Final Fantasy XV – One longtime series fan’s review


The web’s littered with reviews of Final Fantasy XV already, Square’s beleaguered fifteenth entry in its flagship franchise. I’ll try and share information and judgements you hopefully haven’t read a dozen times already. I’m coming from the perspective of a longtime fan of Final Fantasy, as a franchise. I’ve played almost all the mainline games, having started with the entirely iconic and brilliant VI back in 1994, and culminating with XIII, which did its best to break me with its amateur, fragmented storytelling and disappointing design decisions.

My playstyle with FF XV was to tackle the main storyline first, with an odd bit of optional content here or there, and see if the game grabbed me enough to keep going after that. As it turned out, this may not be the optimal way to enjoy this title, which just annoyed me a bit further. This game is definitely more of a road trip. You’ll probably walk away from it with better memories if you don’t blitz through the main campaign as I did, taking the time instead to essentially hang out with your boy band and wander.

If you’d rather skip my rambling and get to my list of pros and cons, hit Page Down like…twice or something.

Final Fantasy XV is a better game than XIII. It’s got infinitely more likeable characters, a faster-paced, more satisfying action-RPG battle system, a more memorable soundtrack, and a better approach to player freedom and the issues of linearity that plagued XIII.

Where XV falters is in showing the wounds it endured during its decade of development hell. Yes, the real development on this title likely only began in earnest around 2011, but this title was announced in 2006. Concepts, artwork, and planning have been swirling for a full ten years or more. It’s really hard not to notice how this impacted the game.

Elements with unrealized potential are everywhere – characters set up for storytelling who never appear again; events set in motion that should build to grand gameplay sequences that never materialize; relationships and sub-stories that take bizarre twists and turns, likely due to missing scenes or events that didn’t get made in time; and opportunities to dramatically enhance the storytelling that the game clearly alludes probably would have happened, again, had there just been more time.

As a major example of that last point, any fan of FF VI just has to look at the title of the final chapter of XV, see what’s happening in the story there, and connect the dots that XV didn’t. XV throws enough nostalgia-tingling references around that that title was no accident. I’d lay down all my Gold Saucer monies on a bet that another 5-7 hours of gameplay was gutted right there.

When the development team comes out and says they’re preparing free DLC content to rectify the player experience in a now-notoriously poor late-game chapter and actually create new scenes to enhance the plot throughout the game – which is almost unprecedented in this industry – you know that the rumors are likely true about how much content was cut from this game. Leaks on XV’s troubled development (even documenting the state it was in just six months ago) have proven to be accurate when comparing all their data to the final product. For all that XV gets right, it’s really hard not to look at it and wonder what might have been.

But let’s talk about what it gets right.

You’re going to love the camaraderie between the four bros that make up your party. They trade barbs, pat each other on the back, and come together in natural, stylish and exciting ways during battle. You will feel like you’re on a road trip with them for much of the game. Their history is a bit weak compared to the fun and complex baggage several FF characters have brought to the table before, but you won’t care much after you’ve spent 20+ hours with these guys and formed your own bonds with them. In many ways, I’m sure they were designed to evoke the original four warriors of light from the very first Final Fantasy: four ‘chosen ones’, generic heroes in a world of war and crystals that you instilled with your own meaning. There’s a lot of that going on here too as you bond with these bros over the course of XV.

Battles are fast and furious. This is Kingdom Hearts on a bit of speed. It’s far more punishing than KH, with much greater pressure to dodge, parry, and retort. You will get rocked if you flail around mashing the attack button, a strategy that seemed to work just fine in the last console KH. Magic is a potent force in this game: entirely ignorable, but incredibly powerful if you choose to use it. It’s the most satisfying magic’s been in a Final Fantasy game. You’ll marvel at the environmental effects after casting Fira in the woods against a pack of roaming beasts. The ground will turn to smoldering ash, the creatures will burn, and so will your allies if they’re caught in the blast. It’s incredible.

There’s something incredibly satisfying about how battles feel in XV once you get the hang of it – it’s tight, tactile and resonant; you’ll feel great as you connect with each blow. I haven’t had most other action-RPGs give me that feeling, with issues ranging from poor hit detection to laggy controls. XV feels pretty great.

Shimomura’s on the soundtrack, and thank goodness for that. The legend that composed tracks for Street Fighter II, the Mana titles, Kingdom Hearts, Parasite Eve, and so many more classics was the only choice if Uematsu was unavailable. You’ll be humming XV’s battle themes before long, as well as some of the game’s other beautiful earworms. Dungeon music is a bit grating, but does its job.

The game’s principal characters are modeled and animated beautifully. You’ll do a double-take and wonder if you’re watching a CG vid when one in particular – Luna – shows up in cutscenes. NPC characters suffer a bit with some garbage animation and lower detail overall, but it isn’t too jarring. The voice acting is solid all around, but all the dialogue suffers regularly from some poor editing, especially where the plot begins to go off the rails and character motivations careen wildly. Can’t blame the actors there.

Creature and monster design is solid, though not as varied as past FFs at first glance. The incredible entities you can summon into battle – a hallmark of every Final Fantasy title – are a true spectacle, orders of magnitude more impressive and more dramatic than anything FF has tried to do before. You’ll know what I mean when you see it in action.

