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Looking Back: Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV is a Japanese RPG developed and released by Square-Enix, for the PlayStation 4 and Steam, in 2016. Square-Enix later followed up the title with various DLC before including everything into the Royal Edition. Final Fantasy XV Royal Edition currently retails for $34.99 on the PlayStation Store and Steam

The latest numbered installment in the illustrious Final Fantasy series features Noctis Lucis Caelum, Crown Prince of Lucis, journeying to reclaim his kingdom from the Imperial Army of Niflheim. Accompanied by his retainers - Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto - the four band together and embark on a memorable journey. Featuring a wonderful combat system, an epic musical score, and gorgeous visuals, Final Fantasy XV features the makings of a brilliant title that helps define the JRPG genre in the current generation. 

However, a few flaws hold back this wondrous title such as a convoluted plot harmed due to pacing in the second half of the game. The additional unnecessary padding, repetitive side-quests, and in turn, the ability to build levels quickly to trivialize most of the game put a mild damper on the otherwise high quality of the title. 

Despite that, I won't overblow its shortcomings to make them sound deal-breaking otherwise. Final Fantasy XV is a great game in its own right but could use some improvement such as the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI.

Final Fantasy XV's story takes place in the postmodern world of Eos. Similar to VII, VIII, X, and XIII, XV features a number of modern-day features such as a car, a highway, cellphones, and even product placement. Yet it brilliantly melds this world with that of fantasy as the Kingdom of Lucis relies on the Crystal and the gods in their world.

I enjoy XV's entire setting, dialogue, voice acting, and world building perhaps more than any other in series. It's relatable to the real world with that spark of fantasy RPG fans are accustomed to. You'll encounter different towns and parts of the world feature their own people and even their own government in some cases. 

Noctis starts off as a fairly brooding character. However, he's not without his quips when it's time to take it easy. He feels human and knows sadness, happiness, and anger throughout the game. His chemistry with his allies really gives him a dimension of characterization that was practically unheard of in games of the genre before XV. You'll surely appreciate his ability to adapt to the worst situations, his growth, and even his saddest moments.

Final Fantasy XV's story pacing is by no means perfect, however. Rather, it's good until the latter portion of the game during a critical moment in the City of Altissia. Some party members leave briefly and come back with scars. These mysteries are never explained in the main storyline and, as such, will surely confuse you. Moreover, after the key scene in Altissia, chapters begin to pace themselves faster and culminate to the climax. The Royal Edition includes the DLC which fills in several major gaps in the storyline, however. Thankfully, it's mostly built up by the end but the speed to getting there was a bit abrupt.

However, what Final Fantasy XV excels at more than anything is its feeling of brotherhood. The bond between Noctis, Gladio, Prompto, and Ignis continues to grow throughout the game. Their banter, similarities, differences, and own abilities help one-another cope with and overcome the feelings of loss and fighting together throughout. They fight alongside each other and even end up fighting among themselves which leads to some touching moments in the game. However, the journey among the four makes for some of the best storytelling in any game period. Prompto's easygoing and friendly nature belies his insecurity while Ignis' wise decision making keeps the group safe from harm. Plus Gladiolus acts like big brother to Noct who, in spite of serving him, will keep him in line when the going gets tough. It's hard not to bond with each one on a personal level.

As with Final Fantasy XII and XIII, XV continues to depart from the traditional turn-based battling the series was once known for. XV features real-time combat allowing you, as Noctis, to equip various weapons, cast magic, and use his special phasing ability to close the gap on enemies. Using Ability Points, you can unlock various abilities from a skill tree to gain new techniques or boost passive stats. Among these include the ability to switch between your party members each with a different style. As such, the strategies you enlist will prove useful among the game's many exciting boss battles and encounters. You can dodge roll, parry, warp, and attack weak spots on numerous colossal enemies as well.

Ignis, Prompto, and Gladio all have their own weapon choices which leave you to customize which ability you want to use when you build up enough meter. They can heal, use a secondary weapon, or support you. Despite the linear and static class choices they use, it's much more robust and feasible than games with other A.I.-controlled partners such as Kingdom Hearts. This is also due to how losing all your HP doesn't KO you immediately, allowing you to heal or let your partners heal you instead.

Unfortunately, my first gripe with gameplay is it becomes admittedly too easy to boost levels. The overabundance of side-quests allows you to over level early into the game. You can find yourself not only 20 levels higher than most enemies around Chapter 4 but can even grab Noctis' Ultima Blade following a fairly brief quest. 

