Final Fantasy XV Review
Final Fantasy XV has one of the most memorable openings I've yet seen in an RPG. After being beset by a naked, flaming man in a chair, the game's party of four — which, in a twist for the series, is set for the entire game — jumps back 10 years in-game. I learned that the party's leader, and my sole playable character, Noctis, is about to start one last road trip with his best buds before getting hitched in a political marriage. The quartet's car breaks down shortly afterwards, and a Florence + The Machine cover of "Stand By Me" plays as they push it down desert highways.
Final Fantasy XV is as disjointed as its own opening— just not the whole way through. Its opening hours — the "road trip hours" — are fantastic. They're just as oddly put together as anything. Yet they all loop, swirl, and work together in a way that's more than the sum of their parts.
Those parts are obviously torn from other popular game series. Like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, and more traditional open-world games like Far Cry. Other elements are less broadly recognizable, but still feel "inspired" from other titles. Games like the equally open-world Dying Light, for instance. Final Fantasy XV borrows that game's day/night cycle that calls much, much stronger monsters, here called "Daemons," into the world.
Day or night, you'll be hunting a rather large number of monsters in Final Fantasy XV. At least you should be. Gil is what makes the world of Final Fantasy XV go 'round, and the best way to earn it is by slaying beasts for the Hunter Association. These missions of murder form the backbone of the game's side quests as Noctis, his best buddy Prompto, bodyguard Gladiolus, and chauffeur Ignis tool around in the ever-regal Regalia (their car, and your lifeline to the wider world).
Whether you’re fighting monsters, or the evil, Imperial machines that start hunting Noctis down not long into the game, you'll desperately need restorative items bought at shops throughout the world. To afford those items, you'll need to hunt. It's a cycle that also gives you plenty of excuses to drive around the winding world. That puts you in view of campsites, where you can rest to bank XP, and eat to earn boosts to your crew that make hunting easier.
It all just... comes together. The loop of drive, rest, eat, hunt, and shop works shockingly well as a sort of hero's journey simulator. Along the way, the wise-cracking Prompto will also snap both scripted and in-the-moment photos documenting your journey. Every so often, I would even stop to let Noctis indulge in his favorite pastime, fishing, which feeds into Ignis's stat-boosting culinary skills.
All that leisure activity — mixed with the hardships of combat, and the occasional quippy dialogue to really sell the group's chemistry — also makes Final Fantasy XV a pretty stellar road trip simulator. It's in the many, many little details. Like the way the gang pours out of the Regalia, stretches their legs, and piles into a nearby convenience store without needing Noctis's (or the player's) permission first.
They just act the way that anyone who's ever had to cross serious country before knows they should. Developer Square Enix even included pithy descriptions on all the store shelves. When I instinctively walked up to them during a long-haul pit stop, there was meaningless text for me to distract myself with between the miles — just like I've done half a thousand times on real road trips.
The emergent adventures of my beautiful, car-borne boys did far more to endear them to me than anything in the game's actual text. There was the time I was so strapped for cash I couldn't afford gas for the Regalia, much less a warm bed to sleep in, and the XP bonus that comes with it. Other nights, the kids were so flush with cash that they finally got to rest in real beds after a long hunt. Final Fantasy XV is filled with "that one time" moments. Apart, they don't amount to much. Together, however, they weave a journey that’s much more satisfying then the completely incomprehensible back half of the game.
Yes, eventually you'll probably want to press on with the story. Reviewer's etiquette said I needed to, anyway. So I did, and after taking the "hero's journey" out of the simulator, and putting it into Square's scripting, sculpting hands, I wish that I hadn't.
Final Fantasy XV leap-frogs over its own story. Characters, conflicts, environments, and entire, fundamental rules about the universe they inhabit are introduced, and explained only hours after you've been set to poking at them.
A major thread in the game's plot, for example, involves Noctis killing six gods to gain their strength. It wasn't until I was mid-way through my third deicide, however, that any character mentioned that the things I was fighting were gods, why they needed killing, or if there wasn't a better solution than cold-cock murdering the beings that kept the planet on its metaphorical axes.
Empires rise and fall, characters appear and disappear as quickly as they're introduced, and major character moments that should be memorable arcs all occur entirely off-screen. Some of these gaps can be filled by reading barely highlighted newspapers, or listening to radio broadcasts in gas stations. Not all of them do, though.
It gets worse as the game progresses. About halfway through Final Fantasy XV, the Regalia, and the open roads it dashes through that make the game great disappear entirely.
What's there to replace them is a string of tiny, disconnected chapters that hint at bigger things, but barely stick around long enough for the characters to name them. Given Final Fantasy XV's own jumbled development, it's hard to shake the feeling that these are the remnants of past versions of the game — leftovers that Square might have intended to flesh out, but never got around to before running out of time, money, or patience.
The final few hours of the main game rally quite a bit, though (especially compared to an abysmal low point set in an enemy factory that had me question if the game was screwing with me). Final Fantasy XV's finale feels appropriately melancholic, and reverent for a fantastic journey that, by the time you reach the climax, ended about six hours back. What's in between is hardly a substitute, and sometimes barely makes sense.
The same is often true of the combat. The reason restoratives are so damn important is because, if you're like me, you will take a lot of damage.
Throughout my run at the main story, it seemed like the only reliable way to heal Noctis and his party was with potions and other healing items. Only after the credits rolled did I realize that I could actually train Ignis to heal his boy band-mates on the reg. That might have been useful for making me feel less like I was brute forcing my way through combat that, otherwise, always made it feel like I was doing something just a little off.
Then there's the "Wait Mode" option. It pauses the combat when Noctis isn't moving, or acting, which is so important to the flow of fighting that it has its own skill tree in Final Fantasy XV's Sphere Grid-like leveling system. But the game turns it off by default, and you need to dip into the system menu to remedy that.
Once you've hit up a handy online guide (or a well-written, and informative review by one of your favorite games writers) the monster mashing is awfully rewarding. You hold one button to attack, one to block, and use a third to warp around the kill zone. This simple setup frees up mental bandwidth to maneuver Noctis behind enemies, watch for attack animations, and call out special "Techniques" for your party members to periodically deploy.
The hours preceding it may not live up to Final Fantasy XV's emotionally punchy ending, but that wasn't enough to spoil it. The journey is far better defined by that simple, satisfying monster-hunting with a crew of beautiful boys who just love each other so very much. The game, meanwhile, is so good at expressing that love through the story of ups and downs I crafted along the way — on roads, in gas stations, and slaying prey in green fields, and murky swamps. Thanks to Prompto, I've even got the photographic evidence to prove it.
Even when I felt five steps behind Final Fantasy XV's jumbled plot, those characters' camaraderie pulled me right along to the very end. Maybe further, if that post-game content is as good as people say...