Video Games Review: Final Fantasy XV (PS4 Pro, 2016) is a welcome return to form for one of gaming’s most beloved franchises

Malcolm Gladwell once said that anyone could perfect a talent or work with 10, 000 hours of practice. Those 10, 000 hours can take years to accrue, depending on how often life gets in the way. Imagine then (should to believe his assertion to ring true) what the result would be if you filled an entire building with people, all working towards a common goal for ten years.

Final Fantasy XV is the result of just such an experiment.

In the modern world of rushed video game sequels designed to cash-in on flash-in-the-pan popularity, Final Fantasy XV represents something of an anomaly. When was the last time you can think of a triple-A title from a major publisher that was given ten years to reach completion? There’s only one I can think of, Team ICO’s The Last Guardian which, as fate would have it, is launching next week after a ten-year dev cycle of its own. It’s a rarity for a publisher to give a team the time and space it needs to create the best possible version of their work. Square Enix is to be commended for their near infinite patience as the game worked its way through so many different forms over the years. I mean, this thing started out life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII. How far we’ve come since then.

Final Fantasy XV nevertheless finds itself in a precarious position. It has to live up to lofty fan expectations, conduct itself in a way that is befitting of the legendary Final Fantasy series, bring something new to the table thematically, mechanically and narratively, and be interesting enough that you want to spend a hundred hours in its world.

Final Fantasy XV is the story of Noctis, the young prince of a nation called Lucis that has defended against the invading forces of the Niflheim Empire for many years. Following the declaration of an armistice between Lucis and the Niflheim, now situated in the occupied neighbouring nation of Tenebrae, Noctis is to wed Tenebrae’s former princess Lunafreya. He is dispatched to Tenebrae with an attache of his closest friends/bodyguards — Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus — who are sworn to protect him with their lives.

In typical Final Fantasy style, the story begins as a tangled web and bluntly refuses to untangle itself at any point. Either you figure it out as you go or you resign yourself to being utterly mystified by any given moment of plot progression. In any other game that leans this heavily on story and worldbuilding, that would be a problem. Luckily, Final Fantasy XV has something else up its sleeve.

This game features some of the best combat mechanics a Final Fantasy game has ever had. Building yet again on the Kingdom Hearts-inspired real-time combat of Final Fantasy XII, FFXV goes a step further, removing any semblance of turn-based combat entirely. They also expand the field so that the entire troupe of four boys can leap into the fight at any given time. Each boy serves a specific purpose in combat — as the lead, Noctis is an all-rounder which allows him to cater to different playstyles, while Gladiolus specialises in heavy weapons and big physical damage. Ignis became my warrior-mage, capable of dealing damage up close or far away and Prompto sticks to the rear with lots of follow-up ranged DPS.

The eschewing of turn-based combat heralds shift towards a more westernised way of doing business (something I’ll talk more about later in this review). This means you spend a lot more time managing the combat space as well as your attack patterns. For instance, some enemies will poison you if you hit them with physical attacks and so must be dealt with at range. This will not stop them doggedly trying to close the distance between you so they can get a hit on you and drag your health bar into the mud. The all-range nature of the combat pushes you to use the space to your advantage — move around your enemy and attack from behind for bonus damage or to locate a weak spot. Exploiting enemy weaknesses is how you will survive.

Noctis also has a short-range teleportation move that will allow him to get up in an enemy’s face, escape from the fray long enough to regain some health and mana or simply dodge attacks entirely. This move, bound to Triangle in the PlayStation 4 version of the game, will become core to your entire combat strategy. Team this with a called-shot attacks from Gladio, Iggy and Prompto and you’ll become a fearsome group of opponents in no time.

This is not to suggest that the game’s many enemies are a push over. The level system will lie to you — you can be level 20 and get your backside handed to you by enemies of comparable or lesser levels if your gear or upgrades aren’t in perfect order. This level of challenge will certainly please those who have been forged in the heat of Dark Souls‘ unforgiving combat but may leave some looking for less of a fight. With enough potions and restorative items it’s possible to blunder your way through most battles but they’ll take you a while. I found myself locked in a battle I wasn’t prepared for against three much stronger Mindflayers (who could themselves spawn powerful poisonous minion enemies called Flan) and it took me a solid forty five minutes of constant healing, maneuvering and dive attacking to eventually pull the party through to victory. I had to use two — TWO (I am an item miser) — expensive, rare, high-end group Phoenix Down’s to do it, but we got there.

There’s nothing about the weapon or loot system that feels overdone either. Just like in the Super Nintendo days of old, you can swap out different weapons and see what their effects are on the characters that can use them. Finding the right gear and dispersing it amongst your crew can make all the difference in a fight, especially as you begin to level up.

