noctis-and-lunaReturn of the King

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (also available on Xbox One)
Developed and Published by Square Enix

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the last generation caused a great deal of mistrust from fans of the FINAL FANTASY series. Despite initial critical acclaim, the general reception to FINAL FANTASY XIII was mixed and the original 2010 release of FINAL FANTASY XIV was such a disaster that they spent three years working on a reboot just to set things right. It didn’t help that the PlayStation 3 title everyone was excited for, FINAL FANTASY Versus XIII, was eventually cancelled for its own mess of reasons.

With that said, I’ve felt like the series have been on a steady pace back to its once masterful status. I adored FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn and its first expansion pack Heavensward more than I’ve enjoyed any MMORPG before or after and with Versus XIII being reborn as FINAL FANTASY XV with a more focused and open development team my fingers were crossed that FINAL FANTASY could reclaim the title as king of singleplayer RPGs once more.

Because of the grand scale of this game and how much there is to talk about in detail, I’ve decided to divide this review into more clear-cut sections than usual, so that someone who doesn’t want to read a ton of paragraphs on story just to get to gameplay can simply find where to start reading. This is going to be a long one, so strap yourself in. Does FINAL FANTASY XV live up to its potential and promise?

archive-screenshot-2016-11-29-17-17-26Story And Characters

In FINAL FANTASY XV you play as Noctis Lucis Caelum, Crown Prince of the kingdom of Lucis and heir to its throne. Set to marry Lady Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, he sets off on a road trip to the city Altissia with his friends and trusted protectors, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto. But shortly after their trip have begun they learn that Insomnia, the capital of Lucis, have fallen to the Niflheim Empire and Noctis’ father, King Regis, is pronounced dead. Noctis, now hunted by the empire, finds himself on a quest to reclaim his home and find the role he must play in a game of daemons and deities.

The story, though nothing new or revolutionary, is told with a good deal of self-awareness for what the player has come to expect. It doesn’t try and mask the more obvious plot points up and instead focus on throwing in genuine surprises in-between them. While there were points throughout the story, particularly in the second half of the game, where I’d roll my eyes or groan at certain developments, it never managed to outweight the genuinely great moments that were consistently striking down over and over as the game continued.

One of those strongest things in general, comes down to the characters. Noctis is a great main character that not only works well as a player perspective, but manages to still feel at home in the world from the start. He’s full of personality that greatly surpasses the average expectations of a male lead in a video game. While on the surface level he’s yet another example of a royal heir not ready to take the throne, its his quirks and genuinely charming sense of humor that kept me happy to play as in throughout my 39 hours playing the game. In what other “serious” AAA game will you hear a main character talk about how they don’t like beans or vegetables? Noctis is a breath of fresh air, even if his appearance suggest otherwise.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-18-33-04But it’s certainly not Noctis effort alone. The supporting cast is superb as well, with his three partners carrying just as much charm and personality as himself. More importantly, the game dares to actually push these characters through major developments on a level I’ve not seen in a FINAL FANTASY since the early 90s. The dialogue between the party, both in cutscenes and during gameplay, genuinely feels like a group of friends that are facing these situations. It doesn’t feel tacked on or stale, which I’d argue is one of the most common problems with video game writing when it comes to dialogue.

There’s plenty of more characters to the mix as well, both on the supporting side and the mandatory adversaries the party face along the story. Many of these characters are just as great, or even better, than the main cast in my honest opinion. Ardyn Izunia, the mysterious wanderer the party meets at the start of the game, is no doubt one of the most enjoyable ones in the cast, constantly turning any scene he’s in to his own private show. With that said, I do feel that some of the better characters were given far too little time throughout the story. Many characters get build-up without any real meat to their conclusion.

And unfortunately this includes Lady Lunafreya. While she does play a vital part in the narrative and is featured in quite a lot of scenes throughout the game, it does feel like she got the short end of the stick in regards to having the game present to us who she is and what she was doing. The game will often talk about how she’s going through her own adventure akin to that of Noctis and friends, but rarely do we get to see or hear details of it. It’s a shame, as what is there I like a lot, but I do wish there was more.

archive-screenshot-2016-11-30-15-50-58But that comes down to how condensed the story is as well. There are a lot of plot points that much be reached and it will often feel like the game is rushing to reach them, not necessarily in playtime but in presentation. Once again, this is something more obvious in the later half of the game where you’ll rarely spend a second taking in what is going on before you’re forced to move on to the next point of interest. Said point of interest is great and appreciated, but the game could have dared to linger a little longer on a lot of things. It’s one of the few times I wish a game would pad itself out more.

