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Final Fantasy XV is another in a long line of games that have finally arrived after very long waits. Was this one worth waiting for? In the end, I would have to say yes, though there are certainly some rough patches through that make the game a bit less than it perhaps could have been. It may not be the game for Final Fantasy purists, though many will certainly find enough to love here. Though the game may overall be too much of a departure from the series roots for some.
If you're enough of a Final Fantasy fan that you've seen the movie Kingsglaive or the Brotherhood anime, then you'll be in good shape to follow the story of Final Fantasy XV. If not, then you'll be at something of a disadvantage. However, as many video game storylines seem to have descended into utter gibberish in recent years, you'll probably be used to it.
In brief, you play as Noctis, the prince of a land called Insomnia (no, really). As the game opens, you are heading off with your three best friends, and bodyguards, to travel across the land to a neighboring kingdom. The goal is to meet up with Lunafreya, the princess of the land of Tenebrae so that the two of you can get married. The marriage is part of an arranged peace treaty, but as Noctis and Luna have been friends since childhood, and do apparently have feelings for each other, things aren't all bad. However, things do not go according to plan. The Nifelheim Empire attacks the peace treaty signing, kills Noctis' father, and apparently Luna as well and now Noctis and his boy band, er, best friends must gather enough power to take back the throne.
That's the short version but as you can probably guess if you've ever played a massive RPG, never mind a Final Fantasy game, there're a lot of twists and turns along the way. However, those twists and turns don't make a great deal of sense much of the time. The story is a disjointed mess. At one point, the story jumps forward several days and two members of your party aren't getting along. You might like to know why, but that apparently happened off screen. It happens more than once where you get the impression that the story taking place in the gaps might be more interesting than the one you're watching. The different steps in the journey aren't justified well, essentially the reason is "because RPG."
The characters you have are solid, which is a good thing, because these four are all you get. You start with them, and you end with them. Occasionally another character pops in for a bit, but if you like choosing between different characters with wildly varied character and skill sets as in many previous Final Fantasy games, you're out of luck. A couple of the tagalongs are women, which I guess prevents the game from being entirely a bro-fest, but seriously, Noctis couldn't have had one of his three servants be female? Not one? If Luna had been a stronger character that could have maybe been ok, but she's not, and it's not. Instead, all we get is Cindy, and Cindy, well...
The first portion of Final Fantasy XV is a road trip, four guys in a car (technology is anachronistically modern in many ways) traveling the highways and byways of the world. You can follow the main quest, pick up side quests, or sign up for monster hunts along the way. This openness of the world is a lot of fun and a welcome addition to Final Fantasy. I could have gone for your car going faster than 50 mph, but that's a detail. There are plenty of dungeons to explore that have enough twists and turns to keep you interested. However, eventually, the game shifts into something much more linear. This wouldn't have been an issue, except that the game had given me a taste of freedom and then taken it away. The plot may have needed to focus, but it didn't need a funnel to do it.
If you're playing a Final Fantasy game it's because you want to slay monsters and gain experience. Final Fantasy XV has plenty of that. It is, at its heart, a true real-time combat system. No turn based action here. As such, you only control Noctis, and the rest of your party is mostly left to their own devices. You outfit them with weapons and accessories, but the only combat you control with them is limited to the Tech Bar. As each battle begins the Tech bar begins to fill. Each of your party members can be equipped with a different tech attack which will deplete the bar by a certain amount. When you select these attacks the camera switches to a new member and Noctis is invincible while the move is carried out. There is a wait system that allows combat to be more strategic, but I found the benefits outweighed by the costs.
Noctis special attack is called the Warp Strike. The move allows you to move at high speed toward a foe hitting them with significant power, which can also know the enemy off balance, allowing you to follow up with additional attacks. You also use the Warp Strike to teleport to various predetermined points around you. These are usually high vantage points that give you a better look at the battle and also refill your points faster than normal. When the enemy attacks you, you have the ability to block and dodge, though only if you're able to block from the right angle.
When you do get hit, however, you need to keep an ever watchful eye on your hit points. The new addition to this game is that in addition to managing how many hit points you have left, you also have to manage your maximum hit points. Once you, or any of your party, have their hit points knocked to zero, you enter a danger state, here, you'll be able to use items, but can no longer attack. In addition, if you are hit while in your danger state, your maximum hit points will be reduced. One of your party members can come along and revive you, but even if you heal yourself to full health, you'll be at whatever percentage of max health you're now at, making it all that much easier to get knocked down to zero again.
While everybody's mileage may vary, I had some significant trouble getting used to this battle system. I found it a little too forgiving early on, meaning that when the difficulty ramped up later, I didn't feel properly prepared for it. At the same time, when you get the timing right and hit all the shots you're going for, the combat can feel immensely satisfying. Taking down a monster the size of a building has never been so much fun.
To get through those tough battles you'll need to rely more on items, and less on magic than in many previous games. Final Fantasy XV has a robust magic crafting system, But the only person with MP is Noctis, and he uses that for his Warp Strike and dodging abilities. Magic is created by crafting elements you collect along with items. Effects vary widely and many will probably spend hours just wondering what sort of stuff they can create. Ultimately, however, I can tell you that it's not necessary, as I played through the game using almost no magic whatever.
In the end I can't fault Final Fantasy XV too much. There a few things that don't work in it, but you only make great strides by taking chances. The new Final Fantasy doesn't land everything it tries perfectly, but it does some new things and for that, it should be commended.
This review was based on a PlayStation 4 version of the game provided by the publisher.