Final Fantasy XV is great, but it's also quite...weird, and makes a big transition from the traditional fantasy-based experiences that fans are used to. There is fantasy and magic in the game, but it mostly has a distinct modern feeling, but even this modernity is stylish and unique in its own way.
FFXV is homely but also fantastically entertaining, with a story about male bonding but also an all-out world war that threatens to tear the world asunder. There's normal NPCs walking around, but there's also insane Magitek creations and monstrosities that can reap the entire world itself. It's a strange mash-up, but Square Enix somehow makes it feel normal--but the facade can break away at times.
When you fire the game up, it assures that the adventure is a "Final Fantasy for beginners and fans," making it out to be a great stepping point for new players. But it's really not...at least not in my opinion. I wouldn't tell anyone to start with Final Fantasy XV: not because it's a bad game, but because it's very confusing at the start.
It's not very player-friendly, not at the beginning, at least.
Final Fantasy XV is the type of game that is tailored to JRPG fans who are used to acclimating themselves with specific features; it's not specifically made as an easy access point for new Final Fantasy players.
So if you were to start with FFXV as the entry point to the series, then you might find yourself confused, frustrated, and let down. We're going to roll out some start up guides to help allay this frustration, but for the time being, I'll give my first impressions.
I've been playing Final Fantasy XV for a few days now, and I feel like I have a good grasp of the staggering level of content. Make no mistake: this game is absolutely massive in size, scope, and overall features, many of which aren't entirely evident at the beginning.
This is the type of game that takes investment and exploration. It's not the type of game that gives you instant gratification, and with most JRPGs, you're given the tools to empower yourself...but only if you know exactly what you're doing.
Well, that's not exactly true. You can definitely become as powerful as you'd like, but if you take the "wrong" pathway, you aren't necessarily punished in any other way than time. With enough time, you could fill out the entire Ascension tree and become a total badass--but there's certain skills you want to pick that will make your in-game life much easier.
So at first glance, Final Fantasy XV has a kind of mysterious air to it: everything is new, and some things don't really become clear until you spend time actually understanding and investigating them.
For example, the game's magic system is incredibly unique and quite puzzling at first, and combat can be tricky.
Combat: Fluid Phasing and Strategic Chaos
Final Fantasy XV's combat system is probably the best thing about the game. It's svelte, fluid and action-packed. It feels like Devil May Cry always should've been, with an incredible mix of dynamism and control that infuses every battle with skill-based reactions and tactical strategy.
The game puts emphasis on feline agility and grace as much as brawn. Noctis has to dodge frequently by phasing and rolling, and honestly FFXV takes a note from Dark Souls' playbook by pushing players to roll and hit enemies in the back. But instead of being locked to the ground, Final Fantasy XV is much more vertical--by necessity, especially with those huge bosses--and takes players in the skies during fights.
You can teleport and warp-strike foes from afar, and zap to cover to refill your MP. That's a big part of the game, actually, and you'll want to pay close attention to MP because once you run out you'll go into Stasis and be quite vulnerable.
The camera is tricky, though, especially since battles are seamless with the environments. Every battle happens within the actual open world, and there isn't a separate transition like in traditional Final Fantasy games. As such, mastering the third person camera is essentially to victory, but sometimes you'll actually have to fight the environment or the camera itself to even see what's going on.
Since combat is based on reaction skills--pressing square to dodge-roll, phase, and block attacks--this can be a big problem. Sometimes you'll actually swing the camera around and your view is blocked by scenery, with big rocks and trees seriously getting in the way at times.
You can actually switch to the Wait mode if you prefer a more traditional turn-based mechanic, and manually scan enemies to learn their weaknesses.
Once you know an enemy's weakness, you can pause the game and switch out your weapons and gear accordingly. You can even make some custom magical flasks to fling at your foes to maximize damage.
This kind of strategic thinking is absolutely essential in later boss battles, especially the ones that take up the entire screen.
While Noctis is the main character that players control, you still have to rely on your team while in combat. Gladiolus, Promto and Ignis can equip primary and secondary weapons, and you can mix and match specific Ascension nodes to utilize these extra attacks.
Techniques are also a big part of combat. These abilities are found on the Technique branch in the Ascension level-up tree, and aren't to be confused with Teamwork, which are passive bonuses.
Techniques are timed on a charge-up bar that fills up while in battle, with specific Techniques--like Gladio's powerful Tempest attack--taking two full bars to initiate.
These abilities can range from offensive attacks or even super helpful defensive healing abilities, such as Ignis' Regroup ability.
So there's a ton of depth to combat, and you can't just get away with button-mashing. You actually have to think and plan things out properly, but also have the kind of suave needed in fighting games.
