“A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.”
Those are the words brandished on screen every time you load up Final Fantasy XV, a bold mission statement for an RPG series that’s often felt near impenetrable for anyone that didn’t play FFVII back on PS1 when it was still cool.
But that sentence is more than just a slice of hollow PR speak - its emblematic of the series’ biggest transformation since FFX, one that’s unified its numbered main line of games with the countless spin-offs into something genuinely exciting and different.
So, let’s address the chocobo in the room, does it feel and play like a proper, classic Final Fantasy? Yes… and no. The turn-based combat that the series steadfastly stood by right into 2013’s spin-off Lightning Returns has been laid to rest, traded instead for a real-time hack and slash setup that’ll feel instantly familiar to anyone that’s played a Witcher or Kingdom Hearts game of late.
Okay, the whole battle system is pretty much lifted wholesale from Kingdom Hearts, but that shouldn’t come as much of surprise considering KH overlord Tetsuya Nomura was originally in charge of the project before leaving to helm Kingdom Hearts III.
Everything from the impact the magical weapons at your disposal (which can now be used to ‘warp’ short distances during both battles and exploration) to the double teaming Link-Attacks that can been engaged mid-battle all have a pleasing, Disney-scented feel about them, and provide a greater focus on mixing up weapons between enemy types.
That’s no bad thing. Final Fantasy XV represents a stark modernisation of one of gaming’s longest running franchises, and as such much of its DNA has been spliced with more familiar features to make it feel more relevant in 2016. As a case in point, the cast of FFXV even carry smartphones and take selfies and we wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to pull off a dab at any moment.
Yet all these elements intrinsically feel Final Fantasy. There’s a young man ready to come of age amid a time of tumultuous upheaval (this time played by personality vacuum Noctis), and a damsel of sorts to reach on the other side of a seemingly insurmountable quest.
There’s chocobos to ride, gill to collect from side-quests and enough random monster encounters to shake a magical sword at it. All the dialogue is silly and contrived, but it’s all part of what makes FF such an endearing series.
New hero Noctis and his fellow troupe of boy band beautiful best friends might look a little too gothed up to be joining the FF canon, but they’re as instantly recognisable by their classic templates (Gladiolus the big surly one, Ignis the intelligent quiet one, and Prompto the quirky child-like one) that you could imagine every one of them fitting into any of your favourite RPG parties over the years.
In fact, Noctis’ three travel buddies are so well shaped (including a set of unique skills that includes everything from Ignis’ cooking powers to Prompto’s obsession with his camera) that our moping main man often feels like a soulless avatar, but then again that’s a pretty familiar trope for the series as well.
It’s where the classic and the modern meet that things start to get really interesting (and a little disappointing). The gameworld itself has all the trappings of a full open-world game. There are side-quests and dungeons to be found, and these can be tackled at any time, giving you most openly presented FF game ever made.
Visually, it’s a striking world. Eos really is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever encountered, with each new region offering up the kind of destinations you wish you could book a package a holiday to. One moment you’re strolling down a sunset-lit promenade by a beach, the next you’re shopping in a Mediterranean-style market. Now you’re sliding around an ice filled cavern or fighting monsters in Arizona-esque deserts that cleaved in two by winding roads.
It’s a world that’s as captivating to explore as anything Naughty Dog or CD Projekt RED have to offer. This is a game that’s been made for screenshots, and surprisingly it’s not far off what was shown off in preview footage. Watch Dogs, this is not.
There are caveats, though. Much has been made of Noctis and co’s Bentley-esque motor, the Regalia, which offers a motorised means of traversing Eos, but the Regalia isn’t what you think it is, and it’s the best example of how limited this ‘open-world’ really is, revealing just how much FFXV struggles to let go of its intrinsically linear roots.
The Regalia can only drive on designated roads or paths - in fact, it’ll turn and slow down automatically. All you need to do is hold RT/R2 to accelerate and the left analog stick to urge the car to turn when appropriate.
That’s it. In fact, there’s so little agency involved in navigating the highways of FFXV that you’ll almost always opt for one of your teammates to drive you there using AI. There’s a narrative reason for this - these moments enable the brotherly banter of the boy band foursome to shine through - but it doesn’t hide the fact driving in nothing more than a barely interactive on-the-rails affair.
In fact, FFXV really is a linear game that flirts with more open-world trappings. Each of its chapters takes you through Eos’ vastly different regions, often reminding you that quests yet to be completed could be out of reach for some time as you follow Noctis and co further afield. The broader exploration elements are there, but they’re sprinkled rather than lavishly spread.
The game gets a great deal more linear as the second half of the game progresses, but then again FF has always worked best with an invisible guiding hand and while you don’t have quite as much freedom as you’d like, you never feel rushed or hastily bundled through a given section.
Fifteen to one
However, while FFXV is easily the most enjoyable FF since number ten, it’s far from a total success. Its real-time combat is fast and responsive (being able to mix up its temporal weapons gives each encounter a real tactical feel), but the magic component is almost non-existent.
No longer bound to the class-based templates of the turn-based era, sorcery has been all but excised from the FF of 2016 with spells now resigned to a menu where you can combine elements into bizarre mashups. Sure, they’re destructive, but there’s no depth to their crafting or their use. Magic canisters and sources of magic energy also aren’t as plentiful as they should be, making some early missions unplayable until you’re fully stocked.
Dungeons are also back, and serve as some of the game’s most enjoyable facets, but almost none of them have any mid-point checkpoints, and FFXV doesn’t enable you to save manually in these scenarios either. Considering many of these dungeons are designed to be labyrinthine mazes, losing 20+ minutes of exploration to a death at the hands of a climactic boss battle feels poorly judged.
Then there’s the story - FF has always come replete with an over-complicated story full of turgid twists and turns, and FFXV does make some efforts to make its coming of age plot feel a lot of accessible, far too much of the important info you need is contained in the middling companion film Kingsglaive. Without it, much of the events that unfold in the first half of the game feel out of the blue and devoid of any real explanation.
Scenes pulled straight from Kingsglaive are even used to explain the most important story development in the opening hours of the game, but the footage is so poorly edited it would be totally lost on a player who had filled their boots with canon before starting it. FFXV might play like a FF for first-timers, but it can be pretty confusing to follow at the best of times.
Verdict: Play it
Final Fantasy XV is, at its core, an amalgamation of past and present, but it’s one that both succeeds and stumbles in almost equal measure.
Eos isn’t the kind of setting you’d find in GTA V or Watch Dogs 2, and is worth sitting back and soaking in, but it never feels like a true open world because of the way your car’s navigation is reduced to a mere taxi service.
It’s a similar story when it comes to characters. In Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus we’re given some of the funniest companions in FF history, but our hero himself could do without being such an emo poster child.
Still, for its niggling problems, Final Fantasy XV is a wonderful game to spend time with. While not the best instalment ever to bear the iconic branding, it’s a worthy addition to a pantheon of classic games and a rewarding and engaging title in its own right.
Final Fantasy XV was reviewed on PS4.
TechRadar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.