(Probably not the) Final Fantasy
So I finally managed to summon up the effort and patience to completing the main story line in the latest Final Fantasy installment. What follows is my best attempt at a spoiler-lite review, but be warned that certain early and later points of the story and game will be mentioned in general terms to justify my point of view.
We’re reminded every time we load up the game that this is “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First Timers”. As a fan of RPG’s, “J” and otherwise, this comment immediately caused me to roll my eyes and assume that the mechanics have been watered down from previous instalments, or worse, RPG’s as a whole. This paired with the well-known fact that the game started life as “Final Fantasy Verses XIII” you can imagine my in trepidation. Thankfully the result isn’t the disaster that I feared, though far from a perfect game for reasons which I will go into but I’d like to say that it rectifies more mistakes the series made with FFXIII that it creates for the series.
So upon immediately starting the game you are given possibly the shortest opening scene in recent Final Fantasy history, that is if you take out the tutorial. As I understand the Tutorial was released as part of the early access for the game to show off the gameplay mechanics. Other than running through the basics and the not so basic controls you can also learn the history of the land and the game via a gallery and text
A short FMV and we are then introduced to the 4 Ami-bro’s for whom you’ll largely be spending the next 50 odd hours. You’re teased with an epic battle against a powerful creature/deity which demonstrates how rough and tumble the action will be. It’s refreshing to know that you’re not expected to pirouette and glide past every encounter in the cutscenes only to be smashed around like a blitzball when you get to take control yourself. Here you’re knocked around just as much in the cutscenes as you are under your own control.
Now as some may know there was a movie released a short time prior to the game, “Kingslaive”, this served as a prequel to the story some 12 years prior and parallel to the events that play out here. Admittedly I did not watch the movie prior to playing the game and this I believe could have erased some of the issues I had from a plot perspective. Whereas in the game the intro is pretty short, essentially what we’re looking at is an optional movie length intro which could have made the whole backstory much clearer, assuming you’ve got the patience and the will. It’s an awful lot of commitment to give a game which you haven’t started.
Beyond that we’re then reintroduced to the main protagonists in a bit of light comedy which sees them share some banter whilst headed to the first “outpost” of the game. Now, the game received some comments on the fact that only male characters were playable this time around and with a such a small cast of playable character’s I didn’t take much from this…until I made it to this point and met Cindy…the first female you meet in the game.
Now, following what I feel was an absolute car crash of cliched moody teens which littered FFXIII I wasn’t looking for the characterizations to be high point of the game, however I was proven wrong. The 4 strong team of close buddy’s here are as endearing as the next in my opinion, maybe still a bit on the stereotypical side but each brings something important to the dialogue. Ignis is the “mother” of the group, ever knowledgeable about the landscape and the world and responsible for the groups diet. Gladiolus the powerhouse and part trainer, part protector of Prince Noctis. Prompto the goofy friend and avid photographer (complete with sad backstory). Finally your own role Prince Noctis, the slightly moody but more cynical protagonist. With the exception of Ignis on occasion, none of the team treat you as royalty and openly banter, make fun of and reprimand you at any given opportunity. One thing that stands out more than anything is the comradery that exists between all the characters with the use of nicknames and jokes at each other’s expense but also assisting one another in battle and chanting jeers of encouragement along the way.
Which takes us on a segue to the combat mechanics. Square has been refining it’s Active Time Battle (ATB) system for years but have ditched it entirely here for real time battles. These do take a little getting used to, not for the offense but defence more so however it is intuitive and soon becomes second nature. This is backed up by an expanding number of team attack’s and specials which Noctis can command his team to do. A disappointment is the magic system which also has changed essentially becoming grenades of different flavours. These cause damage to comrades too and invariably make for more problems than they solve. You’ll also be responsible for making sure everyone takes their medicine (potions etc.). It’s actually incredibly difficult to actually “game over” as you are given a few chances before things get that dire. With this being the case the game feels much more along the lines of Dragonage than anything previously in the series which whilst not the worst comment, may put off the more strategy focused gamer.
The world is of the “open” variety here, at least for the most part. Whereas FFXIII had you funnelled down a path for 25 hours before giving you any real freedom, FFXV goes the complete opposite and gives you access to a large chunk of the world map from the get go. There are clearly defined borders which are marked as road blocked which are clearly your next route of passage. I’m always a little disappointed when I’m not given the entire planet to explore as such is the case here. This is a personal opinion and “world” certainly is large enough and would probably take a goof 45 minutes to an hour to traverse coast to coast by foot. I'm always left wondering if this isn't the whole world, why is everyone only from here? Anyway.
