28th Aug 2019 | 242 views
I must confess that after playing, and finishing FFXIII I boycotted the series. Sakaguchi’s departure left a void that remained unfilled a decade after his last game at Squaresoft; the still great FFX. I bought FFXV at a bargain sale of used games for 9.99, meaning that my Boycott technically still stands as Square didn’t make a dime on the sale. This review is written from the perspective of a long time FF player who played, and finished every entry from FF1-FF13, and has been disappointed with the series since Sakaguchi left. So, does FFXV do enough good things to heal the wounds that XIII left in me in order to bring me back into the fold?
FFXV at one point in time…namely 2006 was called FF VS XIII. It was part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis ( did I name that right?) which was probably one of the dumbest conceptual ideas ever made in the name of milking the Final Fantasy franchise. Thus as Vs XIII; FFXV began a hellish development cycle that spanned 10 years and 2 console generations.
The reasons for the unusually long development might all amount to Tetsuya Nomura’s incompetence at adhering to a normal development schedule. After all, even his pet project the Kingdom Hearts series has suffered in this regard, and SquareEnix's financial ace in the sleeve (FFVII Remake) which is also somehow partly under Nomura’s care remains in eternal development (2020 release has been confirmed) for the seemly immediate (and perhaps distant) future.
Square perhaps realized this too as the project stalled under Nomura, and the impossible mission of saving VS XIII was passed down to Hajime Tabata in 2013. Now some sources claim that the game was at 25% completion when it was handed over to Tabata. Other sources mainly Tabata himself said that practically nothing was done in the project and that he literally had to start from ground zero. Who is to be believed? My money is on Tabata.
VS XIII started its Development on Square’s problematic and deceased engine: Crystal Tools. FFXV ended up running on Square’s problematic and soon to be deceased engine Luminous Studio. Luminous Studio is Square’s latest attempt at the creation of their own in house development tools which is not uncommon of companies to do in this era. The greatest looking games this generation have been exclusives built on in house engines.
Square’s problem however is that for reasons unknown they have been awful at creating their own engines, a lesson learned late it seems as Kingdom Hearts 3 was finalized in Unreal 4 even though it was at some point running on Luminous. However FFXV for better or worse would end up being as the one and only showcase of Square’s newest yet soon to be defunct engine.
If FFXV isn’t the most costly game in Square’s history after ten years in development and two engines, then it became such after a marketing campaign that spanned a free (not really as SquareEnix makes money just like everyone else with each YouTube play after a certain number of subscribers and plays are attained) short anime series on the main cast, and finally Kingsglaive; a full length CGI film that sets up the game’s story.
The aforementioned film looks better than anything Pixar has ever done so I will assume it cost at least 30 million dollars to make. The purpose of all of these materials of course was to present the story and characters in an attractive manner with the ultimate goal of selling the infamously troubled game.
Tabata once said that FFXV would have to sell 10 million units in order to recoup the developmental costs. Square promptly shut down the notion and the game went on to sale a rumored 6-8 million units. Not a great number for a AAA multiplatform title and it is unlikely that the money would have been recouped even if the original 10 million target would have been met.
FFXV wasn’t likely going to make a lot of money but at least it seems that it is Square’s forgiveness letter to fans that were disappointed by FFXIII. In other words; even if they lost money on FFXV it was a necessary step towards the inevitable FFXVI that Square wants fans like me to buy, and the question remains: Has FFXV brought me back into the fold?
Visually a two sided coin
Final Fantasy XV graphically is a tale of two stories on one hand you have the main party of characters and important story characters which are modeled and textured up to current gen standards complete with moving hair and fabrics. On the other hand the bland environments which feature texturing and assets that belong in last gen hardware.
