Release Date: November 29, 2016Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBODeveloper: Square Enix Publisher: Square EnixGenre: RPG
There’s a moment near the beginning of Final Fantasy XV that sees our intrepid group of heroes pushing their car across a desert. As their small jabs at each other become punctuated with fits of laughter, Florence + The Machine’s version of “Stand By Me” begins to play in the background. It’s a striking moment of sight and song marred by execution. In short, it’s a snapshot of the best and worst of Final Fantasy XV.
The problem with this moment is that it comes at a time (about 20 minutes into the game) when we have no emotional attachment to any of the characters featured in it. As such, we are able to recognize the technical marvel of the scene, but it doesn’t have the same impact that it could have had if it were executed with a little more finesse.
This is a complaint you’ll find yourself returning to time and time again as you explore everything that this game has to offer. Sadly, that is especially true of the new real-time combat system. The idea of a real-time combat system in a Final Fantasy game used to be like a fat-free cupcake that doesn’t sacrifice flavor in that it was something people joked about and secretly wished for.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XV’s combat does sacrifice some of the series’ flavor. It’s similar to the revolutionary Arkham combat system in that you are required to bounce between multiple foes to perform attacks while utilizing a single-button dodge mechanic. Attacking an enemy from behind yields a chance to perform critical damage in the form of a devastating double team attack, while magic items and summons can be used to perform special abilities.
Those double team attacks are by far the best part about the combat. They not only look great, but they’re fairly intuitive to utilize and add a real sense of strategy to the chaos. Intuitive seems like a strange compliment until you realize that it’s just about the last word you would use to describe the magic and summoning systems. The game’s tutorial does an admirable job of explaining the basics of magic, but it’s ultimately utilized as little more than an afterthought which rarely feels organically implemented into the rest of the combat.
Summons, meanwhile, are arguably the most visually impressive combat element this series has ever known. It’s just a shame that you need a doctorate in physics to stand a chance of understanding exactly how these creatures can be called upon. The curious complexity of being able to call upon one of these diety’s during the game’s battles is all the more bizarre when you weigh it against the comparatively simple melee mechanics which require you to do little more than hold down the attack button.
Given that the combat system is based on one which emphasizes attacking multiple foes, its a bit surprising that the best fights usually involve you taking on one large enemy. The bosses in this game are not universally great, but most of them are designed in a way that forces you to explore some of the most nuanced qualities of the combat, such as team-assisted special attacks. Then again, these fights make the flaws of the average encounter that much more pronounced.
Ideally, any shortcomings in the combat system should be offset by the achievements of the game’s narrative as per Final Fantasy tradition. Here, FFXV breaks series tradition again. When FF XV’s story is at its best, it is barely telling a story at all. The moments when you are cruising the gorgeous open world, exploring ancient dungeons, identifying the history behind some far off monument, or simply bathing in the banter between the game’s main protagonist represent subtlety in video game storytelling at its very best.
There’s still a traditional narrative at the heart of Final Fantasy XV, but it clashes horribly with the open-world aspects. Without diving into spoilers, FFXV’s main narrative arc deals with kingdoms at war, summoners, demons, and many of the other elements we’ve come to associate with the franchise. The story doesn’t rank among the franchise’s best.
The big problem is that the story often forces the game to come to a complete stop. In comparison to a game like The Witcher 3, which tells its story while you are exploring the game’s world, FFXV often splits its exploration and storytelling into two different styles of gameplay. While some of those storytelling moments are undeniably cinematically impressive (especially later in the game), they often turn the game into an incredibly linear experience that falls short of games like the Uncharted franchise, which are built around such a cinematic style.
Regardless of your opinion on the merits of that style, the reason the story doesn’t work in the context of this game is because it so often yanks you from the beautiful world that developer Square Enix has crafted. This is the rare open-world game which encourages the player to explore simply through the thrill of discovery itself rather than by feeding off of some desire to collect a seemingly endless amount of items. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to collect, but rather that the items and weapons you acquire feel like a reward for taking the time to venture off the beaten path.
Final Fantasy XV’s sound design is one of the game’s few untarnished elements of brilliance. Here, you’ll find the same moments of grand orchestral music serving as the soundtrack to some cinematic moment which we’ve come to expect from the Final Fantasy series, but the breakout star is your car radio. Cruising around the world listening to classic Final Fantasy soundtracks is an irreplaceable source of entertainment, as are the modern tunes which fit the new world like a glove. Less obvious, but no less spectacular, are the sound effects. From the comforting crackle of a roaring campfire to the breaking waves of the ocean, every little sound ensures that FFXV serves as the liveliest Final Fantasy game to date.
Is that enough, though? Can you really recommend a game based on the strength of some random arcade title you stumble across during your adventures or the strange satisfaction that comes from watching the four protagonists enjoy some new meal they’ve stumbled across while they sit around the campfire when major aspects such as the story and combat system are so fatally flawed?
Typically, we label games with subtle qualities and obvious flaws as cult classics. The idea behind that label is that there is always going to be a small subsection of gamers that are able to look past the obvious flaws and appreciate those little gems of brilliance they hide. They’re a cult of personality.
How much you value personality will ultimately determine if Final Fantasy XV affects you as much as the game’s “Stand By Me” opening is hoping it will. If you’re the type of person who measures your grand adventures by the value of the little moments that formed it, then you will likely come to find that the charming world of Final Fantasy XV invokes an almost indescribable sense of belonging that even the greatest games so rarely achieve.
As for everyone else…well, you might be left with the feeling of pushing a car through a desert in pursuit of some incredible destination you never seem to arrive at.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.