Review: Final Fantasy XV (PS4)
It all starts on the road with a broken down car. A group of four friends on the way to a wedding are now stranded in the outback after living in the massive city of Insomnia. It is from these humble beginnings that our adventure unfolds, a prince without money forced to now work for his dinner. With friends in tow, often edging him on with support and advice, the group starts doing odd jobs for money while they wait on repairs of their vehicle, the Regalia.
Though technically, the story doesn’t start there. Final Fantasy XV has a short anime, Brotherhood and a movie, Kingsglaive, that set the tone for the adventure. If you haven’t watched either of these, you are doing yourself a dis-service. Brotherhood shows not only the road trip, which is a core of the game, but explains in detail how each member of the group is tied to Noctis. Kingsglaive shows what is happening in the capital city when you just begin your journey, and knowing what happens in the movie, knowing what is about to happen as you are playing makes watching Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto go about happily rather bittersweet. When the news finally reaches Noctis, the feeling of tragedy is heightened. Even at such an early part of the game, because you know the characters so well already, you feel a pang of sadness as the blow to the stomach is softened by previous knowledge, but still finds purchase as you watch the party react to the news.
The road trip
A huge part of the core of this game is the road trip. The Regalia almost feels like a silent fifth member of the party, carrying you across Eos. Without the old girl, to borrow Prompto’s parlance, you are effectively stranded. Walking to the next settlement is quite the task and being out after dark, especially in the early hours of your playthrough, is dangerous. Daemons lurk in the dark waiting to ambush you, making you journey in the day and seek shelter at night. The game’s day night cycle doesn’t affect cities at all, so quest givers won’t suddenly be missing when you want to turn a quest in, but resting and watching the time of day is central to the game. Without calling it a night you will never get to use any of the experience you have netted during your adventures. Gone are the moments of miraculously levelling up mid-boss fight, inexplicably healing up and getting stronger. Now you must rest in a motel or at a haven: areas protected from daemons with special wards powered by the Oracle. Resting in a nicer hotel will give you an experience multiplier, while resting at a haven lets Ignis cook up a delicious meal with a handy stat boosting buff, meaning you need to make a choice between getting extra experience or having a bonus for that difficult encounter you plan to tackle in the morning. Spending too many days in a dungeon will lead to a dirty, tired party, which will make you feel guilty about how long you have been wading through sewers or caves looking for loot. It is the most natural, human experience listening to characters moan about the weather or being tired or dirty, and being excited when arriving at a hotel with running water.
The Regalia almost drives itself, or you can tell Ignis where to drive and take in the gorgeous view. The party will talk on the journey or check their phones or read a book as you travel. You might have to stop to refuel, or to check if the next town has better gear in the store. A new town means more hunts and people who need help. Sadly many of the sidequests are run-of-the-mill fetch quests (which feel absolutely terrible after the Witcher 3’s side quests) but some give you a chance to learn more about your party, like Gladio’s love for cup noodles or visiting places so that Prompto can get the perfect souvenir shot. In sidequests the reason you are doing any task is merely a backdrop for puns, amazing visuals and an awesome combat system.
‘How do we even fight something that big?’
Combat is quick and rewarding but sometimes unforgiving as you learn the rhythm and quirks that slowly become apparent over time. Real-time fights make encounters that would be a breeze in other FF games suddenly challenging. For example, fighting a pack of foes that runs around as you battle makes focusing on a single target to try thin the herd pretty challenging as the rest of the pack is vying for your attention by trying to eat your face off. Getting surrounded is deadly and fast enemies zip out of range just as your attacks make purchase, forcing you to switch to faster weapons. Fighting large enemies means you need to target what part of the beast you want to hit and it you can easily find yourself completely cut-off from the rest of your team. Add on top of this managing your HP and MP, dodging attacks, elemental and weapon type weakness and resistance and a whole bunch more, the systems have the same depth and caveats as any other FF game, but at full speed.