The Luminous engine is a terrible engine indeed when a game this unimpressive in terms of looks cannot be ported over to the Switch. This is rare indeed, the engine is capable of rendering detailed gigantic enemies but it is also incapable of rendering realistic looking water effects and other details. In an era of snow and particle deformation. Noctis (the protagonist ) and crew can walk for hours on a Sandy Beach and not one foot print is ever made.
There are areas that are lush and green and it is in these sections of the open world where at times the game can look pleasing to the eye while moving slowly on foot. Sprint or travel by car however and pop up is amplified to Skyrim levels on last gen hardware. The game just doesn’t look good enough to justify the pop up and frame pacing issues.
The sound even skips when travelling around in the Regalia (Noct's car) and the party is having a chat. The game looks really good while in cut scenes, and at times during the heavily wooded areas. Creatures have realistic fur and plumage. As stated before some of the heavily wooded areas can impress the eye.
If there is one thing where the Luminous engine seems to excel at is in the lighting department. The lighting in FFXV is fantastic in every area of the game. I wouldn’t say it is superior to RDR2 or HZD but it is close. In the end we get an uneven visual package with some very good looking (Altissia is as impressive as anything ever seen in the series) areas complemented by pedestrian ones. It is as if Square never mastered its own engine. Characters look the part in comparison to modern open world games but their visual interaction with the environment is nearly null. Characters at times for example look like they are nearly skating on top of the environments.
The game also features some glitches even after hefty updates, my party at one point got stuck in the Regalia, I noticed this as I exited the car and got into a nasty combat situation and none of my loyal companions were anywhere to be found. They were stuck in the car and remained stuck until I arrived at a story point and the game loaded a cutscene.
The Series Lets Go of Traditional Turn Based Combat
Purists will complain that removing turn based combat is a travesty…I for once am glad to see it go. One of the reasons the “Tales of” series remains enjoyable to this day is its reliance on a fast paced action combat system.
FFXV features large semi-open world in which grinding and hunting based quests are the order of the day. Surprisingly the hunting based quests are enjoyable if somewhat addictive and that would not have been possible with a turn based combat system.
The combat is fast and furious and for the most part deep enough to merit some skill. In terms of difficulty the main quest provides a moderate challenge hence “A Final Fantasy for new comers and fans alike” marketing gig. The real challenge for seasoned vets lies on the hunts and daemon hunting that the player can part take optionally.
I spent about 24 hours of gameplay doing these side quests and hunts. So when I finally decided to focus on the main quest my characters were wrecking machines of destruction. I couldn’t defeat some of the higher level Daemons featured in the game but I could pretty much tackle any necessary baddie in the game without much issue.
The hunt system is reminiscent of Arc the lad 2 & 3. You can part take in any hunt you want as long as your Hunter Rank is high enough to start said hunt. Ranks are gained by completing lower level hunts.
Because the world is small enough that getting to the hunt locations isn’t particularly time consuming and the combat is fast , the hunting based quest system works wonderfully. I haven’t been this hooked on FF quests since FFVII's lenghty Knights of Round Materia quest. That’s saying something because I was 13 then and today I am 34 with much less time to spend on a single game than I did back then.
Your Party of 4 is mostly controlled by the AI (except the character that is in use), unless you give specific characters commands for special moves in conjunction with Noct. Healing and equipment changes can be performed during combat through different Menus. Each party member has a specific skill out side of battle with Ignis cooking skills being the most vital to the party’s success as different recipes deliver different and in some cases major boosts to party stats during combat. Magic is handled through a draw spell system similar to FFVIII's system minus the stat boosts.
Ascension or in simpler terms the grid in which you spend AP points for extra item slots, better stats or different combat skills is reminiscent of FFX sphere grid system. In some ways FFXV feels like a homage to all previous titles in more ways than just its core gameplay and statistical progression mechanics.
Whatever amount of EXP that is gathered throughout a session is tallied up at camping spots or at hotels/motels. The camping spots are places where the party levels up and takes a look at Prompto's daily photos (he is the group’s photographer) you can save some of the photos of you want. To be honest I didn’t really involve myself too much in the fishing and photography components in the game. I was always more interested in going for side quests and hunts.