Of course, there’s a lot of optional padding in the form of side quests. I have to admit that I didn’t think I would care much for the writing around these but that changed quickly once I started getting into doing some of the quests from the recurring quest givers. The game wants you to feel like you’re getting to know the characters, even if they’re minor NPCs, and quite often I feel it manages to do so. My favourite example is probably Holly, an NPC in the city of Lestallum, who you end up befriending and learn a lot about. By the end of her questline I was quite glad to have played it for more than just the experience points, especially as the party start talking about her and other NPCs amongst themselves on their own after the quests.

Though flawed and full of tropes, the writing stands out as overwhelmingly strong from start to finish, which of course is a key component any FINAL FANTASY game that wants to carry the series legacy needs to achieve. FINAL FANTASY XV understood that its biggest strength was its main cast and it utilized it to its full potential in a way few games manage to do.

archive-screenshot-2016-11-29-10-06-47Gameplay And Content

One of the big deals about FINAL FANTASY XV has been the return of an open world to the series. Ignoring the MMO-entries, FINAL FANTASY have been fairly restrictive on having the player explore and adventure on their own for quite some time, with FINAL FANTASY XIII being the most common example. FINAL FANTASY XV‘s open world certainly delivers on its promise, with possibly the largest world map the series has seen. With that said, the game is still fond of temporarily shutting the player out of said world throughout the main story. While this is generally done for short dungeons and quests, there are larger sections where you won’t be seeing the open world for quite some time.

As for the time you do spend in that world, you’ll have plenty to do. Hundreds of sidequests, hunting marks, collectible royal arms and optional dungeons and items are just part of what you’ll find as you play FINAL FANTASY XV. While you can’t go everywhere, there’s few limitations on just what you can do when you have access to the open world. As such, travelling by foot is obviously not the most recommended thing for longer periods of time, as it’ll take forever to get to certain places. That’s where Noctis’ car, the Regalia, and chocobos come into play.

Driving the Regalia around the world is the party’s main method of transportation and it’s something you’ll always have access to as a result. You can either drive the car yourself or have Ignis drive the car for you to a destination of choice. Should you not want to spend time waiting as the car drives between locations, you have the option to fast travel from the car to any parking space on the map, at a small cost of 10 gil. Chocobos, on the other hand, are what you’ll want when you go off the road.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-18-25-36Chocobos can be rented in the game for 50 gil per day, allowing you to rush across the land at high-speed and get to places at a very satisfying rate. The more time you spend on your chocobo the further it levels up and increases its speed and stamina. You also have the option to name and customize the chocobo, feed it at campsites or even enter it in chocobo races should you want to. It’s quite fun to just ride on in the first place, with the game really giving you the sense of speed you want. You can ever drift with your chocobo, should that be your thing.

Throughout the game, be it questing or exploring, you’ll often be prompted to make a choice as Noctis. These choices show up as short dialogue bits with specific characters where Noctis can respond different ways. Depending on your answer, you might get or lose a reward of experience points or ability points. As such it’s important to consider these dialogue trees more than you might first think. While they won’t ever alter the story in any way, they will shape how certain cutscenes go, if certain quests happen and how Noctis comes across as a person. It’s small, but a nice addition to the game nonetheless.

But I suppose we should talk about the combat in the game. Depending on your outlook, the combat is either something you were excited for or something that turned you off the game before you even knew what it was about. In FINAL FANTASY XV all combat takes place in the overworld, like a small few of the other FINAL FANTASY titles before it. All the gameplay takes place in real-time, with Noctis’ actions being based on a defense and offense system that’s mainly about keeping one mode active at the right time than it is about button tapping.

archive-screenshot-2016-11-30-07-51-40When holding down the attack button, Noctis is in an offensive stance and will run towards any targeted enemy on his own and start chaining a combo without the player having to do further inputs. similarly, holding down the defense button will let Noctis dodge incoming attacks on his own at the cost of MP. Though there are specific combat skills that can be obtained that utilize specific timed taps of the attack button, this is the key portion of the game’s combat system, holding down one out of two buttons.

