Final Fantasy XV
29 November 2016
It’s here. It’s finally here.
It was known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII when announced, a spin-off title to Final Fantasy XIII. FFXIII and the first version of FFXIV bombed hard, while Versus XIII was trapped in development hell. It prompted a director change, then a rebrand as a mainline series happened to kick off a new development cycle. Even Malaysians had been involved, with Streamline Studios being contracted and Wan Hazmer helming the role of Lead Game Designer for the Culture team.
10 years have past, and it’s finally here. Good news: it’s worth the wait.
The long-running series has always made each new iteration of the series stand on its own: the story, world, even gameplay mechanics will differ from each sequel. Final Fantasy XV takes the most radical of left turns for the JRPG series by infusing more modern modern RPG sensibilities, an impressive open world (for better or worse), and a lovable main cast.
Graphics & Sound
Powered by the Luminous Studio engine, Final Fantasy XV has some impressive technical feats yet the demos we have received undermine this by how terrible the framerate drops: down to sub-20fps. The final game has been fairly optimized, as the game now runs at a rock solid 30fps. However, frame pacing issues are reported for the PS4 version, though to my experience the hitches and stutters are minimal and negligible at best.
The open world of Eos is such a beauty to behold. It may not be the biggest Final Fantasy world in terms of places to visit, the main playable area of Lucis seems to just have a handful of locations and regions, but they are all fleshed out in a spectacular manner. Even a roadside stop with a motel and a diner looks fantastic in this world. The mix of the fantastical elements like monsters and otherworldly rock formations with more realistic elements like roadways, cars and smartphones evokes an interesting tone to the game and does stand out.
The drawback to have all these gorgeous world being rendered without loading screens is that it suffers from low LOD (level of detail) on background objects, monsters sometime pops in when you’re too close rather than appear in the distance first and some underwhelming water reflections. I would rather take these small problems than an inconsistent framerate. Loading times for fast travel can be around 20-ish seconds, though a new chapter or the loading screen after you start a new game/load a save can take a while.
But then it has crazy particle effects that are just jaw-dropping. The effects of casting magic and calling in a summon is just magnificent the first time you see it, and still one of the better ones seen in any game in 2016. The animation work is also wonderfully done too, from battle poses to small idle animations. Noctis even takes some time to fixed his ridiculous hairdo.
The soundtrack? Spectacular. Yoko Shimomura leads the soundtrack scoring with very memorable orchestral tunes. Each background song matches the theme of the area. The lush open landscapes filled with light, uplifting motifs. The diners and motels on the roadside have a country tune. The small town of Lestallum (the town where you can find satay, roti canai and teh tarik) has more Cuban inspiration than it is Malaysian, so its theme is very Carribean in sound.
Some of these themes are dynamic as well. For instance, travel to the markets of Lestalum and the song goes even more upbeat and lively. Go into a diner in the middle of the highway and the country jams slow down a bit. If that’s not enough, you can buy and listen to songs of past Final Fantasy titles while cruising on the road.
The battle themes? There’s plenty of them, and always helped building the tension and hype for fights big and small.
The English dub is acceptable, though the quality of the voice acting can be uneven with minor characters. Thankfully, Japanese audio is included on the get go should you prefer that. But rest assured the writing for the four main characters: the reserved slacker and would-be king Noctis, the tough guy, sometimes harsh but always caring Gladio, the ever-prepared, ever-reliant confidant Ignis and the cheery childhood friend that tries his best to contribute Prompto are all fleshed out.
Considering these four are the characters that will stick with the party throughout the game, they are all fleshed out quite well to make them endearing. From quips of conversation in the car or on foot, battle quotes, special tours where you spend time with one of the boys (ala Mass Effect and Dragon Age’s companion interactions) and even just seeing them acting out at camp or a motel while you tally up experience points hits home the fact that these are not just a party you control.
These are Noctis and his friends- the game even addresses the party as that rather than call it a party. These are not just a boy band either, they’re a lovable boy band.