Whilst you’re free to walk anywhere, the size of the country and the relative sparseness of the landscape will put you off doing so. Enter the 5th member of your team, the Regalia. Once the game begins you have access to the royal car which initially Ignis will drive on your behalf giving you limited control. Driving is performed in real time, that is you literally get in the car and drive to the next destination. This can take up to 5 mins a time but the gorgeous views on offer paired with the quips and observations made by the team make this acceptable at the beginning. After you’ve visited a location you can then fast-travel around and can do the same from walking back to where you parked the car. Just briefly on that point, the game is clearly processing an awful lot at one time and as such the loading, when it happens does take it’s time. Thankfully it only feels the need to do this when fast-travelling and first booting up (plus upon end of chapter), otherwise the world is streamed relatively seamlessly. You’ll find that fast-travelling isn’t always preferential anyway as there’s usually several routes by car to each location and you’re missing out on rewards for exploration and discovery (and photo ops!) by doing so.
Whilst the world is beautiful it is also somewhat empty of life. The plot denotes the reasons for this but the life you do find seems to be a bit too accepting of the current state of the world. The land is covered in well maintained roads which you will often not pass any other cars on in a given journey. There is a night and day cycle built into the game and early on you’re very much restricted to moving around in the daylight hours. At night time you’re told that fearsome Daemons roam the land, with an aversion to light which leaves you staying at outposts or getting some sleep either at said outpost or finding a suitable campsite of which there are many littered over the landscape. It’s here your levelling up takes place. You’ll accrue exp for battles and completing quests but you don’t cash it in until you sleep. At this point you can buy a multiplier for your exp by paying to spend the night at an expensive hotel. Being somewhat economical the maverick in me quickly calculated that I could level up more quickly by not sleeping until completely necessary. Having now played through I would pass on the advice that it is better to take the opportunity to sleep the nights away in the early hours of the game. The time you’ll save in waiting out the darkness greatly outweighs any payoff for hoarding exp. Plus, given that the bonus is percentage based, it won’t even matter but for the few gil you’ll save! There is one other option if you are wanting to stay up all night…
So I mentioned each member has their skills and Prince Noctis is no different. His speciality is…Fishing. Yes. The game includes a fishing mini-game which pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. Slight Spoiler – There is no plot benefit from fishing. It has its advantages from a sidequest point but you’re not missing much. A bonus from this however is that should you be fishing at night, no enemies will spawn and attack, you’re free to cast out all night.
Once you do level up to a point you’re gradually given consent to drive around all night so best work up to that as quickly as possible with a string of early nights!
One final thing about the open world which impresses is the amount that you don’t actually have to go and see. The side quests will have you scouring every corner of the land for fetch quests and hunts however there are many dungeons which you just plain do not have to go to. When I say “don’t have to”, that isn’t to say it’s empty, there’s volcanoes and abandoned plantations which are ripe for exploring and each reap enough reward. The quality of these area’s is just as high as anywhere the plot will take you and the dialogue just as rich and the bosses just as memorable (even more so if you pick up a hunt which is on route). It’s a definite plus to have this quality throughout and not just reserved for DLC or plot based missions.
Speaking of DLC, this continues until even now (please check the publishing date!) which focus’s on the other team members and as you play through the main story you will see there are quite obvious moments where these will take place. I like the fact main game is the whole of Noctis’ Story and they’re not looking to charge you for any expansions of this. They are also proactively asking fans what they would like to see next which is a refreshing touch! My personal hope is that they look to include some more mobile base raids as I felt the open world style focused down well with the rules put in place.
In conclusion. I don’t throw around a 7 out of 10 lightly. It can be a cop-out score for mediocrity and in my mind a mediocre game should be a 5. We also normally restrict the size of our reviews to circa 500 words (so you can get your quick fix) but I’ve broken that in light of the fact I don’t think it’s fair to give a slightly controversial/cop out score for a game which I plunged 50 hours into. There’s an undeniable high quality to every part of the game (save for the odd low-res mountain flyby!) and the things which didn’t work are outnumbered by the things that did. If you are new to Final Fantasy you’ll be in for a shock if this has influenced you into trying the earlier installments as it’s playing a very different game. Ultimately it loses points for the generic story which comes with too few game-changing plot twists and introduces some new mechanics far too late into the story. The journey here is much more fun than the destination and its nice to see that they’ve done their best to notice
the series previous flaws whilst still making their mark into new territory.
It’s the fundamentals that win the day here. The combat is fun, the characters are likeable and every effort has been made to allow you to access the best parts of the game even though the plot takes you away from it (can’t say more without spoilers!). There’s a questionable part of the game late on which changes the mechanics and puts a bit too much onus on stealth for my taste but you always have the option if you get bogged down with this to dip back into the open world and slip into something more comfortable.