Road to victory, or driven to distraction?
Final Fantasy XV has been a long time coming. In fact, it was first announced back in 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, exclusively for the PlayStation 3 and tied to Final Fantasy XIII’s Fabula Nova Crystalis saga. That was a long time ago, and the game has changed dramatically, abandoning a more intriguing female character and powerful love story for a game about male camaraderie. Despite this, it’s still an emotional and enjoyable experience.
Final Fantasy XV’s story is at times serious and grand, and in others, light-hearted. The story follows Prince Noctis of the Kingdom of Lucis, and his three friends and royal retinues, Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus, as they journey to the Venice-inspired city of Altissa to meet his bride to be, Lunafreya. The marriage is meant to keep peace between Lucis and the Imperial Nifelheim Empire, but, naturally, is called off once the peace treaty between the two nations backfires. Final Fantasy XV is as much a political drama and Shakespearean tragedy as it is a light-hearted story of friendship. There’s some great character development between Noctis and his friends.
That said, the game lacks a strong female lead. Luna’s role as a damsel in distress not only feels unconventional in a series with such strong female protagonists, but isn’t even needed to motivate Noctis on his journey, especially given he is already driven by his duty to his Kingdom and people. Some side characters, such as the Nifelheim Emperor, felt underdeveloped, too, which made the writing come across as lazy and inconsistent.
The combat, however, is near perfect. While you can’t take control of the other party members, Noctis can wield a variety of weapons, from axes, to lances, to even heavy machinery like a chainsaw. The battle animation of cycling between weapons using the D-Pad is aesthetically impressive, as each weapon class has its own battle animation, movement speed and strategy. Everything feels tangible, fluid and has weight to it.
Final Fantasy XV’s battles play and feel best when being strategic. Holding down the consecutive attack button will often leave you vulnerable and in a critical stasis mode, so you need to rely on blocking and parrying enemy attacks. Enemies have their own weaknesses as well, and learning to exploit them while using the game’s core combat allows for visually stunning animations of Noctis teaming up with his allies. One such animation involves Noctis using the momentum of Gladio swinging his sword to launch him in the air, before striking down on an enemy with his lance. Battles in large-scale open environments and with colossal-sized creatures are incredible, but camera angles are a bit choppy in tighter confined encounters.
You can also use magic in combat, however unlike earlier Final Fantasy games, it acts as more of a craftable resource than pure ability. You create spells by combining fire, ice and electric minerals found in the world, and can equip them in battle like any other weapon. Including items in these mixes adds bonus effects such as poison, bonus experience points and healing, rewarding those that experiment, too. The blast radius of your spells can affect you and your allies, however, so casting a spell requires some strategy. Magic is far more overpowered in this than most other mainline games in the series - bar, Final Fantasy VIII, - especially when there’s so much more to the game’s combat. Like other Final Fantasy games, you can summon powerful beings, too. Summoning each of the six deities is beautifully animated but ridiculously overpowered, so you can only summon them in certain critical conditions.
A lot of Final Fantasy XV’s mechanics also emphasise the strong relationship between the party. Noctis can team up with his allies in battle to deal a critical blow on an enemy, breaking a limb and leaving the enemy vulnerable. These attacks not only reinforce a sense of companionship and are stunning to watch, but can completely influence the tide of a battle. Ignis can use Libra to scan an enemy for their weakness before enchanting your weapon with the given elemental power, while Gladio can protect you as a human shield. Your allies will come to your aid when you’re vulnerable, gesturing one another that Noctis or another ally is in trouble.
Character progression is tied to a pool of action points for the entire party. You can learn new combat abilities for you and your bros, improve their magic and physical damage, or even unlock more ways to gain AP. Experience points aren’t awarded until you rest for the night, which leads to the group relaxing by a campfire, playfully bantering with each other and reminiscing about their experiences. The group each have their own distinctive skills outside of combat that further animate them, too. Prompto adorably shares photos he took on your adventures, Ignis’ cooking provides status buffs and Gladio’s survival skills increase the rate of finding items.
