Review: Final Fantasy XV (PS4)

Formats:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One

Format/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4
  • HDTV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
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Title: Final Fantasy XV
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (52.88 GB)
Release Date: November 29, 2016
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: T
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

“A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-timers” are the first words the player sees any time they boot up Final Fantasy XV. Square Enix may have one of the most recognizable JRPG franchises out there, but many non-fans consider it an impregnable wall of lengthy cut-scenes and protagonists with too many zippers. The latest entry skirts a fine line, trying to cater to a wider audience, and is an uneven experience as a result.

Gameplay:
The beginning of the game is one of the quickest openings in the Final Fantasy franchise. The player is introduced to Noctis, the prince of a kingdom. He and his three friends/retainers/guards are on a journey to a neighboring kingdom where Noctis is to wed Lady Lunafreya. After these few short minutes of introduction, the player is dropped into Noctis’ shoes and given free rein.

The early part of the game is relatively devoid of story though, making it not feel much like a Final Fantasy game. The main reason is the steadfastness of the plot to stick solely to Noctis’ point of view. No spoilers, but at the end of the first chapter, a very, very major thing happens in Noctis’ home, and outside of a short montage of unexplained scenes, the player only learns about it second-hand through a radio report and later from other characters.

This approach continues throughout the game as the story slowly ramps up. About halfway through, the story does begin to take a more prominent role but the plot almost always stays from Noctis’ point of view. The exception is in a few flashbacks and a handful of scenes that show what Lunafreya is doing.

I actually like this approach if just for the fact that it helps put the player in Noctis’ shoes. Unfortunately, it does mean the occasional “getting explained at” cutscene or dialogue. There are also a few holes that are left conspicuously absent because they focus on off-camera characters. They’re not necessary to understand the story, but they are there.

Of course this is where the game’s extended universe comes in. For example, everything that happens at the end of chapter one is told in the Final Fantasy XV Kingsglaive movie. Likewise, Square Enix has already announced a host of DLC chapters to explain some of the things that happened outside of Noctis’ sight. And they are even promising a patch to the game to explain one character’s motives. Again, I think the story works without these parts, but it can be frustrating knowing that it’s getting piecemealed like this.

… the player really doesn’t get to see much of the world …
The setting certainly doesn’t help make it feel like a Final Fantasy game. The early parts especially have an Americana aesthetic, and the starting area seems like it could be just outside my backyard here in Arizona. The characters all carry cell phones and the main way to get around is via car, making this easily one of the most contemporary Final Fantasy games out there.

The series is no stranger to the sci-fi side of fantasy, and this iteration does lean into that a bit, such as one group of enemies who fly around in airships. Likewise there are giant serpent gods, Chocobo, magic(ish), etc. Though the game doesn’t always feel like Final Fantasy, it is a very interesting setting. The world of Eos is very cool and I’d love to see more of it.

I say that because while the plot does eventually take the party on a globe spanning romp, outside of the first area, the player really doesn’t get to see much of the world. Players do get to explore a lot during the first few chapters when Noctis and crew are in the countryside just outside Insomnia, but beyond that the scope is fairly narrow.

That first area is a large open world area with a dizzying amount of optional content ranging from side quests to monster hunts to finding special weapons. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in side quests, even if some of them are relatively mundane RPG fare. I found myself wasting away hours on a few occasions doing hunts or searching out hidden stuff.

Eventually, through doing the main quests, Noctis does leave the open world area and from there the game becomes a lot more linear. There’s one city that the player can explore after the open world, but it has a very small amount of actual content. After that, the player is basically whisked from dungeon to dungeon at the story’s behest. Even Noctis’ home city of Insomnia only shows up at the 11th hour and is unfortunately small.

PRO TIP
The end of Chapter Eight is the “point of no return” for the open world, mostly. The player can return to the area during the second half of the game but for flow reasons I’d suggest instead just finishing up with the open world stuff before the end of Chapter Eight.

