None of the systems that Final Fantasy XV throws at you really work on their own. The fast travel system is not fast at all. The combat can be anything from confusing to floaty, from frustrating to disappointingly easy. The world that’s presented, a melange of present-day hyperrealism, sci-fi and fantasy, shouldn’t work at all. Leveling up can only be done while resting, magic spells need to be constructed from scratch before use and the controls and camera are sometimes terrible, sometimes passable. You’d think this game would be a huge disappointment, but strangely, it develops a rough charm that’s impossible to pin on any one thing.
TLDR: 7/10. Problematic but weirdly enthralling. Read on for the details. Minimal spoilers (character names and backstory) ahead.
Best things first: The visuals
If there’s one thing that stood out for me, it’s the beauty of the world. Textures are crisp, trees and bushes sway in the wind, water has a physicality to it that almost makes you thirsty and the realtime light and shadow render a scene anywhere from pretty to outright touching. The browns and greens of nature clash satisfyingly with almost dayglo-colored cars here and there. Signs or flags add a touch of red, green or yellow to liven up the grey or brown of the city. And I didn’t even tell you about the meals you can cook — they look almost photorealistic.
No effort has been spared constructing this world, and I believe several of the other game design elements are here specifically to force you to spend as much time looking at it as possible, and with good reason. I’ve rarely seen so much detail being poured into a game world. That the mix of fantasy elements and real-life architecture doesn’t fall flat on its face is another accomplishment. It shouldn’t work, yet it does.
The characters looked a bit off-putting to me at first, but that soon wore off. Square stopped just barely on the right side of the uncanny valley, so most of the faces don’t look creepy, and the animations and exaggerated hair movement (!) are a joy to behold. That includes the awkwardly mismatched walk and run animations of our four protagonists.
A shame that you can’t explore this world to your heart’s content, with areas often being artificially gated behind shrubs and bushes, or sometimes simply invisible walls. There’s clearly a path over that rock, you could walk there without breaking a sweat, but the game chooses to just halt you in mid-jump. The effect this had on me is that it reduces the world to just another set-piece. It’s a stage where the game takes place, it doesn’t feel like a living, breathing thing. Even though games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild don’t have nearly the fidelity of Final Fantasy XV, they do a much better job of making a world feel alive. So does The Witcher 3, to use a technologically better-matched example.
You are Noctis, the teenage or early-twenties prince of the kingdom of Insomnia and you’re sent out into the world do do… Something. Accompanied by your royal guard, dressed in black jeans, black leather jackets and black shoes. You also have teenager hair. Oh, and a fancy car called the Regalia.
Then something something empire happens, something something oracles, random nonsense, negotiations, things involving gods, who knows. People live, people die. It’s a terrible mess that can be marginally understood by watching a cringeworthy and boring film that accompanies the whole thing. Why does X need to kill Y now? Who is Z again? All in all I didn’t care. I guess the story gives some motivation, however weak, to explore the world and fight lots of baddies. Standard fare for many JRPGs.
The relationship between our characters is mostly developed through their quips and short dialogs, and this is done quite well, also in moments of tension. You get to know everyone after spending a dozen hours with them. Too much exposition is avoided. Since that’s my pet peeve, I can’t complain much on this front at all.
A few characters stand out more because of their witty language, but none seem to have that much depth. This one likes cooking, that one likes fishing, this one likes chocobos and that over there is the primary antagonist. Maybe it’s deliberate. These people are young, inexperienced and pampered, so they can’t have any depth. But wouldn’t that be ageist and prejudiced to suggest? Oh, I’m not gonna open that can of worms.
The soul-searching of Lunafreya and Gentiana as they explore the past and the relation to Noctis on the other hand I found mostly saccharine and tiring. Not bad-animé-level kitsch but close. On the other hand, none of the characters made me care for them or elicited any emotion at all, so that’s probably also to blame. If anything, it was not the story but the voice acting that had some impact on me.
Sound effects are crunchy, and the music goes from sweeping orchestral film scores and choir arrangements to remakes of the Final Fantasy 1 – 4 soundtracks you can buy for your car radio. I found most of it forgettable. There weren’t any melodies here that will be with me 20 years on like in Chrono Trigger, but the craftsmanship is good.
