Finally, This Fantasy is Real
Final Fantasy XV is a game that took over a decade to come out, and you can see the effort onscreen. The PlayStation 3 came and went in the time it took for this big budget action-RPG hybrid to get together. Now that it’s here, it stands on its own as a quality adventure, even if it feels like several games stitched together.
At times, Final Fantasy XV is inspired by western hits like Mass Effect and Uncharted. At other times it embraces the angsty, rushed storytelling of sister series Kingdom Hearts. And sometimes Final Fantasy is self-aware enough to be a commentary on its tumultuous development. It all comes together to be a visually beautiful mess that pulls off being more fun than not.
A Bromance for the Ages
The theme song to Final Fantasy XV is a cover of "Stand By Me," and the story takes inspiration from the Stephen King film of the same name. Four young men go on a long, winding road trip, only these guys are a mopey prince and his three best friends/protectors and the road is full of mythical creatures. Prince Noctis and guards of Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus are a foursome who fulfill the same tropes as most '80s comedies/anime -- namely leader/nerd/clown/jock. While unoriginal, you form a bond with both in battle and their never-ending stream of small talk.
The storytelling is done mainly through this core group of guys. Nations go to war, cities are held under martial law, and deities are summoned all through the eyes of this team. It leads to some narrative issues (more on that later), but the choice leads to them feeling like a cohesive unit that you come to like just a few hours in. Noctis' arc of the grumpy prince becoming the hope of a nation would be so mundane without his lovely friends by his side. Having a group of bantering friends can make even the most boring fetch quest bearable, and it makes the already enjoyable dungeons even more fun.
Final Fantasy XV is at its best when you're just hanging out in the Regalia, the fancy car for Noctis' road trip. The big open world of Eos isn't as stylized as other FF settings, but its vistas and cities are incredible to explore. As much as you may want to race to the next objective, it's more fun to take it slow and see all you can in an area. Go fishing, hunt daemons, pick mushrooms -- it's all worth soaking in.
Putting the "Action" in "Action-RPG"
If you grew up on "classic," pre-2005 Final Fantasy games, this numbered entry will play like an action-packed spinoff. Core FF games are defined by their turn-based, RPG-style combat. But in 2016, the spin-off World of Final Fantasy has classic Active Time Battles while Final Fantasy XV's combat is real time action, which feels rather similar to sister series Kingdom Hearts. The good news is that the combat mostly works, even if it isn't as tight as its contemporaries.
Quick dodging, reactive combos, and dynamic orders to your AI-controlled teammates are core to Final Fantasy XV's combat just as it is in Kingdom Hearts games. If that's the kind of gameplay that first pulled you into Square Enix titles, then you'll grasp the action quickly. It never really works, which is perhaps why the game is so giving with healing items. Buy enough Phoenix Downs and Elixirs, and you'll rarely see a "Game Over" screen in Final Fantasy XV, no matter how poor you are at mashing buttons during a fight.
The game is deadset on leaving turn-based combat behind, and it's not an entirely wasted effort. However, it seems counterintuitive to see masters of role-playing games do their best to make Final Fantasy XV a combat-heavy experience akin to Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden. You want Final Fantasy XV to push its genre forward, not switch to a genre its developers aren't as experienced with.
Like Two Games, Both Incomplete
Final Fantasy XV's biggest problem is its messy story. As the game's director revealed pre-release, FFXV is open-world in the first half and then very linear in the second half. You spend hours and hours experiencing a story as you drive by road signs. Then all of a sudden you're heading fast and furious towards showdowns and revelations that aren't properly introduced or explained.
There's a whiplash effect from going from slowly soaking in the story to having it all just fly in your face moment by moment. Unless you read every bit of in-game text, watched the film and anime tie-ins, and followed the game for years, many moments will just leave you saying "huh?" A character will reveal some huge twist, only you have little knowledge who they were/are to that point, leaving it all a bit flat.
Other later plot points feel poorly explained to the point that one has to assume they're meant to be explained in a prequel. I eventually learned just to shrug my shoulders at most of the particulars around the four guys and just focus on them. The journies of the four leads are clear enough that you'll still enjoy the campaign. I still felt invested by the emotional finale even if I wasn't 100% sure about who exactly I was facing in some boss battles.
Should You Play Final Fantasy XV?
If you love old Final Fantasy games:
Yes. You'll find many loving references to classic games to keep you engaged as you get used to the new world. And more than a few times, particularly in the dungeons, you'll be pleasantly reminded of the fun you had in other entries. Also, you're more than accustomed to Final Fantasy's unique storytelling tricks.
If you've never really enjoyed Final Fantasy:
Sure. Final Fantasy XV tries so hard to modernize the series. At times the gameplay feels updated just for the sake of being fresh or similar to current hit games. FFXV lets you embrace the world of Final Fantasy without having to spend dozens of hours in random battles.
It Is Done
In a way, Final Fantasy XV is an accomplishment just by existing after such a drawn out development. But it's more than that, as the core group of likable friends pulls the game through even the most complicated twists. The worst moments of plot contrivances can't take away from the simple fun of exploration, which is what kept drawing me back to Final Fantasy XV's post-game long after I saw the credits roll.