18 hours into a game that has been through development hell for the better part of a decade
and I’m finally starting to like it. Sort of.
That opening statement may come off as harsh, but I don’t say it with malicious intent. I have no ill-will for this game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Final Fantasy XV is simply different than what I was expecting. Now whether this ‘different-ness’ is good or bad has yet to be determined, but for a while (a long while) I thought it was bad. If you read the rest of this thinking that the writing is full of contradictions and mixed feelings, then you’d think correctly. I’m confused. I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan, and I WANT this game to be AMAZING, but so far it’s left me somewhat underwhelmed.
To understand why Final Fantasy XV is the way it is, you need to know a little of the history behind its hellish 10 years in development. Final Fantasy XV began development in 2006 as a PlayStation exclusive title: Final Fantasy Versus XIII. 2006! Since then, the game has gone through multiple developers, creative directors, game engines, and changes to the original story. The game was going to be a linear action JRPG, until they wanted a more western RPG feel by giving it to a western studio... and then taking it back from them to change it again. These changes in creative vision, and shifts in the development cycle seem to have left the game somewhat lacking an identity, and full of half-baked ideas. That’s not to say the game isn’t beautiful, or lacking that unique Final Fantasy aesthetic – it’s gorgeous, but it feels like it’s missing something. What that something is… I’m not sure yet.
Is the game any good?
I haven’t played it all the way through. I’m not going to give a finalized opinion here because it could change later. This is mostly going to be about how the game plays and feels. I may mention the story on occasion, but nothing in detail as I have yet to experience it in full. So take my complaints about the story with a grain of salt…
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Yes, the game is, at the very least, ‘good’. You play the somewhat sullen, too cool for school Noctis Lucis Caelum (‘Noct’ for short), the crown prince of Lucis who wields a magical power bestowed upon him by the past Kings of Lucis. Accompanying Noct are his three best friends, and royal guard, Gladiolus (the muscle), Ignis (the brains), and Prompto (the goofball). The characters, while not entirely unique or deep, are fun to be around and they carry most of the weight of the narrative where the story fails to.
It took some time for me to come around to this game. I wasn’t a big fan at first, but I forced myself to keep an open mind and to try to accept the newer elements like:
The Open World:
Aside from its MMOs, you don’t typically think of Final Fantasy as open-world game. I’ve always enjoyed the traditionally linear gameplay, but I welcomed the change. FFXV somewhat throws you into this open world without any real understanding of that world's history, and without providing a decent explanation of what is happening and why; because of this it took some time to fully enjoy what I was experiencing.
The world of Eos is very big, and very beautiful. Square Enix nails the environments, and I find myself removing the HUD frequently to take screenshots. Everything from the paint of the car, to each feather on the chocobo is carefully detailed. Despite this, it feels empty on occasion. This problem seems to be from the size of the explorable world. It's huge, and many areas of interest are very far from each other. I didn’t mind the distance initially – your characters will start conversations on the way, there’s plenty to look at, and the radio plays many classic Final Fantasy OSTs from previous games, but it gets old quick. Some of these excursions can take upwards of 7+ minutes of real-time to reach your destination. Nope. Not doing it. I’ll cough up the 10 gil to fast travel regardless of how breathtaking the world is. The best part of the world of FFXV, so far, seems to be how great it looks, but it’s lacking a certain charm, and I wish I cared about it more. Older Final Fantasy games thrived at world building. Their linear framework allowed for a more intimate setting, and each area had a history to it. The world told it's story before the narrative did. FFXV seems to have either forgotten that, or ignored it altogether. A bigger world doesn’t necessarily mean a better one.
The Side Quests:
This is not something typically present in a Final Fantasy game; you may run into one or two on occasion, and they’re almost always completely optional, but in FFXV there are dozens of them, and they’re somewhat mandatory. Technically they’re still optional, but they feel necessary to the character development because, as far as stories come, this story is flimsy. The friendly banter in and out of battle, and the short stories that develop over certain quests are a very welcome attempt to fill the void that the lackluster narrative leaves. Yet, despite these charming attempts, it still feels like a half measure.