Positional audio is quite OK on a 5.1 system, I noticed no problems with weirdly high volume levels from the rear speakers like in some games.
Voice acting is a joy for the most part. The boys and one of the main antagonists are wonderfully voiced, each having a distinct character and a whole lot of subtlety in acting out their lines. Their quips also don’t seem to get old too quickly, even after 30 hours there were new jokes now and then.
The icing on the cake is how the writers weaved 70s and 80s music references into some random one-liners. These kids say things like “give peace a chance” when joking about too much aggression, or “we’ve got the power” when switching on a generator. And it’s never cheesy! It’s delivered with such unexpected timing and spot-on voices, it worked on me every time. Of course this is one for the 30 – 40 demographic, but I appreciate they put it in there.
Gameplay and the rest
Why this game is motivating, I can’t explain. The combat system is clunky at the best of times. Your normal melee attacks usually have to be executed in a hit-and-run manner, via a warp attack that brings you up close to the enemy. But you are squishy, so you better get out again fast to the warp points.
This makes sense since the warp strike is one of the protagonist’s defining skills. The guy is also a masterful dodger, you can get out of harm’s way most of the time, and in the worst case you just pop a potion and get on with the battle. It’s not so dissimilar to what a turn-based Final Fantasy does, but now we see it acted out in realtime and that might expose the trivial nature of what’s going on.
Magic (elemency, in this game) is an ineffectual afair, having such a long reuse timer that by the time you get your second cast in, you’d be already done with the fight had just held your one attack button. The best thing you can do with magic is combine elements and items to give you an offensive cast that also heals, for example, or an experience boost.
The worst thing about the combat is probably the AI. Sometimes your mates simply wander off and stare into a corner instead of fighting. Other times your beautifully timed special attacks or techniques miss because during the buildup cutscene, the engine decided to move you five meters away from the enemy. But the enemy AI is similarly dull, with each member of a pack of random wildlife acting out its script in repeat without much motivation, and human enemies sometimes just derping out and walking back and forth.
In the heat of battle, which is never more than lukewarm, you don’t notice these single defects that much. But if you face larger enemies it becomes trivial, especially because you can finally see enemy moves that are better telegraphed than with the gaggles of smaller, constantly bustling foes
There’s a point in the middle where a boss fight breaks things up very much, but in a bad way. All the rules change, all the mechanics you’ve mastered so far don’t count, and you’re given no hint for how to proceed. You’re doing single-digit damage to a boss that seems to have hundreds of thousands of hit points, yet you don’t die because her attacks miss, or because they’re laughably weak. What you have to do is time one attack right. A single one. Then a cutscene plays out and you hold one button to defeat a god. OK, there are some boring QTEs as well, but mostly one button it is. Could be worse, we could be talking about God of War (PS2). But could be better as well
There are many more negatives I could list. The chocobo controls just malfunction, with left being right and right being left. Your contextual action button (X on PS4) is clearly shown on the screen, but when you press it to do some action, you jump instead. Quests are available and indicated on your map that can never be completed because you can’t get to the place where they should be.
Driving your car at night brings up daemons that are annoying to fight, impossible in the beginning, so you waste a lot of time driving back and forth and camping or sleeping in hotels to wait for daybreak. You can’t save in dungeons, so if you die, you get to do everything all over again.
Other times you can’t complete a main story mission because your party members are too dumb to follow you, getting stuck in scenery and constantly berating you because they think you’re running off. This game has problems. And I haven’t even told you about the mini-games you can play and the useless skills you can learn, or how much the game makes you wait. Fast travel means waiting. Loading means waiting. Waiting until the reward for a hunt is paid out means waiting.
I put nearly 40 hours into it despite having other, ostensibly better games to choose from. No matter how much soul-searching I do, I can’t explain the charm. It’s like a recently repainted 70s Ford Mustang. Sparkling and shiny on the outside, but the cabin is smelly, the engine coughs, the third gear doesn’t take every time and there’s a cheesy Elvis bobblehead on the dash. Yet for inexplicable reasons it sometimes feels better than a brand new Mercedes C-Class.