If you need more time to plan attacks or to target spells on the perfect area, the game offers a wait mode that lets you freeze time while you plan your attack and work out the weaknesses of enemies. The system isn’t necessary, but it is a nice option to have if you prefer having a bit more time to decide on your next few actions. One of the biggest changes to get used to is getting knocked down to zero HP. While at 0HP you enter a danger state and your max HP slowly drops over time and if you get hit again. In the danger state you can limp around and use items, but not much else unless someone rescues you. If your max HP becomes zero you or KO, and if Noctis is KO you have a few seconds to use an item or the game over screen arrives. After combat your max HP will stay at its new level until you use curative items or you can wait as your maximum HP slowly climbs back to normal.
If you go exploring off the roads and walkways of the game there are many dungeons waiting to be discovered and treasures to be found. While in a dungeon your ability to regenerate your maximum HP gets stunted, making mistakes along the way costly as you burn through elixirs to restore your characters to peak fitness. Random encounters are a thing of the past so each room of a dungeon will have a specific battle to challenge or frighten you. In the dark world underground, goblins and more impish daemons will play tricks on you, banging on doors or locking them, forcing you to find a way around. Jump scares have been incorporated into most dungeons, making each new room exciting and scary as you aren’t sure what is lurking inside until you investigate. These are some of the most fun dungeons I have ever seen in a FF game and there is one in particular, a secret dungeon, that is so unlike the normal dungeons that it is worthy of a whole post just by itself. Some of the dungeons lead to a large enemy guarding fine treasures and sometimes a Royal Tomb lies in the depths, containing one of the 13 Royal Arms of kings from ages past.
Final Fantasy XV benefits from having a strong, known enemy for the duration of the game and the politics used remind me of the traps and yarns that Final Fantasy XII used. Unlike FF12, this game also has a real threat, something that urges you to careen headlong into the main story of the game. While it never penalises you for exploring or completing whatever you feel like doing right now, there is always the nagging reminder of what the empire of Niflheim has done to the lands, with large flying ships dropping off squadrons of soldiers to try and kill you, or sometimes a massive flying fortress landing and establishing a blockade. The empire is an interesting enemy thanks to the power struggles inherent in a nation built on the backs of other defeated and absorbed nations. Accordo, for example, has its own government and armies, but asks for permission from the empire before changing any policies. Absorbed mercenary units, defeated city-states and more make for a believable landscape where not everyone is automatically your enemy on Imperial soil.
The game has a few quirks that I haven’t come to terms with though. While I understand the lore reasoning behind how the Astrals work, not being able to choose who and when to summon help can be frustrating, especially in those situations where I just want to watch the summon again in all of its splendour or show it to someone else. Having to jump and interact with an object on the same key-binding is also annoying, and in some dungeons the camera has a habit of getting locked until I enter combat or have a party member use an item. Many of the side quests are far too lazy and get repetitive. While roaming has no loading apparent, using fast travel or loading a save game or a new chapter does take quite a while, which can break suspense while you watch a load screen. Some of the NPCs also just don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the world that has been built here. Cindy, the mechanic in a thong with her breasts hanging out on display is the only named character with a decidedly southern drawl, and I could only find one NPC who spoke like her. She feels out of place and forced into the world, rather than a true inhabitant. The same can be said for Dino, a reporter who mentions his ethics immediately before asking for a bribe, and who talks like he has seen a few too many Italian mobster movies in his time. Again, no other character speaks like this, and it really hurts the rest of a pretty well-realised world.
Final Fantasy XV is the most tragic and darkest game in the series. While many of the games in the series have centered around world-ending plots, the connection you share with these characters makes every loss, every injury feel personal. The game sweeps you away with its narrative into a very dark place and watching Noctis battle through it all is heartbreaking. This game brought me to tears more than once as darkness threatens to smother everything. Not everything is dark to the point that you feel like it is a chore though. There are light-hearted moments and jokes aplenty as the party travels around, taking in the sights and making puns all day long. The balance of humour and tragedy is close to perfect and I can’t wait to talk to people once they see that FIN message appear on their screens. In fact, not talking about it is has been the hardest thing of all this review: something that moved me so strongly, and I can’t share it with anyone yet. This might be the darkest game in the series, but it is also, I feel, the best one so far. This is Final Fantasy, right down to the heart of it: four warriors of light looking for a crystal.
What we did: Finished the main game, now working on getting the best weapons possible and levelling up for more post-game dungeon content. Currently sitting at level 65 at 52 hours played.