Final Fantasy XV (PS4) Review
THE SHORT VERSION
First things first - yes, it's a lot better than Final Fantasy XIII (and this isn't the only time I'll say that, too).
Second things second - no, they are not a boy band.
Part of the reason this review is going out a fortnight after release date, in addition to Final Fantasy XV's sheer length, is because I've had to mull my thoughts over quite a bit more than I normally would for any game, let alone a Final Fantasy entry. A big chunk of that has a lot to do with the story.
Noctis Lucis Caelum is many things. He's the Prince of the Kingdom of Lucis, betrothed to the Oracle Lunafreya, a skilled combatant and, most notably, an adolescent man with an irritating temperament to match. So what do you do when you're all of those first things on top of being a burgeoning adult? You go on a road trip with your three best friends - including a peppy young gunslinger, a boisterous, shirtless man with python-thick arms, and a slightly nebbish mentor with a flair for good cuisine - and hope that you don't get embroiled in political turmoil or a brewing war while you're doing so.
I'm being deliberately vague about the plot, because to be honest I found it hard to follow. As a veteran of the Final Fantasy franchise - particularly having experienced the time-twisting weirdness of VIII and the Spice-Girls-meets-cosmic-horror surprise climax of X-2 - I can handle a narrative that's more abstract, less linear and lacking in the kind of strong A to B plot movements which a game like The Witcher 3 might utilise. But even I found it tough to parse how the story of Final Fantasy XV was going, particularly when it came to motivations behind the road trip continuing long after an inciting event near the beginning throws a curveball at the protagonists and the kingdom itself. Part of that may have something to do with XV's transmedia nature, featuring a host of texts which include a movie and an animated series, and the missing pieces from those needed to construct a stronger understanding of the story. But after playing through the game, I can't honestly feel like those missing pieces amount to much anyway.
While the story's a bit of a bust, the characters certainly are not. This may be the strongest-characterised entry Final Fantasy's had in a long time; I'd be tempted to slot the cast alongside the superlative ensembles of VII and X, if it weren't for some shallowness in the main villain and a few uninteresting side characters who insist on continually appearing. All four of our road trip boys are sketched out by the end of the first chapter, and fully fleshed by story's end; a lot of that comes down to more minor details rather than grand, sweeping character strokes to establish who they are in relation to each other. Part of that stems from some excellently-written and acted dialogue - which I'll discuss more below - and part of it comes from the game taking every advantage to develop our heroes in the small moments between grand plot shake-ups. Driving along the road to the next objective, you'll often hear chats between the boys about the kind of food which mentor Ignis likes to cook, or which young lady that gunslinger Prompto is enamoured with this week, and it all
builds them up as both engrossing characters to play with and a truly organic group of friends who feel like they're together for more than just plot convenience. Though I could take or leave much of the story about Noctis claiming his throne and restoring peace to the land, I was definitely onboard for the more intimate character moments. The characterisation was actually so effective that I felt my heart contract every time one of them fainted in battle, forcing me to slam the potion button and get them back on their feet. The last time I felt an urge for revival that strong was when my team were dying to the Elite Four back in Pokemon Blue, so props to the writers for those nice touches of humanity (though not so much for the stress pre-empting said slamming of potion button).
Much as the narrative is a mixed bag, the gameplay is kind of a buffet of good and bad choices. Gone is the simplistic rote button clicks which characterised XIII's monotonous combat, with XV instead opting for a more organic, Kingdom Hearts-esque free-flowing real time battle system. This is sort of what Final Fantasy XII was working towards with their own combat way back in the PS2 era, but with a somewhat more organic feel than its button-mashing predecessors. Although battles are over swiftly and rarely become tedious, they don't usually feel rewarding; tactics and strategy have largely gone out of the window, even if the game likes to harp on at specific moments which enable you to pull off the most rudimentary of tag-team techniques when it's convenient to do so. I also feel that only controlling the party leader, as you did in XIII, removes some of what I loved in Final Fantasy with the customisation and coordination of all the party members. I get that it'd be a nightmare to be telling all four lads where to go and how to smack the mutant alligator as one, but something less elementary than a button prompt or the occasional support technique would be nice.
