After a very long, very circuitous route, the latest installment of one of the world’s most revered Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) series is finally here. It has big hair and bigger swords; it has Shiva and Ifrit; it has a Cid and a Highwind, and it has Chocobos.
What it doesn’t have though, is a whole lot of fun.
First things first: I haven’t played a Final Fantasy since Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2, and I haven’t finished a Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy IX on the PlayStation. So yes, my JRPG skills were rusty, to say the least, but the game boasted that this was “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers” before its title screen, so I didn’t worry.
I probably should have worried a little.
Many jokes have been made of the game’s Entourage-like set-up and demeanor, so I won’t waste time making the same comparisons. Instead, let me complain about how Crown Prince Noctis is the only playable character throughout the whole game. His friends Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis (who I will refer to as Hipster Egon from now on), who are also his Crownsguard, accompany him almost everywhere and fight alongside him, but you don’t get to control any of them except for occasionally telling them to take a Potion or do a few special moves (more on that later).
Thanks to having only one playable character, whose death in battle is the only one that matters (the game only ends when Noctis dies; the other characters all miraculously regain HP after the battle is over), you end up only really caring about Noctis. And the annoying, repetitive dialogue does nothing to help this situation (if I have to hear Prompto complain about walking one more time…).
You end up caring even less for the characters you don’t see all the time, regardless of their level of importance to the story. Lunafreya, Noctis’ betrothed and the Oracle of this world, is simply a backdrop, never to reach the narrative importance of an Aeris, Garnet, or Yuna. She is hindered in this by the fact that she never ever joins your party, and is somewhere else for most of the game.
And while we’re on the subject, I was very disappointed by the diminished capacity of female characters in this game. The three main female characters, Lunafreya, Iris (Gladiolus’ sister), and Cindy (the ridiculously oversexed mechanic), function more as narrative devices than actual characters. And it’s very disheartening that the incredibly problematic Cindy is the most prominent of the three, along with her short shorts, her short jacket, and her underwear.
Each Crownsguard has a different primary and secondary weapon: large swords and shields for Gladiolus, daggers and javelins for Hipster Egon, and guns and tech for Prompto. They can all also use magical canisters full of Lightning, Fire, or Ice magic. Noctis can of course use everything, and can slot four weapons instead of two, giving the player more options. As you progress through the game, Noctis will also be able to use magically powerful Ancestral Weapons that he gets from raiding tombs.
But make no mistake: everybody in your party is a warrior. No one is a black mage, a white mage, a bard, a palladin, a monk, an elf, etc. (a case could be made that Prompto is a thief, but he’s so obnoxious, I don’t even care). Your black and white magic all comes from items. But at least you get to change the four guys’ clothes at will (so you could make them look even more like a K-pop boy band if you wanted to), so that’s something, I guess.
The Open World
Final Fantasy XV’s story is basically like every other Final Fantasy that has ever existed: there is a chosen one (Noctis) who must save the world from an evil empire (Niflheim) before it falls to some supernatural threat (an everlasting night full of daemons). But this FF boasted something no FF had ever had before: a car! No, but seriously, what they actually boasted about was open world gameplay a la GTA, or Watch_Dogs, which requires the car to make it work. Unfortunately for everyone involved, open world Final Fantasy is very similar to non-open world Final Fantasy – it’s grinding and fetch quests all the way down.
And unlike your GTAs or Watch_Dogs, you can’t just take any car to get to your destination; you must take the Regalia, the super on-the-nose named car. You can’t even jack another car!
At least you can forego the uninspired driving yourself, and just make Hipster Egon do it (except at night when you’re low-level because “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” is something that has never passed Hipster Egon’s lips), or Fast Travel for 10 gil later in the game, as you ferry vegetables, ore, photographs, and various sundry items back and forth. Something that does make what can be a 7-to-10 minute car ride (in real time) more enjoyable is the various Final Fantasy soundtracks you can buy in shops across the world.
You can also take on various Hunter missions that give you a bit of extra experience and items, for killing some monsters you were probably going to kill anyway. Again, the drawback is that you must go back to a tipster in any outpost to claim the rewards, thereby making every Hunter mission a glorified fetch quest. Thank you Square Enix.
In fact, the only real reason to do these missions (or really any sidequest) is to get enough experience and AP, to be able to progress through the main missions, meaning everything you do is actually grinding. And boy is it a grind. Ultimately, the promised open world is a chore, full of demanding people insisting you run errands for them, even though you’re a goddamn prince and they should really be treating you better.
Oh, and you’ll need to visit gas stations from time to time, lest the Regalia runs out of petrol and you have to push the damn thing to the nearest garage. Because I guess someone on the dev team thought there weren’t enough chores in this game.
