I’ve had a connection to Final Fantasy for as long as there has been Final Fantasy. Along with Phantasy Star and Dragon Warrior (the West’s version of Dragon Quest), the original game was one of the first RPGs I ever played—because, well, those three games were some of the first examples of the genre to exist on consoles in America. We wouldn’t get the next chapter of the series until Final Fantasy II—our localization of Japan’s Final Fantasy IV—on the Super Nintendo, but as much as I enjoyed it, it was nothing compared to the unbelievable splendor a far younger me found in Final Fantasy III (aka Final Fantasy VI).
Since then, I’ve played some amount of every major Final Fantasy chapter that’s seen release—but after 26 years of so many different casts and adventures, I just wasn’t looking forward to Final Fantasy XV. After Final Fantasy VII came along and popularized the “fantasy in a modern setting” idea, I’ve been less thrilled about further iterations done in that style versus the more traditional releases like Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy XII. I think what cemented my dislike of this new era of the franchise was Final Fantasy XIII, which—at least for me—brought my love for the series to screeching halt.
In my first four or so hours with Final Fantasy XV, I was honestly ready to give up all hope for it. The game’s early going is handled terribly, as it’s a hodge-podge of nearly unexplained story beats, mistimed ideas, obscure gameplay systems (that are only partially detailed if you play the included tutorial), and quests that are nowhere near those that should be given to someone just entering the game. In the now infamous Conan O’Brien segment where he and Elijah Wood try out the game, my fellow redhead—after being forced through FFXV’s beginning segment—proclaims Square Enix’s latest release an “‘aggressive wasting of [their] time.”
When plowing through those first couple of hours with the game, I couldn’t get that segment out of my head, because that’s exactly how I felt. The only reason why I knew the basics of how the crown prince Noctis Lucis Caelum and his friends had come to be where they were was because I’d seen the prequel movie Kingsglaive; anyone who’s not seen it, good luck having any sort of clue what the story is after the opening cinematic, because the game has zero interest in properly setting things up. The very first gameplay element I was faced with was having to push one of the game’s major gimmicks—Regalia, Noctis’ stylish automobile—down the road after it had broken down. After reaching Hammerhead, a small outpost a ways away, I was introduced to FFXV’s version of Cid and his co-mechanic (and granddaughter) Cindy. While waiting for my car to get fixed, they sent me on a number of errands—and they were all far enough away from the garage that I invested more time into walking to where I was going than accomplishing the tasks that awaited there.
Games are supposed to suck you in right from the start with compelling storytelling, a proper set-up, maybe some exciting action, and quick player-friendly rewards to get you to want to keep pushing forward—and Final Fantasy XV fails at every single one of those tasks.
I did keep pushing forward—in part because it was my job to—and as I got farther in the game, something happened: I finally started having fun. Everything that I had been frustrated with or complaining about was still completely worthy of those reactions, but I was enjoying my time with FFXV more and more in spite of those elements. Bit by bit, the pieces fell into place just enough to reel me in more. I’d finally figure out something new about combat, or put aside the greater narrative for the more immediate and personal tale of the four main characters, or handle the vast open world in more bite-sized chunks better defined by where I specifically wanted to go at any moment.
The single biggest thing that makes Final Fantasy XV work is also the one piece of the equation that I had dreaded the most: our pretty boy heroes Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto. They are the glue that keeps everything together even in the game’s worst periods, and the fuel that keeps it barreling down the track in its most powerful and high-energy moments. On paper, they’re four super stereotypical—and some might say very anime-esque—male characters, but by focusing on them and almost never rotating in any other party members, they’re also given the chance to become more than that. Yes, their banter gets old too quickly due to nowhere near enough “small talk” voice lines, and they’re never given the true level of character development that they each deserve, but I still made a connection with each of them deep enough to want to spend more time together with the quartet. If you don’t care about every one of them by the end of the game, then you’ve simply got no heart beating inside of your body.
In all of the pre-release talk of there being no female party members in Final Fantasy XV and the reduced role women would play in the story, I walked away having no major complaints in that regard. I do think the game’s small handful of prominent female characters could have been done better, but that never came at the hands of my male-dominated main party. The game’s biggest heroine, oracle and Noctis’ bride-to-be Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, is totally a wannabe Yuna—there’s no question of that. Still, I liked her, and thought she should have played a slightly bigger role in the game. She comes off as a person of strength and bravery, so I wish we could have had even just one shorter chance to play as her—especially as that opportunity would have given us deeper insight into what she was doing as her journey ran parallel to the main group’s. Cindy, too, got a little short-changed for my tastes. The dev team really should have had the courage to make her the Cid of the game, and had her play the role that she does combined with her grandfather’s place as head mechanic. At the very least, the North American side of Square Enix could have not botched her name—she’s Cidney in the Japanese release, and saddling her with the dumb name she’s got in our version reduces that connection to tradition even more.
