Remember the good old days, back when Final Fantasy was synonymous with excellence, when each new release in the franchise was an industry defining event, when people would eagerly await the next installment in Square’s flagship franchise to see the direction that role playing games would take on consoles next? It may seem like that was a very long time ago, but the truth is, until the 2010 release of Final Fantasy 13, this held true- until that time, the release of Final Fantasy was an occasion, and the franchise simply acknowledging or ignoring a platform was often enough to make or break that platform’s fortunes.
Not so long ago, Final Fantasy was a premier franchise-one of the industry’s epoch defining standard bearers, akin to, and spoken of in the same hushed reverent tones as, Metal Gear or Zelda. Today, however, you wouldn’t know that- Final Fantasy as a name has become synonymous with overwrought melodramatic plots and characters, representing the worst of Japanese media, battle systems too intricate for their own good, and games that take far too long to come out, and disappoint besides when they do. The triple punch of Final Fantasy 13, Final Fantasy 14 (though this was later revived spectacularly with A Realm Reborn), and Final Fantasy Type 0 has ensured that even the franchise’s greatest fans are wary of jumping in blindly into any entry in the series at this point.
"Does the final game live up to all of that? To be honest, no- and this is not a reflection on Final Fantasy 15’s quality."
And so, we come to Final Fantasy 15. Ten long years in development, having seen at least two changes in its overall vision, one change in its director, one change in its status (it was originally going to be a spin-off to Final Fantasy 13, before Square promoted it to mainline status), one change in platforms (two, if we count it coming to Xbox One as a change), and one title change. Final Fantasy 15 has the most famously protracted development in the medium’s history- and the game currently has the responsibility of reviving the Final Fantasy brand for Square (long since diminished owing to increasingly poor releases), the larger responsibility of being the vanguard for the Japanese games industry, and besides, of just justifying its own existence and its own long development.
Does the final game live up to all of that? To be honest, no- and this is not a reflection on Final Fantasy 15’s quality. No game can ever live up to all of that. The surprise here is not that Final Fantasy 15 fails to live up to those expectations- the surprise here is that it comes as close to living up to them as it often does. As soon as you start the game up,you are met with a declaration, which is perhaps a statement of intent- ‘This is a Final Fantasy for newcomers and fans.’ Final Fantasy 15, being open world, with its action RPG combat, and structure recalling recent open world WRPG hits, certainly seems to be the franchise’s best shot at overcoming any hurdles to mainstream recognition and success, and it wears that distinction on its sleeve.
Once the game proper starts, you feel, for a minute, and in spite of these proclamations about breaking through to a larger audience, at home- this is the kind of Final Fantasy game that fans have been waiting for ever since the end of the PS2 era, the kind that we never got on the PS3. It’s gorgeous, possibly the best looking Japanese game ever made- and, true to series tradition, it seems to focus very intensely on its story, which is rife with political intrigue, and twists and turns.
"Suffice it to say, the story here is not the game’s best foot forward- there is the distinct impression that the lore, backstory, and context to the main narrative is far more impressive than the proceedings in the game proper are, and that feeling never quite goes away."
It is therefore a bit puzzling that the game fails at telling a compelling story at all- this doesn’t have much to do with its story telling. Surprisingly enough, the game manages to nail that part, with graphics that are expectedly great, music that is absolutely stellar and top class, and surprisingly enough, great writing and wonderfully restrained voice acting. The problem isn’t in how the game tells the story, the problem is in the story itself. There’s almost too much going on at once, and it can get all too overwhelming, too complicated for the player to follow. There is the distinct feeling that the player has been dropped into the middle of a story, and that they are now expected to follow along without much in the way of exposition and explanation.
As a matter of fact, that may very literally be true- with Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy and Brotherhood Final Fantasy both existing, chances are that a lot of this overwrought story was actually excised and stuffed into the movie and the anime respectively, possibly in an attempt to streamline the story in the game. They’ve failed on that front rather dismally, what with the story in the final game being almost incomprehensible at times, and still being laden with long scenes of exposition, and even contextual explanation of what is going on in the plot through flavor text in loading screens, and peripheral dialog.
Suffice it to say, the story here is not the game’s best foot forward- there is the distinct impression that the lore, backstory, and context to the main narrative is far more impressive than the proceedings in the game proper are, and that feeling never quite goes away. The game does make up for it, however, with some excellent characterization- coming off of Final Fantasy 13 and Final Fantasy 10, both of which had frankly absurd characters that bordered on being satirical stereotypes of the kinds of archetypes that pervade anime and other Japanese media all too often, this honestly comes as a bit of a pleasant surprise. You can understand and empathize with each character, you find yourself genuinely rooting for Noctis and his friends, all of whom come off as far realer people than anyone in Final Fantasy history before.
"Equal credit must go to the writing and voice acting, too, which I cannot oversell at all- the writing is sharp, and far better than the substandard quality that plagued Final Fantasy 13 and even Final Fantasy 10."
A lot of credit for this probably goes to how they interact with each other- their reactions to major plot events help set the expectation of what each character should be like, but it’s their banter with each other, and their interactions and dynamic as a group, that help sell that. The entire idea of a group of friends out on a road trip is sold so thoroughly and so impressively well that you cannot help but laud Square Enix for how well they have realized their core creative vision in this instance.
Equal credit must go to the writing and voice acting, too, which I cannot oversell at all- the writing is sharp, and far better than the substandard quality that plagued Final Fantasy 13 and even Final Fantasy 10. Dialog is sharp, witty, cutting, and always understated, which is a monumental achievement for this franchise. The dialog being as good as it is helps cover for the infrequent deficiencies in voice acting (which is otherwise excellent and top notch) that often crop up through the course of the game.