Everything does look pretty as hell, though, so you can watch some of the most gorgeous scenery go by, as you listen to “One-Winged Angel” on repeat.
You can start riding chocobos early in the game, negating the need for the car, thought it takes longer to get to places. Chocobos can be leveled up to make them faster or have them glide farther, but they’re still slower than the Regalia.
There is one legitimately fun thing that you can do instead of the main missions, and that is play the Justice Monsters Five pinball game in all the diners. It’s a pinball game in which your heroic monsters do battle with evil space monsters. You get four heroes (i.e. pinballs) with which to do battle, and they each have a health gauge and special attack gauge. You can switch out your heroes at will, but when one loses all its health, you can no longer use that ball. Once you lose all your balls, the game (and life, if you’re male) is over. It’s super fun, and I played for like a half hour the first time I discovered it.
The game’s strange of mix of contemporary trappings (like the car, group selfies, and Noctis’ handphone) and high fantasy conceits should have made for a very disjointed experience, but it actually ends up working fairly well. Though why the empire can’t track Noctis and his crew down using his handphone remains a mystery (perhaps I’m still thinking too much about Watch_Dogs 2).
Combat in FFXV is a real-time affair with pauses happening only when a white magic item is required from the item menu. Characters remain alive even if their hit points are completely depleted, and only die when their maximum HP drops to zero (this happens gradually as characters’ current HP remains at zero). This can make combat a frenetic affair, in which you need to pay attention to your three compatriots’ HP bars and dole out Potions as and when needed even as you slice up beasties, and defend and parry when prompted to. You can also ask your friends to do special powerful attacks, some of which can hit every enemy in the vicinity, so long as the tech bar remains replenished (easily done by hacking away at enemies).
Making combat even more fun is Noctis’ Warp Strike ability, a nifty little trick that lets Noctis teleport sword first into whatever enemy you want (and in a stealth level, it becomes an instakill ability so long as you hit the soldiers in the back without being seen). He can also phase away before retaliation, so long as you have MP available. These warping and phasing abilities are the only thing that consume MP, which can be easily replaced by warping to designated Warp Points in the theater of battle. Sometimes, this means hanging from a higher vantage point and planning your next Warp Strike once your MP replenishes.
And as fun as combat can be with enemies your size, it’s even more fun when you fight against the bigger beasties, never mind the Titan.
There is a wait mode available for combat that is supposed to be a bit more turn-based, but I never used it as I enjoyed the real-time combat too much. Take that you FF purists!
Experience and Ability Points are gained in the traditional ways: completing missions and killing monsters. Experience leads to higher levels and stronger characters, while Ability Points can be used to unlock various character abilities and skills in the Ascension Grid, a much-simplified version of FFX’s Sphere Grid. These unlockables include more ways to gain AP and Experience, making your grinding a bit easier in the later stages of the game. However, Experience and AP do not tally until the end of the day, when your characters rest at a campsite or lodging of some sort.
Finally, each character also has a specific skill that only they have and can upgrade: fishing for Noctis, survival for Gladiolus, cooking for Hipster Egon, and photography for Prompto. Gladiolus and Prompto’s skills seem to upgrade as a matter of course, as Gladiolus’ skill is tied to exploring the wilderness and combat, and Prompto takes photographs throughout the day that you’ve gone through, and keep when you’ve bedded down for the day.
Hipster Egon’s cooking skill only upgrades when he cooks meals at campsites. He can cook a wide variety of dishes as he learns or creates more recipes, so long as you have foraged, hunted, or purchased the proper ingredients. Each dish can give special boosts to the party (like bonuses to HP and strength, or unlimited sprinting), so it’s actually a good thing to have Hipster Egon cook for your party. However, he can only cook at campsites, and not caravans, motels, or hotels, which instead give you a bonus to experience (the swankier the lodging, the higher the bonus).
Noctis’ fishing skill only upgrades when he’s actually fishing, and he can do so at various lakes and rivers around the world. He can even fish in the sea if he finds the right spot. With a variety of lines and lures, fishing becomes its own mini-game as you try to wrangle the various fish of the world. Be careful your line doesn’t break though, as you will lose the fish you were trying to catch and the lure you were using to catch it with.
Trying to find the right mix of activities throughout the day to get everybody’s unique skills to level up at least a bit can take some fine-tuning, and ultimately ends up being more of a distraction to the main game than anything else, but fishing is damn fun, and those boosts from Hipster Egon’s meals can come in quite handy.
Final Fantasy XV had no chance of not being an incredibly hyped game. While it hits a lot of nostalgia buttons for legacy fans and has a very fun combat system and some fun mini-games, it has mostly forgettable characters and a cookie-cutter story. And all the fetch quests in the world. The game was never going to live up the hype, but it’s too bad it couldn’t even get anywhere near close.