When starting up Final Fantasy XV, a splash screen at the very beginning says that this is a “Final Fantasy for first-timers and veterans alike” and, the slight hubris of making a declaration like that each time the game is loaded aside, it’s a description that fits. It’s not exactly a clean fit, but more like a jigsaw puzzle made up of pieces from different puzzles that just happened to lock together. Individually, those different pieces may look at odds with the overall image, but somehow it manages to work when everything is viewed together.

In order to put an end to a terrible, long-lasting period of war, Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, heir to the throne of Lucis, has been promised to wed the Princess Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, formerly of Tenebrae, in a grand ceremony to be held in Altissia. The world of Eos is filled with such political intrigue and the story begins, players will take part in that most storied tradition of one of the grandest kingdoms in the world – the royal bachelor party/road trip.

That’s right, the heir to one of the most important positions in all the world sets out with 2 attendants and an old friend, loading up a fancy car with camping goods and letting the wind whip through their hair as they breeze along the road to Altissia. This is the first of many things that seem like they should be at odds. Take the heroes, who often seem like they don’t fit in – 4 men of regal bearing and dressed all in the finest outfits drive around in a car worth a small fortune, but then go trudging around deserts or slogging through marshes, sleeping in camper cars, and eating at roadside diners because the beachside restaurant is too expensive?

But damn if that food doesn't look tasty.

But damn if that food doesn’t look tasty.

Before continuing, I feel I should point out that a lot has been made of the fact that there’s quite a bit of story in FFXV that isn’t in the game itself. An incredibly important event that shapes the entire narrative is detailed in Kingsglaive, a separate CGI movie, along with giving important details on King Regis, Prince Noctis, and Princess Lunafreya. Clips from this movie were added to the game as cutscenes, but without audio and in confusing context. There’s also an animated series of shorts, Brotherhood, that goes into the history Noctis has with his crew. It smacks of lazy writing, though, not to have these issues come up more prominently in the game itself.

As silly as it sounds, hanging out with all of the bros does actually grow to be a lot of fun, but this is of course a subjective experience. One of the best aspects of this is in their hobbies. Each character has an interest that can be leveled up throughout the journey. Some are useful, like Ignis’ cooking, which allows him to cook at campsites and provide the team with various bonuses. Others are just for fun, such as Prompto’s photography – every night, he’ll take up to 10 photos which can then be saved to an album. Some of them are god-awful, but I wound up with enough to fill up most of my album by the end, so they aren’t all bad.

Like this one.

Like this one.

Once you can get past the oddity of people asking the crown prince and crew to do menial tasks like take photos of ruins and pick vegetables, it becomes more fun to watch the four as they bond. And as the journey continues, Noctis’ relationship with Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus is a powerful focus. The travel together, eat together, laugh together, and seem to have a grand time. Due to the issues above, each one can seem a bit thin character-wise, but somehow they form a gestalt that works well as a group, like the party has formed one great character, just with one annoying aspect called Prompto.

Of course the crew also fights together, and there are plenty of creatures both big and small to tangle with. Combat here is extremely thin on the surface, as a single button can be held to make Noctis auto-attack and another lets him defend while everyone else in the team has AI to control their actions, with no gambit system to serve as a guide. Noctis is given the handy ability to warp around, though, allowing him to deal incredible damage by warping into a distant enemy, or to escape danger by warping out of the field of fire.

Wait Mode allows you to take a breather if things are getting out of hand and you need to focus on specific targets.

Wait Mode allows you to take a breather if things are getting out of hand and you need to focus on specific targets.

Each ally can also be given a set technique which is activated on command. Regroup is especially handy in the early game, allowing Ignis to heal everyone in the party without using an item. There’s room for experimentation as more options open up. There are no jobs in FFXV and, unlike most other titles in the series, no set roles in terms of Black Mage, Warrior, etc. Sure, Gladiolus serves as a tank and Ignis is definitely a DPS type, but as there is no true healing ability (outside of Regroup), items are the way to go.

Magic is where things get really weird. Again, with no specific class to cast spells, it’s up to you to create magic flasks filled with elemental energy absorbed at various points on the map, then hand them out. Elements can be combined with items to create various added effects, like quintcast (makes the same spell cast 5 times), healcast (heals the party), stop cast (freezes those in range), and more. The problem is someone decided magic should be a friendly-fire weapon. Cast Thundaga in the middle of a melee and watch your allies tumble to the ground, paralyzed. Then realize that if they hold that magic, they could do the same to you. For that reason, I never once let any of my team use any spells.

Another Prompto special, showing off the time my chocobo decided to wander into the fire. Fried chicken.

Another Prompto special, showing off the time my chocobo decided to wander into the fire. Fried chicken.

As powerful as the spells can be, I really wasn’t able to use much magic for fear of the damage it would do to my team – even a healcast could cause troublesome status effects like burning them with Firaga. There was one thing, though, that made up for it, and that’s summoning. Summons are back in FFXV but their use has drastically changed. Each summon requires a unique set of conditions to be met before there’s a chance to call them up. Ramuh has the easiest requirement – longer battles. When that summon button comes up, hit it. What follows is a cutscene of epic scale that results in simply massive devastation, and it’s worth watching every single time. Some complain about the fact that they can’t simply be called up at will, but I prefer this method. Few things felt better than being in the middle of an all-out battle, on my last legs, and hearing the music change.

There’s a lot of spectacle going on in the game that, while not fully backed up by the gameplay mechanics, still makes things a lot of fun. Combat is fast-paced and full of epic clashes, grand explosions, and breaking parts off monsters, but is limited to a few button presses. This applies to other things as well – there are vast landscapes as well as vibrant cities that look absolutely amazing, but there’s very little to actually do in them.

Like many open-world games, side quests, hunting targets, and treasures are littered about here and there, but most of the time the only thing to do with the sprawling terrain is drive or ride through it on the way to one quest point or another. It doesn’t help that the game seems to prefer you don’t stick around – the Empire seems to always know where Noctis is, and sends troop dropships one after the other. This becomes particularly annoying during quests that involve scouring an area for one tiny object and Ignis informs you of the third wave of soldiers coming within 5 minutes.

A pleasure to look at each time, though.

A pleasure to look at each time, though.

Without going too far into spoiler territory, there is a point at which the open-world adventuring comes to an end and a greater focus is placed on the story. The narrative isn’t very difficult to follow, even without watching the supplementary material, so these sections seemed to fly by in a whirlwind of cutscenes, heavy action sequences, and epic boss battles.. There is one area that’s drastically different, though, turning into a subdued, quiet sneak-a-thon through narrow corridors with enemies around every bend. Don’t worry, though – a special option at save points allows you to go back to the open sections at any time before the final boss fight.

There really is a lot to do in Final Fantasy XV, whether it be tracking down vicious beasts, taking part in a chocobo race, searching for royal tombs, or something else. Fortunately, you can go back and clear everything in a single run or begin again with New Game Plus. There’s plenty of post-game content as well, such as a network of secret dungeons far more challenging than anything faced in the main game. It’s true that elements of the game are more about grandiose displays than intriguing gameplay, but I wouldn’t say it’s all sizzle, no steak – it’s a large cut of beef, but maybe just somewhat lean.

 

KAIJU VERDICT

3/4 Pops: Exceptional  A significant cut above the crowd. Though flawed or otherwise not necessarily for everyone, it does things other games in the genre do not, or tries something new with a great deal of success.

Reviewed on a retail copy played on both the PS4 and PS4 Pro.

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