It has been ten years since we were at E3 2006 and Square Enix announced Final Fantasy XIII Versus, and since then it has been a roller-coaster back and forth between hope and despair. Back then it was still quite unusual to see spin-offs of Final Fantasy, and Final Fantasy X was the only one with a proper sequel, namely X-2.
We were never particularly fond of Final Fantasy XIII, and our interest in Final Fantasy XIII Versus died because it was something we simply didn't want any more of. Ten years is a mercilessly long time in the world of gaming, and when Versus was announced, the PlayStation 3 had not even been released. Things then went quiet until just a few years ago, at which point the game changed name, and Final Fantasy XV was shown in all its splendour.
Even that didn't make us particularly hungry though. A story about a Japanese boy band chilling on a road trip didn't really come in line with our expectations of what Final Fantasy should be, and so, at least on our part, expectations continued to be quite low. That was until last spring, when it began to dawn on us all how extensive this game really was and what producer Hajime Tabata wanted to achieve.
Now we can see that, yes, this is true Final Fantasy to the core. Behind the initially second most unlikable protagonist of the series so far (the unbearable Tidus is in a league of his own) hides an adventure that has much more in common with the early games in the series than we dared dream before. It's a return to the more light-hearted approach where the protagonists stumble into something bigger, becoming an accidental hero and rising to the task at hand.
The fact that the four protagonists aren't particularly likeable at first is quickly forgotten once you get to know WWE-lookalike Gladiolus Amicitia, fun loving Prompto Argentum, and clever cook Ignis Scientia. They're really great characters and the interactions between the four of them adds a lot to the experience. Even as we walked off for our first adventure we were struck by the chitchat, the shouts of encouragement, with the group behaving as if they were actually four happy friends on an adventure.
Before starting on your journey with them, we'd recommend that you check out the anime Brotherhood, which will increase your enjoyment of the game considerably. That way you know which personalities the main characters have, why they react as they do in certain situations, and who they really are. Some of you won't be keen on this at all and obviously you can enjoy the game without, but it really adds something to have seen the Brotherhood episodes, which are five pieces totalling approximately one hour.
Another thing you should do is pay a visit to the Training mode. Unfortunately, like many Japanese games, the instructions are somewhat shoved down your throat and it could have been done a lot more cleverly, as the system is so sophisticated that it pays to keep track of the subtle controls, especially because you will fight an awful lot in this adventure.
One thing that we immediately want to lavish praise on is the soundtrack. The Final Fantasy series is arguably best in class in this area, and there's obviously an extremely high standard to live up to. With Nobuo Uematsu out of the game, there was a heavy responsibility on his successor, Yoko Shimomura, and fortunately she delivers. Several times we heard small hints of famous Final Fantasy arrangements, enough to calm us in the knowledge that this is a true Final Fantasy game, even though everything else is freshly prepared. Simply put, we couldn't ask for more.
When driving around in the car you also have access to the radio, from which you can listen to classic Final Fantasy songs, which was a nice little touch, making the many and often long car journeys more enjoyable, and the fact that Noctis and the gang keep busy (by reading books, playing games, thinking out loud, and having the odd singalong) also helps. Seat belts are obviously not a priority in this world, as Prompto can sit backwards on the front seat to talk with Noctis, who himself can jump up and sit on the frame of the car.
A vibrant game world has been offered up for us to explore this time around. Everywhere you go you can see enormous monsters and peaceful herbivores that are just waiting around to provide you with sweet XP, however, you can't simply go anywhere, like you can in The Elder Scrolls. Instead, you unlock the world bit by bit, slowly revealing more content, and there is always a reason to return to old areas to face things you had either missed or were too low level to fight.
This is a system that suits Final Fantasy very well and actually reminded us of Final Fantasy IV a little bit, but with everything infinitely upgraded. For example, you sometimes face more than you can handle in battles, such as when we met an early Daemon during a late evening drive. We quickly realised that we would not have a chance to win, deciding instead to make a run for it and escape. Since Final Fantasy XV has monsters in its open world you can theoretically run away from fights, but there is no guarantee that your escape will be successful, as the monster may just follow you. It felt just like the epic Final Fantasy Active Time Battles of old, where we would try to escape but couldn't.
Fighting is otherwise a different story. Like any other role-playing game, Final Fantasy has focused more towards action-based combat. Square Enix has had a lot of time to experiment over the past decade, but they never really got it right despite big changes in each new entry. However, in Final Fantasy XV the combat system fits like a glove, this thanks to good counter attacks, smooth selection between fighting styles/magic, and fun special attacks.
The magic system reminds us vaguely of Final Fantasy VIII, with you drawing magic from your surroundings (rather than from the enemy). You can throw a weak attack, but using more (up to 99) means your attacks become all the more powerful. It does admittedly force you to dabble a little with the menus to use magic as you want to, but generally it's a well-functioning system. In addition, they have preserved some age-old Final Fantasy rules, like attacks from behind, therefore making it wise to determine the angle from which the enemy is best approached and then trying to turn them around.
