Thursday, December 8, 2016

Final Fantasy XV Review (XONE)

I honestly wasn’t planning on reviewing Final Fantasy XV.  In fact, I told a PR rep back in August 2016 that I wasn’t going to do it.  Yet, somehow, a code showed up in my inbox two days before release so I reluctantly started playing it.  And I’m glad I did.  All of the things I thought I wouldn’t like – mainly the bishonen dudebro main cast and contemporary setting – have actually turned out to be surprisingly great and the new battle system, wealth of things to do, and incredibly addictive nature of it all has really drawn me in.  Final Fantasy XV does have some flaws such as poor storytelling and it is a ridiculous time vampire, but there is something about it where I just can’t stop playing.  Put simiply, it is just really, really good old-fashioned videogame-y fun.  See all of the details here in our full Final Fantasy XV review.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Square Enix     
  • Developer: Square Enix
  • ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Pros: Gorgeous visuals; awesome soundtrack; lots to do; fun combat system
  • Cons: Cindy; poor storytelling; no sense of urgency; everything takes forever
  • MSRP: $60
Final Fantasy XV starts out as a road trip by the Crown Prince of Lucis, Noctis, and his three friends / bodyguards who are making their way to a distant city to meet Noctis’ fiancĂ©, Princess Lunafreya.  Their wedding is supposed to seal a peace agreement between two powerful countries, but instead they are unexpectedly betrayed by the evil Empire, which throws the world into chaos and Noctis has to face his destiny and become the true king.  Fill in the gaps with a magic crystal, revenge centuries in the making, giant celestial beings, and other Final Fantasy tropes and that’s the gist of the story in Final Fantasy XV.

The story itself is okay but it is let down by awkward storytelling and the fact it expects you to have consumed all of the other FFXV content released so far – game demos, an anime short, and a CGI movie – in order to fully understand what is going on.  It just throws characters and locations and snippets of backstory at you and acts like you’re supposed to know who or what any of it is but if the game is your first experience with any of it you won’t really “get” any of it.  That’s a problem.  Not enough to stop you from playing it, I’m having a great time even though I feel like I’m wandering around in the dark, but it definitely isn’t an optimal way to tell a story.

The other way the storytelling is a letdown in Final Fantasy XV is that there is never any sense of urgency despite the world falling apart at the seams around you.  Final Fantasy XV is an open world game full of side quests and powerful monsters to hunt and a ridiculous amount of optional content that will distract you for hours upon hours upon hours.  This is good from a player’s perspective, but makes no sense whatsoever when trying to tell a story.  Particularly a story as super serious as FFXV wants to tell.  Early on when the Empire betrays the land of Lucis and attacks the Crown City, killing the King in the process, there is no rush to find answers or get revenge or really do anything on the part of Noctis and his party.  You can waste time doing nothing and it all feels ridiculously wrong.  You could always ignore side missions and only do story missions, which would help the pacing, but the game doesn’t force you to and you’d be seriously under-leveled if you did that anyway. 

What ends up happening is that the story becomes the side content and the rest of the game becomes the main draw.  Going fishing, hunting powerful monsters, doing side quests for townspeople, and camping with your bros are what you spend the vast majority of your time in Final Fantasy XV doing.  And when you do get around to going back to the story missions you get whiplash from the sudden change of focus and tone. 

So what keeps you hooked to Final Fantasy XV if the story doesn’t keep you motivated?  Everything else you do is ridiculously fun, that’s what!  Final Fantasy XV is an open world game with a surprisingly contemporary setting.  There are cars and cell phones, greasy spoon diners, and modern looking cities.  But there are also Magitek armor, airships, Chocobos, and other Final Fantasy mainstays all occupying a familiar world that otherwise seems like current day Earth (and it might as well be Earth considering there’s Coleman brand camping equipment and NISSIN Cup Noodles featured prominently).  At first I thought I would hate the setting and all of this modern garbage infecting Final Fantasy, but it is surprisingly well done.

I also expected to dislike the all male cast of main characters, but they have turned out to be pretty likeable and awesome as well.  The overall cast is, admittedly, made up largely of predictable anime personality tropes, but I like anime so I feel right at home in Final Fantasy XV’s world.  The only character that actually sticks out like a sore thumb in this world is Cindy, a female mechanic you meet at the start of the game.  She’s all T&A (well, mostly T and little A because Japan doesn’t believe in butts, or something) and fanservice and is kind of embarrassing.  At first I thought I’d like her since she was a ray of female sunshine brightening up the dudebro sausage party, but the more I played and realized that the rest of the female cast are much more smart and subtle and real, Cindy stands out as an outlier more and more.  Like I said, she’s just embarrassing which is quite the statement considering the type of anime I usually like to watch.

