivotal twist, the audio of a character gasping drowned out the critical dialogue of the villain! I had to turn up the volume exponentially to make out anything being said. It was the culmination of an extremely odd chapter in general, where the basic rules of the game were thrown out in favor of gameplay that resembled a freakish hybrid of Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid. It came from out of nowhere, was quite lengthy, and felt like it had been designed by a different team. Of all the strange design decisions in Final Fantasy XV, that one competes with Phoenix Downs for the strangest one.
Other clunky moments abound in the game. Notably, having Noctis interact with objects can be an exercise in frustration; I don’t know how many times he jumped up and down when I really just wanted him to get on a chocobo or pick up an item. Additionally, the load times after making camp or using a hotel are oddly variable. You can spend a lot of time just staring at the screen for reasons that aren’t clear.
Yet another issue is that the AI party members are bad at following Noctis around; there was a boss fight where two of my party members just decided not to show up, forcing me to fight with a big handicap. And one more thing that irked me–and this is a big one–is how flimsy enemy targeting it is. You can click a button to lock on to an enemy, but getting hit breaks the lock-on, which defeats the purpose. Thus, it makes more sense to hold in a (separate) button all the time that manually keeps an enemy targeted. The final result was that my R1 button now sticks a little when I press it, from having held it down for hours in total.
Not Worth the Wait
Final Fantasy XV spent 10 years in development, starting life as a spinoff title, and it shows. The grandiosity of past numbered Final Fantasy titles–in story, in combat, in spirit–is missing. The game just feels rather bare, in every sense. The characters are likeable but unexplored. The environment is realistic but uninteresting. The combat is fresh but functionally irrelevant. It’s still not a bad game, but it is quite the disappointment considering the series’s legacy, with less redeeming value than other oddball entries in the series. (I’m looking at you, VIII and XII.)
In conclusion, I hope you will consider that I make these criticisms with a heavy heart and no malice, because the Final Fantasy franchise is one of my absolute favorites. But Final Fantasy XV just is not as exciting as Xenoblade Chronicles X, not as engaging as The Witcher 3, and not even as imaginative as Final Fantasy XIII, the game from which XV originally spun off. Nonetheless, I eagerly await Final Fantasy XVI.