A sprawling, messy, crazy-quilt hodgepodge of game play systems, innovation and tradition, Final Fantasy XV is ultimately far more than the sum of its parts. While not all of its gears mesh successfully, in the end the game more than fulfills its mission of being a Final Fantasy that both fans and newcomers can enjoy. Perhaps the game's biggest surprise -- especially for long-time fans of the franchise -- is just how willing the developers are to shake things up. From the real-time combat to the massive, Western-style RPG open world with an American Southwest flavor and a quartet of road-tripping characters, Final Fantasy XV invites and rewards attention and is pervaded by a sense of the unexpected.
Although not an absolute prerequisite, watching the CGI feature film Kingsglaive will set up the convoluted and at times, nonsensical plot and characters of Final Fantasy XV, whose story begins with a congenial -- if slightly ominous -- bachelor party road trip by Prince Noctis and his three friends and bodyguards, Gladilolus, Prompto, and Ignis. The four longtime companions are journeying to meet Noctis' bride to be, the Oracle Lunafreya and deliver the Prince to a wedding that will bring together the kingdoms of Lucis and Niflheim. Very quickly, events turn dire and the story turns into an heroic quest, weighted with political intrigue, powerful magic, and a cast of NPCs that help deliver complexity and emotional breadth to the journey.
Noctis-- the only playable character -- and his three companions are bound together by personal history and complementary strengths, and whether or not you like these four emo/goth bros, you will get to know them by game's end and their bond becomes the game's emotional center. The voice acting through the game is wildly uneven and the moment-to-moment writing veers from pathos to banal with a few tone-deaf attempts at Americana. While players may lament not being able to assemble a rotating dream team as in prior games, the four characters cover a very wide range of abilities with ranged and melee weapons and magic as well as having well-developed, distinct personalities and hobbies like fishing, photography, and cooking.
It will take several hours of play, and some trial and error, to become comfortable with Final Fantasy XV's gameplay loops, battle systems, character development options, and various upgrade paths. The series has often be weighted by arcane systems with far too many moving parts and there's a bit of bloat here as well, with not quite enough transparency about exactly what to do and when. Still, the game's newly imagined real-time combat is both chaotic and rewarding. Though mechanically pretty simple -- relying on a couple of button presses and lot of switching between attacks, parrying, and the use of potions -- combat never ceases to be entertaining and some of the boss battles are marathon encounters that demand careful resource management and savvy teamwork. Once Noctis acquires Ring magic, he is occasionally able to summon some truly awe-inspiring fantastical magical allies.
Each of Final Fantasy XV's subsystems like crafting, fishing, cooking, exploration, and the hundreds of side quests and NPCs that bring its world to life are distinguished by both brilliance and some disorderly rough edges, but nothing is game-breaking or so bad that it really kills the fun. In many open world games like Skyrim, The Witcher or Grand Theft Auto, players can easily skip the critical path altogether and spend most of their time exploring, crafting, and side-questing. Final Fantasy XV wisely places each new area of the map behind the next main story quest, so that the world reveals itself in manageable slices. Eos is populated by dozens of interesting monsters and both benign and aggressive wildlife that is equally grounded in biological reality and the imagination, though like most open world ecosystems one can't help but feel the poor creatures are just standing around, waiting to be slaughtered. One nice wrinkle is that the nighttime brings out a new range of deadly monsters.
Although in development for nearly a decade, there is little about Final Fantasy XV that suggests age, with generally superb art direction and production values throughout. That isn't to suggest the game isn't without its annoyances and quirks. The camera is often an enemy instead of an ally, the frame rate is anything but consistent and while the landscape is often breathtaking the character models are often unattractive and lacking in expressive nuance . In addition to its original score -- which is frequently lovely-- the musical backdrop includes cues from every previous Final Fantasy product, including the Kingsglaive movie.
Expect to spend upwards of twenty hours on the main quest and dozens more on the side quests and optional activities. A great deal of time is spent on foot, but there are fast travel systems, battle-ready Chocobos happy to lend a hoof, and the "fifth Beatle," Noctis' faithful vehicle, "Regalia," very much a character in the form of steel and rubber. Regalia can of course be repainted, detailed, modded, and eventually even gets the ability to fly.
Final Fantasy XV takes a lot of chances, with combat, story, characters, and its open world setting. More often than not it manages to hit that sweet spot nexus of innovation and familiarity: the game world is immense but not overwhelming, the combat is chaotic but manageable and exciting, and the story and characters equally endearing and unfathomable. Assuming that Final Fantasy XV is a template for future installments and not simply a one-off, ten-years-in-the-making experiment, the game may cry out for refinement but hints at an exciting direction as well. It definitely breathes new life into a franchise that was on the verge of irrelevance for many gamers.