Final Fantasy 15 has been in development for over a decade now at Square Enix, having gone through a multitude of changes sinces its reveal as Final Fantasy Versus XIII back in 2006. Now, after years of waiting, the game is only a couple of months away. This could be the ambitious revival fans have been waiting for.
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Final Fantasy 15 is an action role-playing adventure with unique strategic elements. Set on the planet of Eos, players will have an expansive open world to explore with a party of new and exciting characters. As always, you'll embark on an epic quest to overthrow an evil antagonist in his attempt to destroy the world. Par for the course, then.
Unlike previous games, Final Fantasy 15 will utilise a real-time gameplay known as the "Active Cross Battle System". In practice, it appears to be very similar to Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy Type-0, having you explore an open environment where you encounter new enemies and obstacles. Mechs and tanks used by enemies can be stolen and used against them, adding a facet of dynamic tactical precision to each fight.
Commands are mapped to individual buttons on the controller, meaning you can swap out different skills and abilities whenever you like. It’s a simple system, but requires constant attention if you want to succeed. Your party members can be assigned pre-set moves and abilities, ensuring you have a balanced range of play styles at your disposal. Combat and exploration take place in the same environment, meaning there will be no loading screens as you transition into each skirmish.
Read on for our hand-on preview of Final Fantasy 15.
Square Enix describes Final Fantasy 15 as a JRPG “fun for newbies and existing fans”. That pitch and lack of information about gameplay left many Final Fantasy fans, myself included, a little concerned that FFXV may break away from the genre’s stat-heavy hardcore traditions.
Having played the first three chapters I can confirm this is different to past FF titles, but the core features that made the series great remain generally intact. At its most basic level Final Fantasy XV is a sandbox open-world RPG that tasks you to jump from location to location, picking up quests.
The story is typically overblown, focusing on protagonist Noctis Lucis Caelum, a prince in the Kingdom of Lucis as he travels through the war-torn planet of Eos. Throughout the adventure he’s accompanied by a group of friends who also sound like they belong at Chelsea Flower Show – Gladiolus Amicitia, Ignis Scientia and Prompto Argentum – who make up your core party during combat and exploration.
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The characters all fall into your regular anime archetypes. Ignis takes the role of the older brother and gives Noctis advice, or chastises the other members for being immature. Promptu plays the joker and is the regular butt of many jokes, while Gladiolus is the strong silent type – though his ’80s mullet kind of ruins his badass vibe.
Noctis and his merry men look like a wannabe visual kei band and the villains take ridiculous to a whole new level. I saw everything from a weird bikini-clad bug-woman to armoured neo-Roman fighters and Blade Runner-style robot soldiers.
The plot is schizophrenic in tone. All too often it would go from operatic epic to Cowboy Bebop comedic and then back again, without pausing for breath. A dark intro showing an epic fight taking place in the future quickly jumped back in time to show Noctis enjoying a slapstick moment with his buddies on a road trip.
The only constant was the plot’s strong focus on the friendship shared among Noctis’ crew. Through all the comedic and serious scenes the most appealing aspect of the narrative is Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto’s strong feelings for one another. The group regularly break into impromptu conversation, friendly mocking one another or regaling each other with funny stories from their past. In more serious moments Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto take on more protective, brotherly roles and work to console Noctis through hardships.
One particularly nice moment happened after I set up camp, when Gladiolus offered to train Noctis. During the training Gladiolus lectured Noctis on his need to work harder and become the noble ruler he could be. The dialogue was expertly delivered and had a strong fraternal tone.
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The focus on the group carries into Final Fantasy 15’s gameplay, which I wasn't initially sold on, primarily because the early quests weren’t very interesting. Nearly every mission I tried during the first three chapters tasked me to travel somewhere and kill a bunch of monsters, or drop off an item.
The early driving and conversation mechanics also proved pretty dull. Auto and manual driving options are available, but neither let me take the car off-road. The auto mode instructs Ignis to drive you to a specific location, but still makes you sit through the whole journey in real time. Manual mode lets you control the car’s acceleration and pick when you want to turn onto a new road by pushing left or right, but it’s still a firmly on-rails experience.
The conversation options are equally limiting. At certain points the game will offer a choice of replies to NPCs’ questions and requests. Most are limited to saying yes or no, though occasionally it throws up a choice that looks like it will have a more profound impact on the game’s narrative.