This doesn't mean that everything is fine and dandy, as there's two things that detract from the fun of fighting. One is that the game seems to have trouble understanding that battles are ongoing. Not infrequently we would start fighting a couple of beasties to collect XP or get an item we need, whereupon enemy soldiers would arrive via a ship from above. Suddenly, we have two separate battles that are simultaneously ongoing, and the system doesn't handle this particularly well.
The other problem is larger and involves the camera. As in most Japanese games, it's assumed that the game itself will take care of this part, and as is the case in many Japanese games, it works very poorly. Don't be surprised if, when you're fighting against higher level soldiers and it requires your attacks and combos to work as planned, the camera thinks it's important to instead show a wall or zoom-in on some nearby bushes. Every now and then it gets frustrating and it's the game's single biggest negative.
The story is difficult to detail without spoiling, and it's obviously something no Final Fantasy fan wants to be exposed to after a decade-long wait. Generally, the story isn't as present as in previous entries, largely due to the open game world and the overwhelming variety of side missions. For those who want to focus solely on the narrative, this is possible thanks to a well-designed list where all your active tasks appear, and there you can simply choose to go ahead with the story and leave the rest till later. Personally, we feel that the story is more of a frame for the adventure, a nice excuse for the experience, rather than the main goal in the game (even if it heats up more during the second half). Overall it's a good story, but it's not one of the best in the series.
During our time playing we have tackled a lot of side missions, and they can range from the simplest imaginable, like giving a potion to a random person in need, to a small mini-adventure with its own story. Many, however, follow the default template of the online role-playing world, which is to have you wallop five of a certain type of enemy, or pick up/drop off an object to a person somewhere. In addition, there are numerous mini-games, such as the fact that Noctis itself is a whiz at fishing. For those who can't get enough of collecting, it becomes good fun to lure the fish from the depths in order find larger and rarer species. We spent hours on this thanks to an unexpectedly sophisticated system including lines, hooks, and fishing spots.
It is noticeable that Hajime Tabata looked a lot at Western role-playing games when creating Final Fantasy XV in order to draw on influences, and this was most likely necessary, as Japanese RPGs used to be the biggest thing in gaming, but today they have difficulty finding their place outside of Japan. With that said, it is still a Japanese role-playing game, with all the connotations that come with that, including a not-so-clever menu system, artificial constraints, and more.
Good examples of this are the high walls that sometimes prevented us from continuing, and it felt weird to be stopped like this when when we had just beaten a huge giant by flying up into the air to an even higher lighthouse nearby, and then hurled ourselves down with a spear for maximum damage (think Dragoons, if you know your Final Fantasy). Next we were up against this little wall and couldn't get over it even with a little help from our friends, and it seemed illogical. Another good example are the over-complicated menus, because when weapons are about to be upgraded you must unequip them manually before you can do it, and you then have to equip it again afterwards. Why not just let us do this directly without all these extra button presses?
Fortunately there are also a lot of positives that come from its JRPG origins, as it's more playful, with little in the way of realism. Just take one small thing, like the fact that Prompto is constantly photographing the adventure and climbs in level as a photographer. Each time you camp, you can see what he snapped, save the images you like, and even share them via Facebook and Twitter. The images are unique and often consist of the heroes smiling, with thumbs up, no matter how serious the situation. Obviously, he is also taking great pictures during battles when everyone's lives are at stake.
The tents (or motels or similar) are also necessary to advance in level, a system that allows you to avoid wasting time in the menus too often and instead lets you do everything at once. During these moments around the campfire, Ignis also makes food from the recipes you collect, which buffs the whole squad the next day depending on what you had for dinner. Although we appreciated the camping feature, it does mean you can't save in the middle of heated situations, which of course can be dangerous if you die. It's not particularly logical, but it's a part of the JRPG heritage.
Slowly but surely you unlock area after area, discovering increasingly cool places. Each time we did so we were impressed by how incredibly well constructed everything is, even down to the tiniest detail. From small gas-stations in the desert, through to giant cities, you're treated to a plethora of different environments of amazing size.
We were able to test the game on both PlayStation 4 (not Pro) and Xbox One, and we don't think there's any real reason to prefer one over the other, although the PlayStation 4 version is noticeably sharper, while the Xbox One version runs smoother. In short, we could not ask more from a graphical standpoint.
The story pulls together very well towards the end, and the journey is much larger than each of the individual parts that it's made up of. Together its component parts form an excellent foundation for Square Enix to build on for future Final Fantasies. It feels like the series should feel, but adapted for a modern audience, and we're so glad that Hajime Tabata pulled this massive project together in the way that he did.
Final Fantasy XV is both epic and grand, offering not only wistful moments and crazy humour, but also brilliant music that regularly soothed our eardrums, and monumental boss fights. There is no doubt that there are a few minuses, even a couple of substantial ones, but the package considered as a whole overshadows them completely. In the end, when it's all said and done, we love this game and we're already looking forward to going back for more.