The other problem comes from the pacing. Side-quests themselves tend to not end in just one swoop and you may do the same thing several times but in different locations. Furthermore, if not for quick travel, you'll be riding in the Regalia numerous times. Much of the exploration is paced along the highway which, in itself, is not a bad thing. I enjoy a nice car ride with my bros while listening to my favorite Final Fantasy music. But the otherwise barren overworld discourages any real exploration especially compared to its contemporaries, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn. As such, you'll be pacing back and forth in locations for various side-quests numerous times.

Branching off of that, one real problem I had was in the final area of the game. Several side-quests unlock when you get to the resistance base. However, your quest goals are scattered across several different points of the map. Since you can only quick travel while riding around in the overworld, you'll find running back and forth to quickly turn cumbersome. If there were quick travel points in dungeons and other areas, this wouldn't be a problem at all.

I cannot stress enough how gorgeous the world of Eos is. The landscapes make for picturesque moments which you can capture or have captured by your buddy Prompto. Plus Ignis' cooking will surely make your mouth water as you see near-realistic looking plates of delicious food enter your table. The facial and hair detail, animations, environmental details, and the enemies all look incredible. You can see real emotion especially during some of the moving scenes in the game. 

Final Fantasy XV is composed by Yoko Shimomura. You may know her as the composer of Super Mario RPG, Legend of Mana, and most prominently, the Kingdom Hearts series. If you enjoy her works in past games, or you love piano, violin, and orchestra, XV will give you the best music Final Fantasy can offer. 

My only real complaint with FFXV came from the framerate. At times it was choppy especially on a PS4. On a PS4 Pro, the Lite mode improves framerate and the PS5 does so even more, allowing it to run at a consistent 60 FPS. On the flip side, during the meeting with Camelia in Altissia, playing on Lite mode causes the resolution to blur every so often. You'll notice issues with details on her coat missing and then restoring briefly. You can choose to use Performance or Steady HDR modes if you own a PS4 Pro or PS5 but I strongly preferred Lite by far.

I was quite impressed with a number of boss fights in this game. You'll fight the summons from past Final Fantasy titles, such as Titan, Leviathan, and Ifrit. My favorite boss fights came from the final dungeon since they held strong ties to the bond Noctis' friends share with him. Dare I make this comparison, they also felt a bit like Dark Souls bosses as they relied much more on pattern recognition, defensive play, and not chugging through healing items.

I'm especially fond of the overall character design in the game. While I've always loved Shiva as a summon, FFXV characterized her as a focal point in the storyline and gave her a beautiful design as always. You actually begin to feel for them as people and not just the Eidolons, Espers, or Aeons as in past games. NPCs like Iris, Cindy, and Aranea also feel tangible with their interactions and banter with the party. I feel like we should have learned more about what happened in Altissia after the major turning point in the game. I also wish there was more to Noctis and Lunafreya's romance besides a few flashbacks and the aforementioned turning point. I feel there was more bond-building with Iris if I'm being honest.

What stops Final Fantasy XV from being a perfect game comes from its pacing issues, side-quest issues, phoned-in stealth segments, and disjointed plot near the end which is otherwise thankfully remedied by the DLC episodes. It's certainly not the combat, audiovisuals, or character and world-building by any means. Rather, I would say all of these elements amount to some of the finest in any game. As such, I feel a number of these features were already remedied in Final Fantasy VII Remake and hopefully will set the precedent for the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI.

Final Verdict: Recommended!
Overall, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XV greatly. Minus a few parts where I was disheartened with some back-and-forth, I enjoyed all the combat, the banter, music, and being able to customize Noctis with various blades. I love the use of Noctis' phasing ability and getting to hit weak spots on enemies. Fun fact, the Engine Blade is unlockable in NieR: Automata and also allows 2B to phase with a similar animation to Noctis'.

Granted, keep in mind I played through the Royal Edition of the game. I'm well aware that XV was said to suffer from a number of flaws that were patched out over the course of the game. Plus the addition of the DLC saved it from having not only disjointed pacing but too many unanswered questions as well. I strongly suggest playing the Royal Edition of the game for that reason among others.

With that being said, I can't say that Final Fantasy XV hits the same level of overall quality featured in Persona 5 Royal or Dragon Quest XI S which I argue are the peak JRPG titles of this generation. However, in its own right, Final Fantasy XV Royal Edition will satisfy the curiosity of any fan of the genre. Plus you'll never find a game that builds bonds among brothers quite like XV does. 

All-in-all, if you enjoy a gorgeous game with a great soundtrack, fast-paced but easy-to-learn combat, and memorable characters, I strongly recommend this game. You'll surely be moved by the ending as well.

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