It is a turbulent time for the long-running and oft-beloved Final Fantasy series, specifically for the core games. Following the brilliant overhaul of the combat system in FFXII, a less-than-stellar reception for FFXIII, the online-only antics of XIV (MMORPGs are not for everyone, you know) and nearly innumerable delays for the newest iteration, Final Fantasy XV is finally here—and we’ve been playing the hell out of it.
We join a young prince named Noctis as he sets out on a road trip to marry a woman from a neighboring kingdom, thereby strengthening diplomatic ties and blah blah blah blah blah. It’s a familiar enough setup for fantasy fans, but given the series’ penchant for the creation of worlds not tethered to any specific time or place, FFXV is every bit cellphones and cars as it is swords and magic. Along for the journey is a small group of Noctis’ close friends, though at least two of them might be more aptly described as servants. Ignis is akin to a valet or butler and provides the prince with wise insight, cooks for the party during downtime and even drives the Regalia, Noctis’ totally badass car. Ignis’ abilities err toward the strategic, a mid-range fighter who is more slow and calculating that up-close brawler. Such a fighting style is tied to Gladiolus, Noctis’ towering bodyguard who, with massive two-handed swords, doles out incredible strength and damage in an up-close-and-personal fashion. Also along for the ride is Prompto, an actual childhood chum of the prince who metes out small but quick attacks with ranged handguns. Noctis himself is an amalgam of all three, able to warp into the fray of battle with fierce attacks, rain down punishing magic attacks with the chance to damage multiple enemies and the ability to wield ancient weapons once belonging to his royal predecessors.
We won’t spoil any further story elements here, but suffice it to say that conflict does indeed arise, and that a shocking major event derails Noctis’ simple task and thrusts him and his friends into a perilous situation out from which they must navigate themselves. You’ll just have to pick it up and find out for yourself.
As for how FFXV plays, let’s take a look at the
mechanics at work.
The combat system plays out like a cross between the real-time fracas of FFXII and the more measured skirmishes of FFXIII. We mainly control Noctis though, thankfully, we have a say in what happens to the other party members through various techniques and more control over the application of items (potions, elixirs, phoenix downs and similar FF items are obviously part of the game). At first blush, the fighting seems to play out like any old hack-and-slash, but the timing and layers of strategy needed to effectively dispatch foes goes much deeper. It’s actually quite brilliant how simple the combat seems versus the myriad options lurking beneath the hood. Effectively, it creates one of the stronger reasons for series newcomers to give the game a shot but should also satisfy longtime fans. After each battle a report card is shown, which should allow players to experiment and learn to fight better. The ability to block incoming attacks makes its FF debut, and with proper timing it becomes a godsend as well as a necessity.
Each party member is also assigned passive abilities, such as Prompto’s insistence on cataloguing the journey with photography, Gladiolus’ survival skills (which basically amounts to him “finding” items after battles), Ignis’ preparation of stat-boosting meals during rest times and Noctis’ love of fishing. Yes, fishing. You’ll level these abilities up by using them which, in turn, unlocks better meals, more frequent item discovery and more.
The party itself levels up through FFXV’s Ascension system, a mechanic similar to the Sphere Grid found in FFX, though not nearly as bafflingly complicated. Through various classifications (combat, magic, abilities, teamwork, etc.), Noctis and company can transmute experience and ability points earned through battle and exploration into stronger attacks, new abilities, passive perks and more.
Mechanics aside, FFXV truly shines in its presentation of the pre-existing relationships between its heroes. We truly get the sense that, despite whatever their stations might be, Noctis and his pals care for one another. They poke fun and chat openly, but they always operate like old friends who love each other—they cherish the meaning of friendship. Perhaps that seems like a no-brainer in a story-heavy series that has always been about partying up and preventing great evils with badasses at your side, but FFXV explores the idea of friendship more completely than any previous game, and it does so in subtle yet believable ways while also reminding players that there is room for growth in any relationship.
Thus far, the story is only beginning, and we’ll update this review with further thoughts as they occur. In the meantime, FFXV is a strong contender for best is the series in ages. Unlike previous games in the series, we’ve enjoyed all of the party members’ personalities (at least the ones we’ve met so far), and the story is so enticing we practically can’t wait to get back to Duscae.
If we were forced to give the game a score right now, it would probably hover someplace between 8 and 9, but there is still so much more to see and do. Stay tuned for any further developments.
A Few Things to Think About as You Play
-Skip the Tutorial
It’s long and boring and the game itself will teach you what you need to know.
-Turn Stamina On, Sprint Forever
In the Options menu you can switch Noctis’ stamina on. This will show a small green bar above him during gameplay which represents his ability to sprint, a must-have while exploring the open world of Duscae that can also be used indefinitely with a little practice. Simply hold down the sprint button (B on Xbox One, Square on PS4) and then, when the bar is just about to deplete, let go and press again. Noctis will flash green and can then continue to sprint.
-Get the Regroup Skill for Ignis
In the “Technique” tab of the Ascension menu, Ignis’ Regroup skill can be activated. This allows him to heal the entire party at once, one of the most valuable things one can do, especially when enemies start to mob you.
Unlike previous FF games, FFXV allows the player to concoct various spells with differing effects through what is called Elemancy. Scattered through Duscae are stones imbued with fire, ice or lightning properties, and by combining different values of each along with items found through battle or earned through fights, Noctis can wield some pretty crazy spells. We experimented with many configurations and elements, and our favorite so far created a massive fiery explosion with an area-of-effect that not only set a whole mess of dudes on fire, it also poisoned our foes for some handy repeated damage over time. This was cool as hell and also looked really beautiful. As an added bonus, it definitely came with a feeling of "Yeah, I'm effin' tough!"
-Talk to the People Who Run the Restaurants
At restaurants there are NPCs called “Tipsters” who not only know stuff, but who will invite you to take part in bounty hunts for extra items and cash. They can also cook up stat-boosting meals for a price and, in some cases, help you with your side quests.
-Side Quest, Schmide Quest
Most of the quests outside the main storyline are pretty tedious fetch missions that do little to help out. We’ve skipped a bunch and, thus far, it hasn’t made things harder. Yes, many RPGs require a healthy amount of grinding to level up properly, but it seems like this game knows that we don’t all that and doesn’t punish us for it. Still, it was pretty cool to feed that one cat we found.
-Save Your Game All the Damn Time
It’s right there in the menu, and you should use it even though there’s the handy auto-save. You’ll be glad you did.