Magic: using Elemancy to mix your own magical spells
In many ways, Final Fantasy XV's magic system is like a combination of spellcrafting and alchemy from traditional Elder Scrolls games. It also incorporates Final Fantasy VIII's draw system, too.
Magic works like this: elemental energy is the basis for all attacks, and there are three main elements, Fire, Blizzard and Thunder. That might sound pretty lackluster, but wait, there's a lot more.
In fact, these aren't really magical spells, but the base energy for said spells. Elemental energy is drawn from specific points throughout the game, mostly by deposits at campsites. You can level up and unlock nodes on the Ascension trees to improve your energy draw.
But here's the real magic of Final Fantasy XV's magic: you can combine elements with food ingredients, usable consumables like potions, and basic miscellaneous materials to make some awesome spells.
That's right: you can combine basic ingredients like Funguar mushrooms with Fire spells to create Venomcast, a fiery blast that poisons nearby enemies while dealing fire damage at the same time.
You have to spend some time experimenting like an actual scientist to see what works and what doesn't.
We'll have an in-depth guide on Elemancy in the coming days, so keep a look out for that too.
Final Fantasy XV's world of Eos is massive, and there are no loading points between the areas. This makes for an incredibly seamless open world that's enchanting in its beauty: there's photo-realistic textures pretty much everywhere, especially in the cliffs and underground tunnels.
I have to say that the game feels like it was made for higher-end hardware, especially the PS4 Pro. My original launch 2013 PS4 revs up pretty hard while playing this game, which some sequences triggering high fan usage--higher and louder fan usage than any other game.
Sure there's loading sequences at the beginning of the game and when cinematics star rolling, as well as quite a few loading sequences when you camp, but all in all it doesn't bother you.
Eos looks amazing and seriously pulls you in, but there's a few fidelity/graphical hiccups here and there, especially with the character's hair and moving trees. After all, it's still limited to consoles, so this is to be expected.
I have to say that the open-ended freedom of Final Fantasy XV actually makes it less mainstream than more traditional games in the series, which have a linear path throughout the game.
So there's a lot of walking, a lot of driving between locations to solve quests, and...well...it can get old at times. It just depends on what you want to do, and how you do it, and it's not nearly as bad as Dragon Age: Inquisition's severe problems with too much freedom.
Not all of Final Fantasy XV is this free, however: the second half of the game is nonlinear and more traditional, but...that's pretty far off.
Final Fantasy XV pushes consoles pretty hard, and I haven't had any problems, but it's a shame Square Enix didn't make a PC port.
Camping, fishing, cooking and camaraderie
Leveling up in Final Fantasy XV isn't instant: to level up you have to camp or sleep in one of the game's lodges, motels, hotels, etc. You can set up camp in the wilderness, or spend money to sleep at an inn and get a hefty EXP boost.
The game wants you to camp and sleep during the night and play during the day, especially since "daemons" (aka level 30+ Iron Giants) come out at night. But realistically it's not very beneficial to sleep at night, as you can hoard your EXP throughout multiple days and then cash it in at a motel and get a massive 3x EXP boost to level up faster.
Camping in itself is pretty interesting, though. It genuinely makes you feel as if you're camping with your buddies, and Ignis will cook a nice meal with ingredients and recipes you procured while adventuring.
These meals add a bunch of extra effects that can help you while in combat or adventuring, but you don't really want to make meals every night unless you know you're about to take on some real tough enemies.
Each character has their own unique side-skills that add a lot more personality and sometimes manifest into mini-games.
For example, Noctis can catch fish in a neat little mini-game that coincides directly with Ignis cooking skill, Prompto will take photos that chronicle your journey and you can save them to a scrapbook, and Gladio's Survival skill provides you with extra consumables like potions, hi-potions, remedies and more.
Some of these skills are leveled up passively, like Gladio and Prompto's skills, but Ignis' cooking and Noctis' fishing require actual manual interactions.
All in all, Final Fantasy XV is great. The story is interesting--even if it's a bit cliched--and Square Enix has made an enchanting and rather deep JRPG that pulls you in extremely fast.
It takes a fair bit of investment, so I wouldn't say it's for everyone, but I would definitely recommend players to pick it up if they're okay with the specifics.
The combat works exceedingly well, even if it is a dramatic change for the series, and genuinely breathes vivid new life into the franchise. This game, like most Final Fantasy games, is a massive undertaking and you shouldn't expect to beat it fast. Be ready to put up your feet and inject a serious chunk of your life in the game.
Even then, you probably won't know everything, and there will always be things left to discover. That's the magic of Final Fantasy.
At it's heart, though, Final Fantasy XV defines the word epic and should be on the radar of any fan of the series...but I don't think it should necessarily be your entry point.
That honor goes to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.