Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV is a road trip that comes dangerously close to running out of gas, coasting on fumes long enough to deliver a rich and rewarding open-world experience that embraces the bond of friendship just as much as the thrill of hunting for rare treasure and beasts. The concept of hitting the open road in a convertible with three friends is largely successful, consisting of pit stops at roadside dinners, detours to lakes for a quiet evening of fishing, campfires under the stars, and expeditions through the wilderness to find a landmark for a group photo. Final Fantasy XV captures the atmosphere of cruising down an American interstate, but also the boredom that comes from staring down hundreds of miles of open road, or not having anything more to say to the people in the car. If you can tolerate a baffling amount of time where nothing but travel happens, Final Fantasy XV is a good game that upends series traditions and stands as a uniquely satisfying adventure.
Although much of the focus is on the road trip, this isn’t a traditional coming-of-age story for the four young gentlemen in the car. Protagonist Prince Noctis is hitting the road to attend his wedding not by his own will, but the order of his father. Noctis is to wed Lady Lunafreya to bring two kingdoms together and end the threat of war.
The narrative sticks to basic beats and doesn’t try to overwhelm the player with lore or branching threads, something Final Fantasy XIII struggled with. The story ends up being a fun and emotional ride. The camaraderie between Noctis and his pals is beautifully told, as is the turmoil plaguing the kingdom. Like a car rolling along the highway, the story doesn’t dwell on particular moments for too long, and moves along at a fervent pace. Some big, emotional scenes are hurt by the push to move on, but the political jargon is kept to a minimum, and the focus is instead placed on developing the characters.
I was a big fan of Final Fantasy X’s ensemble, but thanks to the smart (and often funny) dialogue, Final Fantasy XV’s characters are my favorite in the series. Prompto is loud and full of bad jokes, but he is sweet at heart and easy to root for. Ignis is the father-like voice of reason. Gladiolus is quiet and reserved, but ends up being the perfect wingman. Noctis is a bit of a cipher (which deepens the disconnect in emotional moments), but is a great leader, and an interesting, conflicted character, torn between his duties to the kingdom and wanting a different life.
The characters are made stronger by their interests, which are brilliantly sewn into the story and gameplay. Prompto is a photographer, and he snaps as many photos as he can throughout the trip. Whenever the group of friends rests for the night, the player can view all of the images he’s taken, and can even save them. Ignis’ love of food is just as fun to follow. Whenever he sees someone eating a new dish, or discovers an ingredient, he has a “eureka” moment, and jots down a recipe, which can benefit the group with significant (albeit temporary) attribute bumps.
The group’s car, the Regalia, is as much a character as they are. Sadly, I found it to be more of a thorn in the side of progress than the antagonist (who I wouldn’t dare spoil since it's a mystery). Although most of the game takes place on roads, the car cannot be controlled in a traditional way. The top speed is roughly 50 mph (60 with an upgrade), and its basic movements, like turning or changing lanes, are predetermined. It feels like it’s on rails – you're more of an observer than a driver. The player is better off letting Ignis take the wheel, if fast travel is not available – which is often the case. Some trips can take upwards of 10 minutes. During these painfully long rides, you even see Gladiolus read a book in the backseat, almost telling the player to do something else than pay attention to the game. The car design is a monumental blunder, especially given the open world doesn’t consist of that many roads; the same paths are taken over and over again. The Regalia eventually transforms into a more useful flying vehicle, but not until after the game is completed – another strange decision.
Given just how barren portions of the world are, I never wanted to just aimlessly run through it. Yes, there are treasures to find off of the beaten path, but you won’t find many things to do along the way. Even battling monsters is somewhat scarce in certain regions.
The world isn’t wasted, however. The abundance of side missions get you where you need to go, and most are enjoyable. Yes, a good number are of the "fetch" variety, but Square Enix does a nice job of making them worth your time. I always felt like I was finding something new, unlocking new abilities, or stumbling upon a secret that had been buried for centuries. The game is designed with side questing and hunting in mind, and it can be a blast if the player embraces these elements. Some tasks even take you into excellently-designed dungeons, complete with over-the-top boss battles.
Combat is nicely crafted, offering a wide variety of team-based strategies on top of the need to be swift and skillful. Although combat feels more like an action game in the vein of Devil May Cry or God of War, RPG conventions are the foundation, and it ends up being an excellent hybrid experience. Noctis’ weapons are greatly varied in functionality and power, but the best (and flashiest) attacks are the link strikes that Noctis coordinates with his friends. Faulty camera tracking sometimes becomes a nuisance, as do objects blanketing the action, but I looked forward to each encounter, and felt most were wonderfully balanced and challenging. This is one of those games in which you use the evade button as much as attack, and it can feel great if you get in the flow of evading or countering enemy attacks. The monster hunt missions are particularly awesome for this type of play, but I wish more than one could be active at a time.
The battles are mostly about weapon play. Magic is relegated to the role of expendable items rather than skills, meaning you won't use them much since they are low in supply, but they do pack a satisfying punch (and will even hit your characters if you aren't careful). Don’t expect many summons in battle, either. Most are tied to story sequences or specific conditions. The summons are a sight to be hold, always showcasing a Godzilla-like scale and high levels of destruction.
Just as I was settling into a nice groove with the open world, the story takes a dramatic shift, and the final third of the game becomes a linear experience. I enjoyed a good portion of the content that unfolds in these chapters, but Final Fantasy XV’s attempt at stealth is clunky and frustrating, and is unfortunately the backbone of the game’s longest chapter, which sees Noctis investigating a lead on his own. I love that Square took chances in changing up the action and tried to sync it up with story developments, but the result is the feeling that two games were mashed together – the open-world experience and the act that follows. That isn’t a bad thing, but it was a startling revelation that I wasn’t prepared for.
Everything you do is funneled through an awesome leveling system, where ability points are exchanged for meaningful upgrades for Noctis and crew. From unlocking powerful new techniques to smaller assists like AP points being rewarded for driving or winning chocobo races, I was always looking to do as much as possible to earn more abilities. This isn’t a game of weapon or armor collecting – you wont find much of that outside of Noctis’ armaments, which are tied to the critical path. Most boosts in power come from ability enhancements or upgrades, a design I didn’t think I would like, but ended up appreciating immensely by the time the credits ran, as my party had become a serious wrecking crew.
Final Fantasy XV is unlike any RPG or open-world experience I’ve played before. It succeeds and struggles in finding its unique stance, but a few problematic designs don’t hold it back from being a hell of a journey. Just days after playing it, I find myself reflecting on it fondly. The thoughts of that damn car are recessed and blanketed by Noctis’ journey and some of the stunning moments that unfolded within it. I wasn’t a fan of Final Fantasy XIII’s sequels, but I hope Square returns with another XV or a similarly designed sequel to iron out the rough spots. There’s a solid foundation here that begs to be explored further.
Final Fantasy XV breaks free from series conventions to deliver a unique adventure with a big heart.