Final Fantasy XV: Not Much of a Fantasy

This was a challenging review for me to write. I’ve been a longtime fan of the Final Fantasy series, with faith in it wavering since the Square-Enix merger back in 2000. Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) is both a confirmation of my doubts and reaffirmation of my confidence in the series; for every facet of the game I liked, there were several things that disappointed me. What FFXV lacks is depth and nuance, in ways that weigh it down heavily, leaving a mildly fun game that stumbles and falters in its attempt to be great.

FFXV sends players on a road trip with Prince Noctis and his royal guard buddies, Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis, to marry a childhood friend and seal a peace treaty with her country. Events turn sour when Noctis’ home country is betrayed, and once the source of the war and ensuing mayhem is revealed, the fate of the world itself is on the line. Though this sounds exciting, the story stutters and spurts due to lack of information and poor delivery. I found I knew very little about the world and all of its characters twenty hours into the game. Most key characters outside of the main party have only fleeting appearances and leave just an ephemeral imprint and a big space full of disappointment behind. The writers’ attempts to give the four main characters their own personalities, motivations, inner turmoil, or any lasting opinions fall flat until it’s too late; only in the final chapters do Noctis’ friends show any kind of depth. These chapters add some much needed tension, but it feels too little too late. Climactic points that one would expect to offer challenging, thoughtful encounters end up in simple button prompts, sapping events of their drama and energy. What players are left with are typical archetypes and a shallow tale that barely try to be memorable. Outside of the abysmal storytelling lies a playable, moderately entertaining game.

FFXV’s combat system is fluid, but vapid, emphasizing positioning and action over strategy. Players control Noctis’ with just a few commands. Hold a button down and he’ll execute physical attacks, the speeds and combos of which depend on the type of weapon in use. Enemies are weak to different weapon types, and four can be switched to via directional presets. Noctis uses magic points for two central abilities, warp and phase. Warp transports Noctis to enemies for extra damage or to safe spots to restore health and magic points. Dodging requires a simple button press, but holding down this button executes phases, or automatic dodges. Some enemy attacks can be parried by holding this same button down when prompted, opening a counter attack with another prompt. The three AI controlled party members will often perform a powerful joint attack with a well-executed counter or rear attack, so looking out for these opportunities is important. Controlling Noctis is fun and easy, but left me wanting more as repetition quickly set in.

Your teammates mostly do their own thing, but the party’s attacks also fill a three-segment bar used to execute specific techniques. Each bro has several abilities that can be activated this way, doing large amounts of damage to single targets or groups or conferring a benefit like restoring the party’s health, shielding Noctis from damage, or weakening enemies. Different abilities require set amounts of the technique bar, so carefully choosing which to trigger and when is important. It’s a nice tool, but it too often comes down to doing damage rather than adding anything inspired to combat. One of the only elements that does is spellcasting.

Spells are built from a refillable stock of fire, ice, and lightning elements and can be customized with added effects like restoring Noctis’ health, applying poison, or casting multiple spells at once. This system is fun and powerful, though friendly fire applies, so timing is essential to make the most of a spell without utterly destroying the party. I liked the risk versus reward spells introduced, and customizing their effects is fun. It’s a shame that spells are easy to overlook as crafting a powerful one requires using most or all of an available stock, only a handful of uses are made per crafting, refilling the party’s element supply is a chore, and most fights are easy enough to warp and bash through. Altogether, the combat system works very well, but it disappointed me in its repetitive simplicity. Thankfully, combat isn’t all there is to FFXV.

Like most RPGs, preparations outside of combat are as important as the actions within it. The party defeats enemies and completes quests for experience, which is applied to gain levels when the party rests at camps, mobile homes, motels or hotels. Camps are free, but the other options have a price tag commensurate with a multiplier to experience earned. Leveling up increases stats and awards ability points, or AP, which unlock various bonuses to the party via branching skill trees. These trees allow players to customize the effectiveness of various tools, enable more sources for experience and AP, . AP takes some time to earn, so it makes a big difference what one chooses to unlock and when, especially since more impressive offerings are very expensive. These trees influence the party’s effectiveness dramatically, and I had fun planning out what was most important to me.

With a weak storyline and basic combat, I am thankful that the gameworld is gorgeous, so at the very least the game is fun to behold. Animations are well rendered, the landscape is varied and detailed, lighting is fantastic, and enemies are beautiful and frightening. It was fun discovering locales and the creatures that inhabit them, which is great, since most of the game’s experience revolves around travel. Noctis’ royal steed, the Regalia, is stylish, with many cosmetic customization options in the form of paints and decals. This is nice, because trips can take up to ten minutes to get to a location on preset pathways, so plan on bathroom breaks; otherwise take in the scenery or listen to Final Fantasy soundtracks for a dose of nostalgia. Discovered outposts and parking spots can be fast-travelled to, subverting long road trips for almost as equally tiring load times. I was surprised Square-Enix missed the opportunity for more party banter during long car rides, as that could have fleshed out the characters and their histories.

You’ll be travelling a lot, because there’s plenty to do in FFXV’s world. Side quests of the fetch and kill-that-monster variety litter the landscape, and ranked hunts for stronger, boss-like enemies or groups of enemies are plentiful and rewarding. Dungeons raise the stakes in the form of more challenging enemies, tighter spaces, and disabled manually saving, and were my favorite parts of the game. After beating the campaign, the toughest material is unlocked, finally introducing fights that require some thought, but again this feels late.

The end result is a decent experience that falls short of greatness. Combat is fun and fluid at first, but repetitive and shallow as the game crawls along. Noctis’ internal plight is heartfelt, but most characters are empty shells and archetypes with very little depth, their innermost feelings and conflicts hidden or reduced to a momentary glossing over. FFXV is a shallow wading pool compared to its predecessors’ varied seas, and I, for one, am happy to dry off and leave this one behind.

Brew: It's like a stout with a great, beautiful label, but it's missing that deep, rich texture and taste that makes it a stout. Still drinkable, though.