The other big thing when it comes to Final Fantasy, apart from its story, is always the central gameplay. Credit to Square Enix where it is due,they have never been content with resting on their laurels, and have in fact continuously sought to reinvent the wheel with Final Fantasy, developing an entirely new set of mechanics for each game, only to start over with the next one. Even when they were adhering to the template of turn based Final Fantasy, they innovated wildly from one installment to the next.
"Each weapon feels different, but more important, and perhaps most reassuringly for fans who played the Episode Duscae demo last year and came away disappointed, each weapon has weight and heft to it, so that swinging a weapon feels like an act of consequence on the battlefield."
Even with the more divisive installments, such as Final Fantasy 12 and 13, the core battle systems and mechanics always escaped criticism. With Final Fantasy 15, Square Enix have realized the non turn based, real time action based vision for Final Fantasy that they have chased for so long. Battles are kinetic, dynamic, and frenetic, with Noctis bounding around the battlefield, taking on one enemy after another. A very informative and minimalistic HUD helps you keep track, and a lock on lets you ensure that you are directing your swings and blows where they should be going in more hectic battles.
Each weapon feels different, but more important, and perhaps most reassuringly for fans who played the Episode Duscae demo last year and came away disappointed, each weapon has weight and heft to it, so that swinging a weapon feels like an act of consequence on the battlefield. Given this, then, as well as the fact that weapons can be changed on the fly, players are encouraged to experiment with different kinds of weapons until they find those that suit their style the best. Throw in magic, summons, and environmentally contextual attacks into the mix, and you end up with compelling combat that makes a case for being the best in the series.
Incredibly enough, the game also manages to make concessions for fans of classic turn based Final Fantasy. Within the settings menu is nestled an option to set battles to ‘Wait Mode,’which takes a leaf out of classic CRPGs, and lets players turn Final Fantasy 15 into a round based RPG. Any time Noctis is not moving, the action on the battlefield stops, letting the player plan their next move and attack. It’s basically a more real time implementation of the classic Active Time Bar, and it’s something that should give pause to even the most cynically jaded Final Fantasy fan.
"The final pillar of a Final Fantasy game is its presentation-now, this review has already touched upon this previously, but Final Fantasy 15 fires on all cylinders on these accounts (and also makes my overexcited PS4 sound like it’s an airplane about to take off)."
Battles aside, Final Fantasy 15 leverages its WRPG inspired open world structure fully. Players are encouraged to rest at inns or campsites in the evening, because the more dangerous monsters that players cannot take on, come out at night. Resting is also the only way to actually level up- you can garner all the XP and ability points you want to otherwise,but you won’t level up till you stop at an inn or a campsite. Actual progression is fairly standard otherwise, with experience points leading to standard gains in mana and health, and ability points unlocking perks for you that give you new abilities on the Ascension Tree. Thankfully, the unnecessary leveling methods such as the Sphere Grid and the Crystarium are gone.
The final pillar of a Final Fantasy game is its presentation-now, this review has already touched upon this previously, but Final Fantasy 15 fires on all cylinders on these accounts (and also makes my overexcited PS4 sound like it’s an airplane about to take off). The game looks incredible, with an excellent and cohesive art style backed by some seriously impressive tech – the draw distances in this game are impressive, the textures are generally great, except for when viewed from incredibly up close, and the color saturation complements the art style immensely. I was playing the game on a standard PS4 system, and I was taken aback by how great it looked, and even more importantly, by how well it held up, with minimal frame rate dips and stuttering. Don’t get me wrong, there was definitely some of that there- but it was infrequent enough that it never stood out much.
Even better than the graphics is the soundtrack, which at this point, you should have expected. Final Fantasy games are known to have incredible soundtracks, and Final Fantasy 15 is no different in that regard. The new tracks are all stellar, the recurring leitmotif is definitely catchy, and there are some great callbacks to classic Final Fantasy themes that should tug at your heartstrings.
"Final Fantasy 15 makes a case for being one of the best, most progressive Final Fantasy games ever released, and a hell of a return to form for the franchise."
Final Fantasy 15 actually makes an art form out of tugging at your heartstrings by invoking nostalgia and referencing older games. It does so classily, and in an understated manner, but in spite of this being a Final Fantasy game meant for newcomers, in spite of this being the game that anyone can jump into, this is still a Final Fantasy game, and it is never afraid to wear that on its sleeve, ever. Fans who have stuck the longest with Final Fantasy will get the most out of Final Fantasy 15 – but even those who are new to the series will love almost everything that this game has to offer.
So yes, here we are. Final Fantasy 15 is an incredible game,and one that I think most people will be glad they played- but at the same time, it is a victim of the context of its own troubled development and birth. Final Fantasy 15 makes a case for being one of the best, most progressive Final Fantasy games ever released, and a hell of a return to form for the franchise, but it can never, no game can ever, end up living up to the gargantuan expectations that surrounded this game. Go into it knowing that, and you’ll enjoy it far more. When you boot it up, stop asking yourself if the ten year long wait was worth it- stop asking that, and simply be glad that you are getting to play another Final Fantasy again, the first true one we have received in years.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
The combat is incredible, the leveling system is sensible and understated, great characterization and character interactions, witty and sharp writing, incredible graphics and beautiful soundtrack.
The story is nigh on incomprehensible, some frame rate issues.