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Nearly four years later, Final Fantasy XV is bandaged up in DLC and patches. Is it finally the game we wanted it to be?

Available on: X1, PS4, PC

After almost four years, Final Fantasy XV is now considered “complete,” although even its biggest fan will argue that it will forever remain unfinished. Since its release in 2016, Square pumped out hefty updates, patches and downloadable content, some of which was welcomed with fervor while some left us scratching our heads, and the most prominent of which cost FFXV’s loyal fanbase a few extra bucks upon every new release. The question is, for a game that was very clearly unfinished and unpolished upon release, do all these years of DLC-bandages finally provide us with the full package and final product we would expect from a Final Fantasy title? For this reviewer, after completing it a second time with the New Game + mode, all DLC stories completed, and doing as much of the base game as I could (totaling over 170 hours of total playtime), I am of the opinion that Final Fantasy XV is a fine RPG with a most unfortunate title.

I had reviewed FFXV on GameFAQs a couple months after its initial release and, admittedly, I think I wrote that review through the lens of a stubborn fanboy. I wasn’t shy about my issues with it, but it took some self-reflection in the years following to realize that my favorite game franchise ever is not what it once was. This is evident in FFXV when you first start it up and see the message A Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike; a sadly ironic preface to us loyalists that suggests Square’s own self-doubt in its biggest franchise’s latest title.

I had an amazing experience with Noctis and his retinue my first time through, and this year had a wholly different, but somehow more enjoyable experience with New Game+. The open world of Eos is massive and gorgeous, although at the same time it is quite barren. Reminiscent of the state of Texas, the miles stretch beyond with tiny patches of civilization peppering the landscape here and there, mostly in the form of gas stations, motels and diners. You are basically told to “do whatever” from the moment your car’s tank is filled up. It can be overwhelming at first like any open-world game, but FFXV isn’t as much about checking things off a list as it is about taking your time and enjoying the sights. Indeed, these sights are quite beautiful, but the entire open-world is literally a shell of a past that was flourishing. While this can be attributed to the storyline and the Empire’s growing dominance over the years, the fact of the matter is that there isn’t a whole lot going on in Eos.

Eos is beautiful but barren.

There are many quests and hunts requested by citizens that Noctis can take on. Most of them are typical fetch-quests, which is disappointing. Catching frogs and finding nameless men’s dogtags over and over again is not my idea of fun, especially when the worth of their rewards is arguable. At the same time, these “fetch-quests” are sometimes red herrings that will bring you to unexplored parts of the world that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. When a jeweler asked me to find him another gemstone, I moaned with frustration. After agreeing to his request, I soon found myself in a rainforest filled with dangerous beasts but a huge reward hidden within. This meaningless fetch-quest, I found, was actually a cover-up to get me to discover a beautiful and treacherous forest. This type of quest, however, is not as common as the others. Usually, they do little to bring us closer to the world and people of Eos and are seemingly there to just pad gameplay time.

So aside from helping random citizens with their errands, what are we playing Final Fantasy XV for, anyway? The storyline in FFXV is fascinating. The way in which it is told, however, is perhaps FFXV’s fatal flaw. Long story short, Noctis is a prince who must claim what he is entitled to. He must travel the world to regain the powers of past royalty. To help him do this, he is accompanied by his royal retinue, Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis. The first chunk of their journey is actually a road trip throughout the Noctis’s kingdom, in which they travel by car from place to place. Later, the game becomes extremely linear and takes us to new settings that involve significantly less exploration.

The story in Final Fantasy XV will be tough to understand unless you do extra homework and pay some extra cash. You should watch a full-length movie called Kingsglaive to learn what happens after Noctis leaves home, probably best viewed at the end of Chapter 1 and before Chapter 2, available for $4 on YouTube. Before that, you should watch the Brotherhood anime, available on YouTube for free, ideally between the opening FMV and before you actually start playing. Unfortunately, I’d rather play Final Fantasy than watch it, and I believe that all things plot-related, whether directly or indirectly, should be addressed within the context of the game proper. Final Fantasy XIII did an okay job with this despite the finer details bringing important facts to light within its wordy encyclopedia. XV, however, throws random incidents and dialogue at us and expects us to understand what’s going on. It is a little presumptuous.

