You’ll no doubt have read about Final Fantasy XV at some point. Whether at some point during its storied development or during the inescapable, nearly year-long PR blitz heralding its launch, Final Fantasy XV has been spoken about for a decade. Merely having the game installed feels bizarre, but that barely scratches the surface of this mystifying, puzzling, enthralling and unique game. This a game with its development etched into the very fabric of the experience and whether it is a success will depend on your willingness to excuse the visible joins.
Sprawling would be an apt description for Final Fantasy XV. After the linear Final Fantasy XIII, the wide open plains to be traversed here are most welcome. Pootling about this world are the quartet of Noctis, Gladio, Prompto and (easily the best character) Ignis. Noctis, royal heir to the throne, is sent away from the city of Insomnia, bound to marry Lunafreya, princess of Altissia. Some readers will have absorbed that info without batting an eyelid; others will have switched off at the onslaught of cod-Latin words masquerading as names. Get beyond the ridiculous naming conventions and you’ll find one of the first genuine road trips in the medium.
Of course, Square Enix would prefer you watch the companion movie Kingsglaive beforehand. As part of the decade long climax of pent up PR, there’s naturally a CGI feature film and anime series that explain the backstory, clearing up what appears to be a rushed beginning to the game. Even Florence + the Machine’s widely touted title theme is cut short once you drive the gleaming Regalia, the royal convertible, out of the city limits. This unfinished approach to the story casts a shadow on what should be the game’s triumph. Instead, character arcs appear and vanish at will, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of agency aside from driving from point to point and the depth of both characters and events is puddle shallow.
However, the meat of the narrative centers on the car, its inhabitants and their meandering journey. Final Fantasy’s story is bumpf - it’s in the smaller moments that it wins your heart. There is indeed spectacle to be found and in the macro and micro beats Square injects the spirit of the series. However, wander from the main story path (unfocused as it is) and all you’ll find by way of sidequests are the same copy-pasted hunts, fetch errands and uninvolved tasks over and over again.
On the plus side, the world and character design of Final Fantasy XV is, for the most part, incredible. Not only does everything look gorgeous, from market towns to forests, fortresses to Venetian cities, the design showcased is spectacular. Add in some of the best animation seen in games - your companions interact with each other with grace and nuance - and it’s visually a treat. Creatures you battle range from manageably small to gargantuan - some of the truly huge boss battles comparable to those found in God of War. There’s also an ecosystem here - animals that genuinely feel part of the landscape, moving in herds or peacefully letting Noctis and his chums potter about. Annoy them, however, and Final Fantasy XV’s new combat style comes into play.
Throwing away the turn based nature of previous franchise entries, Final Fantasy XV has an entirely active combat system. One button allows Noctis to attack, another to block or phase (essentially dodge). Well-timed button presses allow parries and counter-attacks to occur. Compounding these attacks, however, are your three friends all of whom have special attacks that can be initiated in battle. Additionally, attacking an enemy on its blindside can also trigger a dual attack, as can certain critical hits. It’s not necessarily deep combat but it is satisfying and far more accessible than the pace-crippling incremental battles of yore. Likewise, random battles can be actively avoided for those looking to breeze through what little story there happens to be.
Weapons can be equipped by any party member, as can spells although this can be problematic as careless magic usage can harm your team. Behind the scenes of the combat, weapons can be upgraded and there are a set of royal arms to collect - powerful, but with negative side effects for Noctis. On top of this there are a few bonus ‘get out of jail free’ moves - R1 and L1 allow Noctis to use the power of the Armiger (all of the royal weapons at once) while the visually spectacular summons can end battles in one move. It’s fluid, beautiful but might lack the strategic depth to which diehard fans of the series have become accustomed.
Camping allows your team the chance to gain earned XP, but also highlights one of (and possibly the most infamous) skills of Ignis. Aside from driving and general princely maintenance, Ignis is a talented chef. Wandering the lands he’ll regularly discover new recipes (with an already meme-worthy phrase). The more he cooks, the better his skills. The same applies to the other members of the team - Noctis bizarrely fancies himself an angler, Gladio will get better at survival the more you bandy about on foot and Prompto has the charming skill of photography, chronicling your movements with ever improving snapshots. It’s as endearing as it sounds.
The typically brilliant music is also present and correct, this time by esteemed composer Yoko Shimomura. These themes have been around since it’s initial reveal so it’s great to finally hear them in completed form (although a mid-game battle in Altissia does bear more than a passing resemblance to the Elder Scrolls theme).
Essentially, Final Fantasy XV is a game that rewards those who look beyond the fact it’s still a bit of a mess. The story, usually the focus of the series, is disjointed, there are ideas that are bizarrely implemented and there are some egregious missteps (Cindy the mechanic’s attire one of them, a terrible piece of product placement another). But at the heart of it all are a set of charming central characters and what is easily the most accessible, welcoming entry in the franchise to date. Suffice it to say, this is the first Final Fantasy that’s not been a chore. That alone is worth merit, but as the sum of its disparate ideas and mistakes, it’s a unique experience that tries so hard to be liked and succeeds.