Something that feels completely far away from the traditions of the franchise is Final Fantasy XV’s combat. After so many years of CG cutscenes featuring crazy-fast action with swords and spells flying, Final Fantasy Versus XIII—the project that would eventually become this game—promised an entire RPG based around such battles. Well, we’ve got them, and they’re actually pretty enjoyable. I wasn’t sure they would be at first, to be honest, given how simple the battle system is. Holding down one button will make Noctis continually attack the enemy he’s focused on, with a second used to do long-range strikes or warp to a safety point, and another that auto-dodges enemy attacks when held down (as long as you have MP remaining). As well, Noctis has four item slots, which he can fill with any of the game’s weapon types, special arms he’ll receive for storyline reasons, or magic spells. It’s not an overly-complicated system, there’s no question of that, but it allows for exciting action scenes while also requiring some strategy beyond spamming attacks endlessly.
There are a few cracks in the combat system, and they mostly center around your health and status. At any given moment, Noctis or his partners can be knocked into “danger” status if they take too much damage, and until they’re helped back into battle by a fellow teammate, they’re rendered useless. While the AI for your teammates is pretty good for the most part (except when they’re trying to follow you around while exploring), it often takes them far too long to get to you to help you recover—and while you’re in danger status, your max HP is quickly draining. Because of how fierce and chaotic battles can get at times, it can be easy to miss a need to switch to dodging at a certain moment—resulting in you getting smacked by an uber-powerful hit that instantly sends you into danger. One bad fight, and your team can end up having only half of the HP they should ahead of the next battle. The thing is, even the simplest of potions can pull you out of danger status, and elixirs will bump your max HP back up, so harder fights turn into exercises in spamming consumables—slowing down the pace of combat and leaving both of those elements tolerable but needlessly annoying additions.
It wouldn’t be Final Fantasy without spells or summons, of course, and both are included in ways that may leave some long-time fans with mixed feelings. Throughout the game, you’ll find three sources of magic power—fire, ice, and lightning—and after collecting that energy, you can use it to create spellcasting items usable by any of the four party members. Fill a vial with only a small amount of an element, and you can spread that energy out for more uses; fill a vial to its max, and you’ll end up with a far more potent version of the spell. You can then also toss in any random item as a catalyst, which can add effects such as producing multiple hits or healing the caster when used. Admittedly, the system is far simpler than the spellcasting complexities we’re used to, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like the game needed more than what’s available. However, summons—know as Astrals here—left me greatly disappointed at first.
You won’t get your first Astral until about halfway through the storyline, and when you do, you can’t actually summon them whenever you want; you’ll only gain the option if certain conditions are met during combat and the Astral is feeling generous. At that point, holding the left trigger button will call them down for one major attack, and then they’re gone again. It’s almost a blasphemous idea given how much control previous games gave to when and how often you could call in summons for help, but—I ended up actually kind of liking the idea. Astrals legitimately feel like gigantic, powerful gods in FFXV, and when they do show you favor during a particularly nasty battle, it can be so awesome seeing them descend from the heavens to save the day.
Equally massive is the world of Final Fantasy XV, and it’s an interesting one. If you come at it like a typical RPG playspace, it will feel too spaced apart, desolate, and somewhat boring. To get from place to place, you’ll be spending a lot of time riding around in Regalia or on a rented Chobobo, and when you have to get out and hoof it, it feels like key locations were put way farther away than they logically should have been. After a while, it finally hit me: FFXV’s world feels like that from an MMORPG.
When I came at the game from that perspective, and tackled it more at my own pace, I found more joy in exploring its numerous areas. Still, so much of the world ends up feeling like a waste of time and effort by the team, especially when you consider that many players will probably skip a lot of the side stuff in pursuit of finishing the story. Personally, I can enjoy pointless wandering, but I also can’t help but feel that FFXV should have been more linear—especially given the “four bros on a journey” attitude of the game. There’s absolutely no reason why driving a car around a Final Fantasy game should work, but it does, and wonderfully. It takes what is often a tedious act—traveling from place to place—and turns it into a roadtrip experience that so many of us can relate to. So, I think the game, and the story overall, would have worked better had it been a linear progression of Noctis and his team as they headed back to the capital city, stopping at various smaller open-area locations along the way as gameplay or narrative required.