To help explain more of the story, Square also released DLC for all three of Noctis’s companions, bringing more context to his relationship to them and why they are so important to the game. These DLC are worth buying if you are interested in certain mysteries that pop up during the main game. While it was disappointing that I was being charged money again to have most of my questions answered about Iggy, Gladio and Prompto, I was glad to have had the opportunity to play as them and their unique combat styles, plus resolve the mysteries behind their brief absences from the main game. To add the cherry on top, you must pay another $10 for the fantastic Episode Ardyn to have even more questions answered that weren’t included in the main game. Why weren’t all these significant story DLC’s part of the main game in the first place? Why were future DLC Episodes cancelled? Why even bother with the Dawn of the Future book? “Development hell” is the easy explanation, and all the storytelling Square had planned for FFXV, canceled and otherwise, is the biggest reason I will never shake the feeling of FFXV falling far short of its potential.

Surprisingly, this iteration of Final Fantasy does NOT start off with a bang.

There are twists, there are epic moments, and there is some heartbreak. Usually, it doesn’t hit as hard as we’d expect as FF fans. Furthermore, shocking events often lose their power because they seem almost anecdotal and, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant. They are often even resolved within moments of them first occurring. The emotional oomph we know and love from preceding FFs is close to non-existent in XV. Our characters are perhaps the biggest victims of such disseminated storytelling. People like Lunafreya, Ravus, Gentiana, and King Regis almost feel like plot devices rather than characters with whom we connect. Apparently they all play critical roles in the fate of the world, but I swear they barely get five minutes of screentime each. I had little idea who these characters were as people, and even less idea what their purposes were other than the most obvious. There is nearly no fleshing out of anyone other than Noctis, his retinue, and the game’s main villain.

Thankfully, our main party of four is among the strongest the series has ever seen. In fact, I would say that it is the best part of the entire game. I loved playing as Noctis, the young prince who takes his enormous burden in stride. He feels comfortable going out in public despite his fame, and the more you get to know him the more you realize how normal he is, despite his lineage. Prompto, Noct’s best friend, is careless and immature but I found myself connecting with him the most. His comments (or musical quips) throughout the game tend to voice my thoughts as the player, and he is probably the most relatable character to the Final Fantasy fanbase in the series’ history. Ignis serves as the voice of reason, and acts the most responsible out of everyone—he is part butler, part mom, and it works so perfectly with his character. Gladiolus is Noct’s bodyguard. Someone has to be the “bad cop” when times get tough, and Gladio takes that role on with pride—in fact, he is the only one who actually clashes with Noctis at the lowest points in the story. No one in Noctis’s party actually treats him like a prince. The banter and conversation throughout the story reminds us that these guys have known each other long before Noct began his journey, unlike most other Final Fantasy parties. This brotherhood is the part of the story we can buy above all the rest, and without it FFXV would not be the same.

It is important to note just how unpolished FFXV was upon initial release from a strictly gameplay perspective. Load times were abhorrent. Only one hunt could be taken on at a time, which meant lots of back and forth between going from the tipster to the target, and back again. Epic boss battles suffered from slowdown and graphical clipping, ruining the experience. Even the final few chapters, and especially the very last level, felt rushed. For the most part, Square addressed these issues and patched the game up very well. Load times are shorter, you can take 10 hunts on at once, and I rarely experience framerate issues three years later. And, although it still isn’t what it should have been, the final area was beefed up quite a bit, adding much more excitement for players to reach the game’s emotional conclusion. There were also some unexpected treats as well: now you can play as any of Noct’s bros during the main game, and for some reason you can use first-person mode. Certain accessories are also included to give players more options in the way they battle and grow the characters. Even better, New Game+ is now part of FFXV, so you can bring your leveled-up party back to the beginning of the game. Sadly, this New Game+ does not include scaled levels of enemies or even the option for a hard mode, so it is basically the exact same experience only much easier. Ironically, I had way more fun with New Game+ than I did on my first playthrough, probably because I am simply not that great at the combat system, plus having the option to use any items and equipment from my last file gave me more freedom. Now if only there were a way to change that damn jump button… It is a shame, though, that in the midst of all these great patches and exceptional story DLC, we also had to suffer through ridiculous DLC like the Assassin’s Festival and Monster of the Deep, among others, which gave me zero fulfillment within the world of FFXV and just served as obvious cash grabs from Square. How the series has changed!

