The Final Fantasy series has never settled on a specific look or battle system; in the thirty plus years since its 8-bit debut, the JRPG juggernaut has continuously torn itself apart and rebuilt its foundation from the ground up, never settling on a singular setting or gameplay mechanic. This is why the frequent online outcry over the latest entry, Final Fantasy XV, over its shift to a more action-focused gameplay system and decidedly more realistic setting as a “betrayal” of the franchise’s roots feels incongruous in hindsight.
Make no mistake, Final Fantasy XV is without a doubt the most ambitious and radically distinct entry in the series in a long time, which is ironic considering Square Enix’s quiet goal of winning back its fans over the disappointment of Final Fantasy XIII (and its sequels of declining quality). Once again, looking back at the history of the series, one could argue that the distinct changes Final Fantasy XV brings to the table is keeping in tradition. That aside, this is without a doubt the most Western-influenced entry in the series, as the years of open world hits like Assassin’s Creed and The Witcher have spurred Square Enix to try and bring their series back to more mainstream awareness.
But fret not, purists: the shift to action combat and open world exploration has not robbed Final Fantasy XV of its JRPG heritage: one need only look at the game’s opening moments, which has players pushing down a broken-down car down the road to a cover of Stand by Me. This is just the beginning of the multicultural marriage between Western and Japanese game design that has resulted in this unique offspring.
Taking many of its concepts and characters from the cancelled Playstation 3 project Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Final Fantasy XV stars Noctis Lucis Caelum, the most sensibly dressed of Tetsuya Nomura’s designed characters but nonetheless shares the similar spiky hairstyle and wistful personality that has iconized FF protagonists since Final Fantasy VII. Unlike infamous brooders like Cloud and Squall, Noctis is a much more well-rounded character, able to laugh alongside his friends and enjoy outdoor activities like camping and fishing while still getting deadly serious to defend his lineage. As the crowned prince of Insomnia, Noctis and his three friends set out on a literal road trip to bring His Majesty to his fiancé Luna, the Oracle of Tenebrea, to bring a ceasefire between Noctis’ kingdom and the Empire, a massive military superpower that has sought after Insomnia’s crystal for their own nefarious ways.
For anyone who has seen the tie-in prequel movie, the ceasefire was just a ploy by the Empire, and Insomnia was left a heap of rubble. Upon discovering this news, Noctis and friends now have a new goal: to seek the power of Lucis’ former kings to take out the Empire as well as wipe out the Daemons, otherworldly entities who appear at night to terrorize the world (incidentally, the nights are getting longer in Noctis’ world, which means that eventually everyone will have to contend with Daemons on a 24/7 cycle).
One of the biggest complaints about FFXV from fans was its story, which left out a lot of crucial details that fail to explain many of its basic terminology, as well as leaving several side characters who appeared to have important roles only to suddenly fade into the background later. This is particularly true with Luna, who was billed as the leading heroine only to end as a wooden exposition dump akin to Princess Amidala of the Star Wars prequels. Despite the promise of the developers to further flesh out the story with free updates, as of this writing there are still many holes in the story that have yet to be filled, leaving the vast world of Eos feel much smaller compared to previous Final Fantasy titles.
Where the game does soar, narratively, is with the interactions between Noctis and his party. The four main characters feel like a genuine quartet of brothers who support one another despite their wildly different personalities. Noctis is the all-rounder who tries to remain focused on his duty but tends to let his doubts and childish mannerisms get in the way; Gladio is the strongman who tries to toughen up Noctis, both literally and metaphorically; Ignis is the calm and responsible type, tending to the others with strategic advice and deliciously-rendered cooking (think Alfred if he was the same age as Batman); Prompto is like if someone took a real world millennial and dumped him into a Final Fantasy game, complete with a penchant for snapping selfies and spouting memes. Throughout the entirety of the adventure, these characters continue to quip with relentless banter, which is honestly more endearing than it sounds, and rounds them out to some of the most fleshed-out characters in the history of the franchise.
The core gameplay, as mentioned before, ditches the turn-based tactics of the previous titles to instead focus on a more action-heavy mechanic: Think Kingdom Hearts, only more methodical than button-mashing. Positioning plays a big factor in battle, with enemies receiving more damage when attacked from behind, or Noctis being able to parry oncoming attacks so long as he’s facing the right direction. Utilizing Noctis’ teammates is also crucial, where each of the additional three characters can be called to perform a specific action, such as Gladio doing a massive attack, Prompto firing from a distance or Ignis buffing teammates with elemental attributes. In one of the many updates added to the game since launch, players can now switch between the four characters on the fly, which significantly open additional combat opportunities, as well as a new souped-up version of Noctis’ Armiger attack. The combat is satisfying and can yield some truly impressive moments of animation, though it is still far from perfect: enemies have a tendency to do arbitrary damage that is difficult to anticipate due to the flood of on-screen information plus a less-than-stellar camera, the magic system boils down to cooking up grenades that sometimes backfire by immobilizing party members, and the trademark Summons, while some of the most visually impressive in the franchise’s history, almost feel like unsatisfying cheat buttons as they appear to one-shot enemies randomly when Noctis suffers enough damage.
Nearly every element of Final Fantasy XV’s open world shares a similar mix of pros and cons, as well as which element falls under which category based on player preference. The driving, a core component where players must sit back on an automated drive to their destinations (minus fast travel options and the eventual ability to allow off-road driving), can either be a pleasant aesthetic that captures the feeling of long road trips while also being able to listen to a selection of classic FF tunes on the radio…or an unskippable filler to get from Point A to Point B. The structure of the main storyline is also split up between a vastly open first half, where an uncountable amount of side quests can be taken at players’ leisure, but is then restrained to a linear second half that focuses entirely on the main story. There are also cases where the visuals are either a high-quality showcase or a low poly relic of its PS3 Versus days. Simply put, much of Final Fantasy XV is uneven, where some elements work and some do not.
Fortunately, the good far outweighs the bad, and previous areas that were lacking have improved significantly thanks to the team’s tireless efforts to continue improving the game. The Windows Edition brings further improvements by adding in the new and improved final dungeon as well as the expanded fishing minigame, while also collecting all the DLC episodes as well as the Comrades multiplayer mode (which is a surprisingly in-depth additional mode featuring an extensive character creator and exclusive enemies and abilities, though it also suffers from a considerable grind that requires replaying older missions over and over). For first time players, this edition will no doubt make up an enormous package, and it will only grow larger with the promise of even more DLC episodes down the line.
As for returning players who began the journey on consoles, the PC version is undoubtedly the most visually impressive of the bunch…provided you’ve got the right components to run it properly. Even the beefiest of custom PCs will balk at the game’s settings, which will hopefully be further optimized down the line. The promise of full mod support has also yet to be realized, with a tentative date of May for the release of the modding tools. It will be quite interesting to see just what modders will bring into the table, though expect much of it to not be safe for work (though in an ironic case of role reversal, fans seem more interested in creating more risqué model swaps for beefcake Gladio rather than the skimpily-dressed Cindy).
Regardless of just how many improvements and additions Final Fantasy XV will undergo in the next year or so, the game is far from perfect and hardly the entry that unifies the fanbase, be they long devoted fans or burnt out from the past entries. What the game is, however, is a flawed but still fun masterpiece that looks and plays like no other Action/RPG hybrid out there and is still worth a cursory glance, if not a full commitment.