Whenever a new Final Fantasy game comes out, the question people always have is “does it feel like a Final Fantasy?” I’ve never really known what this question means, since Final Fantasy is a series defined by change, but the question has never been harder for me to answer than in Final Fantasy XV. It certainly doesn’t not feel like a Final Fantasy, but I’m mostly at a loss to give any specific reason why it does. Most of the usual stuff is there, including famous monsters and references galore, but they aren’t what the game is about, to a much larger extent than usual for the series.
There is a lot of ground to cover in reviewing FFXV, but the storytelling seems to me like the best place to start. Final Fantasy game stories are generally kind of ridiculous when you think about them, but the way they’re told has been top notch for a very long time, and FFXV is no exception. Indeed, it may be the culmination of that idea: this is the best-told story in the series. I’m still a bit too close to it to be objective, but I honestly think it might be the best-told story in any video game I’ve ever played. And the story itself is not bad at all, which enhances the effect.
The game stars Prince Noctis and his three retainers on a road trip, a premise which seems ridiculous on the surface but is at the core of why the game works. In writing, there is a saying: “show, don’t tell.” FFXV takes this even further in a way only an interactive medium can, which can be summed up as “experience, don’t tell.” Oddly, I never felt like I was Noct, unlike so many of the greatest RPGs, but I nonetheless experienced his story from beginning to end. When the four party members start getting wistful for the earlier chapters of the game, I was too, and for much the same reasons. When the game wanted me to have an emotional reaction, boy did I have an emotional reaction. Quite a few of them, at that.
In several respects, FFXV feels a lot like Uncharted: the banter between your party members is similar to that seen in that series, and many of the more cinematic moments also have a distinctly Uncharted feel. However, Uncharted can feel like a string of events put together to fulfill a quota at times. FFXV’s main story trims all the fat, to the point where it’s one of the shortest main sequences in the series. I arrived at the final chapter in about 20 hours. Many will criticize an RPG for being that short, but I have long been a proponent of shorter main stories, and FFXV makes an excellent supporting case. There’s plenty of side stuff to do, but the story itself remains clean and crisp – with one significant exception.
At this point I would be remiss not to point out that Final Fantasy XV is by no means a perfect game. It has major gameplay flaws that can’t be overlooked. Chief among these is the combat system: it’s incredibly fun and rewarding when it works, and pretty terrible when it does not. Unfortunately, it fails more often than it succeeds. Combat fundamentally breaks down into three actions: warp striking (which serves largely as a way to navigate chaotic battlefields), attack combos, and defending. I am terrible at defending, and that is a big problem in this game. I’m honestly not sure what you’re supposed to do against huge hordes all alternately attacking and leaving almost no opening. For better or worse, you can spam healing items to power through just about any fight, so this is more frustrating than difficult. I had many similar problems with the harder fights in FFXII. Part of the problem is that I expect open-world Final Fantasy combat to be reminiscent of FFXI or FFXIV, but that’s not the case.
The camera can be incredibly bad in combat, which exacerbates combat’s general problems. If you’re fighting on an open plain, it’s fine, but if you’re in the woods, expect to see more extreme closeups of foliage than your characters or enemies. Even when your view isn’t obscured, sometimes you won’t be able to rotate the camera the way you want to for no discernible reason. It’s not just bad, it’s Playstation 1-era bad.
The game also tends to throw incredibly hard optional fights at you without indicating that they’re optional. It’s not fun being one-shot by every enemy in a plot area with no clear idea where I’m even supposed to go. It’s also a little annoying when the main quest suggests a sidequest that I am in no way prepared for, even if it does make sense in the narrative.
Combat isn’t the game’s only flaw. Final Fantasy XV contains one of the most ill-conceived dungeons I’ve seen in an RPG. It’s long, boring, and frustrating, and you lose almost all of your abilities, Metroid-style, at the beginning of it. Truth be told, if it was just shorter – a lot shorter – it wouldn’t really have been a problem. The frustration of it is kind of the point, it just goes too far with it.
Many of these problems can be solved by spending a lot of time in the open world. FFXV’s open world is a lot of fun to explore, with tons of sidequests and monster hunts to go on. Your greatest foe while doing these quests will be load times. You can drive everywhere manually, and even get rewarded for doing so, but using fast travel often takes nearly as long just due to loading. That said, when you get to your destination, it tends to be a lot of fun. All the optional content offers meaningful rewards, and even when the plot takes you away from the open world areas, you can almost always go back to them on a whim. (One particularly annoying exception is the dungeon mentioned above. Not that leveling up would help with that, but at least it could break up the monotony.)
FFXV’s open world is quite large, and filled mostly with open terrain. This certainly helps with the world’s verisimilitude, though it can make travel annoying. I’d definitely recommend unlocking chocobos as soon as possible to help with that. The chocobo rental system can be annoying when it runs out in the middle of nowhere, but you can usually teleport back to your car so it’s unlikely to be that big a deal. The game also has a day-night cycle, and you are strongly discouraged from traveling at night due to powerful monsters that spawn. Instead, you’re better off resting. Experience is only tallied while resting, in a throwback to old-school D&D, and you have an interesting choice to make when doing so. Stay at a camp in the wilderness, and you can cook a meal that will give powerful long-term stat buffs the next day. Or you can pay money to stay at an inn, lose the food bonus (though you could buy one separately at a restaurant), but gain a multiplier on your experience earned the day before.
In many ways, resting serves as a microcosm for what makes FFXV’s game design so compelling. When I was younger, I thought what I wanted was more realism in RPGs: having to eat and sleep, worrying about encumbrance, and so on. It turns out, adding that stuff to a game is generally just a drag. FFXV makes a lot of this sort of thing part of the game, though, in a way that’s interesting mechanically while also serving to draw you into the world. In much the same way as the story is told, the game mechanics help make your journey feel like a journey and not just a video game.
While there’s a ton more about FFXV to cover, the truth is, whether you’ll like this game probably comes down to a few factors. If you like tactical, carefully planned combat, you’re probably not going to find it here (though I would recommend using Wait Mode in this case). If you play RPGs for the story, you will most likely love this game. If you want to explore an open world and get ridiculously powerful, that too is something FFXV allows. I’d recommend it to anyone with the patience for RPG mechanics, even people who aren’t traditionally RPG or Final Fantasy fans. As the game says when you boot it up, this is a Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike. It’s not perfect, but god damn is it satisfying.