Final Fantasy XV
PS4, Xbox One
Yu Suzuki posited recently that the most interesting games aren’t the ones whose every element combines harmoniously, but those with jagged edges. He’d probably like Final Fantasy XV, which proves to be spikier than any of Tetsuya Nomura’s designs. That such a luxurious production should turn out to be so scrappy in places isn’t really a surprise: ten years of development means ten years’ worth of accumulated ideas, and the finished game suggests that director Hajime Tabata and his team weren’t sure quite what to leave out. The results are inconsistent. Here we have an open-world game that ends up funnelling you into corridors. A road trip where your car is all but glued to the tarmac. Attention has been lavished upon mouth-wateringly detailed renders of foodstuffs, but the camera barely qualifies as functional during indoor skirmishes. It features a genuinely progressive take on male relationships, yet its treatment of its female cast is retrograde. And it contains a series of missions where Noctis Lucis Caelum, heir to the kingdom, is asked to retrieve lost dogtags for a man named Dave.
There’s something to be said for a mega-budget game this determinedly weird, however, and FFXV sets out its stall from its opening moments. Four men push a car slowly down the road. “Not exactly a fairytale beginning,” grunts the muscular Gladiolus, who, alongside nerdy driver-cum-chef Ignis and puppyishly eager photographer Prompto, joins the player-controlled Prince Noctis on this offbeat road trip. Since Noctis is soon to be married, it’s apt that what follows – at least for the first half of the journey – should capture the camaraderie of a stag holiday. Sure, there’s no alcohol involved, and a few more face-offs with fantastical beasts than you’d expect, but these likeable young men share a rapport that carries the game during its bumpier stretches. The performances are adequate rather than excellent, but everything from the way the group bonds over food around a campfire at the end of each in-game day to the affectionate verbal sparring as they jog towards the next waypoint works to sell their friendship.
They’re good company, in other words, and as such you’re happy to fall in with the relaxed rhythm of the early chapters. Choose to take the wheel, and you can simply squeeze the accelerator to follow the road automatically, only reaching for the analogue stick when it’s time to pull in at a parking stop. Let Ignis drive and you’ll automatically cruise to your destination, allowing you to take in the views while you fiddle with the in-car stereo, choosing from a selection of familiar themes from past games. You can hop out at any time, but you’ll rarely feel the need, with regular stops along the route to fill up with gas and stock up on items. It finds a sweet spot between freedom and gentle guidance: map icons denoting points of interest will only appear once you’ve either located them by simply exploring the local area or spoken to a restaurant owner, who will point you towards procurement spots and send you to clear out a given number of monsters from specific areas.
There are hints of Dragon’s Dogma and Xenoblade Chronicles in the combat, which is dynamic and flexible without ever feeling intuitive or elegant. Rather than tapping a button to attack, you hold it down, pulling off simple combos with directions on the analogue stick and swapping weapons via the D-pad. You’ll hold another button to phase through enemy attacks, though this costs MP, which can be refilled by finding the space to drink a restorative or by warping to higher ground, where your health bar is replenished. These are the ideal spots from which to unleash warp strikes, which launch you towards opponents, with damage multiplied by distance. All the while, your teammates merrily whale away, until you command them to pull off a special move which consumes another gauge. Ignis, for example, has a Regroup action which sees you all briefly withdraw from the frontline for a top-up to HP and MP, reducing the reliance on consumables. It’s exciting at first, but its limitations gradually become clear. Magic is one casualty: since each spell produces powerful area effects and you can’t direct your allies in general combat, there’s little point in handing them a spell that’s as likely to hit you as your opponents, and while you can use them more prudently, there’s nothing to stop the AI from wandering into the path of the fireball you just hurled. Summons are as spectacular as they are rare, and the conditions that need to be fulfilled for their arrival will often see them absent during lengthy boss fights yet present to obliterate the last of a group of cannon fodder. The camera simply cannot cope with tight spaces, but also struggles with larger guardians, leaving it all but impossible to gauge when an attack is about to land. Only sometimes will you be given a button prompt to dodge and then parry to turn the tables; that, too, can obscure the action.
As for the story, it doesn’t really kick in until the second half, and when it does, you may wish it hadn’t. With no one but the four leads offered any kind of character development, it’s impossible to invest in the plot, not least since it all but requires you to have seen CGI prequel Kingsglaive to make sense of it all. The reins are steadily pulled tighter, and attempts to vary the pace – including tedious stealth interludes and crude cattle-prod scares – fall flat. By then, Final Fantasy XV has generated just about enough goodwill to take you through to the credits and beyond. But even as you reflect on the rarity of a blockbuster that’s willing to take real risks, you’ll be left with the uncomfortable realisation that ten years wasn’t quite long enough, after all. Those jagged edges are, in the end, just a little too sharp.
Since Noctis is soon to be married, it’s apt that what follows should capture the camaraderie of a stag holiday