That criticism aside, which is admittedly somewhat biased given my adoration for past entries, the gameplay for XV is quite solid. It's clear Square Enix took onboard the feedback regarding the obnoxious camera and restrictive lock-on function issues which stemmed from the Episode Duscae demo, and the game is all the better for that improvement. Navigating the overworld - which has now gone full sandbox - is also smoothly done, feeling less restrictive than previous games and their tendency to block areas off or, more egregiously, prevent jumping over tiny obstacles; Noctis ain't gonna be stopped by a two-foot hurdle on this adventure. The road trip and its related game mechanics are the highlight, including the aforementioned open-road driving, the ability to ride chocobos cross-country, the ability to make pit stops and camp periodically, a bounty hunting minigame, the ability to go fishing for important items and experience points (seriously), and a sidequest involving Prompto taking a slew of pictures during the road trip for Noctis to select the best ones to keep afterwards. In many ways, I wish the game had stuck more to that side of the story and gotten rid of the copious dungeons and monster lairs which require a clean-out; going subterranean for plot devices or monster hunting robs the game of a lot of its unique flavour, at times making it feel less like a good Final Fantasy game and more like a pared-down World of Warcraft expansion.
As I said, though, the gameplay is still quite solid. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, it's certainly more liberating and engaging to play than the endless corridors of XIII; whenever the game sticks mostly to the open road, the experience feels all the richer for it.
Final Fantasy XV is an utterly gorgeous game. The open world unfolds organically without much obvious load time (aside from the odd dungeon sojourn), and the vistas it presents are spectacular to behold. Square Enix have honed the already-breathtaking prettiness present in the Duscae demo, turning it up to eleven and crafting a world which feels vibrant and colourful, both lived-in and begging to be explored.
There were some lag issues moving through parts of the overworld on the PS4, not to mention some significant framerate-droppage when battles got too big. This teaches you to be judicious in how you lure out single enemies from a group in order to pick them off one at a time; fight too many at once, and you may be watching the fight less as a combat scene in a game and more as a very pretty stop-motion film.
SOUND AND VOICE ACTING
The well-constructed ambient soundscape amplifies XV's engrossment factor, but it's the voice acting where the game's sound shines. I don't know whether it's the direction, the desire to hire more unknown or lesser-known voice actors over a plethora of famous ones, a really good localisation team, or some alchemy of all three. What I do know is that the voice acting is very much on point; not only do the four leads sound like fully realised characters, the supporting players also feel like folks who are, in some cases, as well-rounded as the heroes (for example, Iris, the sister of party member Gladiolus, very much plays off as a younger version of him through her voice and its similarities to her brother's). The sound team really do deserve so many props for making the game as aurally inviting as it is, as well as for having main characters who come across as collegial and realistic.
If only I could say the same for the villains. I can't take any of them seriously, and while I get that Final Fantasy is no stranger to the "large ham" character archetype, it'd be nice if not every single baddie were as thinly drawn and broadly acted as that (there is one antagonist who appears later in the game and manages to escape this characterisation, though, so that's good).
While it's far from the Second Coming many outlets claimed it to be heralding for the beleaguered franchise, Final Fantasy XV is nonetheless a well-executed, superlatively-characterised game, even if the plot is sometimes a muddy mess of contrivance and murky motivations. It did what no Final Fantasy game has done in a long time in reviving my adoration for the franchise, prompting me to jump back into replays of my favourites and reminding me why I fell in love with the series to begin with. Funny that all it took for me to rediscover that was a quartet of hunky boys on a road trip to the apocalypse.
Final Fantasy XV is available now on Xbox One and Playstation 4.
Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Square Enix.