The final evolution
That brings me to the part of the game that I'm most uncertain about: the combat.
Jeremy offered a very good overview of Final Fantasy XV's combat system in his three-part diary preview, but to summarize, it's a timing-based action system with some very light tactics. Playing as Noctic, you can wield a wide variety of weapons and magic, warp around the field, and generally play havoc with your powers. Your companions, meanwhile, are controlled by the AI, though you can call upon them to use abilities that can down enemies or clear out crowds.
At its best, it feels surprisingly elegant. Holding Square or X, Noctis can dodge through attacks and counter, which serves as the crux of the system. If you can get in behind an enemy, you can activate a Blindside Link attack that will bring in your party members to do a crushing amount of damage. It feels great when everything is clicking, and absolutely crushing an opponent with the help of your friends is immensely satisfying.
The combat is backed by a series of skill trees that can be unlocked with special AP points. It's confusing and messy in the way that it mixes all four characters into each tree, but it does let you go in some interesting directions depending on your combat strategy. For example, I saved up and invested in Advanced Deathblows and the Overwhelm ability, enabling me to perform a kind of crude alpha strike on powerful enemies. Other abilities open up essential dodge abilities, help you gain more XP, and allow you to further power up your magic.
The rub is that it's too forgiving for its own good. I only received one Game Over in the course of my time with Final Fantasy XV, and that was against one of the final bosses. Most of the time, you can just pop potions when your health drops down to the zero and you'll be right as rain. Even if you get knocked out, you can still use a Phoenix Down. This makes pretty much all of the fights a battle of attrition, with victory being pretty much assured if you stock up enough items.
I've been wrestling with whether or not this ruins the game; and truthfully, I don't really have an answer. While the mechanics lower the stakes and the tension a lot, the battles are clearly much more than just rote hack-and-slash, which I appreciate. The tougher boss battles require you to experiment with different weapons, to use the environment to your advantage, and to make smart use of your companion's abilities. These are all good things.
Of course, a lot of the crazier battles do ultimately devolve into chaos as pyrotechnics fill the screen and you warp about trying to keep your partners on their feet. Big boss fights can be frustrating in that regard, as the camera isn't always up to the task of making sense of it all. But I nevertheless found it reassuring that when I decided to take a calmer, more tactical approach rather than simply rushing in, I usually found success. But even if I did poorly, which happened on occasion, I could still muddle through with the help of my items.
I think the cynical view to take of the system is that it's kind of the worst of all worlds: a messy combat system that feels overwhelming at first but isn't actually as deep as it looks. Magic, for instance, has been streamlined beyond recognition, with the only spells being fire, ice, and lightning attacks—a far cry from the wide range Final Fantasy fans are used to. True, you can choose how powerful they are, and you can also mix them with items to imbue them with various status effects, but I still found myself missing familiar favorites like Meteor. And yes, I'm aware of the ring and its powers, but they are more limited than I would like. The more charitable view, on the other hand, is that Square Enix has managed to craft a battle system that complements the story and the exploration without feeling too light or repetitive.
The key to understanding Final Fantasy XV is realizing that Square Enix wants to make the series as accessible to the mainstream public as possible. That's obvious enough in the various quicktime setpieces, which remind me more of action games like Bayonetta than the average RPG (I think Witcher 3 may have also had QTEs, to be fair). At one point I found myself in a turret shooting up a mech and thinking, "What is this? Titanfall?" There are points when the battle system goes entirely by the wayside and you're suddenly in something akin to Asura's Wrath, the famously bonkers QTE action game by Capcom.
But for anyone who wants to cry foul, realize that Final Fantasy has been trending in this direction since the seventh game first introduced cutscenes. Above all else, Final Fantasy is meant to be a spectacle, and Final Fantasy XV very much embodies that approach. This is just the final evolution of that.
And you know what? I'm fine with it.
Final Fantasy XV's casual exploration and thoughtful structure was what ultimately won me over, lending texture to both the world and the characters inhabiting it. Prompto's photos are a stroke of genius, offering ten pictures that you can pick through and save at the end of each day. They really put the journey into context, and when you look through them in the latter part of the game, you can't help feeling like you've come a long way.
Thoughtful touches like these really make the game for me, and the bite-sized structure made it easy for me to sit back, relax, and explore while getting to know the characters. Even the combat was fun, mostly because my priorities shifted from surviving to being as efficient and stylish as possible. It was all very pleasant, and while one dungeon in particular really outstayed its welcome, there was hardly a moment where I wanted to turn it off and stop playing.
The real miracle of Final Fantasy XV is the fact that it hangs together as well as it does. Having gone through so many teardowns and iterations, it was definitely at risk of feeling like an unfocused mess. Structurally, though, it's surprisingly coherent, and technically speaking, it holds up very well. In short, director Hajime Tabata and his team are miracle workers. Hopefully this means Tabata will get a crack at the next game in the series: he deserves a fresh start and a chance to build his vision from the ground up. But even if he doesn't, he and his team should get all the credit in the world for taking such a benighted project and turning it into something worth playing.
The various skill trees try to incorporate all four characters into one messy structure, which makes it painful and overwhelming to plan out your character development. It's not always obvious that you need to hold down L2 for an extended period of time to get a summon.
I've heard reports that just the first six chapters can offer up to 70 hours of exploration. Playing normally, my run was closer to 35 hours. I expect that will be about the average, though it may leave you a little underleveled.
Final Fantasy's famously high-quality soundtrack is back in full force. When those latin vocals get going in the big battles, you will almost certainly start getting goosebumps. But here's a protip: Stick with the Japanese voice track.
Final Fantasy XV's terrain is a real treat, even if its character models are less attractive. It certainly measure up to some of the best this generation has to offer.
I was really skeptical that Final Fantasy XV could ever be successful; but despite some real flaws, it ultimately won me over. I warmed to the characters over the course of many camping trips, found more than I was expecting in the open world, and even enjoyed the bombastic setpieces. I have no doubt that it will be harshly criticized in some circles, but it also has some real merit. Stick with it even if you find yourself rolling your eyes at the opening hours: You may be surprised by how much you end up enjoying yourself.