Go on a beautiful boy adventure!
Developer: Square Enix Publisher: Square Enix Format: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: November 29, 2016 Copy purchased
Every Final Fantasy is, by its very nature, a strange game.
Littered with bizarre moments, sometimes due to ideas getting lost in translation, sometimes due to Square Enix’s inconsistent storytelling, the series has at times been beautiful despite its gibberish, and at times contemptible thanks to the same quality.
Final Fantasy XV may very well be the weirdest of the lot, the most curious Final Fantasy. By Square Enix standards, it’s also the most grounded, which may very well account for its status as an oddity.
Rather than kick off with a big battle, a daring mission, or a journey on a fantastical airship, the game that sprang from Final Fantasy Versus XIII‘s ashes begins with four young friends pushing a car down a highway that could, for all intents and purposes, be in the middle of Nevada.
This car chicanery unfolds while a cover – a pretty damn good cover – of “Stand By Me” plays.
It’s a situation that could easily make its way into any movie, TV show, or American-centric adventure game. It’s practically mundane – even a little obvious – in its presentation. Here though, in a series about world-ending catastrophe and swords bigger than a horse, it’s a disarmingly unusual way to kick off.
While the game gets to its huge blades and apocalyptic threats – it’s still a Final Fantasy, after all – the tone set by its opening sequence remains embedded throughout. Marrying the mythical to the uncharacteristically common, this road trip about four beautiful boys on their way to a political marriage stands out from its brethren on a whole new level.
It’s also a welcome sign that mainline Final Fantasy games can still be enjoyable after the baffling nonsense that was Final Fantasy XIII.
Being a beautiful boy adventure, XV concerns itself mainly with Prince Noctis and his retinue of protectors, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. The occasional extra character tags along, and sometimes they’re even allowed to be a woman who exists for more than fan service, but mostly this is a beautiful boy adventure for beautiful boys.
I’m cool with that, mostly.
It’s the story Square Enix wants to tell, and it didn’t hide behind any “girls are too hard to animate” excuses. I will say it’s a shame the most prominent woman in the game happens to have her breasts out all the time, and you can accuse me of “censorship” for daring to point that out, but I just don’t get how that much exposure helps instead of hinders her role as a car mechanic. It seems dangerous, if anything.
Anyway, that’s the minor interlude that will inspire thousand-word comments out of the way. Back to those beautiful boys.
The dynamic between the four friends is far more entertaining that I originally would’ve thought it to be. In fact, it’s endearing in spite of itself.
Each character is factory-standard in terms of personality – we have the beautiful disaffected protagonist, the beautiful duty-minded muscle, the beautiful responsible one, and the beautiful jokester who’s due to reveal his sensitive side. The way they compliment each other makes their relationship far more interesting than their individual arcs, such that any arcs exist.
Even the banter is amusing despite repetitive post-battle dialog and terrible, terrible jokes. If you dislike puns, you might just hate Final Fantasy XV.
As for myself, I couldn’t help at least tittering sometimes at the tenuous quips between these beautifully adventurous boys… to say nothing of their often flirtatious delivery.
Like Final Fantasy XIII before it, XV shakes up its combat system by introducing MMO-inspired mechanics and emphasizing action over tactical, turn-based battles. Unlike XIII it actually works, with combat that’s chaotic but nonetheless surprisingly satisfying once you get to grips with all the features, both obvious and hidden.
Noctis’ friends largely handle themselves while players take direct control of the Crown Prince, holding down a button to automatically attack while using additional input to pull off different moves. Noctis can have four different weapons readied to switch on the fly, from his regular sword to guns, daggers, lances, and more.
Even when not used, equipped weapons give characters stat boosts, so it’s always important to fill the slots of these beautiful boys.
Holding down the dodge button allows Noctis to “phase” out of the way of attacks, and if he phases during specifically telegraphed blows, he may hit back with a devastating parry.
Phasing is taken one stage further with Noctis’ signature ability – the Warp Strike.
With a simple button press, the floppy-haired hero throws his weapon and teleports toward it, a skill that can be used both for defense and offense. Holding down the warp button also allows him to reach designated “warp points” from which he can regenerate his HP/MP and launch a far-reaching attack.
By warp striking from anywhere in the battle zone, Noctis lands a powerful attack on any opponent. Warp strikes are by far the most important part of the prince’s repertoire, and battles are often about zipping to and from various vantage points in order to continually assault the enemy while staying out of danger – provided he has enough MP to pull the move off.
While the three beautiful boy friends are autonomous, they each have unique skills that can be manually triggered over time. They’ll also pull of special dual moves with Noctis if they attack an enemy from behind at the same time he does, not only dealing extra damage but looking damn cool as they do so.