Anyway, I should move back to the main game. The four bros being the best part of FFXV isn’t just because of their chemistry while they travel together, because it is also evident in combat. The battle system in FFXV is the most fast-paced the series has seen and plays like an action game. With Noctis’s lineage comes an unusual power to summon weapons, and he is able to do this both for himself and his three allies. By holding down the button, Noctis will repeatedly and stylishly attack whichever enemy you have him target. Noctis can equip any kind of weapon, and his friends can wield two specific types. With the DLC you can play as any of the four, but I still always had the most fun with Noctis. It is so much fun to coordinate with your friends and perform powerful “Link Strikes” and “Blindsides.” The placement of Noctis and his proximity to his allies makes for some intense strategizing that requires quick thinking and precise timing. It is also important to watch enemies’ motions so that Noctis can dodge at the right moment. Noctis can also warp over great distances to strike enemies with incredible power or to take a breather in a safe location—this is probably the most satisfying thing to do in combat because you can multiply Noct’s attack power like crazy each time. Building Noct’s royal abilities over the course of the game gives him tremendous upgrades in battle, and by the time I filled out his Ascension Grid I had him dancing in the air with his blade and overwhelming enemies with blue shadows.

Combat is fast and flashy.

Magic plays a smaller role than in the past simply because you must create a limited supply of it and then unleash its incredible power with discretion, since friend and foe alike will be affected. That said, you now rely on items to stay alive during the deadlier fights, since magic is mainly used to cause heavy damage. Potions and elixirs cost a small fee, so it is possible to make the game extremely easy because you can buy so many of them. Even when a character is knocked out, you still have plenty of time to heal him. All that said, FFXV wasn’t as easy for me as it was for others, but just be aware that it may not challenge you like its predecessors did. Summons are gained through the story, and they will only be seen in the direst straits. Enemies range from tiny goblins to colossi that are literally the sizes of skyscrapers. Major battles often feel like those found in God of War, with a sense of scale beyond what we’d imagine. There are many other nuances to combat, such as the ancient weaponry and a powerful ring that Noctis can wield, passive abilities that his comrades use, and his unusual dodging abilities. It all results in an intense, stylish, action-packed battle system that both challenges and exhilarates.

While the action-style gameplay is a far cry from what we as Final Fantasy fans are accustomed to, rest assured that XV is an RPG first and foremost. This is most realized outside of combat. Taking on the sidequests is one of the most prominent RPG facets of FFXV, but its other RPG mechanics showcase the series’ unusual traits. Earning experience, for example, is done as you’d expect (defeating enemies, completing missions). However, this experience does not accumulate unless you rest at an inn or campsite. What this means is that during very long missions or simply going for long periods without rest, your characters’ levels will remain stagnant (there is also a new accessory that prevents leveling when resting). Resting can also give characters bonuses—resting at an inn will boost experience, while camping will allow Ignis to cook a meal and temporarily increase stats like attack power and HP.

FFXV is full of other unusual mechanics as well. Your team will earn shared AP, which you can use in the Ascension menu. Ascensions can include anything from learning new combat skills to increasing AP and experience bonuses. While Ignis is the team chef, Gladiolus is the survivalist who will pick up life-saving items as your team travels the world. In the meantime, Prompto will take some amazing photographs throughout the adventure. Noctis has his own skill, which is fishing. These four skills will improve every time they are used. And while your three comrades’ skills will no doubt get greater and greater since they are more automated, Noct’s fishing skill was an extremely tedious and distracting affair for me. There are too many fish, lures, reels, and rods that I need to keep track of, thus it is too time consuming and, ultimately, not enjoyable. Sorry, Navyth.

