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Final Fantasy XV: A Review

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STORYLINE
I have been delaying playing the final chapter of Final Fantasy XV (FF15) for weeks. No more. Over the weekend, I took the plunge and walked Noctis Lucis Caelum to his ascension as the True King.

FF15 storyline is straightforward: two countries are at war and an unexplained darkness, called Starscourge, is engulfing the world, making daylight shorter and shorter. The only person who could hold the Starscourge back is Lunafreya, an Oracle (priestess) from the land of Tenebrae. Over centuries, Oracles of Tenebrae have been journeying across warring lands to seek people who have been afflicted by Starscourge and heal them. However, the Oracle’s more important (and concealed) role is to communicate with the Six Astrals (Titan, Ramuh, Shiva, Ifrit, Leviathan and Bahamut) and plead them to forge covenants and lend their power to the True King so that he may rise and end the war and rid the world of the Starscourge once and for all.

At the start of the game, 20-years old crown prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, is sent out by his father King Regis on a journey with three Crownsguard (fancy way of saying bodyguards). He is to be married to Lunafreya – an arrangement that is part of the peace agreement between Nilfheim and Lucis after centuries of war. Throughout the journey, you will come to learn that Noctis is the prophesied True King, although what that means is unclear until the last two chapters.

The game is all about this journey. That’s it. I was expecting intrigues, plot twists, betrayals et cetera. Nope. Just 4 guys in a car, stopping at towns and cities, doing things that 4 guys would do – shop, cook, eat, sleep, accept Hunts for monsters (as we all do), play video games, look at wedding dresses (you’ll see), ride big chickens (Chocobos!) and so on.

This realisation came to me at about 26 hours into the game. I was wondering when the main story would start. Then it hit me: this WAS the story. The game’s heart is in the friendship that this 4 young men share and how they grow up and come to accept the responsibility and consequences of their shared destiny. This sneaky game tricks you into bonding with all of them that you feel their triumphs and losses as keenly as you would your own best friends. It came to a point where I stopped playing the game and walked away as I didn’t want to go through the inevitable. This, despite having watched the end scenes repeatedly and preparing myself mentally for it. No other games in recent times, except for Crisis Core maybe, has moved me this much. The four’s last shared cut scene outside the throne room, where Prompto openly wept, “No turning back now,” is absolutely heartbreaking. I, too, wept openly.

The opening scene says it all. Prompto putting off the fire from Noctis’ outfit. Ignis calling out to Noctis and Gladiolus grabbing him to safety. All three crouching over Noctis to shield him from Ifrit’s firestorm at the risk of losing their own lives. Ignis handing Noctis a potion, and in a calm and soothing voice said, “Here you go,”. Prompto and Gladiolus running towards danger in order to give Noctis a second to catch his breath.

“Noct, hang in there buddy. Stay down. We’ll keep him busy.”

“Noct, over here quickly before he strikes again.”

“I got your back.”

“Let’s go.”

Once the game is over and you replay this opening scene, you will appreciate its significance with alarming clarity.

GAMEPLAY
The single player mode takes a lot of getting used to but once I got the hang of it, I think this is the best combat system in any Final Fantasy games and I look forward to the Final Fantasy VII remake which looks like it’s using the same system (in attack mode, at least). I have complaints – the camera is buggy and at times obscures my view of the battle, parries and dodges only require the push of a button rather than a series of complicated button sequences, summonses are completely random.

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Pic (c) theverticalslice.com

But overall, I feel I have a lot of control over the battles. Weapons and magic are not chosen based on its attack strength. In fact more than ever, you need to be tactical about it (however, years of playing Final Fantasy kinda clued me in on which weapons and magic are best used on which enemies so in that sense I had unfair advantage). Even choosing what to eat is a tactical decision – certain meals are best to boost attack or lend temporary increase in HP, some are to provide immunity from conditions like poison, toad and confusion and some are to give you critical hit advantage but only when fighting higher level bosses.

The AP ascension system is easy to use and understand although it lacks the kind of flexibility that you get in Final Fantasy X. Levelling up is also easy, by that I don’t mean that the bosses are easy to defeat. What I mean is, experience points are tallied only when you go to sleep. So, if you want to level up quickly, spend the next two hours killing stuff and NOT GOING TO SLEEP, accumulate 10,000 Gil then go to the most expensive hotel in Galdin Quay and cash all that stacked experience in one go. Sleeping at hotels multiplies your experience; while sleeping at camps allows you to cook stats-boosting meals and gain AP. So you need to balance it – do you want AP or experience? Cook your meals or buy them? Decisions, decisions.