The world design is also breathtaking. The open world parts of the game are large-scaled and offer so much optional content. Dungeons hidden behind waterfalls and jungles inhabited by fantastical beasts created a rich sense of place. I drove by desert terrains, lush forests and swamps, listening to Final Fantasy VIII’s Blue Fields and the group share their opinion on current events of the story, emphasising a sense of realism. Driving does at times feel limiting, as you can’t freely drive off road and can only safely drive during the day, in fear of the demons that come out at night. You can eventually drive at night once Ignis believes you’re skilled enough, but high levelled enemies still block your path, often limiting your progression. It’s an understandable mechanic and one that ties into the theme of an ever growing darkness, but leaves you a little annoyed nonetheless.
Dialogue captures the relationship between the group perfectly. The bromance between Noctis and his friends comes to life through witty dialogue and playful jabs. They aren’t simply a group of overly-masculine men ‘bro-ing’ out; they’re friends on a road trip. Their friendship drives significant parts of the narrative, too, and there are some great character moments between Noctis and his friends that stayed with me after playing.
An excellent choice of casting and voice acting helped deliver these lines brilliantly, too. The voice of Ardyn Izunia, Darin De Paul, is a definite standout, playing the slimy chancellor with a whimsical mysterious tone. Ardyn not only is entertaining to watch but De Paul delivers his lines as if he were a Shakespearean poet. His dialogue is often riddled with extended vowels, rhyming and playfulness, and seeing his character develop was a joy. Another well voiced character, Prompto, is a reflection of the game’s blending of fantasy and reality. He hums the iconic Victory Fanfare after battles, and nerds out over the sight of chocobos, while also references Edwin Star’s War and the all opening keyblade in Kingdom Hearts. These intertextual references not only concrete the game in reality despite its fantastical elements, but make it all the more rewarding for fans of the series.
Fans of the series will appreciate the attention to nostalgia and references to earlier games, as well. A pair of recurring guards are named after Final Fantasy VII’s Biggs and Wedge, and another, more spoilery moment, references Final Fantasy VI’s World of Ruin. Final Fantasy XV’s tie-in film, Kingsglaive, and five-part anime, Brotherhood, are also mentioned but aren’t needed to understand the story. The soundtrack, composed by Kingdom Hearts’ Yoko Shimomura, is exceptional, too. The game’s main theme, Somnus, is chilling and a personal favourite, carrying so much emotional weight in the final scene of the game.
That said, the final hours of the game are disappointing. The game shifts to a more linear narrative structure once you travel to another continent, locking you out of its open world. You can return to Lucis to explore the open world parts of the game shortly after this, but the lack of a choice to explore Nifelheim in a similar fashion is unlike a Final Fantasy game. Locations in the latter continent are diverse and often completely different to the green lush terrain of Duscae. A desert wasteland and snowy mountains in the distance teased the potential to explore, and with so many side quests and things to discover in Duscae, you can only imagine the possibilities in exploring an entirely new area. From a narrative perspective, this linearity works really well in maintaining the pacing and importance of the story, but ultimately left me frustrated and wanting more.
The final act of the game is also unfortunately rushed. One chapter plays more like a stealth mission as you search a Nifelheim base, stripped of your friends and powers. Your approach to combat changes from fighting enemies to avoiding their detection, hiding in crevices in walls and alleyways. While I appreciate the shift in style, this section wasn’t very fun, and having to constantly backtrack to upgrade a keycard nearly made me quit the game. At times like this, this shift to linear game design leaves you frustrated with no other options but to continue.
Despite bromance being a powerfully unique driving force of Final Fantasy XV’s plot, world and mechanics, the lack of a well-written female character is disappointing. The rushed second act and inability to explore the two other continents in the game made some moments unbearable, but at that point, I was already too emotionally invested in the world and characters to care. Battle animations are stunning and encourage a more strategic approach to an action combat system. It’s refreshing coming from a series that’s historically focused on turn-based gameplay. There’s a lot of optional and post-game content too, as I found myself wanting nothing but the yearn to go back to Lucis and explore more. Noctis, his pals and villain, Ardyn, came to life by great voice acting, character animations and dialogue, and despite some poor story moments, I only grew to love them more.