The loss of the open world does make the game a little less interesting gameplay wise and the last few chapters are a real slog, with two poorly designed dungeons and a few gameplay changes for the worse. The final full dungeon in Chapter Thirteen is actually so annoying that Square has already stated they intend to patch it in some manner.

Fortunately, as the gameplay declines, the story is ramping up. My interest in seeing where the story went helped keep me going through some of the slower parts of the game. The final area/boss fight and the ending are both pretty awesome though.

Another aspect that doesn’t feel totally “Final Fantasy” is the combat. Gone is the “action time battle” system of past games, replaced by a real-time nearly-action based combat system. This has shades of other action based combat systems, but not entirely.

In this case, it’s because there are relatively few timing-based elements. Simply holding the attack button will have Noctis chain together attacks and likewise holding block will have him defend from all attacks. This makes the combat very “flow” based. Doing well means reading the enemies to know when to attack and when to block.

… magic, often a staple of the series, falls by the wayside …
The other huge mechanic is one that was featured heavily in trailers/movie: warp striking. Noctis’ ability to warp into or out of the battle is a major component of the battle system, especially since he can regain some health and mana by using it.

Noctis’ party members also join in on the fight. For the most part they are autonomous but the player can set a skill on each of them to activate at will. Some player actions can also cause allies to jump in and join a linked attack. These are pretty cool when they happen, especially because they work so seamlessly.

Unfortunately magic, often a staple of the series, falls by the wayside in the new battle system. While Noctis can craft and use a few different types of spells, the game isn’t particularly suited to them. Rather they’re more of a niche use thing. It’s unlikely that a player could get through the game focusing solely on them, for example.

Overall, I’d rate the combat in FFXV just “fine”. It’s passable with some good aspects and some annoying aspects. I think it was designed to ease long time fans into an action game. Because somehow Final Fantasy fans have ignored every other RPG series out there? To that end they even have an option for a “wait mode” which pauses the game whenever the player stops doing anything.

… I feel like I know each of the characters as close friends …
I do have some other gripes with the game, the biggest of which is the camera. In some areas, such as the dusty Arizona-like setting the game starts in, the camera isn’t an issue. But in forests or enclosed areas, it’ll occasionally get stuck in a spot where the player can’t see what they’re doing. In some of the more egregious places, I had to constantly fight to get the camera in a place where I could see what was going on.

There are also some glitches or problems, as one might expect with an open world game. I have seen some reports of some pretty major bugs online but fortunately I only encountered minor stuff. I did have to quit and reopen it on one occasion but the game autosaves very frequently so I only lost a couple minutes of playtime.

The runtime does come up a little short in comparison to some of the older games. I finished in about thirty-three hours, but that included a little bit of side questing. There does seem to be a lot more I could do, plus there are a few post-game questlines.

On the plus side, I love the feeling of camaraderie with Noctis’ three main party members/king’s guards/friends. Not only the ways they assist each other in battle, but in the day to day interactions and the way their personalities show. I feel like I know each of the characters as close friends, which is an impressive feat for a game.

Each member also has their own unique skill. Noctis can fish, Gladio helps with survival by finding items, Ignis cooks when the group is camping, and Prompto takes photos. The photos are an especially fun mechanic because it’s not like a normal photo mode where the player is controlling it. Instead, Prompto takes some random photos during each day, from his point of view, and the player can see them each night.

… many stunning aspects of the graphics …
Most Final Fantasy games have a mini game of some kind. In this case it’s a pinball/rpg hybrid thing. It’s also incredibly dull and boring so I only played it once for the Trophy.

At the moment, there is no VR support in the game. Square Enix has been rather quiet about the VR mission since E3 so I’m not sure when or if it is coming.

Visuals:
Much like the gameplay has highs and lows, so too do the visuals, though fortunately they mostly fall on the high side. The environment is especially great with some fantastic vistas and wondrous dungeons. Coming up over a ridge and seeing a huge swath of the game area below is awe-inspiring and the different areas of the open world map are varied and interesting.