Combat is hectic, sometimes to the point where the camera struggles to keep up with it all, but it does feel terrific for the most part. That said, the fast pacing and visual chaos can lead to exasperating moments. It’s hard to know when to dodge, for example, because there’s so much happening onscreen and only specific moves are telegraphed for the big parrying moments.
A lot of damage is taken from enemies ignoring your attacks or hitting you from behind, though the most annoying situation is seeing a hit coming but being locked in an attack animation and not having time to dodge. I feel like combat flow would be vastly improved by allowing the player to interrupt Noctis’ own attacks in favor of phasing. It wouldn’t solve everything, but it’d be a huge help.
Magic is an unusual prospect in Final Fantasy XV, one I detested at first but slowly started to appreciate. Elemental energy is drawn from various procurement points in the world, allowing Noctis to store fire, lightning, and ice energy. This energy is turned into spells via Elemancy, where players can pour as much energy as they have into a magical flask (more or less a spell slot) to create what are effectively elemental grenades.
Elements can be mixed and matched in different proportions, either to buff a single-element spell or even create multicasts with different properties. Items such as potions, antidotes, and elixirs may also be added to grant additional spell features, including poison damage and player healing.
These are grenades, as useful as they may be. Spells are huge, devastating area-of-effect blasts that damage the party as well as any opposition. This takes some mental readjustment, especially since the game only briefly communicates this friendly-fire aspect in throwaway text.
Magic thus becomes a tactically tricky prospect, something often best used as a vicious opener before everybody moves in or saved for desperate times. It took me a while to get comfortable using magic, and I even ignored it for a good portion of the game, but once I started experimenting with Elemancy and working out the best times to drop a spell, I always made sure to have some magic handy for any occasion.
Summoning is a similarly unusual prospect that won’t see as much use as in previous Final Fantasy releases. During the course of his adventure, Noctis will meet various gods with familiar faces and convince them to lend their aid. In gameplay terms, these capricious entities will offer their services if they decide a battle is urgent enough, pitching in during dire situations.
Without much control over their appearance, summons aren’t especially integral to the game, but their appearances are undeniably welcome and bring massive screen-clearing blasts that leave surroundings glowing and crackling.
With multiple weapons – including health-draining magical arms from Noctis’ ancestry – as well as explosive magic, warping, and a number of huge scale battles, combat in XV manages to find the right balance between action and spectacle that XIII failed to achieve. The player feels involved in every fight, even with a majority of automated attacks, and available commands lend at least a light air of strategy.
All that said, the game’s more climactic battles have the wind taken out of their sails by the fact that healing items are plentiful and often necessary due to the difficulty in avoiding damage. By the end of the game, players should have enough elixirs to keep Noctis and his friends in good health against every boss that stands in their way.
The world of Final Fantasy XV is a vast one, and the wealth of things to do is staggering. Every new town and outpost will feature a ton of hunting quests where specific monsters must be located and killed, alongside lots of side quests and opportunities for exploration. The world map is littered with things to collect and food for Ignis to turn into temporary stat-boosting meals. You can’t pass a mushroom without the bespectacled cook declaring he’s come up with a new recipe.
I’d like it if the game wouldn’t constantly interrupt itself to announce these recipes. Hearing Ignis’ dramatic declaration is funny the first few times, but it never ever stops.
Sleeping is an important part of any beautiful boy adventure, and in XV it’s the only way to level up. Experience collected in-game is kept until the party rests, at which point it’s all tallied up and used to strengthen the boys. Staying at hotels and other paid locations will give the team EXP boosts, allowing them to level faster, while resting at havens found in the wilderness gives Ignis a chance to cook up those aforementioned meals – meals that can make upcoming fights much more advantageous to the player.
Resting also allows you to go through all the photos Prompto took during the day, because he did that and it’s cute for some reason.
Getting to and from key locations means traveling in the Regalia, a spiffy car in which nobody wears a seatbelt and road safety rules are ignored. A lot of this game is spent in the car, watching the beautiful boys go from point A to point B. You can manually control the car or have Ignis drive it, but the results are pretty much the same – the Regalia doesn’t go off-road, so even if you’re driving it yourself it’s on rails.
These drives are sometimes used to deliver exposition and keep players invested, but sometimes you might be expected to spend upwards of five minutes just watching a car cruising down a highway. Even with the option to purchase and play soundtracks from previous FF games, it’s not exactly an engaging experience.
Once traveled to, key locations are open to fast travel via interaction with the Regalia, but a number of quest locations always require manual navigation. Additionally, loading times are significant, so even fast travel requires a considerable amount of sitting inactive on the player’s behalf.
The car needs to be refueled at outposts religiously because running out is not fun. I let the tank go dry once to see what happened, and it was a pain in the arse. You’ll need to push it – slowly – to the nearest outpost, or have Cindy tow it to her garage in Hammerhead for a price of both Gil and loading screens.
Fortunately, it’s cheap to refuel and Ignis will always warn the player when they’re running low. After my experiment, I never ended up stranded again.