The world and scenery are technically gorgeous (although a bit lacking in real character, as far as my opinion goes), enhanced tenfold if you’re fortunate enough to be playing on a PS4 Pro with HDR flipped on. It’s a night-and-day difference for this game, and the Pro’s Lite mode will grant the game its much-needed locked framerate (at around 30 fps), with promises from the developers that they’ll be aiming for 60 fps in a future patch. Performance may be enhanced on a regular PS4 too with that patch, though there are no guarantees. If you’ve got a Pro, don’t play on High mode. It’s a touch prettier, but the framerate will revert to OG PS4 levels or worse. You need more fluidity for a faster game like this.

Moments that made playing this title worth it, and that will bring me back

The fluidity and rush of combat, linked attacks with all your party members, taking down imposing enemies and feeling like you had a much more active hand in it than ever before in FF.

Those rare moments – scripted and unscripted – where an actual god descends into the field and turns the entire tide of battle.

Racing across the fields with your bros on a monster hunt, all on the backs of chocobos, realizing in vivid detail what every FF fan pictured when they saw 16-bit visuals trying to do the same thing 20 years ago.

Difficulty in the main campaign – FFs feel like they’ve been missing this for a while, and honestly, it’s a good thing. Unless you regularly play action games on normal and harder difficulty settings, you may find this steep up front, but most people will dig that you’re not choosing safe menu options like ‘Fight’ for hours on end anymore.

Realizing one of your characters is snapping photos mid-battle, allowing you to relive killer moments from your last hour of play. It’s a great touch that the game plays with thematically as well. I will come back to this game to just keep battling with these bros in an engaging combat system, and then hang around a campfire hoping he captured some great shots.

Final Fantasy XV’s missteps, problems, and ‘WTF’ moments

It’s four dudes with some minor combat specialties; nothing like the varied and engaging casts of FF’s past. I’m talking an absence of variety in gender, species, class, you name it. At times, it feels like all you’ve got are four regular soldiers, and that’s a bit disappointing for a fantasy title.

Yeah, it’s an open world with side quests and unprecedented scope for an FF title; but most of what’s out there to optionally tackle is just plain fucking boring; fetch quests out the ass.

Your 3 bros are AI-controlled, and often take an unfairly punishing amount of damage; in the main campaign, you’ll have a lot of frustrating moments where you’ll feel like you’re babysitting them and just trying to keep them alive. Moreover, all four characters will have their max HP reduced to unfairly punishing degrees after taking hits, usually at random, and cured only by heading back to an inn or using specific curative items that may not be in great supply early on. It creates a really shitty difficulty wall up front if you haven’t gelled with the combat system yet.

The story; the plot really does just get worse and worse as you go. Obviously cut chapters, bizarre character motivation, wild pacing issues, and more. Fans have speculated as to all the cut content, and have already put together amazing retellings of the same story with content intact, and I already wish I played that game instead.

That chapter. You’ll know it when you get there. It’s already become such a notorious example of shitty pacing and boring design that the developers just announced they’ll be updating it considerably in a patch this winter.

Lack of varied environments; lots of military bases and caves. Yep. I wanted a lot more.

The optional dungeons in the post-game sound like total slogs. I haven’t tackled them, but hear that they’re especially and unfairly grueling in many instances without enough compensation. One apparently relies on platforming in a game that isn’t built for precision jumping at all, which sounds truly terrible. Happy to be corrected here.

The car; I’m probably alone on this one, but the Regalia is a slow, poorly-controlled vehicle that you’ll tire of quickly after the first charming ride from one quest objective to another. You’ll be fast-travelling before you know it.
The map/travel UI; oh boy, does this need work. You don’t realize how much you appreciate games that get all of this right until you play a game like XV that gets all of it wrong.

The more you know about the updates coming for the game – from planned DLC to recently announced patch content – the more cynical you’ll get about what you’ve got right now at full price. There’s certainly a lot of content in the base game, but it’s definitely an issue of quantity over quality. Much of XV feels…missing.

XV is a fascinating game to play, principally because of its storied development history. You almost just have to play it as an FF fan out of curiousity. In my case, it was morbid curiousity. I was ready for this game to be a complete disaster based on the dev hell it’s been through. So was half the fanbase. We were justified in our concerns with a tragically gutted story and a second half to the game that gets lazier with every chapter.

But once you push that aside (and trust me, it pains me to say that about an FF), there’s a real stable framework here that Square should build on; a great combat system and engine for a modern FF that just deserved a better layer on top. We’re all hopeful that’s exactly what the FF VII Remake will be, judging by early footage

An FF XV-2, or enough DLC for the main game to make up a whole second title will actually be great for this game. This world and this combat system deserve better, and with a new, engaged team at the helm for the last two years, it might even get turned around in a reasonable timeframe.

Until then, yes, give this game a go if you’re an FF fan, but if you’re a newcomer to the series, be a bit wary of judging all of Final Fantasy by this one game. It’s the most different title yet in the main series, for better and for worse. This is definitely an upward trend from the last entry, though. I think we’re headed in the right direction again.