For some reason, the audio for certain sound effects- anything involve with magic seems lacking. It seems to be muffled a bit. Not sure if it is intended to sound like that but it just doesn’t feel crisp enough to match the other sounds. A small nitpick.
Final Fantasy XV is not your average Final Fantasy. The recurring themes are there, but the mechanics are entirely different. Combat has been more hands-on to almost feel like a character action game like Devil May Cry. Though it’s by no mean require high skill- there’s no combos, you just need to hold the attack button. There’s block sand parries too, but the window of input for those are lenient and have big button prompts. The timing window is much smaller for tougher enemies, but the prompts are clear.
But the general view of the combat may not be so. The camera during battle just can’t keep up with the action. It is easily blocked by vegetation, terrain, or even just for being too close (protip: set the camera to Far in the options menu). It’s also a problem in tight spaces, but not as worse as not being able to see yourselves because a rock or a hill is blocking the angle. If you never touch the right stick, the camera will never auto-correct itself to a more favourable angle, thus manually adjusting the camera is the order of the day.
Aside from a wonkky camera, the combat is great and it’s definitely cool to gawk at. Seeing the four pals fighting with their own styles, teaming up with combo attacks (Link-Strikes), coming in to your aid while making a snarky remark is all beautifully animated and voiced. Strategically approaching battles are rewarded with bonus damage output, so it’s not just holding the attack button to win lower leveled enemies.
The open world is ripe for exploring and pretty expansive. There’s a good reason you have a car and later chocobos (and later a flying car) as modes of transportation. Going from one place to another takes some time. There’s a fast travel system to places you visited, but for some reason it costs 10 gil and you have to sit through a loading screen. Oddly enough, this cost only applies to fast travelling in the car to a certain point. Return to your last rest spot or where you park your car or even to a dungeon entrance costs nothing. What a weird inconsistency.
Parts of the world are littered with small pickup items and treasure, as well as monsters to fight. If you stroll through without purpose these vast lands can be a bit dull, so you better do those quests and hunts. Sidequests are aplenty, but unfortunately nothing stands out more than just a series of fetch quests. Even if they added context to all the quests- a shop vendor has his delivery van interrupted, a journalist who also works as a jeweller wanted help getting some ores, or helping out a power plant worker checking power pylons, they are still fetch quests. Go to point A- grab the item/clear the monsters/do both- return.
And the most horrible thing about it is that they are pretty much aware of the fetch quests. They even recorded dialogues that acknowledge this fact and wove it into the story.
Plus, for some reason that when the quest giver is an NPC that exists other than for quests (like a diner owner or a shop vendor), the quest markers are separate from the shop menu- and it’s fiddly sometimes to trigger one or the other.
There are other ways of making elegant and engaging quests that can be done in the open world. While they clearly took a lot of good design ethos from modern RPGs (especially last year’s RPG of the year The Witcher 3), yet they took also the boring way of making quests. Two interesting ones were a reworked version of the behemoth hunt from the demo and a cross-promotion with Nissin’s Cup Noodles that have different objectives depending on your dialogue choices.
FF always had dialogue choices, but the presentation this time surely took inspiration from modern RPGs to give more urgency and even reward players if they chose the “perfect” choice.
The other big shakeup to the formula aside from the combat is how you grow. Experience points are collected but won’t be tallied until you camp or stay to an inn for the night. While these two features have always been available in the series, this small change makes them integral to your progress. Plus the added immersion of having to take a rest after a long day of exploring and hunting really hits the road trip vibe they wanted to achieve.
At camps are where you can cook meals that give you huge status buffs for the next day. Or you could go eat at diners and restaurants to gain these buffs and learn the surroundings by asking there. A lot of these elements make the flow of just exploring the world with your buddies much more endearing and feel natural, which makes up for the mostly generic sidequests.
Aside from experience points, you’ll gain Ability Points that are used to progress in the Ascension grid. Basically a skill tree, but much simpler in presentation to other Final Fantasy that uses a similar system. You can gain Ability Points outside of combat, and with the proper upgrades, by just travelling the world and doing mini-games.
