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“Final Fantasy XV” is already the most successful entry in series history, with an estimated 5 million copies sold on launch day. (Courtesy of Square Enix)
“Final Fantasy XV” is a game whose very existence seems to defy expectations. Originally revealed back in 2006 under the name “Final Fantasy Versus XIII,” the game not only has to deal with the baggage that comes from having one of the longest development periods in gaming history, but also needs to contend with a very different gaming landscape from the one it was originally meant to a part of. Now with a decade of fan expectations to contend with, a marketing budget that puts even the “Call of Duty” series to shame, and an entire theatrical film released to flesh out the game’s world, “Final Fantasy XV” is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious titles to ever be released. Luckily for fans, that ambition seems to have paid off.
The game’s story takes place in the world of Eos, which for the past several years has been embroiled in a war between the magically-empowered kingdom of Lucis and the militaristic empire of Niflheim. While there is a fair bit of lore surrounding both nations and the history of the world they inhabit, the plot itself is straightforward: the player is tasked with guiding Noctis, the crown prince of the kingdom of Lucis, on a quest to acquire the Royal Arms, a collection of magical artifacts that hold the key to turning the tide of the conflict and pushing back the Empire’s advance.
What is most surprising about this set-up is that, while the stakes of the story are serious with the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance, the game opts not to focus on its overarching plot for most of its 60 hour runtime. Instead, the game is most concerned with fleshing out Noctis and the relationship he has with his party of friends/bodyguards as they travel across a massive open-world hunting monsters, searching for treasure, and just barely making enough money to get by. Most of the game has the energy of a fantasy road trip movie, with all four friends sharing near-constant witty banter, sightseeing tours of important landmarks, and most major plot events being bookended with the entire party camping out in the wilderness.
While this approach does lead to a weirdly paced plot that never seems to feel as serious as it should, the extra time given to character growth helps to make Noctis and his friends more compelling characters than they otherwise would have been, which helps to keep players invested in the story. For a story with such dire circumstances, it is refreshing to see that the game is not afraid of giving the player and characters time to breathe, which only serves to accentuate major plot moments when they come up. That said, the plot does suffer from several incomplete plot holes, with multiple major events happening entirely off-screen. The worst instance of this is how the plot’s inciting incident is not shown to the player at all, with the full details of the event instead being the focus of the game’s tie-in film, “Kingsglaive.” While the plot holes do sour the experience at times and lead to a game with even more difficult pacing issues, the plot points that do end up landing have a good enough impact to make up for any issues.
In contrast to the story, the core gameplay takes a massive departure from previous “Final Fantasy” games. For the first time in the series, the player is given a fully open-world to explore, filled to the brim with side missions to complete, hidden dungeons to conquer and rare monsters to hunt. While where the player can go in the world is somewhat restricted by plot progression, the world itself is breathtaking in scope and is more often than not an absolute joy to explore. The amount of care that went into making every area feel distinct and lively is staggering, more than matching its contemporaries in the genre, such as “Skyrim” and “The Witcher 3.”
Combat has been completely reworked from past entries, with the series’ famous turn-based combat replaced by a real-time action system reminiscent of Square Enix’s “Kingdom Hearts” series. During battle, the player is only given control over Noctis, with the actions of his friends being entirely controlled by the game’s AI. To make up for this, Noctis is given the ability to teleport long distances, switch between multiple weapon types on the fly and take advantage of powerful magic spells that his party members are unable to wield, leaving Noctis feeling powerful and distinct. His friends are far from useless however, with each of them having their own suite of combat abilities as well as various special attacks that can very easily turn the tide of battle. In the end, while the combat does lack the nuance and responsiveness of more dedicated action games, it has just enough variety and depth to stay enjoyable from beginning to end, which is much better than what the series has accomplished previously.
In the end, “Final Fantasy XV” is an absolute triumph of a game, more than living up to the expectations placed on it by close to a decade’s worth of hype. It is by no means a perfect game, and it certainly will not be a game that pleases everyone, especially not diehard fans of the series. But for those who are willing to give the game a chance, it will not be the story inconsistencies or the occasional gameplay faults that will be most memorable once the credits roll. It will be the story of four brothers with the weight of the world on their shoulders that hold each other up right until the end.
“Final Fantasy XV” is available on PS4 and Xbox One for $60. For those interested in learning the game’s full story, the tie-in film “Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray for $15.