There are lots of places the Regalia can’t reach, but Chocobo renting is easy to do. Riding the series’ signature bird of burden is fun, especially since they can be renamed and recolored to suit one’s whims. The more a Chocobo is ridden, the more experience it’ll earn, leveling up to learn special moves in battle or improve its speed and stamina.
When the Chocobo levels up, a text pop-up reads, “Con-kweh-tulations,” which is so stupid it’s adorable.
It should go without saying that a Square Enix game is gorgeous. Final Fantasy XV looks incredible, and not just because of the mountains of money pumped into it. The series has finally remembered that art direction is just as important as the technology bringing it to life, creating a strong visual style that blends real-life imagery with fantastical monsters and machines.
The daemons spawning at night to harass the party are impressive specimens, with classic monsters such as Iron Giants and Behemoths given imposing, intricate designs. Combat is full of lively animation touches and explosive effects, while locations are detailed, beautiful places worth exploring.
I love not just FFXV‘s soundtrack, but the way in which it changes according to player actions. Music alters in style and quality depending on whether or not you enter buildings, giving shops and diners different feels to the street outside. Even the classic Chocobo theme alters to reflect different riding speeds. It’s a little touch that never fails to please.
Touches aside, tunes overall are memorable and effectively set the tone for each occasion. Whether it’s scoring for a huge battle or the country stylin’s of the Hammerhead autoshop, XV‘s composition nails it.
A few bugs are present, though no major dealbreakers. Physics glitches, pathfinding problems for A.I. allies, and characters disappearing entirely are common occurrences, usually fixed by saving and reloading.
While the general feel of XV‘s story is pleasant, and there are some fantastic moments, the whole thing suffers due to rushed writing in the latter half. It’s clear that a much bigger tale was truncated and chopped down, amputated parts left dangling and bleeding into the overall presentation.
Characters seemingly integral to the plot are unceremoniously dropped after having little impact on events.
The biggest victim is Ravus, introduced as a direct threat to the party and a potential recurring villain, only to disappear for most of the game, return with completely different motivations, then quietly go away. Even a major villain is given a handful of minutes of screentime until the very end, at which point they’ve had an entire storyline play out offscreen that we only see the implications of.
Major characters that would have been regular, full-fledged parts of previous Final Fantasy games are given less of a spotlight than Ignis’ recipes. Seriously, crab soup and mushrooms are treated with more significance than the entire Niflheim Empire. Said empire, by the way, is Noctis’ chief antagonistic force, but they’re barely worth mentioning in a review.
It’s worth noting that, despite lacking crucial narrative elements, Final Fantasy XV still needs outside media to understand what’s going on. At the very least, Square Enix’s Kingsglaive spin-off movie is essential viewing. Without it, the game loses a ton of meaning and certain scenes will carry zero weight. Other events are mentioned hurriedly during optional in-game radio broadcasts or brushed past in a sentence or two.
There’s just plain bad storytelling in Final Fantasy XV. It’s not like the series isn’t schlocky and often incomprehensible, but the fact Square Enix plans to patch in new story scenes is telling.
Despite missing or half-baked details that can frustrate its audience, XV is still an enjoyable romp. This is thanks in no small part to the main villain, perhaps my favorite since FFIX‘s Kuja. A fabulously hammy baddie whose identity I won’t spoil here, his smug condescension and affably evil behavior makes him easy to both love and hate in equal measure. Hats off to his voice actor, who does one of the best villainous turns I’ve seen in years.
Perhaps the script’s unfortunate elements would be less forgivable if the game didn’t have so much genuinely pleasing content, but there’s enough extra and post-game activity to keep one going for days on end. It’s hard to accuse the game of laziness, or of not doing enough to justify its asking price, because even with a rushed second half, it’s still a more complete and gratifying product than many so-called “AAA” games.
While the arcing, end-of-days story is lacking, Square Enix did nail the road trip narrative really well, creating a game that’s nowhere near as po-faced and depressing as many modern Final Fantasy experiences. As I noted earlier, the beautiful boys are genuinely fun to hang out with, feeding into the game’s eccentricities and making them more palatable than they’d otherwise might be.
The cooking and the photos and Noctis’ fishing all seem like throwaway, unimportant elements to the game, yet they all conspire to build up a sense of camaraderie and make players feel like they’re on a journey with just as many ups as downs. By the time I was done, I genuinely didn’t feel ready to say goodbye to Noct, Iggy, Gladio or Prompto.
This is why Final Fantasy XV, despite significant and glaring problems, is still a lovely time that managed to make me like Final Fantasy again. It’s a character piece, and the characters we spend our time with are fully realized and play off each other so well. It’s a lighter journey that nonetheless knows when to get serious, spurred by a charismatic nemesis and a quartet of lovable, beautiful boys.
And good God is it weird.