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Final Fantasy XV Review | Strength of the heart

Final Fantasy XV Review | Strength of the heart
Carl 'Malkaurai' Phillips

I must admit that I ended up relating to the journey of Noctis and co. far more than I probably should have. That feeling of four friends on the open road, discovering new places and forging new memories, reminded me of my escapades from yesteryear. Sure, I’ve never travelled to far off kingdoms so one of us could get married and save the world, but we did once journey to Cannock in the dead of night and got lost on the way (this was pre-SatNav, to be clear.) Also, we never once fought a giant Griffon with magical weapons, but there was one time when a bird did a kamikaze run into the windscreen. I imagine the sudden shock and adrenaline rush we felt would have basically been the same.

Plus there’s an avian corpse at the end of both examples there.

Okay, fine. They’re not the same at all, but the adventures of Noctis, Gladio, Ignis and Prompto genuinely did make me reminisce over my youth. The casual remarks and terrible jokes as they discovered new places; the way the group would review the day’s photos over a hot meal; the absolutely reasonable love for any adorable animals they came across. The bond between these four friends is undeniable, especially when the combat starts. The little details in combo attack animations, or one of them rushing to save a friend in danger, is finely crafted and often made me smile.

It’s that heart that shines brightest in Final Fantasy XV, the latest instalment in the long-running RPG series. It’s a good job, too, because the main story is definitely not the strongest the series has seen. Character development outside of the black-clad heroes is woefully lacking, and many of the narrative threads are either left hanging or tied up in a clumsy manner. What’s frustrating is that you can see the potential for the big moments involving the supporting cast, but without proper build-up it only just about manages to get the job done. It’s even more of a shame when you consider that spin-off title World of Final Fantasy delivered its narrative so well. It does deliver a satisfying final few hours, but I expected better overall, really.

I’m sure matters aren’t helped by FFXV flipping the structure of the series – starting in an open world manner and becoming a linear path towards the end. My initial instincts were to push through the story, but thankfully the world offers so much distraction that I ended up taking my time grabbing resources and doing bounty missions. This is no doubt aided by the constant need to camp, which allows players to tally-up XP and applies it to their characters. It’s also here that meals are prepared, offering buffs to gain an advantage in the next fight. It’s a deliberate force of pacing that will seem odd and even frustrating at first, but I ended up relishing each night-time break as I travelled across the map.

I should also make the point that while you can drive the Regalia around the map it’s very much an on-rails affair, so don’t expect to be running over daemons in a GTA-like manner. For more freedom, you’ll want to get yourself a Chocobo, which is without a doubt the best piece of fan service in the entire game (outside of listening to past-FF soundtracks in the car.) Being able to ride my Chocobo all day, recolour it, and even name it was more fun than it should be. The fact you can race them is just a bonus, to be honest.

It helps that the open world of Eos is a marvel to behold with glorious vistas at every turn, encouraging players to explore ever nook and cranny. In fact, it’s overall art design is breathtaking, be it the architecture in the various towns you visit, or the way each region has its own distinct fauna. When paired up with Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack there were moments I forgot I needed to go kill monsters, instead just looking at the horizon as the car drove on by. There were even moments where I didn’t want the combat to end (especially in the case of some of the boss battles, which were like playing in a CGI cutscene. Seriously, it’s a delight for the senses.) When it all comes together FFXV is an aesthetically unrivalled, but I must point out how it’s clear the game engine has been pushed to its limit on PS4. By this I mean the pop-in of foliage and shadows can be fairly obvious, but considering the large scale of the game world (and its constant need to stream in new data) it’s hard to imagine how this could have been avoided.

Enough of heart and aesthetics, I hear you cry – let’s talk about the gameplay. I ultimately found the combat to be a solid and rewarding experience after a shaky first few hours. It’s clear that Kingdom Hearts has been an influence here, especially when the action gets aerial, but the end result is much more refined than the Disney-themed series. Attacks feel more responsive and give the right sense of impact depending on the weapon used. This is especially the case once more abilities are unlocked through the Ascension board (a much better take on FFXIII’s Crystarium.)