Whatever help Final Fantasy XV’s narrative could get, it desperately needed. There’s no way I can emphasize to you in the context of this review just how much the game fails at the basic art of telling a story. As I mentioned before, you’ll be lost right from the opening moments if you didn’t see a totally separate full-length film. What is this world? Who are the factions and why is one attacking the other? Who are the players? What was the situation with the wedding between Noctis and Luna? Why is Noctis not trying harder to either find his betrothed or take back his kingdom? That’s but a fraction of the questions you’ll have in just the first handful of hours of the game. As things progress, it just gets worse. Events happen, and you don’t know why, or you aren’t given proper context. You’ll be sent off to a particular place or to meet someone specific, but you haven’t been told why you’re doing those things. The story will be moving along, and you’ll think you’ll know what’s going on, and then suddenly you’ll be off on a whole new side plot without explanation of the reason for the detour. A character is introduced that causes you to go against all common sense if you’ve seen Kingsglaive, and who becomes a ridiculous point of plot progression even if you haven’t.
In a statement that I can’t believe I’m saying given how things have been in the past, FFXV desperately needed more CG cutscenes. It needed more exposition; it needed more scenes of showing and telling us what’s actually going on. When moments happen that are meant to be powerful, emotional, or impactful unfold, it’s hard to feel any of those emotions, because they’re often not set up or directed well enough for you to be emotionally invested. Or, they’re never followed through with the proper atmosphere to really make you feel the weight of what just transpired—an especially big problem for the game’s closing chapter. I explained to fellow EGMcrew member Ray that playing the game was like watching a movie you’d never seen before where 1 ~ 2 minutes of footage were cut out for every 10 minutes on film. While playing, I constantly felt like content was just completely missing for no easily discernible reason.
Final Fantasy XV is a game with maybe a quarter of what was meant to exist completely missing—that’s the only thing I can accept after completing it. The 10 years of wait series fans have had since that initial Final Fantasy Versus XIII reveal didn’t result in a fleshed-out, fully completed game that benefitted from all of that development time—it resulted in a sewn-together Frankenstein’s monster made of parts from the various attempts at giving life to this project over the years. Looking back to what was shown off for the game as recently as 2013, when the director changed from Tetsuya Nomura to Hajime Tabata happened, I’m extremely curious to know what of the original plans made it through that shift, and what pieces in terms of storyline, direction, and major locations ended up going through total reworkings. (If for no other reason, FFXV is worth playing alone for how big of a study into game design it will no doubt become in the coming years.)
One of the biggest signs that the game we got may suffer from “we need to get it out the door and we’re out of time and money to do so” syndrome is Chapter 13. Coming late in the story before things start getting wrapped up, Chapter 13 is—and I sincerely mean this—one of the worst singular game chapters I’ve played in years. It’s shockingly, unbelievably awful. Major pieces of gameplay are thrown away, new elements suddenly introduced, the tone shifts massively without warning, and the location is a long, boring, dismal slog whose only accomplishment was extending my playtime by two hours. Oh, it also brings a completely out-of-left-field twist to the story that’s both stupid and only explained through random lore items strewn throughout the complex you’re exploring. And, it kills a major character offscreen in the completely unsatisfying tying up of one loose end.
If I was judging Final Fantasy XV simply on its overarching storyline, I’d call it a sloppy mess of a release that maybe should have been junked instead of finished. And yet, I can’t say that—I can’t even get close to saying that, even as I want to pull my hair out in frustration over how mishandled some of the game’s parts were. When I was outside of those failings, in the smaller (and more common) moment-to-moment situations and scenarios the adventure put me through, I legitimately had fun with FFXV. I would rather it have had another year of time in the oven and the budget to allow for that choice to be made, yet I’m genuinely glad to have played what we did get. Final Fantasy XV has no right to be as enjoyable as it turned out to be, and while I’d never want to have this be the first chapter of the franchise a newcomer experiences—no matter what the game’s title card may attempt to proclaim—I have no trouble recommending longtime fans to give this one a go. With so many odds stacked against it, somehow this one still works out in the end. I now just hope that, with this money pit of a project finally over and done with (outside of inevitable DLC), the series can move back to resembling its glory days, and get away from the scorched earth that too many strikes of Lightning brought down upon us.
Final Fantasy XV is nowhere close to the game that we should have received after 10 years of waiting—but it also isn’t anywhere close to the trainwreck that it easily could have been. While the storytelling is a mess and the game feels incomplete far too often, there’s enough to love here—from combat, to exploration, to the four Japanese pretty boys that make up your main party—to make FFXV a road trip worth going on.
T - Teen
|Final Fantast XV is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Sqaure Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.