Even outside the environments, there are many stunning aspects of the graphics. I love, for example, the way a fire from a spell or enemy casts its light on a dark area or at night. And the people and monsters feel well designed to fit in with the more realistic style of the game. It’s pretty cool to see a chocobo or malburo done in a way that feels congruent with the real world.

… Voice work actually comes in four languages …
The cutscenes are also on the good side, which probably comes as no surprise. There was one particular scene, a dream-like sequence in a flower garden, which absolutely floored me with how great it looked. Square may seem to run into issues whenever they try to do full length movies, but their cutscene compositions are always close to perfection.

So what are the lows? Mostly the texturing, where I was pulled out of the experience a few times by low resolution and jarring textures. One I remember well was one of the skins available for the party’s car, which was horribly pixelated. And warping to a hanging position often gives the player a close up view of the game’s less than stellar rock or cliff textures.

I also ran into some occasional rendering bugs. For example, in one scene the camera was focused on Noctis in the foreground with the background out of focus, like a camera set on a low focal length, but the area near his hair was popping in and out of focus in a distracting manner. These aren’t too common, but do happen occasionally.

Audio:
The audio in general is pretty good overall. The voice work is especially great for helping with that feeling of camaraderie between Noctis and his friends. There is a lot of incidental dialogue between them that helps bring out both their individual personalities and their friendship. Even just running around the world brings about the occasional line or quip that another person will respond to.

Of course some of it can get old. Some lines happen pretty frequently, for example Ignis’ “That’s it! I’ve come up with a new recipe!” gets old quickly. And there are only a dozen comments Prompto makes on his photos so those can trigger a little too often. This doesn’t hurt the game much, but it does remind the player that this is just a video game.

Voice work actually comes in four languages which is nice. In addition to English, there’s Japanese, German, and French all on the disk. Though I often play JRPGs in Japanese if available, I actually played FFXV mostly in English. The English VO work is solid and there are some occasional incidental dialogue lines, like from NPCs, that aren’t subtitled.

… a game with some high highs and some low lows …
The music in the game is pretty good. I don’t think this rates up there with the best Final Fantasy soundtracks, but there are some great pieces. Like with the dialogue though, certain songs get repeated ad nauseum to the point where they become annoying. The music in Lestallem is one in particular that I grew tired of.

Fortunately then, Noctis can find and purchase music from past Final Fantasy games. Initially, these can only be played in the car but there’s also an MP3 player for purchase. With music from every mainline game in the series, and even some of the spinoffs, there should be something for pretty much everyone.

Online/Multiplayer:
At the moment, the game is entirely a singleplayer affair. The only online component is the ability to share Prompto’s pictures to real social media networks. Supposedly there are some more online functions planned, such as limited time hunts with new unique enemies or holiday events, but none of that is ready yet.

Conclusion:
Final Fantasy XV comes out as a game with some high highs and some low lows. When it’s running on all cylinders, be that some of the great fights or some of the beautiful cutscenes, it’s a joy to play. But there are also some blemishes, for example the crappy Chapter 13 or the occasional down-time when traveling around the world.

The good generally outweighs the bad for me, and it can be hard sometimes to not be awed by the ambitious nature of the game. The great feeling of bromance can overcome some occasional repeated dialogue or the interesting setting helping ease the fact that the game doesn’t feel very “Final Fantasy“. When all was said and done and the credits were rolling, I felt like my overall experience was very positive.

Still, Final Fantasy XV is an odd game to recommend. In some ways, being for “both fans and first-timers” means the game doesn’t excel at hooking either. This is even more the case for the fans, for whom a lot of typical Final Fantasy elements are missing. The series is no stranger to games that divide the fanbase and as this iteration seems poised to do that spectacularly, perhaps it does feel like a Final Fantasy game after all.

Score:

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* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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