In many ways, Final Fantasy XV feels like two distinct games. In its first half, Square-Enix's latest entry in the long-running JRPG franchise is a sprawling, open world adventure filled with side quests and activities to take part in. In its second, Final Fantasy XV ditches its open world setting for a more story-focused, linear adventure that has players moving from plot beat to plot beat, battling epic foes along the way.
The real question is, which half is better? Most of Square-Enix's promotional effort has been used to promote the open world "road trip" portion of the game, with heavy emphasis placed on the all-male party of four and their stylish car — the Regalia. The heroes of the story, Noctis, Ignis, Prompto and Gladio, are the beating heart of Final Fantasy XV, and they're a joy to get to know over the course of the adventure.
However, while the prospect of exploring the vast world of Final Fantasy XV by car at first seems like its main attraction, the reality is that the world Square-Enix has crafted never truly feels like it comes to life. From its initial moments, all the way to the point where players leave the game's open world behind (though players can technically return to the open world at rest stops through strange time travel mechanic or upon completing the main story), the kingdom available for exploring fails to leave much of an impression. Most open world side quests simply involve hunting down monsters for payment or collecting a certain item. Another quest chain involves players driving to locations throughout the world and taking pictures. While there are a few standout side quests and the game's numerous optional dungeons are definitely worth seeking out, the vast majority of the open world activities add nothing to the game outside of providing your party with experience points and money.
These side quests and characters could have been used to further flesh out Final Fantasy XV's world and give players new insights into how it works. Instead, Square-Enix seems content to provide hours of what feels like busy work. That's a huge problem considering world building is one of the core tenets upon which the Final Fantasy franchise is based. Each entry in the series transports players to a new fantasy world that is fleshed out over the course of dozens of hours, but Final Fantasy XV's setting never reaches the same lofty heights laid out by so many of its predecessors for a number of reasons.
The first are the completely forgettable side quests mentioned above that do little to make the world feel like alive. The second is that the game's core story itself is imperfect at best and feels downright incomplete at worst. From the very get go, Final Fantasy XV fails to provide much needed context about the who and why of the game's plot. Aside from the core party and the game's excellent and eccentric main villain, all the other characters, both big and small, never get fleshed out properly.
Meanwhile, key world altering events often take place off screen or in a strange order that makes it confusing to understand. Making matters worse is that the first half of the game is completely lacking in urgency, as Noctis and his band of brothers-in-arms sort of just float around the world doing whatever. It's never a good sign when the group's motivation or what's happening in the plot only becomes knowable thanks to on screen text that appears during the loading screen for each of the game's chapters.
Yet, somehow, Final Fantasy XV's story still manages to redeem itself towards the end, largely thanks to the strength of the game's core party. Interacting with Ignis, Prompto and Gladio over the course of several dozen hours — whether it be camping out in the wilderness or driving through the countryside in the Regalia — has a way of endearing each character to the player so that when the game's key emotional beats start to fall in Final Fantasy XV's second half, they manage to hit home in spite of everything.
Part of the reason players come to care so much about Noctis and his band of bodyguards/friends are genuinely genius gameplay mechanics that turn what sounds like mundane activities into something far more special. Players must rest in order to restore HP and deposit their experience points in order to level up; however, players can only rest at campsites or various inns and motels throughout the game world. This is where the whole "road trip" aspect of the game comes in. While resting, the game shows the group all laughing and discussing around a campfire. The gang even gets to enjoy a stat-boosting meal cooked by Ignis. Meanwhile, Prompto, an enthusiastic fan of photography, takes the opportunity to show his friends the various pictures he's taken since the last time the group set up camp.
It all sounds bizarre on paper, but when combined with the various interactions between characters that happen while driving across the open world or running around on foot, it feels like players get to know Ignis, Prompto and Gladio perhaps better than any Final Fantasy party members that have come before. Final Fantasy XV is far worse a time when they aren't around, as is the case in a few instances over the course of the story where party members come and go or Noctis is on his own (including a painfully long, poorly executed stealth/horror segment that sticks out like a sore thumb). Having the group all together is when Final Fantasy XV shines.
The game's real-time combat system helps reinforces the sense of camaraderie between each character. Getting behind enemies and performing link-strikes with teammates is the key to coming out on top in the game's battles, as well as a few other tricks that only Noctis can use. As the heir of Lucis, Noctis can toss his weapon and "warp" to certain locations on the battlefield to recover HP or "warp strike" enemies. He can also summon forth the spectral weapons of his ancestors in a powerful ultimate attack called Armiger. Warping in, out and around combat encounters is an important part of staying alive in Final Fantasy XV, as enemies can often be unforgiving. All it takes, in many cases, is a few hits before Noctis or party members will be downed, after which another party member must "rescue" them or an item needs to be consumed in order to get them back in the fight.
As for how the game's combat controls work, it looks incredibly flashy at times (especially when teaming up with party members for special attacks), but is fairly simple in execution. Simply holding one button to attack, while holding another, allows players to automatically dodge attacks that come their way. Toss in the ability to teleport around and use items and we have the Final Fantasy XV's combat system in a nutshell.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always work as intended. The game's pesky camera makes fights in close quarter environments more frustrating than they should be. Certain enemy types can often be brutally difficult to defeat due to their ability to inflict the "confusion" status effect or because they have almost impossible to hit blindside areas. Having almost no control over Ignis, Prompto and Gladio can also lead to frustration, as they'll often stand right in the middle of devastating enemy attacks or ignore you when you are in need of rescue. Certain special abilities called Techniques, which can be unlocked using the game's Ascension progression system, do give players a few options when it comes to maneuvering their party, but by and large players are at the mercy of the often times not-too-bright AI.
It might seem like the bad outweighs the good in this review, but that's not the case. Final Fantasy XV is undoubtedly a flawed game, but it's still an enjoyable one. Helping cover up some of the game's many issues is a stellar score and some truly awe-inspiring visuals. No matter what's happening on screen, Final Fantasy XV runs well and is always a pleasure to look at and listen to, especially when the epic soundtrack begins to kick in as massive beasts and gods do battle on screen.
This all leads back to that initial question posed earlier in this review: which half of Final Fantasy XV is the better half? Is it the huge yet largely lifeless open world? Or is it the more story driven, though still imperfect, second half?
While Final Fantasy XV feels like two games, the truth is that one half can't work without the other. The first half may move at a snail pace narratively, but it uses those hours of open world exploration to build an emotional connection between the player and the core cast of characters, a connection that helps make the game's big story moments all the more powerful when they arrive in its second half.
In that regard Final Fantasy XV is a success. Despite its largely modern aesthetic, open world game mechanics, new action-oriented combat and a poorly told main narrative, at the end of the day Final Fantasy XV feels like Final Fantasy because it endears you to its characters. For fans of the franchise, that's likely all that needs to be said.