FFXV’s world is vast, and you will be travelling for a good chunk of it in Noctis’s majestic car, the Regalia. Fast-travel is always a nice option, though sometimes it was relaxing to let Ignis take the wheel and listen to classic Final Fantasy music for a few minutes until we reached our destination. Chocobos also make a return, and are a huge help when travelling long distances that the Regalia can’t cover. At night, travelling is risky because daemons roam the land—and as you play more, you will find that these beasts actually play a critical role in the story. Travelling so much is not as bad as it sounds, and truthfully I loved swerving the camera around to admire the world’s natural beauty as the guys drove down the open roads.

Yet despite all its beauty and vastness, and despite the fixes in the three years after release, I can’t shake this despondent feeling that Final Fantasy XV isn’t everything it should have been. There has been some hearsay of it being “rushed,” but it may be more appropriate to claim that it was released prematurely. Nonetheless, FFXV often feels incomplete. As exciting as the battles are, the camera frequently misbehaves and my view is blocked by a tree trunk, shrubbery or a giant body part. Additionally, the beautiful field music will begin to play while I’m exploring, but when I open a menu it is effectively “cancelled” upon my return to the field and I am met with a sudden silence. I still don’t think I’ve been able to hear the entire tracks that play in the field, as much as I’d like to. It may seem insignificant but Final Fantasy fans know how important the music can be to the overall experience. In fact, from the rare moments in Final Fantasy XV where I could listen to its original music, I was blown away with its splendor (well, except for in Altissia). It just feels like I’ve heard very little of it.

There are other parts of gameplay that simply lacked the TLC they deserved. In the field, Prompto might shout “Imperials above us!” Moments upon my victory against these imperials, Prompto would once again shout “Imperials above us!” Now sometimes I could get out of the area in time to prevent another fruitless battle, but not every time. This is because Ignis, my driver, would forcibly stop the Regalia because apparently we’re not allowed to progress while in the vicinity of enemies. Sometimes, Ignis would stop the car for no apparent reason. The four of us would get out, I would tap X to get back in, Noctis would jump, I would press X again, we would all get in the car, Ignis would drive a few yards, and then he would stop the car again. Apparently there would be enemies nearby, though they were not visible. Now, I am not adamant about perfection in my Final Fantasy games, but there are many little things left unfinished that often disrupt the otherwise fluid gameplay, or just hastily designed aspects that would have been much better if given more attention. Take the “Menace” dungeons, for example. They are essentially all the same thing: Noct and company follow a direct path and fight higher-leveled enemies for rewards that won’t be used because they come too late in the game to be useful. Sure, it was fun to fight stronger versions of enemies I was already familiar with, but aside from that the “Menace” dungeons weren’t very fulfilling postgame experiences.

The four bros are the most enduring and memorable part of the game.

Still… Despite its ephemeral approach to storytelling and its unfinished mechanics, I truly did get wrapped up in Final Fantasy XV during my 170 hours. During and after battles, I talked along with the guys verbatim because I have their quotes memorized. When Ignis exclaims “that’s it!” I immediately respond with, “what’s what?” That perfect menu music is playing in my head as I write this review, and I hope it never stops. I can close my eyes and see Noct’s blue silhouette flash as he stylishly strikes from one end of the battlefield to another. On my New Game+, I never forgot to equip the Nixperience Band in anticipation of staying at Altissia’s luxury hotel. I took my sweet time admiring Prompto’s pictures, selecting the keepers with care. I laughed out loud when Ardyn suddenly appeared on screen, unbeknownst to the guys, and hummed the Chocobo Theme. When Gladiolus and Noctis had a full-on argument, I had a lengthy internal debate about who was right and who was wrong.

And truly, isn’t that what Final Fantasy has always been about? Like every single other Final Fantasy before it, XV has all these little things that add up to an unforgettable experience. Truth be told, as much as I love Final Fantasy, I can happily point out each entry’s flaws in the same breath I use to explain why I love it so much. There is no doubt that FFXV has many flaws across the board, probably much more than its predecessors. Still, for those with an open mind and a love for RPGs, Final Fantasy XV is worth playing at least once.

7 out of 10

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