“The Tale of the Chosen King, Savior to the Star.”
Final Fantasy XV on PS4
The Final Fantasy franchise is known for its beautiful set pieces, wild-haired protagonists, and taking huge risks with a beloved formula. Over the years we’ve seen one of the greatest turn-based RPGs transform in a multitude of ways – altering its party systems to add more fluidity, introducing the Paradigm System of the XIII trilogy, and even providing two legitimately amazing MMOs. Yet even with those changes, you still felt the spirit of Final Fantasy. One simply had to watch a bit of gameplay, and as those timeless musical scores echoed in the background, you knew that at the core there was the classic franchise you know and love.
Final Fantasy XV is something altogether new. Something where the essence of Final Fantasy doesn’t immediately jump out at you.
The story kicks off with a bratty prince by the name of Noctis leaving his home to attend a wedding years in the making, his own. With his guard — three close friends and confidants that have watched him grow over the years — he sets out in what is easily the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen and journeys into a brand new world. He was simply supposed to get hitched and return home to his life of royalty and angst, but as is the case with every single Final Fantasy ever, that wasn’t going to happen so easily. This game’s driving strife comes in the form of Noctis’ home being destroyed, and everything he knew and loved being torn from him.
The narrative that springs from the unfortunate series of events will be very familiar to fans of the series. Here you have a young man who must, in a time of great turmoil, search deep within to grow and meet the overwhelming threat looming before him. With the help of gods and might you must push back the darkness, fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds. When it comes to the story, Final Fantasy XV doesn’t take many risks.
When you first boot up the game you’re greeted by a simple statement: “A FINAL FANTASY for Fans and First-Timers.” Nods to previous entries abound through not only the familiar narrative and music, but also by way of your party members’ commentary, particularly that of Prompto. The young guard can be heard singing the Chocobo song as you walk across grassy plains, or even humming classic battle themes as you’re in the middle of taking on 20 foes at once. There were more than just a few times when I was instantly transported back to my 10-year old self, playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time alongside my brother, or popping X into my PS2 for the first time a few years later. These moments never felt forced, which is a testament to the incredibly placed nostalgia included in Final Fantasy XV. But I didn’t find myself smiling only for rosy flashbacks; there were plenty of fresh moments with these new characters that added to my long list of memories with the franchise, and this will surely kick off the scrapbooks for brand-new fans stepping into Final Fantasy for the first time.
The characters themselves are worthy of note. While each entry has tried to create iconic individuals that will stand the test of time, only a few have reached the status of unforgettable across both the good and bad sides. Being a fan of the likes of Cloud, Sephiroth, Fang, Lighting, and Tidus, I didn’t expect to find anyone to hold my interest in Final Fantasy XV. But once you get past the campy dialogue that sometimes permeates the story, you have four solid characters that help to tie all the bigger points together.
Sure, they often come across as stereotypical anime protagonists. You have your knowledgeable, spectacled friend who refuses to change to “fit in,” you have your tough guy who doesn’t seem to know what sleeves are and loves to show his chest, even in the snow, and you have the small, wise-cracking buddy who consistently doubts himself but is always there in a pinch. Then there’s Noctis, the self-absorbed, sometimes depressing crown prince who everyone loves, but would be nowhere if it weren’t for his friends. They balance one another out quite well and evolve noticeably overtime. Even the primary antagonist, whose crafty reveal caught me off guard, has the perfect air of mystery, pulling you along while showing that Square Enix still knows how to surprise, even in the middle of a tried and true formula.
It’s only when you step away from the characters and the story they tell where Final Fantasy XV starts to show a more risky side. It is not only open-world, but also an action game through and through. Combat is all done in real-time, offering up a new flavor of strategy that encourages reflexes and quick thinking over stats and move sets alone.
In combat, Final Fantasy XV is challenging in all the right ways. On the surface you have a fast-paced action RPG, teleporting around and building combos with your allies as you unleash devastating attacks on your enemies. Working in the background, though, are all the different checks and balances that make Final Fantasy games tick. There are different weapon types and magical abilities that each serve their own purpose. You can pick a single weapon and go through the game that way, but it will only make things much more difficult for you in the long run. You have to rely on rapidly switching between gear to keep enemies off balance and target their vulnerabilities. At the same time, you must make sure to defend your own weaknesses, as the variety of monsters and soldiers can easily overwhelm and see your team falling rather quickly.
Magic and summoning see welcome limitations as well. I recall in past entries simply relying on powerful spells and god-like entities to wipe enemies from my screen, but you can’t always do that in Final Fantasy XV. For the most part, spells are consumable items that you must craft, so you have to decide when is best to utilize them, especially in dungeons where resources are scarce. When it comes to summons, or “The Six” as they are referred to, you are at their mercy. When you’re in dire need, they will occasionally offer assistance, though you have no idea who is coming to help. If you accept, you’re left gawking at their sheer majesty. This doesn’t happen often, and that’s why it works so well.
The summons, both in their rarity and grand appearances, magnify your insignificance. They offer a moment of balance to combat’s largest challenges, yet leave you primarily reliant on your own skill. They’re as humbling as they should be, but your lack of control makes every random appearance all the more appreciated. Deep in a maze-like dungeon with my back against the wall, I watched Ramuh cast his staff deep into the earth to reach me. Watching everything around me crackle and sizzle as I could finally catch my breath, I was reminded of just how lucky I was to have these beings on my side.
I’ll admit that the combat was not instantly intuitive. Learning how to control the flow of battle by quickly utilizing my vast armory, and properly using the mechanics of the battlefields themselves, took me a couple of hours. The inclusion of a Wait mode, which stops time as long as you’re not moving in battle, was a welcome addition. Having everything frozen so you can quickly scan enemies or figure out an approach will help you adapt to the sheer speed and difficulty of it all, and it definitely played a major part in getting my bearings.
All of these mechanics — the fast tempo, the constant threat as enemies move around freely, the bombardment of information as you frantically try to survive — mesh to create a mesmerizing flow of flashing lights and clashing blades that always feels large, even if you’re only facing off against a few enemies.