This game has high playability. Free-roaming aside (which gives you plenty to do and see and explore), the number of quests, hunts and post-game quests are enough to keep even the most dedicated occupied. I left the game at 164 hours and I haven’t killed a single optional bosses or obtained ultimate weapons yet so I can see myself racking up 300 hours on this game easily.

GRAPHICS AND MUSIC
Frankly I don’t think it is fair to make this assessment. As technology evolves and consoles become more powerful, of course the graphics will be more beautiful too. But yes, Final Fantasy XV is beautiful. Dungeons are scary and anxiety-inducing and the open world is vast and expansive as far as your Chocobo can take you.

I find the voice acting is better in English than in Japanese (it was the other way around for Final Fantasy X). Since the excellent voice acting in Final Fantasy XII (I still can’t get over Balthier’s drawl and Fran’s scottish accent), SquareEnix has done this right this time around too. The Japanese version sounds too ‘young’ and indistinguishable to me. I went back and forth every few hours before deciding to stick to the English version.

Ignis’ voice has the right kind of kindness and gravitas (and the Brit accent, very hot, I approve); Gladiolus has a sonorous growl that walks that tight balance between loyalty and frustration over what he perceives as his inability to guard Noctis properly; Prompto’s is bright and annoying (when you learn about his backstory you will understand why he overcompensates on everything!). I actually yelled at Prompto to shut up as I was exploring dungeons as his constant yapping added to my anxiety. Noctis’ is soft but regal, decidedly inexperienced, but always polite with a touch of sadness. It reminds me very much of Billy Crudup’s interpretation of Prince Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. Ardyn Izunia’s voice is smooth as silk but dripping with venom – I think the voice actor had a lot of fun doing this and this is probably the best voice acting in the game.

I love the music immediately. Again this is not fair because I have been listening to Somnus for TEN YEARS when this game was still known as Versus. Yoko Shimamura overdid herself. You go girl. If I have a complain it would be a small one and can’t even be considered a complain. You see, Nobuo Uematso has a sense of playfulness and lightness in his music. Even when the story line is grim like in Final Fantasy X and the music is incredibly sad, Uematsu still manages to be whimsical. Shimamura’s music, on the other hands, is the complete opposite. Her compositions, while lush and immersive, don’t have Uematsu’s light touch or whimsy. But that said, she has a talent to deliver the unexpected.

Noctis’ theme, for example, surprises me because it was so soft and temperate. I would have done it in an angrier and more conflicted style. During the Abbey Road live concert, Shimamura explained that she wrote Noctis’ theme this way because she wanted to convey the weight of destiny and Noctis’ internal monologue about situation that he is in, letting the emotional resonance seeping in slowly. I don’t agree with her interpretation. But, if you think about this piece and how Noctis is voice-acted, he is never portrayed as angry or misunderstood or as an outcast (well hello there, Cloud). And he doesn’t know what being the True King means so he is not conflicted or resentful about the journey that he has to take. The earlier irritation that he displayed is directed at his father for sending him away before the peace treaty, in what he perceives as trading the lives of the nation for the sake of saving a son, as he believes the King should have put the nation first. And when Noctis understands what is required of him, there is no tantrums or why me’s either, he simply accepts it and soldiers on. So, I get what Shimamura wants to convey, but I still don’t agree. I think, above all, Noctis possesses a steely determination to do right by his people, and that quiet strength and fire do not come across in Noctis theme. But, potato, potato.

(OK I am getting way too involved here!)

My favourite piece is, of course, Somnus. It has been covered extensively, and my favourite version is this one:

CONCLUSION
I truly love this game. I give it a high 8 out of 10. As an introduction to Final Fantasy to new gamers, it is easy enough to get into without having to understand the full backstory and history of Final Fantasy games. It certainly exceeded my expectations. I must admit, I was ready for it to suck like Final Fantasy VIII and XIII and its permutations but I am happy that it didn’t.

Is it the best Final Fantasy game ever? For me, that distinction still lies with Final Fantasy VII – a great hero, an even greater villain, a tragic heroine, a motley group of odd people who comes together to save the world, a very immersive storyline… wow I can’t say enough good things about this one.

But all said and done, Final Fantasy XV is a worthy successor to the name.

The game ends with perhaps the most beautiful music in the soundtrack called “Dewdrops at Dawn” and a shot of four camping chairs at the lookout point, facing the crown city of Insomnia in the distance as light slowly shines back on the world of Eos.

“Walk tall, my friends.”

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