While that’s the base of the combat gameplay, a lot more is stacked on top of it. Noctis can warp to key points to regain HP and MP or strike his warp into enemies as an attack, with his damage multiplying based on the distance of his warp. There’s also partner commands that allow Noctis to request members in his party to perform specific attacks or maneuvers, often with the opportunity to chain in an added action of his own at the end. These commands make us of the game’s tech meter, which fills like a classic FINAL FANTASY active time battle meter. The meter has three bars that can be filled and used for actions during combat, which is key to making the most out of the combat system.

Alongside that there’s Noctis’ armiger ability, which unlocks a short way through the main story. When the armiger gauge is full, Noctis can activate it allowing him to automatically strike his royal arms into the enemies around him and finish with a chain attack that does more damage depending on how many of said royal arms you have collected up to that point. It’s a fairly satisfying ability that requires a lot of extra exploring to fully unlock, as only a handful royal arms are achieved through the game’s main story.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-18-25-26The final part of the combat system is magic, which is one of the most fun elements of the game in my opinion. Noctis can draw out the elemental power of fire, ice and lightning from spots around the world to use when crafting spells. These spells are crafted by putting a custom amount of elemental power into a magic bottle and throwing it into combat like a grenade. All spells affect both the target and the environment around it, setting fire to grass or freezing up the ground to deal further damage for anything or anyone standing on top of it. This includes your party, as magic deals friendly fire non-discriminatory.

You can also add items to the spells to change their effect. Adding a potion turns a normal fire spell into a mixed healing-and-attack spell, with many more combinations available. Be careful though, as the aforementioned friendly fire can have rather negative outcomes should you throw a spell with Sudden Death or Poison added to its mix and hit a party member. I’m speaking from experience too as I kept being a bigger hazard to my party than some of the enemies when I tried to play a little too much with my spells.

With that said, I do feel like you can’t store enough elemental power on Noctis’ person. Each element goes up to a maximum of 99 points, which you can put in a magic bottle. But it’s hard to not use all the stored up elements when crafting spells and end up back on zero before you’re happy with the spell casting, causing what can become a tedious case of having to chase elemental ore and craft spells between campsites to build up a nice inventory of spells. Storying more points or being able to buy magic bottles containing spells would solve this, but that’s not the case unfortunately.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-18-31-19When it comes to customizing each party member’s gear things remain fairly standard. Noctis can equip up to four active weapons that he can switch between mid-combat and his partners can equip up to two, one main weapon and one sub weapon. Though Noctis can wield all types of weapons the rest of the party are restricted to specific weapon types instead. Surprisingly, you won’t find yourself needing to switch out weapons too much. Though you’ll probably play with the different weapon types to find one you like, upgrading your weapon for stats is fairly minimal until quite late in the game.

On the opposite end of that is accessories, which you’ll probably be swapping out all the time. These function the same way as most recent FINAL FANTASY singleplayer titles, giving stat bonuses or specific effects to enhance your chances of survival. At first you can only keep one accessory on each character, but you’ll be able to up that number as you unlock more abilities.

Abilities are unlocked on the ascension screen, where you’ll spend your ability points. There are different ability trees for different types of abilities, with the offer to update your combat maneuvers, stats, exploration actions and more. Ability points are earned from doing almost anything in the game, with some unlockable abilities even adding new ways to gain ability points. And if all else fails, gathering up experience points and gaining levels will net you the points too.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-22-09-16Experience points are handed out for quests and combat feats, with the final count of gathered experience being made when the party goes to sleep at a camp or inn. This means you won’t be leveling up until you give the party a break, which can be needed as they’ll start to grow tired if they go more than a day without sleep. Staying at a more expensive inn will also net you a bigger experience point multiplier, letting you level up faster for a price. While it’s possibly to end up underleveled for the main quests and be forced to grind a few levels, it’s likely not going to be a big problem as long as you do a handful of side quests, which even the party themselves will suggest you do throughout the game.