I could get deeper but I will leave it at this: FFXV has the most entertaining less cumbersome battle system in the series…the camera falters a bit during fast paced DBZ like battles but other wise I was having a blast from my very first hunt to the very last boss battle.
FFXIII was and is much maligned ( and deservingly so) for its linear on rails approach that did away with cities and NPC interaction thus effectively stripping the series at that point from what made J-RPGs an engrossing genre to begin with. Hajime Tabata (FFXV’s director) understood this and turned the latest installment in the series into a semi-open world full of optional quests and hunts. There are a bunch of out posts and two major cities all bustling with NPCs and activity.
NPCs are of the generic ilk but some of them do offer sidequests which in turn help you gain tons of EXP. To be fair the game is still missing some of that elusive magic one felt when exploring villages and new towns in the first 9 entries of the once venerable series, but Tabata did create a unique and enjoyable world.
As you might have noticed I have used the word “Semi-open” to describe FFXV's game world rather than the usual “open world” description and there is a reason for that. Skyrim, BotW, GTA V etc. Feature true open worlds in the sense that you can travel anywhere you want from the very early stages of their respective games. Mountains can be reached on foot and traversed in order to get over them. FFXV features a gigantic world but your travel is restricted by man made barriers early on (Imperial check points) and by natural barriers (Mountains are there for visual purposes as they cannot be traversed or other wise explored in a effort to get to a map point. Instead you are forced to explore open areas within those constraints, and mostly have to travel by car in order to get to new places and hunt areas.
I personally didn’t have problem with this, after all FF overworlds have always featured natural barriers and some form of linearity to keep things flowing.
Car traversal is equally restrictive, you only have one car; The Regalia. The Royal luxury sedan is a beautiful vehicle and a character in itself. The roads themselves are linear affairs, crashing and driving off road is literally impossible even when Noct and not the designated driver of the party Ignis is on the wheel.
I was also fine with this, FFXV is a game about Hunts and Character development it is not a driving game or an open world sim (ala GTA) Tabata had enough on his plate trying to salvage a disastrous Vs XIII, so he focused on the two aspects that would differentiate FFXV from the rest of the industry and the game ultimately benefits from the decisions made by its director and team.
There plenty of secrets and materials to be found in the game world. There is a chocobo racing game, you can also use Chocobos to traverse the land, and even a fishing game that while it doesn’t hold a candle to Ocarina’s fishing game, remains competent enough and is a nice touch.
Since FFVII there hasn’t been as many side diversions in the series as there are in FFXV. As with the visuals there are some rough edges here and there. The last third of the game is a linear affair, and some areas drag on for too long. Some battles get pretty hectic and you will find you self mashing buttons and using healing items to fight your way through. However the good outweighs the bad, and the bad is more than bearable.
A return to glory
Tabata had a lot of dinners with Sakaguchi ( the series creator and producer (FF1-10) while working on FFXV. It seems that he wanted to understand what made an FF game, a true FF game as Square lost touch with the series after the latter’s departure from the company.
The dinners paid off as the music by composer Nobuo Uematsu makes a triumphant return here, and no Uematsu isn’t FFXV’s composer but all of his storied FF soundtracks are present and readily available for a small fee of gil at out posts for the players enjoyment during overworld traversal. So FFXV serves as a literal streaming service for all of your favorite FF tracks from FF1 to FF14.
This was a brilliant stroke of genius that served to silence all the critics (myself included) that moaned about FF no longer sounding like FF. So you get the old mixed with the new. So how is the new soundtrack? Majestic. Some of the bigger cinematic events feature great arrangements accompanying them. The battle music is a bit minimalistic but considering how often you will find yourself in fights this decision was for the better.