The best part of the side quests are the Monster Hunts. Each major town, station, and stop will have a person or board where you can find a hunt to volunteer for. Each hunt has a different monster or pack of monsters, and are separated by hunter level and a recommended level for the player. These are a great way to not only level up your team, but to also earn some rare items and gil. Oh yeah, you don’t earn gil after battles anymore. Better get to hunting! I don’t mind this though - you earn quite a bit of gil and EXP upon completion of each hunt, and they're a ton of fun, albeit simple. Simple seems to be the word that sticks with me throughout my time with this game. The quests are fun, but simple. The story is, for lack of a better word, simple. And.. Well...
The Combat and other Gameplay Mechanics:
Final Fantasy XV adopts a Kingdom Hearts-like, fast paced, action-RPG combat system. It’s an extremely simple system to get the hang of, but it feels TOO easy. To attack: hold down the circle button. To dodge: hold down the square button. Teleport attack? Hold down Triangle. There are some slight intricacies to this, and you can rack up combos by jumping and attacking from different angles, but I rarely feel like I’m actually contributing to the fight. I mean, yeah, it looks cool as hell to see Noct zooming around, and pulling off fast attacks and combos with his companions, but the lack of player input makes me wonder what I did myself and what the game did for me. This level of simplicity and speed, combined with the wonky camera that often gets stuck or loses the enemy, makes for a confusing and somewhat unsatisfying battle system. I want to feel like I earned my wins, but it often times feels like I stumbled my way into them.
Some actions require more finesse. You can press L1 to bring up your companion’s special moves list. This list has a meter that charges over time in battle and, when full, you can select a companion to perform a special attack, heal, or buff. Occasionally, Noct can join in on these specials to unleash some extra damage. These moves level up over time becoming more powerful.
I don’t like FFXV’s take on magic. Throughout the world you’ll find spots of ice, fire, or electrical energy that you can absorb. Once you’ve obtained enough of this energy you can channel it into a spell in the main menu through a crafting page. The spell has 3 uses, and then you need to find more material. I HATE THIS. It replaces learning spells and improving them by leveling up, with the ability to craft spells into a throwable sphere that deals area damage… LAME! Noct can summon other-worldly deities to deal massive amount of damage, and he can also deal massive combo damage when he activates his ancestral weapons-magic-shit (I don’t remember what it’s called), but I’m largely disappointed with the magic. Maybe it'll get better as I get further into the game. Hopefully.
Leveling up in FFXV is actually pretty neat! As usual, EXP is earned through completing battles, quests, and hunts, but to level up your team must set up camp, or rent a trailer or a room somewhere. Camping provides a fun way to learn more about each of the characters through dialogue, cinematics, and showing you the pictures that Prompto took during your travels that day (yes he takes pictures, and some of them aren’t too shabby). Also, while camping, you can have Ignis cook a meal of your choosing from a slew of recipes that he can learn and purchase. These meals will give each of the characters certain buffs to their health, strength, endurance, etc. This becomes an extremely useful tool to use in preparation of a difficult boss fight or monster hunt. The biggest downside to camping is that it can get frustrating when you want to cash in your EXP, but aren’t close to a campsite.
Aside from earning EXP, you’ll also earn AP. AP is used in the upgrade screen to purchase new moves, combos, and a plethora of other battle and non-battle related abilities. This upgrade tree can be accessed at any time from the menu, so camping isn't necessary for it – although camping will earn you some additional AP!
so What’s the Word?
Final Fantasy XV is fun, gorgeous, and shallow.
It’s a stylish, bromantic, action-JRPG, but it lacks soul. Square Enix managed to bring the franchise back into relevancy, but failed to make me care much about this new universe. I’m glad they finished it, but I pray they don't make a spin-off. I'd rather them move on than see them double down.
It’s the best Final Fantasy I’ve played in years, but that doesn't feel good enough. I'm not excited to jump back into it like I would be with earlier Final Fantasy games. I wish the combat was more technical, or at least that it provided more options, and the camera needs a lot of work. Battles can vary from extremely satisfying, to confusing and frustrating. The story is not good which is likely the result of losing the original picture of what was set out to accomplish a decade ago.
It took me about 12 hours to start liking the game, and at 18 hours I intend on seeing the thing through. It’s simply missing something. Something, and it's killing me that I don't know what.
Quisque iaculis facilisis lacinia. Mauris euismod pellentesque tellus sit amet mollis.
Cory's an idiot elsewhere on the internet too. Go make fun of him there. Oh also, he says dumb things outta his dumb mouth on the NAC Podcast. New episodes every Thursday. It's on iTunes n shit.