And should you be in a portion of the game that doesn’t allow access to the open world and therefore no side quests, then there’s still a feature available to take a break from those areas to go back to the open world and continue your side questing. This feature isn’t unlocked until later in the game, as it’s not needed until then, but can be accessed at any inn once that time comes. If you ever feel like you’re stuck somewhere due to your level, I highly recommend using this to go back and grind.

Speaking of difficulty, I have to say I found FINAL FANTASY XV surprisingly forgiving. I played through the game on the normal setting, which is the hardest setting available at the start of the game, and I only had one encounter with the game over screen throughout my many hours of playing. I do feel like this is a good thing however, as it’s less due to the content itself not being a challenge, but due to the game allowing you to get out of tight situations.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-21-54-22Aside from boss battles, you can leave any combat encounter by exiting the area around the enemy shown on the mini-map. Doing so will revive any party member that’s down and give you the chance to either refocus and jump back into the fight or simply flee. This is a key thing as the game will gladly give you the chance to fight endgame level enemies from the very first chapter, encouraging you to not feel shame when running away from a battle you can’t win.

similarly, death is not as direct as in other games in the series. When a character’s HP is depleted, they don’t immediately die, instead their max HP start dropping down towards zero. If they’re revived by another party member or by using a potion or elixir, they’ll be back on their feet but with their max HP stuck to wherever it dropped to. This means that you can keep a battle going without having to use revival items until it’s absolutely necessary. similarly, though the game will result in a game over should Noctis be killed, you’ll still have several extra seconds to pause and use a revive item like the phoenix down on Noctis before that happens, provided you’ll have one available to use.

This makes for a game that feels tough but fair, where death is not too likely but neither is a victory. The fact that even if you should fall in combat the game carries two autosaves active at all times helps as well, making sure you’ll not lose progress. There’s also the option to manually save anywhere on the overworld, should you not want to put your trust in autosaves. You can of course keep multiple manual save files too, if you would like to.

archive-screenshot-2016-11-30-14-37-57Apart from the main characters, the party will also have guest-members join the party during key points in the story. They carry their own item inventory and locked gear, but they function the same as your normal partners otherwise, including the option to call for specific manuevers using the tech meter. They’re often strong party members that will give you a fine edge in combat, but unfortunately can’t be recruited for open world play outside of their respective portions of the story.

All four of the main characters also have their own hobby that levels up as a separate skill. Noctis can fish in several places around the world, Ignis cooks food whenever the party sets up camp and expands his recipes throughout the journey. Gladiolus has survival skills that lets him find necessary items after combat and Prompto takes photos that he shares with the party each night. It’s a small thing that adds character and manages to feel quite rewarding in the end.

There’s one more thing to the combat that I’ve left for last however, and that’s Wait Mode. Accessible in the settings, Wait Mode is an optional alteration of the combat to allow a more passive form of play. Not unlike FINAL FANTASY XII, the game will pause when you enter combat and remained pause as long as you don’t give a command. During these pauses you can survey the battlefield and scan enemies for information before you break the pause by making any control input, the moment you break said input the game pauses again. This makes the game take on a less hectic form that can be quite useful both for newcomers to action RPGs and to anyone who found a certain combat encounter a little too much.

archive-screenshot-2016-11-29-16-38-44It comes at a cost, however. Wait Mode has a meter that deplete all the time you spend pause, and should it empty you’ll no longer have the pause active. The meter refills any time you perform actions, which can be anything from movement, attacks, giving party orders or more. You can also upgrade the Wait Mode further using ability points. It’s by no means a replacement for the combat system, but it is a very nice addition to make it more accessible.

Overall I genuinely love the combat system and have done so since the moment I first tried it out. While I didn’t have many doubts that it’ll feel good in the open world, what did surprise me was how well it worked in tight spaces too. Especially considering director Hajime Tabata‘s previous game being FINAL FANTASY Type-0 which was near unplayable if you ever stood near a wall. But the automated movement and aerial freedom thanks to warping makes it work really well. I’d probably go so far as to say it’s my favourite combat system for any Action RPG, as I’m far more fond of FINAL FANTASY XV‘s approach over the more standard button tapping control methods.

