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Well, it finally happened.
After 10 long years, Final Fantasy XV — a video game formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII — has escaped one of the longest development periods that I’ve ever seen and is now just another title I’ve beaten. You’ll have that same opportunity when the action role-playing game comes out for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on November 29.
Need a hand?
Our Final Fantasy XV guide helps you travel, level up, and line your wallet.
I love this series. I’ve played through all of the numbered entries, finishing all but Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, the MMOs. But it has felt like the franchise was running out of gas (an analogy that feels appropriate here considering Final Fantasy XV’s road trip story). The last single-player entry, Final Fantasy XIII, was a fun game, but its linearity and an overwrought story kept it from feeling special.
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Final Fantasy XV is like the anti-Final Fantasy XIII.
This new game is big and open. It has an approachable story. But it’s still a departure in a lot of ways. Sure, you use swords and spells, but this world feels a lot more like our own. You drive around in a car and visit diners. And its beauty, sense of awe, and impressive scale earn it a spot as one of the Final Fantasy’s better games.
What you’ll like
A fast start
Japanese role-playing games aren’t known for their blistering pace. And that’s fine. Not every game needs to feel like a nonstop action movie. Most Final Fantasys have slow beginnings. They take their time setting up the story and introducing you to their gameplay systems.
So, I was surprised by how quickly Final Fantasy XV got going. After a short couple of cutscenes, you start doing the same kinds of things you’ll be doing throughout the adventure (fighting, driving, and so on). Sure, you only have a smaller portion of the map to explore at first, but even that opens up rather quickly.
This is thanks to developer Square Enix’s decision to have a separate, optional tutorial that you can go through before or at any point during the game. Doing so will help you learn how to play more easily, but it’s not a necessity. You could also pick up on how things work without it. And even if you do take on the tutorial, it’s short.
The way FFXV throws you into its world is even more impressive. You get the basic ideas. You’re a prince going on a road trip to get married. And you’ll learn about an empire that your country doesn’t love, along with something about a crystal. So many other games will bore you with the details of their lore before letting you do much actual playing. Final Fantasy XV lets you discover its world and characters.
The open world
Final Fantasy XV is big. Most of it takes place on one large map, which you can navigate by driving in your car, running on foot, or renting a Chocobo (a giant, yellow bird that appears in most games in the franchise). The scale is impressive, and you can spend a lot time just running around and exploring.
And it’s not an empty world. You’ll find more to do via side missions and bonus activities than from the main story missions. You can hunt monsters for extra cash, go fishing, race Chocobos, and even play a strange take on pinball.
Most Final Fantasys have their roots in turn-based combat, or you have some sort of system limiting how often you can attack. Final Fantasy XV is a full-on action role-playing game. You attack and dodge in real time.
But this doesn’t mean that Final Fantasy XV plays like Kingdom Hearts or God of War. Its action is flashy, but your inputs are slower and more methodical. Unlike other action games, you’re not focusing on combos while ignoring incoming damage. You don’t even need to press the attack button each time since holding it down will make your character automatically swing or shoot away.
Instead, Final Fantasy XV is a defense-focused game. Each enemy strike has a good chance of inflicting a lot of damage. Strategy comes in knowing when to attack and when to dodge, but defending is just as exciting as attacking. You can phase your way out of most enemy offensive maneuvers just by holding down a button as long as you have MP (magic points). But you have to be careful since running out of MP puts you in a weakened state. You can quickly regain MP and health, however, by teleporting away from combat or hiding behind cover. Knowing when to run or dodge is more important than just hacking away.
The brotherly bonds
Three friends join you in battle. They attack on their own, but they’re a big help. When you fight, you fill up three bars that you can use to order your pals to do specific actions. One has your party regroup, which restores health, while others can simply do a lot of damage or attack multiple targets.
Your friends might also join you for special attacks if you manage to counter an enemy (which requires you to dodge and parry an attack at the right moment) or get behind them and hit their backs. These dual attacks deal a lot of damage and look great, organically happening during fights without slowing down the action.