The voice acting is ….as good as you can get from these type of Japanese dubbed games. I can’t say with a clear conscience that it surpasses God of War, or the Last of Us in that regard but Noct, Luna and the rest of the male party deliver solid and at times stellar performances. When it counted the most Noct's voice actor nailed his parts. This is perhaps the best voice acted Final Fantasy ever.
A Return to Form
Storytelling either makes or breaks an RPG, it is just the way it goes. The series struggled in this area after the 10th installment with FFXIII being the series low point.
Sakaguchi was a master at creating characters that gamers would care about as the story went along, and thankfully Tabata somehow manages the same feat here.
First things first. I highly recommend watching Kingsglaive before playing FFXV because quite simply there are characters such as Regis and Lunafreya who won’t get much of a chance to develop during the game and the vast majority of their work is seen in the film. The film is also quite good, Nyx is a hell of a protagonist.
Nyx being such a stud is what actually makes Noct seem like a wimpy protagonist at first. The set up for FFXV is very strange indeed…we are taken from an epic confrontation in Insomnia in the film to a pedestrian field trip amongst “Bros” at the start of the game. It is a downer, but Tabata had a plan.
Apart from the gods, magitek empires, magic rings and immortal beings FFXV is by far the most realistic game in the series in terms of its locations. The party dresses in modern attire, rides around in fairly realistic looking car. Said car needs constant refueling sessions at out posts that look and feel like Mid Western (USA) gas stations, the party camps out at night utilizing their trusty Coleman equipment (yes the brand is featured in the game),and the party eats realistic looking meals prepared by Ignis. These are four young men in the trip of a lifetime, and the game captures that feel.
Noct and his three body guards (who also happen to be his best friends) are to travel all they way out to Tenebrae so that he can marry its Princess and Current Oracle Lunafreya. Now Lunafreya and Noct have a deep childhood relationship which we see in snippets at certain points during the game.
These scenes aren’t long, and they don’t really do justice to the couple and yet the game pulls the feat of making you care about them at least during the last third of story. But the show stopper here is Noct and his bromance with Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto
At first you would be forgiven for mistaking the four men for a rougher looking K-Pop boy band but that would be a mistake as there is much substance to this group.
For starters each member has a unique personality that complements the team. Noct is princely but he isn’t above getting his hands dirty to help out his friends in pushing an out of gas Regalia. Gladio is the eldest member or at least the figure of authority and his big size helps establish that, but he is no brute. Ignis the designated driver and cook is also the smarts of the operation but he simply will suggest things and will never get bossy or annoying. Finally Prompto is the insecure kid of the group and thus is the loudest. He tries to be funny he seldom is but it is charming to see him try to be a funny appealing guy.
While tragedy strikes quickly, and the early bright outset gets a little somber the game for 2 thirds remains at least during day light a happy romp amongst friends. The game is divided into chapters, but for the first 6-8 chapters confrontation with the empire is kept somewhat at a minimum and the game gives you plenty of chances to pursue side quests and hunts. The sense of dread and desperation that the game probably should have tried to convey just isn’t present in its early and mid stages.
So we are left with the open world area and the last ultra linear 3rd of the game which lasts about 6-8 hours. The game squeezes most of its plot in that last section but by then the party has grown on you setting you up for the grand finale and when I say grand I really mean GRAND.
At certain points I could see how Nomura would have botched the game in different ways. One only needs to look at the convoluted mess that is Kingdom Hearts. Tabata however delivers from the very beginning by presenting us one of the most likeable character parties in FF history.
There are missed opportunities I still feel Luna wasn’t developed properly especially in regards to her relationship with Noct. A mini quest in an alternate universe directed by Sakaguchi in which Noct encounters a girl named Sara and both are tasked with saving said universe oozes more development for Sara in 45 minutes than perhaps Luna had in 20 hours.
The main villain himself doesn’t get the lime light he deserved and another important adversary gets a very insignificant ending. There are lose ends (Iris for example) and yet the main party of 4 tasked with saving the world is for the most part successful in elevating FFXV’s story telling to FFX levels of greatness.