On one occasion I was asked to pick how to deal with a bogus reporter attempting to blackmail Noctis. I attempted every dialogue option by reloading the game multiple times and found every choice ended the same way – me having to accept the quest. The only difference I noticed was that some dialogue options impress Noctis’ companions and yield an AP (experience points) reward.
Luckily the combat is slightly more interesting despite the game’s lackluster tutorial system. The game doesn’t offer any real tuition in its nuances during the first hour, so I didn’t really focus on what anyone but Noctis was doing, leading to some pretty boring battles.
Final Fantasy 15’s real-time combat system, at its most basic level, just requires you to get close to monsters and press and hold either the attack or defend button. From there Noctis will begin railing on the monster, or defending himself from strikes.
Things got more interesting a few hours in when the game introduced companion abilities and Noctis’ special attacks.
Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto can each have one active, usable ability equipped at any one time. The skills are activated mid-combat, after the party has inflicted enough regular damage on enemies using a special command button (LT on Xbox One). The abilities are all basic supercharged attacks that inflict significant damage, but you can unlock more interesting special moves by leveling up your party.
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Skills for Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto are unlocked by spending AP in the game’s “Astralsphere Ascension” menu after resting at one of the game’s camping stops or hotels. Each character has their own skill tree, but all AP points are stored in one pot. In theory this means you could max out one character while ignoring the others, but I found it was most effective to level them up evenly and tailor each for a specific role.
I used the system to turn Gladiolus into the party’s tank by unlocking a wealth of shield-focused upgrades, including a custom call-for-help ability, so Gladiolus could stop whatever he was doing and make a beeline to protect Noctis. Prompto took the role of healer, loaded with skills designed to buff the other characters and provide emergency aid.
The need to tailor each character and properly utilise their abilities is essential when facing bosses. Relying on Noctis’ attacks alone will universally end in failure.
Noctis’ Blink Strike adds a further element of strategy. Blink Strike eats up Noctis’ MP (magic points) but lets him teleport short distances and can be used to blitz unsuspecting enemy positions, or propel Noctis onto elevated areas.
The feature sounds small, but makes a big difference to combat. Blink let me choose how I wanted to engage enemies before each fight. I could barrel directly into them with no forethought and face a ridiculously tough fight, or jump to a strategically superior position before engaging. Positioning in a fight is of paramount importance, as all enemies have weak areas, and can be blindsided when struck from behind. Blindside strikes inflict extra damage.
Final Fantasy’s combat scoring system was another welcome discovery. The game ranks your combat, defence and stealth performance after each fight. The higher grade you get, the more AP you earn.
I never fully figured out how the game judges stealth. On regular occasions I’d be given a C rating after carefully mounting a Blink Strike ambush, only to get a B after barreling into battles with zero subtlety. The feature was a fun incentive to try different strategies nonetheless.
Noctis is able to carry up to four weapons at any one time. At the start these are limited to a basic sword, javelin and great sword, but later on you can expand his arsenal to guns, magical flasks and special “king’s arms”.
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Magical flasks are limited-use items you can create using special Flame, Ice and Lightning resources, which are littered around the map. You can make a variety of different versions of magical flasks, but I was only able to make a basic Fira flask that created an area-of-effect flame attack when activated. King’s arms are über-powerful weapons that inflict massive damage, but cost MP to wield.
Early on I only swapped weapons in the run up to a fight, thinking switching mid-combat would leave me exposed. But, a couple of hours in, an accidental button push revealed the existence of multi-weapon combos. If you change weapons at certain points partway through an attack, you can activate powerful combo strikes that inflict superior damage.
This introduced me to the importance of timing during combat. The ability to switch made me start planning my combos before attacking, so that I could jump to the right tool for the job at the right time and inflict the highest possible damage each time.
Once I’d gotten used to combining Noctis’ special attacks with his companions’ abilities, the game’s combat took on a new life and acted as a decent incentive to travel from location to location.
I’m still confused and not entirely sure what Final Fantasy 15 wants to be. The open-world mechanics and slightly schizophrenic plot make it feel radically different to older FF games. This could alienate some JRPG fans, but personally I’m excited about the direction Square Enix has taken.
The game got off to a slow start and the opening hours were a drudge. But Final Fantasy 15 quickly grew on me. The characters may look ridiculous, but it’s hard not to invest in Noctis and his party’s story after a few hours travelling with them. Combat also started showing its potential once I got my head around some of its more advanced features.
The game was still introducing new gameplay features when I finished my preview, so hopefully this will just be the cusp of what’s to come. Either way, I’m eager to get back on the road with Noctis and his possy.