The core gameplay of Final Fantasy XV is also a major hook in addition to the setting and generally solid characters.  At the default settings it actually plays more like an action game than a traditional RPG – though you can actually choose an option that breaks the game into traditional turns if you want – and it is a ton of fun.  It is a little simplistic as you can just hold the X button to block and parry attacks and hold the B button to attack enemies, but it is really, really fun.  Switching weapons, using magic, using Noctis’ warp ability to teleport out of danger or do warp attacks – it is all really quite fun.  There is more depth to the combat than just holding the buttons, of course, as movement around the battlefield to isolate enemies and avoid danger are also important strategies, but the core gameplay is surprisingly simple and intuitive and I really like it.

I also like the other changes to the core Final Fantasy mechanics of magic and XP.  First off, magic isn’t just something you can use whenever.  Instead, you have to draw fire, ice, and lightning magic from sources scattered all over the world and then turn that raw magic into actual spells.  Because of this you only have a limited amount of magic to use at any time, but it is very powerful.  The second major core change is that you don’t just automatically level up as you acquire XP after battles or doing quests.  The way XP works in FFXV is that you have to rest, either at a campsite or motel or hotel or wherever, and then all of your XP acquired since you last rested is tallied and you level up.  By staying at different places you get more XP bonuses, so saving up your XP until you hit somewhere with a higher multiplier when you rest is a good tactic. 

I also really like the open world structure of Final Fantasy XV as well.  Similar to an MMO, the world is full of monsters and enemies to fight, all at different levels, and you can pick and choose what enemies to take on and what ones are best saved for later easily just by looking at their level.  Early in the game you’ll come across giant dinosaur-looking things or a huge cobra that are way out of your league, but you can come back for them later and that’s awesome.  Venturing out at nighttime also introduces even more powerful and scary monsters, too.  As I said, the combat is really genuinely fun and the XP and progression system very smartly designed and both of these things really motivate you to keep fighting and leveling up and getting stronger.  Final Fantasy XV is just crazy addictive and fun as you wander its open world.

One slight issue with Final Fantasy XV’s sprawling open world, however, is that everything you do takes freaking forever, which is a big part of the reason why you can spend hours upon hours playing it.  The game is a total time vampire.  You can travel between outposts and cities via car, but these drives can take multiple minutes and you just sit there and watch as the game automatically drives for you.  You can manually drive if you’d like, but it sucks and you can’t really go where you want.  Forget walking anywhere because it takes forever and Noctis runs out of stamina faster than a fat kid in 8th grade gym.  Even when you get the ability to fast travel between outposts the game’s lengthy load times still make everything take way too long.  The one bright spot here is that you gain access to Chocobos fairly early on which are a lot more fun to ride around than walking or driving in the car. 

All of these disparate gameplay systems, and plenty more I didn’t even talk about, come together to make a remarkably satisfying whole in Final Fantasy XV.  The main cast are likeable even if the story oftentimes feels like an afterthought, the combat is fun, the wealth of optional activities and side quests is awesome, and the blending of oldschool Final Fantasy lore with a modern setting works a lot better than you’d expect.  The key thing, though, is that you don’t have to be a hardcore RPG fan to dig into it and have a ton of fun.  With the open world and action focus of the combat it plays more like a Western RPG than a JRPG (though the story is still squarely in JRPG territory) which gives it a much wider potential appeal.  Final Fantasy XV is an impressive combination of lots of different styles and ideas and techniques and it all comes together in an immensely enjoyable overall game.

The presentation deserves praise because this is a Square Enix multi hundred-million dollar RPG so of course it is polished to a high shine.  The character models look great.  The environments are oftentimes stunning and have some fantastic vistas.  The lighting is fantastic.  The monster designs are outstanding.  It all just looks freaking great.  The audio is well done, too, with generally excellent voice acting and an amazing soundtrack consisting of new original music as well as music from all of the previous Final Fantasy games that you can listen to whenever you want.  

In the end, Final Fantasy XV has gone through an extremely long development process, picking up new ideas and undoubtedly going through lots of changes along the way, and has come out the other side not just “OK”, not just “at least it’s better than FFXIII”, but as a genuinely great game that stands among the best of the entire franchise.  I wouldn’t say it has the best story or characters the series has to offer, but the fantastic open world and fun gameplay and smart innovations to XP and skill management systems come together to make it a great overall experience.  It went from being a game I didn’t even want to play based on what I saw prior to release to one of my favorite Final Fnatasy games and one of the best games I played overall in 2016.  If you love Final Fantasy, if you love open world games, if you just want to hunt giant monsters, and / or you want a game with top of the line presentation, Final Fantasy XV is worth buying for any of those reasons and more. 
Disclaimer: A review code was provided by Square Enix.