There are few games that release under the pressure that Final Fantasy XV experienced. After all, it isn’t just a game 11 years in the making, but also the latest entry in one of the most prodigious series in gaming history. Under this much scrutiny, it is surprising that this latest foray into the Final Fantasy universe didn’t stick closer to the series formula, but instead dared to strike out in new directions. Unfortunately, despite these fresh intentions, the game rarely manages to capitalise on the ideas it presents, resulting ultimately in a bold yet shallow experience.
One area that the game does manage to shine is in its central premise of four friends on an adventure. It follows Prince Noctis and his three friends as they escort him across country to his wedding. What can only be described as the gaming version of a bromance flick, XV has an unflinching commitment to presenting a down-to-earth story of four friends and the bond they form going on a sprawling journey together.
It sounds a little cringe-worthy, but the relationships between the four end up being the game's greatest strength, and kept me invested far more than the story or gameplay. Its success is largely due to the grounded way in which the group's dynamic is portrayed: this isn’t some melodramatic story of friendship forged in fire, but a surprisingly genuine story about how friends deal with hardship. It’s the small touches that make the dynamic special, with characters pulling each other aside throughout the game to have deep and meaningful conversations (D&M’s, as the kids say), or to complain about another member of the group.
Unfortunately, despite the nuance of the group's dynamic, the characters themselves are not quite so successful. Although, the problems with the characters are not necessarily in the writing (though, that also has its dire moments), but more in the voice performance. The English interpretations in XV are beyond ridiculous, presenting caricatures of what could have otherwise been believable personalities. Gladiolus and Ignis are particularly awful, one sounding like a 'roided up moron and the other like a butler in a bad murder mystery night. Thankfully there is an easy fix to this problem, as you can just change the audio to Japanese.
It’s good that the game presents these characters bonding as its central premise, because there is little else in the way of story to hold onto. Some complain that FF games can be hard to digest, as there is so much going on that they become hard to follow. You’re likely not going to have a problem with digestion here, because there is seldom any story to consume in the first place.
The majority of the story takes place in the first couple of hours, in which a dramatic event changes the goals of the group. The majority of the game is not an exploration of the event, but rather your characters simply dealing with the aftermath of it. Though this can be disappointing at points, it’s not as detrimental as perhaps it should be due to the focus on the character's relationships instead. In the end, the story really only serves to provide impetus for these friends to become closer, and in that it is quite successful.
What I found unacceptable, however, was the storytelling's reliance on external media. The game relies heavily on players having seen the tie-in movie Kingsglaive in order to properly understand who the major players are and even – at times – what is happening at all. The game goes as far as using poorly edited montages of moments from the movie to try and explain story beats in a condensed way.
It’s super uncool that Square Enix wouldn’t put more effort into illustrating the story organically in the core product, instead of expecting players to either piece it together through shoehorned clips or the movie. It is also highly recommended you watch the tie-in anime series Brotherhood in order to gain a better understanding of the game's context, because while it doesn’t contain story events, it does give a greater understanding of the core characters and their relationships.
Despite how poorly illustrated the story is, the world of XV itself is quite spectacular. Visually, the map is startlingly realistic, presenting what looks much like the countryside of Southwest USA with long flat dusty roads interconnected with lush valleys. What makes the map special is how it presents a real landscape, but then subtly dots it with impossible and beautiful landmarks – gravity defying rock arches, dazzling spires of coloured metal, and giant beasts peacefully roaming.
However, the scale necessary to make some of this wonder possible can also be a detriment to travel. The world is massive, and as such, it takes a long time to traverse it, resulting in some very tedious and time-consuming moments. These problems are created and exacerbated by some very strange decisions of Square Enix’s behalf. For instance, in the first five hours, all off-road exploring must be done on foot, which means any mission takes an absurd and tedious amount of time.
Thankfully, you eventually get access to Chocobos which alleviate these exploration problems dramatically, but what isn’t fixed by those creatures are the issues with on-road exploration. Your group has a car which you use to get around the world, allowing you to fast travel to any destination you have previously visited. However, if to get to new locations, you have to sit in the car in real time as it travels across country. This resulted several times with me literally having to sit and do nothing for sometimes six or seven minutes.
Exacerbating these problems is the truly terrible UI of the map screen. I seriously can’t think of the last time I came upon a UI this terrible, and it affects so many different areas of the game. The most egregious issues it causes are with questing. The map system makes it near impossible to get a good grasp on where your quests are located, especially in relation to each other. This makes going out into the world and knocking off a bunch of side quests in the same area very difficult.
The only positive of the map UI is that it is so frustrating that it might temporarily distract you from just how mundane those side quests you are chasing really are. XV’s side quests are almost exclusively fetch quests, and what's worse, the game seems to be aware of it. I can’t count the number of times I accepted a side quest and it was followed by a conversation among the group about how all we seem to be doing is running other people's errands and how unfitting it is for a prince to be doing so.
It actually makes me mad that the writers at Square Enix had the insight to write these jibes, but were not motivated enough to make more interesting side content. What’s worse is that occasionally the dialogue makes fun of the player for doing these shit side quests at all.
As dumb as the impetus for the quests are, mostly they just seek to offer players an opportunity to engage in the game's combat. For hardcore fans of Final Fantasy, the combat may be the hardest thing to handle, as there are few remnants remaining of the series' noble turn-based past remaining. Instead the combat is almost purely action-based.
Broken down, combat mostly consists of holding down an attack button and timing blocks against the attacks of enemies. Where these simple prerogatives become difficult is in how frantic the battles are. Many encounters consist of large groups of enemies to juggle, or one large enemy with attacks powerful enough that blocks and evades are imperative.
Standout moments of combat come from the link attacks you can do with your teammates. A well-placed strike from behind will initiate a sweetly choreographed attack with one of your pals, giving you a momentary pause from the intensity of battle to watch a badass dual attack. In a similar vein, throughout battle you build a tech meter which you can use to initiate an assigned skill from one of your allies. Some of these abilities are game-changers in a hard battle, and the meter builds quite quickly, so these abilities quickly become a staple of the combat system.
These tech abilities are just one of the things unlocked through the game's progression system, which allows you to spend AP to access a vast array of different buffs and abilities. Although all of the abilities themselves are useful, the UI of the progression system itself makes the whole grid a little impenetrable. The biggest problem is that abilities are laid out on six different pages, making it difficult to identify and compare what you currently have on offer.
When the game co-operates, these techniques and combat combine to make for a fun and frenetic experience, offering ample opportunities for tactical thinking and varied approaches. When it doesn’t, it is incredibly frustrating, with the camera blocking the action and sloppy design impeding progression. I would say the balance between these two states is about 50/50.
Combat is just one of the many ways that Final Fantasy XV leaves the fixtures of the series past behind, and it's clear that with XV, Square Enix clearly wants to keep the franchise moving forward. Some, including myself, see this as a necessary step to keep the series relevant. However, fans may see the game's lack of homage to the past as a step in the wrong direction.
Overall, Final Fantasy XV is a game that is not afraid to step away from the series roots and take risks in order to keep the series moving forward. However, the execution of these new ideas is so often sloppy or ill-conceived, that despite the developer’s best intentions, the game never lives up to its potential. That potential is clear in the special story that XV tells of four friends, but it is too often torpedoed by technical troubles or odd design decisions.