Cup Noodles Presents
HIGH Country drives with the boys.
LOW Chapter 13.
WTF They could have picked any name. They went with “Prompto.”
When playing Final Fantasy XV, it’s helpful to remember that it began life as a spin-off of Final Fantasy XIII, and that the finished game is still an entry in the Fabula Nova Crystallis subseries — shorthand for “convoluted nonsense involving crystals.”
The project saw a change in directorial leadership over its ten-year development cycle, and if Square Enix had committed to the new head’s bold vision for the franchise, XV would have been a masterpiece. Perhaps it was too much to ask a Final Fantasy to avoid getting tangled up in ancient prophecies and warring deities altogether, but it starts strong by imploring players not to get too caught up in that drivel despite the fact that it’s no secret these things are still in play.
After one brief cutscene establishing main character Noctis as a prince engaged to an oracle overseas, we’re unceremoniously dropped in the middle of FFXV’s sandbox world, free to explore at our leisure. After the criticism FFXIII received for having a slow, overly-controlled start, it’s refreshing to see a FF get down to business so quickly.
Naturally, Noctis’ kingdom is attacked in the story’s opening hours. Any other Final Fantasy would use this as an opening setpiece, but the event is covered in one short montage before our heroes read about it in the paper afterwards. The abrupt shift in political climate throws Noctis’s future as monarch into question, leaving him and his three buddies to wander the world of Eos in search of a new destination.
This disruption is good news for players, because the open world is where FFXV shines. Director Hajime Tabata has taken obvious cues from Western RPGs in creating this free-roaming land, and while invisible walls limiting travel mean that it doesn’t reach the level of something like The Witcher 3, Eos is beautifully realized and a joy to explore because Square Enix finds a happy medium between the fantastical and the realistic — being out in the sticks means that we see a lot of gas stations, motels and diners that bear an uncanny resemblance to rural America, while areas such as the site of a meteor crash offer the sorts of wondrous visuals available only in escapist entertainment.
Tabata previously served as director for series spin-offs Crisis Core and Type-0, both of which showcased his preference for real-time combat. He brings that sensibility to FFXV, and the resulting battle system is as fast-paced and hands-on as the mainline series has ever been. Magic and summons are still here, but they’re clunky to use and take a backseat to FFXV’s real focus — the lightning-fast swordplay. Battles unfold at the speed of a Platinum game, and encounters are won through positioning, countering, and appropriate weapon choice. Friendly AI handles the bulk of the party while players control Noctis exclusively, whose short-range teleportation can be used to escape sticky situations or strike enemies from afar.
Players who want something slower and more methodical can employ an optional “Wait Mode” that pauses the action whenever Noctis isn’t moving, though I found it awkward and never used it. The quick pace and combat that doesn’t rely on menus made my many trips into Eos’s wilderness smooth and seamless. It’s one of the many reasons FFXV functions so well as an open-world game.
Of course, taking inspiration from open-world RPG developers like Bethesda and BioWare means that FFXV engages in a lot of fetchquesting, resource gathering and waypoint chasing, and it’s nonsensical in spots. For example, if Noctis wants to change the color of his car, he has to go mining for pigment gemstones. Is it too much to assume that a paint shop would actually have some paint in stock? Those silly quests aside, what keeps FFXV from becoming just another open-world game is the camaraderie between FFXV’s four leads.
When the adventure starts, these four are already lifelong friends, and their constant, playful banter makes their bond absolutely convincing. They’re having fun spending time together, and their trek isn’t work; it’s a road trip with the boys. The opening title sequence depicts the four leads pushing their car down a highway following a breakdown, the scene accompanied by a cover of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand by Me.” I can’t think of a better way to introduce these characters and their relationship.
This focus on day-to-day escapades gives Final Fantasy the chance to be something it rarely is — light and carefree. The protagonists are constantly making deliberately awful puns, singing along to the game’s own soundtrack and dropping pop culture references that don’t make sense in a universe where Star Wars isn’t a thing. One of the characters, Prompto, even snaps photos which can be saved and shared on real-world social media. Things like this make XV an endearingly goofy experience in ways the usually-pretentious Final Fantasy series rarely dares to be, and it works.
Though FFXV eventually gets caught up in oracles and gods and evil empires, my favorite moments were the smaller ones — the campfire chats, the training sessions, the instances in which Prompto begs Noctis to pull over so he can get a shot of everyone in front of that mountain. For me, the defining moment of FFXV wasn’t Bahamut throwing his sword into the ground, but four dudes driving a convertible down a country road, the wind blowing through their hair as the Fisherman’s Horizon theme from Final Fantasy VIII plays on the stereo.
Now, I’m not inherently against the idea of FFXV getting more serious as it progresses. This road trip needs to go somewhere, and if Square Enix is going to dunk us in the same pretentious jargon that sank FFXIII, they’ve at least given us the chance to get to know the characters first. If we must battle gods and prevent something called the “Starscourge,” it’s a step in the right direction to actually care about the people caught in the middle of it. However, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the second half of FFXV abandons everything I’d been loving up until that point.
The story runs fifteen chapters. The first eight or nine are blissful entertainment that peaks with a fight against an enormous serpent, ranking among the series’ most gleefully absurd moments. Afterwards, FFXV succumbs to what is perhaps the most abrupt drop in quality I’ve ever seen in a game as its troubled development history catches up to it.
The innocuous interplay between the four leads all but disappears as XV adopts a considerably more somber tone, and various members of the party become incapacitated or outright separated — Prompto even stops taking pictures. At this point, an awful lot of time is spent on a cross-country train ride in which players are often asked to simply walk around until the locomotive reaches its destination.
Past the eighth chapter, XV digresses into linear dungeon crawling, and players can only get back to the enjoyable sandbox stuff by time-travelling into the past.
The nadir is Chapter 13, which lasts a couple of hours and plays like an interactive checklist of tiresome design choices.
This level is set entirely in a drab grey industrial facility with Noctis operating solo, robbed of his weapons and powers. He’s largely defenseless against zombie guards, and what follows is a godawful stealth/horror sequence riddled with cheap jump-scares in which Noctis must study movement patterns and hide in closets when he’s spotted. Worse, the objective of this chapter is to find security clearance for each subsequent floor while a generic villain taunts him over the building’s loudspeakers.
FFXV never recovers from these stumbles, and after the painful final dungeon, all that remains is a laughably awkward ten-year jump forward and a climactic showdown against a foe whose motives utterly escape me. The project’s original director was Kingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura, and it seems some of his influence remains embedded in the final product — FFXV’s latter half feels like a different game entirely, and it’s a mess. FFXV’s inability to live up to its early promise might rank as 2016’s biggest gaming disappointment.
Still, in typical FF fashion, a bevy of post-game content gives players reason to return to the delightful sandbox stuff after the melodrama of the central story is over with. There’s a flying car, an excellent optional dungeon, and a boss fight against a giant turtle with a mountain on its back. Since returning to the mainland is only possible through time travel, our post-game heroes go back to being blissfully unaware of the tedium and catastrophic drop in quality that awaits them. If only I could be so lucky.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Square Enix Business Division 2 and published by Square Enix. It is currently available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains language, mild blood, partial nudity and violence. Nothing to be too concerned about here — a lot of mostly bloodless action, some mild profanity and the occasional scantily clad goddess.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled, and the important stuff tends to happen in cutscenes, when players have nothing else to focus on. There’s enough visual information on-screen that sound cues aren’t necessary to enjoy the game.
Remappable Controls: The game offers three different control schemes, but the controls are not fully remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.