While some of the more interesting abilities require a serious amount of grinding, I found powering up my team to be a satisfying and intuitive experience. It’s made even better by the translation of classic enemies to FFXV’s real-time gameplay. Taking on an Iron Giant or a Behemoth as Noctis and co. fought for their lives was exhilarating, and unique enemies like Flans and bombs work as you might expect. Even the more iconic monsters such as Tonberries say hello, and are equal parts adorable and utterly terrifying.

Despite my love for the action-based combat of FFXV and its grading system (similar to brawlers like Devil May Cry), there were a few aspects that occasionally ruined the enjoyment. The first was the temperamental camera collision detection. My view would often be too obscured if I was fighting near a dense area of trees, and even if I was locked onto my target I would fail to see when additional enemies were about to strike. The only other thing that felt off the mark is how magic works. The area-of-effect nature of it, along with its odd crafting mechanic, was often more trouble that it was worth. This was especially the case with friendly fire being an issue. Still, it is capable of turning the tide if you used properly, giving magic that ace-in-the-hole vibe.

Another area of contention to some players will be the way side-missions are handled. Their repetition is nothing new to an MMORPG like myself, but I can appreciate the lack of variation could be off-putting. There’s also the issue of drop rates for quest items, or more specifically how the game doesn’t tell you it’s not a sure thing it will appear. Having to reacquire the same bounty mission for a specific drop is poor design that could infuriate players (although here’s a helpful tip – use the Sword of the Wise for the killing blow. You can thank me later.)

There’s also a chapter later on that changes up the gameplay in a significant way, and not for the better. Again, I see what the developers were going for, but the sudden switch is too jarring (even if I managed to brute force my way through thanks to being over-levelled.) The end result is almost a game of two halves – great combat, beautiful aesthetics, and an endearing bond between the main characters, versus an undercooked narrative, questionable quest / chapter design choices, and curious technical issues. And yet when I look at the game as a whole, I would still wholeheartedly recommend it.

The sum of its parts is a fantastic RPG that nails what counts – the heart of its main characters. I wanted to spend more time with Gladio and learn just how he manages to be so cool with everybody he meets. I was always eager to set up camp every time Ignis came up with a new recipe. Perhaps most importantly, I was always happy to look through Prompto’s photographs, which were probably my highlight of the entire game. The action shots could be easy mistaken for official screenshots, and some the randomised posed images could be genuinely hilarious.

Especially Noctis’ stank face mixed with Gladio’s “Sup brah” pose. Pure gold.

Best of all, after 70 hours and 60+ levels I still have content left to do. Dungeons of increasing difficulty (and Dark Souls-esque backtracking) are awaiting my arrival, and raid-like bosses are ready to laugh at my feeble offence. That’s on top of other activities like Chocobo racing and fishing – which was surprisingly more fun that I was expecting (even if I did swear each time my line snapped.) I just hope that the Season Pass content manages to build upon the strengths of FFXV, and delivers the same kind of heart that, in the end, rekindled my love for the Final Fantasy series.

Pros:

  • When everything falls into place, the art design is unrivalled.
  • The combat mechanics are intense and satisfying.
  • The relationship between the main characters on their journey is genuine & heart-warming.

Cons:

  • Some of the content design choices are ill thought.
  • The narrative suffers from an underdeveloped supporting cast.
  • The odd technical issue & poor camera collision detection can ruin the moment.

The Short Version:

Twelve years of development haven’t stopped the odd issue and a patchy narrative from rearing their head, but they aren’t enough to spoil a beautiful and endearing RPG experience. With action-packed combat and plenty of post-game content, players who take their time exploring the world of Eos will discover that Final Fantasy XV is more about the journey – and the memories you make along the way – than the destination.

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Platform: PS4(Tested), Xbox One

Developer: Square Enix

Publisher: Square Enix