Sometimes the best games can become victims of their own success. Once they cross over into franchise territory, their developers must commit a balancing act: how long can they get away with churning out what they know the gaming public wants before boredom finally sets in among their fan-base? When a franchise is so popular that it’s approaching its 30th birthday, it’s a fair bet that some radical reinvention is required. That’s precisely what Final Fantasy XV offers.
The RPG landscape has changed beyond all recognition since 1987 -- when the first Final Fantasy came out -- and the 1990s, when it indisputably ruled the RPG roost. Modern franchises like The Witcher and Elder Scrolls boast open worlds and real-time, action-based battle systems, but the Final Fantasy fan-base still waxed most nostalgic about the 1990s iterations which were determinedly linear and turn-based. So Square Enix had to commit the tightrope-walking act of dragging Final Fantasy into the 21st century without alienating its most devoted customers. Small wonder that Final Fantasy XV – first teased as Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006 – took so long to arrive.
But it indisputably sets the franchise up to become a big player in the modern RPG reality, without losing its distinctive vibe. Evidence of the development team’s struggle can still be found – there’s a wholly unnecessary feature called Wait Mode, for example, which pauses the action, reintroducing a turn-based feel. But it takes place in a properly open world, and the battle system passes comparison with those of contemporary peers.
In Final Fantasy XV, you play Prince Noctis, heir to the throne of Lucis in the game-world of Eos. The action starts on the steps of the palace in Lucis’s capital, Insomnia, where Noctis is being seen off rather frostily by his dad, King Regis, as he prepares to embark on a coming-of-age road trip with his equally brattish mates Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. The foursome will be making their way to Tenebrae, so Noctis can hook up with his fiancée Lady Lunafreya, the pair can get married and the underlying tension between Lucis and the Empire of Niflheim can be finally banished due to the pairing between the two royal houses.
Initially, proceedings are carefree and light-hearted: the princely party’s flash car, the Regalia, breaks down, so they mess around hunting beasts and camping while it is fixed. But soon, events overtake them. The Empire launches an attack on Insomnia which claims King Regis’s life, and the real quest begins. Noctis must claim his kingly powers by liberating sacred weapons from royal tombs, before hooking up with Luna – who has special powers as an Oracle – and, when fully powered up, taking the fight to Niflheim.
What ensues is about as epic as you can get. Final Fantasy XV is massive – speed-runners sticking to the story missions alone will have to invest well over 20 hours, and there are so many side-missions, quests, hunts and leisure pursuits vying for your attention that you could easily spend twice that time exhausting every avenue.
Final Fantasy XV’s key element, its battle system, is pretty convincing – while it apes other modern RPGs by allowing you to control Noctis’s movement, it still possesses plenty of features which will appeal to those weaned on turn-based systems. For example, you can simply hold down the attack and guard buttons; the former will cycle through attacks until you run out of stamina, enabling you to switch between weapons to gain extra damage-benefits. Weapon selection is important, as Noctis’s powerful magic weapons drain his health, so it’s always a good idea to have a normal weapon equipped, too. There’s a magic system which essentially gives you grenades that inflict fire, blizzard or electrical damage; neatly, when making magic flasks, you can add foodstuffs as “catalysts” that bring fancier effects.
But Noctis’s most crucial attack is called a Warp-strike, which lets him teleport to designated points, then fly in at his targeted enemy for additional damage. No less important are the special attacks that Noctis’s companions perform, which you can trigger according to battle conditions. And when Noctis reaches a certain stage, he gains a slow-filling meter that, when full, lets him unleash a super-fast flurry of attacks using his kingly weapons. The battle system is much easier to understand than those of past Final Fantasy games, but still has plenty of tactical depth.
Final Fantasy XV is shot through with those characteristic quirks which mark out an RPG as Japanese. For example, it lets you summon Chocobos – huge ostrich-like birds – which you can ride around in order to explore quicker. The game has an obsession with food: each member of Noctis’s party has a preferred leisure pursuit, and Ignis’s one is cooking. You can’t level up unless you stay in hotel or camp, and when you do the latter, Ignis will cook meals that boost the entire party’s attributes for a day. Whenever you enter a previously unexplored area, a visit to the local restaurant will reveal a tipster who fills in the blanks on your map.
It also looks magnificent: as we’ve come to expect from Final Fantasy games, the environmental design is superb. Altissia, in particular, is a marvel – a sort of fantasy version of Venice – and the mix of convincing cities, stunning-to-behold countryside and nearly 30 years of Final Fantasy lore is heady indeed. In classic RPG tradition, there are plenty of dungeons to work your way through and, if you feel like kicking back, you can take Noctis for a spot of fishing. The game’s skills tree is called Ascension and while it’s huge (you must upgrade the attributes of all party members), it’s also designed in an uncharacteristically logical manner, so is easy enough to get to grips with.
Story-wise, Final Fantasy XV also continues the epic vein mined by its predecessors, exploring themes such as the pressure of being proclaimed king, and Noctis’s reluctant coming of age. There are plenty of non-sequiturs, particularly in the early stages, but as the game races to its climax, distractions are dispensed with and it becomes very filmic indeed (and acquires a much more linear feel in the process). Again, Final Fantasy fans will be left with a warm feeling after XV’s story plays out, while newcomers to the franchise may feel sufficiently intrigued to delve into past iterations.
It would be absurd to suggest Final Fantasy XV is near-perfect, mind. Like all big, open-world RPGs with countless background systems working at any given time, it can sometimes feel rather ramshackle, and glitches do occur. Nor are feedback loops, in which you lack the necessary potions and the like to get past tricky bosses or whatever, unheard of. So it’s a good idea to save often and keep a library of saves from each chapter, in order to roll back the action a bit and prepare better. And sometimes, it just becomes a bit too Japanese: the dialogue is not immune from the odd descent into tweeness.
But overall, Final Fantasy XV is a triumph. It achieves Square Enix’s stated aim of bringing the franchise kicking and screaming into the 21st century, without leaving the fan-base feeling they have been abandoned, and it sets up future instalments beautifully. All of which is great news for devotees of open-world RPGs; it took ten years, but one of the great series which put RPGs on the map has finally re-established itself as a leading contender.