When the credits rolled on the main story, my in-game timer said I had spent 39 hours and 32 minutes playing the game. While that includes time spend on the menu and no doubt some idle time, it’s still a fairly good representation of how much time you’ll spend on the game for your first run. I’m by no means done with the game yet and I’ll probably go back to doing side quests and such when I finish writing this review, but even if I was done, 39 hours isn’t a bad amount of time at all.

archive-screenshot-2016-11-30-15-14-00Visuals And Audio

Though the world of FINAL FANTASY XV is very much based on a modern contemporary setting, the general art style has a very unique identity to it. Every location in the game is memorable and the enemy design range from imaginative to as classic they can get. A lot of the monsters you’ll be facing have their design based directly on original Yoshitaka Amano designs from the 80s, given brand new life with modern hardware. Despite the different setting, it’s a game that very much evokes that classic FINAL FANTASY look the more time you spend with it. And I can’t let Tetsuya Nomura‘s work be ignored either. The original director of the game designed the main cast of the game and they look great.

The technical aspects of the visuals are no doubt impressive as well. I played the game on a normal PlayStation 4 and had multiple moments where I just gazed in awe at how pretty the game was. At one point taking to twitter to express my feelings on how good the in-game visuals get. With that said, those visuals come at a price. While the game is able to keep its 30 frames per seconds for the most part, there are entire sections of the game where simply walking around have a notable drop. It’s thankfully never anything that gets in the way during combat, at least not in my experience, but it still shows how much this game is pushing current hardware to its limits.

If you own a PlayStation 4 Pro, however, your experience might be different. On a normal PlayStation 4 the game runs at a locked 30 frames per second and at a dynamic resolution up to a maximum of 960p. On PlayStation 4 Pro the game has two different settings, the first of which runs at 60 frames per second at a full 1080p and the second locked at 30 frames per second with a 4K resolution. I wouldn’t say this game is a reason to upgrade, but if you don’t already own a PlayStation 4 and you’re looking to get one for FINAL FANTASY XV and future titles, it might be worth investing in the Pro as I can see this thing becoming a pattern.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-18-31-43There’s also a fair range of visual glitches and bugs on the PlayStation 4 version. The game will sometimes have trouble buffering the open world resulting in things such as purple water or a whole town just being lit up beyond any visual recognition. These things are generally fixed by either just leaving the area for a bit or by entering the party menu, but they’re still far too common to be ignored. What was even more common for me, however, were odd blocks of colour on the edges of all in-game models when the battles would enter slow-motion moments. They weren’t consistent, but they kept appearing. Including in the final boss fight of the game. I’m not sure what causes them, but it better be fixed in a patch soon.

On the audio side of things I have no complaints however. The soundtrack by Yoko Shimamura have had a long time coming since we first heard the title track ten years ago, and it’s been worth the wait. The music has a distinct identity that sets it apart from other FINAL FANTASY games, while still retaining enough to not sounds like it doesn’t fit in. The various battle themes and tunes that will fade in during exploration are memorable and welcoming even on repeats. The theme song, a cover of Stand By Me by Florence + The Machine, is also a perfect match for the game.

The voice acting is strong as well. I played my run through the game using the English voice actors, though I’ve played a fair share using the Japanese voice actors as well and both are available as an option. From the main cast to the supporting roles, the performances are great throughout. In particular I appreciate the exchanges of dialogue during gameplay, which come in both random and situational varieties. Though some of them get repeated a little too often.

archive-screenshot-2016-12-01-23-56-41In Closing

FINAL FANTASY XV is not just the best game I’ve played this year, it’s possibly the finest non-MMO RPG I’ve seen released in the last decade. Is it perfect? No, not at all. It has flaws in both gameplay and story, but the total package is beyond anything else on the market despite these setbacks. With FINAL FANTASY XIV and FINAL FANTASY XV I feel there’s no doubting that Square Enix have brought the king of RPGs back to its throne. I’m looking forward to seeing what FINAL FANTASY XVI ends up being like, no doubt it will be completely different from this game, but the franchise have my full confidence going forward.

Score: 9/10

Recommendation: Play it. If you’re not into real time action, give it a chance and use the Wait Mode combat system. It’s worth your time.

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