Following 10 tumultuous years of development, a name change, and a change of directors, Noctis and his entourage have finally arrived in Square Enix's long-awaited Final Fantasy 15. It's not an easy task to live up to hype that's been gestating for a decade, and couple that with the fact that the Final Fantasy series needs a desperate win following the polarising (though still commercially successful) Final Fantasy 13, there's a heavy burden placed on the shoulders of Square Enix's latest RPG.
So here's the big question - does Final Fantasy 15 live up to the hype or is it a bitter let down? Thankfully for longtime fans and for newcomers alike, the game more than delivers.
***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****
The beauty of a franchise like Final Fantasy is that each numbered installment is a self-contained story, meaning that gamers don't necessarily need to play every title beforehand in order to know what's going on. This works in Final Fantasy 15's favour as not only has Square Enix made it a point to market the game to longtime fans and new players, the game wholeheartedly embraces its self-proclaimed "fantasy based on reality" concept in order to give players an incredibly ambitious journey that hearkens back to Final Fantasy's heyday - even if it isn't always successful in that ambition.
Set in the fictional world of Lucis, players assume the role of Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum as he sets out with his three loyal servants/best friends, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus, on an epic road trip to meet his future bride-to-be, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret. Of course, not everything pans out quite as expected and soon Noctis is forced to reclaim his crown and save the world. The actual story itself isn't anything new, but what is new is how much emphasis Final Fantasy 15 puts on the characterisation of its protagonists, particularly the relationships between Noctis and his trio of friends.
Given that the development team had 10 years to think about Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus, it's no surprise that they are among the most realised and human characters ever seen in a Final Fantasy game. The adage "it's not the destination but the journey" rings incredibly true here and the best moments of the game are not story-related or the awesome battles, but those mundane moments in which the quartet banter as they drive around the gorgeous open world or when they make camp at the end of each in-game day.
These charming characterisation moments are cleverly tied into the leveling mechanics of the game, which is something new for the franchise. Whereas previous Final Fantasy games automatically level up characters after each battle, Final Fantasy 15 only allows characters to level up once they make camp. Taking inspiration from recent hit franchises such as The Witcher, camping also allows players to cook some incredibly photo-realistic meals that provide useful stat boosts for the next in-game day. It's quite impressive how this leveling mechanic works on a character-building level and on a character development level.
On the topic of character-building, the combat system is unlike any Final Fantasy before it - and the game is all the better for it. Eschewing the series' use of a strategic turn-based system, Final Fantasy 15 embraces a contemporary real-time combat system that will test a player's concentration and thinking skills. Not only is it fast and surprisingly in-depth, it is an incredibly fun system play around with. This combat system is arguably the best one ever implemented in a Final Fantasy game, and it is absolutely exhilarating whenever Noctis goes head-to-head with multiple enemies in a high-paced battle filled with off-the-cuff sword combinations and magical spells. The only issue with the combat system is the clunky camera, which can be problematic in tight spaces as it will decide that the best angle will be behind a wall or tree. Having said that, it is a minor issue and one that could certainly be fixed in a future patch.
Players will also quickly notice that Final Fantasy 15 is perhaps one of the most beautiful games ever made - and one of the most content-dense in recent memory. The first half of the game is an open-world not unlike many RPGs of the past 10 years, and players can sink a considerable amount of time into the enormous amount of side-content, such as sprawling side-dungeons and mini-games like fishing, monster hunting, and Chocobo racing. The world of Lucis is absolutely gorgeous, interesting, and begging to be explored, but there will come a point in which players will be steered back towards the main storyline. It is here where, unfortunately, Final Fantasy 15 falls agonisingly short of being one of the franchise's all-time great installments.
Final Fantasy 15's main storyline covers an enormous amount of lore, so much so that Square Enix had to create additional supplementary media - such as a CGI feature-length film and an anime series - to tell the whole story without having to make more games. Despite these efforts, the main narrative is perhaps the weakest aspect of the game, both from a characterisation and gameplay perspective.
Final Fantasy 15 transitions from an open-world game towards a more traditional, linear Final Fantasy experience in its second half. Normally this wouldn't be the worst idea in the world, but the pacing from this point onwards felt incredibly rushed and plot points flew by quicker than Noctis' warp strike. As weird as it is to say about a game that took 10 years to make, it feels as though there were bigger plans for this second half, but the developers had to dial everything back in order to make everything fit into the game's third act. Not only was the third act rushed through, this linear second half also featured a number of weird genre shifts that ranged from jump-scare horror sequences to epic Uncharted-esque set pieces. Some of these ideas worked and some didn't, which meant that the second-half of the game ultimately felt like an assortment of half-baked ideas that didn't get enough time to gel together properly.
In terms of the supporting cast, since a good chunk of story has been diverted to the game's accompanying film and anime series, and all the character development being given solely to Noctis and his entourage, important non-playable characters like Lunafreya Nox Fleuret and the antagonist Ardyn Izunia are left underserved. Players simply don't get to spend enough time with the supporting cast, meaning that characterisations and motivations of important side characters are about as clear as a Lucian swamp.
Getting players to develop an attachment to the roster of supporting characters like what they do with Noctis and his crew is nigh impossible, and this issue becomes a big problem when the game unleashes any one of its big game-changing moments - such as the one involving Lunafreya and Ardyn. The developers were clearly going for emotional gut-punches on the level of Aeris' death in Final Fantasy 7, but almost all these moments felt unearned in Final Fantasy 15.
Having said that, despite all the narrative and storytelling problems, the game does provide a rewarding and emotionally fulfilling conclusion for Noctis and his entourage - one of the few heart-stopping moments that was genuinely earned. It's a bumpy journey to get to the end of Noctis' character arc, but Final Fantasy 15 absolutely nails the ending.
Final Fantasy 15 is not a perfect game, but taking into account its protracted 10-year journey, it was never going to be. What it is instead is a game that accomplishes everything it set out to do - longtime fans will get the grandiose experience that they've been waiting for, and newcomers will get a game that serves as both an excellent RPG and an accessible starting point to the long-running Final Fantasy series.
The reviewer dumped over 50 hours with Final Fantasy 15 in order to write this review, almost all of which was time well-spent.