The thing that surprised me most about Final Fantasy XV, and I mentioned this earlier, was the degree to which it eschews many traditional JRPG genre tropes. Much of what I liked about the game was cribbed liberally from western role-players — the open world rich with history pulled straight from Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series and the renewed emphasis on character-building from Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect properties. Even the gameworld itself is rather clearly based on the United States both in terms of geography, art design and the people that you meet. Rather than feeling derivative, these borrowed aspects lend the series some much-needed vibrancy-in-believability, a far cry from the days of Final Fantasy X‘s “son of a dead civilisation’s dream” flights of fancy. It’s easier to fall in love with its four leads than in many recent FF outings and its beautifully detailed world demands exploration.

Noctis’ relationship with his three compatriots is the sort of thing that will either be crucial to your Final Fantasy XV experience or will fall completely by the wayside depending upon how important character is to you. While their dialogue may at times be a little stilted and a little hard to swallow for the English dub actors (Prompto’s English voice actor Robbie Daymond in particular is handed lines that would be fine in the game’s native Japanese but feel bizarre when translated into English). The localisation effort is extremely good considering the sheer volume of spoken dialogue and written information but not all of it survives translation intact and they are among the few reminders that this was not a game created in the west.

Indeed, the only area where the game is unable to ape its western counterparts is in one of its newest aspects, the driving. Final Fantasy XV‘s primary mode of getting you around its massive open world  is via its fuel-guzzling but beautifully designed sports car, the Regalia. The Regalia glides from town-to-town via the map’s intricately connected web of roads, highways, dirt tracks and more. The trouble, for me at least, is that it does most of the gliding itself. The Regalia can be used in one of three ways — 1) You allow Ignis to drive for you, auto-piloting you to your destination, 2) you take the wheel yourself, during which time you can really only accelerate (to a capped and rather modest-feeling speed), brake and turn left or right whenever an intersection shows up, or 3) simply fast travel to your destination if you’ve uncovered the map marker already which kind of defeats of the point of having the driving at all, particularly in the late game.

It’s a design decision that is very Japanese in its efficiency, one that simply gets the job done rather than taking how much fun it is into consideration. The one upside to being chauffeured everywhere you go is that you do get a chance to really take in the beautiful game world as it slides by around you. Having said that, by Hour 13 I was willing Ignis to put his foot down and get moving. There are upgrades for the car that can be purchased from various vendors throughout the world and, hopefully, one of them involves a speed boost. I haven’t come across it yet however.

While the game’s dedication to having four male leads will no doubt mollify MRA’s unhappy with the amount of female protagonists in game’s these days, Final Fantasy XV stands as proof of what gender equality advocates have been pushing for: a video game industry where there is room for stories that focus on either gender. That said, it isn’t without it’s faults. Cindy’s presentation is a problem and one Square Enix have been aware of since the Episode Duscae demo. They claim she’s merely “energetic and outgoing,” but they also have her chamois your car down like a b-grade titty movie about a car wash so they can’t have been that serious about fixing anything.

Graphically, Final Fantasy XV presents something of a mixed bag for me. While the character models are lovely, the animations are wonderfully lifelike and the hair work is fantastic, it also feels like there’s a grain over everything. Playing this on PS4 Pro on a 1080p TV, I found a Resolution option in the menu that allowed me to change from Lite, Default or High. Lite, as far as I can tell, tries to get you as close as possible to 1080p res at 60 frames per second, while High will take you to 4K at 30 frames (provided your TV can support it). HDR support is also included for those who have that functionality. The real visual treats lie in both the game’s monster designs (and it is here that the game shares more than passing resemblance to Monster Hunter) and, again, in its world design. Every new creature you run into is interesting to look at and feels very much as though it was born on and evolved within this world, even as you beat the hell out of them for sweet, sweet loot. Scale is no issue for the game either, with some creatures being so gargantuan in size that they are visible from extremely far away. We’ve all heard about the optional boss in this game that takes 72 hours to defeat, and these massive creatures will convince you that such a thing is completely true.

I could write another 3000 words on this game but the bottom line is this: I love Final Fantasy XV. This is important for me because I haven’t loved a Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy IX. I hated Final Fantasy X (which everyone seems to love for reasons I don’t understand). I haven’t touched either of the MMO’s (which should not count as numbered, mainline entries in the series in my opinion). I didn’t get to spend much time with Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII‘s terrible 50-hour tutorial meant that game found itself permanently relegated to my pile of shame, never to be retrieved.

The sum total of this is that it’s just so nice to unreservedly loveFinal Fantasy game again. FF is back and it’s better than it’s been in years. I can’t think of a better argument than this for giving developers, especially those working in the AAA field, the time and resources they need to properly realise their vision. Ten years of blood, sweat and tears has produced something truly remarkable. A last-minute Game of the Year contender.

Welcome back, Final Fantasy. I’ve missed you.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: The boys; The world; The art; The combat
Lowlights: Some translation hitches; Dat Cindy characterisation; Not much else
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release date: Out now
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro with review code provided by the publisher.