Content & Longevity
If you’re looking for a game to sink a lot of time is, then FFXV delivers. While the main story could be blazed through in about 20-25 hours, there are plenty of optional dungeons and sidequests to complete. Yes, most of them are fetch quests, but further along you will be brought to the optional dungeons that are all worth exploring. The dungeons are all immaculately designed to be interesting- the ones you faced in the main story is the gold standard here and the optional ones are even better.
Like any Final Fantasy games, there’s tons of mini-games. From fishing to chocobo racing to playing a sort-of pinball, sort-of pachislot and sort-of RPG Justice Monsters FIVE to actual gambling by betting in monster battles, there’s tons to do and tons to collect. Any of these mini-games cap sap you hours from your game time, and are all properly fleshed out.
You will stay for the breath of content, but while the story has a sweet beginning and a strong ending the overarching plot is undeniably lacking. The efforts on giving the main four the proper writing they deserve has impacted the rest of the cast- mostly being one-dimensional. Take Cindy the mechanic. She’s hardworking and lost his parents since a child.. and that’s all we know of her. Even the extended cast of villains from the Niflheim empire are barely mentioned, or sparingly used to cross paths with the four. Even the leading lady Lunafreya, despite being a well thought-out character, has very little screentime.
Square Enix indeed knew this, hence the need for transmedia materials (the Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV movie, the Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV anime shorts, the audio drama) to further enhance the story. But it still suffers from the problem: most of the interesting things in the overarching plot happens off screen. And they could have addressed it better in the linear sections of the story. There’s plenty of ways to incorporate the important plot points rather than just an audio blurp.
On that note, the linear sections of the game certainly is the weakest part of the game and it’s not because of it being linear. The set-pieces here are awesome as ever, but character arcs that are not developed properly making intended big reveals fall flat, with no exact idea what’s going on and why is the pacing all over the place. Some of the later chapters are just one or two set-piece moments that come and go quick, then there’s the much talked about Chapter 13. The heart is in the right place on that one, but still come off as tedious.
Thankfully, the ending sequence somehow redeemed it by having spectacular set-pieces, and tough boss fights that are fair- you won’t be battling boss after boss like most FF endgames, so it’s worth finishing it. You still learn nothing of the plot in the ending here, but those small moments when you roam in the open world certainly pays off.
Plus, the biggest incentive to actually finish the game is that more content is opened up until you finished the game, including the ability to turn your car into an airship. Expect more post-game content to be added in the following patches, as well as DLCs.
Verdict- Final Fantasy XV
With 10 years of development, with most of those years doing not much progress, Final Fantasy XV could have been a rushed job, a mess of a game that’s too ambitious for its own good. While some of it is true, the rough main plotline, odd pacing on later parts of the game and unimaginative sidequest designs are telling signs, what they managed to produce is still a great game. During the later promos it was heavily emphasised what part of the game they were focusing, and whatever they have showcased, most of them are done well.
The surprise of having the game running at a stable framerate, a fun and deep combat system, and the many ways the game fleshed out the bonding of the four boys on a roadtrip of their lifetime is one marvelous achievement that saved this title from just being fine or mediocre. By taking inspiration with modern RPG systems, they managed to created a very special FF title, although they also copied the inherent flaws of having an open world.
Yet, despite its big flaws, Final Fantasy XV managed to impressed me and delivered a great experience. The road trip journey of Noctis, Gladio, Ignis and Prompto certainly is a memorable one.
Ten years in development and while not perfect, it’s worth the wait.
Easy yet deep combat system
The road trip journey- just magical
Seamless and breathtaking open world
Packed with optional dungeons, sidequests and things to do
Strong, fantastic set-pieces, even in the linear sections
The photos the game takes for you
Disjointed and barely fleshed out overarching plot
Rushed and terrible pacing when the main story kicks in
Boring sidequest designs that are mostly just fetch quests
Horrible camera that frequently get in the way
Graphical setbacks for reflections and level of detail to ensure a stable framerate