Each of the four characters has their own skill. The responsible, bespectacled Ignis can cook meals when you’re camping (which you want to do to avoid the strong monsters that show up at night). Eating can give you improved stats and bonuses for a decent period of time. The jokey Prompto takes pictures, which you can view and save before going to sleep in the game. This is a fun way to help you document your journey without having to rely on a console’s own screenshot-taking features. The tough Gladiolus automatically scavenges for extra items after battles, and the main character, Noct, can fish (meaning you can play a whole fishing minigame to get extra food for those stat-boosting meals I discussed earlier).
Each character has tropes familiar to anyone who’s played a JRPG before: the happy-go-luck but insecure joker, the direct-speaking tough guy, and so on. But their friendships, which develop mostly during organic conversations that happen while you walk around the open world, feel natural.
The sights and sounds
Final Fantasy XV is a beautiful game. Its world is a strange mix of the mundane and magnificent. You’ll find a dirty motel under a giant, arched rock formation that looks otherworldly. You’ll drive down an ordinary road and suddenly see a giant monster strolling off to the side.
The scale is impressive. Some monsters can tower over most creatures you’ve fought in other games. And while many of the towns and outposts look more like something you’d find off of Route 66, other locations feels more magical and exotic. I especially enjoyed a Venice-like city surrounded by waterfalls.
The music is another highlight. The score by Yoko Shimomura is the best soundtrack I’ve heard in a Final Fantasy game since former series composer Nobuo Uematsu stopped making music regularly for the franchise. Shimomura’s operatic, dramatic music especially succeeds during the game’s biggest moments, such as its boss fights.
What you won’t like
A lot of open-world games have technical issues, and Final Fantasy XV isn’t an exception. Most of the time, the bugs are harmless. A character might get stuck or suddenly transport themselves for example.
I had at least three instances, however, where it straight up crashed on me. Now, on the bright side, Final Fantasy XV autosaves pretty regularly, so I never missed out on a lot of progress. But it was still annoying.
Toward the end, you leave the open world and begin a series of quests that eventually lead to the ending. Now, at any time during these, you can actually teleport to the “past” (an excuse to allow you to go back and explore more of the map and do side activities and missions when it would otherwise be impossible story-wise for you to be there).
A lot of these end-game missions feel flat. Up to that point, the adventure has something of a breezy, casual pace, with story advancement coming infrequently. These last chapters almost feel like they’re trying to play catch-up, suddenly racing toward an ending while not really giving you a lot to do. You spend more time just walking around and triggering cutscenes than fighting.
Sometimes, you will get into fights during this section that look cool but don’t actually offer any challenge. One battle was one of the most epic I had even seen in a game, but the tension disappeared when I realized I was basically invisible during the action.
One extended mission toward the end drove me crazy. It took away my friends, my weapons, and most of my abilities. I had to walk around a labyrinth looking for key cards while casting slow spells as the only means to defend myself. This would have been a fine distraction for a bit, but this part felt like it went on forever.
Thankfully — and without giving anything away — the last couple of hours of Final Fantasy XV are excellent and wash away the bad taste from that pace-breaking slog.
Final Fantasy XV has its problems, but it’s filled with enough special moments that you can forgive the issues. The combat is fluid, thoughtful, and cinematic while the open world gives you a ton to do. If you hated Final Fantasy XIII because of its linearity and lack of anything to do outside of the main story, you’ll dig just how much stuff Final Fantasy XV has to offer.
My favorite RPGs are the ones that give me moments that I remember forever — like the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI or the epic battle against Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII. I don’t want to ruin what those moments are in this game, but Final Fantasy XV has plenty of them. Sometimes, it’s an epic boss fight, and sometimes, it’s just admiring some dramatic scenery. But my favorite memory is how emotional I got when the music swelled at the end during a beautiful final cutscene. The title is worth playing for that moment alone.
Final Fantasy XV comes out for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on November 29. Square Enix sent us a copy of the PS4 version for this review.
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