I should preface this review by acknowledging the fact that despite having owned this game since its release two years ago, I just finished it last week. Taking long hiatuses in between playing sessions personally warranted a restart, but somehow, I finally managed to overcome these distractions and complete it over winter break! There probably isn’t going to be much in this that hasn’t already been stated by other people, but I wanted to throw in my two cents anyway.
After launching Final Fantasy XV, players are greeted with a splash screen that appropriately reads, “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers.” Veteran fans of the series will recognize many of the recurring motifs, themes, and even characters that are present in earlier titles, but are also, as always, gifted a whole new universe to explore. As someone who has played several of Final Fantasy’s previous installments and came to adore the series the more I was acquainted with it, it is safe to assume that I had high expectations for XV. And while many of the story and design elements left something to be desired, the visuals, soundtrack, gameplay, and emotional weight of this game pulls these loose stitches together to create a magical experience.
The story follows a young prince named Noctis and his companions–Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis–as they venture across Eos to save their homeland from the imperialistic clutches of Niflheim. One element of this game that works so well is the relationship between these four characters. Honestly, your enjoyment of this episode will be severely impacted by your appreciation of this group of coiffed men, because when things go awry, their silly banter and teamwork during combat are going to be what keeps you from frustratingly quitting.
Unfortunately, the love and attention to detail that goes into fleshing out their friendship leaves little room for building up anyone else. Most of the side characters are given a handful of traits and are ultimately forgettable, despite the game’s half-hearted attempts at reaffirming their relevance to the story. Even the Oracle Lunafreya, Noctis’s fiance and an integral part of the plot, is reduced to just that: a plot device. It’s a shame, because she has the potential to arguably be one of the most interesting characters to grace the franchise. A lot of the female characters are shafted in a similar sense. Cindy, the mechanic for Noctis’s car, is used as sexy fanservice with a design that makes literally no sense considering the dirt and grime that comes with her occupation. Aranea, a badass commodore of the Niflheim’s army who demonstrates a touching change of heart, is underutilized. After Final Fantasy XIII’s respect for its female characters growth and relationships outside of their male teammates, it’s honestly just…disappointing. And in Lunafreya’s case, it destroys the sincerity of the plot; she and Noctis are supposed to share a beautiful romance that brings them strength in times of adversity, but the lack of genuine chemistry renders it underwhelming and forced.
While the treatment of most characters outside of our beloved quartet is discouraging at best, the world that they inhabit is anything but. To say that FFXV has stunning visuals would be a drastic understatement. There’s almost a grainy quality to the characters hair and some of the more natural environment that bothers me, not to mention the horrendous lip-syncing (or lack thereof), but otherwise? Flawless. Whether you’re traversing the candlelit bridge in Galdin Quay, taking gondola rides in Altissia, or exploring the quaint little marketplace in Lestallum, you’re met with some of the most gorgeous and breathtaking views ever seen in an RPG. The beauty of these landscapes can only be outmatched by the amazing soundtrack. Now, Final Fantasy games are known for having pretty solid scores; it’s practically a trademark of the franchise. But Yoko Shimomura’s XV OST easily cements itself as one of the best in the series. It’s emotional, dynamic, and perfectly sets the tone of each location and event in the game.
Another element of the game I was impressed with is the combat system. I enjoy the turn-based quality of previous installments, even the strange fusion of turn-based and real-time that presents itself in Final Fantasy XII, but the feeling of satisfaction that accompanies executing a combo in XV is so refreshing! Noctis has magical abilities that allows him to select from a wide arsenal of weapons during battles at a click of a button, and by throwing one of these weapons at an enemy or particular spot, he is able to teleport to wherever it lands to deal extra damage, dodge an incoming attack, or simply replenish some health. Strategically speaking, it isn’t a very complex system; different enemies are more susceptible to different weapons, but that’s really the end of it. However, what may be lacking in this department is easily compensated by the fun, fast-paced energy of each fight and the beautiful animations that unfold upon teaming up with your party for chain attacks or calling upon one of them to unleash their special moves.
The wonky camera does hinder the gameplay considerably. Keeping up with battles can be super exasperating as a result; you spend half of them blindly swinging at daemons because foliage is blocking your vision. Furthermore, I would’ve appreciated if the control utilized in battles would’ve extended to other parts of gameplay. A lot of the side missions are simple fetch quests, and can grow tedious after a period of time. Spending hours traveling in the Regalia, your party’s royal car, has an aesthetically cinematic quality to it, but even being able to drive yourself is unfulfilling. Adding a more interactive quality would make these long car rides more enjoyable for the player–you can see the group hanging out and gossiping among themselves, but maybe being able to control Noctis from the backseat and actually play King’s Knight with Gladiolus or Prompto would enhance the experience. Just a thought!
All in all, despite its shortcomings and missed potential, Final Fantasy XV is truly a special game. When King Regis says, “Walk tall, my son,” and the group sets out on the open road for the first time while a breathtaking rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” plays sweetly in the background, man, something deep within you shifts! Perhaps it’s that special sense of adventure that permeates every Final Fantasy game.