At the end of the day only the heartless will not shed a tear or two upon the conclusion of the game and very few games let alone Final Fantasy games have come close to matching the emotional impact that the ending of FFXV had on me.
Final Fantasy since its 6th installment made a name for itself by featuring unforgettable characters in wonderful scenarios until the 10th installment, and FFXV succeeds in joining those mid to late nineties entries and in some ways even surpasses them.
FFXV doesn’t have the Sci Fi magnificence of FFVII or the charming Fantasy epic tale of FFIX but it has in turn the greatest tale of friendship seen in the series and that makes it a must play experience for anyone interested in RPGs.
Hajime Tabata was tasked with saving a multi-million dollar blunder and in the end saved the entire franchise from falling into the path of mediocrity that FFXIII and its sequels had placed it in.
So has FFXV brought me back into the fold? In short: Yes. Hajime Tabata and his team clearly crafted a game worthy of the moniker imperfections, and all it is the best FF game since FFX, and in some regards does a few things better than the other entries in the series. Recent news of Tabata leaving Square Enix has me worried though, Hajime understood how to make a good Final Fantasy, which is something others in Square never did including Nomura . For now though FFXV is a worthy entry.
GAMEPLAY: 8.0- Travelling the overworld whether by car, chocobo, or on foot is restricted to certain areas. The camera doesn’t follow the action with precision during hectic fight sequences, and the game relies on hunts and fetch quests which could at some point become tiresome to some players especially with so many things to do in other games in this genre. Combat is fast and fun and the difficulty is kept at a minimum during main story quests. Some will be turned off by the linearity and lack of freedom in the last 3rd of the game, but it was a necessary compromise in order to squeeze all of the story in.
GRAPHICS: 8.0- Mixed bag. Characters look fantastic and the CG cutscenes are unparalleled. The environments don’t fare as well with many bland areas accompanied by very few stunning locales. Tenebrae for example is positively stunning, while the desert area around Hammerhead is absolutely bland looking. The characters while fantastic looking fail to leave foot prints on sand or other wise granular surfaces. The water effects are some what poor. The forested areas do feel dense and the lighting all around the game is fantastic.
SOUND: 10- Every Final Fantasy soundtrack is available in the game. The game’s original score is fantastic also. The version of “Stand by Me” featured in the game by Florence and the Machine is the best version of it that I have heard apart from the original. The voice acting for the most part is Stellar.
STORY: 9.0- The over all tale around the characters is cliched stuff that we have seen before, even in the series it self (Magitek Empire anyone?) However the all male 'bro' party is a relatively unique take on the genre and it works. Regardless of questionable character development and the linear plot intensive last third of the game FFXV delivers with a stunning finale that elevates its tale to the pantheon of past Final Fantasy greats. Noct’s story is unforgettable and heart breaking just like we like our Final Fantasies.
Replayability: 8.5- The game has massive areas designed for Monster Hunts. I did many of these Hunts but I suspect I left about a half of them on the table. I did the same with the sidequests and consumed about 25 hours of play time. There are plenty of high level Daemons to fight that require hours of grinding in order to have any chance of success, so completists will find a time consuming game. I finished the main story with in 35 hours, I can see some finishing the game in under 30 hours. There is a new game plus mode if you want to relive the tale, and the fishing game isn’t half bad.
Overall: 9.0- A return to form. FFXV evolves the series into a different type of RPG but keeps the epic story and emotional impact the franchise was once known for intact in the transition. The game isn’t perfect the change up between a free semi-open world and the linear final stretch of the game felt strange, however I can’t conceive how FFXV could have told its story without these compromises being made. In the end a game such as this has to be measured on the emotional impact the story has on players and in that regard FFXV fires on all cylinders. A must buy for JRPG fans and anyone interested in engrossing stories.